Up from Slavery, by Victor LaValle

“Well to start, Teddy lived here for thirty years and I have never seen you before. And, well, Teddy was…” she looked at me again and cut off the rest of the sentence.

It took me a moment to figure out what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. “White? Is that what you meant?”

She didn’t answer, but she did look away. “Look, I don’t want this to turn hostile.”

I didn’t understand why simply saying the word “white” made white people assume things were going to turn ugly. “If he was white,” I said, “then my mother wasn’t.”

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Photo credit: Emily Raboteau
The online writing community website, Lit Reactor, published a column a number of years ago that asked an important and direct question. Why the f*ck aren’t you reading Victor LaValle? It’s a fair question and fairly asked. Here I have to give kudos to the author of that column, Keith Rawson, because he asked that question in March of 2014, two full years before LaValle’s masterful Lovecraftian novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, would hit the shelves. If it wasn’t already, that book would cement LaValle’s name in the annals of Lovecraftian lore. Seriously, read it. Now. What he’s up to in that novella lays the groundwork in some ways for what he’s up to here: taking Lovecraft’s racism, turning it on its head, and making racial identity a major device of his plot. It’s brilliant, and part of what I like to call the modern redemption of Lovecraft.

WT-cvrs-01_large[1].jpgIn another corner of the horrorverse, something amazing was taking shape. Weird Tales, the famed pulp magazine which originally published the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard, and the Old Gent himself, was coming back online. It has had a tumultuous publication history over the decades with the most recent iteration, edited by the illustrious Ann Vandermeer, stopping publication after issue #362 in the spring of 2014. Earlier this year, New York Times bestselling horror novelist Jonathan Maberry announced he was resurrecting it! And there was a loud cry, like the sound of many voices across the land raised in exultation!

weird+tales+cover+1[1].jpegOn August 28, 2019, under the editorship of Marvin Kaye, Volume 68, Number 1, Issue 363 was published. You can buy your copy here. Maberry and Kaye did not mess around; they headlined their debut issue with Victor LaValle, Josh Malerman, Stephanie M. Wytovich, and Maberry himself. Hugo award winning artist Abigail Larson did the cover, and as you can see from one of the smaller above images (bottom row, second from right), she paid homage to a past cover, Margaret Brundage’s October 1933 “Batgirl.” Larson’s cover is a less sexualized and more empowered image, speaking to our time while still respecting the original art. The very first story in this new issue? “Up from Slavery,” by Victor LaValle, and illustrated by E.M. Gist known for his covers of Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. The resurrection of Weird Tales could not have had a better author and a better story to celebrate its return.

“Up from Slavery” is the story of Simon Dust, a freelance editor currently at work on a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir by the same title “about his boyhood as a slave in Virginia and his struggles to achieve an education, true freedom, as a black man in the United States.” Washington was a major civil rights leader in the late 19th century whose name can comfortably be invoked alongside other luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X. In the midst of Simon’s work on the memoir, he receives a troubling notice that his father has died. What is worse is that he is the sole inheritor of his estate and holdings. Simon and his father (Thomas Edwin Dyer – some polite nods here, especially to Lovecraft’s professorial character William Dyer who led the Miskatonic Expedition to the Antarctic in At the Mountains of Madness, and to fellow Lovecraftian horror author T.E.D. Klein) had not been in communication. He didn’t even know the guy and now he owned all his stuff, whatever that meant.

1987_Maryland_train_collision_aerial[1].jpgHe arrives in Syracuse, NY by train—the story actually opens at the scene of a train wreck so each train sequence in the story carries a certain, beautiful tension with it—and is greeted by the neighbor Helen, who hands him a silver key (another clever nod, this time to HPL’s dream sequence stories), the key to his father’s house. After a tense, racially charged conversation they enter, and, as LaValle writes, “My father’s home was a monument to mania.” Clearly, it is going to require several trips to sort through the mess and sell the house, something Simon neither relishes nor has the time to do. Helen also reveals to him some creepy details about his father’s body, as she was the one to discover it. On the second train trip up, he seemingly randomly meets a weird man wearing a baggy suit who claims to have known his father. On a further subsequent trip the man accosts him again, seemingly bringing some serious racism to bear in a very uncomfortable conversation. I keep saying seemingly because nothing here is as it seems.

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Art credit: “Shoggoth,” by Florian Haeckh
Events continue to get weirder and degenerate as illusions of all kinds are stripped away leading to a stunning conclusion that interweaves threads from Booker T. Washington’s memoir, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and LaValle’s own narrative. In the end, we are treated to a reversal of epic proportions that at the same time has seemed inevitable to many Lovecraft fans.

