“Captain Jack sits on his front porch. Shotgun on his lap.
Coffee gone cold.
Waiting for The Thing That Sails On Tears.
The Black Goat.”
—Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., “No Healing Prayers”
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.
“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.
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.
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 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”
It 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.
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.
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 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.”
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,
“As I grew older, they brought me night-fevers of vast, deserted plateaus and winds which scoured flesh from bone; visions of drowned cities and forbidden peaks. They gave me hints that they themselves were real, material, and they fed me concepts of stone, in all its conceivable forms, starting my first poor attempts with chisel and file. They fed my isolation from other humans, strengthened it, and they made me a sculptor.”
Between 1930 and 1931, one of America’s premier universities launched a scientific expedition to one of the world’s last great frontiers, the Antarctic. Three of that august institution’s leading professors helmed the expedition: Dr. Frank L. Pabodie (Engineering), Dr. William Dyer (Geology), and Dr. Lake (Biology). Their ostensible goal was to drill through the surface to bring up mineral samples buried under layers of ice and stone measured as much in geologic age as material thickness. The discoveries they would ultimately make would undo the world’s understanding of itself and set the Earth on a collision course with the stars. All of this, of course, never actually happened, except in the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful novella, At the Mountains of Madness, published originally by HPL’s friend Julian Schwartz in February, March, and April of 1936 as a severely edited serial in Astounding Stories .
But what if it had happened?
What would the world look like now?
How would we, the human race, have responded?
That is the premise for this substantial new anthology from PS Publishing, Mountains of Madness Revealed, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, one time editor of Weird Tales magazine. Within its pages are 19 brand-new stories and poems by some of the leading mythos voices of our time, all of whom have taken for granted that the horrible and awesome discoveries of the Pabodie-Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica were all too terribly true. Also included is a wonderful introduction by the editor that takes you through the history of HPL’s story. Because of that, this volume is not recommended for newcomers to the Lovecraft Mythos or anyone who has not read the original novella. These authors assume you know the intimate details of the story, and readers without that foreknowledge will inevitably not be able to enjoy this anthology to the fullest.
For my review, I chose a story by a luminary of the field of weird fiction but who represented a gap in my reading, Yorkshire native John Linwood Grant. His short story, Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, is full of conspiracy theories, the dark web, secret and sinister governmental organizations, climate change, alien beings, and insanity to spare. Glaciers shift and ice caps melt and, in a calamitous moment, the City from Lovecraft’s story is revealed and the truth of human history as we knew it is rewritten. “Most of Lovecraft’s writing is invented nonsense, a blur of horror and science fiction which, if unusually imaginative, is yet of very limited value. Only that one tale matched reality, though the City’s emergence did encourage a mad hunt for other locations, even deep-water submarine explorations for sunken cities which house dreaming gods. Not a single Cyclopean block, not one non-Euclidean ruin, was found elsewhere, above or below the oceans.” But it hardly matters for the hapless humans of Linwood Grant’s story. The cornerstones of their understanding had already crumbled as sunlight dawned on that aeons old city, the definitive evidence of other intelligent life from beyond the stars.
Much like many of Lovecraft’s stories, this one unfolds at a leisurely pace. There’s lots of description and exposition, but it never felt unnecessary or boring. A whole worldview was unfolding before my eyes as the pages turned, one which I had previously imagined, even hoped for in that strange way familiar to devotees of fantasy and science-fiction, but had never been presented with as being real in quite this way. For one thing, this story is set in our world and our time. It’s familiar in the very same way that AtMoM is alien, oddly comforting instead of foreboding and harsh. The thrust of the plot relies on our protagonist, a Ms. Paling, completing some sort of to-scale sculpture of the revealed city of the Old Ones. In her attic, no less. She is being urged on by The Four, a group of creatures who commune with her mind, but who may also just be in her mind. Are they themselves Old Ones, or is Paling going mad after confronting the horrifying revelations of the broken ice? Nonetheless, as is so often the case, perception is reality, and she persists in her sculpting.
