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

The Song Inside the Star, by Madison McSweeney

“Bubbly lyrics about high school romances and accounts of barely-legal clubbing have been replaced by proggy ramblings on black holes and mysterious beings from other dimensions.”

—Madison McSweeney, “The Song Inside the Star”

“Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel.”
—Hunter S. Thompson

planet[1]Very few people could argue that music is not affective. Naturally, Thomas Ligotti is one of them; speaking of a particularly dark time for him in a 2015 interview with many different contemporary weird fiction authors and published by the Lovecraft E-Zine, he said, “I lost music for ten years this time. I also lost my imagination for those ten years. They both came back, and I loved them again. But I didn’t believe in them anymore. I’ll never believe in them as I once did. They’re not real—not really. They are something to kill time, something between me and death.” Very Ligotti. However, Lovecraft wasn’t averse to it, and placed music’s power at the center of his story, “The Music of Erich Zann.” (I wish I could find a quote from one of Lovecraft’s letters on the subject of music, but alas, I am currently away from my library.) Clark Ashton Smith composed an “Ode to Music,” in which he wrote, “We may not know whence thy strange sorceries fall—/Whether they be Earth’s voices wild and strong,/Her high and perfect song,/Or broken dreams of higher worlds unfound.” I think I have to depart from Ligotti and side with HPL and CAS on this one: music can move the soul. It has the power to transport you to the highest heights and the deepest depths. It is inspiring, challenging, soothing, haunting, all depending on the listener, their circumstances, and their mood. I believe in it and so does Madison McSweeney, who composes a confident tale of Lovecraftian horror which I’ll review here featuring….a teeny-bopper pop-star.

il_1588xN.1882103768_4ful[1]Appearing in Weird Mask Magazine, Issue 18, published in May of 2019, I am grateful to the author for a gratis review copy of this story. She is a new author to me but has been widely published in various anthologies and Zines including American Gothic Short Stories and Mysterion. In this story, Caroline Benzen, or “Cara” to her growing legion of pubescent fans, is stretching her creative muscles against the advice of her managers and wanting to try something completely different for her next album. Jim McKibben has the misfortune of being the journalist from SoundHound Magazine assigned to interview her as well as cover her latest tour. He explains how she is your typical teenaged star: grand ideas of herself coupled with a certain vacuousness. She’s got boyfriend problems (of course), teenage angst (only the kind that sells records), and a gifted set of pipes. Behind all that though there is a nascent strangeness. “I’m very informed,”  proclaims Cara, “I know things a lot of people don’t.” McKibben makes a note to look up some of the things she’s talking about before he writes his article: “Notes: Look up “The Keeper of the Keys”; “Yogg Sotthoth (sp?); “Goat with 1000 Young.” As you, informed readers, might guess, the prospects for the characters of our story grow decidedly grim.

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Real life teen pop-star, Charlotte Lawrence, in concert in LA, 2018. Photo credit: Rachel Ann Cauilan.
Throughout this rather short story (2700 words) I appreciated the confidence of McSweeney’s authorial voice. Her writing flows and reads with ease, especially given the format. She delivers this tale in a sort of modern epistolary fashion, made up of emails, text messages, draft article pieces with private marginalia, journal entries, and memorandums. She wisely deploys these techniques in differently metered doses to create a well-rounded picture of contemporary communication at the same time as she propels a compelling narrative. I really enjoyed this multi-format approach and think other readers will as well. By writing in a way that contemporary readers are used to digesting information, she helps sink you into the world of her story that bends this new reality around yours. It may have you questioning yourself the next time you buy a ticket to a concert by the next-big-thing. When it’s safe to go to concerts again, maybe, just maybe, it won’t be.

