Ekwiiyemak (The Place Where It Rains) by Patrick Loveland

“Cases from the stagecoach were busted open and sprayed with blood—and that thick black fluid with the sickly bright spots. More torn and broken limbs, innards, and organs had been strewn about, some half sucked into the muddy road. Shiv said, “Burn everything black you see.”

—Patrick Loveland, “Ekwiiyemak”

“[Robert E. Howard] has seen a good deal of the rough life of oil boom towns, & hotly resents the way large eastern corporations exploit Texas. When he says his life is ‘tame & uneventful,’ he is thinking only of Western standards.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, February 16, 1935

too-many-eyes[1]The “Weird Western” is a sub-genre that holds so much promise and is ripe for harvesting by skilled authors. Foreboding, almost foreign, landscapes. Gold rush towns run by lawless men that all too quickly transform into ghost towns as the money dries up. The cries of the dispossessed become the wails of forlorn spirits. In ride duster-clad anti-heroes, six shooters at their hip and occult symbols dangling from their necks. Tumbleweeds drift across the road; a moment of unnatural quiet before violence shatters the dawn. Armed with “Ekwiiyekamk,” the first story in his horror collection TOO MANY EYES, Patrick Loveland strolls onto this scene. But does he have what it takes to survive this unforgiving locale? We’ll find out, and in any event, I am grateful to Mr. Loveland for providing me with a free e-book copy in exchange for an honest review.

Released in 2019 by Stay Strange Publishing (oddly, a music publisher rather than a book publisher), TOO MANY EYES is Patrick Loveland’s first horror collection, though many of these stories are reprints. The first thing that I noticed was the very eye-catching cover (see what I did there?) b2cb1f1db738980f727f3b13942c7543[1]that immediately put me in mind of the older Del Rey Lovecraft collections, with cover art by Michael Whelan. Mr. Loveland, when I asked, said he designed his cover for exactly that comparison and to pay homage to Whelan’s art. The stories in this collection move through time beginning with this first one that takes place in the 19th century American West and moving all the way into the far sci-fi-laden future. It’s a clever organization. Not every story in the collection is particularly Lovecraftian, but HPL’s influence is all over this first one for sure.

The year is 1889 and our story opens in a saloon. Classic. Our hero, Absalom Tate, steps out of the saloon into the dusty street (you can almost hear the creak of the swinging saloon doors behind him) where a strange wind has blown up, spooking his horse. At the same time, across the way, a woman descends a stairway with all the air of providence swirling round her.

Weird Western Shiv O'Shea
Artist: Geoffroy Thoorens

This is Shiv O’Shea, our other main character, and one with whom Tate has had many previous encounters. She’s dressed as a gunslinger, and a heavily armed one at that. Upon closer inspection, she bears some unique gear as well, the purpose of which is shrouded in mystery but it portends battles against heretofore unknown foes. Not long after re-introductions are made a stagecoach rolls into town, drawn by a pair of seriously wounded horses. The coach has seen better days as well, and seems to be leaking a strange blackish-red fluid. Things really get weird when one horse suddenly begins to eat the other, “black boils with bubbles of bright green and purple form and multiply around the eviscerated horse’s mouth and eyes as it limped after its prey.” Overly described firearms are drawn and fired, and, when the chambers have been emptied, Shiv torches the whole mess with a homemade flamethrower.

When the smoke clears, it comes to light that Shiv is not just here by chance, but is on a secret government mission to combat the exact biological abnormality they’d just encountered. She doesn’t need any help, but Tate and the gang immediately sign up anyway. Their adventure takes them to the titular Ekwiiyemak, a lake south of town near an old, abandoned goldmine. It is in this mine where the main action of the story takes place. That little scene with the stagecoach turns out to have been only the appetizer, in more ways than one. In a quieter moment, the Sheriff asks O’Shea what’s going on and she cryptically replies, “There’s a debt being paid back, older than you can understand.” L896679[1]oveland here taps into that same sense of deep, geologic time that Lovecraft was such a fan of. This all leads to a somewhat predictable, if fun conclusion that’s far bloodier than “The Dunwich Horror” but calls it to mind with the same type of “big boss” scene.

