In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi, by Molly Tanzer

“It was said that every plant in the world grew in the garden of Ibn Ghazi, even those one might call wicked—poisons and rare herbs with magickal properties. And it was said, too, that Ibn Ghazi knew how to make use of them all. He was an alchemist and sorcerer of great repute, a man of wisdom—but his judgment, while lauded, was not often witnessed.”

Molly Tanzer, “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi”

“As for the attitude of rational men of science toward the claims of the marvellous—the whole thing goes back into the remotest beginnings of epistemology. What do we know? How do we know it?”
—H.P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber, December 19, 1936

One day, as the story goes, while writer Molly Tanzer was playing Arkham Horror she drew a unique card called “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi.” Fans will recognize this Moorish name as the creator of the alchemical weapon deployed in “The Dunwich Horror” that revealed the otherwise invisible spawn of Yog-Sothoth allowing Armitage, Rice, and Morgan to drive it out of this dimension. Tanzer says she had the most incredible déjà vu of loving a short story by the same name, a short story all about alchemy, transformation, and kidnapping. But despite many thorough internet searches, she kept coming up empty. No such story existed (at least on this side of the veil). So, she wrote it, and it was recently published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2021 (purchasable here). It is her first appearance in the magazine and later Tanzer would tweet how special it was to receive in her mailbox a magazine to which she subscribed bearing her name on the cover. With a backstory like that I knew I had to read it. I am grateful to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for sending me a gratis e-copy of this issue for the purposes of this review.

Structurally, the story takes many forms but begins as an interview between the protagonist (a writer named Boekner) and The Paris Review. The opening details the exact scenario that occurred with Tanzer, Arkham Horror game and all. Boekner fleshes out the plot and almost immediately the whole thing begins to take on a dream-like feeling. Layers of narrative, shrouded in mystery and time, slowly swirl around obfuscating where the reader is in time and space. Boekner’s interview is published and not long thereafter they receive an odd letter from a Mr. Upton de Vries telling them about a play he is putting on in the Pocono Mountains. The play is an old one, the only copy that had existed was discovered in the trunk of a seventeenth century French noblewoman named Marie de Rabutin-Chantal. Rabutin-Chantal was a real historical woman, the Marquise of de Sévigné, a fashionable woman who was known for her letter writing (her letters feature as a plot device in Marcel Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME).

Boekner decides to accept de Vries invitation and he sends her a plane ticket and some further reading material. This book, an eighteenth century travelogue that marks the story’s second structural form, mentions Ibn Ghazi and Boekner wonders if this might be from where Lovecraft borrowed the idea. The fugue deepens. The travelogue says this of Ibn Ghazi, “For who can truly say where the roots of Ibn Ghazi’s garden end and those of the more mundane plants of the city begin? What seeds have drifted here or there—what nuts have been dropped in unlikely earth by startled squirrels?” The somewhat humorous image of started squirrels dropping nuts in unlikely earth aside, one can’t help but feel that this query applies to the entire scenario. Where do the roots of Ibn Ghazi’s garden begin and end indeed.

The third structural form comes later in the story when the play de Vries wants to stage is rehearsed and we are treated to portions of the script. This leads to a startling realization by Boekner and the beginning of the unraveling of their reality. The final section of the story is told as a straightforward narrative with spot on pacing and uncomfortable urgency leading to a tenebrous ending.

Tanzer pours an incredible amount of love into this story for true Lovecraft fans, herself included. But for those who have gone beyond HPL’s fiction and delved into some of the games, the criticism, and other early writers of weird fiction, there are glittery gems dropped along the way that made me smile warmly, laugh out loud, and feel seen as a true fan. The protagonist’s abuse at the pen of S.T. Joshi described as some sort of necessary rite of passage was definitely one of my favorite moments in the story, though casual fans will just gloss right over it. Veteran readers of weird fiction will pick up on Chamberian elements throughout, from the play itself and the French overtones to the stripping away of sanity and the various alchemical processes.

A certain charm is also suffused into the narrative, bringing it to life in a truly authentic way. For example, when Boekner arrives at the mansion in the mountains and is greeted by characters dressed anachronistically, one of their primary concerns is the WiFi connection. In another place, they become hangry, the need for food blocking out all other possible pursuits. There is a kind of joie de vie that runs throughout that is grounding, while at the same time it lends Tanzer’s writing a delightful buoyancy. Given the nature of the how the story is told though, and the ease with which readers will sort of misplace themselves in time, these touchstones of reality are not just charming but functionally important as well.

Sexuality provides another elemental layer to this tale. The travelogue section alludes to salacious stories, and Tanzer weaves this into the modern timeline by wondering if Lovecraft (whose sexuality or lack thereof has always been a point of discussion) had gotten his antiquarian jollies by perusing its eighteenth century pages. A bit later in the story a sexual rendezvous of dubious intent plays an important role. Behind all of it is a romanticism breathing through the entire setting: inhale the Pocono mountains, exhale the theater rehearsals, inhale a hint of danger, exhale a hidden story. The alchemy that reveals. From beginning to end it’s a sexy story, and that, too, is a part of its charm.

“The Powder of Ibn Ghazi” by Deviant Artist enguerrand.

Tanzer writes, in several completely different styles, with ease and grace. She commands the varying disparate elements of the story to work for her and never does that command slip. While more a modern fantasy than a horror story, Tanzer works in enough frightening reminders that the reader never loses the bass line of danger. “I was in the middle of nowhere—no internet or cell reception to call a Lyft, and it was pitch black outside. I hadn’t even seen a driveway leading to a road out of here, and who knew where such a road might go, and for how many miles?” Her descriptions are beautiful and evocative. Jacarandas are “showing off;” blossoms “riot;” the “gentle touch” of a hand both “rouses” and “coaxes.” Beyond the confidence of her voice though, and more importantly to me, is the love she has for this story that I mentioned above. It was dreamed out of false memory, insisted into reality, and transcribed with urgent longing. This story already existed outside of time, called itself into being through a sort of parthenogenesis, and selected Molly Tanzer to be its adoring midwife. This I felt in every paragraph, behind each word. I loved it, and I think many cultured Lovecraft fans will as well.

In addition to this novella, Molly Tanzer is the author of “The Diabolist’s Library” (a trilogy of supernatural Victorian novels beginning with Creatures of Will and Temper), Vermilion (a weird Western novel about the “gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether”), two short story collections, and a host of short fiction published in a variety of the best magazines and anthologies. This review was written while listening to Cryo Chamber’s album “Hastur.”

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


Smoke and Dagger, by Douglas Wynne

“…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.”

smoke-dagger-final-2[1].jpgCults. 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. 6074c322ea52411a401e0363939591a5[1].jpgCatherine 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.

yog_sothoth_50595[1].jpgFull 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,
~The Bibliothecar

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.”

“The chants and incense.”

“An apple pie left on the windowsill.”