The City itself is the main thing, not what it contains, not even what it once contained. It is “…a holy text in stone…Lovecraft’s characters claimed they read an entire racial history in the symbols carved on the walls of their find, bands of glyphs that ran along ice-frosted walls. Perhaps they did. They were reading the wrong thing, though…The City is the answer, not what is written upon it.” The question to which the city is the answer I will leave to your reading, but I thought it was an ingenious take on HPL’s story to which I believe even the Old Gent would have been obliged to tip his hat. The ending left me feeling awe, and that is a wonderful homage to the original story which accomplishes much the same thing, if in a very different way. Linwood Grant adds a bit more human touch that HPL could muster, and I’ll go so far to say notes of admiration, respect, and even love are present in his conclusion. Like the original, the action all comes suddenly at the end in a wild avalanche, but one which ultimately feels inconsequential. The story is much bigger than that momentary (if satisfying) action can claim.
This was a wonderful story and I had a lot of fun reading it. Linwood Grant’s writing is fluid and will not at all be the barrier to some that HPL’s represents. He is a modern author writing in a modern, sensible, style. And yet it is elevated. Some of his descriptions are just beautiful, possessed with a matured sentiment tinged with longing. You find yourself yearning for a time and a place that are not, as in here, “It doesn’t matter. This planet was theirs, but their people are dead. Many times the edge of deep emotion has brushed me—better, they feel, that they had slept until the sun grew dark, than been woken to such a world. The last of the true rulers of Earth wish only to leave, to abandon their lonely vigil.” HPL wrote a story of awe, dread, and cosmic horror; Linwood Grant has managed to warp that just ever so slightly so that the exact same set piece sings not horror but melancholy, less warning and more lullaby.
Mountains of Madness Revealed is available now in hardback from PS Publishing, and I highly recommend it.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
A helpful corrective: “Lovecraft’s suggestions seem ludicrous—flying fungal things and octopus-creatures, always unspeakable horrors that cannot be pinned down. I still do not know how he got so much right, and so much wrong.
“…it could see him. The sudden knowledge was like swallowing an icicle. An eye regarded him from the black disk—a throbbing ball of jelly squirming in an electrical storm rimmed with lashes of fang and claw. He noticed the ribbons of smoke wafted not from the brass dish at the base of the mirror, but from that merciless eye.”
Cults. Sex magic. Rocket scientists. Spy versus spy. Cthulhu. These are just a few of ingredients that make up Douglas Wynne’s latest novella, SMOKE AND DAGGER: A SPECTRA FILES PREQUEL, published by Prometheus Press (2019) and illustrated by Mat Fitzsimmons. The Spectra Files (RED EQUINOX, BLACK JANUARY, CTHULHU BLUES) were a trilogy of novels that combined the Lovecraftian milieu with hard-nosed, high-tech action-adventure. Following up on their success, Wynne penned this present novella to explore the back story of heroine Becca Phillips’ occultist grandmother, Catherine Littlefield, who is the heroine of this story. Here, returning readers will be immersed in the history of the trilogy they enjoyed, while new readers will find a fast-paced introduction into Wynne’s Lovecraftian universe. I’m grateful to the author for a gratis copy, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Through a series of revelations, Catherine begins to understand that she is sensitive to vibrations from other realms and comes to meet others interested in her particular gift. A doomsday plot is underway and Catherine’s new friends waste no time in clandestinely sending her into fray. She meets Jack Parsons, fictionally portrayed here, but a real historical personage who was a rocket scientist, chemist, and noted occultist (d. 1952). At first, it is unclear what exactly she is being sent to do; Parsons is known to be into some pretty kinky sex and always seems to keep multiple women around. Catherine isn’t interested in even pretending to be someone’s sex toy, refusing the offer initially, “I’m afraid I misjudged you and your associates. You’ve certainly misjudged me.” In having her decline to be a femme fatale Bond girl, Wynne signals right away that this will be a more modern noir. She’s quickly drawn into Parsons’ social circle and the spy game begins. It seems Parsons and his associates are up to some pretty nefarious, and occult-like stuff and there is no guessing just how dark they’re willing to get. That said, like a lot of Lovecraftian Mythos stories, at no time during my reading was I scared or even unsettled. This is strictly an occult action-adventure story, and though it is a lot of fun, it is not emotionally or mentally disturbing.
