A Circle That Ever Returneth In, by Orrin Grey

“…each of the three possesses one portion of a riddle, map, or clue meant to lead them to the jewel…each one believes their portion to be the most pertinent and therefore of the most value…”

gost-cov300[1].jpgEarlier this year I read a story that I really enjoyed in “Autumn Cthulhu” called The Well and the Wheel (review here) by Orrin Grey. As I was just then beginning my exploration of these sorts of stories, Grey’s name was new to me. Well, it’s new to me no longer and thank goodness for it! I’ve since come to understand he’s referred to in the business as “the monster guy” for his many ingenious takes on familiar and not so familiar monsters, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to him expound upon his writing and his influences in a pair of “This is Horror” podcasts (available here or wherever you get your podcasts). A while ago I saw on his blog that his new collection, “Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales,” would be coming out soon and I couldn’t have been more excited. It is now in print (2018) and available from his publisher here. (I actually received a free e-copy directly from the publisher just for voting. That’s right, just for performing my civic duty and telling them about it, the good folks at Word Horde gave me a free e-copy of this great collection.)

There’s three noteworthy things about this collection that I’d like to draw to your attention, gentle reader. The first is obvious from the cover: Gemma Files has given the introduction, which, if that weren’t noteworthy enough, know also that it’s an introduction in which she describes her inescapable desire to eat Mr. Grey.  Gemma is a considerable talent and it speaks well of this current volume that she wanted to be a part of it. The second is that the author comments on each story after its conclusion. I think he does this in his other collections too, but I absolutely love this feature. There’s nothing I enjoy more after reading something that I loved than to talk about with others who’ve also read it, and these author notes are like getting to do so, however all too briefly, with the author himself. So, thank you for that! Third, and finally, when I got this book it caused me to temporarily put down the other book I was reading—Paul Tremblay’s latest “The Cabin at the End of the World”—which is a rare enough feat as it is, but especially so in this case as this novel by Tremblay is rather un-put-down-able.

journey1[1].jpgI reached out to Mr. Grey on Facebook asking him which of these tales was particularly Lovecraftian, and, because he’s the standup guy that he is, he actually got back to me and shared with me his own personal enthusiasm for the tale we’re examining here. A Circle That Ever Returneth In is a Lovecraftian/sword-and-sorcery mashup that is also a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.  That’s right, you read that correctly. What literary-minded child of the 80’s could forget these wondrous tomes?! Now, imagine all that you remember about reading these books and then add in both Lovecraftian and sword-and-sorcery elements and you’ve got the picture, and it is a sight to behold. It’s reprinted here in this volume, but originally it was published in “Swords vs. Cthulhu,” edited by Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer.

This tale, like so many of its ilk (well, those worth their mead anyway) begins in an inn, with a group of adventurers around a beaten up table near a roaring fire. You (because, of course, this is written in the second person) overhear their conversation and your interest is peaked. There’s maps, treasure, danger, and everything that goes along with it being discussed. tavern_by_ltramaral-d55g796-1024x595[1].jpgBut then, there’s a disagreement, a parting of ways, and you’re left with the choice of following only one of the three adventurers, the sell-sword, the cut-purse, or the doll mage. I immediately chose to follow the doll mage (duh), being instructed to turn to a numbered section rather than a page, as it was of old. I figured I knew what a sell-sword and a cut-purse were, but of the doll mage I only had high hopes. She did not disappoint.

88e1e11768bbcbb365d0ca09798614df[1]The doll mage’s tale took us through a few hasty voodoo-like lessons wrought on the anvil of you, the main character. “You see that she is holding a doll, a tiny effigy of cloth and wax, and you notice with a start that it looks like you…she pulls out a black stitch from across the doll’s mouth, and suddenly you find your voice.” You discover that you’re searching for the Shining Trapezohedron (putting versed readers immediately in mind of The Haunter of the Dark) and that you must cross the Forbidden Plateau in order to seek it out. Naturally, it is overgrown with large, predatory fungi. Past that you enter into the court of the King in Yellow and must decide how you’ll handle him, for he holds the Shining Trapezohedron in his hands. I fully admit giving in to my old bad habits while reading these stories and reading with a few fingers (in this case, e-bookmarks) placed at different junctures—come on, you did the same—while at the same time reading with one eye closed so I didn’t accidentally see the bolded final sentence detailing my fate.

