A Lost Student’s Handbook for Surviving the Abyss, by Gwendolyn Kiste

“We offer plenty of great times around campus, but please remember this one rule: absolutely no underage drinking. Alcohol dulls the senses, and you’re going to need all the alertness you can muster.”

d342d2cf1ba6a29a110ca2dff632144e_original[1].jpgThe University Experience in the United States is not only a defining series of years in a young person’s life, but, if my international friends’ experiences are any kind of tell, also distinctly, and uniquely, American. It should be an easy thing to say that the most important thing you come away with after those four years is your degree, but if I’m being honest with myself, it is not easy to say that at all. There’s friendships and relationships to consider, mistakes made and re-made, lessons learned inside and outside the classroom, the whole Greek system (if you indulged in that), and just a whole lot of growing up that happens in a mostly unregulated environment. Maybe, at the end of the day, the degree is what you came for but you left with quite a bit more besides. That degree may hang on your wall now, proclaiming to the world that you are qualified to do and say as you do, but those other, more intangible lessons are what you carry much closer to the heart on a day to day basis. It is into that kind of collegiate co-ed setting (and not the stuffier, more erudite, cherry-paneled setting you might think of when you imagine the Miskatonic University from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories) that Gwendolyn Kiste drops her readers in this story.

Miskatonic University first appeared in 1922 in HPL’s “Herbert West: Reanimator” but went on to star in “The Dunwich Horror (1929),” where its prestige was first implied, and then it quickly became a favorite prop for many other mythos stories. The fated Dyer Expedition to Antarctica found in “At the Mountains of Madness (1931)” was funded by Miskatonic U’s geology department.  Nathaniel Peaslee, narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time (1936)” was a professor of Political Economy at MU. But in this anthology, WELCOME TO MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY, put out by Broken Eye Books, and edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski, Miskatonic University is brought forward in time to the present day where students email and text one another, join fraternities and sororities, complain about the food, and attend normal sounding and not so normal sounding classes in an attempt to graduate with that coveted four year degree. A big thank you to Broken Eye books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.

michele-botticelli-miskatonicuniversity[1].jpgGwendolyn Kiste, no stranger to the mythos, contributes our present story of a young woman just starting out at MU and finding it all a bit overwhelming. What she manages to accomplish, both masterfully and quickly, is a very realistic campus feel in which the narrator’s problems can, by an experienced mythos reader, all be easily attributed to the mythos. What’s so masterful about it, though, is that they’re all normal college kid problems—confusing class schedules, trouble making friends, sexual pitfalls, and academic woes—that in this case can be blamed on the mythos backdrop, but in real life (certainly in this author’s experience) had no such easy scapegoat. Let’s face it, college is a terrible, wonderful, confusing, and enlightening time. I wish there had been an easy scapegoat for all my difficulties, but there never was. So when Kiste provides the mythos backdrop to those otherwise very real issues, it had the effect of letting me laugh along, sometimes at, sometimes with, the characters. And subsequently, laugh a bit uncomfortably along with myself and my own memories of college.

The narrative is peppered throughout with brilliant snippets from the titular handbook that, again, are funny because they are in a mythos story, but just as easily in most cases, could not be. For example, “Your schedule might seem a little arcane at first, but rest assured, these courses will prepare you for a world that isn’t always as welcoming as it pretends to be.” It’s good advice, really, whether it appears in a mythos tale or not!

Miskatonic_Library_1__41790.1425053206[1]As the story progresses, the weirdness ramps up in the midst of a rather believable account of a first semester freshman. Parts of buildings come and go in the ether at will. Class titles get stranger and stranger. Students disappear. It’s all very unsettling but told in a lighthearted tone. One of the more emotional moments, for me, came in the midst of a typical campus tryst. Kiste writes, “Owen keeps talking about escape and freedom, and I can’t stand the sound of it, so I kiss his lips, his throat, his chest, anything to stop him from saying what I don’t want to hear.” Sex, drugs, and alcohol are time honored student aids to depress the growing and terrifying realization that none of us have a clue. The lie is that you’re supposed to discover that clue in college. The truth that so few manage to discern is that college is actually more about learning how you’ll deal with the fact that you’ll never have as much of a clue as you’d like. It is less about what the answer for any given problem is, and more about how you navigate it, because the darkness is all around and encroaching more and more every day. Somehow, I think Kiste gets that, and it bleeds through into her story.

Kiste’s writing is crisp, clean, and a delight to read. It is not frilly, or indulgent, but just exactly what it needs to be for this story. Her command of the voice of her narrator is great – I think it would be difficult to write a first semester freshman, but she nails it; I never once was taken out of the story.

I had a lot of fun with this one, as well as with the other stories I read in the anthology, but here’s the thing: this is a very niche market book. This anthology is only going to appeal to mythos diehards. It is neither for general consumption (not even as a light introduction to the mythos) nor is it even for all fans of HPL’s stories. It’s a clever experiment and a quirky answer to the theoretical question: What if Miskatonic University was real in 2019? Each one of these authors’ (and it is an enviable TOC) answers to that question is an individual joy, complete with a wink and a nod. But I can’t imagine too many people will find it necessary reading outside of a pretty tight circle.

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

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Harvest Song, Gathering Song, by A.C. Wise

“Adams lowered her scarf. Her lips were cracked and bloody, but light clung to her.  She was holy, we all were, and I watched in wonder as she used her teeth to pull her glove free, ran her finger around the inside of the bottle, and rubbed the last of the honey on her gums.”

