The Amnesiac’s Lament, by Scott R. Jones

“Somewhere, in that vast array of sleeping bodies laced together in sticky pits of artificial neural tissue below me, is a dreamer who used to be a writer, or dreams she was one.”

—Scott R. Jones, “The Amnesiac’s Lament”

“One baffling thing that could be introduced is to have a modern man discover, among documents exhumed from some prehistoric buried city, a mouldering papyrus of parchment written in English, & in his own handwriting, which tells a strange tale & awakes—amidst a general haze of amazement, horror, & half-incredulity—a faint, far-off sense of familiarity which becomes more & more beckoning and challenging as the strings of semi-memory continue to vibrate…This idea has lain dormant in my commonplace-book for ages…”

—H.P. Lovecraft, to Clark Ashton Smith, November 11, 1930

71zYC53sB5L[1].jpg If asked, “in what genre did Lovecraft write?” most of us fans would probably answer in an unconsidered, if decisive, manner: “Cosmic horror.” Lovecraft himself, however, would probably have said that “cosmicism” played a large role in his writing of strange or weird tales. What we think of now as cosmic horror was a homebrew by the Old Gent, stirring in elements of mystery, science-fiction, horror, fantasy, and the strange. Some of his stories, like “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” lean pretty hard into the adventuresome thriller category, while others, like “The Shadow Out of Time,” rely heavily on sci-fi. The horror lay in the discovery of just how insignificant humanity was on the cosmic scale. Scott R. Jones‘ thrill-ride of a story, “The Amnesiac’s Lament,” found in his debut collection, SHOUT KILL REVEL REPEAT, follows Lovecraft through this particular portal. This collection was published by JournalStone’s imprint, Trepidatio Publishing (2019), last month and is ably introduced by Ross E. Lockhart of Word Horde. If this description isn’t enough to pique your interest, take note of the blurb at the top by none other than horror master Ramsey Campbell himself.

“The Amnesiac’s Lament” tells the futuristic story of Sunset Grey Theremin, a personality construct sent on a mission into an unforgiving desert landscape with partner personality construct Livid Ransom Stormcell. Right away you’re able to tell that this will be an unusual and very fun story to read, brought to you by Jones’ colossal imagination, which uses Lovecraft as a launching pad into his own unknown realm of cosmicism. Deserts in Lovecraft often mean the Yithians will be in play and here is no different. Our duo’s destination is a subterranean Yithian complex. However, before they set out, some precautions are in order. See, I mentioned this was a futuristic tale, and in this future, the Old Ones have returned and they are not messing about. 1_CPI-6ZtpYfMyV3bTt8EumQ[1].jpegThrough some seriously advanced tech Sunset and Livid cloak themselves in a “Deep Dendo” psychic shield, made up of the personalities of others, to protect themselves from the sanity blasting properties of the visitors from beyond the stars. “I don’t go outside unless I’m a hundred thousand people at once,” warns Sunset Grey Theremin. A hundred thousand people, casually sloughed off like so much dead skin.

Their adventure is thrilling, occasionally charming (“Yeah, well, hurry it up,” says Livid Ransom Stormcell. “Because it’s irritating the living fhtagn out of me.”), replete with countless Lovecraft and friends references—these, sewn into the skin of the narrative in clever ways so as not to distract the uninitiated, while paying homage to the devotee—and above all, entertaining. Like some of the best of Lovecraft, it saves its terror until close to the end, when you then sit up straight in your couch and take someone’s name in vain.

Lovecraft would finish writing “The Shadow Out of Time” in February of 1935, some four years, four months after the letter to Clark Ashton Smith referenced above. He was initially so disgusted with it that he almost ripped up all 65 pages, as he says in another letter that he had been doing a lot of lately. (Oh! Lovecraft! What hath we lost?) The ideas he sketched out in his commonplace-book (what he called his book of disassociated ideas and notes) would finally come to fruition and be published in Astounding Stories pulp magazine in 1936.

