The Tunnelers, by Geoff Gander

“The following document, as well as a bundle of newspaper clippings, was found among the personal effects of Dr. Vincent Armstrong, a community psychiatrist in the Evaluation Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Center, whose disappearance in Montreal is a matter of public record.”

Forbidden knowledge is a favorite leitmotif of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and many of his literary heirs pick up the theme and run with it at well. It’s easy to see why. There is a certain allure to anything forbidden. Tell someone with a curious mind, like a professor, that they cannot see a certain book or acquire some particular knowledge and rest assured it will be the first thing they try to do. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to go looking. Sometimes that knowledge find you, unbidden, and you’re stuck with it for better or for worse. In Lovecraft’s tales, let’s be honest, it’s for the worse. Think, for example, of the plight of the grand-nephew of George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University. He inherited a puzzling box containing a bas-relief, the revelation of which launched one of the most memorable adventures in all of literature.

41+tduQPnSL[1]Unbidden is exactly how Dr. Vincent Armstrong comes to possess singular knowledge of a terrible, hidden truth in Geoff Gander‘s short story, “The Tunnelers.” Published by Solstice Publishing in 2011, I am grateful to Mr. Gander for providing me with a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review. “The Tunnelers” tells of how Dr. Armstrong came to care for a patient suffering physical and mental trauma following a mining accident in Ottawa, Canada. Michael Kirkwood had been involved in a mine collapse with two other miners who did not survive the accident, and, when he comes to, babbles on about the “Digging! Digging! Beneath us, above us, around us!” As it turns out, the mining company with which Mr. Kirkwood was affiliated had been digging in an area considered forsaken by the local First Nation. They had warned them, but the company, blinded by the prospect of great riches, proceeded regardless. This is why we can’t have nice things. Or, at least why Mr. Kirkwood can’t have nice things. Like sanity.

The story unfolds in an epistolary fashion, as Gander reveals new information through Armstrong’s journal entries, interview notes, and official documentation. I have to admire Gander’s pacing; the story never bogs down and each new clue leading us deeper and deeper underground is discovered in a natural way that flows well. I was impressed, too, with the clinical way in which Armstrong would describe things in his journal as I felt the style of writing really fit the character. It is easy to say, then, that Mr. Gander’s writing is sufficient. I never got hung up on any choice of diction or syntax but nor was I ever blown away by a turn of phrase. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as some writers try to do too much and then fall flat. That didn’t happen here. Reading Gander’s words felt comfortable and easy.

KzHRTPm[1]In the end, though, being a good practitioner of the craft was not enough to cause this story to stand out in the crowd. One of the words oft bandied about in Lovecraftian circles is “pastiche.” Usually, these days, it comes pre-packaged with negative context, but I don’t feel like it’s a given that pastiche equals bad. In the early days, Bloch, Ashton-Smith, Derleth, Campbell and others wrote fun, accomplished stories that were pure pastiche. But the two things that made those work, in my opinion, were that they were the first ones to do it and they added something that had not been present before. Because so much time has passed now, it is harder and harder to do that and editors (like Ellen Datlow) are explicitly forbidding pastiches for their anthologies. There are good examples out there—John Langan has one that comes to mind, as does Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pulver, and there are very likely others—but they are few and far between.

“The Tunnelers,” I am afraid, is pure pastiche that adds nothing new to the genre. From the opening lines, a reader knows exactly where this story is going and to a large extent (depending on how widely they are read in the genre) precisely how it will unfold. The monsters, Lovecraftian in the sense that they are ancient beyond time and wholly unknown, feel a bit like ghouls and function a lot like Lumley’s “burrowers beneath,” but weren’t new enough to spark my interest. I had definitely been here before.

The last page of the e-book informs readers that “The Tunnelers is his first novel” (though, weighing in at 8000 words or so, ‘novel’ is a big stretch) and it reads like it. You can tell he knows how to write, you can tell he knows how a story needs to be structured, and you can really tell he has a firm grasp on pace. He just needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea wholly his own, or sufficiently twist one of Lovecraft’s to make it his own, and then he’ll have arrived.

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

Mummer’s Parade by Joshua Chaplinsky

“Do not worry,” the King said. “If the man decides to cut you into pieces, I’ll have him relieved of his head before a quarter hour has passed,” to which Triboulet replied, “Would it not be possible to relieve him of his head a quarter hour before?” The King laughed even harder, stopping only when he saw the look in Triboulet’s eyes.”

Joshua Chaplinsky, “Mummer’s Parade”

“It is my constant complaint that allegedly weird writers fall into a commonplaceness through reflecting wholly conventional & ordinary perspectives, sympathies, and value-systems; & in [The Outsider] (as in others) I sought to escape from this pitfall as widely as I could.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, June 19, 1931.