Clocking in at 155 pages, this is a quick read. It moves briskly from scene to scene through the use of short chapters and action-packed sequences. This lends itself to exciting reading, but comes at the expense of deep character development. The writing here doesn’t stand out either positively or negatively, but is entirely sufficient to the task. At times, some more thoughtful literary gems peek out from the exhilarant backdrop, as here, “There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom, Catherine. You know that, right? Same tree, different fruit.” Mythos set pieces are sprinkled liberally throughout, and I was particularly excited to see the inclusion of the forbidden tome Unaussprechlichen Kulten, one of Robert E. Howard’s (creator of the Conan stories) additions to the Mythos. Like other Lovecraftian tomes (De Vermis Mysteriis, Liber Ivonis, Cultes des Goules, etc.), it was originally titled in English (Nameless Cults), but was later changed to a non-English language title to increase authenticity and mystery.
A couple of things hold this story back for me from being the fully immersive thrill ride that it could be. The first is something simple (it could actually just be that I didn’t pick up on all I needed to) and that is the sense that while this story is taking place in the late 1940’s, post-WWII, I never really felt like I was in that time period. I’m not sure if it was a case of insufficient exposition, thinly established setting, or what, but I found that I had to keep reminding myself that this story took place a long time ago. Anytime I’m pulled out of the story like that it impacts my enjoyment of the story. The second, and this one is a bit more narratively complicated, is that everything felt way too easy for Catherine. For example, at one point, she has to infiltrate enemy territory. She does so with an unbelievable ease, the wool being pulled completely and easily over the eyes of characters who we’re otherwise asked to believe to be intelligent, sophisticated masterminds. The flip side of that coin is, of course, a total lack of any sense of danger for our heroine. It’s like watching an Arnold movie; no matter how many bullets fly his way, you know he isn’t gonna go down. Credibility is sacrificed on the altar of fun. Some readers will likely have no problem with this, but I found it distracting.
Full confession time: I haven’t read the trilogy of which this is the sequel, and I suspect, if I had, I would have enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I had trouble connecting with the characters but again, I’m guessing if I’d gone on a three-book ride with their descendants, I’d have more invested in them. Additionally, the illustrations, while interesting and well-done, didn’t end up adding a lot for me, and while I understand why they were clumped up like they were (it serves a narrative function), it still was a bit odd to be reading along only to suddenly encounter eight pages of drawings. Still though, this was a fun book to read: a Mythos-fueled, Indiana Jones-esque adventure.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
As American as apple pie: “Parsons is a dreamer, but he is also an engineer, a practical man who has learned hard lessons about how difficult it will be to even attain the moon. He knows that if we share the universe with other intelligent life forms, it makes more sense to call them to us, to open a door in space and time, through which they might enter.”
“My theological namesake quoted approvingly to his Greek audience a common bit of philosophical wisdom from their own cultural milieu when he spoke of God the Father as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Does not such a formulation recall Yog-Sothoth, who walks with the other Old Ones between the dimensions, and in whom past, present, and future are one? Does it not recall Azathoth, the primal chaos that resides not only at the center of infinity but at the center of each atom, each particle, perhaps serving as the unaccountable subatomic bond that has categorically escaped scientific explanation?”
This is a review I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time. Years before I knew of him, Matt Cardin published his first collection, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP (Ash Tree Press, 2002), and his second, DARK AWAKENINGS (Mythos Books, 2010), both of which are pretty hard to find now at an affordable price. However, you don’t need to. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN in an omnibus collection containing revised and expanded versions of both of those previous collections, as well as an entire section of newly collected work, published in August 2019 by Hippocampus Press. The exquisite cover art is by the very talented Michael Hutter. If you find you enjoy Cardin’s thinking, he, along with a brain trust of cosmic horror luminaries, blog over at The Teeming Brain. For those unfamiliar with him, Matt Cardin writes a very particular brand of cosmic horror. Don’t turn away when I tell you that what he writes is theological horror, for it is of an ilk you have never read and I dare say most have not presumed to imagine.
Why have I been looking forward to reviewing this ever since I knew of its existence? Because TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN exists at a strange cross-section in my life. What you may not know about me is that in addition to being a fan of Lovecraftian and cosmic horror, I am also an Episcopal priest. So, this will be a longer and different sort of review, as I want to cover in the Introduction what I think is going on in Cardin’s work (which I believe I am uniquely situated to do) and then comment on a specific story I’ve chosen, “The New Pauline Corpus.”
