Star Crossed, by Jonathan Oliver

“Jasmine reached for the book, but withdrew her hand the moment she touched the wrapping. It hadn’t felt like cotton or hessian, rather something unpleasantly organic. Stealing herself against disgust, Jasmine snatched up the book, quickly throwing off its noisome shroud.”

—Jonathan Oliver, “Star Crossed”

“If I should try to write a story outside the weird area which engrosses my emotions and drama sense…Whatever I treated of would have to be dragged in from outside, & would consequently have to be handled without the innate fire which animates any true work of art, however humble.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, September 29, 1933.

Performative utterances, in the philosophy of language, are those sentences that not only describe a particular reality, but also bring about the reality they describe. Two recognizable phrases that do this are, “You are under arrest,” and, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” You can see how the words themselves do what they describe, or are performative. Prior to the officer or the minister uttering them, the reality they describe does not yet exist. But after they have been said, the whole ballgame has changed. In Jonathan Oliver’s summoning story, “Star Crossed,” he plays with this concept and the importance that words have when trying to effect some new change. Not just the words themselves, though, but the whole manner in which they are deployed. As the Bard proclaimed in Hamlet 3:2, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” “Star Crossed” is found in Jonathan Oliver’s debut collection, THE LANGUAGE OF BEASTS, available now from Black Shuck Books. I am grateful to Mr. Oliver for a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The plot of this medium length short story revolves around Jasmine, a young college student whose mother’s magic shop is in danger of going out of business. Her mum doesn’t do much real magic now but we’re given the sense that in the past, she could have performed actually wondrous acts. While digging through the basement Jasmine discovers, hidden behind a section of crumbling masonry, a text wrapped in cloth of apparently ancient provenance. It contains the handwritten spells and sorcerous illustrations of one Nathaniel Creed. But when she uncovers the long-hidden tome, its discovery reverberates through the magical planes and others who would possess its knowledge are made aware of its surfacing.

An ancient wizard named Arodius desires Creed’s grimoire and molds his decrepit form into that of a strange young man, that he might more easily meet Jasmine. Calling himself Richard, he ingratiates himself into her good graces, magically seeing to it that they are cast as the leads in the university’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Jasmine rebuffs his attempts to see Creed’s book, but eventually relents. Once he confirms for himself what they’re dealing with, Richard warns Jasmine she’s toying with power beyond her comprehension (we feel like we have been here before, but trust me…), “…the knowledge within this book concerns itself with something far greater. Magic is mere wish fulfillment; ludicrous ritual, offering, at best, a temporary salve to suffering…To involve oneself with true knowledge, one must entirely forget oneself. Humanity is nothing; less than nothing—a cosmic joke. There are beings out there that have terrible, infinite power. True sorcery, real magic, lies in attracting their attention.” You can almost hear the echoes of “tekeli-li” in the distance. What starts out as a story we all feel like we have read before shifts at this point into something special and the beauty of Shakespeare’s language begins to give Jasmine profound ideas about how to work the magic Creed wrote about, magic that Arodias/Richard heretofore has been unable to perform. For all his mansplaining, he can’t do what she seems like she’s going to be able to do, and that is a delicious development.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/by any other name would smell as sweet.” If Jasmine can truly attract the attention of some otherworldly being, then perhaps she can save her mother’s store, their home and livelihood, their everything. Her motivation is simple, but strong and pure. However, this magic leads to no wish-granting djinn. Once Jasmine figures out that Creed got the formulas correct, but that his magic lacked poetry, the two threads of the story begin to converge. “The play’s the thing,” indeed, and this is what Oliver has been building towards all along. Combined, the poetry of the Bard and the formulations of Creed become performative and lead Jasmine to a completely unforeseen turn of events in which it becomes painfully obvious that the Dramatis Personae of the school’s playbill is woefully incomplete.

