Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs? by Michael Cisco

“Now he’s alone. After a while, he begins to fall back into place again, piece by piece.
“Just an oooold corpse,” a voice says.
He stands up, blinking tears away, nearly sobbing, shaking. Tenderly, he adjusts his poor, twisted clothes.
“Are you one of them now?” a voice asks. “Is this the way it’s done?”
“Perhaps one of the ways,” a voice answers.

—Michael Cisco, “Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs?”

“…there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than these of ordinary oneiros-copy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsiderness. I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & and its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Frank Belknap Long, February 27, 1931

This past weekend it was my family’s turn to keep our second grader’s class hamster. We were given everything we needed to care for it, including a hamster ball in which the little guy could roll around. After supper, we took him out of his cage and put him in the ball. All of us knelt around it on the floor, looming and leering, as it did…nothing. It did not roll around or frolic. It just stood there. After a moment passed, someone observed, “He’s shaking.” We took him out of the ball and sure enough, the poor creature was positively trembling. We placed him back in his cage and left him alone for the rest of the night. In the morning, he was dead. And in that moment, I understood cosmic horror in a clearer, more direct way than ever before.

1129835441[1]Michael Cisco’s new novella, DO YOU MIND IF WE DANCE WITH YOUR LEGS—to be published by Nightscape Press as the newest entry into their charitable chapbook line—taps deep into the terror of outsiderness which Lovecraft referenced in his letter to Long and brushes its fingers against the truest sense of cosmic horror like that I imagine was felt by the late hamster. I am grateful to Nightscape Press for providing me with a free e-ARC for the purposes of this honest review. If you don’t know about their charitable chapbook line, you need to learn about it. Each author selects a charity to which Nightscape Press donates one-third of the proceeds from the sale of each gorgeously illustrated chapbook. Michael Cisco has selected the LA LGBT Center.

This tale tells the story of Pedrito Marinetti, a transvestite man who may also be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and of his search for a missing woman, Irene Trigg. (Full disclosure: I am the whitest, most cis-gendered, straightest person, who is also not one hundred percent conversant with non-cis culture nomenclature (but I am trying to learn in an effort to be as supportive as I can). So, I feel a little unqualified to explore the deeper realities of Pedrito’s existence, and apologize in advance if I say something unwillfully ignorant.) Pedrito, who lives with his parents, enjoys being a bit of a loner and gets around on his trusty bicycle. “He likes the way bicycling puts him in the street while separating him from everyone else. His interactions with people seldom go well. Not a good idea. Not for him. Slipping away before breakfast also allows him to avoid his parents, who pester him with their hopelessly gentle questions and kind suggestions.”  Searching for missing persons is a pasttime of sorts for Pedrito, though, “As a rank outsider with a discomfiting personality unlikely to win the trust of strangers he can only hope to find Irene Trigg if there is something bizarre about her disappearance.” Pedrito comes at things from a different angle than the rest of us, and therefore sees the world differently. This is, in part, what has led me to wonder is he is autistic.

351839-admin[1]The deeper into the mystery he gets, the weirder the story becomes. Influences upon our world from beyond seem to be at play. This is more than a case of a missing person, and yet in many ways, it is also less. The hamster wheel awaits our frolicking while something outside looms and leers. As his name initially suggests, a reader begins to wonder who or what is pulling the strings, and to what, if any, end. But, Pedrito is undaunted; his autism (if that is what it is) acting as shield between him and the uncomfortableness or fear that would prevent a different person from continuing on the hunt. Whatever it is that is different about Pedrito, Cisco presents it in a kind, sympathetic manner. In fact, it may be his particular “stillness” that perfectly suits him for the role he has chosen in this story.