So, does  “Ekwiiyemak” scratch that Lovecraftian/weird western itch? Well, sort-of. There’s two things that held it back for me. The first is that there was nothing particularly new about this story.  I enjoyed it for the most part, but this is all ground that has been tread before and I found myself easily distracted from my reading. The second thing that really holds this story back is unfortunately the writing. In many places it clearly is in need of a stronger editorial hand. “Until the creature broke a hard appendage like a fleshy insect leg out through the gaps in the boards, sunk it into Esposi’s shoulder, and pulled his body down away from its grotesque tentacle stalk.” Is the appendage hard or fleshy? Did it pull the body down or away? You get so lost in the descriptors that you lose the sense of what is actually happening. In a lot of places this story suffers from lack of clarity—frankly, it’s too many to ignore. There is also a sort of obsessive focus on the guns, which eye-rollingly get described to the fullest extent every time one gets drawn. This intense focus on weaponry belies a deep interest of the author, which is why it’s so strange that he keeps referring to the ammunition proper to shotguns as “rounds” instead of “shells.” Towards the end of the story he gets it right, as if someone told him, but then he failed to go back to the beginning and correct previous instances. In other places, instead of being too much, descriptions are lazy: “The more intact horse…” Finally, the presence of tentacles for tentacles’ sake adds next to nothing except a flailing attempt to drive home the idea that this is a Lovecraftian story. It would be a Lovecraftian story even if the monsters didn’t feature tentacles, so their addition feels derivative. This story is set in the Western plains; tentacles don’t belong.

What did keep me interested, though, were the pacing and the character of Shiv O’Shea. Loveland’s got pacing figured out – this story moved and never looked back. sportinglodge+378a[1]Sometimes in weird fiction this isn’t the case as authors spill too much ink establishing set pieces or long winded expositions. Not here. This is an unapologetic action story and it moves. I also think he’s on to something with Shiv’s character. She was pretty awesome, a no-nonsense badass whose shooting baddies and chewing gum. And, you guessed it, she’s all out of gum. Her armaments are like something out of Q’s lab in a James Bond flick. I mean, a triple barrel shotgun – that rocks! The Absalom Tate narrator simply faded into the background, forgotten, when stood up against Shiv. Loveland might be one to watch, but he’s going to have to be more inventive with his stories, and he’s going to have to get some of these editorial miscues under control first.

That wraps this one up, friends. I hope everyone is doing as well as they can during this time of Coronavirus self-isolation/quarantine. Let’s all do our part to get through this as quickly and as safely as possible. This is the Bibliothecar telling you to STAY HOME and READ LOVECRAFTIAN STORIES!

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

 

A Lost Student’s Handbook for Surviving the Abyss, by Gwendolyn Kiste

“We offer plenty of great times around campus, but please remember this one rule: absolutely no underage drinking. Alcohol dulls the senses, and you’re going to need all the alertness you can muster.”

d342d2cf1ba6a29a110ca2dff632144e_original[1].jpgThe University Experience in the United States is not only a defining series of years in a young person’s life, but, if my international friends’ experiences are any kind of tell, also distinctly, and uniquely, American. It should be an easy thing to say that the most important thing you come away with after those four years is your degree, but if I’m being honest with myself, it is not easy to say that at all. There’s friendships and relationships to consider, mistakes made and re-made, lessons learned inside and outside the classroom, the whole Greek system (if you indulged in that), and just a whole lot of growing up that happens in a mostly unregulated environment. Maybe, at the end of the day, the degree is what you came for but you left with quite a bit more besides. That degree may hang on your wall now, proclaiming to the world that you are qualified to do and say as you do, but those other, more intangible lessons are what you carry much closer to the heart on a day to day basis. It is into that kind of collegiate co-ed setting (and not the stuffier, more erudite, cherry-paneled setting you might think of when you imagine the Miskatonic University from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories) that Gwendolyn Kiste drops her readers in this story.

Miskatonic University first appeared in 1922 in HPL’s “Herbert West: Reanimator” but went on to star in “The Dunwich Horror (1929),” where its prestige was first implied, and then it quickly became a favorite prop for many other mythos stories. The fated Dyer Expedition to Antarctica found in “At the Mountains of Madness (1931)” was funded by Miskatonic U’s geology department.  Nathaniel Peaslee, narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time (1936)” was a professor of Political Economy at MU. But in this anthology, WELCOME TO MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY, put out by Broken Eye Books, and edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski, Miskatonic University is brought forward in time to the present day where students email and text one another, join fraternities and sororities, complain about the food, and attend normal sounding and not so normal sounding classes in an attempt to graduate with that coveted four year degree. A big thank you to Broken Eye books for providing me with a free e-ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.

michele-botticelli-miskatonicuniversity[1].jpgGwendolyn Kiste, no stranger to the mythos, contributes our present story of a young woman just starting out at MU and finding it all a bit overwhelming. What she manages to accomplish, both masterfully and quickly, is a very realistic campus feel in which the narrator’s problems can, by an experienced mythos reader, all be easily attributed to the mythos. What’s so masterful about it, though, is that they’re all normal college kid problems—confusing class schedules, trouble making friends, sexual pitfalls, and academic woes—that in this case can be blamed on the mythos backdrop, but in real life (certainly in this author’s experience) had no such easy scapegoat. Let’s face it, college is a terrible, wonderful, confusing, and enlightening time. I wish there had been an easy scapegoat for all my difficulties, but there never was. So when Kiste provides the mythos backdrop to those otherwise very real issues, it had the effect of letting me laugh along, sometimes at, sometimes with, the characters. And subsequently, laugh a bit uncomfortably along with myself and my own memories of college.

