Howling in the Dark, by Darrell Schweitzer

“I am certain only that we came to a high, dark place beneath brilliant stars and perched at the edge of a precarious precipice, so that with the slightest tumble, not to mention an intentional leap, we could have hurled ourselves off into the black sea of infinity forever.”

Well, I have to confess (I feel comfortable doing that with you, my fellow cultists, and pray that trust is not misplaced) that when I looked in my notes and saw the title of this next story that was up for review I had a brief moment of panic because I didn’t remember the first thing about it.  I thought, ‘Have I gotten too far ahead in my reading that I’m beginning to not be able to recall the ones I’ve finished?’ But then I looked at my list, and no, I remembered each other one that was on the list. So, I’m afraid the first thing I have to say about this story tonight is that for me, it was not very memorable. Even when I went back and looked at it again, I have to say that not only was it not very memorable, but I wasn’t all that interested in it. So, that’s my confession to you, and you’ll have to decide for yourselves whether my feeble brain is just too addled from blasphemous texts and forgotten rites, or whether this story just doesn’t cut the mustard. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

b69062dd20873d040269e11d4f7f7b43[1]It’s a tough call to make, I assure you, as our author is not only a well respected and very prolific author in the field of weird fiction, but he was, from 1988 to 2007 the editor of a little magazine you may have heard about called Weird Tales. I came across the story in Black Wings of Cthulhu, Vol. 1, edited by none other than the estimable S.T. Joshi, the preeminent Lovecraft scholar, and published by Titan Books in 2012. Since then, this venerable series of Lovecraftian anthologies is up to volume six, so it’s only natural that not all stories will resonate with all readers.  This one tells the tale of Joseph (who goes unnamed until the end) in the first person, who lives a somewhat tragic life and is taken on noctural journeys through time and space by a spooky “stone man whose eyes do not really glow.” You get the sense that perhaps he is really going on these weird trips, but perhaps he is not; perhaps he is just wandering around outside, silently suffering some sort of mental break from reality on account of his circumstances.  His mother hints at this possibility when, after she catches him wet and cold from being outside, she asks, “Are you crazy? You’ll catch your death of cold!” But when the narrator could provide no explanation, “Mom began to talk about doctors and psychiatrists.”

The stone man takes him on trips through the blackness of night with increasingly regularity, seemingly coinciding with the progressively horrid conditions of his life.  He was beaten regularly, his parents screamed at each other, his sister gained obscene amounts of weight without end. 5078971[1].jpgFurther and further afield he is taken, but perhaps it is just further and further down into a severely depressed psyche. “If we are to achieve our place in the whirling darkness beyond the stars, he explained to me, inside my head without words, we must become nihil, nothing.” Eventually two of his family members suicide and the flying demons of his night jaunts close in. He is institutionalized, spends time with doctors for whom he doesn’t have much respect, and is finally released. He must have achieved some sort of equilibrium as he marries, has a daughter, and moves away. But the stone man and all the inhabitants of the darkness, his darkness, follow him.  More tragedy strikes, and finally, the descent into madness, or to the lost plateau of Leng, is near complete.

Like I said, this one really didn’t do a whole lot for me, nor can I really recommend it with any force. It’s well written, I’ll give it that. Schweitzer knows his craft. It just left me cold in the end, and not in a particularly Lovecraftian way. (Lovecraft’s stories actually never leave me cold. I always end up feeling something: awe, wonder, fear, and so on.) Perhaps, though, that is the point of this, to be an exposition on numbness, that particular demon of depression.

spitsbergen-eclipse-ngpc2015_92203_990x742[1]
“…we hurled through infinities without number until we came at last to a flat and frozen plain, beneath two black suns, and we knelt down and abased ourselves…”
I’ve never suffered from it, thank the dim star of Carcosa, but I know many who have and do, and it’s no joke. If that was Schweitzer’s goal, I’ll hand him credit where credit is due, he succeeded in writing a story about depression that left me numb, cold, and unfeeling. And I didn’t like it. Again, though, maybe that was the point. Beyond that, it’s not particularly Lovecraftian, nor is it startingly scary in any way. But it might be a good story, despite not fitting in this genre in my modest opinion. I suppose you could argue that the Lovecraftian nature of it comes in the expansive visions of the cosmos to which the narrator is exposed: “Now the stars swirl around us in a vast whirlpool, and then there are more dark dust clouds whirling, obscuring the light, and we pass through, borne by our captors, for I believe that is what they are, the ones to whom we have surrendered ourselves.” It’s beautiful, evocative imagery, but for some reason, it just doesn’t scream HPL at me.  Put another way, were this story not in this book, I’d likely never associate it with Lovecraft.

That about does it for this review, but before I go, let me say this again. Depression is no joke. If you’re suffering from it, you do not have to do so alone. Reach out. Tell someone you trust. Leave a comment for me if all else fails, for heaven’s sake. There is help. If you’re thinking of harming yourself, that is not the answer. This is National Suicide Awareness Week, and so for my part, I urge you, if you’re having thoughts of suicide, call this number:

1-800-273-8255

13496_AFSP_didyouknow_graphics_rebrand_d165[1].png

This review was composed listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Miroirs,” “Pavane pour une infante défunte,” and my personal favorite, “Gaspard de la nuit,” which is an insanity all of its own.

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

Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story, by Stephen Mark Rainey

“In all my experience as a fighter pilot, of walking hand in hand with death on a daily basis, I don’t believe I had ever felt so thoroughly terrified by my condition as a solitary, fragile, and ultimately minuscule being as I did now.”