I loved the ending of the story, but I felt that it took a long time to get there. The build up is necessary, though, to feel the power of how Oliver flip-flops this narrative. He takes a trope with which we are all familiar, summoning the long-dead wizard, and uses it to make a point about the power of words themselves. Unintended consequences seem a narrative by-product of the pure beauty of poetic magic. Words, poetry, Oliver seems to be saying, have the power to cut and no one should be surprised when blood is spilled in their service. The typical Lovecraftian theme of antiquarian researchers lost in dusty tomes is twisted just right here to modernize it for a contemporary audience. Worldly necessity, rather than luxury, drives a female student to out-perform her ageless male counterpart. Then, he twists it again, and brings it home with a true Lovecraftian flair in which we hear the gods laugh.

“Garden,” by Pixiv user Nyarko.

Performative utterances are strange things. Some, like “I now pronounce you husband and wife” seem to require your participation in their calling a reality into being. Others, like “You are under arrest,” can see you wail and moan all you want against it, and it will affect it not. Yet in both cases the words themselves release a certain kind of magic, perhaps unfelt by you and yet unmistakably recognized by others. In “Star Crossed,” Jonathan Oliver has performed a similar feat, in which fans of Lovecraft will be treated to something they’ll think they recognize—all the elements are there; the gods, the names, the tomes, the antiquarians—but (to paraphrase Oliver himself), “unlike [Lovecraft, Oliver understands] the true power of words, how the sounds and rhythms they [make are] as important as their meaning.” There’s a new story being told here, a new way of thinking about literary magic and if Oliver had tried to write it in any other way other than his own, tried too hard to imitate the Old Gent for example, like so many pastiches it would have been“without the innate fire which animates any true work of art.” For the patient scholar, this tale is truly rewarding.

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

The Hargrave Collection, by Max D. Stanton

“Paying for college destroyed me. Lots of people can say that, but few of them mean it like I do. My debts led me to madness, murder, and Hell.”

Max D. Stanton, “The Hargrave Collection”

“Your catalogue of hellish and forbidden books sounds highly impressive, and the very names make me shudder. Of only one have I ever heard before—this being (can I bring myself to write the dreaded words?) Mülder’s infamous Ghorl Nigral. I even saw a copy of this once—though I never opened or glanced within it. It was many years ago in Arkham—at the library of the Miskatonic University.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, August 14, 1936

The best part of this hobby is getting to know new writers. The best part of the best part is when you encounter a new voice that simply blows you away. I’ve never heard of Max D. Stanton before his collection, A SEASON OF LOATHSOME MIRACLES (Trepidatio Publishing, June 2020), dropped earlier this summer but you better believe I’ll be looking for his name in anthologies and zines going forward. Within it, “The Hargrave Collection” will thrill Lovecraft fans through and through while adding a combination of adventure often missing in many of HPL’s works, the same creeping dread found in the best examples of faux-documentary horror films (see Hell House, Mortal Remains), and a splash of blood to whet the appetite of gore hounds.

The story opens with our destitute student landing a Miskatonic University campus job from one Professor Charles Casar, Anthropology Department. It’s a research gig, digging into the papers of the late Dr. Leopold Hargrave—disreputable anthropologist and Casar’s academic antecedant—which have just become available. Hargrave mysteriously disappeared in 1969 and Casar is interested to know if these newly released private papers can shed any light on the matter. He wrote the book on the man after all, American Shaman, and is perhaps looking to provide an addendum to his research. With all of this being new information to the protagonist, he checks it out with another student, a writing tutor he fancies named Chris who is possessed of “gorgeous curly brown hair and long legs” in addition to being active in the campus LGBTQ scene. Chris knows of Casar but has a low opinion of him, telling the narrator, “Casar’s a fossil…A critical reappraisal of Hargrave’s work might have done really well. But apparently American Shaman was just an adoring monument to a monster, and there’s enough of those already.” Right there is one of the reasons Stanton so stood out to me. Within the text of his adoring Lovecraftian story he subtly critiques the Old Gent at the same time he sneers in the direction of those in the fandom who sweep HPL’s more unsavory characteristics (racism, misogyny, etc.) under the literary rug, and that through the voice of a gay character! It’s brilliant.

