The Hargrave Collection, by Max D. Stanton

“Paying for college destroyed me. Lots of people can say that, but few of them mean it like I do. My debts led me to madness, murder, and Hell.”

Max D. Stanton, “The Hargrave Collection”

“Your catalogue of hellish and forbidden books sounds highly impressive, and the very names make me shudder. Of only one have I ever heard before—this being (can I bring myself to write the dreaded words?) Mülder’s infamous Ghorl Nigral. I even saw a copy of this once—though I never opened or glanced within it. It was many years ago in Arkham—at the library of the Miskatonic University.”

—H.P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, August 14, 1936

The best part of this hobby is getting to know new writers. The best part of the best part is when you encounter a new voice that simply blows you away. I’ve never heard of Max D. Stanton before his collection, A SEASON OF LOATHSOME MIRACLES (Trepidatio Publishing, June 2020), dropped earlier this summer but you better believe I’ll be looking for his name in anthologies and zines going forward. Within it, “The Hargrave Collection” will thrill Lovecraft fans through and through while adding a combination of adventure often missing in many of HPL’s works, the same creeping dread found in the best examples of faux-documentary horror films (see Hell House, Mortal Remains), and a splash of blood to whet the appetite of gore hounds.

The story opens with our destitute student landing a Miskatonic University campus job from one Professor Charles Casar, Anthropology Department. It’s a research gig, digging into the papers of the late Dr. Leopold Hargrave—disreputable anthropologist and Casar’s academic antecedant—which have just become available. Hargrave mysteriously disappeared in 1969 and Casar is interested to know if these newly released private papers can shed any light on the matter. He wrote the book on the man after all, American Shaman, and is perhaps looking to provide an addendum to his research. With all of this being new information to the protagonist, he checks it out with another student, a writing tutor he fancies named Chris who is possessed of “gorgeous curly brown hair and long legs” in addition to being active in the campus LGBTQ scene. Chris knows of Casar but has a low opinion of him, telling the narrator, “Casar’s a fossil…A critical reappraisal of Hargrave’s work might have done really well. But apparently American Shaman was just an adoring monument to a monster, and there’s enough of those already.” Right there is one of the reasons Stanton so stood out to me. Within the text of his adoring Lovecraftian story he subtly critiques the Old Gent at the same time he sneers in the direction of those in the fandom who sweep HPL’s more unsavory characteristics (racism, misogyny, etc.) under the literary rug, and that through the voice of a gay character! It’s brilliant.

Our character’s assignment quickly leads him to some dark places as he descends further and further into what becomes a mad search for truth and treasure. The material is located in none other than the archives of the Miskatonic University library. I loved the description of the archivist, “She had a fragile, war-weary demeanor, which seemed unusual in a person whose job was simply to watch over Miskatonic University’s historical records.” Yes, simply watch over. But what has she seen down there? What has she prevented from being seen by others? War-weary indeed. In the Hargrave boxes he uncovers some old tarot cards, engraved on shrunken leather of questionable provenance (shudder) that point to even darker and more mysterious findings. What ensues is a merry chase through kind of a who’s who and a what’s what of the wider Lovecraft mythos (complete with a Chambers reference) in which you can’t help but think of Indiana Jones. But Stanton’s skill is such that this never feels like too much pastiche or too much name dropping. Each mythos reference is not only important to the story somehow (no small feat) but deftly manages to inject a measured thrill for the fans, while not overburdening the narrative for the uninitiated. What’s so skillful about this is if you were to strip away all the mythos references, if you were to take away all the Lovecraft, you’d still have a wonderfully troubling story of the occult. Unlike others, it’s not reliant upon Lovecraft to work, but, for fans, it works even more beautifully because of it.

As readers we ride those thrills all the way to the surprising ending that I, at least, did not see coming. One twist I expected, but not the others. It was fabulous. I even went back to see if I missed anything and I don’t think I had. This was a terrific story and a rollicking, gruesome adventure that I enjoyed the heck out of even as it cemented Stanton’s name in my mind as someone to watch.