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From the highly acclaimed “Providence” comic book series by Alan Moore.  Art by: Jacen Burrows
“The Shadow Out of Time” is considered his magnum opus now by many, but I would never tell an inquiring reader to begin their Lovecraftian journey there. It’s long, and when Lovecraft gets long, he can get boring. (I know, I know, blasphemy, right? Who didn’t fall asleep reading Lovecraft at least once though?) What Jones does so well in this contemporary story is bring to the foreground the ideas Lovecraft used as the background, and spin a damned exciting yarn to read. It’s faithful and fresh all at the same time, and not one page felt boring. Few authors can do this as well as I felt like it was done here. Attempts either come off as pastiche or are too distant a cousin.

Jones’ balance here is near flawless and would be Lovecraftian storytellers should make a note. The fast-paced, page-turning sci-fi style (calling to mind Hugh Howey’s Wool series, strangely enough) is unlike anything HPL ever even approached. His writing is accomplished and crisp, confidence spiced with just a dash of whimsy. Combined, these elements produce the story’s biggest success for me: I felt as if I was reading something completely new while simultaneously being rewarded for having a base of knowledge.

The next story in the collection will go on to play in Ramsey Campbell’s Lovecraftian backyard, with just as satisfying results. I cannot wait to find out what the collection has in store beyond that, and neither should you. This is one for the fans, but neither will it be lost on newcomers.

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

Dark Lantern of the Spirit, by Max Beaven

“The mass in the darkness seethed and churned and with a sudden furious motion…shed a part of itself. Now, in the small concavity that sat just a short distance from faint light that entered through the enlarged crevasse, a second writhing mass began agitated movements.”

51SBpwmEnGL[1]With a cover that looked like the lovechild of Red Dead Redemption and Bloodborne and a description boasting an adventure in the style of Robert E. Howard draped in the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, I was all set to love this self-published story from new author Max Beaven, who graciously sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review. DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT: AN ARTHUR C. WILSON & BENJAMIN HATHORNE NOVELLA advertises itself as having a “late Victorian era frontier western setting” and when combined with the Mythos, this sounded right up my alley. So, it was with a certain amount of excitement that I turned the first page.

There I discovered the story of Arthur, a sheriff’s deputy originally hailing from New England but now finding himself in the Cheyenne territory of Casper, Wyoming. Truly, a tough place to be a law man. Through a whiskey haze he begins to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a well known and experienced trapper called Miles. A brief chapter later we are taken cross country to Salem, MA to meet Benjamin, a wealthy and typically bookish Lovecraftian protagonist, who is excitedly opening a newly delivered package. It turns out to be a bonafide copy of the Liber Ivonis, otherwise known to HPL fans as the Book of Eibon. This artifact makes its canonical appearance in “Dreams in the Witch-House,” “The Haunter in the Dark,” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” and then among some of the more familiar pastiches like ‘Ubbo-Sathla” by Clark Ashton Smith. After a few more chapters, primarily bouncing back and forth between these two characters, we are treated to an Interlude focused on some Lovecraftian style beastie from beyond the stars, and with that, the stage is set.

I wanted to try and get the plot description down in as positive a way as I can, because I do think there is a seed of a fun story buried within. Unfortunately, however, there are serious flaws with this book and I have to address those. Almost from page one there are numerous grammar and spelling errors. I’m usually forgiving when it comes to this stuff, but in this case they were so numerous that they quickly became difficult to overlook. Other errors abounded as well, like ignoring the conventions around dialog tags and the sudden deployment of a fifty-cent word betraying the obvious usage of a thesaurus. I can appreciate the desire to sound antiquated and erudite, but it must also be authentic. The vast majority of these missteps could have been fixed by an editor, which this book sorely needs. There are several things, though, I’m not sure an editor could have fixed. For example, each character’s voice sounds like the others to the point that it’s hard to distinguish who is who. Why does the Shoshone scout sound like the educated New Englander? Finally, while I can appreciate the author’s father passed on to him an encyclopedic knowledge of early firearms (so noted in the acknowledgements), the level of detail provided in both the prose and dialogue is often out of place to the point of being distracting. Like this, from a letter to Benjamin written by his friend Thomas, “I have taken to carrying an Enfield revolver with me at all times.” Would not “gun” have been crisper?