The narrative is peppered throughout with brilliant snippets from the titular handbook that, again, are funny because they are in a mythos story, but just as easily in most cases, could not be. For example, “Your schedule might seem a little arcane at first, but rest assured, these courses will prepare you for a world that isn’t always as welcoming as it pretends to be.” It’s good advice, really, whether it appears in a mythos tale or not!

Miskatonic_Library_1__41790.1425053206[1]As the story progresses, the weirdness ramps up in the midst of a rather believable account of a first semester freshman. Parts of buildings come and go in the ether at will. Class titles get stranger and stranger. Students disappear. It’s all very unsettling but told in a lighthearted tone. One of the more emotional moments, for me, came in the midst of a typical campus tryst. Kiste writes, “Owen keeps talking about escape and freedom, and I can’t stand the sound of it, so I kiss his lips, his throat, his chest, anything to stop him from saying what I don’t want to hear.” Sex, drugs, and alcohol are time honored student aids to depress the growing and terrifying realization that none of us have a clue. The lie is that you’re supposed to discover that clue in college. The truth that so few manage to discern is that college is actually more about learning how you’ll deal with the fact that you’ll never have as much of a clue as you’d like. It is less about what the answer for any given problem is, and more about how you navigate it, because the darkness is all around and encroaching more and more every day. Somehow, I think Kiste gets that, and it bleeds through into her story.

Kiste’s writing is crisp, clean, and a delight to read. It is not frilly, or indulgent, but just exactly what it needs to be for this story. Her command of the voice of her narrator is great – I think it would be difficult to write a first semester freshman, but she nails it; I never once was taken out of the story.

I had a lot of fun with this one, as well as with the other stories I read in the anthology, but here’s the thing: this is a very niche market book. This anthology is only going to appeal to mythos diehards. It is neither for general consumption (not even as a light introduction to the mythos) nor is it even for all fans of HPL’s stories. It’s a clever experiment and a quirky answer to the theoretical question: What if Miskatonic University was real in 2019? Each one of these authors’ (and it is an enviable TOC) answers to that question is an individual joy, complete with a wink and a nod. But I can’t imagine too many people will find it necessary reading outside of a pretty tight circle.

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

The Case of Yuri Zaystev, by S.L. Edwards

“Days were measured in piling snow, lives in black-rotting cells and time in final breaths. The white-washed landscape was the endless world. To walk there, in that terrible and featureless place, was to take one more step toward heaven or hell…The only refuge from the cold, constant and unchanging place was even worse than the vast frozen desert. Death was written into the architecture of the outpost of humanity before the endless night-world, a prison where men were sent to rot and disappear in fog and ice.”

whiskey-front-cover[1]Whether it was the blasted heath of “The Dunwich Horror” or the dim shores of “The White Ship,” the sanity-stretching bricks of Rue d’Auseil or the colossal piles of bones beneath Exham Priory, one of Lovecraft’s many gifts was to set you with unsettling firmness within his mad geographies. With the indelibility of spilling ink, the importance of a sense of place seeps from his pages staining his settings in your mind as much as any of his quivering professors and eldritch monstrosities. Indeed, one of Lovecraft’s favorite stories was Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” a story based upon the notion that the geography itself is set against you. Of Blackwood’s story Lovecraft wrote, “I am dogmatic enough to call “The Willows” the finest weird story I have ever read…” It was a sentiment he repeated in several letters. (As an aside, if you’ve not yet read “The Willows” you really ought to do so. Lovecraft was right; it’s that good.) Taking inspiration from “The Willows,” our current author, S.L. Edwards, has penned a tale of frosty nightmare and frigid death. “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” can be found in WHISKEY AND OTHER UNUSUAL GHOSTS, the second weird fiction collection released by Gehenna Books in 2019. It will be available for purchase on July 15. I’m grateful to Mr. Edwards for supplying me with an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

