“The bones had reminded her of Riley, of course, but everything did. They were too small, far too small, but they reminded her of him still. The bones that showed through his thin skin and the bones that by now filled his grave.”
H.P. Lovecraft loved cats. This is one of a few places where I disagree with the Old Gent, firmly being a dog person, but, I’d not want to trade barbs with him about it. He once committed ink to page for this biting piece of commentary, “The dog is a peasant and the cat is a gentleman.” Perhaps his most famous story involving cats is “The Cats of Ulthar,” a revenge/karma tale where a clowder of cats devour a despicable old couple who had previously killed a kitten. These same cats show up as sentient in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” And, of course, there is an unfortunately named kitty in “The Rats in the Walls;” even more unfortunate is that fictional feline seemed to bear a similar name to HPL’s real cat. Betty Rocksteady, in her debut collection IN DREAMS WE ROT, features two cosmic kitty stories that when read together form a perilous pair. It’s forthcoming (October 18) from JournalStone and I’m grateful to the author for a free advanced review copy.
Rocksteady, who has published novellas like THE WRITHING SKIES and a host of short horror fiction seems to be primarily known for—ahem…tentacles in places where they ought not to go—erotic cosmic horror. And you’ll get that in this collection as well, fear not, but it’s not as closely related to HPL as these two tales. She’s also quite the artist and illustrates many of her own works, though this collection is not.
In “Tiny Bones Beneath Their Feet” we meet Harold, an eccentric man who keeps a few cats. Well, more than a few as the sheer number of his pets has come to the attention of the authorities. Sarah, representing a “trap, neuter, and release” organization shows up unbidden on his doorstep with an offer to “help.” Harold, however, is having none of it, but she wiggles her way into his home anyway, pen scribbling away on her clipboard. The further she gets into his house, the more cats we realize that he actually has (though he rejects the notion of ownership) and the more horrified Susan becomes. After realizing there is no getting rid of her easily, he decides he wants to show her something out back. Rocksteady is successful here at building a sense of unease as I think just about anybody in their right mind would be weirded out by this many animals of any kind in somebody’s house. “She scanned the yard as she spoke, and all the cats looked back at her. So many eyes.”
He leads her on a peculiar trail into the woods, a trail from which the title is derived. “He was hyperaware of what lay beneath their feet, but Susan didn’t seem to notice. That was fair, of course. There was a lot to take in, and the bones were so small. If you didn’t look closely, you might mistake the trail as some sort of rock purposefully pressed into the earth.” What happens in the latter half of the story I’ll leave for you to discover, but I have to say that I certainly didn’t see it coming, and that it opened up the story from what had been a fairly localized narrative into something more cosmic. It shows up at the beginning of the collection, and, when paired with the second cat story which comes near the end, they provide great bookends. I enjoyed it and would recommend it on its own. However, when coupled with the next one, they really blossom.
“The Backwards Path to the Limbus” finds us in a bookstore with Miranda, who seems to have been sanctioned to serve time in a book group not of her choosing by a particularly creative psychologist. The title of the story is the title of the book they’re discussing, and Miranda is so not into it. “You’ll appreciate it more the next time you read it,” the woman reassured her. “I doubt I’ll read it again.” The man next to her butted in, a smear of chocolate on his face. “Oh, you will. We’ve all read it lots of times.” That’s on the second page of this story, which, at least for me, set the creep factor climbing a lot earlier than it did in the previous one. That notion that you’re the only one in a book group, which you didn’t choose, who hasn’t read the book once let alone multiple times just sent some cultic shivers up my spine. I can almost see them all leaning in to find out what she, the new one, thinks. We don’t really get to know what the book is about, but Rocksteady does drop this line which connects the stories, “The book had been divided into three sections, and the first concentrated on a man winding through a trail of tiny bones.” Now she had my full attention as I’ve really come to appreciate this sort of mosaic structure.
The bookstore cat makes an appearance and something in his eyes reminds Miranda of her dead son, Riley. She finds she needs a breath, and a break from the hiveminded group. She follows the cat into the back stacks, away from the group and the light. Reality blurs and she’s following her son now into a small, cramped room where, “in the farthest corner, Riley, his hands in his lap, [is] sitting quietly on a box. Beautiful. Healthy.” Aside from the frightful notions of this apparition, there is something remarkably comforting about the idea Rocksteady works with here of being able to connect with a lost loved one in a bookstore or among the pages of a book. A character might remind us of them, in their description or in their actions. Or we might see a novel and remember reading it with a now deceased friend or lover, or recall the place where once it was read, or the company we kept when we read it. What is thought lost can be recovered among the pages of a well-loved book. I really loved this story. On its own it was my favorite of the two, but when read together, the emerging picture is rather wonderfully and cosmically frightening.
Rocksteady’s writing is surreptitious. At first, as you make your way through the opening paragraphs and even pages, there is nothing about it that stands out. Nothing that gets in the way either, to be sure. But then, you suddenly find yourself tearing through the story and wondering, when did she get me? How did she do that? The answer has something to do with the fact that it doesn’t take too long for you to find yourself in these tales (perhaps especially in the more, shall we say, moist ones). I believe that’s what makes them so successful. You’re reading along about someone else at the beginning, but by the end, you’re reading about yourself and it is a well-crafted and familiar nightmare. Prepare to squirm.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,