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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trick…or the Other Thing, by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

“Nearly 11 o’clock. Insistent bell again.
“Fuck.” Atticus opened the door. Glower, takedown power pushing the same energy that shotgun projectiles deliver at impact.
“Trick…
or the other thing?”
Christ. Wasn’t even a kid. Guy. Over seven feet by any measure. Old old guy, goddamn senior by the look of him. Black as Miles Davis poured liquid smooth from the coffinBLACK that lies between the stars.”

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Nyarlathotep often appears as a very black man, darker than night, and sometimes as an avatar of the Devil, as in HPL’s “Dreams in the Witch House.” You may freely read into this HPL’s noted racism, or not, as you prefer.
In 1921 HP had a dream which he described to his friend in a letter in this way: it was “the most realistic and horrible [nightmare] I have experienced since the age of ten.” In the dream he was enjoined by another friend “Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterwards. I am still shuddering at what he showed.” And this became the basis for one of Lovecraft’s most enduring creations and a mythos pantheon regular, Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, the Man of a Thousand Faces, who takes center stage in our story today. He’s also appeared in a variety of ways in several HPL tales, and I’ll try to show you some artist depictions of those throughout this entry. He’s been a big part of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, into which sadly I’ve never delved, as well as many stories by other authors.

Like the last entry, this story is found in Mike Davis’ edited anthology, Autumn Cthulhu, published by Lovecraft Ezine Press in 2016. I wasn’t going to read two in a row from the same anthology, but when I saw the byline for this story, I just kept on reading because I’d heard so much about Joseph Pulver and had been wanting to read one of his stories. He works a lot with the King in Yellow cycle, which isn’t a Lovecraft creation but has been adopted into the mythos by many owing to its kissin’ cuzzin status.  I hadn’t read Pulver yet because I’m still making my way through the original The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. But here was a Pulver story in the anthology that was in my hands, so why not just keep reading, right?

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Nyarlathotep is described in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” by HPL, as looking like an Egyptian Pharaoh.

I mentioned last entry, too, that I wasn’t as big a fan of the next story and I have to say a lot of that distaste stems from Pulver’s distinctive writing style. You get a taste of it above in our lead quote. He writes with almost a free verse poetical style, inventing words, mashing words together, and in this story at least, sometimes just putting in song titles instead of describing a mood or something.  It’s…interesting.  Immediately, I did not care for it. However, I felt like it lightened up a bit as the story went on. Funny thing though, when I went back to look at it again prior to writing this, I saw that it didn’t, so perhaps I just had gotten used to it.   Needless to say, it’s not going to be for everyone.  I’d be willing to give it another try, though, now that I know what I’m getting into, but going in cold, I was turned off a bit.  Purely subjective analysis. Take it for what’s it worth – just about nothing.

the_haunter_of_the_dark_by_marcsimonetti[1].jpg“Trick…or the Other Thing” is a basic revenge story when you get to the heart of it, decorated for Halloween and tossing in Nyarlathotep for a mythos flavor.  I have to say, I really like the title. It made me chuckle and shudder in quick succession.  We’ve got a washed up, drug addled rock musician named Atticus and his cheated on and emotionally abused girlfriend Marilyn calling it quits, and Nyarlathotep makes visits to both of them, in different forms of course. To Atticus he appears as a costumed Tutankhamen trick-or-treater (not so much a costume, but what does Atticus know), while to Marilyn he shows up as a grandfatherly gentlemen accoutered in a black wool Armani sweater. Sadly, to neither of them does he show up as the hideous bat-winged thing from “The Haunter of the Dark”.  See left. Marilyn’s encounter goes exactly as she hopes, though she may not have realized it at first, may not even realized that she had such dark hopes.  But she trusts the elderly, besweatered man, and opens up to him.  Or rather, she is opened up by him. One, an outcome of being vulnerable with a caring stranger, the other a violation from beyond the stars.  In response to the dusky gent’s titular question, Marilyn replies, “Treat, please. I really could use one.” Pulver elaborates, “Fast, almost excited. Generally she’s a listener, a good one, but if she warms-up to the person she’d dive into conversation. Marilyn’s shocked how easy that slipped out. Feels like she’s been unlocked or unwittingly pried open.” Yep. That’s creepy.

