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



The Song Inside the Star, by Madison McSweeney

“Bubbly lyrics about high school romances and accounts of barely-legal clubbing have been replaced by proggy ramblings on black holes and mysterious beings from other dimensions.”

—Madison McSweeney, “The Song Inside the Star”

“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel.”
—Hunter S. Thompson

planet[1]Very few people could argue that music is not affective. Naturally, Thomas Ligotti is one of them; speaking of a particularly dark time for him in a 2015 interview with many different contemporary weird fiction authors and published by the Lovecraft E-Zine, he said, “I lost music for ten years this time. I also lost my imagination for those ten years. They both came back, and I loved them again. But I didn’t believe in them anymore. I’ll never believe in them as I once did. They’re not real—not really. They are something to kill time, something between me and death.” Very Ligotti. However, Lovecraft wasn’t averse to it, and placed music’s power at the center of his story, “The Music of Erich Zann.” (I wish I could find a quote from one of Lovecraft’s letters on the subject of music, but alas, I am currently away from my library.) Clark Ashton Smith composed an “Ode to Music,” in which he wrote, “We may not know whence thy strange sorceries fall—/Whether they be Earth’s voices wild and strong,/Her high and perfect song,/Or broken dreams of higher worlds unfound.” I think I have to depart from Ligotti and side with HPL and CAS on this one: music can move the soul. It has the power to transport you to the highest heights and the deepest depths. It is inspiring, challenging, soothing, haunting, all depending on the listener, their circumstances, and their mood. I believe in it and so does Madison McSweeney, who composes a confident tale of Lovecraftian horror which I’ll review here featuring….a teeny-bopper pop-star.

il_1588xN.1882103768_4ful[1]Appearing in Weird Mask Magazine, Issue 18, published in May of 2019, I am grateful to the author for a gratis review copy of this story. She is a new author to me but has been widely published in various anthologies and Zines including American Gothic Short Stories and Mysterion. In this story, Caroline Benzen, or “Cara” to her growing legion of pubescent fans, is stretching her creative muscles against the advice of her managers and wanting to try something completely different for her next album. Jim McKibben has the misfortune of being the journalist from SoundHound Magazine assigned to interview her as well as cover her latest tour. He explains how she is your typical teenaged star: grand ideas of herself coupled with a certain vacuousness. She’s got boyfriend problems (of course), teenage angst (only the kind that sells records), and a gifted set of pipes. Behind all that though there is a nascent strangeness. “I’m very informed,”  proclaims Cara, “I know things a lot of people don’t.” McKibben makes a note to look up some of the things she’s talking about before he writes his article: “Notes: Look up “The Keeper of the Keys”; “Yogg Sotthoth (sp?); “Goat with 1000 Young.” As you, informed readers, might guess, the prospects for the characters of our story grow decidedly grim.

Real life teen pop-star, Charlotte Lawrence, in concert in LA, 2018. Photo credit: Rachel Ann Cauilan.
Throughout this rather short story (2700 words) I appreciated the confidence of McSweeney’s authorial voice. Her writing flows and reads with ease, especially given the format. She delivers this tale in a sort of modern epistolary fashion, made up of emails, text messages, draft article pieces with private marginalia, journal entries, and memorandums. She wisely deploys these techniques in differently metered doses to create a well-rounded picture of contemporary communication at the same time as she propels a compelling narrative. I really enjoyed this multi-format approach and think other readers will as well. By writing in a way that contemporary readers are used to digesting information, she helps sink you into the world of her story that bends this new reality around yours. It may have you questioning yourself the next time you buy a ticket to a concert by the next-big-thing. When it’s safe to go to concerts again, maybe, just maybe, it won’t be.

There are some things that I think would’ve made the story stronger. The first (after some research) I think is just a function of the submission guidelines for Weird Mask (3000 word limit), but I really wish the story had been a bit longer. I think if she had the word count to further develop some of her ideas and concepts the story would really have benefited. As it stands now, the horrible things come too suddenly and too on the nose, in turn making the reactions of the journalist character somewhat difficult to believe. With proper build-up though, she would not have to rely on such directness and could dwell more in hints and allusions. A second element that would make the story stronger is more done with the boyfriend character as one much closer to Cara than McKibben, but still looking from the outside in. Finally, Cara’s development is too fast. In one case her brazenness works for her youthfulness and naïvete, whereas mostly it comes off as hurried plotting. She needs some more motivation, perhaps, as to why she falls victim to these forces, or why she particularly was chosen.

Title: Goat with a Thousand Young. (2013) Imgur artist: TransientCurse
I’d love to see early drafts of some of Cara’s new lyrics where she is working this out, and McKibben’s (or perhaps her boyfriend’s) reactions to them. Fan reactions to her proposed new direction would not be out of place in a longer version of the tale either. Perhaps those are separate issues, but perhaps not. What I am saying is that I’d love to read a more fleshed-out version of this tale in any future collection McSweeney publishes.

That about wraps it up for this review, friends. I tried to compose it while listening to early Britney Spears, but I just could not. Some horrors are too beyond the pale for even me. Instead I listened to a playlist of my own creation based on suggestions from an online Lovecraft group that I unoriginally titled “The Music of Erich Zann.” It’s full of dark string music and bizarre, experimental tone poems. Feel free to check it out.

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



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.”

“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