Unfortunately, this was a DNF for me, as by the half way point I had become entirely too frustrated to continue. I wanted this to be a fun Lovecraft pastiche in a wild west setting. I really wanted to enjoy this book, and I stand by what I said earlier – there are some enjoyable plot and character ideas here. The execution of them needed a lot more work before publication, however, and certainly needed the services of an editor. I hope Mr. Beaven continues to write and hone his craft. His passion for the Lovecraft mythos and the adventure stories of Howard is clear, and his enthusiasm for writing the tale he wanted to read, which he saw missing from the market, is evident. But, there’s still some work to do before I can recommend it.

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

The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons, by John Langan

“I went to touch the thing, to add its texture to my catalogue of impressions, only to hesitate with the tips of my fingers a hairsbreadth from its paper. I was seized by the most overpowering repugnance, such that the hairs from the back of my hand right up my forearm stood rigid. I swear, my flesh actually shrank from the thing.”

I feel like I need to be upfront about this. In the latter part of the last decade I was reading an actual print copy—slick, glossy pages; beautiful, full-color illustrations; edited by the estimable Ann VanderMeer; the whole shebang—of Weird Tales. How we all should have reveled in those days! While reading, an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a forthcoming collection of stories by an author I’d not heard of by the name of John Langan. “Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.” Somewhere between the gorgeous cover art and the promise of tales truly told in the title, I was seduced. I had just started to come out of my Serious Books Only phase and was looking to branch out. This seemed just the thing.

This is the part I need to be up front about. I was disappointed. Only one of the five stories contained therein captivated me. I was looking for something to scare me, and this didn’t do it. I put it aside and when Mr. Langan’s first novel came out, I let it pass me by. Fast forward to roughly now and I’ve really gotten into horror short stories, particularly those with a Lovecraftian bent. And I start seeing Langan’s name everywhere, so I decided to give him another try. I read and reviewed The Supplement, which I enjoyed most everything about save the title. 9828b5516ad62e6ff3200eaf07ea775e.image.400x600[1].jpgThen I read Lost in the Dark, found in The Best Horror of the Year (2018, edited by Ellen Datlow), Volume 10, and wow, was it awesome! So awesome I recommended it for a Story Unboxed episode of This is Horror! and I think Bob and Michael are going to do it. Then I read John Langan’s short novel, “The Fisherman” and I was stunned. When I finished that book, I laid it down gently next to me and thought for close to forty-five minutes. I’d like to say more about that novel here sometime, if the chance presents itself, but for now I’ll just say that I loved the easter egg he left in Mr. Dunn for fans of “The Fisherman.”

Perhaps Mr. Langan had grown on me, perhaps he’d gotten better at his craft, perhaps I’d broadened my reading tastes so as to be able to appreciate his style. Likely some of all of those. So, when I heard his third collection, “Sefira and Other Betrayals” was coming out this month from Hippocampus Press, I was very excited, and reached out for a review copy which was happily granted. Thank you very much. Mr. Langan was gracious enough to even point me to two stories which might best fit my Lovecraftian requirement. The one I did not choose (not because it was unworthy) was called Bloom. You have to admit, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons just sounds way cooler.

Like a lot of Mr. Langan’s stories, this one clocks in at a longer word count than most other contemporary short horror fiction, and it contains several nesting stories and interwoven character threads. Combined, these provide for a rich reading experience, if perhaps not one that you can get through in one sitting unless you’ve got some stamina.  It tells the tale of one Mr. Coleman, a novelist, who, having read about the curiosity of Mr. Dunn’s balloons, decided to go investigate them for himself. On the train to Mr. Dunn’s estate, he meets Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw who are also going to visit Mr. Dunn, but for a very different reason. Mr. Earnshaw has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and, with his time short and likely painful, he sought out alternative assistance. Mr. Dunn, in addition to his balloons, was apparently known for easing the pain in the last days for terminal patients.