Our character’s assignment quickly leads him to some dark places as he descends further and further into what becomes a mad search for truth and treasure. The material is located in none other than the archives of the Miskatonic University library. I loved the description of the archivist, “She had a fragile, war-weary demeanor, which seemed unusual in a person whose job was simply to watch over Miskatonic University’s historical records.” Yes, simply watch over. But what has she seen down there? What has she prevented from being seen by others? War-weary indeed. In the Hargrave boxes he uncovers some old tarot cards, engraved on shrunken leather of questionable provenance (shudder) that point to even darker and more mysterious findings. What ensues is a merry chase through kind of a who’s who and a what’s what of the wider Lovecraft mythos (complete with a Chambers reference) in which you can’t help but think of Indiana Jones. But Stanton’s skill is such that this never feels like too much pastiche or too much name dropping. Each mythos reference is not only important to the story somehow (no small feat) but deftly manages to inject a measured thrill for the fans, while not overburdening the narrative for the uninitiated. What’s so skillful about this is if you were to strip away all the mythos references, if you were to take away all the Lovecraft, you’d still have a wonderfully troubling story of the occult. Unlike others, it’s not reliant upon Lovecraft to work, but, for fans, it works even more beautifully because of it.

As readers we ride those thrills all the way to the surprising ending that I, at least, did not see coming. One twist I expected, but not the others. It was fabulous. I even went back to see if I missed anything and I don’t think I had. This was a terrific story and a rollicking, gruesome adventure that I enjoyed the heck out of even as it cemented Stanton’s name in my mind as someone to watch.

A big part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was how successful I thought the writing was. Stanton is an elevated but not a stuffy writer, often deploying the perfect word choices to make the reader feel a range of emotions normally only able to be located in whole paragraphs. Here, for example, witness how much the word “carrion” adds to the sentence: “Dr. Hargrave sought out the company of carrion priests with no respect for life, and wherever he went, he was the worst person there.” I know all I need to know and more about these priests, but I also know that Hargrave was worse, and that’s what made me uneasy. In other places, a poetic infusion, as here: “My social life dwindled away. I didn’t see my friends anymore; I saw nobody except the archivist, the sole witness to my slow and painful disintegration.” I was near overcome by the waves of melancholy flowing from those lines. It is not only in isolated places that such treasures may be found in this story, but throughout, carefully buried along a seven-fold path.

I’m grateful to the author for providing me with a free e-copy of his book in exchange for an honest review and it always pleases me immensely when I can honestly give a glowing one. This story was special and I really look forward to reading more Stanton in the very near future. He alerted me to the presence of at least one more Lovecraftian story in the collection, as well as one that nods to Thomas Ligotti, but I will let you discover those for yourselves.

This review was composed while listening to the masterful Lovecraftian ambient album “Hastur” by Cryo Chamber. If you don’t know them yet, seriously, check them out soon if for no other reason than your games of Arkham Horror will be immeasurably enhanced.

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

Edward’s Journal, by Lee Murray

“Giraldy is back,” he said. We jumped rotting logs, trampled low bushes, in our haste to reach them. It was Giraldy, but he was barely recognizable: supine on the muddy ground, he was tinged blue and enveloped from head to toe in thick gelatinous slime. Opaque and criss-crossed with white filaments, the glutinous cocoon put me in mind of a frog’s spawn with it’s gelatinous covering, or perhaps a spider’s prey, wrapped for consumption at the creature’s leisure. Inside his filmy wrapping, Giraldy jerked.”

—Lee Murray, “Edward’s Journal”

Grotesque Monster Stories Lee MurrayWhile Lovecraft’s stories enjoy a variety of settings, from the Arctic mountains to the Australian desert, there is little question that the author himself, and many of his preconceived notions, are quite firmly rooted in the American Northeast. The Old Gent loved his Providence, and indeed, could barely stand it when circumstances forced him to move to New York. While there, he wrote what is arguably his most despised short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” a story replete with racist stereotypes and the ideals of white supremacy. For that reason, and just because I am interested, I try to seek out Lovecraftian stories set in different cultural contexts to balance out the spate of New England-y horrors. So it was that when author Lee Murray of New Zealand reached out to me with her new collection, I jumped at the chance to take a peek at it. Sadly for me, I did not discover any Cthulhu stories (one might expect that, right, out of New Zealand, so close to R’yleh?), but what I did discover was a story full of more indigenous terrors.