6787208-1[1]Yuri Zaystev is a soldier in Stalin’s army with a very singular task. He drives a truck out into the arctic tundra and dumps the bodies of those who have died in the Gulag, some friend, some foe. Burying them is not in the equation for Comrade Zaystev; not only is the frozen ground impossible to dig out, but the brutal, biting arctic winds make burial an unnecessary chore. “The tundra winds would claim human refuse, sweep it back into its cold folds and take the bodies far away from human eyes and memories.” And later, “If they were not eaten by polar bears the winds would be kind to them and strip them of their useless skin until their bones were as white and gleaming as snow.” He’s made this run a hundred times if he’s made it once—now, just think about that given the nature of his task and the real-life horror of this story peeks through—but today, for no other reason than garden variety ennui, he seeks companionship with an old, faithful friend: vodka. Stopping the truck at the appointed place, he gets out and walks to the back where he swings open the canvas covered truck bed and glimpses, to his absolute horror, nothing. To a normal person a truck bed full of frozen, emaciated corpses would provide the fright, but for Yuri, it is the opposite, their absence, that scares. What happens next I will leave to your reading, but I did find it enjoyable, and like “The Willows,” satisfyingly ambiguous.

31974480171_9cc0ea6a66_o[1].jpgI found this story to be surprisingly emotionally affecting. I don’t know whether it was reading about the horrific nature of Stalin’s death camps at a time when my own country is running concentration camps along its Southern border, or the howling bleakness of the arctic that Edwards presents, but I was moved by the reading. Did it live up to “The Willows” as a piece of weird fiction? Well, no, but that’s hardly a knock on the story – “The Willows” really is one of the finest examples of the genre, and that’s a tall glass of whisky to live up to. One of the things that made “The Willows” work so well was the long, slow-burn build up of undeniable tension. It’s a fairly lengthy story while Yuri’s tale is pretty brief by comparison. The terror and the weird “otherness” of the stories are very different and so it is difficult to say with any certainty how a lengthening of “The Case of Yuri Zaystev” would affect it. However (and there’s little to suggest that Edwards couldn’t do this well), I think it would improve an already gratifying story. As it is, there isn’t much time for a build up of tension. Rather, there is a presumption of tension already present. That allows the author to jump right into the more terrifying aspects of his tale with a certain, more immediate, ferocity, but the cost is a lot of that which made “The Willows” so successful.

Edwards’ writing is at times evocative and controlled, leading the reader to the edge of the icy crevasse so gently that they never look down to see it coming.  And, as I mentioned, it has the capacity to be emotionally arresting. See:

neverremember-1_fk51dh[1]
Actual photo of a Gulag victim, from the mugshot files of the People’s Commissariat for State Security (NKVD), Stalin’s Secret Police.
“He could not recognize the face or any other distinguishable thing about the body. There was nothing about the shape of the nose, the sculpting of the chin or any sort of scars or hair that would have caused Yuri to recognize the man. He was part of an endless, unremarkable crowd, only remarkable because he stood out against the decrepit wreckage of what is left in the human frame after its humanity has been forcefully removed.” 

Horror works because of empathy; sociopaths who lack it cannot grasp why what they do inspires terror. In passages like these Edwards captures a fleeting empathy amid the wild winds of the tundra. That empathy is present in all of the stories I read in this collection, and is one of the reasons I think he will ultimately be a successful author in the genre. However, at other times, that control I mentioned slips. Even within the beauty of the above quotation, my eye was tripped up when he used the word “remarkable” immediately after saying it was “unremarkable.” Another word might have been more effectively deployed here. I don’t say this to be super nit-picky either, as I found that to be the case several times across multiple stories. Now diction and syntax are incredibly personal, and likely some of those hangups were just my own as a reader. What I don’t think is just me, though, is that it seems like he often uses too many words when fewer will not just do, but be better.  I realize that’s hard to swallow following the thought that the story might be improved by being longer, but it’s a matter of the right words, not just extra words.

Here’s the other main reason I think S. L. Edwards will be one to watch in the weird fiction community: the ideas are there, in spades. Across each story that I read, I experienced a genuine, creeped-out “oh crap!” moment. The talent is here folks and I think he’s going to be around for a while. This story in particular, and the collection in general deserve your attention, especially if you’re interested in not just horror and weird fiction, but in knowing early on who are the up and comers. Like all writers, his craft will grow, his skill will sharpen, and when they do, he will make all those ideas running around inside his head bleed. You’re going to want to be there for that.

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

The Unheard Lament of Yuri Zaystev: “He was not a bad man! No worse than the men he worked with! But he had been a hero! He had been a hero of Stalingrad! Stalin personally had thanked him! This alone should have been a ticket for his salvation, something to save him from whatever cruel tricks the snows and winds were playing on him now! He screamed out his life, that it was not his fault men were killed! He was not the one who decided to leave their corpses unhallowed in the Tundra…”

Of Card Games and Airships: Two from Strange Company, by Pete Rawlik

“The backs of the cards were gray, and without embellishment, though they were creased and stained more than any other deck he had ever seen. Of the cards that sat face up, he could only see details of the top one. The background was white or cream, and held an image of a green line, a yellow curve, a blue five-pointed star, a crimson square, and a circle that was solid black. In forty years of gambling, the stranger had never seen anything like it, and he knew that he had finally found what he was looking for.”