51uht08crhL[1]Some stories have the almost magical ability to instantly transport you to another time and place through the right combination of diction, syntax, and imagination. It has been a long time since I have read a story that accomplished that as well as Joshua Chaplinsky’s “Mummer’s Parade,” found in his 2019 collection WHISPERS IN THE EAR OF A DREAMING APE, published by Clash Books.  I am grateful to Mr. Chaplinsky for providing me with a free e-book in exchange for this honest review. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I began to read this story because the title is used in its original context. Because I lived in Philadelphia for a number of years I was immediately put in mind of the Mummer’s Parade held there every January 1 – a drunken, raucous affair with sometimes unpleasant overtones. However, this present story is about an original mummer’s troupe of sorts, meaning a medieval group of performers in disguise. Dating back to as early as 1296, and possibly earlier, mummer’s troupes would dice with the royalty in court for jewels of great value in a kind of forbidden derring-do only permissible on select occasions. Gradually this evolved into roving bands of mummers who would go door to door in costume with the offer of a dice game, usually for something of value. Over time, the dice fell out of favor, and the troupes performed whole plays. The earliest extant play we have is from 1779 in Lincolnshire, England and is called “Morrice Dancers.” It was a Christmas show.

ae1b6ec61437da735568f66ad6d4be87[1]There is something inherently creepy in the idea of a roving band of performers in masks and costumes who knock on your door and offer to gamble with you for something of value. A threat is almost implied, as if taking the gamble is the only chance you have of escaping consequence. A simple refusal to play might not be permitted. Think of “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN,” the menacing scene in the gas station when Anton invites the owner to call a coin toss asking him, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?” It is into that same sense of quiet menace that Chaplinsky strides. We quickly learn that our main character, Triboulet, was “won” by a mummer’s troupe, relieving his parents of the burden of caring for their deformed child. Triboulet, you see, suffers from macrocephaly, a disease where the head swells to sometimes grotesque proportions causing a host of attendant difficulties. A poor farming family would not have had the resources needed to care for such a child, to say nothing of the potential social stigma. Likely, a macrocephalic birth would be regarded as a very ill omen indeed.

Triboulet’s very name accomplishes the goal of instant transportation that I mentioned in the opening. You need to know nothing of history to hear the sound of that name and be taken to the middle ages. But for those who do know history there is even more. For Triboulet was a real historical figure, a French court jester for Kings Louis XII and Francis I. Victor Hugo included him in one of his plays, and Verdi’s famous opera “Rigoletto” is based on that play. In Switzerland, the word “triboulet” came to mean a jester dressed all in red, a reference, which in the case of our present story, could easily become an allusion to a blood-soaked joker.

459907_1_En_1_Fig2_HTML[1]The mummer’s troupe which bought Triboulet was no ordinary troupe, but was in fact the young prince of the land and his friends who were out to sow their wild oats. When he returned to his princely duties Triboulet went with him, for they had become fast friends, and more than that, Triboulet was a source of wise counsel for the future king. Things rarely work out well in these kinds of stories though, and Triboulet grew jealous of the prince-now-King. Triboulet’s disease eventually robbed him of his powers of speech and he lost his usefulness to the King. Betrayed, Triboulet takes matters into his own hands and effects a coup, deposing the King and taking his place.  From there things get even weirder and I don’t want to say much more because I want you to read this wonderful, weird story yourself, the ending of which will send you right back to the beginning to start all over again.

Chaplinsky’s writing is marveous. It is succinct yet possessing a rhythm that carries you along.  He often is darkly humorous, making you chuckle quietly until you are embarrassed at what you are chuckling over, for it is terrible. One of the best examples of this is actually the first two sentences of the story, which are just wonderful for all the reasons I’ve already said, “Triboulet was known throughout the realm for having the King’s ear. He wore it around his neck on a silver chain.” This tells you almost everything you need to know about what kind of story you’re getting into and I was all in from the start. He deploys delicious words like “maudlin,” and “proffering,” and “imp,” that carry more than their weight for setting the scene. 743717431_fullsize[1]If I have one complaint, it’s that in a story so clearly well researched and meticulously laden with historically accurate medieval European markings, I was mildly frustrated to see a kris make an appearance at one point. A kris is a wavy bladed dagger said to be imbued with talismanic power popular in Southeast Asian cultures. Because I knew that, it totally clashed with the pseudo-European setting Chaplinsky had so well established and it took me out of the story. (I have nothing against kris daggers or Southeast Asian cultures in and of themselves.) That said, if that is my one complaint, it’s extremely minor!

I have said nothing so far of the Lovecraftian connection for this story, and that’s because there actually isn’t much of one, at least to Lovecraft’s fiction. An argument could be made that it shares themes of being a misfit with HPL’s “The Outsider,” and perhaps during the alchemy scene one can see shades of “From Beyond,” but not much else. No, instead, I think this is a story Lovecraft would have been very happy to read. “The Outsider” is widely acknowledged to be emotionally autobiographical and the Old Gent may have seen in “Mummer’s Parade” a glimmer of his own sense of displacement. More than that though, Lovecraft liked weird fiction to present a different, uncommon sort of viewpoint and this story excels in that aspect.