Nyarlathotep, of all of Lovecraft’s mythos gods, plays the most with the world and the puny, insignificant humans who walk the earth. We don’t know why. Perhaps he enjoys a perverse pleasure in control, in bringing suffering, or just in kicking the ant pile. Sometimes, he even gets out his magnifying glass after he’s kicked the ant pile of humanity and focuses the energy of the distant, dark suns of Carcosa into an incinerating beam of malevolence. As he does here. It does not go well for humans in this story, and perhaps the most Lovecraftian thing about it, aside from the Crawling Chaos of course, is how easy it is for this visitor from beyond to mess with us, to stir us up, to interact with us, and ultimately to ruin us. We don’t matter. We are below the threshold of caring.

It’s hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend this one to all of you cultists out there, and the only reason is the style of Pulver’s writing is going to present an obstacle. Like I said, I didn’t like it at first, although I enjoyed the story. It wasn’t a mind blowing story. It wasn’t an original story. It didn’t go in new or interesting directions. However, all that said, it was a fun plot, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s about? I’ll be willing to give Pulver another try and whether you want to give him a try at all is up to you. But go into it forewarned as I was not. If you’ve read Pulver before, what do you think of his style? Is it a boon or a bane to you?  Pulver himself is undergoing some serious health crises and so we do wish him well and hope he recovers fully soon.

This new site is starting to get some followers, which is great, and site traffic is doing moderately well.  So, would you do me a favor, friends?  If you like what you’re reading here, give the post a like, maybe give the blog a follow? Better yet, tell your fellow Lovecraftian friends about it and share links to reviews you’re interested in.  Of course, I still hope to get some comments going and see where some discussion might lead us. At the end of the day, even if all you do is read the post, know that I very much appreciate you and your taking the time to visit this non-Euclidean corner of the internet.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “Ancient Egyptian Music” compiled by user eradiel.  I wonder how they know what that kind of music is, but it worked for me.

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

Incontrovertible testimonies of the Mi-Go: “After balancing the scales of a slight disaster involving Mindless Jaws and Things in the Water, Nyarlathotep turned to face a deranging corruption gnawing on the hearts of mortal rivers. As the mortal things departed their worldly-shells, he remembered his conversation with Marilyn about Atticus.”

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Probably my favorite interpretation of Nyarlathotep. Artist: saltibalzane (Deviant Art)

 

 

The Supplement, by John Langan

“What kind of book?”
“It’s about the size of a magazine, I told him. Bound in leather. Thirty sheets of what I thought was vellum. I estimated it as late eighteenth century, but wasn’t certain. That I could detect, the cover, the pages, were devoid of any text.”
He drew in a breath, said something like,”So you’re the one.” Then he said, “What has it done to you?”

Vintage bookBooks have always been a big part of a lot of Lovecraft stories.  Specifically, old books, forbidden books, books best left forgotten.  One of Lovecraft’s most enduring creations was the Necronomicon, a book appearing in several of his tales to different ends, but always speaking of unnameable secrets and eldritch lore.  It was supposedly authored by someone called Abdul al-Hazred, whom HPL dubbed, “the mad Arab.” He did such a good job inventing this book, reputed to have been bound in human skin, that many people have believed it to be a real book. I remember rejoicing as a teenager when I thought I had found it on the internet.  (I printed it out, in case it disappeared from the site…cause you know, the Necronomicon would be something you could just print out from the internet) In any event, this sort of tome has been such an important fixture of the Lovecraft world that it is unsurprising that we would find post-Lovecraft stories also about strange volumes and lost lore.

