The Tunnelers, by Geoff Gander

“The following document, as well as a bundle of newspaper clippings, was found among the personal effects of Dr. Vincent Armstrong, a community psychiatrist in the Evaluation Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Center, whose disappearance in Montreal is a matter of public record.”

Forbidden knowledge is a favorite leitmotif of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and many of his literary heirs pick up the theme and run with it at well. It’s easy to see why. There is a certain allure to anything forbidden. Tell someone with a curious mind, like a professor, that they cannot see a certain book or acquire some particular knowledge and rest assured it will be the first thing they try to do. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to go looking. Sometimes that knowledge find you, unbidden, and you’re stuck with it for better or for worse. In Lovecraft’s tales, let’s be honest, it’s for the worse. Think, for example, of the plight of the grand-nephew of George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University. He inherited a puzzling box containing a bas-relief, the revelation of which launched one of the most memorable adventures in all of literature.

41+tduQPnSL[1]Unbidden is exactly how Dr. Vincent Armstrong comes to possess singular knowledge of a terrible, hidden truth in Geoff Gander‘s short story, “The Tunnelers.” Published by Solstice Publishing in 2011, I am grateful to Mr. Gander for providing me with a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review. “The Tunnelers” tells of how Dr. Armstrong came to care for a patient suffering physical and mental trauma following a mining accident in Ottawa, Canada. Michael Kirkwood had been involved in a mine collapse with two other miners who did not survive the accident, and, when he comes to, babbles on about the “Digging! Digging! Beneath us, above us, around us!” As it turns out, the mining company with which Mr. Kirkwood was affiliated had been digging in an area considered forsaken by the local First Nation. They had warned them, but the company, blinded by the prospect of great riches, proceeded regardless. This is why we can’t have nice things. Or, at least why Mr. Kirkwood can’t have nice things. Like sanity.

The story unfolds in an epistolary fashion, as Gander reveals new information through Armstrong’s journal entries, interview notes, and official documentation. I have to admire Gander’s pacing; the story never bogs down and each new clue leading us deeper and deeper underground is discovered in a natural way that flows well. I was impressed, too, with the clinical way in which Armstrong would describe things in his journal as I felt the style of writing really fit the character. It is easy to say, then, that Mr. Gander’s writing is sufficient. I never got hung up on any choice of diction or syntax but nor was I ever blown away by a turn of phrase. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as some writers try to do too much and then fall flat. That didn’t happen here. Reading Gander’s words felt comfortable and easy.

KzHRTPm[1]In the end, though, being a good practitioner of the craft was not enough to cause this story to stand out in the crowd. One of the words oft bandied about in Lovecraftian circles is “pastiche.” Usually, these days, it comes pre-packaged with negative context, but I don’t feel like it’s a given that pastiche equals bad. In the early days, Bloch, Ashton-Smith, Derleth, Campbell and others wrote fun, accomplished stories that were pure pastiche. But the two things that made those work, in my opinion, were that they were the first ones to do it and they added something that had not been present before. Because so much time has passed now, it is harder and harder to do that and editors (like Ellen Datlow) are explicitly forbidding pastiches for their anthologies. There are good examples out there—John Langan has one that comes to mind, as does Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pulver, and there are very likely others—but they are few and far between.

“The Tunnelers,” I am afraid, is pure pastiche that adds nothing new to the genre. From the opening lines, a reader knows exactly where this story is going and to a large extent (depending on how widely they are read in the genre) precisely how it will unfold. The monsters, Lovecraftian in the sense that they are ancient beyond time and wholly unknown, feel a bit like ghouls and function a lot like Lumley’s “burrowers beneath,” but weren’t new enough to spark my interest. I had definitely been here before.

The last page of the e-book informs readers that “The Tunnelers is his first novel” (though, weighing in at 8000 words or so, ‘novel’ is a big stretch) and it reads like it. You can tell he knows how to write, you can tell he knows how a story needs to be structured, and you can really tell he has a firm grasp on pace. He just needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea wholly his own, or sufficiently twist one of Lovecraft’s to make it his own, and then he’ll have arrived.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

No Healing Prayers, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

“Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.
Coffee gone cold.
Waiting.
Waiting for The Thing That Sails On Tears.
The Black Goat.”

—Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., “No Healing Prayers”

maddy-did-me[1]Jospeh S. Pulver, Sr., known primarily for his championship of the Yellow Mythos of the Bierce/Chambers creation, “the King in Yellow,” has died. I did not know him personally, but I followed the heartbreaking medical drama over these last long months through his wife, Katrin’s (aka Lady Lovecraft) social media postings. Relatively speaking, the Lovecraftian community is a small one and because I know that his death has hit hard for a lot of people I read, correspond with, and respect, it has hit hard for me as well. I was very sorry to receive this news. I have hoped, one of these days, to get to a Necronomicon in Providence and had hoped perhaps to meet Joe. Life is so short, friends. Treasure what you have and who you spend your life with. Treasure your friends and reach out to those you’d like to know more. You never know what that last dread bell shall toll for them or thee. And so, on this sad occasion, I have done two things. I ordered a Pulver book (“The King in Yellow Tales, Vol. 1”) as a teensy gesture of support and because it’s one I’d like on my shelf, and I found a Pulver story in a collection I already owned and read it, as I thought it would be a nice homage to review it here on this tragic occasion.

Dead but Dreaming 2“No Healing Prayers” is a super-short, but emotionally-packed story found in DEAD BUT DREAMING 2, edited by Kevin Ross and published in 2011 by the now defunct Miskatonic River Press. The first DEAD BUT DREAMING has a pretty neat history as its first and only (at that time) edition (2002, DarkTales Publications) sold out quickly, was universally lauded as being in the top tier of Lovecraftian collections, and began to fetch prices on Ebay of $200-300+. It wasn’t until 2008 when a reprint license was finally obtained that most people could get their hands on it. In that volume, the editor focused on the cosmicism of Lovecraft, seeking stories of both “depth and heft.” He avoided pastiche and stories directly invoking Lovecraftian creations, like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. In volume 2, he relaxed those guidelines, and sought stories that dealt with the emotional or human aspect of the encroachment of the Mythos.

Pulver’s story, “No Healing Prayers” is one of grief, loss, and the desire for retribution. The last time (which was the first time) I reviewed a Pulver tale, I was both excited and disappointed. Excited because I knew he was a giant in the field; disappointed because I was unprepared for Pulver’s unique writing style and in so being unprepared, found it difficult to connect with it. This time, I was ready for the free verse prose-poem of a Pulver story and found that expecting it up front, I was able to enter into it in a much more comfortable way. Not that the reader’s comfort is always what its all about, but for me in this case, it helped.

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This is a famous photo, taken by Bob Adelman, but it fit so well that I just had to use it. It depicts a man, one Reverend Carter, expecting a visit from the Klan after he had registered to vote in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, 1964.
Our main character, Captain Jack, a hard-working railroad man, is waiting on his porch for someone or something to show its face, and when it does, he’s got a shotgun ready for it. As the less than 5 page story progresses, we learn that Jack’s wife had died and did so under mysterious circumstances. Mysterious, and perhaps demonic. After “all her dances” were taken away, Jack asked around and learned that that fateful night, the Piper Man had been seen, dancing and playing his diseased tune that called out to the Black Goat. HPL fans will recognize one of the appellations of Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. After that, everything went to Hell. “Creek out back dried up. Brambles thick as tar. Braided like rage-hard fingers white-knuckle tight. Fence gate broken. Empty house at his back.” It is left to the reader to decide whether these were effects of the Black Goat’s visit, or is it just that after his wife died, nothing else mattered anymore and he let it all go. And I will leave it to you to read this story and discover how it ends for yourself.

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Art credit: John Bridges. Attribution: Xaviant Games
Pulver, in so few words, manages to suffuse this narrative with an overwhelming sadness and heavy inevitability. You are right there with Captain Jack on his porch, the weight of the shotgun pulling down your hands, tricking you into relaxing. Jack is a man who has worked so hard for so little and he’s managed to be satisfied with that, maybe even happy. She made him happy, and they had each other, and that was all that mattered in the end. Everything else, window-dressing.

I can’t help but see this story, though it was from 2011, as a kind of coda on Pulver’s life. He married his beloved Katrin late in his life and now she is the one left standing on the porch, alone in the dark. I want to leave you with her own words, from her public announcement of his death on social media. I’m going to get my finest whisky.

“So, tonight, while I sit here with unmeasurable pain and a de, gaping hole in my soul, I want you to celebrate our bEast.
Have a glass of your finest Whiskey. Smoke the grass.
Have some great seafood, or Mecivan, or fire up the BBQ have a huge-ass steak.

When night comes and you see the stars blinking in and out, light a candle to guide him on his way ro eternal Carcosa.

Here’s to a life well lives. A career that outshone the twin suns,
To a precious, loving and fucking amazing human being.

Thank you, babe, for being in my life for more than 10 years and making it so much brigher. I love you.