A big part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was how successful I thought the writing was. Stanton is an elevated but not a stuffy writer, often deploying the perfect word choices to make the reader feel a range of emotions normally only able to be located in whole paragraphs. Here, for example, witness how much the word “carrion” adds to the sentence: “Dr. Hargrave sought out the company of carrion priests with no respect for life, and wherever he went, he was the worst person there.” I know all I need to know and more about these priests, but I also know that Hargrave was worse, and that’s what made me uneasy. In other places, a poetic infusion, as here: “My social life dwindled away. I didn’t see my friends anymore; I saw nobody except the archivist, the sole witness to my slow and painful disintegration.” I was near overcome by the waves of melancholy flowing from those lines. It is not only in isolated places that such treasures may be found in this story, but throughout, carefully buried along a seven-fold path.

I’m grateful to the author for providing me with a free e-copy of his book in exchange for an honest review and it always pleases me immensely when I can honestly give a glowing one. This story was special and I really look forward to reading more Stanton in the very near future. He alerted me to the presence of at least one more Lovecraftian story in the collection, as well as one that nods to Thomas Ligotti, but I will let you discover those for yourselves.

This review was composed while listening to the masterful Lovecraftian ambient album “Hastur” by Cryo Chamber. If you don’t know them yet, seriously, check them out soon if for no other reason than your games of Arkham Horror will be immeasurably enhanced.

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

SPECIAL DOUBLE FEATURE! Azathoth in Arkham; The Revenge of Azathoth, by Peter Cannon

“At the end of the session, I impulsively proposed to host the next meeting at my place, the very house where Edward Derby had grown up! The gang enthusiastically accepted my offer, and a date was set for the following week.”

9781568820408-us[1].jpgPeter Cannon kept company with an esteemed literati, including such lofty Lovecraftian personages as Frank Belnap Long, Dirk Mosig, S.T. Joshi, Robert Bloch, and others. Whereas a lot of the authors I read and review here are more modern in their context, Cannon was active in the early days of this contemporary renaissance of Lovecraftian literature. These two stories were first published in 1994 and collected in the volume in which I found them, “The Azathoth Cycle,” edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1995. Do you remember 1995? Braveheart was in the theaters, that’s what I remember; and I loved it. But that was before most of us recognized that Gibson was an ass with a Messiah complex. In any event, these Chaosium volumes are intriguing, collecting stories focused on a single Lovecraftian entity or concept for the particular purpose of providing background reading to those who delve into the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Now, I’ve never played that myself, but these resource books are actually a fantastic boon to fans of the Mythos. Admittedly they are a little hard to read straight through due to the lack of variety (I mean, there’s only so much Azathoth I can take, you know? At least in one sitting…), but when you just want a story about that one elder God and can’t remember which collection you found one in, voila!, here you go.

Peter Cannon brings a vast knowledge and love of the original tales by the Old Gent, but doesn’t fully prostrate himself at the altar. Were he to visit the supposed grave of HPL, I imagine he’d smile wryly, maybe give the headstone a pat or two, and then walk away. He certainly wouldn’t leave a silver key, read poetry, or offer a malediction of blood, all things done fairly regularly there at the Swan Point Cemetery. galaxyy[1].jpgThis one-step removed posture allows Cannon to write with a wink and a nod, and infuse his compositions with an informed humor that you can only chuckle at if you’re as well-read as he in the native tales.

These stories are both sequels to The Thing on the Doorstep, imagining that it was Azathoth which somehow infected the minds of Asenath and Ephraim Waite. The first story, Azathoth in Arkham, follows the exploits of Edward Derby Upton, son of Edward Derby’s best friend, though never a particular fan of his namesake. “I confess that I never much cared for ‘Uncle Eddy…’ as a youth keen on such manly sports as boxing and baseball, I found Derby too flabby, too feminine.” The story takes place a little over a year after the events in Thing and finds Upton attempting to settle his own father’s affairs, who had died following a fit of madness and brief incarceration in the same padded cell at Arkham Sanitarium that had held Edward Derby. While doing some research on his father’s interests he learns of a group of young men who’d formed an interest group of sorts, the Dead Edward Derby Society. (Here, as elsewhere, we get a glimpse of Cannon’s sense of humor.) He ingratiates himself rather easily into the society and soon invites them to his home for their meetings, the home where Edward Derby had grown up.

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The Derby House in Salem, MA
They’re astonished and immediately accept the offer, though after a rich repast upon their first meeting there, the young scholars request spaghetti for the next dinner, which was lovingly prepared by the house butler, Soames. As with the previous story based on Thing that I covered, the tale ends unsurprisingly with a bit of a switcheroo.

However, Cannon isn’t done yet.

