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

 

Dr. 999, by Matthew M. Bartlett

“The item arrived without any protective packaging—I found the bottle on its side on my front step, with no mailing label nor postage that I could see.”

62a3e5b0ff498692a87cc7ca1b7d278a_original[1].jpgContinuing to make inroads with the new cosmic horror/noir/Lovecraftian anthology, “Ashes and Entropy,” edited by Robert S. Wilson and published by Nightscape Press (2018), I came across the curious story Dr. 999 by Matthew M. Bartlett. Bartlett is an author I’ve heard about, but have never read. He’s published professionally as well as on his own, and is perhaps most well known for his bewitching tales of covens and radio waves set in Leeds, Massachusetts. Now, he may write horror, but he’s far from a horrific person. That might sound like a dumb thing to say, but I think those on the outside of the horror community often assume all these authors and readers must be terrible, disturbed people. So, I love it when horror writers are discovered to be not only real people with real lives, but kind, charitable, and decent folk (hint: most of them are). On that note, I’m pleased to share that Mr. Bartlett has just written a new chapbook called If It Bleeds!, and has dedicated one-third of the proceeds to benefit his local humane society. Buy the book; help save a cat or a dog.

Dr. 999 is unlike any horror short story I’ve ever read, necessitating a departure from my usual style where I tell you about plot first and then get into structure and writing. Today, I am compelled to proceed backwards. This story’s structure is totally unique and it really couldn’t have been told in any other way. I suppose you could say it takes an epistolary form, but even that doesn’t describe it. This is a story told entirely as an online product description and the reviews of that product. The reviews progress in order from the insane one-star review (we’ve all read insane one star reviews before, but perhaps not quite like this) to the glowing, life altering four-star review. We don’t get a five-star review, and I have to wonder what that might have been like. However, I suspect the person who’d be inclined to write the five-star review is living happily in another dimension just now.

The product in question is “Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk.” And then he throws a “(DISCONTINUED)” in there. I loved that. So, what is it, exactly? This terrible product of eldritch horror is hair conditioner. Actually, if you ask my daughter at bath time, she could confirm that all hair products are eldritch horrors. Right from the beginning we can guess this will be odd, “Bad hair can inhibit or even obstruct your spiritual growth.” hqdefault[1]Now, I went online and looked at several hair conditioning products and not one of them including anything about spiritual growth.

The one-star review comes next and begins innocuously enough, complaining that when the product arrived, it wasn’t even in a box or packaging of any kind. We move quickly into how the product actually hurts when applied, how the reviewer’s hair hurt the next day, and how in turn, that led to poor client relationships and decreased sales. In a fit of frustration, she pours the bottle down the drain which only makes things worse. Black bubbling water burps up from the sink and toilet and eventually the whole neighborhood’s sewer system is affected in a noisome scene ripped from a real life experience of the author’s.

As we move through the different reviews, it’s almost as if the product itself is changing, morphing based on the previous bad review, rather than just the reviewer’s subjective experience changing. Whereas the one-star reviewer complained about the lack of packaging, the four-star reviewer raves about receiving the conditioner “well-packaged in bubble wrap and unbroken cardboard, and undamaged.” The user might not have grown spiritually, but the product sure has. I found this idea particularly creepy. The three-star review, broken into two columns of enumerated pros and cons was actually my favorite. Tossed in the middle of the cons, as if it ain’t no thing, was this gem, Closeup-Hand-Eyes-Scary-Hair-Faceless-Evil-2958141[1].jpg“3. The trampling of the flower garden outside the bathroom window.” There were a few others like this, too. The four-star review goes on for a long time, going into great detail about the freedom and the emotion the conditioner product delivers to them. There’s a lot of attempts to inject the weird and a sense of dread here, but none were as effective as the one listed above about the flower garden. I actually felt the four-star review, the final section, went on a little long, but that’s just my taste. The ending is enjoyably Lovecraftian, with enough fingers twining back through the various established threads to be satisfying. The shades of Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond and Robert Olmstead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth dance just out of sight.

I think this would be a very difficult story to write well, but Bartlett did it. Mastering many different voices in the various reviews well enough to make them believable is a tall order, but he was up to it. We’ve all read bad Amazon reviews. We know what they sound like. The bad grammar, the misspelled words, the invented words, the non-sequiturs, the irrelevancies, and the detours. But try to write that way on purpose, convincingly, and I think you’ll understand a little bit more about the feat that he accomplishes here. A different feat, I think, than writing separate characters or even POVs.

image_50[1]

All of that is to say that it’s incredibly annoying that Bartlett wrote this in less than two hours. The backstory involves an actual bottle of hair conditioner the author was using. He said, “I was reading the hyperbolic copy on a conditioner bottle. I thought, who writes this garbage?” Garbage, indeed. On the backs of bottles and on the pages of Amazon. I couldn’t help but think of bottles of “Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap,” a real product (and a delightfully scented one, truth be told) packaged in a bottle covered in the strangest copy. Seeing is believing.

Our current culture is obsessed with the instant gratification found in the facebook like, the re-tweet, the instagram heart, and the like. We have to grade everything. We can’t ask a question of a customer service agent without being requested to hang on the line for a brief survey. We get called by the manager of the car dealership if we rate them less than perfect tens down the line. Dr. 999 is tapping into the horror of that judgmental climate as well as the culture of needing to be heard regardless of the worth of your speech. Somewhere, someone is watching. Someone is grading your paper. Someone is marking a one for you on a survey. And none of it ultimately matters. For when you are DISCONTINUED, there will be another to take your place. “At night, [Dr. 999] basks in unthinkable, terrible pleasures, and during the day he toils in his laboratory with a silent coterie of masked assistants, devising a new formula which will, he claims, put Malumense Dr. 999’s NL-id Blends Micellar Moisturizing Milk to shame.” Products are changing all the time, and the real-life horror is to be found in how they are changing us.

This review was composed while listening to the piano works of Leo Janácek.

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

Thoughts on the first day of work after using my new conditioner: “I felt overheated and feverish. Shadows loomed high and wavering on the walls and at times the very desk at which I was sitting seemed miles away. When I reached out to grasp the edge of the desk, my arms elongated until they were thin white threads sailing off into a blurry distance.”

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.

ad045f268a82c3df392cef0c4f3030a0_original[1].jpg