Victor LaValle’s writing is confident, mature, and modern. He reveals slowly, teasing a little here, a little there, making you simultaneously wonder and hope. He drops erudite phrases and slings slang with equal ease. His character is constantly aware of his race and what that means in different situations, “A part of me wanted to grab one of them and ask them to hold onto me…But I didn’t do that, didn’t know how they would react. A black man grabs you on the Amtrack train, is your first thought to assist him?” This constant awareness will likely have readers of color nodding at shared shitty experiences. As a white reader, I regarded it as an important narrative reminder that part of my white privilege is not having to consider such things at all. If for no other reason than that, this is a critical entry into the post-Lovecraftian canon. HPL’s influence is pleasantly suffused throughout, but becomes much more obvious in the end.

“Up from Slavery,” like The Ballad of Black Tom before it, is one of my most favorite modern Lovecraftian stories because of its handling of the entrenched racism of many of the original stories by HPL. LaValle neither shies away from the racism nor makes it the one note his stories can sound. He sharpens it, as iron is sharpened in flame, into a natal source of narrative power. This is the kind of story that doesn’t just stick with you, but makes you want to find the author, shake his hand, and say “thank you.”

 

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

 

Catfish Lullaby, by A.C. Wise

“Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.”

Catfish LullabyIn 1929, H.P. Lovecraft published “The Dunwich Horror” in Weird Tales Magazine, in which he told the now famous story of the troubled Whateley family, and their horrible dealings. Full of incantations, misbegotten births, monstrous contracts with great beings from beyond, and a great action sequence, it remains one of HPL’s most revered stories. The geography plays a major part in setting the stage for the story, with the cursed Sentinel Hill being at the center of it. Old Whateley prophesied about it once in the memorable line, “Let me tell ye suthin’—some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!” While I can’t say for certain that it was an influence, A.C. Wise’s masterful novella, CATFISH LULLABY (published by Broken Eye Books, and now available for pre-order), bears some similarities to “The Dunwich Horror.” Only, replace Sentinel Hill for the deep South of the Louisiana bayou, and set it in modern times. I am grateful to Broken Eye Books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

CATFISH LULLABY (defined by the publisher as a queer cosmic horror story) tells the multi-generational saga of Caleb, the son of the county sheriff (a black man) who grows up to follow in his daddy’s footsteps, his life long friendship with Cere, a mysterious girl rescued from a terrible house fire, and their persistent conflict with the Royce family, whose occult dealings run more than skin deep. Oh, and then there’s Catfish John, the folkloric boogeyman used to scare children of the bayou to sleep at night.

The story opens in 1986 with Caleb’s daddy and his men finding a body in the bayou that might belong to a girl who went missing many years ago. Catfish John is blamed among the townsfolk, but Caleb’s daddy knows better. As Caleb goes to sleep that night, “…a terrible sound split the air, echoing over the trees and making [his] skin pucker with goosebumps. It was a snarling, wet sound. A scream that wasn’t animal nor human but both. Like the swamp itself had found a voice, and it was angry that something that belonged to it had been taken away.” With those beautifully composed lines, A.C. Wise has lured you in and viciously set her hook.

c8e919711966425ab13d32580bcdac98[1]We then pick things back up in 1992, when Caleb’s daddy rescues the mysterious Cere from a house fire. Wise amplifies her aural horror here with exquisite prose, “The girl pivoted on her bare heels, and for a moment, Caleb feared she would sprint back into the burning house. Instead she spat in the dirt at her feet. A sound like the one he’d heard the night his father pulled the bones from the swamp, a sound Caleb would never forget—sorrow and rage—split the air. Caleb’s skin prickled, but movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention. The smoke above the house shifted. As Caleb stared, it formed a face, impossible but distinct and inhuman.” Something is clearly going on in the bayou that is beyond Caleb, his daddy, and the good folk in town. And somehow, Cere seems to be at the center of it.

The second half of the novella takes place in 2014. Caleb is all grown up and has succeeded his daddy as the Lewis County sheriff. He lives with his partner, Kyle, who is a great calming influence on him when the stress of law enforcement gets too much, or the townsfolk’s racist or homophobic remarks cut too deep.  When another body is discovered, it dredges up old history Caleb would rather have left packed away in the depths of his memory. “Terry peeled back the covering over the body, and the world jolted out of time…for a moment, Caleb was twelve, looking at a grainy newspaper photograph.” 920x920[1].jpgLike his father before him, though, he cannot afford the luxury of forgetting and is beholden to investigate. The past, it seems, just cannot stay buried.