The second story, The Revenge of Azathoth, retells the action from the first story, but from the perspective of one of the Derby acolytes in the Dead Edward Derby Society, a young man named Vartan Bagdasarian. It’s important to read these stories both in order and together, otherwise you run the risk of missing important details and the full extent of Cannon’s authorial whimsy. In this sequel to a sequel, we learn the why of certain events from the first story and a fuller picture comes into focus. Vartan is a literary critic who isn’t as star-struck with Upton as his compatriots. Rather, he has a deeper drive to research Derby, and Azathoth, and will use the fortuitous happenstance of the Society encountering Upton to his utmost advantage, especially after glimpsing a cupboard that contained some of Derby’s writings. “There was a silence as I  waited for him to make the obvious offer. Finally, I spoke up, and in as casual a tone as I could muster, suggested that I’d be glad to save him the effort of examining the cupboard’s contents, not that I wanted to impose or anything…” A female foil (from Innsmouth, of all places) named Wendy is introduced, who provides a focal point for Upton’s transforming appetites. I do have to add, though, that there is a flavor of misogyny present around this character—even if it’s written in a less than flattering light—that this reviewer found distasteful. In the end, another rather unsurprising conclusion is offered as we all are once again supposed to gasp at miscegenation.

The second story is better than the first, though neither of them particularly blow your hair back. Sure, there’s a chuckle or two to be had, especially with the flip way in which Cannon handles Lovecraftian material to which other authors, and HPL himself, assigned such grave importance and cosmic magnitude. There was something human in that, and somehow that was a bit refreshing. There is real genius in the second tale, though, and I would have missed it, I admit, had it not been for Robert M. Price’s introduction to the story. I quote, “The literary cult of Lovecraft himself becomes the basis for the “Dead Edward Derby Society,” and the chief Derby zealot who has moved to Arkham for the sole purpose of living among his hero’s haunts, Vartan Bagdasarian, is based on both August Derleth…and S.T. Joshi…” That’s both a fun and a tongue-in-cheek move, and I’m indebted to Price (who isn’t the darling he once was in the Lovecraftian community on account of his own outspoken xenophobic beliefs, and more recently, his public approval of Donald Trump as President) for pointing it out.

These two stories are a good example of some of the earlier work being done in this current wave of Lovecraftian fiction. Derleth, Bloch, Campbell, Carter, Ashton-Smith, and others wrote a lot of pastiches on the way to laying down a few of their own original bricks. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But this isn’t even on the same playground where Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín Kiernan, Ruthanna Emrys, and others are currently giving flesh to some of the best dark fiction period. If it took some pastiche work, and some less than inspired stories to get to where we are today, then I’m deeply grateful. Don’t get me wrong, gentle reader, these aren’t bad stories, and if you’re a Lovecraft fan you’ll have fun with them. They just aren’t up to the mind-blowing, reality-shifting status of some of the others I’ve reviewed here. I may be in danger of overvaluing the present at the expense of the past, but I don’t think too much so.

One final point, despite the intent of these tales, and despite their titles, they didn’t have a lot to do with Azathoth. I’m still in search of a really good Azathoth story, so if you know of one and can point me to it, please do so in the comments. I don’t know exactly what Daniel Upton found on his doorstep, but if Azathoth had anything to do with it, it was only in the inspirational sense.

This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical in A Minor” compiled by Laura Guthrie.

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

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“wash away my demons” by Deviant Artist: crimsonnonyxx

The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad, by Molly Tanzer

“I’ll tell you what I did on my summer vacation.”

With the notable exception of the gut busting film “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil,” I don’t normally go in for horror-comedies. Something about it just doesn’t do it for me, or maybe better said, they are usually never done well enough. That Netflix movie released a while back, “The Babysitter,” supposedly a humorous homage to 80’s slashers? Yeah, it just fell flat. On its stupid face.