Rest well in Carcosa, my King.” [sic]

Jospeh S. Pulver, Sr., 1955-2020.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Ekwiiyemak (The Place Where It Rains) by Patrick Loveland

“Cases from the stagecoach were busted open and sprayed with blood—and that thick black fluid with the sickly bright spots. More torn and broken limbs, innards, and organs had been strewn about, some half sucked into the muddy road. Shiv said, “Burn everything black you see.”

—Patrick Loveland, “Ekwiiyemak”

“[Robert E. Howard] has seen a good deal of the rough life of oil boom towns, & hotly resents the way large eastern corporations exploit Texas. When he says his life is ‘tame & uneventful,’ he is thinking only of Western standards.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, February 16, 1935

too-many-eyes[1]The “Weird Western” is a sub-genre that holds so much promise and is ripe for harvesting by skilled authors. Foreboding, almost foreign, landscapes. Gold rush towns run by lawless men that all too quickly transform into ghost towns as the money dries up. The cries of the dispossessed become the wails of forlorn spirits. In ride duster-clad anti-heroes, six shooters at their hip and occult symbols dangling from their necks. Tumbleweeds drift across the road; a moment of unnatural quiet before violence shatters the dawn. Armed with “Ekwiiyekamk,” the first story in his horror collection TOO MANY EYES, Patrick Loveland strolls onto this scene. But does he have what it takes to survive this unforgiving locale? We’ll find out, and in any event, I am grateful to Mr. Loveland for providing me with a free e-book copy in exchange for an honest review.

Released in 2019 by Stay Strange Publishing (oddly, a music publisher rather than a book publisher), TOO MANY EYES is Patrick Loveland’s first horror collection, though many of these stories are reprints. The first thing that I noticed was the very eye-catching cover (see what I did there?) b2cb1f1db738980f727f3b13942c7543[1]that immediately put me in mind of the older Del Rey Lovecraft collections, with cover art by Michael Whelan. Mr. Loveland, when I asked, said he designed his cover for exactly that comparison and to pay homage to Whelan’s art. The stories in this collection move through time beginning with this first one that takes place in the 19th century American West and moving all the way into the far sci-fi-laden future. It’s a clever organization. Not every story in the collection is particularly Lovecraftian, but HPL’s influence is all over this first one for sure.

The year is 1889 and our story opens in a saloon. Classic. Our hero, Absalom Tate, steps out of the saloon into the dusty street (you can almost hear the creak of the swinging saloon doors behind him) where a strange wind has blown up, spooking his horse. At the same time, across the way, a woman descends a stairway with all the air of providence swirling round her.

Weird Western Shiv O'Shea
Artist: Geoffroy Thoorens

This is Shiv O’Shea, our other main character, and one with whom Tate has had many previous encounters. She’s dressed as a gunslinger, and a heavily armed one at that. Upon closer inspection, she bears some unique gear as well, the purpose of which is shrouded in mystery but it portends battles against heretofore unknown foes. Not long after re-introductions are made a stagecoach rolls into town, drawn by a pair of seriously wounded horses. The coach has seen better days as well, and seems to be leaking a strange blackish-red fluid. Things really get weird when one horse suddenly begins to eat the other, “black boils with bubbles of bright green and purple form and multiply around the eviscerated horse’s mouth and eyes as it limped after its prey.” Overly described firearms are drawn and fired, and, when the chambers have been emptied, Shiv torches the whole mess with a homemade flamethrower.

When the smoke clears, it comes to light that Shiv is not just here by chance, but is on a secret government mission to combat the exact biological abnormality they’d just encountered. She doesn’t need any help, but Tate and the gang immediately sign up anyway. Their adventure takes them to the titular Ekwiiyemak, a lake south of town near an old, abandoned goldmine. It is in this mine where the main action of the story takes place. That little scene with the stagecoach turns out to have been only the appetizer, in more ways than one. In a quieter moment, the Sheriff asks O’Shea what’s going on and she cryptically replies, “There’s a debt being paid back, older than you can understand.” L896679[1]oveland here taps into that same sense of deep, geologic time that Lovecraft was such a fan of. This all leads to a somewhat predictable, if fun conclusion that’s far bloodier than “The Dunwich Horror” but calls it to mind with the same type of “big boss” scene.

