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

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.

Cthulhu-8_web_2048x2048[1]
“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.

drug needle.jpg
“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

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

The Serpent’s Shadow, by Daniel Braum

“I didn’t feel like I was doing the tourist thing anymore. I was in the real world. The real jungle. And it terrified me. These were real monkeys. And real Mayan people. Everything was much stranger than I could have imagined. I’d seen real guns. And a dead body. Someone had gotten hurt. This was living without a net. I was small. I was vulnerable. I reached for Anne Marie’s hand.”

61ms48j3laL[1].jpgThe one and only time I stood in the shadow of the Mayan empire was when my family’s cruise ship had a port of call in Belize. I gazed at the ancient temple (a paid excursion) with awe and wonder. My father-in-law, who is Peruvian and compares any ancient structure to Machu Picchu, strolled up next to me, casually leaned over, and said, “Don’t get too excited. These are very minor ruins.” Some of the awe and wonder dissipated, but I didn’t let him completely take away my appreciation. Daniel Braum’s novella/short novel, THE SERPENT’S SHADOW, eviscerates, in some ways, tourists like me. Set against the backdrop of the hotel district in Cancun and the surrounding environs, Braum weaves a mostly successful tale of cosmic horror steeped in folklore, history, and contemporary political and environmental concerns. THE SERPENT’S SHADOW is published by Cemetery Dance Publications, and came out on July 2, 2019. I am grateful to Mr. Braum for sending me a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The plot centers on David, who is on a long promised vacation in Cancun with his sister Regina and their parents. During a night of partying, David meets up with the enchanting Anne Marie, her sister Trudy, and Trudy’s boyfriend, Reginald. Quickly, very quickly actually, Anne Marie and David are inseparable, and she invites him to accompany her on a horseback riding trip. Reginald has a sort of surprise proposal planned for Trudy, and the horseback jaunt provides the excuse to get to the beautiful secluded spot perfect for a romantic engagement. Only, while Reginald and Trudy are off getting engaged, Anne Marie and David are led by their guide Ramon deeper and deeper into the jungle. Take it from Daniel Braum folks: never go into the jungle. That’s where bad things can happen, as indeed, they begin to do here. roq_quetzalcoatl[1]Braum begins to introduce his folklore in this section, calling our attention directly to the Santa Muerte cult (that I also wrote about here, in a Brian Hodge story) and indirectly to the legend of Quetzacoatl, the Plumed Serpent god of Mayan culture.  The reality of all that goes on is called into question by the near-constant presence of Xtabentun, a plant local to that part of Mexico known for its hallucinogenic and psychedelic properties, out of which a liquor and tea can be made. Things begin to spiral out of control here and I can’t say more about how without spoilers, but suffice it to say that the horror elements ramp up quite a bit, and the cosmic horror elements poke their heads around the dimensional corner.

It’s also at this point that Braum begins to write about twinned worries for the indigenous people and the native land of the Yucatan peninsula. He’s clearly done his research on this matter and equally as clearly his genuine concern shines through. I suspect this is a matter of some importance to Braum, though whether it is personal or not I have no way of knowing. On the one hand, we read lines like this, “Listen, and I tell you the story of our history. The Spanish came to take from us. The Mexican Government came to take from us. Everyone takes from the Mayan people. They kill us. They kill each other. For treasure…for our true treasure. This land. This beautiful land.” NIGHT-CLUBS-JOYFUL-LIFE-CANCUN[1]Laments about the ugliness of the hotel district and the blight that is the tourism industry are liberally sprinkled throughout. But Braum doesn’t give in to easy hand-wringing. He counters his own argument with the second of the twinned concerns in lines like this, “My father worked in the chicle fields,” he said. “All day. I thought I would grow up and do that too. Now the plantations are all gone. I am glad for Cancun,” he said. His words sounded defiant and a little like a confession. The fact of the matter is that the tourism industry employs thousands of native persons who might otherwise have no job, or at least for whom the prospects for a better life would be far slimmer. Scylla and Charybdis.

The horror and even the cosmic horror elements are all present, and when combined with a pair of real world concerns for the people and the land, this ought to have been a beautifully devastating story, but unfortunately for me it did not reach those heights. I think the writing is where it falters. Oh, not in every place, for in the beginning we get gems that just throw us right into the midst of these characters lives like, “I waved to Anne Marie and she made like she was holding a camera with her fingers and pretended to take my picture. Neither of us had a camera, but it didn’t matter.” That’s just so real, so human, that it made me ache for younger, simpler days. mayan-ruins-of-chichen-itza-built-by-may[1].jpgIn the action-packed horrific moments of the story, too, Braum succeeds in hurling us into the middle of it all. Most of the time his brief, staccato sentences were effective. But it is in the characters reactions to things, how they accept so quickly and easily truly horrible sights and experiences. These are experiences that should traumatize and in many ways debilitate, not ones that could be internalized after some weed and few beers before a quick sleep and then, hey, let’s do that again! I found my ability to suspend disbelief stretched, and that caused my interest to dwindle. This was my main issue with this novella, but I had a few minor quibbles too. Two side characters with annoyingly similar names (Regina and Reginald) for example, make it hard on the eye. Also, by the end, I felt like the concerns for the marred natural beauty of Cancun to have gotten too heavy handed.  We got it. Less might have been more.

In the end, this is an enjoyable, if flawed cosmic horror tale wrapped in well researched and deeply felt history. Awe and wonder to be sure, but minor ruins. Fans of Latin American settings in their horror will find plenty to enjoy, while cosmic horror buffs will also get a satisfying helping of what they desire. I really enjoyed and had fun with the ideas Braum presented, which is what kept me coming back, but they could have been tighter with more believable character reactions. Despite that, I look forward to what Braum comes up with next, because, with his ideas and concepts, I want him to keep getting better. Lovecraft could never write positively about other cultures. I love it when authors like Braum set their cosmic horrors in places Lovecraft would never have tread.

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

Novenas to Saint Death: “I dreamt we were wrapped in xtabentun vines; vines that had crept along the stones and bound us together, their white flowers open to the night. I rolled over. Light was ready to return to the sky. I reached for her. My hand felt sand. She wasn’t next to me. I sat up and saw her walking out of the ruin…”It’s time,” she said.”

The Visible Filth, by Nathan Ballingrud

“There were four saved images and a video file. He stared at them a moment. He tried to come to terms with what he was seeing, tried to arrange the world in such a way that would accommodate his own mundane life, the daily maintenance of his ordinary existence, along with what he saw arrayed before him in neat little squares, like snapshots of Hell.”

For a brief slice of time, I tended bar. Oh, not in a down and dirty dive like the setting of Nathan Ballingrud‘s fantastic novella, The Visible Filth, where fights broke out at the drop of a hat and cockroaches ride the beer taps like carnival slides. No, I tended bar for the always rich and sometimes famous (that party is a story for another time) at a swank conference and retreat center with prohibition-era hidden liquor cabinets in the walls and a crown molding that was the actual inspiration for Joe Camel. But, if there’s one thing all bartenders have in common it’s the fact that they’ve seen some shit. Heard a fair amount of it, too. So, when I heard about this bartender story from the good folks at This is Horror, I knew I had to check it out. Though the original publication, a solo novella, is out of print, it has been reprinted in this new collection by Mr. Ballingrud titled “Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell” dropping soon on April 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

51wTZnGf5EL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgBallingrud, though born in Massachusetts, has deep ties to the South where he’s put in some hard hours. When his first collection, “North American Lake Monsters,” hit the shelves it was an instant classic of the weird and disturbing and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best debut collection.  But it wasn’t until The Visible Filth that he fully utilized his bartending experience as the seedbed for a story. And be glad that he did, because this is a tale that will hold you close, settling you down like that first drink in a long night, but won’t let go until who knows how many drinks later when the room is spinning and people are talking without words. Then, when you finally manage to stumble free, blood diluting the alcohol in your veins, you’ll look around and not recognize your surroundings. You’ll ask yourself, did that really just happen, but not until after you’ve crawled your way back to consciousness.

Meet Will. Thirty-something bartender at Rosie’s, a dive tucked back off the main drag in uptown New Orleans. He’s on a first name basis with all the regulars, from the local bad boy to the off duty cop. His best friend, Alicia (who Will wishes he was fucking but isn’t), drops by pretty frequently, too, her newest boyfriend in tow. And back at his low-rent apartment, Carrie, his college-hottie girlfriend is bent over her books. Life isn’t exactly all peaches and cream for Will, but he does alright by a certain standard, and he’s content. Mostly. On a week night (pick one, they all run together), Erik the Bad Boy comes in to shoot pool with a couple of punks, but that devolves quickly into a fist fight. It turns dirty when Erik’s opponent smashes a beer bottle and swings the cut glass like a scythe across Erik’s cheek, harvesting a noticeable chunk of cheek. Lots of people jump in then and it’s over almost as soon as it started, only the room’s more decorated in blood splatter than before. Hours later, when the dust clears and Will is about to go home, he notices a cell phone amid the wreckage. Thinking it belongs to one of the college kids who popped in just before the fight broke out, he pockets it and heads home. He’ll give it back tomorrow when they come looking for it.

Cut_Wound_Transfer_1600x[1].jpgViolence has already spattered these pages, but it’s not until Will gets home that the weird breaks in. The phone he picked up begins beeping with incoming text messages and it sounds like someone’s in trouble. “I think something is in here with me. I’m scared.” As he interacts with the texts they get weirder and more aggressive until some picture files and a video come through. Through four sequential pictures he and Carrie witness a beheading and then, something even entirely more out of the ordinary. “The head shifted slightly, as if it heard something and had to turn a fraction to listen more closely.” There’s much more to this quote but I’m not going to share it because it’s so good and so weird that I want you to experience it for yourself in all it’s gory context and body horror glory.

Will and Carrie investigate, following up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures. A book’s spine is visible near the beheading scene, betraying the intriguing title “The Second Translation of Wounds.” Can we just take a minute to admire the inclusion of the word “second” in that title? I mean, holy hell. (That’s what separates Ballingrud’s writing from the rest of the pack here, little details like that.) As they look into the matter, Carrie gets drawn in deeper and deeper in decidedly creepy and unhealthy ways. Will makes a series of poor decisions, or you might say continues to make them, but somewhat redeems himself by keeping an eye on Erik, the cut up brawler.

At the end of a downward spiral into insanity lies an ending that leaves the reader stunned and feeling in desperate need of a shower and perhaps a prayer. The action that takes place in the end was somewhat inevitable, but I thought a different character would be more involved, so it definitely kept me on my toes. My only regret was that it wasn’t longer. I wanted more. I wanted to know more about who these people were and why they were doing what they were doing. But this is always my struggle with novellas.

Let’s talk about the quality of the writing for a moment. You’ve glimpsed it already. There’s a gritty authenticity to his descriptions and a bitter sorrow in his dialogue. He’s got his finger on the pulse of so many types of people (as perhaps only bartenders, barbers, and clergy can) which gives him the ability to weave a realistic tapestry of character, time, and place. Like here, towards the beginning, when the college kids try to buy a beer, “The kid showed him his ID, sighing with the patience of a beleaguered saint. Legal less than a month.” Every bartender has seen that look. Or here, once the fight has taken place, “The escalation of violence shifted the room’s atmosphere. It almost seemed that another presence had crept in: some curious, blood-streaked thing.” Oh, it had, too, though they knew it not. Or here, my favorite metaphor in the whole story, so perfect for the character and atmosphere, “By the time he arrived back home, the sun was bruising the sky in the east.” Brilliant. When last shift workers head home the sun does not rise. It bruises the sky. Like I said, finger on the pulse of humanity.

I haven’t said much about a Lovecraftian connection for this one because frankly, there’s not much of a direct one. It does share a theme of leaving-well-enough-the-fuck-alone as in From Beyond, The Statement of Randolph Carter, The Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and countless other Lovecraftian stories. But beyond that, there isn’t much of the old gent in this one friends. It’s just a good story, and given what happens at the end, and how, I suspect it will appeal to HPL devotees nonetheless, as it did to me.

When all is said and done, aside from all the weird and the horror and the gore, there’s a melancholic fatalism that bleeds through these pages. Will hates his job, but is going no where else. He’s punching above his weight in his romance, but even so, he loves another. His only swat at changing his stars there is a pitiful, sophomoric attempt that’d be laughable if it wasn’t so sad. But even given all that, what gets him deeper and deeper into trouble here is his care and concern, even love, for others. For Carrie. For Erik. For Alicia. Anybody who’s ever even been halfway around the block knows that love can make us do strange things and can take us down some dark roads. That’s really the beautiful thing at the scarred and beating heart of this marvelous story. You should seriously pick it. You should do so quickly even, as there’s a film coming out soon directed by Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow) and starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson.  You know what they say about books and movies and which is better. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to see what a director like Anvari will do with it.

The rest of the collection looks pretty amazing too. I had a chance to read only one other story, The Atlas of Hell, which was weird and awesome and terrifying in a whole different way. Know though that these tales are connected more than just by being gathered together in the same collection. They share themes and explorations, dark words and cruel intents. Shaken, of course, not stirred.

I also need to say that I’m grateful to Mr. Ballingrud for providing me with a review copy of “Wounds,” for his kindness, and especially for his generosity towards a friend.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist “New Orleans Jazzfest 2019” complied by user Peter Blair.

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

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Victor Lavalle’s e-book “The Ballad of Black Tom” FREE through 10/13/18

I interrupt the flow of short story reviews to being you the great news that Tor is giving away free copies of Victor Lavalle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom” until October 13, 2018!

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If you haven’t read this novella yet, it is fantastic.  I don’t hesitate to say that it is the best piece of Lovecraftian fiction I have read written in the modern era. Period. For starters, Lavalle gives us a black protagonist and sets his tale in Red Hook. And it gets better from there.

Follow this link:

https://www.tor.com/2018/10/09/download-a-free-ebook-of-the-ballad-of-black-tom-by-victor-lavalle-before-october-13-2018/

~The Bibliothecar