45317055[1]A lot of mythos/Lovecraftian/cosmic horror stories take themselves very seriously, and to be honest, this is not a bad thing. It’s hard not to take the end of the world at the hands (tentacles?) of a galaxy-devouring elder god seriously. But Pete Rawlik is here to remind us that there is another way to look at things, too. A light-hearted, fun, over the top way, because when Azathoth sets his sights on earth, you might as well smile.  I first encountered Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine podcast, where he is one of the regular personalities and contributors, but until now I had not read any of his work. The good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Books recognized that Rawlik had written and published a lot of short stories, but thus far had not put out a collection of unrelated short stories, and so they sought to remedy that.  STRANGE COMPANY AND OTHERS is the result, and I’m grateful to them for providing me with an e-arc so that I could end my ignorance of Rawlik’s considerable contribution to the mythos.  When I first glanced at the TOC I saw that it was divided up into three sections: “Mainstream Mythos,” “Other Horrors,” and “Alternate Mythos.” I didn’t think I could do justice to all that this collection entails without taking a closer look at a story from both the first and last sections, so that is exactly what we’re gonna do. First up, the second story from the collection, DRAKE TAKES A HAND.

DRAKE TAKES A HAND

This tale opens up in an unnamed desert town with a tall man in a well used duster, snakeskin boots, and a wide-brimmed hat walking into a saloon that boldly advertises, “NO GAMBLING,” sitting down at the bar, slamming a whiskey, and asking where the card game is. Immediately, I was hooked. Knowing that this story was in the “mainstream mythos” section of the book, I was very curious to read a Lovecraftian/western mashup, and DRAKE did not disappoint.

carl-hantman-cowboy-standing-against-the-bar-of-a-western-saloon[1].jpgIt’s hard to talk about this story’s plot too much without giving anything away, but I think it is safe to say that a card game does break out, and it is a most unusual card game to be sure. Now while this story takes itself a bit more seriously than the other I’ll review below, it isn’t without its pranks. As the rules to the card game take shape, I had to laugh out loud because it’s basically Uno, with a mythos deck! I loved how Rawlik slowly reveals the cards, the rules, the strategies, and ultimately, the stakes of this game: “The table shook, the lights flickered, and Drake was plunged into a nightmare vision of the universe.”  The players, too, are quite a cosmic crew: “He found the cigarette he had made earlier and struck a match. A figure came out of the darkness. Whatever it was that had come from the hall was not human.”

Eschewing Lovecraft’s more pompous diction and syntax choices, Rawlik instead opts for a tale told in everyday language, which allows you as the reader to easily slide into this card game and the world that surrounds it. I thought the sense of place he was able to evoke, and very quickly too, was effective and made the biggest impact on my enjoyment of the story.  There’s no grand message here, no moral or caution. Instead, it’s just good, old-fashioned pulp. At the same time, it is not a pastiche work either. This story, like most in this collection, demonstrate a serious command of and love for Lovecraftian lore. There’s deep respect for the original material here, even if viewed through the lens of an Uno game.

THE STRANGE COMPANY

I’ll turn now to the titular story in this collection, and one found in the final section of stories, the “Alternate Mythos” section. THE STRANGE COMPANY immediately snagged my attention out of the TOC because I noted that it had originally been published in the Brian Sammons anthology, STEAMPUNK CTHULHU. I’d never read anything from that anthology before, but boy was I excited to now! I wrote a moment ago that DRAKE takes itself a bit more seriously than this one, and you need to understand that before going in. While this is a ripping yarn, it is pulpy, a bit bizarro, jam packed with ridiculous action, and is complete with a cast list of the who’s who of the Lovecraftian mythos. And just as I said above, there’s a deep love and respect for the source material here. The name drops he gives, the places he references, the stories alluded to in rapid fire succession all tally up to say you’re not just dealing with an author who is a Lovecraft fan, you’re dealing with a Lovecraft student.  Casual fans will easily pick up on Dunwich and Cthulhu references, but will likely miss out on some of the best ones, like Lord Jermyn.  That said, if you’re in the mood for something atmospheric, weird, unsettling, or disturbing, let me stop you right here.

airship_by_terrylh-d60ffmw-970x342[1].jpg

This story opens in the “observation blister” of the airship “Strato-Sphere” in the midst of what sounds like a very long running, heated conflict between, you guessed it, the forces of good and the cosmic forces of ultimate evil.  Both heroes and villains are ripped from the Lovecraftian canon.  After a brief amount of discussion and plotting, the story charts a course for an action packed, steampunk battle. Physics is pushed well past its generally accepted limit as alien weapons are blasted about and evil scientists and warlocks alike are tossed to and fro. “Far below, the Strato-Sphere hung in the air like a soap bubble surrounded by a strange field of black light. Off to the side, on the top of another tower, a team of men were manipulating a massive array of emitters, while steam billowed out around their feet. St. John cursed the fusion of cheap energy and alien technology.”