That does it for this review friends. I loved this story and recommend you check it out as well as this whole collection of weird and unsettling fiction.

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

 

My Knowing Glance, by Lucy A. Snyder

“This is what I knew about PVG: Within a week of transmission, an infected person gets a mild to moderate headache and some nausea. For some people, that’s all that happens. After a few days of taking it easy, they’re back to normal. But for others, the headache turns into the worst they’ve ever had. A day or so after that, they start vomiting up blood, followed by their stomach lining.”

—Lucy A. Snyder, My Knowing Glance

MiscreationsFirst, I must apologize for the lack of posts last month. I had intended to post this present review then, as a part of Women in Horror Month, as well as perhaps another. However, work life buried me in a ton of bricks to the point where all I wanted to do when I came home was stare vacantly at the wall. It’s still on-going but hopefully drawing to a close soon. Well, enough of that.

Lucy A. Snyder has been a terrific contributor to the cosmic/weird fiction genre for a long time, so when I saw that she had a story in the brand new anthology, MISCREATIONS (ed. Doug Murano and Michael Bailey), I immediately wanted to review it here. Murano is well-known as an editor of award winning anthologies (BEHOLD! and GUTTED) so the history of quality was also encouraging. The story didn’t end up being as mythos-related as I hoped but it still shared a theme or two with Lovecraft, as well as had a surprisingly prescient tone for a big news item today.

“My Knowing Glance” tells the epistolary story of a female prostitute named Savannah. You get the sense this story takes place in the near future when Snyder writes, “After the state blew up over the horrific human trafficking situation, voters finally decided to legalize sex work so women and children being held in slavery wouldn’t have to be afraid of getting locked up if they went to the police.”

fabianprostitute[1]
“Study for Paola” by Fabian Perez
Admittedly, I’m not very connected to the world of sex work, but I have heard that this is quite a real argument for legalizing it. Savannah is a little more sensitive to other people’s impressions of her profession than she’d like to admit, but colors her cognitive dissonance with a difficult memory about her father, who murdered her entire family. After some more background information on Savannah, Snyder drops some disconcerting revelations about a rampant disease that is terrifying the populace: PVG, or polymorphic viral gastroencephalitis. It’s so bad that if you’re caught spreading it you could be charged for murder, Savannah assures us.

Not long after that, Savannah is visited by a regular customer, Gregory. “He was shy, wrestling with gender dysphoria—he hated being male, but because his parents had been as shitty as my uncle Robert, the notion of identifying as someone other than a man made him straight-up panicky. He mostly wanted me to peg him.” (I had to look up what “peg him” meant. If you’re at all concerned about your search history, may I humbly suggest you do not do the same.) She knows right away something is wrong with him, but doesn’t suspect PVG. She also knows whatever it is, it’s too late as she laments that if anyone at reception had looked at him more than cursorily, none of what followed would have happened. The rest of the story unfolds quickly, with a tense, dynamic quality to the action leading to a body-horror-tastic denouement slightly reminiscent of Nathan Ballingrud’s angelic novella, “The Visible Filth.”

The disease Snyder has invented is disgusting. If a patient survives the initial onslaught and makes it out of the hospital, they need daily treatments to stave off the symptoms. Cracked skin. Erupting tumors. Degenerating brains. In Savannah’s own words, “It’s all pretty gruesome, but honestly not really that much more scary than a disease like Ebola, or even drug-resistant syphilis.” I read this story for the first time a couple of months ago and I have to say, rereading it now in the wake of the worldwide COVID-19 virus scare, it hits a lot harder. A lot. I don’t know how Snyder crystal-balled this precise moment, but kudos to her, I guess.

coronavirus_topic_header_1024[1]The conclusion of this story takes on a little bit of a different tone than the rest, and it’s here that the more cosmic horror elements of it come into play. If I have any quibble with the tale, it’s that I wish something had been introduced earlier that even barely hinted at what was to come. But that aside, it is good, oh boy is it good! Snyder brings it back around quite nicely to where she began, even tying a moist ribbon on the part of the narrative about Savannah’s father. There is a mention of elder gods that would feel perfunctory were it not handled in precisely the way Snyder does. However, the way she pulls it off concludes this tale on a rare tone for cosmic horror, which is not at all to say that it was unwelcome. Writers need to keep finding ways to do something new, and Snyder succeeds in doing that here in her last three lines.

Snyder’s writing is very accomplished and you can tell she’s comfortable inside her own words. Savannah’s casual, easy voice is spot on for the character and never once was I pulled out of the narrative. I particularly liked how Snyder would use parenthetical asides to counter a point. “‘Your father means well.’ (He didn’t.)” It felt almost conversational and exactly the sort of thing one friend might put in a letter to another. You’ll find no words like “cyclopean” here; it isn’t that kind of atmospheric story. But the way Snyder layers in unsettling passages throughout causes a reader’s blood pressure to constantly elevate, but in a measured rather than a dramatic pace. Until she hits you in the end, that is.