Wise is known in her short stories for brilliant pacing and incisive plotting, and both are on full display in CATFISH LULLABY for the duration of the increased length. A sweltering, muggy, and oppressive atmosphere saturates the text as surely as it does the bayou, at times making it hard to breathe. The American South is nekkid here, in all its beauty but also with every wart exposed. Wise manages to comment on both racism and homophobia without making social concerns the principal part of the narrative. This is Caleb and Cere’s story, and Wise won’t allow how other people feel about them to steal their limelight. But neither do the bigots get a free pass. As Cere says at one point in my favorite line of the story, “Sometimes you have to be scarier than the monsters.” I think I’d like to have that made into a poster and given to every child. Once I had turned the last page a sadness descended over me, for I had come to love these characters. So much so that I would like to politely request a sequel.

Wise’s writing, as I hope I’ve demonstrated with quotes, is beautiful, controlled, economical, and penetrating. This pair of sentences, for further example, testify to her mastery of her craft: “Overhead, scraps of sky had been torn away, showing stars that had no business there. They made Caleb think of eyes, opening and blinking in the dark.” Cosmic horror tropes on full display, check. But look what she does with sounds. “…scraps of sky…” You almost don’t have to be told that something has been torn. “…showing stars that had no business there…” Hissing sibilants like a snake foretelling a strike warn of imminent danger. “…blinking in the dark.” d82058699a653a417b36e5e1bd5dde0f[1].jpgHarsh “k” sounds, created by preventing air from leaving the vocal track and then releasing it in fury, slams the door on this sentence. Lesser writers bow before prose like this while readers are generally only vaguely aware something magical has happened. As it should be.

If you’re not able to tell, I loved this story and I’ve come to adore A.C. Wise’s writing. Not only are her narratives usually totally up my alley, but her writing is gorgeous, at times mystical. She said somewhere that this was the longest work she has published, and if CATFISH LULLABY is any indication, I sincerely hope that Wise tackles a novel soon. In a brief 115 pages, A.C. Wise has composed a southern gothic, queer, cosmic horror story that will suck the air from your lungs with it beauty, poignancy, and terror, leaving you on your knees wheezing for more. You do not want to miss this one!

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

Occult bone scrawlings: “There are stories about him along the Mississippi River from Cottonwood Point all the way down to New Orleans, maybe further still. Every place’s got their own name for him—Wicked Silver, Old Tom, Fishhook—but where my people come from, smack dab in the middle of nowhere Louisiana, it was always Catfish John. Depending who you talk to, he’s either a hero or a devil, one so wicked even hell won’t take him.
—Myths, History, and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou (Whippoorwill Press, 2016)”

Hairwork, by Gemma Files

“Ownership works both ways, you see. Which is why, even in its hey-day, Riverside was never anything more than just another ship, carrying our ancestors to an unwanted afterlife chained cheek-by-jowl with their oppressors, with no way to escape, even in death.”

41QCstEYmQL[1]Oh boy, there is a lot of background that we need to go into on this one.  I guess first I want to say a word on the collection in which this story is found.  She Walks in Shadows is an anthology published by the Innsmouth Free Press, released in 2015, that collects Lovecraftian stories, poems, and artwork by and about women.  Now, if you know anything about Lovecraft you know he didn’t hold women in a high regard generally, and he wrote very, very few of them into his stories.  (Off the top of my head, I can think of Lavinia Whateley, Asenath Waite (only sort of a female character, as she was possessed by a male character), and Marceline. Oh, and poor Charles Dexter Ward’s mom. If you can think of more, please, leave a comment.  Though I haven’t yet read many of the stories in this book, it is a collection I already treasure because it is participating in something that I call the “redemption of Lovecraft.”

Ole HPL was a famous bigot, as you likely know.  Basically, if you weren’t male, white (of Anglo descent even), and of New England stock, he didn’t want to give you the time of day.  I didn’t want to address this topic with my very first post, but I knew I wanted to get to it in short order, as it is very important.  Many people, scholars and lay-persons, have out and out written Lovecraft off on account of his bigotry that shows up in his writing in sundry places (“The Horror at Red Hook” and “Medusa’s Coil” being easy examples).  I won’t say they’re wrong to do so, but I do think they might be missing out and for that I am sorry.  Now, a number of modern writers who love HPL’s stories are tackling this head on.  Victor Lavalle, in his amazing novella The Ballad of Black Tom, for example, gives us a black man as the hero of his Lovecraftian story, and even sets it in Red Hook!  Ruthanna Emrys wrote a brilliant novel called Winter Tide (which I just finished) that flips the script on Innsmouth, giving us a female main character who is in the process of becoming a Deep One (!) and tells the story of how the citizens of Y’ha-nthlei were really just misunderstood.   Great stuff there.  And in this collection, women authors, poets, and artists give us stellar work featuring female characters, some familiar and some unfamiliar, who tell tales that would likely cause HPL to roll over once or twice in his grave, if he’s even in it.  So, I wanted to do a story right off the bat that participated in this redemption of Lovecraft.