So, does  “Ekwiiyemak” scratch that Lovecraftian/weird western itch? Well, sort-of. There’s two things that held it back for me. The first is that there was nothing particularly new about this story.  I enjoyed it for the most part, but this is all ground that has been tread before and I found myself easily distracted from my reading. The second thing that really holds this story back is unfortunately the writing. In many places it clearly is in need of a stronger editorial hand. “Until the creature broke a hard appendage like a fleshy insect leg out through the gaps in the boards, sunk it into Esposi’s shoulder, and pulled his body down away from its grotesque tentacle stalk.” Is the appendage hard or fleshy? Did it pull the body down or away? You get so lost in the descriptors that you lose the sense of what is actually happening. In a lot of places this story suffers from lack of clarity—frankly, it’s too many to ignore. There is also a sort of obsessive focus on the guns, which eye-rollingly get described to the fullest extent every time one gets drawn. This intense focus on weaponry belies a deep interest of the author, which is why it’s so strange that he keeps referring to the ammunition proper to shotguns as “rounds” instead of “shells.” Towards the end of the story he gets it right, as if someone told him, but then he failed to go back to the beginning and correct previous instances. In other places, instead of being too much, descriptions are lazy: “The more intact horse…” Finally, the presence of tentacles for tentacles’ sake adds next to nothing except a flailing attempt to drive home the idea that this is a Lovecraftian story. It would be a Lovecraftian story even if the monsters didn’t feature tentacles, so their addition feels derivative. This story is set in the Western plains; tentacles don’t belong.

What did keep me interested, though, were the pacing and the character of Shiv O’Shea. Loveland’s got pacing figured out – this story moved and never looked back. sportinglodge+378a[1]Sometimes in weird fiction this isn’t the case as authors spill too much ink establishing set pieces or long winded expositions. Not here. This is an unapologetic action story and it moves. I also think he’s on to something with Shiv’s character. She was pretty awesome, a no-nonsense badass whose shooting baddies and chewing gum. And, you guessed it, she’s all out of gum. Her armaments are like something out of Q’s lab in a James Bond flick. I mean, a triple barrel shotgun – that rocks! The Absalom Tate narrator simply faded into the background, forgotten, when stood up against Shiv. Loveland might be one to watch, but he’s going to have to be more inventive with his stories, and he’s going to have to get some of these editorial miscues under control first.

That wraps this one up, friends. I hope everyone is doing as well as they can during this time of Coronavirus self-isolation/quarantine. Let’s all do our part to get through this as quickly and as safely as possible. This is the Bibliothecar telling you to STAY HOME and READ LOVECRAFTIAN STORIES!

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

 

Tidal Forces, by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“And here, on the afternoon of the Seven of Pentacles, this Wednesday weighted with those seven visionary chalices, she tells me what happened in the shower. How she stood in the steaming spray watching the water rolling down her breasts and across her stomach, and up her buttocks before falling into the hole in her side.”

—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Tidal Forces”

“He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1936.

houses_under_the_sea_by_caitlin_r_kiernan[1]Welcome to Women in Horror Month 2020 here at the Miskatonic Review! Of course, I read women horror authors throughout the year (and so should you!), but this is the month in which I’ll join with others in the horror community in lifting up the wonderful work they are producing. You can look back through the archives and catch up with reviews of other fabulous authors, but this WiHM, I’m going to try and highlight some I haven’t yet gotten on the roles of the tenured faculty here at the Miskatonic Review. As I looked through the faculty list, I was stunned by my own omission of Caitlín R. Kiernan because I don’t think I could create a short list of top tier Mythos writers that did not include them. Kiernan is one of my absolute favorites. Their writing is achingly gorgeous, intimate in both its beauty and its pain, inducing a reader to sighs of often inexpressible origin. You don’t read a Kiernan story; you breathe it through your pores where it gives as much as it takes. Late last year, Subterranean Press released a limited, signed, cloth-bound hardcover collection of their best Mythos stories entitled, HOUSES UNDER THE SEA: MYTHOS TALES, for which I hit the pre-order button as fast as I’ve hit it for anything. Those marvelous editions are now gone, but you can pick up the e-book version here for a terrific price.

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That’s right. I’m bragging.

The story I’d like to tell you about tonight, “Tidal Forces,” is found in this collection, but was originally published in Sirenia Digest (#55) in 2011 (the author’s own subscription service) and later that same year was reprinted in Eclipse Four, edited by Jonathan Strahan published by Night Shade Press. It begins, “Charlotte says, “That’s just it, Em. There wasn’t any pain. I didn’t feel anything much at all.” This is a completely misleading opener if ever there was one, at least if we consider the emotional resonance of this story. Charlotte and Emily are lovers. They live on the ocean where, on one innocuous Saturday morning, while Emily was sitting on the porch watching some birds at play, Charlotte paused in her gardening to stretch and look out over the waves. She sees a shadow on the water, as if created by clouds above or something enormous below, but whatever it is it is moving fast and heading towards her on the shore. Emily watched as Charlotte was struck and knocked down. Stunned though she was by an apparent nothing knocking her down, she is unscathed. “But it wasn’t until we were in the bedroom, and she was dressing, that I noticed the red welt above her left hip, just below her ribs.” The injury, the hole, grows slowly instead of healing, and through it can be heard ever so  faintly a “thin, monotonous piping.” Equally as slowly, the implications wear down the women’s psyches. This is not a normal injury, not a normal wound that can be covered by a band-aid until all better.