“My Knowing Glance” faithfully incorporates all of the themes raised by the subtitle of the anthology. There are gods, monstrosities, and other horrors, particularly disease and transmogrification. Maybe it’s just the cultural moment we’re in now vis-à-vis the COVID-19 virus, but ultimately this story struck me as being about sickness and how sickness can separate, divide, or alienate people. There’s a true horror in that and Lucy A. Snyder has tapped into at least my fears surrounding it.

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

 

Tidal Forces, by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“And here, on the afternoon of the Seven of Pentacles, this Wednesday weighted with those seven visionary chalices, she tells me what happened in the shower. How she stood in the steaming spray watching the water rolling down her breasts and across her stomach, and up her buttocks before falling into the hole in her side.”

—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Tidal Forces”

“He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1936.

houses_under_the_sea_by_caitlin_r_kiernan[1]Welcome to Women in Horror Month 2020 here at the Miskatonic Review! Of course, I read women horror authors throughout the year (and so should you!), but this is the month in which I’ll join with others in the horror community in lifting up the wonderful work they are producing. You can look back through the archives and catch up with reviews of other fabulous authors, but this WiHM, I’m going to try and highlight some I haven’t yet gotten on the roles of the tenured faculty here at the Miskatonic Review. As I looked through the faculty list, I was stunned by my own omission of Caitlín R. Kiernan because I don’t think I could create a short list of top tier Mythos writers that did not include them. Kiernan is one of my absolute favorites. Their writing is achingly gorgeous, intimate in both its beauty and its pain, inducing a reader to sighs of often inexpressible origin. You don’t read a Kiernan story; you breathe it through your pores where it gives as much as it takes. Late last year, Subterranean Press released a limited, signed, cloth-bound hardcover collection of their best Mythos stories entitled, HOUSES UNDER THE SEA: MYTHOS TALES, for which I hit the pre-order button as fast as I’ve hit it for anything. Those marvelous editions are now gone, but you can pick up the e-book version here for a terrific price.

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That’s right. I’m bragging.

The story I’d like to tell you about tonight, “Tidal Forces,” is found in this collection, but was originally published in Sirenia Digest (#55) in 2011 (the author’s own subscription service) and later that same year was reprinted in Eclipse Four, edited by Jonathan Strahan published by Night Shade Press. It begins, “Charlotte says, “That’s just it, Em. There wasn’t any pain. I didn’t feel anything much at all.” This is a completely misleading opener if ever there was one, at least if we consider the emotional resonance of this story. Charlotte and Emily are lovers. They live on the ocean where, on one innocuous Saturday morning, while Emily was sitting on the porch watching some birds at play, Charlotte paused in her gardening to stretch and look out over the waves. She sees a shadow on the water, as if created by clouds above or something enormous below, but whatever it is it is moving fast and heading towards her on the shore. Emily watched as Charlotte was struck and knocked down. Stunned though she was by an apparent nothing knocking her down, she is unscathed. “But it wasn’t until we were in the bedroom, and she was dressing, that I noticed the red welt above her left hip, just below her ribs.” The injury, the hole, grows slowly instead of healing, and through it can be heard ever so  faintly a “thin, monotonous piping.” Equally as slowly, the implications wear down the women’s psyches. This is not a normal injury, not a normal wound that can be covered by a band-aid until all better.

I’ve always regarded Kiernan’s writing as very smart, and this story is no exception. Three examples. First, they don’t tell this story linearly; if they had done, it wouldn’t be near as interesting or compelling (pretty simple, actually). By bouncing back and forth across the time line they are both making a meta comment on what is happening in the plot and leaving you bread crumbs in both the past and the future that you’ll want to follow, both directions leading to a singularity. Second, they also color the narrative with references to Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, particularly the scene in the rose garden. Here Kiernan offers us a clue that what appears to be reality may only be a thin façade. f52814ae0135dc293e6abbef1058394b[1]Third, Emily names the days, back and forth in time, after individual cards in a deck. The day of the incident is labeled, “The Seven of Clubs. Wednesday, or the Seven of Pentacles, seen another way round…weighted with those seven visionary chalices.” Speaking of Alice, that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I don’t know much about Tarot cards and I don’t know whether Kiernan does either or not. Either they are playing with fluidity here—which would not be an uncommon theme for a Kiernan story—or they are mixing up their tarot suits and their modern suits. The four tarot suits are Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins, corresponding respectively to Spades, Clubs(?), Hearts, and Diamonds. (I couldn’t find definitive information that Wands corresponds with Clubs, so this is a guess.) Here Kiernan says the seven of clubs, which ought to be the seven of wands, but she alternatively names it the seven of pentacles (another name for the suit of coins) but depicts it as having “seven visionary chalices.” As a metaphor, this is quite mixed up. Chalices, or cups, is the last image they leave us with so that was the one I wanted to explore, and wow, is it a treasure trove of symbols for this story! The element of the suit of cups is water; our story is entitled “Tidal Forces,” the initial word of which functions on at least two different levels but one is water. And the shadow that kicked off the troubles was over the water. The suit of cups in tarot deals with emotional situations and events and again, contrary to the opening line, this story is about two people in a very emotional, romantic relationship dealing with their emotions about the inciting incident. The seven, particularly, is a caution not to build castles in the air. This card, it seems, is suited perfectly to the day.

