Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, by John Linwood Grant

“As I grew older, they brought me night-fevers of vast, deserted plateaus and winds which scoured flesh from bone; visions of drowned cities and forbidden peaks. They gave me hints that they themselves were real, material, and they fed me concepts of stone, in all its conceivable forms, starting my first poor attempts with chisel and file. They fed my isolation from other humans, strengthened it, and they made me a sculptor.”

mountains-of-madness-revealed-hardcover-edited-by-darrell-schweitzer-choose-your-edition-signed-jhc-limited-to-100-copies-4898-p[1]Between 1930 and 1931, one of America’s premier universities launched a scientific expedition to one of the world’s last great frontiers, the Antarctic. Three of that august institution’s leading professors helmed the expedition: Dr. Frank L. Pabodie (Engineering), Dr. William Dyer (Geology), and Dr. Lake (Biology). Their ostensible goal was to drill through the surface to bring up mineral samples buried under layers of ice and stone measured as much in geologic age as material thickness. The discoveries they would ultimately make would undo the world’s understanding of itself and set the Earth on a collision course with the stars. All of this, of course, never actually happened, except in the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s masterful novella, At the Mountains of Madness, published originally by HPL’s friend Julian Schwartz in February, March, and April of 1936 as a severely edited serial in Astounding Stories .

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One of the original Astounding Stories illustrations by Howard V. Brown.
But what if it had happened?
What would the world look like now?
How would we, the human race, have responded?

 

That is the premise for this substantial new anthology from PS Publishing, Mountains of Madness Revealed, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, one time editor of Weird Tales magazine. Within its pages are 19 brand-new stories and poems by some of the leading mythos voices of our time, all of whom have taken for granted that the horrible and awesome discoveries of the Pabodie-Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica were all too terribly true. Also included is a wonderful introduction by the editor that takes you through the history of HPL’s story. Because of that, this volume is not recommended for newcomers to the Lovecraft Mythos or anyone who has not read the original novella. These authors assume you know the intimate details of the story, and readers without that foreknowledge will inevitably not be able to enjoy this anthology to the fullest.

For my review, I chose a story by a luminary of the field of weird fiction but who represented a gap in my reading, Yorkshire native John Linwood Grant. His short story, Strange Perfumes of a Polar Sun, is full of conspiracy theories, the dark web, secret and sinister governmental organizations, climate change, alien beings, and insanity to spare. Glaciers shift and ice caps melt and, in a calamitous moment, the City from Lovecraft’s story is revealed and the truth of human history as we knew it is rewritten. “Most of Lovecraft’s writing is invented nonsense, a blur of horror and science fiction which, if unusually imaginative, is yet of very limited value. Only that one tale matched reality, though the City’s emergence did encourage a mad hunt for other locations, even deep-water submarine explorations for sunken cities which house dreaming gods. Not a single Cyclopean block, not one non-Euclidean ruin, was found elsewhere, above or below the oceans.” But it hardly matters for the hapless humans of Linwood Grant’s story. The cornerstones of their understanding had already crumbled as sunlight dawned on that aeons old city, the definitive evidence of other intelligent life from beyond the stars.at_the_mountains_of_madness_6_howard_lovecraft_by_ivany86-d7jcdsw[1].jpg

Much like many of Lovecraft’s stories, this one unfolds at a leisurely pace. There’s lots of description and exposition, but it never felt unnecessary or boring. A whole worldview was unfolding before my eyes as the pages turned, one which I had previously imagined, even hoped for in that strange way familiar to devotees of fantasy and science-fiction, but had never been presented with as being real in quite this way. For one thing, this story is set in our world and our time. It’s familiar in the very same way that AtMoM is alien, oddly comforting instead of foreboding and harsh. The thrust of the plot relies on our protagonist, a Ms. Paling, completing some sort of to-scale sculpture of the revealed city of the Old Ones. In her attic, no less. She is being urged on by The Four, a group of creatures who commune with her mind, but who may also just be in her mind. Are they themselves Old Ones, or is Paling going mad after confronting the horrifying revelations of the broken ice? Nonetheless, as is so often the case, perception is reality, and she persists in her sculpting.