There are some things that I think would’ve made the story stronger. The first (after some research) I think is just a function of the submission guidelines for Weird Mask (3000 word limit), but I really wish the story had been a bit longer. I think if she had the word count to further develop some of her ideas and concepts the story would really have benefited. As it stands now, the horrible things come too suddenly and too on the nose, in turn making the reactions of the journalist character somewhat difficult to believe. With proper build-up though, she would not have to rely on such directness and could dwell more in hints and allusions. A second element that would make the story stronger is more done with the boyfriend character as one much closer to Cara than McKibben, but still looking from the outside in. Finally, Cara’s development is too fast. In one case her brazenness works for her youthfulness and naïvete, whereas mostly it comes off as hurried plotting. She needs some more motivation, perhaps, as to why she falls victim to these forces, or why she particularly was chosen.

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Title: Goat with a Thousand Young. (2013) Imgur artist: TransientCurse
I’d love to see early drafts of some of Cara’s new lyrics where she is working this out, and McKibben’s (or perhaps her boyfriend’s) reactions to them. Fan reactions to her proposed new direction would not be out of place in a longer version of the tale either. Perhaps those are separate issues, but perhaps not. What I am saying is that I’d love to read a more fleshed-out version of this tale in any future collection McSweeney publishes.

That about wraps it up for this review, friends. I tried to compose it while listening to early Britney Spears, but I just could not. Some horrors are too beyond the pale for even me. Instead I listened to a playlist of my own creation based on suggestions from an online Lovecraft group that I unoriginally titled “The Music of Erich Zann.” It’s full of dark string music and bizarre, experimental tone poems. Feel free to check it out.

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

 

 

To Rouse Leviathan, by Matt Cardin

“My theological namesake quoted approvingly to his Greek audience a common bit of philosophical wisdom from their own cultural milieu when he spoke of God the Father as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Does not such a formulation recall Yog-Sothoth, who walks with the other Old Ones between the dimensions, and in whom past, present, and future are one? Does it not recall Azathoth, the primal chaos that resides not only at the center of infinity but at the center of each atom, each particle, perhaps serving as the unaccountable subatomic bond that has categorically escaped scientific explanation?”

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INTRODUCTION

This is a review I’ve been looking forward to writing for a long time. Years before I knew of him, Matt Cardin published his first collection, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP (Ash Tree Press, 2002), and his second, DARK AWAKENINGS (Mythos Books, 2010), both of which are pretty hard to find now at an affordable price. However, you don’t need to. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN in an omnibus collection containing revised and expanded versions of both of those previous collections, as well as an entire section of newly collected work, published in August 2019 by Hippocampus Press. The exquisite cover art is by the very talented Michael Hutter. If you find you enjoy Cardin’s thinking, he, along with a brain trust of cosmic horror luminaries, blog over at The Teeming Brain. For those unfamiliar with him, Matt Cardin writes a very particular brand of cosmic horror. Don’t turn away when I tell you that what he writes is theological horror, for it is of an ilk you have never read and I dare say most have not presumed to imagine.

Why have I been looking forward to reviewing this ever since I knew of its existence? Because TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN exists at a strange cross-section in my life. What you may not know about me is that in addition to being a fan of Lovecraftian and cosmic horror, I am also an Episcopal priest. So, this will be a longer and different sort of review, as I want to cover in the Introduction what I think is going on in Cardin’s work (which I believe I am uniquely situated to do) and then comment on a specific story I’ve chosen, “The New Pauline Corpus.

1271d404bc966d20f3fed067649475e2[1].jpgA significant amount of 19th and early 20th century western horror was situated in a faithful literary world. That is to say, the Judeo-Christian worldview held sway. Bram Stoker’s vampires could be warded off by a cross, for example, and many of M.R. James’ ghost stories featured Christian clergy in a positive light. Lovecraft adopted a different world view (save, oddly for him, in “The Dreams in the Witch House”) which largely ignored or denigrated a Judeo-Christian heritage, and posited a universe in which magnificent, malevolent, and/or uncaring alien deities were at the top of the divine food chain. As Christendom died, many horror authors abandoned theologically-based or theologically-resolved horror, choosing instead the milieu championed in 1882 by Nietzsche in which “God is dead.” Now, in the wake of sinful and heinous sexual abuse scandals across denominations, we see a lot of horror content in which the church itself and her chosen representatives are the antagonists or, in the least, at the root of the antagonism. Cardin does not fall easily into any of those categories, but you must understand those categories if you’re to grasp the genius of what he is doing.