GROTESQUE MONSTER STORIES is Lee Murray‘s debut collection and is published by Things in the Well Australia; it was released in July 2020. It contains eleven stories, including four original to this collection, and two that are specifically Lovecraftian. One of those, “Edward’s Journal” captured my imagination more than the other. It’s set against the backdrop of the New Zealand Wars (1845-1872), which have also been known as the Māori Wars and the Land Wars. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these were about the land grabs of the British Crown and indigenous resistance to the empire’s incursions. The story is structured around a young woman’s reception of her beloved’s war diary and what the pages of that diary contain.

book-1941299_1280-e1497905055505-1024x708[1]It has been 13 years since Margaret has seen Edward or his journal, and aside from assumptions about his fate, this journal is the first clue she’s had of what befell him. “Margaret, we arrived this morning in New Zealand…we were marched from the creaking timbers of the Castilian to a place called Onehunga, which the locals pronounce Own-nay-hunger…” What follows is a series of pairs, with Margaret (and thus, you, the reader) reviewing Edward’s entries, framed as letters to Margaret, and then her reaction to them. They detail Edward’s company’s exploration of the New Zealand bush and the strange events that begin occurring to them, as well as Edward’s private thoughts. Their explorations hearken back to the grand adventure stories of a bygone era, something I think ole HPL would’ve enjoyed, and are tinged with excitement, danger, and the thrill of conquest.

Two things served to disturb me about these sections. One was the fact that we are not in the bygone era of pulp adventure stories anymore and so I was painfully aware that the thrill of conquest I was feeling came at the expense of Māori lives and land. When I read stuff like this in the original pulps (Howard, et al.) I take it with a grain of salt – all things being located in a particular time and place. (That is a decision I have made as a reader. Not all readers will make the same decision, and that is perfectly understandable.) I believe Murray is messing with us here, successfully making us question the thrills we’re getting from the story and also calling us to question who is the real monster.

The second thing that disturbed me was a writing choice she made in order to tell the story. The journal entries are so detailed, replete with complete dialogues in seemingly perfect recall, that I can’t imagine anyone actually keeping a journal in that way. Interior monologues I would understand, but such a high amount of dialogue (though it seems necessary to drive her plot) in a journal entry actually took me out of the story rather than deeper into it. The rest of the writing is accomplished and sucks you right into Margaret’s world. There are some descriptions towards the end that made me grimace with delightful body-horror shivers.

bush-background2[1]The Lovecraftian elements are subtle, aside from one journal entry in which Edward recalls seeing a “sea monster” during a storm while aboard the Castilian, that may or may not have been a mythos-type creature, or even real at all. As the New Zealand bush experience grows fatal for Edward’s fated company of British soldiers, a recurring sound induces more and more dread in the men. Murray describes it as a “ululation,” and I immediately thought of the shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness: “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” But when I ran a search, that sound does not appear in AtMoM at all, and only four times in the Lovecraft canon. Mistake aside, I began thinking about shoggoths and their enslaved relationship to the Elder Gods. This got me thinking about encroaching empires and suffering native populations the world over, especially in the New Zealand context. Like what Victor Lavalle did in “Up From Slavery,” Murray accomplishes here as well by using her unseen monster to turn the tables on the colonizers.

I do have one word of caution. In both the stories I read, “Edward’s Journal,” and “Dead End Town,” there are hints (in the former) of what some may regard as inappropriate sexual attention by an older male towards an underage female, and outright violent rape (in the latter). In both cases, the two persons involved are closer on the family tree than I care for. In the case of “Dead End Town” the use of the term “uncle” may not be familial, but that was unclear enough to me that I bring it up here. In “Edward’s Journal,” Edward and Margaret are first cousins. I am trying not to be ethnocentric and so just be aware your mileage may vary.