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The Balloon Ride by Deviant Artist andyp89

Things are not all what they seem on the surface, as you might expect. Coleman can’t get a handle on Dunn or on his weird, oddly repulsive balloons, and Mrs. Earnshaw becomes increasingly uneasy with her husband’s course of “treatment.” When Coleman inquires of her about her husband’s tolerance of pain, she responds, “I cannot understand how he bears it. But I might wish he were bearing it with me rather than with Mr. Dunn. I will lose my husband soon enough, Mr. Coleman; I would like to spend what time I have left with him in his company.”  In a very Langanian fashion, nestled inside the Earnshaw/Coleman narrative is another story, told by Dunn, about a former time during a war. Coleman was unsettled by this telling just as much as he was by the balloons. “He was thinking that Dunn had uttered his description of the war in a tone not of horror, but nostalgia.” This kind of thoughtful, gentle disquietude pervades this tale and much of the recent work I’ve read by Langan.

 

266791566021212[1].pngBy the time we get to the end all of the narrative threads return to the source to form a beautiful and horrifying picture more disturbing than any single one of them might have led you to believe. Themes of grief, loneliness, the ethical boundaries of pseudo-scientific research, the questions and emotions and sad futility of end of life care, the horrors of war, they’re all here vying for headspace and cloaked in the weird and the pernicious. In the end, and only in the end does it get Lovecraftian, and I won’t spoil how but it was marvelous. Readers familiar with HPL’s From Beyond, Pickman’s Model, and to some extent The Shadow Out of Time and The Colour Out of Space, have fun stuff to look forward to!

John Langan is a very erudite, studied, and well-read author, and with each successive story by him that I read (though perhaps none as much as “The Fisherman”) I appreciate his scholarship and knowledge base more and more. He layers his texts with complicated but believable emotion. His characters are fully-fleshed out in this one and you want to go deeper with them, to know more. For example, Coleman is the son of a Swedenborgian—a peculiar religious sect of Christianity extant in only a very small part of the United States, that I only know about because I once had the good fortune to meet one—and while this detail might seem superfluous, it efficiently locates Coleman both in time and place, while saying something about his spirituality that might impact how he encounters the rest of what is ahead of him in this tale. Langan accomplishes all that with a word. This revelation was followed by a short ontological discussion touching on both eschatology and soteriology. Again, Langan manages to cram all that into three sentences, molding real meat onto the bones of his characters. Some, I suppose, would label this story “literary horror,” but I find such a description to be an unnecessary restatement and mildly offensive.

Nevertheless, if you like your horror on the longer side, bearing the hallmarks of college-professor authorship, and more thought-provoking than gut-churning, then I suggest you give this story, and this collection, a try. But don’t fret if you’re more into action, because there’s a ripping good sword fight that bookends Mr. Dunn as well! Without a doubt, The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn’s Balloons will tug uncomfortably at an unattended corner of your soul, worrying it like an old dog with an older bone who knows there’s still something to be consumed deep within the scarred and pitted exterior.

If you’ve not read Langan before, I suggest you start with “Sefira”. There’s no reason not to, and in “Sefira” he’s at the top of his game.  Then, if you like what you read, do yourself a favor and pick up “The Fisherman.” I really can’t recommend that one enough. Personally, I’ve come a bit full circle on John Langan, I have to say, and I think I’d like to go back and give “Mr. Gaunt” another try. I still have the beautiful hardcover on my shelf.

This review was composed listening to my wife’s television show, The Real Housewives of somewhere, in the background – a horror of an altogether different nature.

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

The Betrayals of Attraction: “The successful arms merchant who washes his hands of the blood in which he’s steeped them for nigh on twenty years to devote himself to the promulgation of his new Spiritualist beliefs—not to mention, to fashioning his elaborate balloons—how could such a figure not be of interest?