A significant amount of 19th and early 20th century western horror was situated in a faithful literary world. That is to say, the Judeo-Christian worldview held sway. Bram Stoker’s vampires could be warded off by a cross, for example, and many of M.R. James’ ghost stories featured Christian clergy in a positive light. Lovecraft adopted a different world view (save, oddly for him, in “The Dreams in the Witch House”) which largely ignored or denigrated a Judeo-Christian heritage, and posited a universe in which magnificent, malevolent, and/or uncaring alien deities were at the top of the divine food chain. As Christendom died, many horror authors abandoned theologically-based or theologically-resolved horror, choosing instead the milieu championed in 1882 by Nietzsche in which “God is dead.” Now, in the wake of sinful and heinous sexual abuse scandals across denominations, we see a lot of horror content in which the church itself and her chosen representatives are the antagonists or, in the least, at the root of the antagonism. Cardin does not fall easily into any of those categories, but you must understand those categories if you’re to grasp the genius of what he is doing.
Cardin’s work imagines neither that God is dead, nor that God never existed; God, in Cardin’s work, is very much real and very much alive. Further, he does not imagine that God is all-benevolent either, but rather that God is almost exactly as the Judeo-Christian scriptures present him, difficult passages and all. Especially those difficult passages. Passages like Genesis 15:12-13a, 17; Numbers 11:33; 16:46, 49; Isaiah 66:24; and quite a lot of the book of Job. In Cardin’s stories, he wrestles extensively with something theologians like to call theodicy, which are the ways we try to prove God’s goodness in the face of the existence of evil. The book of Job is a biblical mythological work of theodicy, but has a conclusion that does not satisfy most readers. The complicated problem can most easily be explained by imagining a triangle of three philosophical points.
One point maintains that God is omniscient, the second point that God is omnipotent, and the third that God is omnibenevolent. Ask most believers if they agree with those points individually and you’ll likely get near universal assent. However, if you examine it more closely in light of the existence of evil, one point seems like it must break down. If we take for granted God’s omniscience and omnipotence, then, given the existence of evil, we cannot understand God to be omnibenevolent. If God knew bad things were going to happen, and had it in his divine capacity to stop them, and if he were all-good, he would. But evil still exists. It works the same way as you go around the three points. When taking for granted God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omniscient. Likewise, when taking for granted God’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omnipotent. For thousands of years theologians, philosophers, and regular people in the pews have wrestled with this concept, making little headway.
This difficulty so befuddled early Christians that it is easy to understand the rise of Manichaeism, a particular brand of gnosticism that sought, in part, to address theodicy. Mani was an early third century Persian who said that, because of the very problem our triangle above illustrated, the world could not have been created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god. It didn’t work. Mani believed that such a god existed, and that this god was the God of the scriptures, but did not believe that god was the creator of world, because of the manifest presence of evil. Mani, like many gnostics, divided the cosmos into duologies. Therefore, while the god of the scriptures was out there somewhere, the creator deity (who was NOT omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) was not that god. This explains the presence of evil in the created world. Cardin taps into this concept immediately in his stories, marrying it with the early Babylonian creation myth (Enûma Eliš) that tells of order—in the form of Marduk, bull-calf of the Sun god Utu—triumphing over chaos—in the form of Tiamat, dragon goddess of the salt sea. A similar, if less anthropomorphic, creation narrative is told in the first verses of Genesis.
In TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN, Cardin writes of a god who is something of an amalgamation of Tiamat and the demiurge of Manichaeism, and, from my perspective, is a genius creation and a terribly thought-provoking character who is decidedly not benevolent at all. No where does Cardin abuse the scriptures or take any more liberties with them than Christian orthodoxy does. He just interacts with them in a decidedly different way. His accurate and working knowledge of biblical Hebrew goes a long way to help this and his understanding that both Masoretic vocalization of the text, as well as all punctuation, are editorial decisions as much as literary fact solidifies his command over his material. Remarkably, Cardin is doing a lot more than that in these stories, but time does not permit me to tell of them. While as a theologian, I do not reach his same conclusions, I also operate from the perspective that this is not primarily a work of theology, but a work of contemporary cosmic horror fiction. On to the story!