This is a difficult story to digest in one sitting and I struggled to understand it upon my initial read. After going back and looking over it again, I’m still not sure I totally get everything this is trying to accomplish. That is not to say the story is unworthy in any way, but it is to say that it is one which does not offer up its inner treasures easily, or without struggle. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity. We are put into Pedrito’s mind easily, which, while a remarkable authorial feat, is ironically what complicates the reader’s understanding. In telling Pedrito’s story, I believe that what Cisco is trying to do is show us that this kind of person has a story to tell and it is one that is both worthy of our attention and yet wholly independent of it. Pedrito does not need us to hear or understand his story, but if we choose to read, it is there for us to glean.

I am struck by the things which I do not fully understand. For example, there is a repeated number, 20904, that Pedrito receives over and over again as a response. The only clue we’re given to its meaning is a brief paragraph detailing a scene in which Pedrito watches a video tape he seems to revere, a tape he has cued up to time stamp 2:09:04. That is the moment in the video when his childhood guidance counselor is informing his parents that Pedrito tested as having an astronomically high I.Q. How Pedrito feels about this revelation (rather than the revelation itself) is a clue to unlocking your understanding of his character.

4[1]The last piece I want to explore is actually from the beginning. The first two words of the story, to be precise, which are the name of the main character.  Pedrito Marinetti. The diminutive applied to the first name is pretty self explanatory. Even as an adult, he is regarded as lesser by his peers and especially by his parents. It’s the last name that intrigues me. Why give a last name unless it were important? (Warning: I am now leaping off the ledge of solid footing into the space of Pure Conjecture.) Marinetti is not a name that seems like it would be picked out of a hat, because it is the surname of a major historical figure: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. That Marinetti was a poet, artist, and political activist in early twentieth century Italy. He is best remembered as one of the principle founders of the Futurist Movement, an artistic and social movement emphasizing speed, technology, and mechanized violence. It would go on to be a major influence on Dalí and the Dada movement.

cs22-01[1]On October 15, 1908, Marinetti had a car accident, in which he crashed his four-cylinder Fiat sports car into a ditch in an attempt to avoid (wait for it…) a bicyclist. That bicyclist helped him out of the ditch, and Marinetti wrote later that he emerged from that crash a new man. Futurism was born. In Cisco’s story there is a tension between the present and what is to come, and it is in that tension that the horror lies. While there is not mechanized violence, there is a repeatable, assembly-line nature to the violence that is present. It is dissociated, apathetic, and willful. It is the violence inflicted by placing an innocent hamster in a situation so stressful his little heart gives out. And then going out and buying a replacement hamster. It is a violence of which we are all guilty, except perhaps, for Pedrito Marinetti, who seeks to lift us from our wreck in the ditch of our lives.

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

Merge Now, by Kurt Fawver

“Chisholm knew he should call the police. He knew this other driver’s madness was bound to cause disaster. But even as the situation sparked his anxiety, it also entranced him. He’d seen plenty of minor accidents in the past, but he’d never watched a major collision happen in real time, right beside him. A small part of him wanted to see it: steel and aluminum bending, glass shattering, bodies flying. The aftermath might offer an insight, a revelation, a perspective on life or death or the nature of reality that he’d never otherwise understand. It might offer up a release.”

61IdzlLY5EL._US230_[1]I have both seen and been personally affected by the aftermath of wrong-way, high-speed collisions, and I can say for a certainty it does not offer any insight on life or death other than we are, at our most basic physical level, meat. Once, I lived near a particularly bad intersection where there were always cars banging into each other. Thankfully, most of the time, they did not result in serious injuries. One time though, there was a bad one. I heard it from my driveway where I was working on tuning up my bike. I ran to the street and saw a conversion van versus a sedan, both pretty crumpled. People began falling out of the van, whose side door and been pushed open far enough that they could get out. Most seemed ok, just dazed. One guy though, the last guy, came out screaming and holding his face. He asked if he was gonna be ok, pulling his hand away from his cheek. When he did, half his face rolled down, exposing his muscle and teeth. I winced, gave him the oil soaked rag I was carrying in my hand and assured him he’d be fine. I suspect he probably was with the exception of a nasty scar. That was the accident I saw. The one I was affected by left me bereft of a close friend. We are meat, and when it comes to auto accidents, we are grist for the mill. There is no particular revelation about these sorts of accidents but that. Kurt Fawver’s excellent story, “Merge Now,” however, does offer up insightful commentary on how we live our lives, the vain things for which we strive, and the mindless, blind way we so often follow.