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“The Undying Worm” by Ed Odson
Cardin’s work imagines neither that God is dead, nor that God never existed; God, in Cardin’s work, is very much real and very much alive. Further, he does not imagine that God is all-benevolent either, but rather that God is almost exactly as the Judeo-Christian scriptures present him, difficult passages and all. Especially those difficult passages. Passages like Genesis 15:12-13a, 17; Numbers 11:33; 16:46, 49;  Isaiah 66:24; and quite a lot of the book of Job. In Cardin’s stories, he wrestles extensively with something theologians like to call theodicy, which are the ways we try to prove God’s goodness in the face of the existence of evil. The book of Job is a biblical mythological work of theodicy, but has a conclusion that does not satisfy most readers. The complicated problem can most easily be explained by imagining a triangle of three philosophical points.

One point maintains that God is omniscient, the second point that God is omnipotent, and the third that God is omnibenevolent. Ask most believers if they agree with those points individually and you’ll likely get near universal assent. However, if you examine it more closely in light of the existence of evil, one point seems like it must break down. If we take for granted God’s omniscience and omnipotence, then, given the existence of evil, we cannot understand God to be omnibenevolent. If God knew bad things were going to happen, and had it in his divine capacity to stop them, and if he were all-good, he would. But evil still exists. It works the same way as you go around the three points.  When taking for granted God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omniscient. Likewise, when taking for granted God’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, given the existence of evil, God cannot then be omnipotent. For thousands of years theologians, philosophers, and regular people in the pews have wrestled with this concept, making little headway.

 

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Tiamat
This difficulty so befuddled early Christians that it is easy to understand the rise of Manichaeism, a particular brand of gnosticism that sought, in part, to address theodicy. Mani was an early third century Persian who said that, because of the very problem our triangle above illustrated, the world could not have been created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god. It didn’t work. Mani believed that such a god existed, and that this god was the God of the scriptures, but did not believe that god was the creator of world, because of the manifest presence of evil. Mani, like many gnostics, divided the cosmos into duologies. Therefore, while the god of the scriptures was out there somewhere, the creator deity (who was NOT omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) was not that god. This explains the presence of evil in the created world. Cardin taps into this concept immediately in his stories, marrying it with the early Babylonian creation myth (Enûma Eliš) that tells of order—in the form of Marduk, bull-calf of the Sun god Utu—triumphing over chaos—in the form of Tiamat, dragon goddess of the salt sea. A similar, if less anthropomorphic, creation narrative is told in the first verses of Genesis.

In TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN, Cardin writes of a god who is something of an amalgamation of Tiamat and the demiurge of Manichaeism, and, from my perspective, is a genius creation and a terribly thought-provoking character who is decidedly not benevolent at all. No where does Cardin abuse the scriptures or take any more liberties with them than Christian orthodoxy does. He just interacts with them in a decidedly different way. His accurate and working knowledge of biblical Hebrew goes a long way to help this and his understanding that both Masoretic vocalization of the text, as well as all punctuation, are editorial decisions as much as literary fact solidifies his command over his material. Remarkably, Cardin is doing a lot more than that in these stories, but time does not permit me to tell of them. While as a theologian, I do not reach his same conclusions, I also operate from the perspective that this is not primarily a work of theology, but a work of contemporary cosmic horror fiction. On to the story!

 

THE NEW PAULINE CORPUS

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“Let the day perish on which I was born. That day—may it turn to darkness. Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let the blackness of the day terrify it. Let those sorcerers who place a curse on days curse that day, those who are skilled to rouse Leviathan.”  ~Job 3:3-5, 8
At first I wanted to write about the first story in the collection, “An Abhorrence to All Flesh,” which still ended up being my favorite. Then I read the second story, “Notes of a Mad Copyist” and wanted to write about it. Then I wanted to write about “The Basement Theater,” the most Ligottian story in the book in my opinion. But when I finally reached “The New Pauline Corpus,” I knew I had to write about it as it combines a good portion of Cardin’s theological musings with the Lovecraftian Mythos.

Towards the beginning, Cardin writes, “…theology-as-story does not preclude ontology but incorporates it…we are living the story of a war between levels of reality. Our metanarrative is the tale of how space-time, the cosmos, the created order, was usurped by a reality that is more fundamental, primary, and ancient.” That usurpation was of the Lovecraftian gods over the god of the scriptures and this story is told from the epistolary perspective of a neo-Paul writing to a certain Francis (the current Pope?) attempting to integrate the Christian worldview with the cosmological disaster that has occurred. Further ponderings ultimately lead to the eminently quotable line, “What has Christ to do with Cthulhu?”

Neo-Paul answers this query in sections bearing such theologically awesome sub-headings as “Its Immanence,” and “Its Awefulness.” In them he explores the concept of divine fear, and how the mythos gods more acutely evoke such reactions. He questions the true purpose of religion, but not in the same tired way that Marx did. b62823de8fba75f50b67d94136fe47a4--pictures-of-jesus-christ-pictures[1]He closes the loop between the creation myth of Genesis and the vision of John the Revelator. He wonders about the sustaining power of narrative, invoking the scene from Ezekiel wherein God commands the prophet to eat the scroll. And finally, given their awful circumstances, he is forced to conclude that, “What might be a wholesome human form dressed in liturgical vestments and wearing the papal mitre might also be a mutated manshape sprouting dragon’s wings and surmounted by a head like a cuttlefish…” This is, obviously, a much less serious story than those that precede it, but at the same time it is a more fun one which I enjoyed immensely not only for its self-awareness, but for its function near the end of this omnibus of allowing you to breathe again. To breathe, and even to laugh.

Matt Cardin’s writing is beautifully erudite, at times bordering on academic, but it is never boring or oppressive. He invites you to bring your brain to this reading and then thoroughly engages it. TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN is a thinking person’s collection of horror, and will lustrously reward those who are willing to peep with him over the edge of the abyss and not retreat when it returns the gaze. It is also the most fun I’ve had with a single author collection in a long time. This volume deserves to be shelved in your place of highest honor, a fair companion to Lovecraft, Ligotti, and whomever else you consider to be a master of the craft. Matt Cardin’s brand of horror is Lovecraftian in some ways, it’s true, and Ligottian in many others, but I suspect it won’t be long now before we refer to it simply as Cardinian.

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

A Reading from Matt Cardin: “These psychic disturbances that have so terrified us of late, all the collapsing distinctions between thought, imagination, and physical reality, so that a stray wish or undisciplined notion may cause finned, clawed, and tentacled atrocities to appear, or may even alter one’s own physical body in awful ways that some of us have been unable to undo afterward, as in a nightmare from which one cannot wake because one has awakened inside the nightmare itself—may these not be the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send the paraclete to “guide us into all truth” and “convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment,” and of his promise that his followers would perform even greater miracles than he himself had performed, and of the apostle Paul’s teaching that the divine spirit living within us will show us directly those primal mysteries which “no eye has seen, no ear had heard, no mind conceived?”

Here endeth the reading.

 

Aharesia, by Natalia Theodoridou

“I remember a time when I felt lured by the world’s wonders, when I wanted to see everything,” he wanted to say. “I wanted to live more, be more. What happened to me?”

cover-vol2-issue1[1]There’s been a time or two in my adult life when I felt like I didn’t belong; more if you count my youth. I imagine both go without saying for most of us, which is what makes a theme of displacement so potentially potent. All of us are taken back to “a time when…” Once in a while, when the stars are seemingly aligned, some of us have a chance to return to a place if not a time. Of those who leap at such a rare opportunity, most discover two important truths: the stars were never aligned, not that way, and you can never, ever truly go back. Life has changed for you and the place you left. Both have had divergent sets of experiences, circumstances, and occurrences. To imagine that such a bifurcation can be undone is a daydream. World Fantasy Award-winning author Natalia Theodoridou, explores these themes in her story Aharesia, to be published this Spring by Grimscribe Press in Volume Two, Issue One of “Vastarien: A Literary Journal.” I’d like to thank Jon Padgett and Grimscribe Press for providing me with a review copy of this issue of “Vastarien” in exchange for this fair and unbiased review.

Before we go further, a word about this journal’s literary pedigree is appropriate. In the event you haven’t heard of it (for shame!) you should know that it’s the dream child of Jon Padgett, (an author I’ve reviewed here before), who is something like a literary godson of Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, in turn, found a muse early on in ole HPL, but as Jeff Vandermeer says in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Ligotti’s omnibus collection “Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe,” “…in a kind of metaphysical horror story of its own, Ligotti early on subsumed Lovecraft and left his dry husk behind, having taken what sustenance he needed for his own devices. (Most other writers are, by contrast, consumed by Lovecraft when they attempt to devour him.)” So, authors published in “Vastarien” are going to be playing in Ligotti’s sandbox more than Lovecraft’s, but there are non-Euclidean corners overlapping to be sure.

The Road HomeAharesia opens with a young couple, Nathan and Sammie, on a road trip back to Nathan’s hometown, Aharesia. There’s only one problem, as the story’s memorable opening line proclaims, “Except the town wasn’t there.” No map app, no GPS can seem to find it. The only evidence that it exists at all are Nathan’s clear and fond memories of growing up there. His brother and he, riding bikes. Fossil hunting. Eating pancakes at Finn’s with his mom. Swimming in the lake with Brandon. Or was it the pool? Nathan’s memories wobble a bit. But at the same time, they’re so clear, so real. Sammie wonders if he’s suffering a breakdown. For as much as she loves him, she knows he’s coming apart at the seams. Has been, since she met him when she was working at a diner. “He’d shown up, sat at the bar. Lots of guys who hung out there looked haunted, but not the way Nathan did. He’d walk into a room and you’d say, that’s a broken man. Just her type. He hadn’t asked for coffee that day. All he’d wanted was water, so Sam had kept serving him as he emptied glass after glass.” The whole story is told in this dreamlike fugue where reality wavers, an image glimpsed through deep water. The truth dances like a tiny tropical fish, drawing you in with its vibrant colors and then flitting away just as you think you’ve got your hand on it.

IMG_1989_1024x1024[1].jpgAt last, a signpost in the wilderness, as the pancake house Nathan recalls having dined at with his mother “appeared on the right, its green triangular roof and yellow-trimmed letters exactly as he remembered them.” The waitress even recognizes him and things are looking up as they speak of the past. But sore subjects are quickly poked. The waitress, apologetic, “…bit her lip and perked up. “Look at me, dredging up the past like that. No use, I suppose. Your mother knew not to speak about things that are better left unsaid.”” Theodoridou consistently and effectively sprinkles her narrative with these nuggets of malice, almost like lures, that leave the reader nervous and wondering.

As a nightmarish transcorporeality begins to affect Nathan, things dive quickly down. For all she tries, Sammie cannot help him. “No, you don’t understand,” he shouted. “It’s not real, none of it is real, I’m not who you think I am. I’m not who I thought I was.” The whirlpool does not relent, spiraling towards a shocking ending that will leave you gasping for air and answers.

Aharesia is going to appeal to Lovecraft fans, calling to mind stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The White Ship, and The Night Ocean. I’m less versed in my Ligotti (which I am slowly correcting) but of the stories I have read, I found similar themes of displacement and memory in a haunting little tale that creeps up on you afterwards called The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise. The writing, as should be evidenced by the quotes I’ve given you, is superb. Though it is not lush, it is sneakily substantial. She knows how to string you along, gathering your interest, sparking your curiosity, stretching your sense of normality, and then, with a short sharp pain, she sets her hook and you’re hers. Her dialogue is believable. Never once was I taken out of the story to scratch my head at some unrealistic conversation. The characters she draws are likewise believable and real. Their pain is palpable. Their search for what they’ve lost is melancholic. I could close my eyes and be in the booth behind them at the pancake house, guiltily eavesdropping on their misery.

2937692939_c323035788_z[1].jpgAs is usually the case when it is not immediately obvious, I am curious about the title. A quick Google search reveals nothing (which, frankly, I should have expected, given the plot). But the first four letters triggered something in my way-way back memory. It sounded to me like a Hebrew word, so I checked that out and, in fact, it is. Ahar is a word found in Biblical Hebrew meaning “to tarry or delay,” frequently with a sense of leaving something behind or discarding something. I have no idea if this was in the author’s mind when she composed the story or titled it, but I found it surprisingly apropos, for what it’s worth (which may be exactly nothing).

This issue of Vastarien also contains stories by Gemma Files, Matthew M. Bartlett, S. E. Casey, as well as the poetry of K. A. Opperman and scholarly work by Gwendolyn Kiste and David Peak. Everything I’ve read in “Vastarien” has been of the highest quality, combining an enviable erudition with exemplary Ligottian homage. An annual subscription, delivered to your e-reader, costs only $13.50, and were I you, I’d subscribe today so you get this issue when it is released very soon. It’s very much worth it.

This review was composed while listening to “Curse of the Daimon” by Daemonyx (Matt Cardin).

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

For the sake of clarity: “There were no signs for Aharesia Town on the way.”

The Infusorium, by Jon Padgett

“I turned my flashlight beam —wavy with those black, floating motes—onto the body. Something like the skeletons we had dug up recently. But far more hideous than any of them. It appeared to be fresher. The remains of the thing’s yellowed, shriveled skin cracked across its face like desiccated sand. Its mouth hung open to reveal a single line of small, dark teeth. The hair was black and slick, almost as if painted high on its head, giving the illusion of premature balding.”

51B6pV2-YfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Part of the skeletal frame of Jon Padgett’s eerie debut collection, “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” is discipleship. Infused throughout this delightfully odd little book, published in 2016 by Dunhams Manor Press, are themes of masters imparting knowledge to students (willing or by happenstance), or a student seeking out that hidden knowledge. In fact, the collection opens with a meditation of sorts, the likes of which you might find in a yoga studio or a church (though it would be a singular example of either that used this particular meditation), and the central sphere around which all the other stories orbit is a tale written as an instruction manual. It is fitting that Jon Padgett has been driven by this theme for his initial collection as he himself is one of the horror communities most noted disciples of one of the most noted horror writers, Thomas Ligotti. Years ago Padgett began an online community dedicated to the critical analysis and interpretation of Ligotti’s fiction and non-fiction called Thomas Ligotti Online. These days, Padgett and Ligotti are on a first name basis with each other, and Ligotti helped Padgett substantially with his writing once their relationship developed to the point where Ligotti could “take the kid gloves off” as Padgett related in an interview on the This Is Horror podcast. I can’t help but think that many of these stories, or at the very least their backbones, grew out of a macabre coupling of Padgett’s passion for ventriloquism and this master/disciple relationship.  That, by itself, is enough to make me want to read them.

It’s hard to write about a single story in this collection, and if you’ve already read it you know why, but they all interact with each other. They all inhabit the same literary universe, but more than that, they abide with one another, occasionally reaching between the pages to touch one another in unsettling ways. smokestacks-sunset[1]However, as soon as I read The Infusorium, I knew that I had to tell you about it my fellow ventriloquism aficionados. One part buddy cop story, one part “The Fog,” one part weird cult, The Infusiorium is a story that took hold from the very first sentence and never let go. I’m being very serious when I say that I hope someone, somewhere, options this story for a film, because it would be fantastic. It takes place in the paper mill town of Dunnstown, and in its encroaching outskirts of Treasure Forest. The long silent paper mill still somehow pollutes the area with a noxious fog, choking life and desire from its inhabitants. Oddly, the townsfolk just seem to deal with it. But something else is afoot, too: a series of grisly discoveries. Absurdly elongated skeletal corpses have been turning up in the forest, buried standing up, with only their skulls above ground, screaming towards the blocked out sun. Our protagonist, Detective Raphaella Tosto, is assigned to investigate a possible connection between these grotesque corpses and an annual letter received by the police department going back ten years warning of just such a discovery.

dark skeleton.jpgFor it’s first half, the story is pretty on the level. Creepy, but on the level. Once Detective Tosto and her partner, Detective Guidry, get into the field around the paper mill, it gets pretty topsy-turvy in all the right, mind-bending ways. “…the skeletons’ resemblance to human ones began and ended with the skulls themselves.  The blackened skeletal remains gave the impression they had expanded below the dirt, outwards and downwards. And everything about the skeletons underground was elongated. Limbs, digits, even ribs and backbone just as described, terminating in crablike claws or the jointed, thin legs of an insect.” Ghastly discoveries and dark connections pile up creating an oppressive atmosphere of dread that neatly mimics the physical atmosphere of the town Padgett describes. It is in this layering that we can most clearly discern Ligotti’s tutelage; Padgett has been an apt student.

The story winds you down a putrid path ending in explosive violence, and if you read only this story, it will definitely satisfy. However, the real joy in this whole collection is in observing the connections the tales have, one to another. You begin to want to go back to previous stories to check out some detail or some specific wording you feel like you’ve read before. It connects, but always slightly off, like a puzzle put together with pieces from different editions. It matches up, mostly, but it is in the cracks where the oddities thrive. Padgett’s real success is not just this entertaining horror story so much as it is the unit as a whole. You must read this collection in the order in which it is printed first, and then skip around in your re-read if you like. That’s the only way you’ll appreciate the tapestry being woven here.

Most of the stories I’ve reviewed here have had a straightforward connection to Mr. Lovecraft, but this one’s relationship to HPL is slightly more evanescent.  The old gent was certainly an influence on the work of Thomas Ligotti, who is the primary influence on Jon Padgett, so it’s definitely in there, just more in the background rather than the fore. Here you’ll find no Mi-Go’s, no Deep Ones, neither any Necronomicons (though a forbidden/gnostic text does play a central role), nor any Elder Gods (though a malevolent force does appear to be worshiped). There are, however, cultists operating behind the scenes, driving some of the action. Lovecraft loved the idea of cultists, though here they are put to slightly different literary use. Lovecraft is directly mentioned several times in the introduction by Matt Cardin, but he plays a far less central role here tah in other weird tales I’ve discussed. That’s fine for me because it’s a darn good story, but if you’re looking for something much more essentially Lovecraftian, you’ll not find it here save in whispers and surreptitious nods.

image_286359db-0dc8-49df-90e3-46e80fa46295_grande[1].pngPadgett’s writing is often dreamlike, floating between perceived realities and unwanted assumptions. You don’t want to go where you feel he is taking you. It unsettles you, it makes you wish that weren’t happening, and it likely will drag up an unpleasant memory from the depths of your own psyche from time to time. This is successful horror writing for more reasons that just the skeletons on the page. Like the malevolent air, it gets inside you and suffuses you with its poison. However, in one or two places, I was taken out of the story by what I felt was poor word choice (“…the blood of the non-killed* pollutant victim…”). I also have to say, I was a little skeptical to read a whole collection ostensibly about ventriloquism. I mean, those dummies are creepy sure, but a whole bunch of stories about them? Well, rest assured this collection is far more than that. There is a depth here that makes me excited to see what Padgett can do in the future when he is not writing about his favorite past-time.

That about wraps it up for this review, fellow dummies, so thanks for checking it out. It was composed while listening to soundtrack master Piero Umilani’s “Storia e Preistoria.” That would also be fine listening while you read this collection.

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

From Step 9 in “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism”: “Just remind yourself that the ventriloquist dummy, your pets, your family and friends all have one thing in common with each other: they are dummies. With practice, you will be amazed at how they will dance to the tune of your voice.”

* – In a subsequent communication with Mr. Padgett, after he read this review, he clarified this usage: “The “non-killed” adjective…was used by a resident to describe some suffering inhabitants of an actual mill town catastrophe in the 50s. I thought it would be a neat peculiarity for Kroth to use.