I enjoyed my ride through this adventure so much that I went back through it a second time, choosing the sell-sword this time and was pleasantly surprised by how different the story was. Even set pieces that I thought would be static were not and were actually dramatically different lending a completely different feel to the story, though I eventually met the same end. I fully intend to go back once again and see where the cut-purse’s tale will take me, and then maybe go through it all over again making different choices. There’s enough paths here to make that worth your time, while also being short enough that that doesn’t feel tedious.

r1heyg3hbtwz[1].jpgThe prose here is not particularly special, but it isn’t meant to be and it doesn’t have to be. It reads exactly as I remember a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reading, which may or may not be an accurate recollection of reality. The ideas are simple, the journey enjoyable. But, don’t let that fool you. As an homage to this singular slice of juvenile literature, it’s brilliantly conceived and, more importantly, lovingly executed. The Lovecraftian elements are thoughtfully included, yet don’t take over. The King in Yellow is, of course, properly a Chambers creation, but has been adopted into the Lovecraft canon pretty fully by now I think. You’ll enjoy seeing the different interpretations Grey takes with him in each iteration of the story. The sword-and-sorcery elements are more prevalent, calling to mind Fritz Lieber’s iconic characters and land—Grey admiringly nods to Lieber in naming his country Lankhende.

Above all, I had fun while reading and rereading this, and I think that is his main goal. I was taken back to early mornings huddled in the school library, trying to decide if I could finish my journey before school began, or if I needed to check the book out. I was taken back to my family room floor, surrounded by dice and friends and DM screens and character sheets. I was taken back to watching my taped-off-TV copy of Conan the Barbarian. I was taken back to a time when adventure mattered more than anything, to when traps were actually deadly, and to when the endings could be rewritten as often as you liked. I was taken back. And I loved it. Thank you, Orrin Grey.

This review was written while listening to the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian, the movie, transcribed for organ, because why not. I have to imagine there aren’t many people who’ve listened to this album.

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

Roll for Initiative: “Gone are the cyclopean walls, the towering buildings with their many windows for trysts and burglaries. Here the walls lie in rubble, the towers rise a few stories and then terminate abruptly. It is a ruin, and what better place than a ruin for ghouls to dwell.”

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The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad, by Molly Tanzer

“I’ll tell you what I did on my summer vacation.”

With the notable exception of the gut busting film “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil,” I don’t normally go in for horror-comedies. Something about it just doesn’t do it for me, or maybe better said, they are usually never done well enough. That Netflix movie released a while back, “The Babysitter,” supposedly a humorous homage to 80’s slashers? Yeah, it just fell flat. On its stupid face.

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Molly Tanzer
So, it’s safe to say that a few pages into Molly Tanzer’s story —collected here in the fantastic feminist-Lovecraftian anthology “She Walks in Shadows,” edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles which was published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2015—I was a little nervous. (Not near as nervous as I was, though, to go google-image searching for this post. Wow, that was an exercise in…well, “wincing avoidance” might be the best phrase.) However, I can safely say that Tanzer has pulled off a delightfully playful story that, though it borders on pastiche, manages to stand up to its more grim sisters in the collection. This was, above all, a fun read. It relies totally on, as you can likely guess, The Thing on the Doorstep, and if you haven’t read that one first, you’ll be missing so much that it’s probably not even worth it. But I know you all have the original HPL tale under your belts, no problem. (Sidenote: there is, on Amazon Prime video, a modern adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep that I have not seen yet. If you have, I’d love to know what you thought of it.) Ok, onto the story with the title that begs to be read aloud in as sinister a voice as you can muster. In it we meet Asenath Waite, the high school cheerleader and her goody-goody-two-shoes cousin, Veronica Waite.