81NDPG7P81L[1]Surely I won’t keep up this posting pace, but today’s a holiday and what the heck, here’s one more. Kevin Ross and Keith Herber’s edited anthology, Dead but Dreaming, was a collection I was glad to be able to get my hands on.  It had apparently only had a very small first run and became a well-lauded (Mike Davis, over at the Lovecraft Ezine, calls it one of the best Lovecraftian anthologies ever), but very difficult book to find.  It was first published in 2002 by DarkTales Publications, which quickly went under and this volume, in high demand, was apparently selling for over $300 on Ebay.  Thankfully, it’s been republished in 2008 by Miskatonic River Press, and I laid my tentacles on it for only $18.

The first story in the collection (when first reading a collection, I like to read the first story first, because I think it sets a tone, and they obviously chose it to lead off for a reason,) is called “Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story,” by Stephen Mark Rainey.  Rainey is a prodigious author of novel, short stories, audio dramas, and a bunch of other creepy media. Like the first story by Laird Barron that I reviewed, this tale has as its hero a military man, in this case a WWII fighter pilot named Jack Wyndham. The story opens in the midst of our pilot seeing action in the Pacific Theater, Japanese Zero bullets rattling off his plane’s fuselage above the jungles of Burma. There’s a lot of zigging and zagging, some serious G-pulling dives, and a stone or two of hot lead flying through the air.

P40full4[1].jpg
American P-40b “Tomahawk”
Jack manages to pull away from his pursuers, but not before his P-40b Tomahawk is fatally damaged.  Options disappearing in black smoke pouring from his engines, he pops his cockpit glass, ejects, and watches his ride crash in a fireball in the jungle below.  It’s not long, though, before her hears the familiar whine again, and looks up in terror to see the vengeful Zeroes coming around to target his parachute with their cowl mounted machine guns. And then something bizarre happens.  A smoky haze seems to arise in front of the Zeroes, doing funky things to how they appear to Jack and muffling the sound.  Then, as if running right into a wall, the planes flatten and explode, as Jack continues his slow drift into the deep jungle canopy below.

The next part of the story takes place with Jack dangling from his chute, stuck in the top of the canopy with no safe way of getting down.  The Burmese jungle Rainey paints for us is a great Lovecraftian environment actually. It’s threatening and oppressive, but not because it’s malevolent. Rather it simply doesn’t care at all about the solitary human being hanging from its branches. It doesn’t look good for our Yankee airman and over the next pages (too many I felt, but it wasn’t that big of a deal) we read about him slowly coming to grips with the severity of his situation. No rescue will be forthcoming. No one knows where he is.  He can’t get down; he’s too far up to fall safely, and he’s out of reach of any branch that might support him. He’s got a single canteen of water. Oncoming night terrifies him: “Now, though, as the afternoon began to wane, a dread of the coming night settled heavily upon me; every nerve in my body railed against the idea of hanging helplessly in this place once the sun had gone down.”  The hopelessness of his case evokes strong, if localized, Lovecraftian themes.  The force (nature) against which he is arrayed is simply too powerful and too uncaring about his predicament.

VA001332-660x420[1].jpg
How would you like to land in this?

Oh, but then we get really Lovecraftian.  Because whatever those Japanese fighters crashed into is coming.  I don’t want to spoil it for you but Jack’s in for one heck of a ride through time and space. Something has taken an interest in him after all. For a moment even, he imagines the shrill chirping of the jungle insects is actually “a threnody piped by insane flautists.” Oh boy, Lovecraft fans, you know what that means! Azathoth may be near. (This is actually a Dunsaynian idea that HPL appropriated: the idiot sleeping god who dreams the world into existence, and is kept asleep by the music of lesser deities, and thank goodness for that because if he wakes up, it’s all over for everything.) But then it is over, the strangeness of our story I mean, and he wakes back up in a field hospital, miles from where he crashed, apparently having been rescued by a patrolling troop of local Burmese regulars.

I’m hoping this story actually does set the tone for the rest of this anthology because, like the Barron, this is well beyond pastiche or imitation. This is taking the best of Lovecraft’s sense of cosmic fear—fear of the unknown—and working it into a story all Rainey’s own. As I’ll probably no doubt say over and over again, Lovecraft wasn’t just all about the tentacles and the cultic magic.  Sure, that is a part of it, and a great lot of fun too, but what really sets Lovecraft apart is his sense of cosmic terror, that the evolution of human beings is a joke of the universe at best, a blip on the galactic timeline.  This story taps into that pretty successfully, except, perhaps, for at the very end when something happens that maybe makes the reader think the cosmic force is actually malevolent and actually does care about the humans or the earth, if only in a really scary way.  I’d love to read more authors’ takes on this theme and I’m hoping this anthology is a good place to do it.

The writing here is more than adequate but not poetic by any means.  While there weren’t any sentences that made me sit up and say, “What the hell?” neither were there any that made me want to read them out loud or made me feel something profound.  You don’t actually notice the writing as you’re reading this story, and that’s a pretty great feat in and of itself. There’s nothing particularly scary or creepy about reading this story, but it is one I think most Lovecraft fans will really enjoy, particularly those who understand the (potential) Azathoth scene.

Well, that about does it for this review, fellow Lovecraftians. While writing this, I listened to the Spotify playlist “WWII: Songs that Won the War,” compiled by user Angelfancy.

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

Words of cosmic dread: “I realized then that one of the stars ahead glowed more brightly than its neighbors, with a hot, greenish flame that blazed like a beacon. Soon, I could actually see it growing in size—or I should say looming larger, as my flight propelled me toward it. Something about this star unsettled me. Not the fact that I might fly into its heart and be instantaneously burned to to a cinder, but that the thing was not actually a star at all. It was something else entirely.”