While I was reading this, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of a short story, this was a comic book. I say that and I’m not even a comic book fan, but the material is just so well suited to that medium that somebody outta adapt it.  Rawlik writes in that anachronistic pulpy tone that makes you think you’re reading something from a bygone era, but were you to compare this side by side with something from Edgar Rice Burroughs for example, you’d find that Rawlik’s modern milieu is actually shining through more than you expect.  For example, female characters take center stage in the action, and not as damsels in distress but as heroes, something you wouldn’t find in the John Carter stories.

cbab9d9f344dca5adf5bd3f16b167ee8[1]I feel like steampunk, as a sub-genre, has run its course, and that makes me a bit sad because of just how much fun it is.  Rawlik clearly had fun writing this and I hope that this new collection is able to get stories like this into new readers hands who might otherwise have missed out on the steampunk craze.

In Conclusion

This is very different fare from what I typically enjoy and from what I’ve almost universally reviewed on this website, but I am glad I did. While it might not be my go-to style when it comes to cosmic horror, it was an amazingly fun detour. Lovecraftians and cosmic horror junkies alike, if you don’t have any Pete Rawlik in your collections yet, this is a wonderful introduction and a great addition to any bookshelf. Let STRANGE COMPANY take you on its wild ride and help you remember that even while raising up that which you cannot put down you can still have fun along the way.

This review has been brought to you by Dust of Ages: Essential Saltes for Every Household. Remember, a little dash will do ya!

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

I didn’t see that one coming: “Senor Clapham-Lee, haff you not come to understand that there ess nothing that you can keel that I, Doctor Rafeal Carlos Garcia Muñoz, el Reanimatador, cannot bring back to life?”

The Stagnant Breath of Change, by Brian Hodge

“His shift had an hour to go yet, and by the look of things he’d been home long enough for three cans of Iron City already. Matt was the first person she was aware of who’d figured out that once you had a job in Tanner Falls, it was impossible to lose it, a fact of life he exploited with heedless impunity. Termination was change, and hey, they couldn’t have that.”

Boy EatingI play on a recreational softball team with a person who just moved to our area. When I asked her how she chose to live here, she smiled and said, “I closed my eyes and pointed to a map of the United States.” Incredulous, I inquired further. She said it was true, and in the last six years this method had taken her from Asheville to North Dakota, from San Francisco to Hawaii. She moves, finds a job, and then finds a club sport to play. I couldn’t believe it. When I didn’t know what to say, she smiled and said, “I like change.” I immediately had two thoughts. The first as an arm chair psychologist: from what are you running? The second, as a realist: I would hate that. I don’t like change, you see, and if you’re anything like most people I know, neither do you. That’s what this story is about – change, and what it might actually look like if its withheld. At first glance, some of you might think that sounds great. Think again.

Brian-Hodge-profile-photo-200x200[1]Brian Hodge is an author whose work you ought to know. And yet to my dishonor, while I was familiar with his name, I hadn’t read anything by him until recently. My own ignorance aside, the man has been publishing forever with over ten novels, over one hundred twenty short stories, some now compiled in six collections, several novellas, and of whom no less than Peter Straub wrote, “a man of spectacularly unflinching gifts.”  His latest collection, “Skidding Into Oblivion,” published only this month by ChiZine Publications (who graciously provided a review copy to me in exchange for a fair and unbiased review of a story) in 2019, gathers together twelve stories, all of which have been previously published (since 2010) except the final one. Two of the stories are overtly Lovecraftian, the one I’ll review here and another entitled The Same Deep Waters As You. I could have picked either one, as they are both equally effective and entertaining, but The Same Deep Waters As You is an Innsmouth inspired tale and I feel like I written about a bunch of those already. The Stagnant Breath of Change (originally published in “Shadows Over Main Street,” Cutting Block Books, 2016), however, is about Shub-Niggurath and there aren’t near as many of those stories.