And now, I have to speak about the end and that will represent a spoiler, which I don’t like to do, but it is necessary here. So, if you don’t want to read the spoiler, stop reading now knowing that I enjoyed the story and would recommend it, with the caution, to anyone looking for Lovecraftian fiction in non-New England settings or from non-New England authorial perspectives. If you don’t mind spoilers, or have read the story, please click through.

Continue reading “Edward’s Journal, by Lee Murray”

Root and Branch, by Jen Downes

“Dark, bad days:  environmental collapse, weird roiling skies, breather-masks to supplement oxygen as vast tracts of ocean perished, monstrous corrosive storms gnawing away structures, human and animal populations crashing in months while lunar industry expanded exponentially and cities raced into production at L5 so fast, several suffered fatal flaws.

For a moment every one of Frankie’s vast years haunted her eyes. Then she visibly shook herself, dragged herself back to the moment. “In those years, desperate people accepted stringent measures. These folks, in modern cities? They’re soft, spoiled, demanding, petulant when they don’t get their own way.”

—Jen Downes, “Root and Branch”

“His [Rheinhart Kleiner’s] mother is gravely ill with Spanish influenza, & though he has assistance in the daytime, he has to act as her nurse throughout the night. He is utterly exhausted , & to cap the climax is now fighting a cold which may prove to be the same affliction from which his patient is suffering. This influenza is nothing light, & I certainly hope Appleton [Galpin’s hometown] may escape.

—H.P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, October 18 or 19, 1918

“It’s odd, but despite all the repeated epidemics of the past decade, I’ve never had influenza. No doubt the gods are saving a deal of picturesque suffering for my last days!”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, February 9, 1926

DSPV1_front_cover_2nd-edition_r1_ebook_Ingram[1]This review represents something a little bit different from our normal fare, but as I read this story, I couldn’t help but be struck both by how prescient it was (having been written before our present, global affliction), and by how moving was its commentary on humanity’s behavior. Truth be told, “Root and Branch” is closer to something Clark Ashton Smith might have written than HPL so if you’re just here for Lovecraftian story suggestions, you may want to skip this one. It appears in the inaugural issue of Dim Shores Presents (Volume 1, Summer 2020), a new weird fiction bi-annual anthology. I was excited to purchase a copy as soon as I could pre-order it. I haven’t read the whole volume yet, but I can tell you that what I have read of it has been consistently excellent, consistently surprising, and by a whole plethora of authors whose names are new to me, which is all very exciting. I will be buying the Winter volume when it is released straight-away, as I think Sam Cowan is doing a great job with this! (If I may offer one piece of unsolicited advice: Anthologies like this truly benefit from an Introduction and Story Notes by the authors. Neither are present here.) From the description on the back cover, “Weird horror, strange science fiction, and dark fantasy rub shoulders with each other here,” and that is certainly true. This story is definitely in the strange science fiction category.

The opening sentence tells you what’s happening, “She’s dying,” but not to whom it is happening. Or, in this case, to what. The stakes are high as here we are concerned with the impending death not of a person, but of an entire city. Nor do I mean the deaths of the people who inhabit that city (well, at first), but the city of Waratah itself. Waratah is organic, alive, and it has contracted a deadly virus that is slowly but surely killing it. With no planetary, lunar, or interplanetary habitat able to take all of Waratah’s residents as refugees, disaster looms large, and the scientist Julia Chen and her team are racing against an enormous, ticking, biological clock.