The City itself is the main thing, not what it contains, not even what it once contained. It is “…a holy text in stone…Lovecraft’s characters claimed they read an entire racial history in the symbols carved on the walls of their find, bands of glyphs that ran along ice-frosted walls. Perhaps they did. They were reading the wrong thing, though…The City is the answer, not what is written upon it.” The question to which the city is the answer I will leave to your reading, but I thought it was an ingenious take on HPL’s story to which I believe even the Old Gent would have been obliged to tip his hat. The ending left me feeling awe, and that is a wonderful homage to the original story which accomplishes much the same thing, if in a very different way. 2b8775f6182650fb21e7d34457044a4e[1]Linwood Grant adds a bit more human touch that HPL could muster, and I’ll go so far to say notes of admiration, respect, and even love are present in his conclusion. Like the original, the action all comes suddenly at the end in a wild avalanche, but one which ultimately feels inconsequential. The story is much bigger than that momentary (if satisfying) action can claim.

This was a wonderful story and I had a lot of fun reading it. Linwood Grant’s writing is fluid and will not at all be the barrier to some that HPL’s represents. He is a modern author writing in a modern, sensible, style. And yet it is elevated. Some of his descriptions are just beautiful, possessed with a matured sentiment tinged with longing. You find yourself yearning for a time and a place that are not, as in here, “It doesn’t matter. This planet was theirs, but their people are dead. Many times the edge of deep emotion has brushed me—better, they feel, that they had slept until the sun grew dark, than been woken to such a world. The last of the true rulers of Earth wish only to leave, to abandon their lonely vigil.” HPL wrote a story of awe, dread, and cosmic horror; Linwood Grant has managed to warp that just ever so slightly so that the exact same set piece sings not horror but melancholy, less warning and more lullaby.

Mountains of Madness Revealed is available now in hardback from PS Publishing, and I highly recommend it.

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

A helpful corrective: “Lovecraft’s suggestions seem ludicrous—flying fungal things and octopus-creatures, always unspeakable horrors that cannot be pinned down. I still do not know how he got so much right, and so much wrong.

A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman

“My dear Lestrade. Please give me some credit for having a brain. The corpse is obviously not that of a man—the color of his blood, the number of limbs, the eyes, the position of the face—all these things bespeak the blood royal. While I cannot say which royal line, I would hazard that he is an heir, perhaps—no, second to the throne—in one of the German principalities.”

511NAV28TQL[1]Some of the works I’ve been reviewing here have come from collections put together by their authors, while others have been edited according to a theme. Sometimes that’s been a more general theme and at other times they’ve zeroed in on a particular HPL story. The collection today’s story comes from is closer to the latter, but with a twist. We’re combining universes in a proton-smashing literary fusion event! As the dusk jacket asks, “what would happen if Conan Doyle’s peerless detective and his allies were to find themselves faced with mysteries whose solutions lay not only beyond the grasp of logic, but of sanity itself?” In some of the forums I look at from time to time and on some of the Lovecraftian podcasts out there I’ve heard a lot of folks asking the same question, “Is this collection worth while?” I admit, I was skeptical at first as I felt my purist blood rising, but then I thought, quite simply, “why not?”  While I have read only two stories in the collection so far, I have enjoyed them a lot. I do have to admit though that I am only a Holmes fan in theory. I’ve never read a single Sherlock Holmes story. I’ve seen a variety of TV shows and films, and listened to a bunch of stories on tape an age ago when I was a child, but I’ve not once read the stories out of a book, nor do I have a grasp on Holmesian canon. I suspect that if I did, I’d enjoy this collection a lot more. Great care seems to have been taken to present the stories in chronological order according to Holmesian canon, but that care and detail is largely lost on me.  I’m here for the Lovecraft.