in-bed-the-kiss-1892-slider-900x660[1]
“Au Lit:Le Basier” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (d.1901)
Emotions and relationships and love being at the center of this story are what makes this story so powerful, and work so well. Kiernan is turning Lovecraft inside out. The Old Gent never wrote about love, despised relationships, and thought emotions a weakness. Kiernan answers by penning a very Lovecraftian Mythos tale which highlights a lesbian relationship, centers on emotion (also inducing emotion in the reader), and uses love as a driving force for the resolution of the story. It’s beautiful!

As I said in the introduction, Kiernan is one of my absolute favorite Mythos writers. I’ve never read a story by them that failed to elicit a powerful emotional response or one which I’ve easily forgotten. (Also contained in this collection, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” needs to be read and re-read by every HPL fan, and then someone needs to combine the two stories into a single, B&W noir film. Please.) Like the title suggests, this is a story that draws you in and doesn’t let go. It is neither violent nor grotesque, but quietly suggestive, emotionally gripping, and beautifully haunting.

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

Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs? by Michael Cisco

“Now he’s alone. After a while, he begins to fall back into place again, piece by piece.
“Just an oooold corpse,” a voice says.
He stands up, blinking tears away, nearly sobbing, shaking. Tenderly, he adjusts his poor, twisted clothes.
“Are you one of them now?” a voice asks. “Is this the way it’s done?”
“Perhaps one of the ways,” a voice answers.

—Michael Cisco, “Do You Mind If We Dance With Your Legs?”

“…there is another phase of cosmic phantasy (which may or may not include frank Yog-Sothothery) whose foundations appear to me as better grounded than these of ordinary oneiros-copy; personal limitation regarding the sense of outsiderness. I refer to the aesthetic crystallisation of that burning & inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder & oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself & and its restrictions against the vast & provocative abyss of the unknown.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Frank Belknap Long, February 27, 1931

This past weekend it was my family’s turn to keep our second grader’s class hamster. We were given everything we needed to care for it, including a hamster ball in which the little guy could roll around. After supper, we took him out of his cage and put him in the ball. All of us knelt around it on the floor, looming and leering, as it did…nothing. It did not roll around or frolic. It just stood there. After a moment passed, someone observed, “He’s shaking.” We took him out of the ball and sure enough, the poor creature was positively trembling. We placed him back in his cage and left him alone for the rest of the night. In the morning, he was dead. And in that moment, I understood cosmic horror in a clearer, more direct way than ever before.

1129835441[1]Michael Cisco’s new novella, DO YOU MIND IF WE DANCE WITH YOUR LEGS—to be published by Nightscape Press as the newest entry into their charitable chapbook line—taps deep into the terror of outsiderness which Lovecraft referenced in his letter to Long and brushes its fingers against the truest sense of cosmic horror like that I imagine was felt by the late hamster. I am grateful to Nightscape Press for providing me with a free e-ARC for the purposes of this honest review. If you don’t know about their charitable chapbook line, you need to learn about it. Each author selects a charity to which Nightscape Press donates one-third of the proceeds from the sale of each gorgeously illustrated chapbook. Michael Cisco has selected the LA LGBT Center.

This tale tells the story of Pedrito Marinetti, a transvestite man who may also be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and of his search for a missing woman, Irene Trigg. (Full disclosure: I am the whitest, most cis-gendered, straightest person, who is also not one hundred percent conversant with non-cis culture nomenclature (but I am trying to learn in an effort to be as supportive as I can). So, I feel a little unqualified to explore the deeper realities of Pedrito’s existence, and apologize in advance if I say something unwillfully ignorant.) Pedrito, who lives with his parents, enjoys being a bit of a loner and gets around on his trusty bicycle. “He likes the way bicycling puts him in the street while separating him from everyone else. His interactions with people seldom go well. Not a good idea. Not for him. Slipping away before breakfast also allows him to avoid his parents, who pester him with their hopelessly gentle questions and kind suggestions.”  Searching for missing persons is a pasttime of sorts for Pedrito, though, “As a rank outsider with a discomfiting personality unlikely to win the trust of strangers he can only hope to find Irene Trigg if there is something bizarre about her disappearance.” Pedrito comes at things from a different angle than the rest of us, and therefore sees the world differently. This is, in part, what has led me to wonder is he is autistic.

