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

Ammonia, by William Holloway

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

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

~William Holloway, “Ammonia”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West of Matamoros, North of Hell, by Brian Hodge

“Now you didn’t have to look hard at all to find her. Santa Muerte was everywhere, never more so than during the last decade, ever since the cartel wars erupted into a never-ending series of bloodbaths and massacres. Saint Death, Holy Death, had really come into her own.”

e_chizmar07_360x540[1]It is a testament to Mr. Hodge’s writing that I hadn’t originally planned on reviewing this story, having just recently reviewed another by him, but in the weeks since I read this, it has haunted me like few stories have. Some terrors are far too real, and I think that is the main reason this has stuck with me the way that it has. When combined with a visceral writing style possessed of a certain immediacy, the twin horrors of this story bleed through the page into your mind, your soul, and I, at least, found myself trembling. Originally published in “Dark Screams, Volume Seven” put out by Hydra in 2017, West of Matamoros, North of Hell was chosen by Ellen Datlow for inclusion in “The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten,” which is where I found it. It is easy to see why it was included.

Rock stars Sebatián, Sofia, and Enrique put out a certain kind of music, the kind that your mom probably wouldn’t approve of. Their latest album was a huge success and they want to follow it up by going deeper, getting more real, and strengthening their chosen personas as traffickers of evil and death. The fans love it, but it’s all showbiz. guadalupe-santamuerte[1]So, they line up a video shoot down in Matamoros, Mexico—the heartland for Santa Muerte worship. If you know even a modicum of Spanish, you know that translates to Saint Death. Santa Muerte worship has been around forever, in some form or another, most likely having its origin in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion. When the Spanish conquer what is now Central and parts of South America, they bring Catholicism with them, and it co-mingles with the native faith, ultimately producing a vibrant and popular cult of saints unlike anywhere else in the world. Above you can see the similarities in the icon images of La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary, as she appeared in Guadalupe), and Santa Muerte. Traditionally, Santa Muerte isn’t actually all that scary, being associated with healing, protection, financial well-being, the assurance of a path to the afterlife, and the guardian of the LGBT community. santamuerte061[1]However, she has also been adopted (probably on account of the imagery associated with her that gives her more of a Grim Reaper appearance, complete with scythe) by the cartels and other criminal elements in Mexico. Shrines to her can be found everywhere from people’s homes to large, public shrines erected for community celebrations such as this one pictured here, at the International Temple of Santa Muerte, in Estado de Mexico, Mexico. There’s a bunch of other great images and interesting information about her cult in this article, Worshipping at the Altar of Sweet Saint Death, by Allison Meier.

Family cookouts and community festivals, however, don’t figure so much into this tale of terror. After the video shoot, our earnest musicians are ready to get out of dodge. After all, when going for realism in your video and shooting on location in the Mexican desert, you are actually placing yourselves well within the jurisdiction of the cartels who worship Santa Muerte in, shall we say, less than wholesome ways. As they’re rolling out, the most terrifying lines of the whole story appear, suddenly and irrevocably.  “[Enrique] was slumped into the door with his head against the window when he perked up at the sight of something shooting out of a bush ahead of them. Thinking in that instant, holy shit, it was the biggest snake he’d ever seen, even though he knew that wasn’t right.” When I read that, I thought, “oh shit, tire spikes…” and sure enough…“An instant later came the sound of blowing tires, a double bang in front, another double bang in the rear.”

SONY DSCSudden, final, and immediate violence follows. The kind that makes you wonder, even as you read, is this really happening? Did that just happen? Hodge manages to communicate the confusion of the blur of action and blood in an incredibly convincing way, especially the speed of the event. When the dust settles, our cast of characters is somewhat reduced and they find themselves imprisoned in an underground cell of some sort with a bunch of other unsavory folks. There is a small, ceiling-level window, out of which a nightmarish scene is displayed. “Not far beyond the front doors was the biggest Santa Muerte he’d ever seen. She stood fifteen feet tall, easy. Her blue robes were voluminous, enough material there for a festival tent. She seemed too big to have found her a scythe that wouldn’t look like a toy. Yet they had. Somebody must’ve made it just for her, a scythe big enough to cut the moon in half. And somehow…somehow the skull was at scale. “That can’t be real, ” Sofia said. No. It couldn’t. It just looked real. The yellowing of age. The uneven teeth. The missing teeth, random gaps in the jaw. They’d had it made, that was all.”

A gruesome human sacrifice to this Santa Muerte follows, presided over by a man with a skull tattooed over his face and head. I’ll not describe the sacrifice here, but it is drawn from reality, at least as far as the news can report on the atrocities of the cartel gangs. (Descriptions of the skull faced man reminded me of Rick Genest, pictured here, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for most tattoos of human bones. Though I’ll use him to illustrate this story, I draw no connections between this awful fictional character and Mr. Genest, who died tragically in 2018.) This is one of the things that makes this story so terrifying. It’s not fake, this sort of thing has happened and continues to happen to innocent people. Be in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and you could be kidnapped for ransom money, or just flat out killed for no reason. rickgenestbanner1200x627[1]However, in this story, Skull Face has a reason. He targeted these band members because he was a fan of their hellish music and wanted to know how they got it all so right. What was their inspiration? He’d carve it out of them if need be.

As the story draws towards its cringe-worthy conclusion, the cosmic horror begins. While not strictly Lovecraftian, there are themes of placating an outer god reminiscent of the bayou scene from The Call of Cthulhu, or perhaps even The Festival. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that the terror moves from the realm of the all-too-real cartel violence to a moment of the cosmically fantastic. Either way, I’m crossing Matamoros off my list of possible vacation destination.

Brian Hodge writes with a fluidity that just pulls you along without calling attention to itself. There’s not a lot of flowery passages or clever turns of phrase. There’s just great, solid writing that allows you to get lost in the story that he’s telling, and that is a very good thing. This is only the second or third story I’ve read by Brian Hodge but I will be reading more, and in part that is because they are just so readable. In this one, I felt the fear dripping from the sweat of his protagonists.  I winced with the characters as the knives went in, and I thought wtf? with those who were stunned by the dizzying whirlwind of violence. Brian Hodge is a master.

That about wraps it up for this one, mis amigos. This was composed listening to the Spotify playlist, “Santa Muerte – Cartel de Santa” compiled by Hilario Ramirez.

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

The Liturgy of Santa Muerte: “‘And me, see, I know blood. I know sacrifice. I’m one of the ones they call when they really want to send a message, because I can do it and not blink.’ He motioned to the towering Santa Muerte, the body parts laid out before her. They buzzed with flies and gave off a stink like roadkill. ‘It’s just another day’s work to me.'”