Organic City by Spivak000
Organic City by Deviant Artist Spivak000

While the plot and the characters are both very intriguing (and, as I mentioned above, pleasantly unexpected) they are not what caught my attention the most about this tale. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, with COVID19 being responsible now for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people world-wide. In many countries they have managed to control the spread of the disease by now, but not so here in the United States. This seems to be a peculiar outgrowth of what makes my country so great: our freedom. That sense of personal freedom is now being brought to bear at the cost of societal well-being and public health. As the plague ravages Waratah, and the threat of it spreading to other bio-cities grows, Downes drops little glimpses into her future/our present that knocked me for a loop with how true they’ve become. (I have no idea when this story was written, but based on the publication schedule of the anthology, it had to of been well before COVID19.) For example, here she presages the mistrust of science, “You want to live in a world where science collapsed and a few survivors compete for dregs shipped down from the space cities?” Elsewhere, the strange importance/insistence on entertainment plays a significant role. Finally, as shown in the block quote at the top, the petulant behavior of some to the detriment of the health of the masses (“We demand haircuts!”) is on full display.

Star Citizen: Into Orbit, video game screen grab
Downes is a new author to me, and I cannot find anything about her on the internet except a Goodreads author page with minimal listings, so my suspicion is she is at the beginning of her professional writing career. I, for one, will definitely be looking for her name in future Table of Contents because this was an excellent story. It features compelling prose, huge ideas, and just enough threat and fear to allow its strange sci-fi-ness to rub shoulders with weird horror. Though I do want to be clear and say that this is not a horror story. Her writing is never distracting, and often full of beautiful concepts, as here, “…it’s a mistake to believe all knowledge and memory spring from the brain. They’re rooted in every cell in your body. Those are your great-grandmother’s ears you’re wearing: you don’t know it, but your body does.” In other places, pure poetry shines through as you both see and feel what is happening, “Fatigue crept over Julia like a thick, quilted blanket. She sat on the couch, sunset behind her, while their voices receded, the lab faded to gray, on into black, and she slithered into dreams without realizing she’d fallen asleep. Even in dreams, she’d begun to plan.”

Lovecraft’s concept of cosmic horror was one that presented disinterested interstellar beings who most often inadvertently threatened humanity with destruction. His horror worked in the same way that the horror of an ant colony might be described as the gardener’s shovel wrecks and scatters its habitat to make way for the new planting. Famously, in At the Mountains of Madness, it was suggested that the creation of humanity was a cosmic joke, for the amusement of vastly superior beings. Disease, especially ones that reach the state of being a global pandemic (like the Great Influenza of HPL’s time and COVID19 in our time), is a cosmic horror all its own. It is uncaring, indiscriminate, and lethal. I don’t know how Dim Shores did it, but they managed to include “Root and Branch,” a story about a pandemic of sorts in an anthology released during a pandemic. It’s possible the story would strike a reader differently if read in a different age, but I didn’t, and so this one hit me hard.

Stay safe out there, friends. Wear a mask!  Keep good distance between you and others! Only together can we send this thing back to the nether reaches of the galaxy!

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

The Horn of the World’s Ending, by John Langan

“Where the man’s table was, the room was noticeably darker—almost more so than it should have been—and the man seemed dim, of a piece with the shadows gathered there. It was as if, the young officer thought, the darkness behind the man was casting him forward, and not the other way around.”

—John Langan, “The Horn of the World’s Ending”

“The year must have been in the late republic, for the province was still ruled by a senatorial proconsul instead of a prætorian legate of Augustus, and the day was the first before the Kalends of November. The hills rose scarlet and gold to the north of the little town, and the westering sun shone ruddily and mystically on the crude new stone and plaster buildings of the dusty forum and the wooden walls of the circus some distance to the east.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Donald Wandrei, November 3, 1927

H.P. Lovecraft was a classicist. This comes as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in the Old Gent, but what you may not know is he buried a short story (later entitled “The Very Old Folk”) set in the late Republic period of the Roman Empire in a letter to his friend and supporter, Donald Wandrei. You might know as well that it was Donald Wandrei, with August Derleth, who did the lion’s share work of preserving HPL’s works after his death through the publishing house they founded for that purpose, Arkham House. The story is fascinating and can be read in it’s entirety here, but for our purposes, I hope that it illustrates HPL’s admiration for the Roman period. It is also important to note that the story is presented as a recollection of a dream (some recall!) within a letter, but more on nesting stories in a bit.