 

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“Asenath Waite” by Deviant Artist: MaryCountsTheWalls
The new school year is just starting up again and Veronica, fresh from Bible summer camp, can’t wait to have her shot at the varsity squad. Asenath’s summer was spent in less wholesome ways, shall we say. Our first glimpse of her is when she’s leaning against a car swapping spit with…gasp!…another girl! As the days go on, it becomes clearer and clearer to Veronica that Asenath isn’t herself. This is where Tanzer’s playfulness comes in. If you know the original story, you know how funny lines like this are: “Who did Asenath think she was? What she was doing, it wasn’t right—socially, academically, or spiritually.” Again, I normally don’t go for this kind of stuff, but I couldn’t help myself; I enjoyed this story. Later on we meet the mewling and drooling Uncle Ephraim Waite who comes to watch the cheerleading practice.  Studied readers will wonder at his seeming incapacitation, and why he goes about muttering things like “Thief…” 

Closer to the end of the story, Tanzer does include some Lovecraftian dread that added a nice seasoning to the work while not being so much as to be out of place. The girls’ strained relationship is coming to a head and Veronica, bless her heart, can’t figure out what’s going on with Asenath. She confronts her about her behavior and Asenath can’t take it. She makes fun of Veronica for frittering away her summer time at Bible camp and then tells her she can do all the praying she wants, because after what she’s seen, she knows none of that matters. She tells Veronica that over the summer, “I looked into a well of absolute darkness, a well without a bottom, full to the brim with writhing whispers blacker than the darkness. I looked—and I listened.” You can imagine how well this goes over with our Bible camp attendee. Asenath doesn’t tell Veronica that there’s nothing beyond this world. Quite the contrary. She tells her that what there is out there, doesn’t care about her, doesn’t hear her prayers.

 

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“Demon Cheerleader” by Deviant Artist: treystimpsonart
The story goes on to end about the way you’d expect it too, if you know HPL’s tale. How closely this story follows the original I suspect could actually be a divisive point. Some readers will wish it either did more or did something new with the original material. Other readers will take a lot of pleasure over how close it stuck to the blueprint. For my money, I’m in the latter camp. I appreciate what Tanzer does with the original material and how easily she translates it to this new setting. Now, I don’t think it’s going to win any awards for originality, but that’s not really the point I suspect. Tanzer’s prose is accomplished, and she does an admirable job capturing the diction and sentence structure of teenagers. I won’t say it’s a perfect capture, but then again if it was, it’d be indecipherable and involve emojis. I’d quite like to read something of hers that was more original because I believe there’s a pretty deep imagination at work here. I mean, I would never have read HPL’s story and then thought, “You know what would be great? If I took this and set it on a cheerleading squad!” I do have to say though, that unless I’m getting confused by all the…switching…that goes on in the end, this doesn’t end up having a particularly feminist ending. This collection, you’ll remember, is all about female characters, written by females as part of the unofficial redemption of Lovecraft movement that’s going on. It is definitely authored by a woman and is definitely about women, but women don’t totally come out on top in the end and perhaps that’s a twist that might have made for a stronger story as well as a more original one. All said and done though, this is a fun one. It’s not scary, not even particularly dreadful, nor does it feature a ton of cosmic futilitarianism (though it touches on it). There’s no big Lovecraftian baddies here lurking in the dark, interstitial places. But, it is extremely faithful to the original piece of writing, if in an impish fashion.

This review was composed while listening to the terrifying soundtrack to the (original) Dario Argento film, “Suspiria”. Now, the children are tucked into their coffins, the wife is stirring her cauldron one more time before she dreams, and I have to go let the shoggoth out.

 

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

Wicked lines to chortle at:Asenath was in Gifted, so Veronica hadn’t expected to see her during the school day.”