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Zealia Bishop
“Hairwork” is a direct sequel to a short story Lovecraft collaborated on, or even just ghost wrote, with an author named Zealia Bishop. You may notice, she’s a she. Their story, and I’ve already mentioned it, is called “Medusa’s Coil,” and it is regarded by many to be Lovecraft’s most bigoted story.  So, three cheers to Gemma Files for taking it on!  When I first understood what “Hairwork” was, I panicked because I’d never read “Medusa’s Coil.”  I knew a bit about it and had avoided it (much like I avoided “Red Hook” for the longest time, but I finally did read that one). After some thought, I decided I didn’t need to read it. I knew the synopsis, and I certainly knew how it ended. To understand the power of Files’ story, you have to understand “Medusa’s Coil.”  In the original story, it tells of the de Russy family, a slave owning family in Missouri, and of how their prodigal son, Dennis, returns from Paris with a foreign wife named Marceline.

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Artist Keith McCaffety’s rendition.
She’s described by Lovecraft and Bishop thusly, “Her complexion was a deep olive – like old ivory – and her eyes were large and very dark.  She had small, classically regular features – though not quite clean-cut enough to suit my taste – and the most singular head of jet black hair that I ever saw.”  Dennis’ artist friend, Frank Marsh (of the Innsmouth Marsh’s) comes for a visit and Dennis catches him painting a nude of Marcelline.  So Dennis kills Marceline, but her hair seemingly comes to life and strangles Marsh to death in the commotion.  In horror, Dennis kills himself, leaving the gruesome scene for his father to find.  But the real horror of the story, as HPL intended it, comes at the end when it is revealed that Marceline, whom Dennis de Russy had married, “was a negress.” The strangulation scene then takes on airs of some deep-seated fear or disgust of the hair of people of African descent, a racist belief that still pops up today every now and again.

Pause.  Full Stop.  Lovecraft was a racist. Sure, he was a product of his time as many like to say, but that does not make being a racist any more acceptable.  It only made it more palatable to the dominant demographic. Racism is evil, no matter how you slice it, and it is the presenting sin of dominant American culture today.  So, I’m not here to apologize for or excuse Lovecraft’s racism and bigotry.  I will call it out though.  That said, to most of us today, the final line of “Medusa’s Coil” is so bad it’s almost like the joke is on HPL himself.

That brings us to Gemma Files’ sequel, told from the perspective of the buried but not yet truly dead Marcelline, who lies in wait under the mouldering earth to ensnare and kill every last de Russy family member in vengeance.  She tells of how the de Russy’s made their slaves bury their own dead after dark, in an unceremonious heap, because they couldn’t stomach it. She writes gorgeously, if with a deadly tone, when she tells of “how deep those dead slaves had sunk their roots in Riverside’s heart: deep enough to strangle, to infiltrate, to poison, all this while lying dormant under a fallow crust. To sow death-seeds in every part of what the de Russys called home, however surface-comfortable, waiting patient for a second chance to flower.” Into this long lain trap innocently walks a descendant of the de Russys and her guide (who has some de Russy blood as well), who will both meet a terrible, hirsute end.

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A hair work tiara.
The title of the story, and how it ends, is braided together with both an art culture and the unreasonable fear present in HPL and Bishop’s tale of black people’s hair.  Hair work is a type of art that uses hair of a loved one (mostly living but sometimes deceased) to weave a piece of jewelry or other accoutrement or decoration.  It was considered a great and intimate gift to give someone a piece of hair work jewelry, primarily during the Victorian era, though you can still find artists who will do it today.

The short length of Files story here belies the depth of her subject matter.  Frankly, it’s enormous, and of enormous importance.  Taking, head on, Lovecraft’s racism and sexism, from a fan’s viewpoint rather that purely as an antagonistic critic, is a true labor of love, and ultimately, even respect. It is as if to say, “Dear Howard, here is what you might have become, had you had the chance.”  Now others may disagree and say, he had every chance, and he still wrote these horrid, bigoted tales.  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.  About this story, personally, I loved it.  I soaked in the raw emotion of it.  Just read this in Marceline’s voice, “I am your revenge and theirs. No one owns me, not anymore, never again. I am … my own.”  One gets the impression she’s speaking both as a black person and as a woman, and it is powerful.  You would do well, fellow Lovecraftians, to not only read this story, but pick up this whole collection.  And get Emrys’ Winter Tide, and Lavalle’s The Ballad of Black Tom while you’re at it.  Lovecraft may be dead, but his work, style, and genre live on.  It’s really amazing to see it transformed in this way. Let the redemption of Lovecraft continue!

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

Favorite line: “When my father-in-law disinterred us days after the murders, too drunk to  remember whether or not Denis had actually done what he feared, he found it wound ’round Frank’s corpse, crushing him in its embrace, and threw burning lamp-oil on it, setting his own house afire.”