cfog_cover_sm-518x800-1[1]Our present story is set around a century after that. “The Horn of the World’s Ending,” by short horror fiction master John Langan, is found in his latest collection, CHILDREN OF THE FANG AND OTHER GENEALOGIES  published by Word Horde. I am grateful to Ross Lockhart at Word Horde for providing me with a gratis e-copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review. Likely this review will be a bit longer than normal as there is much that I want to explore and unpack in this marvelous story, so pour a dram and settle in. In fact, if it isn’t too much of a spoiler about what I might say, while you’re settling in, go ahead and pre-order a copy of this book now (it drops in August). The story was originally published in THAT IS NOT DEAD: TALES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS THROUGH THE CENTURIES, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, and was published by PS Publishing in 2015.

The tale begins when an unnamed young Roman officer steps into a tavern in Judea (ever a Roman backwater) looking for a drink, trouble, or possibly both. Much like Frodo’s gaze was pulled towards Aragorn in his darkened corner of The Prancing Pony, our officer spies a strange man sitting swathed in darkness and is compelled to visit him. The older man, also a Roman officer, inquires after the younger man’s legion. 322318937a2cb48d5a05fac47d7be0a8[1]He informs him he is from the Ninth, the Hispana, the famed lost legion of Rome. If you didn’t know it already just from picking up a Langan story, you know it now: you’re in for a hell of a ride. Once trust is established, the older officer shows the younger an artifact he acquired in his years of service, “a short, black horn, such as might have ornamented the skull of a not-especially-large goat.” Strange symbols had been carved into it, “The writing seemed to shift as he studied it: whatever his gaze fixed on held steady, but he had the overwhelming impression that the symbols at the edges of his vision were moving, turning like carvings to show themselves from a slightly different angle.” He tells the younger officer that it came into his possession in Britannia, and claims it is a relic of Lost Atlantis. Then he invites the younger man to sit back and listen to his tale.

This story is presented in three chapters and like most Langan stories it is both longish and concatenated. The above action takes place in the first chapter and the second chapter is the older officer’s story. The final chapter returns us to the present and the young officer. This is classic Langan, nesting one story within another, creating layers that play on each other. This kind of structure allows Langan to add depth without losing the reader’s interest amid the greater detail. It also creates a feeling of the weight of time that lends credulity to the tale. 9781939905215_p0_v1_s1200x630[1]It’s a brilliant and time-honored strategy, and it is certainly a calling card of this author (see, THE FISHERMAN, for a novel length example).

Langan’s other calling card is his erudition. He does not write thin, quick, or ultra-accessible fiction. History, religion, culture, art, and literature are all subjects one needs to have under their belt to fully appreciate his work, and I know that I always finish a Langan story and ask myself, “Ok, what did I miss?” But neither is he above playful call-outs to his own friends, as here, recalling Laird Barron’s symbol of the cult of Old Leech, “The lid bore a mark that I had not seen, a circle broken about two-thirds of the way around.” In this story, there are several themes at work that merit exploration: light and darkness, Judeo-Christian concepts of deity, and (from the title of the collection) his own literary genealogy.

Whenever evil is present in this story, as in many, it is accompanied or preceded by darkness. But Langan toys with readers here, teasing out thought and inviting us to wonder. Here it is never outright darkness, but always a seeming dimming of the light. It’s never an actual thing, only a removed tilting of the head. “The man seemed dim…” and, “The campfire seemed to dim.” This made me pause and consider the nature of evil and good. Is evil so powerful that it causes even the light to dim? Or is good so strong that even in the full presence of evil it is only dimmed?

Black Goat
Goat Demon by Vassilios Bayiokos.  Digital illustration, 2018. Used with permission. More of his work found here.