THE NEW PAULINE CORPUS
At first I wanted to write about the first story in the collection, “An Abhorrence to All Flesh,” which still ended up being my favorite. Then I read the second story, “Notes of a Mad Copyist” and wanted to write about it. Then I wanted to write about “The Basement Theater,” the most Ligottian story in the book in my opinion. But when I finally reached “The New Pauline Corpus,” I knew I had to write about it as it combines a good portion of Cardin’s theological musings with the Lovecraftian Mythos.
Towards the beginning, Cardin writes, “…theology-as-story does not preclude ontology but incorporates it…we are living the story of a war between levels of reality. Our metanarrative is the tale of how space-time, the cosmos, the created order, was usurped by a reality that is more fundamental, primary, and ancient.” That usurpation was of the Lovecraftian gods over the god of the scriptures and this story is told from the epistolary perspective of a neo-Paul writing to a certain Francis (the current Pope?) attempting to integrate the Christian worldview with the cosmological disaster that has occurred. Further ponderings ultimately lead to the eminently quotable line, “What has Christ to do with Cthulhu?”
Neo-Paul answers this query in sections bearing such theologically awesome sub-headings as “Its Immanence,” and “Its Awefulness.” In them he explores the concept of divine fear, and how the mythos gods more acutely evoke such reactions. He questions the true purpose of religion, but not in the same tired way that Marx did. He closes the loop between the creation myth of Genesis and the vision of John the Revelator. He wonders about the sustaining power of narrative, invoking the scene from Ezekiel wherein God commands the prophet to eat the scroll. And finally, given their awful circumstances, he is forced to conclude that, “What might be a wholesome human form dressed in liturgical vestments and wearing the papal mitre might also be a mutated manshape sprouting dragon’s wings and surmounted by a head like a cuttlefish…” This is, obviously, a much less serious story than those that precede it, but at the same time it is a more fun one which I enjoyed immensely not only for its self-awareness, but for its function near the end of this omnibus of allowing you to breathe again. To breathe, and even to laugh.
Matt Cardin’s writing is beautifully erudite, at times bordering on academic, but it is never boring or oppressive. He invites you to bring your brain to this reading and then thoroughly engages it. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN is a thinking person’s collection of horror, and will lustrously reward those who are willing to peep with him over the edge of the abyss and not retreat when it returns the gaze. It is also the most fun I’ve had with a single author collection in a long time. This volume deserves to be shelved in your place of highest honor, a fair companion to Lovecraft, Ligotti, and whomever else you consider to be a master of the craft. Matt Cardin’s brand of horror is Lovecraftian in some ways, it’s true, and Ligottian in many others, but I suspect it won’t be long now before we refer to it simply as Cardinian.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar, your Chaplain of Horror
A Reading from Matt Cardin:“These psychic disturbances that have so terrified us of late, all the collapsing distinctions between thought, imagination, and physical reality, so that a stray wish or undisciplined notion may cause finned, clawed, and tentacled atrocities to appear, or may even alter one’s own physical body in awful ways that some of us have been unable to undo afterward, as in a nightmare from which one cannot wake because one has awakened inside the nightmare itself—may these not be the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the paraclete to “guide us into all truth” and “convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment,” and of his promise that his followers would perform even greater miracles than he himself had performed, and of the apostle Paul’s teaching that the divine spirit living within us will show us directly those primal mysteries which “no eye has seen, no ear had heard, no mind conceived?”
“We offer plenty of great times around campus, but please remember this one rule: absolutely no underage drinking. Alcohol dulls the senses, and you’re going to need all the alertness you can muster.”
The University Experience in the United States is not only a defining series of years in a young person’s life, but, if my international friends’ experiences are any kind of tell, also distinctly, and uniquely, American. It should be an easy thing to say that the most important thing you come away with after those four years is your degree, but if I’m being honest with myself, it is not easy to say that at all. There’s friendships and relationships to consider, mistakes made and re-made, lessons learned inside and outside the classroom, the whole Greek system (if you indulged in that), and just a whole lot of growing up that happens in a mostly unregulated environment. Maybe, at the end of the day, the degree is what you came for but you left with quite a bit more besides. That degree may hang on your wall now, proclaiming to the world that you are qualified to do and say as you do, but those other, more intangible lessons are what you carry much closer to the heart on a day to day basis. It is into that kind of collegiate co-ed setting (and not the stuffier, more erudite, cherry-paneled setting you might think of when you imagine the Miskatonic University from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories) that Gwendolyn Kiste drops her readers in this story.