41D3v4VgygL[1]It is located in the extraordinary anthology NOX PAREIDOLIA, edited by Robert S. Wilson and published late this year (2019) by Nightscape Press. (The book’s cover is equally as remarkable, and more so once you understand the title.) In this volume, Wilson collects ambiguous stories by some of horror’s hottest writers, all paying homage to the late weird fiction master, Robert Aickman. If you don’t know Aickman or his singular style, you can still enjoy this anthology well enough, but reading a few of Aickman’s strange tales first would offer a more fulsome experience. Also, if you don’t know the work of Nightscape Press, you should fix that. They are doing amazing work, using a portion of a lot of their sales to benefit charities, and are soon putting out HORROR FOR RAICES, a response to the horror going on at our southern border with, again, an enviable table of contents. They deserve your attention.

“Merge Now” is the story of Chisholm, a bored office worker who could be a stand in for so many of us, grinding it out daily for his meager share of the American dream. While driving to work one morning, he witnesses someone affixing a strangely decorated blindfold to themselves and then speeding up in their car. At first, they miraculously avoided other traffic, but then, once they reached their apparent max speed, they swerved into the oncoming lanes and it was only moments before the inevitable occurred. His work day is shot and he can’t even pull himself together to drive home, calling a ride share. blindfolddriver[1].jpgLate that night, he’s searching the internet, trying to figure out what would make a person do something like that. “…well after midnight, he stumbled upon a Twitter post that mentioned ‘the blindfolded, seeing the answer others cannot see and gnashing their teeth in fear and ecstasy, do the great work of the eschaton. They will prepare the roads for its coming.'”

As the story goes on this sort of event becomes commonplace, with horrific traffic accident after horrific traffic accident filling the local news cycle. He witnesses another accident and can’t erase the grisly images from his mind. “A body hung behind it, limp and positioned at grotesque angles. Its head was partially occluded by a segment of collapsed roof, but the exposed portion revealed an unmistakable white strip of cloth inscribed with unknown glyphs.” The cult atmosphere developed by Fawver’s inclusion of these strange blindfolds is simple, but brilliant, and in the end, it’s all you need to wonder, wtf? One driver speaks as Chisholm encounters her during his unavoidable work commute, “As she passed, she rolled a window down and shouted, to Chisholm or the universe at large, ‘All is wreckage! All is collision!'” Chisholm eventually begs off work, unable to get behind a wheel, and who could blame him? It seems the whole world is spiraling out of control and he wants no part in it, but can he avoid it if it truly is the whole world going mad?

Fawver’s writing in this piece, undergirded with a certain fatalism, is measured and controlled, unlike the story he is spinning. His characters speak naturally and their internal monologues read as authentic. You are never once taken out of the story. Generally, I think that’s the harder feat to accomplish than writing a florid line.

Aickman wrote stories that some would not even consider horror, but I have never read one after which I was not deeply unsettled. He has no jump scares and little gore, but manages to nonetheless infect your consciousness. Upon finishing an Aickman story you are often left wondering, what did I just read? But then you find yourself turning it over and over in your mind hours or even days later, and that’s when you know he got you. This anthology is full of stories that do that, a just tribute to the master, and “Merge Now” is a particularly good example.