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Molly Tanzer
So, it’s safe to say that a few pages into Molly Tanzer’s story —collected here in the fantastic feminist-Lovecraftian anthology “She Walks in Shadows,” edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles which was published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2015—I was a little nervous. (Not near as nervous as I was, though, to go google-image searching for this post. Wow, that was an exercise in…well, “wincing avoidance” might be the best phrase.) However, I can safely say that Tanzer has pulled off a delightfully playful story that, though it borders on pastiche, manages to stand up to its more grim sisters in the collection. This was, above all, a fun read. It relies totally on, as you can likely guess, The Thing on the Doorstep, and if you haven’t read that one first, you’ll be missing so much that it’s probably not even worth it. But I know you all have the original HPL tale under your belts, no problem. (Sidenote: there is, on Amazon Prime video, a modern adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep that I have not seen yet. If you have, I’d love to know what you thought of it.) Ok, onto the story with the title that begs to be read aloud in as sinister a voice as you can muster. In it we meet Asenath Waite, the high school cheerleader and her goody-goody-two-shoes cousin, Veronica Waite.

 

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“Asenath Waite” by Deviant Artist: MaryCountsTheWalls
The new school year is just starting up again and Veronica, fresh from Bible summer camp, can’t wait to have her shot at the varsity squad. Asenath’s summer was spent in less wholesome ways, shall we say. Our first glimpse of her is when she’s leaning against a car swapping spit with…gasp!…another girl! As the days go on, it becomes clearer and clearer to Veronica that Asenath isn’t herself. This is where Tanzer’s playfulness comes in. If you know the original story, you know how funny lines like this are: “Who did Asenath think she was? What she was doing, it wasn’t right—socially, academically, or spiritually.” Again, I normally don’t go for this kind of stuff, but I couldn’t help myself; I enjoyed this story. Later on we meet the mewling and drooling Uncle Ephraim Waite who comes to watch the cheerleading practice.  Studied readers will wonder at his seeming incapacitation, and why he goes about muttering things like “Thief…” 

Closer to the end of the story, Tanzer does include some Lovecraftian dread that added a nice seasoning to the work while not being so much as to be out of place. The girls’ strained relationship is coming to a head and Veronica, bless her heart, can’t figure out what’s going on with Asenath. She confronts her about her behavior and Asenath can’t take it. She makes fun of Veronica for frittering away her summer time at Bible camp and then tells her she can do all the praying she wants, because after what she’s seen, she knows none of that matters. She tells Veronica that over the summer, “I looked into a well of absolute darkness, a well without a bottom, full to the brim with writhing whispers blacker than the darkness. I looked—and I listened.” You can imagine how well this goes over with our Bible camp attendee. Asenath doesn’t tell Veronica that there’s nothing beyond this world. Quite the contrary. She tells her that what there is out there, doesn’t care about her, doesn’t hear her prayers.

 

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“Demon Cheerleader” by Deviant Artist: treystimpsonart
The story goes on to end about the way you’d expect it too, if you know HPL’s tale. How closely this story follows the original I suspect could actually be a divisive point. Some readers will wish it either did more or did something new with the original material. Other readers will take a lot of pleasure over how close it stuck to the blueprint. For my money, I’m in the latter camp. I appreciate what Tanzer does with the original material and how easily she translates it to this new setting. Now, I don’t think it’s going to win any awards for originality, but that’s not really the point I suspect. Tanzer’s prose is accomplished, and she does an admirable job capturing the diction and sentence structure of teenagers. I won’t say it’s a perfect capture, but then again if it was, it’d be indecipherable and involve emojis. I’d quite like to read something of hers that was more original because I believe there’s a pretty deep imagination at work here. I mean, I would never have read HPL’s story and then thought, “You know what would be great? If I took this and set it on a cheerleading squad!” I do have to say though, that unless I’m getting confused by all the…switching…that goes on in the end, this doesn’t end up having a particularly feminist ending. This collection, you’ll remember, is all about female characters, written by females as part of the unofficial redemption of Lovecraft movement that’s going on. It is definitely authored by a woman and is definitely about women, but women don’t totally come out on top in the end and perhaps that’s a twist that might have made for a stronger story as well as a more original one. All said and done though, this is a fun one. It’s not scary, not even particularly dreadful, nor does it feature a ton of cosmic futilitarianism (though it touches on it). There’s no big Lovecraftian baddies here lurking in the dark, interstitial places. But, it is extremely faithful to the original piece of writing, if in an impish fashion.

This review was composed while listening to the terrifying soundtrack to the (original) Dario Argento film, “Suspiria”. Now, the children are tucked into their coffins, the wife is stirring her cauldron one more time before she dreams, and I have to go let the shoggoth out.

 

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

Wicked lines to chortle at:Asenath was in Gifted, so Veronica hadn’t expected to see her during the school day.”