It’s a matter of perspective and how you think about that changes how you read a story like this. The biblical Gospel of John put it this way, “The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Setting a story in Judea that begins with a line like, “When he imagined himself encountering a god…” and shortly thereafter including a reference to “this inn outside Bethlehem,” cannot help but evoke concepts of Judeo-Christian deity. Not unsurprisingly, direct references to YHWH, the god of the biblical Israelites, or to Jesus of Nazareth (born, according to the Gospel of Luke, in the stable of an inn in Bethlehem) are absent here. Since we’re dealing with the Cthulhu mythos (and we are), we’re automatically thinking of altogether different sorts of gods. But the setting alone begs us consider those of the Judeo-Christian traditions. What is a god? What is their power? Does that power have limits? Does their power corrupt their adherents? At the very least, there is a suggestion here that proximity to deity generates an allure for divine power. Langan goes to some interesting places that I don’t want to spoil, but a religious tack on this story is far from inappropriate.

The third theme I’d like to examine is Langan’s own literary pedigree. The subtitle of the collection refers to genealogies and in the “Story Notes” found at the back, he states that most of the stories in this collection were “written in response to invitations to anthologies devoted to a single author,” and how those influences to which he was responding “constituted a (rough, imprecise, incomplete) genealogy.” 91GryENlywL[1](As an aside, I love collections that include Story Notes, and firmly believe all collections and anthologies benefit from their presence.) Even before I read the story notes for this tale, I knew that it was paying homage not only to Lovecraft, but also to Robert E. Howard and to Arthur Machen, a contemporary of HPL’s and one of HPL’s greatest influences. The relic coming from Lost Atlantis where it was once involved in a fight with lizardmen hearkens back to Robert E. Howard’s proto-Conan character, King Kull of Atlantis. A more brooding, thoughtful, philosopher-King character, he never achieved the recognition of the more action-oriented Conan, but is still a great character in his own right. (And, readers of Howard’s Conan stories, rather than just his movie followers, will be quick to point out that Conan was way more of a thinker than ole Arnie portrayed him to be.) Shortly after this allusion, Langan writes, “The children of the gods, he said, had come to the king’s aid. Which children? I asked. Of which gods…Did he mean Pan?” This calls our attention to one of the greatest influences on HPL (and subsequently, on Langan) Arthur Machen, whose literary credits include the enormously influential novella, THE GREAT GOD PAN. 517V3hglbBL[1]These two, combined with fairly direct references to HPL’s Black Goat of the Woods serve to pay homage to some the greatest pulp and weird fiction writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In many ways, this entire website is dedicated to these genealogies, but Langan has somehow managed to masterfully wrap a short story around that.

Lastly, a brief word on Langan’s writing. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but in short, it’s brilliant. He’s a first class writer at the top of his game. He is, however, going to make you work. He builds tension slowly, methodically, but carefully and intentionally. Everything matters, including and especially his structure. He leaves you with no easy answers. His diction and syntax are elevated. For example, a character in this story does not simply die, he “completed his journey out of this life.” Now, I know that won’t be for everyone. Some will level the charge of pretension at John Langan. I think they’re wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that the thought will be there in the minds of some readers. Some might say that Emily Brontë or Jane Austen are pretentious, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re both brilliant, classic writers whose stories will live on forever. In a hundred years, when folks are digging up the history of weird fiction writers in the early 21st century, I suspect John Langan (with Caitlín R. Kiernan and Laird Barron) will be a name they already know, much as we know H.P Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood today. He’s that good.

Thank you if you stuck with me to the end, but there was a lot to say (and even more could have been explored). I loved this story and sat and thought about it a long time after I completed reading it. John Langan is so in touch with the history of the period about which he is writing that it moved me. It wasn’t particularly frightening on its surface, but when you ponder the significance of the questions it raises, it taps into some the oldest anxieties we have as a human race. I hope you buy this collection and if you haven’t yet, do also read through his back catalogue. THE FISHERMAN, specifically, is already a classic of 21st century weird fiction and one of the best pieces of cosmic horror I have ever read. Encourage your local public library to obtain a copy if they don’t have one already. Stay safe out there, friends.

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