The opening story in the collection is a fun one, if a bit of an odd ball. Its author, Neil Gaiman, is likely no stranger to most of you, so he doesn’t need much introduction. And, if you’re a Conan Doyle devotee, the story itself will, strangely, not need much of an introduction either.  “A Study in Emerald” is a riff on the first Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel that introduced Holmes and Watson back in 1887 called “A Study in Scarlet.” Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on the British TV series Sherlock engages this case in that show’s first episode, though there it is called “A Study in Pink.” Our story opens with Holmes meeting Watson for the first time, just as the original story does. sherlock[1].jpgEverything you could want out of a Sherlock Holmes story is present in Gaiman’s offering: the insanely insightful Holmes, the ascerbic Dr. Watson, quick witted banter, mystery, murder, and baffling clues. One of the parts of this story that I loved the most was its window dressing. Prior to each chapter opening, there was a little advertisement that gave a hint that things were not all as they ought to be in typical Sherlock adventure.  Everything from a drama troupe advertising a play entitled “The Great Old Ones Come,” to (my favorite) an ad for a professional ex-sanguinator from Romania named V. Tepes to help with your arthritis! If you don’t know, this is the Romanian name of Vlad the Impaler, as in, Dracula! I thought that these ads were a really fun inclusion and they reminded me of the ads present in the stories from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s “Dark Adventure Radio Theater” productions. However, as I said, this was just a bit of clever window dressing and didn’t do enough to really indicate we were in a Mythos story. So, how exactly is this a cross over story that begins an entire collection of cross over stories?

Well, what we find out before too long, intrepid reader, is that in this version of Sherlock’s London, the Great Old Ones have come and conquered seven hundred years before!  No one is left out, “…the Queen of Albion herself, and the Black One of Egypt…followed by the Ancient Goat, Parent to a Thousand, Emperor of all China, and the Czar Unanswerable, and He Who Presides over the New World, and the White Lady of the Antarctic Fastness, and the others.” 

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“…the Ancient Goat, Parent to a Thousand…”
But, are you ready for this, they (or at least the British Old One) seem to be largely benevolent rulers! I don’t know about you, but this was the part that really threw me off and for this sole reason I don’t know that I would have chosen it to lead off the collection. I get that you want a powerhouse author to kick off your book, but in my humble opinion, I wanted something a bit more true to Lovecraftian form. None of this is to say that this is not a creative, fun, or interesting story. It is all of that and more – truly, this was a joy to read, even as a Sherlock novice. Gaiman’s a consummate writer and he puts you right there in the story quite easily, no matter how familiar it might be to you. But I just couldn’t wrap my unmalleable mind around a beneficent Old One! For crying out loud, she heals Watson’s war wound! “Then the limb uncoiled and extended, and she touched my shoulder. There was a moment, but only a moment, of pain deeper and more profound than anything I have ever experienced, and then it was replaced by a pervasive sense of well-being. I could feel the muscles in my shoulder relax, and for the first time since Afghanistan, I was free from pain.” At least, I suppose, her limb uncoiled rather than reached out. All that being said, it does have this going for it: I didn’t see it coming! If you’ve read this story, I’d love to know what your reaction to this odd turn of events was, so please leave a comment.

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“A Study in Emerald” by Deviant Artist: kelseyleah
If you’re at all nervous about this anthology and the whole cross over idea, don’t be. It’s fun. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about? I do have to say the other story I read in this collection (“The Weeping Masks”) was a lot creepier, though less overtly Lovecraftian. You can almost never go wrong with Neil Gaiman (except for Good Omens – and I know I’m in the vast minority here, but that book did nothing for me) so I get why they chose him for the lead story. However, I am hoping the remainder of the anthology is a lot more like “The Weeping Masks” than this one. I really look forward to seeing the deerstalker capped one take on the Mythos in a more traditional form. How will his unbreakable logic hold up to the mind-shattering knowledge of the cosmos? Will he be able to name the Unnameable? We shall find out, and I hope you’ll join me.

This review was composed by listening to my sick child laboring to breathe. Perhaps it was the croup, or perhaps it was her gills breaking open.

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

Logical fallacies of an incomparable mind:  “…there are those who do not believe that the coming of the Old Ones was the fine thing we all know it to be. Anarchists to a man, they would see the old ways restored—mankind in control of its own destiny, if you will.”