The story opens with two horrors: a man who won’t/can’t/is not allowed to die, and a town that will not abide change. Both are tied to one another. The man, Beasley, is the last of his ilk, a good-ole-boy-town-patriarch type who we’ll learn brokered some sort of Faustian deal to maintain the town’s prosperity. Or maybe it was just about that way he liked it. il_570xN.1617872404_p2m8[1]On account of this bargain, almost nothing is allowed to change, “It was all exactly the same, as immutably fixed as the old spoke-wheeled cannon on the courthouse lawn, commemorating a war no one alive had even fought in.” Even a sign almost everyone acknowledges as racist, highlighting the town’s history as a sunset town, cannot be taken away, painted over, or otherwise destroyed. “It had been more than fifteen years since they’d given up trying,” shining light on how the concept of socio-cultural immutability is fraught with peril and commenting subtly and brilliantly on how the sins of our civilization cannot easily be wiped away or forgotten. But with who, or what, had the deal been struck to effectively freeze the evolution of Tanner Falls?

In 1928 in The Dunwich Horror, HPL “quoted” from a chant in the Necronomicon that discussed the Old Ones and mentioned, “Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” Two years later, in The Whisperer in Darkness, we’d get only slightly more information as he wrote, Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!”  What’s our first clue here that this is the particular Old One we’re dealing with? “The hoofprints…a row of inches-deep depressions striding along the broadest clearing in the field. They hadn’t filled in during the twenty-two years they’d been there, as if something about their creation had seared them in place for all time. Life shunned them. Not even the most opportunistic weeds grew in them, or anywhere close.” 6324586_landscape[1].jpgShub-Niggurath gets a little love among mythos writers, but perhaps most recently by being an obvious (to those who know) influence on the popular film, “The VVitch.” Of course, the black goat has long been associated with Satan as well, and viewers not tuned to the mythos will only pick up on that.

I thought one of the creepier aspects of this story was in how no one could leave Tanner Falls. Not only can nothing change, but literally nothing can leave. This is described wonderfully when, after being alluded too several times, one family decides they’ve had enough and pack up to go. One of Shub-Niggurath’s infamous “thousand young” is dispatched to bring them back, bonus points if they’re whole. This was honestly one of the most creative uses of the Black Goat’s thousand young I’ve ever encountered and I loved it. Such an inescapable position leads naturally to despair, and despair to thoughts of self-harm. But in unchanging Tanner Falls, such ideations are ineffective in their execution. Hodge evokes that sentiment to perfection, to absolute perfection, when he refers to the hospital in town as a “warehouse of failed suicides.” 

That brings me to the writing. Not once did it get in the way, but by the same token, only occasionally did it cause me to sit up and take notice. Between reading this story and writing this review I’ve had a chance to read a bit more of Hodge’s work, and I can tell you quite readily that he’s an accomplished writer. However, of the very small sampling that I’ve read thus far, he’s not a lyrical writer. I don’t find that to be a bad thing, particularly when the author is writing in the mode of modern-day Lovecraft pastiche. The story flowed quickly—very well-crafted, without hiccup—and I didn’t want to put it down. Yet, if you’re looking for high language, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for fun, thought-provoking, Lovecraftian horror, stop here, for you have found it. Shub-Niggurath has got you in her clutches and she’s not wont to let you go.

shub_niggurath_attacks_village_by_kingstantin-d7y0g77[1]

Everything organic, from our bodies to our societies, tends towards homeostasis. Biologically, it’s one of the ways we know something is alive. We don’t like change, on the cellular level, a fact written into our DNA. What I love about Hodge’s story is he takes that life necessity, indeed that societal preference, drags it to the extreme edge and then forces it back down our throats. Without change, as you’ll discover when you read this, we become violent creatures. Perhaps more violent than we are when change is allowed. Because as much as we don’t like change, we don’t want to die either. The absence of homeostasis is contraindicated for life, but as Hodge defly shows, too much of a good thing is just as fatal.

There are many more great stories to encounter in Hodge’s collection, many more unnatural fears to stare down and overcome. I suggest you buy this book and get started. Be warned though, skidding into oblivion is thirsty work.

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

Bleatings of the Young: “These were not cries of physical pain. She was intimately familiar with those. These were worse, in a way. Pain could be managed. Hopelessness and despair came from a deeper place than nerve endings.”

In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, by Damien Angelica Walters

“This is the wrong door,” he says, and she startles. “This isn’t my house.”

“Jack, honey, it’s late. Come back to bed. It’s still dark outside, that’s why it looks so different, but it’s still the same house we’ve lived in for a long time.”

He shakes his head. “No. This is the wrong door. The right one is out there.”