Miskatonic University first appeared in 1922 in HPL’s “Herbert West: Reanimator” but went on to star in “The Dunwich Horror (1929),” where its prestige was first implied, and then it quickly became a favorite prop for many other mythos stories. The fated Dyer Expedition to Antarctica found in “At the Mountains of Madness (1931)” was funded by Miskatonic U’s geology department. Nathaniel Peaslee, narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time (1936)” was a professor of Political Economy at MU. But in this anthology, WELCOME TO MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY, put out by Broken Eye Books, and edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski, Miskatonic University is brought forward in time to the present day where students email and text one another, join fraternities and sororities, complain about the food, and attend normal sounding and not so normal sounding classes in an attempt to graduate with that coveted four year degree. A big thank you to Broken Eye books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
Gwendolyn Kiste, no stranger to the mythos, contributes our present story of a young woman just starting out at MU and finding it all a bit overwhelming. What she manages to accomplish, both masterfully and quickly, is a very realistic campus feel in which the narrator’s problems can, by an experienced mythos reader, all be easily attributed to the mythos. What’s so masterful about it, though, is that they’re all normal college kid problems—confusing class schedules, trouble making friends, sexual pitfalls, and academic woes—that in this case can be blamed on the mythos backdrop, but in real life (certainly in this author’s experience) had no such easy scapegoat. Let’s face it, college is a terrible, wonderful, confusing, and enlightening time. I wish there had been an easy scapegoat for all my difficulties, but there never was. So when Kiste provides the mythos backdrop to those otherwise very real issues, it had the effect of letting me laugh along, sometimes at, sometimes with, the characters. And subsequently, laugh a bit uncomfortably along with myself and my own memories of college.
The narrative is peppered throughout with brilliant snippets from the titular handbook that, again, are funny because they are in a mythos story, but just as easily in most cases, could not be. For example, “Your schedule might seem a little arcane at first, but rest assured, these courses will prepare you for a world that isn’t always as welcoming as it pretends to be.” It’s good advice, really, whether it appears in a mythos tale or not!
As the story progresses, the weirdness ramps up in the midst of a rather believable account of a first semester freshman. Parts of buildings come and go in the ether at will. Class titles get stranger and stranger. Students disappear. It’s all very unsettling but told in a lighthearted tone. One of the more emotional moments, for me, came in the midst of a typical campus tryst. Kiste writes, “Owen keeps talking about escape and freedom, and I can’t stand the sound of it, so I kiss his lips, his throat, his chest, anything to stop him from saying what I don’t want to hear.” Sex, drugs, and alcohol are time honored student aids to depress the growing and terrifying realization that none of us have a clue. The lie is that you’re supposed to discover that clue in college. The truth that so few manage to discern is that college is actually more about learning how you’ll deal with the fact that you’ll never have as much of a clue as you’d like. It is less about what the answer for any given problem is, and more about how you navigate it, because the darkness is all around and encroaching more and more every day. Somehow, I think Kiste gets that, and it bleeds through into her story.
Kiste’s writing is crisp, clean, and a delight to read. It is not frilly, or indulgent, but just exactly what it needs to be for this story. Her command of the voice of her narrator is great – I think it would be difficult to write a first semester freshman, but she nails it; I never once was taken out of the story.
I had a lot of fun with this one, as well as with the other stories I read in the anthology, but here’s the thing: this is a very niche market book. This anthology is only going to appeal to mythos diehards. It is neither for general consumption (not even as a light introduction to the mythos) nor is it even for all fans of HPL’s stories. It’s a clever experiment and a quirky answer to the theoretical question: What if Miskatonic University was real in 2019? Each one of these authors’ (and it is an enviable TOC) answers to that question is an individual joy, complete with a wink and a nod. But I can’t imagine too many people will find it necessary reading outside of a pretty tight circle.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,