351839-admin[1]The deeper into the mystery he gets, the weirder the story becomes. Influences upon our world from beyond seem to be at play. This is more than a case of a missing person, and yet in many ways, it is also less. The hamster wheel awaits our frolicking while something outside looms and leers. As his name initially suggests, a reader begins to wonder who or what is pulling the strings, and to what, if any, end. But, Pedrito is undaunted; his autism (if that is what it is) acting as shield between him and the uncomfortableness or fear that would prevent a different person from continuing on the hunt. Whatever it is that is different about Pedrito, Cisco presents it in a kind, sympathetic manner. In fact, it may be his particular “stillness” that perfectly suits him for the role he has chosen in this story.

This is a difficult story to digest in one sitting and I struggled to understand it upon my initial read. After going back and looking over it again, I’m still not sure I totally get everything this is trying to accomplish. That is not to say the story is unworthy in any way, but it is to say that it is one which does not offer up its inner treasures easily, or without struggle. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity. We are put into Pedrito’s mind easily, which, while a remarkable authorial feat, is ironically what complicates the reader’s understanding. In telling Pedrito’s story, I believe that what Cisco is trying to do is show us that this kind of person has a story to tell and it is one that is both worthy of our attention and yet wholly independent of it. Pedrito does not need us to hear or understand his story, but if we choose to read, it is there for us to glean.

I am struck by the things which I do not fully understand. For example, there is a repeated number, 20904, that Pedrito receives over and over again as a response. The only clue we’re given to its meaning is a brief paragraph detailing a scene in which Pedrito watches a video tape he seems to revere, a tape he has cued up to time stamp 2:09:04. That is the moment in the video when his childhood guidance counselor is informing his parents that Pedrito tested as having an astronomically high I.Q. How Pedrito feels about this revelation (rather than the revelation itself) is a clue to unlocking your understanding of his character.

4[1]The last piece I want to explore is actually from the beginning. The first two words of the story, to be precise, which are the name of the main character.  Pedrito Marinetti. The diminutive applied to the first name is pretty self explanatory. Even as an adult, he is regarded as lesser by his peers and especially by his parents. It’s the last name that intrigues me. Why give a last name unless it were important? (Warning: I am now leaping off the ledge of solid footing into the space of Pure Conjecture.) Marinetti is not a name that seems like it would be picked out of a hat, because it is the surname of a major historical figure: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. That Marinetti was a poet, artist, and political activist in early twentieth century Italy. He is best remembered as one of the principle founders of the Futurist Movement, an artistic and social movement emphasizing speed, technology, and mechanized violence. It would go on to be a major influence on Dalí and the Dada movement.

cs22-01[1]On October 15, 1908, Marinetti had a car accident, in which he crashed his four-cylinder Fiat sports car into a ditch in an attempt to avoid (wait for it…) a bicyclist. That bicyclist helped him out of the ditch, and Marinetti wrote later that he emerged from that crash a new man. Futurism was born. In Cisco’s story there is a tension between the present and what is to come, and it is in that tension that the horror lies. While there is not mechanized violence, there is a repeatable, assembly-line nature to the violence that is present. It is dissociated, apathetic, and willful. It is the violence inflicted by placing an innocent hamster in a situation so stressful his little heart gives out. And then going out and buying a replacement hamster. It is a violence of which we are all guilty, except perhaps, for Pedrito Marinetti, who seeks to lift us from our wreck in the ditch of our lives.

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

The Amnesiac’s Lament, by Scott R. Jones

“Somewhere, in that vast array of sleeping bodies laced together in sticky pits of artificial neural tissue below me, is a dreamer who used to be a writer, or dreams she was one.”

—Scott R. Jones, “The Amnesiac’s Lament”

“One baffling thing that could be introduced is to have a modern man discover, among documents exhumed from some prehistoric buried city, a mouldering papyrus of parchment written in English, & in his own handwriting, which tells a strange tale & awakes—amidst a general haze of amazement, horror, & half-incredulity—a faint, far-off sense of familiarity which becomes more & more beckoning and challenging as the strings of semi-memory continue to vibrate…This idea has lain dormant in my commonplace-book for ages…”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Clark Ashton Smith, November 11, 1930

71zYC53sB5L[1].jpg If asked, “in what genre did Lovecraft write?” most of us fans would probably answer in an unconsidered, if decisive, manner: “Cosmic horror.” Lovecraft himself, however, would probably have said that “cosmicism” played a large role in his writing of strange or weird tales. What we think of now as cosmic horror was a homebrew by the Old Gent, stirring in elements of mystery, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and the strange. Some of his stories, like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” lean pretty hard into the adventuresome thriller category, while others, like “The Shadow Out of Time,” rely heavily on sci-fi. The horror lay in the discovery of just how insignificant humanity was on the cosmic scale. Scott R. Jones‘ thrill-ride of a story, “The Amnesiac’s Lament,” found in his debut collection, SHOUT KILL REVEL REPEAT, follows Lovecraft through this particular portal. This collection was published by JournalStone’s imprint, Trepidatio Publishing (2019), last month and is ably introduced by Ross E. Lockhart of Word Horde. If this description isn’t enough to pique your interest, take note of the blurb at the top by none other than horror master Ramsey Campbell himself.

