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

 

Devil’s Bathtub, by Lois H. Gresh

“The ice scraped the fur from his skin, and he smelled his own blood and it scared him. And that’s when his bones shattered. The dog was aware that his body was a limp sack filled with mush. He didn’t understand.”

91bbKUt-kBL[1]At the Mountains of Madness is not only one of HPL’s longest stories (it’s really a novella), but also one of his most popular. There are perennial rumors of a del Toro helmed film adaptation, and so let me add my meager voice to the mix, I desperately would love to see that. Many, many Lovecraftian stories take Mountains for their base and a lot of them are collected in a single volume (well, now two it seems) called “The Madness of Cthulhu Anthology” Volume One, collected by that inestimable Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi,  published in 2014 by Titan Books.  This present story is an example of one written by a seriously heavy-weight author, and one which I just couldn’t get into, even after a re-read.  Lois Gresh, according to her blurb, is a New York Times best selling author of over twenty-five books, and sixty short stories. She’s published in tons of languages and appears in many noted anthologies. So, her writing credentials (or at least, publishing credentials) are established. And let me say up front, I don’t think it’s the writing that bothered me in this story, so much as it was the plot itself.

At the Mountains of Madness is a harrowing tale of adventure, horrific discovery, and enormous implication. It’s one of HPL’s magnum opi, along with The Shadow Out of Time, which describe humanity’s rather insignificant place in the scope of the cosmos. Both stories are told with sweeping scope against a cinematic backdrop. Perhaps that background led me into this story with similar expectations, however unfairly, of scope and setting. Devil’s Bathtub, though, has a very narrow focus, as perhaps it rightly should, but for me I found it to be one which I wasn’t overly interested in.  It tells the strange story of a father and young daughter who reside at Vostok glacier outpost in Antartica, along with a few research assistanimage[1].jpgts. (Problem numero uno for me: what’s this guy doing with his kid in Antarctica? I don’t care who you work for, that probably isn’t going to happen, correct me if I’m wrong.) They’re investigating a strange circumstance near the South Pole where there seems to be a semi-sentient black ice/slime hybrid. “The ice is four hundred years old…and deep beneath it is the lake, filled with two thousand two hundred feet of liquid and life we don’t understand yet.”  Their poor dog wanders too close to the stuff and gets incorporated into it, broken down but yet still alive. It’s a bit squishy and would be terrifying if it weren’t slightly humorous. Humor I’m sure the author didn’t intend. I get trying to use a dog to tug on the emotions, but, for me at least, I have to be emotionally invested in the animal and it’s relationship to it’s human first  for that work. You can’t just toss a dog in the story and expect me to get all Old Yeller-y immediately.

What happens to the dog foreshadows, with a stunning degree of accuracy, exactly what happens to the guy and his daughter, as this slimy stuff converts them into the building blocks, quite literally bricks, of whatever it is it’s constructing. Perhaps this is the stuff of a shoggoth, perhaps not. “She looked down. Saw bright blue eyes, he whites huge around tiny irises. Stark terror. Dad. But he wasn’t really there. Only his eyes, and they were plugged into the sides of the wall like light bulbs.” And that’s really it, my chilly reconnoiterers. I didn’t find a grander, overarching theme. I couldn’t locate a clever sense of cosmic dread. There may have been a hint of a presence of a possible Lovecraftian monster, but maybe not. antarctica-29[1].jpgFor a story that talks about drilling deep into the ice, I found this to be a very surface level skate around the mythos pond. It’s possible it’s trying to say something about humanity’s insignificance by breaking the humans down into their constituent parts and using them to make something else, but if it is, to what end? There wasn’t enough of a “so what?” factor in this story to make me care about it and none of it left me with any kind of feeling of awe or dread. I hate to say it, but this has been the weakest Lovecraftian story I’ve read so far.

The writing here is unnoticeable, in both a positive and a negative sense. It doesn’t stand out as excellent prose, though it is functional and in a way, you sometimes want prose to disappear into the background of a story so the reader can get lost in the fiction. But then again, it’s also good to have a sentence or three that makes me, the reader, want to stand up and read it out loud in a public place. This didn’t do that. I have read other stories in this collection and they’ve been better, so I’d say the collection itself is definitely worth it if you’re considering whether to buy it or not. But I’m also saying if you do, maybe don’t start with this story.

I wish I had more to say friends, but sadly, I do not. The material didn’t provide it.

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

Limp prose about cold places and broken bones: “Her bones rattled and crunched, and oh yes, she should be dead, but here she was, a limp sack of skin filled with the debris of bones and organs and muscle. What had happened to her? What was she?”