916DsQjmudL[1].jpgIn The Shadow Out of Time, H.P. Lovecraft put forth his grand oeuvre on the subject of cosmic horror. His fictional (?) theory (doctrine?) was that humans were really only a galactic blip, here for but the blink of a horrible, solitary, nictitating eye. There were races that came before us, like the Yith, and races that would succeed us, such as the beetle-like Coleopteran. If human beings were anything on the cosmic scale of things, we were a joke. In this magnificent story, A.C. Wise deftly plays with that horrible sense of sheer insignificance. Such an enormous backdrop would swallow a lesser author. One of the many brilliant things she does to avoid that, though, is despite working with a galactic size canvas, she focuses narrowly on the very local story of a group of mercenaries out on just another job. Though this story was first published in “For Mortal Things Unsung,” edited by Alex Hofelich, I read it in “The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Ten” edited by Ellen Datlow, and published in 2018 by Night Shade Books. I didn’t get all the way through this volume before I had to return it to the library, but it’s very well worth your time. There’s some great stories in this collection, though the vast majority are not particularly Lovecraftian or even cosmic horror. Of particular note is John Langan’s story Lost in the Dark – I loved it.

“Our first night out on the ice, we traded war stories. Reyes, Viader, Kellet, Martinez, Ramone, McMann, and me. We were all career military, all career grunts, none of us with aspirations for command.” This otherwise inauspicious group is out on another mission – another day, another dollar. This time, the assignment is Antarctica on a top secret mission to acquire a military asset of incomprehensible value: a honey-like substance that blocks the pain receptors in the brain while still allowing the user to operate at full physical and mental capacity. The military applications of such a substance are lost on none of the group, and neither are they lost on the reader. The harsh environment (putting one immediately in mind of At the Mountains of Madness) takes its toll on our soldiers even as the addition of a blowing storm delays and debilitates them. A sample of the product they’re after is brought forth. It’s the only way they’ll be able to keep going. They ingest, and shit gets weird.

normal-honeycomb-with-honey[1]“Then Adams tilted the bottle and let a drop touch my tongue. Her limbs bent strangely, and there were too many of them. I saw myself reflected a dozen-dozen-dozen times in multi-faceted eyes. The honey was liquid fire…it was like swallowing stars.” As their situation continues to devolve, their seeming acceptance of all the inexplicable and bizarre things happening to and around them is notable. They are caught up in something so much larger than themselves (and so much more horrible and terrifying) that they simply acquiesce to otherwise very objectionable goings on. I don’t know what it was particularly about this story but it caused me no small amount of distress as I read it, and even now as I reflect upon it. It wasn’t look-over-your-shoulder scary, but it was shudder-inducing, cringe-inducing, grossed-out body horror mixed with a grave sense of insignificance and cosmic horror. And it was beautiful to behold. Once they discover where the stuff is kept/produced/stored, madness sets in and not everyone makes it out alive. Towards the end, the story fast-forwards to the present and we, the readers, get to see what has become of our ill-fated mercenary companions in the months gone by since the mission ended in, dare we say, success. It has not gone well for them.

The ending was spectacular, exploding outward from the local to the universal, and I won’t say much about it to avoid spoilers, but Wise very effectively gives us a hint (in her own version of the cosmos, not HPL’s – this is very much not a pastiche but a creatively original work) of what’s really out there, of what has been, and of what might yet be. The eponymous concept of the song, which I, again, can’t say too much about, is brilliantly executed. It’s a forbidding foretaste, slathered in sickly-sweet honey. trypophobia face.jpgParts of it reminded me of some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novel “The Deep,” though Wise does it better here. Some of those same parts triggered a feeling of trypophobia, and, I suspect, if you truly suffer from that, this is not a good story for you to read. Also, don’t look at the picture. Trypophobia is the fear of closely-packed holes and if Wise wasn’t playing with that on purpose, I’d be surprised.

Her command of pace, of structure, and of language are all top-notch. This is an experienced author who knows what she is doing, at the top of her game. I’d say, above all, her ability to evoke a mood of dreadful apprehension is what sets this story apart from and above many of its contemporaries, even in a volume of the year’s best. At the same time, we feel sorry for the characters, and then we don’t, but not because they deserve what they get or any such nonsense as that. This is a tale above petty ideas about karma. We don’t feel sorry for them because they don’t matter. We don’t matter. And that sets us a-trembling. It’s masterfully accomplished; I can’t say that enough.

It should tell you something that A.C. Wise is the only author in this collection to have two stories included. I didn’t read the other, but I sure would like to go back and give it a shot as well. Besides the Langan, other standouts include Fail-Safe by Philip Fracassi, Better You Believe by Carole Johnstone, and Furtherest by Kaaron Warren (it was very strange indeed, but I’m still thinking about it long after the memory of lesser stories has faded).

That about wraps it up for this review. So, in this ending, remember: Harry Crews had it wrong. You should cross the street to read genre fiction. Just be sure to look both ways first. Twice.

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

Clinging, sticky lyrics of the harvest song: “Adams dipped a finger in the honey and held it out to me. I pictured light leaking from her eyes like tears, seeping from her pores. The harvest song howled in the dark. Shadows bent over us, long fingers needle-sharp and venom-tipped, ready to stitch through skin and bone. I sucked her finger clean. It wasn’t sex, it was more like farewell.”