“The Amnesiac’s Lament” tells the futuristic story of Sunset Grey Theremin, a personality construct sent on a mission into an unforgiving desert landscape with partner personality construct Livid Ransom Stormcell. Right away you’re able to tell that this will be an unusual and very fun story to read, brought to you by Jones’ colossal imagination, which uses Lovecraft as a launching pad into his own unknown realm of cosmicism. Deserts in Lovecraft often mean the Yithians will be in play and here is no different. Our duo’s destination is a subterranean Yithian complex. However, before they set out, some precautions are in order. See, I mentioned this was a futuristic tale, and in this future, the Old Ones have returned and they are not messing about. 1_CPI-6ZtpYfMyV3bTt8EumQ[1].jpegThrough some seriously advanced tech Sunset and Livid cloak themselves in a “Deep Dendo” psychic shield, made up of the personalities of others, to protect themselves from the sanity blasting properties of the visitors from beyond the stars. “I don’t go outside unless I’m a hundred thousand people at once,” warns Sunset Grey Theremin. A hundred thousand people, casually sloughed off like so much dead skin.

Their adventure is thrilling, occasionally charming (“Yeah, well, hurry it up,” says Livid Ransom Stormcell. “Because it’s irritating the living fhtagn out of me.”), replete with countless Lovecraft and friends references—these, sewn into the skin of the narrative in clever ways so as not to distract the uninitiated, while paying homage to the devotee—and above all, entertaining. Like some of the best of Lovecraft, it saves its terror until close to the end, when you then sit up straight in your couch and take someone’s name in vain.

Lovecraft would finish writing “The Shadow Out of Time” in February of 1935, some four years, four months after the letter to Clark Ashton Smith referenced above. He was initially so disgusted with it that he almost ripped up all 65 pages, as he says in another letter that he had been doing a lot of lately. (Oh! Lovecraft! What hath we lost?) The ideas he sketched out in his commonplace-book (what he called his book of disassociated ideas and notes) would finally come to fruition and be published in Astounding Stories pulp magazine in 1936.

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From the highly acclaimed “Providence” comic book series by Alan Moore.  Art by: Jacen Burrows
“The Shadow Out of Time” is considered his magnum opus now by many, but I would never tell an inquiring reader to begin their Lovecraftian journey there. It’s long, and when Lovecraft gets long, he can get boring. (I know, I know, blasphemy, right? Who didn’t fall asleep reading Lovecraft at least once though?) What Jones does so well in this contemporary story is bring to the foreground the ideas Lovecraft used as the background, and spin a damned exciting yarn to read. It’s faithful and fresh all at the same time, and not one page felt boring. Few authors can do this as well as I felt like it was done here. Attempts either come off as pastiche or are too distant a cousin.

Jones’ balance here is near flawless and would be Lovecraftian storytellers should make a note. The fast-paced, page-turning sci-fi style (calling to mind Hugh Howey’s Wool series, strangely enough) is unlike anything HPL ever even approached. His writing is accomplished and crisp, confidence spiced with just a dash of whimsy. Combined, these elements produce the story’s biggest success for me: I felt as if I was reading something completely new while simultaneously being rewarded for having a base of knowledge.

The next story in the collection will go on to play in Ramsey Campbell’s Lovecraftian backyard, with just as satisfying results. I cannot wait to find out what the collection has in store beyond that, and neither should you. This is one for the fans, but neither will it be lost on newcomers.

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

Ammonia, by William Holloway

“The Pacific Rim was a wasteland of shattered cities hewn by earthquakes and drowned by tsunamis. The West Coast was in ruins, part of a line of devastation extending from Alaska to Cape Horn. New Zealand and Hawaii had essentially ceased to exist. Yes, the human race was only now beginning to comprehend the scale and power of the earthquake under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Event.” Bamboo enunciated the word as he worked the notepad before him, covered in mind-boggling formulae, trying to understand mathematically what he’d survived.”

~William Holloway, “Ammonia”

ap_cover_front[1].jpgIt has been said before, but it bears repeating: Lovecraft would be shocked by both the popularity and the amount of Mythos-derived works extant today. He was always tickled when his colleagues used some of his ideas and creations in their own stories and, in fact, quite encouraged it. On August 14, 1930, he wrote to fellow Weird-Taler Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian), “[Frank Belknap] Long has alluded to the Necronomicon in some things of his—in fact, I think it is rather good fun to have this artificial mythology given an air of verisimilitude by wide citation.” No creation of HPL’s is as widely cited, utilized, and loved as Cthulhu, the dreaming god. Lovecraft’s seminal tale “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of his best pieces of fiction, and today’s story reimagines it, or at least the cataclysmic event it describes, for a modern audience.