I’ve always regarded Kiernan’s writing as very smart, and this story is no exception. Three examples. First, they don’t tell this story linearly; if they had done, it wouldn’t be near as interesting or compelling (pretty simple, actually). By bouncing back and forth across the time line they are both making a meta comment on what is happening in the plot and leaving you bread crumbs in both the past and the future that you’ll want to follow, both directions leading to a singularity. Second, they also color the narrative with references to Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, particularly the scene in the rose garden. Here Kiernan offers us a clue that what appears to be reality may only be a thin façade. f52814ae0135dc293e6abbef1058394b[1]Third, Emily names the days, back and forth in time, after individual cards in a deck. The day of the incident is labeled, “The Seven of Clubs. Wednesday, or the Seven of Pentacles, seen another way round…weighted with those seven visionary chalices.” Speaking of Alice, that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I don’t know much about Tarot cards and I don’t know whether Kiernan does either or not. Either they are playing with fluidity here—which would not be an uncommon theme for a Kiernan story—or they are mixing up their tarot suits and their modern suits. The four tarot suits are Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins, corresponding respectively to Spades, Clubs(?), Hearts, and Diamonds. (I couldn’t find definitive information that Wands corresponds with Clubs, so this is a guess.) Here Kiernan says the seven of clubs, which ought to be the seven of wands, but she alternatively names it the seven of pentacles (another name for the suit of coins) but depicts it as having “seven visionary chalices.” As a metaphor, this is quite mixed up. Chalices, or cups, is the last image they leave us with so that was the one I wanted to explore, and wow, is it a treasure trove of symbols for this story! The element of the suit of cups is water; our story is entitled “Tidal Forces,” the initial word of which functions on at least two different levels but one is water. And the shadow that kicked off the troubles was over the water. The suit of cups in tarot deals with emotional situations and events and again, contrary to the opening line, this story is about two people in a very emotional, romantic relationship dealing with their emotions about the inciting incident. The seven, particularly, is a caution not to build castles in the air. This card, it seems, is suited perfectly to the day.

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“Au Lit:Le Basier” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (d.1901)
Emotions and relationships and love being at the center of this story are what makes this story so powerful, and work so well. Kiernan is turning Lovecraft inside out. The Old Gent never wrote about love, despised relationships, and thought emotions a weakness. Kiernan answers by penning a very Lovecraftian Mythos tale which highlights a lesbian relationship, centers on emotion (also inducing emotion in the reader), and uses love as a driving force for the resolution of the story. It’s beautiful!

As I said in the introduction, Kiernan is one of my absolute favorite Mythos writers. I’ve never read a story by them that failed to elicit a powerful emotional response or one which I’ve easily forgotten. (Also contained in this collection, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” needs to be read and re-read by every HPL fan, and then someone needs to combine the two stories into a single, B&W noir film. Please.) Like the title suggests, this is a story that draws you in and doesn’t let go. It is neither violent nor grotesque, but quietly suggestive, emotionally gripping, and beautifully haunting.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Ammonia, by William Holloway

“The Pacific Rim was a wasteland of shattered cities hewn by earthquakes and drowned by tsunamis. The West Coast was in ruins, part of a line of devastation extending from Alaska to Cape Horn. New Zealand and Hawaii had essentially ceased to exist. Yes, the human race was only now beginning to comprehend the scale and power of the earthquake under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Event.” Bamboo enunciated the word as he worked the notepad before him, covered in mind-boggling formulae, trying to understand mathematically what he’d survived.”

~William Holloway, “Ammonia”

ap_cover_front[1].jpgIt has been said before, but it bears repeating: Lovecraft would be shocked by both the popularity and the amount of Mythos-derived works extant today. He was always tickled when his colleagues used some of his ideas and creations in their own stories and, in fact, quite encouraged it. On August 14, 1930, he wrote to fellow Weird-Taler Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian), “[Frank Belknap] Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his—in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation.” No creation of HPL’s is as widely cited, utilized, and loved as Cthulhu, the dreaming god. Lovecraft’s seminal tale “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of his best pieces of fiction, and today’s story reimagines it, or at least the cataclysmic event it describes, for a modern audience.