NEW-FATAL-2-HOWARD-FRANKLAN_1539945801431_59493418_ver1.0[1].jpgIn the story, Chisholm says he moved to the city for bigger, better opportunities, and wonders at one point if it would not have been a better decision to stay home in his small town and be a big fish in a little pond. But the allure of success, and the financial remuneration that accompanies it, was too much for him. How many of us have struggled with the same sort of question and come up, if not short, then at least mortally uncertain? That is where the cosmic horror is for me in this tale. It is not a horror beyond the stars, but it is one that is much bigger than any one of us individually. It is the horror of questioning whether we are enough. Are we good enough, rich enough, successful enough, pretty enough? If not, who do we have to follow to get there, and what do we have to do? What do we have to barter?  How many, chasing this unattainable carrot, have been left as human wreckage on the side of life’s uncaring, unfeeling highway?

Mr. Fawver recently moved, but before he did, we lived in the same region of Tampa Bay. Earlier this year, we had a rash of wrong-way, head-on collisions on our various cross-bay bridges, all resulting in multiple fatalities. I cannot tell you if these were the result of drunken mistakes, ill-begotten wagers, youthful ignorance, or what, but for a while there, it was a thing and I wouldn’t even get on those bridges. The above image is from the local news channel. I confirmed with Mr. Fawver that this tale is a creative response to those tragedies and I want to thank him for it. We all had a lot of emotion about what happened here and this story gave those emotions a channel to vent. I am grateful for that, as I am grateful for Mr. Fawver’s work. I hope he knows he is appreciated in the weird fiction community and that he is good enough.

Kurt Fawver is the author of a large number of wonderful weird and horror short stories, appearing recently in the August issue of Nightmare Magazine.  Comparisons to Thomas Ligotti are not misplaced. He also has published two collections: FOREVER, IN PIECES, and THE DISSOLUTION OF SMALL WORLDS, which contains the Shirley Jackson award-winning story, “The Convexity of Our Youth.”

Before I close, I would like you to know that no guts were punched in the writing of this review.

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

 

Dr. 999, by Matthew M. Bartlett

“The item arrived without any protective packaging—I found the bottle on its side on my front step, with no mailing label nor postage that I could see.”

62a3e5b0ff498692a87cc7ca1b7d278a_original[1].jpgContinuing to make inroads with the new cosmic horror/noir/Lovecraftian anthology, “Ashes and Entropy,” edited by Robert S. Wilson and published by Nightscape Press (2018), I came across the curious story Dr. 999 by Matthew M. Bartlett. Bartlett is an author I’ve heard about, but have never read. He’s published professionally as well as on his own, and is perhaps most well known for his bewitching tales of covens and radio waves set in Leeds, Massachusetts. Now, he may write horror, but he’s far from a horrific person. That might sound like a dumb thing to say, but I think those on the outside of the horror community often assume all these authors and readers must be terrible, disturbed people. So, I love it when horror writers are discovered to be not only real people with real lives, but kind, charitable, and decent folk (hint: most of them are). On that note, I’m pleased to share that Mr. Bartlett has just written a new chapbook called If It Bleeds!, and has dedicated one-third of the proceeds to benefit his local humane society. Buy the book; help save a cat or a dog.

Dr. 999 is unlike any horror short story I’ve ever read, necessitating a departure from my usual style where I tell you about plot first and then get into structure and writing. Today, I am compelled to proceed backwards. This story’s structure is totally unique and it really couldn’t have been told in any other way. I suppose you could say it takes an epistolary form, but even that doesn’t describe it. This is a story told entirely as an online product description and the reviews of that product. The reviews progress in order from the insane one-star review (we’ve all read insane one star reviews before, but perhaps not quite like this) to the glowing, life altering four-star review. We don’t get a five-star review, and I have to wonder what that might have been like. However, I suspect the person who’d be inclined to write the five-star review is living happily in another dimension just now.

The product in question is “Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk.” And then he throws a “(DISCONTINUED)” in there. I loved that. So, what is it, exactly? This terrible product of eldritch horror is hair conditioner. Actually, if you ask my daughter at bath time, she could confirm that all hair products are eldritch horrors. Right from the beginning we can guess this will be odd, “Bad hair can inhibit or even obstruct your spiritual growth.” hqdefault[1]Now, I went online and looked at several hair conditioning products and not one of them including anything about spiritual growth.

The one-star review comes next and begins innocuously enough, complaining that when the product arrived, it wasn’t even in a box or packaging of any kind. We move quickly into how the product actually hurts when applied, how the reviewer’s hair hurt the next day, and how in turn, that led to poor client relationships and decreased sales. In a fit of frustration, she pours the bottle down the drain which only makes things worse. Black bubbling water burps up from the sink and toilet and eventually the whole neighborhood’s sewer system is affected in a noisome scene ripped from a real life experience of the author’s.

As we move through the different reviews, it’s almost as if the product itself is changing, morphing based on the previous bad review, rather than just the reviewer’s subjective experience changing. Whereas the one-star reviewer complained about the lack of packaging, the four-star reviewer raves about receiving the conditioner “well-packaged in bubble wrap and unbroken cardboard, and undamaged.” The user might not have grown spiritually, but the product sure has. I found this idea particularly creepy. The three-star review, broken into two columns of enumerated pros and cons was actually my favorite. Tossed in the middle of the cons, as if it ain’t no thing, was this gem, Closeup-Hand-Eyes-Scary-Hair-Faceless-Evil-2958141[1].jpg“3. The trampling of the flower garden outside the bathroom window.” There were a few others like this, too. The four-star review goes on for a long time, going into great detail about the freedom and the emotion the conditioner product delivers to them. There’s a lot of attempts to inject the weird and a sense of dread here, but none were as effective as the one listed above about the flower garden. I actually felt the four-star review, the final section, went on a little long, but that’s just my taste. The ending is enjoyably Lovecraftian, with enough fingers twining back through the various established threads to be satisfying. The shades of Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond and Robert Olmstead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth dance just out of sight.

I think this would be a very difficult story to write well, but Bartlett did it. Mastering many different voices in the various reviews well enough to make them believable is a tall order, but he was up to it. We’ve all read bad Amazon reviews. We know what they sound like. The bad grammar, the misspelled words, the invented words, the non-sequiturs, the irrelevancies, and the detours. But try to write that way on purpose, convincingly, and I think you’ll understand a little bit more about the feat that he accomplishes here. A different feat, I think, than writing separate characters or even POVs.

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All of that is to say that it’s incredibly annoying that Bartlett wrote this in less than two hours. The backstory involves an actual bottle of hair conditioner the author was using. He said, “I was reading the hyperbolic copy on a conditioner bottle. I thought, who writes this garbage?” Garbage, indeed. On the backs of bottles and on the pages of Amazon. I couldn’t help but think of bottles of “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap,” a real product (and a delightfully scented one, truth be told) packaged in a bottle covered in the strangest copy. Seeing is believing.

Our current culture is obsessed with the instant gratification found in the facebook like, the re-tweet, the instagram heart, and the like. We have to grade everything. We can’t ask a question of a customer service agent without being requested to hang on the line for a brief survey. We get called by the manager of the car dealership if we rate them less than perfect tens down the line. Dr. 999 is tapping into the horror of that judgmental climate as well as the culture of needing to be heard regardless of the worth of your speech. Somewhere, someone is watching. Someone is grading your paper. Someone is marking a one for you on a survey. And none of it ultimately matters. For when you are DISCONTINUED, there will be another to take your place. “At night, [Dr. 999] basks in unthinkable, terrible pleasures, and during the day he toils in his laboratory with a silent coterie of masked assistants, devising a new formula which will, he claims, put Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk to shame.” Products are changing all the time, and the real-life horror is to be found in how they are changing us.

This review was composed while listening to the piano works of Leo Janácek.

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

Thoughts on the first day of work after using my new conditioner: “I felt overheated and feverish. Shadows loomed high and wavering on the walls and at times the very desk at which I was sitting seemed miles away. When I reached out to grasp the edge of the desk, my arms elongated until they were thin white threads sailing off into a blurry distance.”