A lot of the time, horror stories are utterly fantastic. For as terrifying as Cthulhu would be to encounter rising from the depths of the sea, he sure is fun to read about, because he’s pure fantasy. Damien-Angelica-Walters-2018-Author-Photo-1020x979[1].jpgThat’s one of the joys of reading horror; it gives the reader a sense of control over what would be totally uncontrollable in real life. We know the story will end, and so we bravely trudge on, turning the page. Some horror stories, however, come so close to reality that they reach though the veil and brush it with dreadfully cool fingertips. These are the horror stories someone is most likely to have to set down. They cut too close and the reading is no longer any fun. I suspect Damien Angelica Walters‘ story, In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, is one of those stories for many people.

It’s still Women in Horror Month and I wanted to make sure I highlighted an author about whom I’ve gotten excited. I went back and listened to her interview (Part 1 and Part 2) on the This is Horror podcast and at one point she spoke about how she sometimes gets very emotionally tied into her stories. She mentioned this story as a perfect example, sharing how when she finished writing it, she wept at the end. Normally (at least I imagined so), this kind of response is reserved for the reader, not the creator, and so I was intrigued. I had the story, contained in the excellent anthology “Autumn Cthulhu,” edited by Mike Davis and published in 2016 by the Lovecraft eZine Press, and so commenced to reading it.

dementia2-804x369[1].jpgGoing back over it now, I see how the opening two lines are well-crafted to set the tone, but as of yet, we do not know it. “A doe picks her way from between two trees at the edge of their back yard, keeping to the narrow path, her legs moving with a dancer’s grace. Helena holds her breath, even though she and the deer are separated by a wide expanse of lawn , a deck, and locked French doors.” This is a story about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Helena’s husband Jack has been slowly slipping sideways into unknowing, and the experience for Helena is like that of seeing the doe. So close, but separated so profoundly by the familiar. I haven’t personally experienced the disappearance of a loved one into this diseased twilight, but have known many people who have and their reports are devastating. Angelica Walters captures that devastation in eloquent, sharp prose: “This isn’t my house,” he says, his voice razor-sharp. “I know it isn’t.” “Would you like to watch a movie?” She keeps her voice bright, cheerful. “Stop talking to me. I know what you’re doing, but it won’t work. This isn’t the right house.” If there is anything to criticize here, it is that while this story works as a weird story (why it does we’ll come to in a moment) it almost would work better on its own, without any elements of the weird.  But this is a Lovecraftian short story blog and the anthology containing the story is titled “Autumn Cthulhu,” and so let’s get to it.

night_forest_by_elenadudina_dcwy6o6-250t[1].jpgAs the story goes on, Jack mentions things about doorways, the right time, often speaking to someone who isn’t there. He gets up in the middle of the night and wanders around, sometimes out of doors. The doe from the opening lines makes more appearances, and now, it seems to be decaying—a symbol of Jack’s disease process. “There, at the end of the yard, the white-eyed doe. More patches of fur have fallen out; the bare skin beneath holds a strange grey cast.” Alzheimer’s works like this from what I gather. Patches of your loved one fall away, leaving behind a sallow blankness that can turn whip-crack sharp in their frustration.

By the time you reach the end, seasoned readers of the Old Gent will be thinking about Yog-Sothoth, what with all these mentions of doorways, gates, and time. It’s even possible some emissary of Yog-Sothoth has shown up.

Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror

And then, finally, you’ll understand why Damien Angelica Walters cried. It’s not so much that the ending is sad as it is that the whole damned, perfectly titled thing is sad. She brings to life this couple, their relationship, Helena’s tangled skein of grief and love with beautiful words and evocative episodes. We get only a glimpse, and yet in that glimpse we can see those we have loved. I imagine for readers who have gone through what Helena is going through this story will be especially painful and perhaps not at all cathartic. For them and their loved ones, there is no sense of control, no knowing the story will end, and so their bravery in facing each day is heroic. But then again, maybe it will be cathartic. That’s the beauty of fiction. This is a powerful piece of writing by an author whose name deserves to be known. It’s unusual for me to get so lost in a story (with a wife, a dog, and two kids under eight), but when I was reading this, it was as if I was in that quiet forest, following that elusive doe, and the world around me had faded into the background.

When I was listening to her interview on the podcast, she mentioned that one of her writing goals was to appear in an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. She’s appeared on the list of Honorable Mentions quite a number of times but had yet to break into the table of contents. Well, just two days ago on February 20, 2019, Datlow revealed the table of contents for the forthcoming The Year’s Best Horror, Volume 11, and right there in the middle of it is Golden Sun, a novelette by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt. Congratulations Damien, you deserve it! Achievement unlocked!

That about wraps it up for today my fellow cultists. Remember, when your time comes, do not go gentle into that good night. This review was composed while listening to the Peaceful Meditation radio station on Spotify.

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

The plaintive plea of the wife: “I’m coming Jack. Stay there. Please stay there.”