“Ammonia” is found in the new book, THE ABYSSAL PLAIN: THE R’LYEH CYCLE, put out in November 2019 by JournalStone Publishing, and edited by William Holloway and Brett J. Talley. The cover art, by Mikio Murakami, is particularly striking. This book contains four novellas and, through four different lenses, purports to tell about Cthulhu’s rising from the Pacific Ocean. It functions as a sort of mosaic novel but the stories each have their own integrity.

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“The Eye of Cthulhu” by François Baranger. Illustration from “The Call of Cthulhu Illustrated” © 2017 François Baranger. Used with permission.
There are three character POV’s in “Ammonia,” but two of them get a pretty short shrift. The principal character is Quincy. He “…was a good-looking boy who grew into a good-looking man. Until recently, he’d gotten by on getting by, but the hard facts of advanced alcoholism at a relatively young age had hit home. His hands shook, he smelled, and his eyes had yellowed.” He lives in Austin, TX, and though he does not yet know it, Austin is beginning to flood. Sure, Quincy had seen flooded streets before but what is happening now is both more severe and, as it turns out, more widespread. And that’s not all. People are beginning to disappear.

Bamboo is the executive officer aboard the USS Georgia, a nuclear missile submarine that has recently been rocked by an unidentifiable underwater event.  His parts of the story were the most enjoyable for me to read, which is part of the reason why I wanted more of them.

Finally, Natalie is an executive assistant to a powerful Washington Post editor, with whom she is also having an affair. Through her job, she’s connected to and interacts with powerful people, including the Speaker of the House. Her story is uncomfortably sexualized as she perceives that allowing important people to grope her and giving them sexual favors might be her only way ahead. Bamboo and Natalie play very small supporting roles in the broader narrative of “Ammonia,” and I can’t help but wonder if they will reappear in the other novellas. I hope so, because if they don’t, then their characters won’t serve much of a point.

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“heroin” by flickr.com user B.A.D. – used under Creative Commons license

Readers know that this is a story about the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, but the characters do not know that at all. However, for each of them, this is a story about cataclysmic endings. Quincy sinks deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol addiction as he struggles to sort between a reality growing stranger by the hour and a drug induced dream state. It doesn’t help that he falls in with a Beatrice-like character (his own personal guide through the apocalypse) named Junkie Dave. Natalie faces the potential ending of her career if she doesn’t continue to sexually satisfy her married boss—and others—in an effort to make her big break. Bamboo comes closest, at least initially, to understanding the global significance of “the event.” He faces the ending of American hegemony as well as the ending of his ability to understand the world around him.

Holloway’s story is largely effective, and accomplishes what it sets out to do: to tell the story of Cthulhu’s rising through the lens of ordinary people caught up in the event unawares. Quincy was a difficult character for me to get behind, but I personally don’t like reading about drug and alcohol addiction as I see it too often in real life. It’s hard to see how he’d survive and he makes it harder to care. In as much as this is what real-life addicts can be like, Holloway is successful at communicating that struggle for compassion. In tone, “Ammonia” reminded me a lot of John Langan’s post-Cthulhu rising story called “The Shallows.” Langan went for more of a melancholy and fatalistic vibe though, whereas Holloway strives for almost a survival horror feel.

Through a believably authentic voice, Holloway brings Quincy to life in a way that doesn’t happen for the other characters. “Nobody home. He closed the door behind him, but not before he smelled that godawful ammonia again. Fuck. What the hell? Bitch complains about me stinking while that shit is going on?That is about as far as you can get from the Old Gent’s typical protagonists, and though he wasn’t my favorite character to read about, he was still refreshing.

As the horror around him grows, Holloway deftly communicates the rising tension of the unnameable and unthinkable, “He heard a sound above him, a groaning of timbers and a dragging, shuffling, sliding sound. Something was up there in the crawl space, something very big and very heavy. Something that didn’t move right, or something that moved very, very differently.” It is in passages like this that we get the strongest feel of an updated Lovecraft for the modern age. Gone are the florid clauses in favor of descriptive, yet manageable sentences. There is nothing unnecessary in this example, but it succeeds in showing the source of fear all the same.

We are close to the centennial of HPL’s writing of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and if the source material is to survive in the popular imagination for the next hundred years, it will need to continue to be modernized, the Mythos sandbox not only played in but raked out. “Ammonia,” as the first of this quartet of novellas, achieves that and I am excited to read the other three. I am grateful to JournalStone Publishing for providing me with a free electronic review copy.

William Holloway is the author of THE IMMORTAL BODY and other Lovecraftian novels.

This review was composed while listening to the albums “The Abyssal Plain,” and “The Realm of the Void,” by electronic music artist James Clements, aka ASC.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Up from Slavery, by Victor LaValle

“Well to start, Teddy lived here for thirty years and I have never seen you before. And, well, Teddy was…” she looked at me again and cut off the rest of the sentence.