“Ammonia” is found in the new book, THE ABYSSAL PLAIN: THE R’LYEH CYCLE, put out in November 2019 by JournalStone Publishing, and edited by William Holloway and Brett J. Talley. The cover art, by Mikio Murakami, is particularly striking. This book contains four novellas and, through four different lenses, purports to tell about Cthulhu’s rising from the Pacific Ocean. It functions as a sort of mosaic novel but the stories each have their own integrity.

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“The Eye of Cthulhu” by François Baranger. Illustration from “The Call of Cthulhu Illustrated” © 2017 François Baranger. Used with permission.
There are three character POV’s in “Ammonia,” but two of them get a pretty short shrift. The principal character is Quincy. He “…was a good-looking boy who grew into a good-looking man. Until recently, he’d gotten by on getting by, but the hard facts of advanced alcoholism at a relatively young age had hit home. His hands shook, he smelled, and his eyes had yellowed.” He lives in Austin, TX, and though he does not yet know it, Austin is beginning to flood. Sure, Quincy had seen flooded streets before but what is happening now is both more severe and, as it turns out, more widespread. And that’s not all. People are beginning to disappear.

Bamboo is the executive officer aboard the USS Georgia, a nuclear missile submarine that has recently been rocked by an unidentifiable underwater event.  His parts of the story were the most enjoyable for me to read, which is part of the reason why I wanted more of them.

Finally, Natalie is an executive assistant to a powerful Washington Post editor, with whom she is also having an affair. Through her job, she’s connected to and interacts with powerful people, including the Speaker of the House. Her story is uncomfortably sexualized as she perceives that allowing important people to grope her and giving them sexual favors might be her only way ahead. Bamboo and Natalie play very small supporting roles in the broader narrative of “Ammonia,” and I can’t help but wonder if they will reappear in the other novellas. I hope so, because if they don’t, then their characters won’t serve much of a point.

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“heroin” by flickr.com user B.A.D. – used under Creative Commons license

Readers know that this is a story about the beginning of the end of the world as we know it, but the characters do not know that at all. However, for each of them, this is a story about cataclysmic endings. Quincy sinks deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol addiction as he struggles to sort between a reality growing stranger by the hour and a drug induced dream state. It doesn’t help that he falls in with a Beatrice-like character (his own personal guide through the apocalypse) named Junkie Dave. Natalie faces the potential ending of her career if she doesn’t continue to sexually satisfy her married boss—and others—in an effort to make her big break. Bamboo comes closest, at least initially, to understanding the global significance of “the event.” He faces the ending of American hegemony as well as the ending of his ability to understand the world around him.

Holloway’s story is largely effective, and accomplishes what it sets out to do: to tell the story of Cthulhu’s rising through the lens of ordinary people caught up in the event unawares. Quincy was a difficult character for me to get behind, but I personally don’t like reading about drug and alcohol addiction as I see it too often in real life. It’s hard to see how he’d survive and he makes it harder to care. In as much as this is what real-life addicts can be like, Holloway is successful at communicating that struggle for compassion. In tone, “Ammonia” reminded me a lot of John Langan’s post-Cthulhu rising story called “The Shallows.” Langan went for more of a melancholy and fatalistic vibe though, whereas Holloway strives for almost a survival horror feel.

Through a believably authentic voice, Holloway brings Quincy to life in a way that doesn’t happen for the other characters. “Nobody home. He closed the door behind him, but not before he smelled that godawful ammonia again. Fuck. What the hell? Bitch complains about me stinking while that shit is going on?That is about as far as you can get from the Old Gent’s typical protagonists, and though he wasn’t my favorite character to read about, he was still refreshing.

As the horror around him grows, Holloway deftly communicates the rising tension of the unnameable and unthinkable, “He heard a sound above him, a groaning of timbers and a dragging, shuffling, sliding sound. Something was up there in the crawl space, something very big and very heavy. Something that didn’t move right, or something that moved very, very differently.” It is in passages like this that we get the strongest feel of an updated Lovecraft for the modern age. Gone are the florid clauses in favor of descriptive, yet manageable sentences. There is nothing unnecessary in this example, but it succeeds in showing the source of fear all the same.

We are close to the centennial of HPL’s writing of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and if the source material is to survive in the popular imagination for the next hundred years, it will need to continue to be modernized, the Mythos sandbox not only played in but raked out. “Ammonia,” as the first of this quartet of novellas, achieves that and I am excited to read the other three. I am grateful to JournalStone Publishing for providing me with a free electronic review copy.

William Holloway is the author of THE IMMORTAL BODY and other Lovecraftian novels.

This review was composed while listening to the albums “The Abyssal Plain,” and “The Realm of the Void,” by electronic music artist James Clements, aka ASC.

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