71+ZRq-o+yL[1]John Langan’s “The Supplement” is just such a story. I came across it in Ellen Datlow’s third Lovecraftian anthology, Children of Lovecraft, published by Dark Horse Books in 2016.  In this scholastic yarn, a junior library employee at SUNY Huguenot’s Harriet Jacobs Library encounters by chance in the grocery store a recently retired colleague from the same.  Only, when she retired six months ago, she did look like she does now. “Had twenty, thirty years elapsed since our last contact, I might have believed the woman hunched in front of me was the same one who had been my boss for the better part of five years. Wrinkled, liver spotted, the skin hung loose on her arms, around her neck. Beneath a dingy Mets cap, her hair was white, wild. A pair of thick reading glasses balanced on the end of her nose. Her lower jaw jutted forward, pushing her lips up and out in a way that reminded me of my grandfather, in the latter stages of his dementia. Everything about her suggested a collapse of catastrophic dimensions.” As the narrative unfolds we learn of the book this woman has recently acquired, the forbidden properties of which it is possessed, and the tragic reasons this aging librarian would risk it all.

Part of this story is wrapped up in an Odin legend which details how Odin lost his eye. Langan goes on to let us know where said divine orb ended up and how, to form the pages of this verboten volume, someone once carved razor thin slices from what remained of the Allfather’s eye.  That’s great stuff!  This was the part of the story that had me most sucked in (see what I did there, readers?) and you have to admit, it’s compelling lore.  When I looked up the myth, the moral it apparently attempts to pass along is that no sacrifice is too great for wisdom, for knowing. This made perfect sense, given what we come to learn about the librarian’s tragic family history.  She lost her daughtManuscript-Odinn[1].jpger to a heroin overdose, and she and her husband, unable to navigate the choppy waters of grief, soon divorced.  But with the book, she can live two lives, both her life in reality, and her life as it might have been, with her family intact.  Yet not without paying a terrible cost.  I honestly thought the explanation for her aging was going to be different that what it ended up being. I’ll leave what actually happens to your reading, but I thought that it was going to end up being that because she was living essentially two lives, she was aging at some sort of exponentially accelerated rate.  But alas, once again, I was wrong.

There’s some beautiful writing in here, particularly when Langan talks about the devastation of losing a child.  Take a look: “The adage about your child being a kind of immortality is true enough. But she wasn’t alive. What remained of my daughter was her death, the space she’d left in the world.” That’s writing you can feel. I actually had to stop when I read that and collect myself as I sympathized with this character (I’ve been around a lot of other people’s grief).  I remember reading a reflection once by a man who’s son was killed in a car accident. He wrote that it was in the small, unexpected, sneak-up-on-you things that it was the worst, like when you address a maître d’, “Five for dinner.  No. I’m sorry. Four.” The loss this character in our story feels is at times palpable, and you understand why she makes the choices she does, unlike in a lot of horror writing when you just want to scream, “Why would you do that!”

Langan’s an accomplished writer of weird fiction. He knows his craft. In fact, his recent novel, The Fisherman was listed among NPR’s Top 100 Horror Stories. So, I have to wonder, why in the world did he name this short story “The Supplement”? All I can think of is a bottle of vitamins!  It just doesn’t do it for me and I think there were probably a few other better choices out there.  Maybe, “The Appendix,” or even something like, “A Life Not Lived.”  I don’t know that those are any better, but at least they don’t make me think of vitamins.

Thoughts linger after this story comes to a close.  Would I make the same choice?  Would I be able to even think of it as a choice?  Is there some wisdom out there that is worth paying any price for?  Some knowledge of what might have been, or what will now never be?  Would I even want to know? While the last story I reviewed made me shudder a bit, this one has made me think.  There are no Lovecraftian baddies here, no cosmic horror or nihilism.  There’s a reference to an ancient God, but he doesn’t play all that big of a role.  So, what’s Lovecraftian about this morality tale? Perhaps it is this.  Some books are best left shut. Just because we can have all knowledge doesn’t mean that we ought to, or that we were meant to.  Beyond the Lovecraftian themes, this story speaks to me of how you can’t go backwards, and the emotional toll it can take on you if you try.  You can only live one life and when that life moves you on, positively or devastatingly, you have to go with it, as difficult or unpalatable that might be. To do otherwise, to try to fight that current, will age you at best, and destroy you at worst.

I think that does it for this story, my little shoggoths.

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

Most eldritch words: “She was holding the book in both hands, tilted upright, her neck inclined toward it. From my position, I could see that the pages open before her were indeed blank. They trembled, as if composed of a substance less solid than paper.” (And the next line is even better, more eldritch, but too terrible to print! Besides, I couldn’t possibly spoil your supper.)