It took me a moment to figure out what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. “White? Is that what you meant?”

She didn’t answer, but she did look away. “Look, I don’t want this to turn hostile.”

I didn’t understand why simply saying the word “white” made white people assume things were going to turn ugly. “If he was white,” I said, “then my mother wasn’t.”

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Photo credit: Emily Raboteau
The online writing community website, Lit Reactor, published a column a number of years ago that asked an important and direct question. Why the f*ck aren’t you reading Victor LaValle? It’s a fair question and fairly asked. Here I have to give kudos to the author of that column, Keith Rawson, because he asked that question in March of 2014, two full years before LaValle’s masterful Lovecraftian novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, would hit the shelves. If it wasn’t already, that book would cement LaValle’s name in the annals of Lovecraftian lore. Seriously, read it. Now. What he’s up to in that novella lays the groundwork in some ways for what he’s up to here: taking Lovecraft’s racism, turning it on its head, and making racial identity a major device of his plot. It’s brilliant, and part of what I like to call the modern redemption of Lovecraft.

WT-cvrs-01_large[1].jpgIn another corner of the horrorverse, something amazing was taking shape. Weird Tales, the famed pulp magazine which originally published the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard, and the Old Gent himself, was coming back online. It has had a tumultuous publication history over the decades with the most recent iteration, edited by the illustrious Ann Vandermeer, stopping publication after issue #362 in the spring of 2014. Earlier this year, New York Times bestselling horror novelist Jonathan Maberry announced he was resurrecting it! And there was a loud cry, like the sound of many voices across the land raised in exultation!

weird+tales+cover+1[1].jpegOn August 28, 2019, under the editorship of Marvin Kaye, Volume 68, Number 1, Issue 363 was published. You can buy your copy here. Maberry and Kaye did not mess around; they headlined their debut issue with Victor LaValle, Josh Malerman, Stephanie M. Wytovich, and Maberry himself. Hugo award winning artist Abigail Larson did the cover, and as you can see from one of the smaller above images (bottom row, second from right), she paid homage to a past cover, Margaret Brundage’s October 1933 “Batgirl.” Larson’s cover is a less sexualized and more empowered image, speaking to our time while still respecting the original art. The very first story in this new issue? “Up from Slavery,” by Victor LaValle, and illustrated by E.M. Gist known for his covers of Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. The resurrection of Weird Tales could not have had a better author and a better story to celebrate its return.

“Up from Slavery” is the story of Simon Dust, a freelance editor currently at work on a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir by the same title “about his boyhood as a slave in Virginia and his struggles to achieve an education, true freedom, as a black man in the United States.” Washington was a major civil rights leader in the late 19th century whose name can comfortably be invoked alongside other luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X. In the midst of Simon’s work on the memoir, he receives a troubling notice that his father has died. What is worse is that he is the sole inheritor of his estate and holdings. Simon and his father (Thomas Edwin Dyer – some polite nods here, especially to Lovecraft’s professorial character William Dyer who led the Miskatonic Expedition to the Antarctic in At the Mountains of Madness, and to fellow Lovecraftian horror author T.E.D. Klein) had not been in communication. He didn’t even know the guy and now he owned all his stuff, whatever that meant.

1987_Maryland_train_collision_aerial[1].jpgHe arrives in Syracuse, NY by train—the story actually opens at the scene of a train wreck so each train sequence in the story carries a certain, beautiful tension with it—and is greeted by the neighbor Helen, who hands him a silver key (another clever nod, this time to HPL’s dream sequence stories), the key to his father’s house. After a tense, racially charged conversation they enter, and, as LaValle writes, “My father’s home was a monument to mania.” Clearly, it is going to require several trips to sort through the mess and sell the house, something Simon neither relishes nor has the time to do. Helen also reveals to him some creepy details about his father’s body, as she was the one to discover it. On the second train trip up, he seemingly randomly meets a weird man wearing a baggy suit who claims to have known his father. On a further subsequent trip the man accosts him again, seemingly bringing some serious racism to bear in a very uncomfortable conversation. I keep saying seemingly because nothing here is as it seems.

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Art credit: “Shoggoth,” by Florian Haeckh
Events continue to get weirder and degenerate as illusions of all kinds are stripped away leading to a stunning conclusion that interweaves threads from Booker T. Washington’s memoir, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and LaValle’s own narrative. In the end, we are treated to a reversal of epic proportions that at the same time has seemed inevitable to many Lovecraft fans.

