Star Crossed, by Jonathan Oliver

“Jasmine reached for the book, but withdrew her hand the moment she touched the wrapping. It hadn’t felt like cotton or hessian, rather something unpleasantly organic. Stealing herself against disgust, Jasmine snatched up the book, quickly throwing off its noisome shroud.”

—Jonathan Oliver, “Star Crossed”

“If I should try to write a story outside the weird area which engrosses my emotions and drama sense…Whatever I treated of would have to be dragged in from outside, & would consequently have to be handled without the innate fire which animates any true work of art, however humble.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, September 29, 1933.

Performative utterances, in the philosophy of language, are those sentences that not only describe a particular reality, but also bring about the reality they describe. Two recognizable phrases that do this are, “You are under arrest,” and, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” You can see how the words themselves do what they describe, or are performative. Prior to the officer or the minister uttering them, the reality they describe does not yet exist. But after they have been said, the whole ballgame has changed. In Jonathan Oliver’s summoning story, “Star Crossed,” he plays with this concept and the importance that words have when trying to effect some new change. Not just the words themselves, though, but the whole manner in which they are deployed. As the Bard proclaimed in Hamlet 3:2, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” “Star Crossed” is found in Jonathan Oliver’s debut collection, THE LANGUAGE OF BEASTS, available now from Black Shuck Books. I am grateful to Mr. Oliver for a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The plot of this medium length short story revolves around Jasmine, a young college student whose mother’s magic shop is in danger of going out of business. Her mum doesn’t do much real magic now but we’re given the sense that in the past, she could have performed actually wondrous acts. While digging through the basement Jasmine discovers, hidden behind a section of crumbling masonry, a text wrapped in cloth of apparently ancient provenance. It contains the handwritten spells and sorcerous illustrations of one Nathaniel Creed. But when she uncovers the long-hidden tome, its discovery reverberates through the magical planes and others who would possess its knowledge are made aware of its surfacing.

An ancient wizard named Arodius desires Creed’s grimoire and molds his decrepit form into that of a strange young man, that he might more easily meet Jasmine. Calling himself Richard, he ingratiates himself into her good graces, magically seeing to it that they are cast as the leads in the university’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Jasmine rebuffs his attempts to see Creed’s book, but eventually relents. Once he confirms for himself what they’re dealing with, Richard warns Jasmine she’s toying with power beyond her comprehension (we feel like we have been here before, but trust me…), “…the knowledge within this book concerns itself with something far greater. Magic is mere wish fulfillment; ludicrous ritual, offering, at best, a temporary salve to suffering…To involve oneself with true knowledge, one must entirely forget oneself. Humanity is nothing; less than nothing—a cosmic joke. There are beings out there that have terrible, infinite power. True sorcery, real magic, lies in attracting their attention.” You can almost hear the echoes of “tekeli-li” in the distance. What starts out as a story we all feel like we have read before shifts at this point into something special and the beauty of Shakespeare’s language begins to give Jasmine profound ideas about how to work the magic Creed wrote about, magic that Arodias/Richard heretofore has been unable to perform. For all his mansplaining, he can’t do what she seems like she’s going to be able to do, and that is a delicious development.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.” If Jasmine can truly attract the attention of some otherworldly being, then perhaps she can save her mother’s store, their home and livelihood, their everything. Her motivation is simple, but strong and pure. However, this magic leads to no wish-granting djinn. Once Jasmine figures out that Creed got the formulas correct, but that his magic lacked poetry, the two threads of the story begin to converge. “The play’s the thing,” indeed, and this is what Oliver has been building towards all along. Combined, the poetry of the Bard and the formulations of Creed become performative and lead Jasmine to a completely unforeseen turn of events in which it becomes painfully obvious that the Dramatis Personae of the school’s playbill is woefully incomplete.

I loved the ending of the story, but I felt that it took a long time to get there. The build up is necessary, though, to feel the power of how Oliver flip-flops this narrative. He takes a trope with which we are all familiar, summoning the long-dead wizard, and uses it to make a point about the power of words themselves. Unintended consequences seem a narrative by-product of the pure beauty of poetic magic. Words, poetry, Oliver seems to be saying, have the power to cut and no one should be surprised when blood is spilled in their service. The typical Lovecraftian theme of antiquarian researchers lost in dusty tomes is twisted just right here to modernize it for a contemporary audience. Worldly necessity, rather than luxury, drives a female student to out-perform her ageless male counterpart. Then, he twists it again, and brings it home with a true Lovecraftian flair in which we hear the gods laugh.

“Garden,” by Pixiv user Nyarko.

Performative utterances are strange things. Some, like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” seem to require your participation in their calling a reality into being. Others, like “You are under arrest,” can see you wail and moan all you want against it, and it will affect it not. Yet in both cases the words themselves release a certain kind of magic, perhaps unfelt by you and yet unmistakably recognized by others. In “Star Crossed,” Jonathan Oliver has performed a similar feat, in which fans of Lovecraft will be treated to something they’ll think they recognize—all the elements are there; the gods, the names, the tomes, the antiquarians—but (to paraphrase Oliver himself), “unlike [Lovecraft, Oliver understands] the true power of words, how the sounds and rhythms they [make are] as important as their meaning.” There’s a new story being told here, a new way of thinking about literary magic and if Oliver had tried to write it in any other way other than his own, tried too hard to imitate the Old Gent for example, like so many pastiches it would have been“without the innate fire which animates any true work of art.” For the patient scholar, this tale is truly rewarding.

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

We All Speak Black, by Lynne Jamneck

“Something moved beyond, in the water, behind a swell of oversized waves. Whales? I looked down and saw my naked legs dangling in shadowy green water that fathomed into infinity. A vast shadow undulated below me, came into focus and it was not a whale at all. Grotesquely bloated, it began surfacing, blooming in size.”

51L6tUbw2+L[1].jpgIt was hard not to be excited when I first heard about the “Ashes and Entropy” kickstarter project. A new anthology, edited by Robert S. Wilson, featuring brand new stories by such incredible authors as Laird Barron, John Langan, Jon Padgett, Nadia Bulkin, Kristi DeMeester, and many, many more, all in the noir or neo-noir vein with a cosmic horror or downright Lovecraftian tilt. Did I mention these were going to be brand new, never before published stories? Cause, holy cultists, Batman, that’s a cauldron-full of amazing authors all producing new tales. Normally, when you buy an anthology, you get mostly re-published stuff with maybe a story or two of new material.  But this is a previously untapped gold mine, and very, very much worth the kindle asking price of $6.99! It’s hot stuff, too, only having been published by Nightscape Press in mid-December, 2018. All the brilliant artwork featured in this review comes from the book and is the work of Luke Spooner of Carrion House Illustration.

I had some time this afternoon and wasn’t all that excited to pick up the novel I’m working my way through, but it was cold and raining and I wanted to read, so I bought the kindle edition and picked three stories to read almost at random. I read two by authors I’d never heard of before, and one by an author I’d been wanting to read but hadn’t had the chance to delve into yet. I think it bodes very well for this collection that all three were stunning, beautifully written, enthralling, and full of existential dread and cosmic horror. All. Three. I had to pick one to write about tonight, so I selected one of the ones by an author I’d never heard of before, We All Speak Black, by Lynne Jamneck.

IMG_2104.PNGLynne Jamneck is a New Zealand author and editor with a publication history as long as my arm, so I guess it’s my fault I’ve not heard of here before now. This story, however, takes place in South Africa where a group of disenfranchised people turned to the occult and got in way over their heads rather quickly. “The Cape Town cults summoned an outer thing they had no hope of ever understanding into a world that the thing itself didn’t understand either.” Right, so we’re off and running then! Surprisingly enough, the events surrounding this errant summoning of what sounded suspiciously like a Godzilla-monster functioned only as the background for the story. The action really takes place in the aftermath of not only the summoning, but the new reality such an event might call into being. Immediately, what might have been a fun-but-run-of-the-mill Lovecraftian cultist story turns into something fresh and interesting. There’s ecological repercussions, political repercussions, physical repercussions, psychological and spiritual and social and economic and on and on and on. It’s a brilliant look at a doomsday scenario plus thirty years in a Lovecraftian world. I think the Old Gent would’ve been proud once he got over the setting and the author’s double X chromosomes.

We follow an unnamed female narrator as she navigates an increasingly speedy spiral into madness. Her dreams are tormented by nightmarish and confusing visions and astral journeys, and apparently, she’s not the only one. Her dreams, however, seem to be the most…advanced I think we can say.  When consulting a pair of self-proclaimed experts in the matter, they ask her what she sees in her visions. “It was kind of a no-no to ask someone that because talking about visions was like admitting that you had a kind of tumour; one that didn’t show itself but instead haunted the nebulous highways of your subconscious.” She tells them she see “burning stars,” which turns out to be bad. (Also, a bit of a redundancy, but I digress…) She’s apparently the first to see the stars, and that seemingly portends a significant shift in the current cosmic arrangement that bodes well for exactly no one. Yet this is taken in stride by these two happy-go-lucky devotees of the elder gods. From there the story speeds on to a somewhat predictable but nevertheless fun, even poetic, and satisfying conclusion.

IMG_2103.PNGPart of the excellence of this piece is in Jamneck’s superb craft. She is able to  communicate vast ideas with devastating one liners and parting, evanescent barbs. From the beginning, there’s a bit of political criticism that I read with a certain extra delight (and cringe), given my American context, now in day 29 of  the longest partial-government shutdown in my nation’s history. She writes, “…as a nation we still couldn’t dissolve ourselves of party politics for long enough to smell the coffee, and in the weeks leading up to the cataclysmic events of a bright October day, the amalgamated ANC and DA parties had been so neck-deep in political shit-slinging that they’d had little time to “waste listening to a bunch of crackpot conspiracists yammering about nothing.”  Then, rather than just let that lie as backdrop, she expertly twists it into a raison d’être for her plot. “…because they were too involved in brownnosing and corruption, the partisan fat cats failed to notice that their constituents, angry and hopeless beyond reason at the lack of change, had begun bowing to altogether darker forces than those at work in parliament.” For me, this was one of the most powerful sentences in the entire story. At other times, she turns her skill to a bit of comic relief, “[The clamor] came from the opposite end of the room where once a coterie of librarians had conversed in secret languages behind a heavy oak counter. Nowadays it was strictly self-checkout.”

This was a terrifically fun, unique story, full of confident, honed, and precise writing in what looks like it will be a very successful and effective collection. I look forward to discovering within its bounds more authors like Lynne Jamneck, who I’ve heretofore not had the pleasure of reading. You should, too. Seriously. Pick up this book and be not disappointed.

This review was composed while listening to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)” and was refreshed by the cold bite of Cutty Sark Scottish whisky. (Couldn’t pour a single malt for this one, this is noir.)

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

Navel gazing after nuclear fallout: “After the Koeberg Event there were reports that the big cats—seven of them at the time—had escaped their enclosures. Apparently, nuclear fallout had mutated them into things you really wanted to avoid at all costs. Local legend claimed they roamed the roads between Somerset-West and Stellenbosch, stalking meals of the two-legged variety. Similar stories have grown arms, legs, tails and horns about the animals once kept at Cape Town Zoo. Of course, no-one has ever seen any of this first hand, but I guess we needed new myths to replace the old ones.




Trick…or the Other Thing, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

“Nearly 11 o’clock. Insistent bell again.
“Fuck.” Atticus opened the door. Glower, takedown power pushing the same energy that shotgun projectiles deliver at impact.
or the other thing?”
Christ. Wasn’t even a kid. Guy. Over seven feet by any measure. Old old guy, goddamn senior by the look of him. Black as Miles Davis poured liquid smooth from the coffinBLACK that lies between the stars.”

Nyarlathotep often appears as a very black man, darker than night, and sometimes as an avatar of the Devil, as in HPL’s “Dreams in the Witch House.” You may freely read into this HPL’s noted racism, or not, as you prefer.
In 1921 HP had a dream which he described to his friend in a letter in this way: it was “the most realistic and horrible [nightmare] I have experienced since the age of ten.” In the dream he was enjoined by another friend “Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterwards. I am still shuddering at what he showed.” And this became the basis for one of Lovecraft’s most enduring creations and a mythos pantheon regular, Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, the Man of a Thousand Faces, who takes center stage in our story today. He’s also appeared in a variety of ways in several HPL tales, and I’ll try to show you some artist depictions of those throughout this entry. He’s been a big part of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, into which sadly I’ve never delved, as well as many stories by other authors.

Like the last entry, this story is found in Mike Davis’ edited anthology, Autumn Cthulhu, published by Lovecraft Ezine Press in 2016. I wasn’t going to read two in a row from the same anthology, but when I saw the byline for this story, I just kept on reading because I’d heard so much about Joseph Pulver and had been wanting to read one of his stories. He works a lot with the King in Yellow cycle, which isn’t a Lovecraft creation but has been adopted into the mythos by many owing to its kissin’ cuzzin status.  I hadn’t read Pulver yet because I’m still making my way through the original The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. But here was a Pulver story in the anthology that was in my hands, so why not just keep reading, right?

Nyarlathotep the Pharaoh.jpg
Nyarlathotep is described in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” by HPL, as looking like an Egyptian Pharaoh.

I mentioned last entry, too, that I wasn’t as big a fan of the next story and I have to say a lot of that distaste stems from Pulver’s distinctive writing style. You get a taste of it above in our lead quote. He writes with almost a free verse poetical style, inventing words, mashing words together, and in this story at least, sometimes just putting in song titles instead of describing a mood or something.  It’s…interesting.  Immediately, I did not care for it. However, I felt like it lightened up a bit as the story went on. Funny thing though, when I went back to look at it again prior to writing this, I saw that it didn’t, so perhaps I just had gotten used to it.   Needless to say, it’s not going to be for everyone.  I’d be willing to give it another try, though, now that I know what I’m getting into, but going in cold, I was turned off a bit.  Purely subjective analysis. Take it for what’s it worth – just about nothing.

the_haunter_of_the_dark_by_marcsimonetti[1].jpg“Trick…or the Other Thing” is a basic revenge story when you get to the heart of it, decorated for Halloween and tossing in Nyarlathotep for a mythos flavor.  I have to say, I really like the title. It made me chuckle and shudder in quick succession.  We’ve got a washed up, drug addled rock musician named Atticus and his cheated on and emotionally abused girlfriend Marilyn calling it quits, and Nyarlathotep makes visits to both of them, in different forms of course. To Atticus he appears as a costumed Tutankhamen trick-or-treater (not so much a costume, but what does Atticus know), while to Marilyn he shows up as a grandfatherly gentlemen accoutered in a black wool Armani sweater. Sadly, to neither of them does he show up as the hideous bat-winged thing from “The Haunter of the Dark”.  See left. Marilyn’s encounter goes exactly as she hopes, though she may not have realized it at first, may not even realized that she had such dark hopes.  But she trusts the elderly, besweatered man, and opens up to him.  Or rather, she is opened up by him. One, an outcome of being vulnerable with a caring stranger, the other a violation from beyond the stars.  In response to the dusky gent’s titular question, Marilyn replies, “Treat, please. I really could use one.” Pulver elaborates, “Fast, almost excited. Generally she’s a listener, a good one, but if she warms-up to the person she’d dive into conversation. Marilyn’s shocked how easy that slipped out. Feels like she’s been unlocked or unwittingly pried open.” Yep. That’s creepy.

Nyarlathotep, of all of Lovecraft’s mythos gods, plays the most with the world and the puny, insignificant humans who walk the earth. We don’t know why. Perhaps he enjoys a perverse pleasure in control, in bringing suffering, or just in kicking the ant pile. Sometimes, he even gets out his magnifying glass after he’s kicked the ant pile of humanity and focuses the energy of the distant, dark suns of Carcosa into an incinerating beam of malevolence. As he does here. It does not go well for humans in this story, and perhaps the most Lovecraftian thing about it, aside from the Crawling Chaos of course, is how easy it is for this visitor from beyond to mess with us, to stir us up, to interact with us, and ultimately to ruin us. We don’t matter. We are below the threshold of caring.

It’s hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend this one to all of you cultists out there, and the only reason is the style of Pulver’s writing is going to present an obstacle. Like I said, I didn’t like it at first, although I enjoyed the story. It wasn’t a mind blowing story. It wasn’t an original story. It didn’t go in new or interesting directions. However, all that said, it was a fun plot, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s about? I’ll be willing to give Pulver another try and whether you want to give him a try at all is up to you. But go into it forewarned as I was not. If you’ve read Pulver before, what do you think of his style? Is it a boon or a bane to you?  Pulver himself is undergoing some serious health crises and so we do wish him well and hope he recovers fully soon.

This new site is starting to get some followers, which is great, and site traffic is doing moderately well.  So, would you do me a favor, friends?  If you like what you’re reading here, give the post a like, maybe give the blog a follow? Better yet, tell your fellow Lovecraftian friends about it and share links to reviews you’re interested in.  Of course, I still hope to get some comments going and see where some discussion might lead us. At the end of the day, even if all you do is read the post, know that I very much appreciate you and your taking the time to visit this non-Euclidean corner of the internet.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “Ancient Egyptian Music” compiled by user eradiel.  I wonder how they know what that kind of music is, but it worked for me.

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

Incontrovertible testimonies of the Mi-Go: “After balancing the scales of a slight disaster involving Mindless Jaws and Things in the Water, Nyarlathotep turned to face a deranging corruption gnawing on the hearts of mortal rivers. As the mortal things departed their worldly-shells, he remembered his conversation with Marilyn about Atticus.”

Probably my favorite interpretation of Nyarlathotep. Artist: saltibalzane (Deviant Art)