Victor LaValle’s writing is confident, mature, and modern. He reveals slowly, teasing a little here, a little there, making you simultaneously wonder and hope. He drops erudite phrases and slings slang with equal ease. His character is constantly aware of his race and what that means in different situations, “A part of me wanted to grab one of them and ask them to hold onto me…But I didn’t do that, didn’t know how they would react. A black man grabs you on the Amtrack train, is your first thought to assist him?” This constant awareness will likely have readers of color nodding at shared shitty experiences. As a white reader, I regarded it as an important narrative reminder that part of my white privilege is not having to consider such things at all. If for no other reason than that, this is a critical entry into the post-Lovecraftian canon. HPL’s influence is pleasantly suffused throughout, but becomes much more obvious in the end.

“Up from Slavery,” like The Ballad of Black Tom before it, is one of my most favorite modern Lovecraftian stories because of its handling of the entrenched racism of many of the original stories by HPL. LaValle neither shies away from the racism nor makes it the one note his stories can sound. He sharpens it, as iron is sharpened in flame, into a natal source of narrative power. This is the kind of story that doesn’t just stick with you, but makes you want to find the author, shake his hand, and say “thank you.”

 

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

 

Dark Lantern of the Spirit, by Max Beaven

“The mass in the darkness seethed and churned and with a sudden furious motion…shed a part of itself. Now, in the small concavity that sat just a short distance from faint light that entered through the enlarged crevasse, a second writhing mass began agitated movements.”

51SBpwmEnGL[1]With a cover that looked like the lovechild of Red Dead Redemption and Bloodborne and a description boasting an adventure in the style of Robert E. Howard draped in the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, I was all set to love this self-published story from new author Max Beaven, who graciously sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review. DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT: AN ARTHUR C. WILSON & BENJAMIN HATHORNE NOVELLA advertises itself as having a “late Victorian era frontier western setting” and when combined with the Mythos, this sounded right up my alley. So, it was with a certain amount of excitement that I turned the first page.

There I discovered the story of Arthur, a sheriff’s deputy originally hailing from New England but now finding himself in the Cheyenne territory of Casper, Wyoming. Truly, a tough place to be a law man. Through a whiskey haze he begins to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a well known and experienced trapper called Miles. A brief chapter later we are taken cross country to Salem, MA to meet Benjamin, a wealthy and typically bookish Lovecraftian protagonist, who is excitedly opening a newly delivered package. It turns out to be a bonafide copy of the Liber Ivonis, otherwise known to HPL fans as the Book of Eibon. This artifact makes its canonical appearance in “Dreams in the Witch-House,” “The Haunter in the Dark,” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” and then among some of the more familiar pastiches like ‘Ubbo-Sathla” by Clark Ashton Smith. After a few more chapters, primarily bouncing back and forth between these two characters, we are treated to an Interlude focused on some Lovecraftian style beastie from beyond the stars, and with that, the stage is set.

I wanted to try and get the plot description down in as positive a way as I can, because I do think there is a seed of a fun story buried within. Unfortunately, however, there are serious flaws with this book and I have to address those. Almost from page one there are numerous grammar and spelling errors. I’m usually forgiving when it comes to this stuff, but in this case they were so numerous that they quickly became difficult to overlook. Other errors abounded as well, like ignoring the conventions around dialog tags and the sudden deployment of a fifty-cent word betraying the obvious usage of a thesaurus. I can appreciate the desire to sound antiquated and erudite, but it must also be authentic. The vast majority of these missteps could have been fixed by an editor, which this book sorely needs. There are several things, though, I’m not sure an editor could have fixed. For example, each character’s voice sounds like the others to the point that it’s hard to distinguish who is who. Why does the Shoshone scout sound like the educated New Englander? Finally, while I can appreciate the author’s father passed on to him an encyclopedic knowledge of early firearms (so noted in the acknowledgements), the level of detail provided in both the prose and dialogue is often out of place to the point of being distracting. Like this, from a letter to Benjamin written by his friend Thomas, “I have taken to carrying an Enfield revolver with me at all times.” Would not “gun” have been crisper?

Unfortunately, this was a DNF for me, as by the half way point I had become entirely too frustrated to continue. I wanted this to be a fun Lovecraft pastiche in a wild west setting. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and I stand by what I said earlier – there are some enjoyable plot and character ideas here. The execution of them needed a lot more work before publication, however, and certainly needed the services of an editor. I hope Mr. Beaven continues to write and hone his craft. His passion for the Lovecraft mythos and the adventure stories of Howard is clear, and his enthusiasm for writing the tale he wanted to read, which he saw missing from the market, is evident. But, there’s still some work to do before I can recommend it.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar