Tidal Forces, by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“And here, on the afternoon of the Seven of Pentacles, this Wednesday weighted with those seven visionary chalices, she tells me what happened in the shower. How she stood in the steaming spray watching the water rolling down her breasts and across her stomach, and up her buttocks before falling into the hole in her side.”

—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Tidal Forces”

“He thought of the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose centre sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a daemoniac flute held in nameless paws.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1936.

houses_under_the_sea_by_caitlin_r_kiernan[1]Welcome to Women in Horror Month 2020 here at the Miskatonic Review! Of course, I read women horror authors throughout the year (and so should you!), but this is the month in which I’ll join with others in the horror community in lifting up the wonderful work they are producing. You can look back through the archives and catch up with reviews of other fabulous authors, but this WiHM, I’m going to try and highlight some I haven’t yet gotten on the roles of the tenured faculty here at the Miskatonic Review. As I looked through the faculty list, I was stunned by my own omission of Caitlín R. Kiernan because I don’t think I could create a short list of top tier Mythos writers that did not include them. Kiernan is one of my absolute favorites. Their writing is achingly gorgeous, intimate in both its beauty and its pain, inducing a reader to sighs of often inexpressible origin. You don’t read a Kiernan story; you breathe it through your pores where it gives as much as it takes. Late last year, Subterranean Press released a limited, signed, cloth-bound hardcover collection of their best Mythos stories entitled, HOUSES UNDER THE SEA: MYTHOS TALES, for which I hit the pre-order button as fast as I’ve hit it for anything. Those marvelous editions are now gone, but you can pick up the e-book version here for a terrific price.

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That’s right. I’m bragging.

The story I’d like to tell you about tonight, “Tidal Forces,” is found in this collection, but was originally published in Sirenia Digest (#55) in 2011 (the author’s own subscription service) and later that same year was reprinted in Eclipse Four, edited by Jonathan Strahan published by Night Shade Press. It begins, “Charlotte says, “That’s just it, Em. There wasn’t any pain. I didn’t feel anything much at all.” This is a completely misleading opener if ever there was one, at least if we consider the emotional resonance of this story. Charlotte and Emily are lovers. They live on the ocean where, on one innocuous Saturday morning, while Emily was sitting on the porch watching some birds at play, Charlotte paused in her gardening to stretch and look out over the waves. She sees a shadow on the water, as if created by clouds above or something enormous below, but whatever it is it is moving fast and heading towards her on the shore. Emily watched as Charlotte was struck and knocked down. Stunned though she was by an apparent nothing knocking her down, she is unscathed. “But it wasn’t until we were in the bedroom, and she was dressing, that I noticed the red welt above her left hip, just below her ribs.” The injury, the hole, grows slowly instead of healing, and through it can be heard ever so  faintly a “thin, monotonous piping.” Equally as slowly, the implications wear down the women’s psyches. This is not a normal injury, not a normal wound that can be covered by a band-aid until all better.

I’ve always regarded Kiernan’s writing as very smart, and this story is no exception. Three examples. First, they don’t tell this story linearly; if they had done, it wouldn’t be near as interesting or compelling (pretty simple, actually). By bouncing back and forth across the time line they are both making a meta comment on what is happening in the plot and leaving you bread crumbs in both the past and the future that you’ll want to follow, both directions leading to a singularity. Second, they also color the narrative with references to Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, particularly the scene in the rose garden. Here Kiernan offers us a clue that what appears to be reality may only be a thin façade. f52814ae0135dc293e6abbef1058394b[1]Third, Emily names the days, back and forth in time, after individual cards in a deck. The day of the incident is labeled, “The Seven of Clubs. Wednesday, or the Seven of Pentacles, seen another way round…weighted with those seven visionary chalices.” Speaking of Alice, that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I don’t know much about Tarot cards and I don’t know whether Kiernan does either or not. Either they are playing with fluidity here—which would not be an uncommon theme for a Kiernan story—or they are mixing up their tarot suits and their modern suits. The four tarot suits are Swords, Wands, Cups, and Coins, corresponding respectively to Spades, Clubs(?), Hearts, and Diamonds. (I couldn’t find definitive information that Wands corresponds with Clubs, so this is a guess.) Here Kiernan says the seven of clubs, which ought to be the seven of wands, but she alternatively names it the seven of pentacles (another name for the suit of coins) but depicts it as having “seven visionary chalices.” As a metaphor, this is quite mixed up. Chalices, or cups, is the last image they leave us with so that was the one I wanted to explore, and wow, is it a treasure trove of symbols for this story! The element of the suit of cups is water; our story is entitled “Tidal Forces,” the initial word of which functions on at least two different levels but one is water. And the shadow that kicked off the troubles was over the water. The suit of cups in tarot deals with emotional situations and events and again, contrary to the opening line, this story is about two people in a very emotional, romantic relationship dealing with their emotions about the inciting incident. The seven, particularly, is a caution not to build castles in the air. This card, it seems, is suited perfectly to the day.

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“Au Lit:Le Basier” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (d.1901)
Emotions and relationships and love being at the center of this story are what makes this story so powerful, and work so well. Kiernan is turning Lovecraft inside out. The Old Gent never wrote about love, despised relationships, and thought emotions a weakness. Kiernan answers by penning a very Lovecraftian Mythos tale which highlights a lesbian relationship, centers on emotion (also inducing emotion in the reader), and uses love as a driving force for the resolution of the story. It’s beautiful!

As I said in the introduction, Kiernan is one of my absolute favorite Mythos writers. I’ve never read a story by them that failed to elicit a powerful emotional response or one which I’ve easily forgotten. (Also contained in this collection, “Pickman’s Other Model (1929),” needs to be read and re-read by every HPL fan, and then someone needs to combine the two stories into a single, B&W noir film. Please.) Like the title suggests, this is a story that draws you in and doesn’t let go. It is neither violent nor grotesque, but quietly suggestive, emotionally gripping, and beautifully haunting.

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

In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, by Damien Angelica Walters

“This is the wrong door,” he says, and she startles. “This isn’t my house.”

“Jack, honey, it’s late. Come back to bed. It’s still dark outside, that’s why it looks so different, but it’s still the same house we’ve lived in for a long time.”

He shakes his head. “No. This is the wrong door. The right one is out there.”

A lot of the time, horror stories are utterly fantastic. For as terrifying as Cthulhu would be to encounter rising from the depths of the sea, he sure is fun to read about, because he’s pure fantasy. Damien-Angelica-Walters-2018-Author-Photo-1020x979[1].jpgThat’s one of the joys of reading horror; it gives the reader a sense of control over what would be totally uncontrollable in real life. We know the story will end, and so we bravely trudge on, turning the page. Some horror stories, however, come so close to reality that they reach though the veil and brush it with dreadfully cool fingertips. These are the horror stories someone is most likely to have to set down. They cut too close and the reading is no longer any fun. I suspect Damien Angelica Walters‘ story, In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, is one of those stories for many people.

It’s still Women in Horror Month and I wanted to make sure I highlighted an author about whom I’ve gotten excited. I went back and listened to her interview (Part 1 and Part 2) on the This is Horror podcast and at one point she spoke about how she sometimes gets very emotionally tied into her stories. She mentioned this story as a perfect example, sharing how when she finished writing it, she wept at the end. Normally (at least I imagined so), this kind of response is reserved for the reader, not the creator, and so I was intrigued. I had the story, contained in the excellent anthology “Autumn Cthulhu,” edited by Mike Davis and published in 2016 by the Lovecraft eZine Press, and so commenced to reading it.

dementia2-804x369[1].jpgGoing back over it now, I see how the opening two lines are well-crafted to set the tone, but as of yet, we do not know it. “A doe picks her way from between two trees at the edge of their back yard, keeping to the narrow path, her legs moving with a dancer’s grace. Helena holds her breath, even though she and the deer are separated by a wide expanse of lawn , a deck, and locked French doors.” This is a story about the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Helena’s husband Jack has been slowly slipping sideways into unknowing, and the experience for Helena is like that of seeing the doe. So close, but separated so profoundly by the familiar. I haven’t personally experienced the disappearance of a loved one into this diseased twilight, but have known many people who have and their reports are devastating. Angelica Walters captures that devastation in eloquent, sharp prose: “This isn’t my house,” he says, his voice razor-sharp. “I know it isn’t.” “Would you like to watch a movie?” She keeps her voice bright, cheerful. “Stop talking to me. I know what you’re doing, but it won’t work. This isn’t the right house.” If there is anything to criticize here, it is that while this story works as a weird story (why it does we’ll come to in a moment) it almost would work better on its own, without any elements of the weird.  But this is a Lovecraftian short story blog and the anthology containing the story is titled “Autumn Cthulhu,” and so let’s get to it.

night_forest_by_elenadudina_dcwy6o6-250t[1].jpgAs the story goes on, Jack mentions things about doorways, the right time, often speaking to someone who isn’t there. He gets up in the middle of the night and wanders around, sometimes out of doors. The doe from the opening lines makes more appearances, and now, it seems to be decaying—a symbol of Jack’s disease process. “There, at the end of the yard, the white-eyed doe. More patches of fur have fallen out; the bare skin beneath holds a strange grey cast.” Alzheimer’s works like this from what I gather. Patches of your loved one fall away, leaving behind a sallow blankness that can turn whip-crack sharp in their frustration.

By the time you reach the end, seasoned readers of the Old Gent will be thinking about Yog-Sothoth, what with all these mentions of doorways, gates, and time. It’s even possible some emissary of Yog-Sothoth has shown up.

Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror

And then, finally, you’ll understand why Damien Angelica Walters cried. It’s not so much that the ending is sad as it is that the whole damned, perfectly titled thing is sad. She brings to life this couple, their relationship, Helena’s tangled skein of grief and love with beautiful words and evocative episodes. We get only a glimpse, and yet in that glimpse we can see those we have loved. I imagine for readers who have gone through what Helena is going through this story will be especially painful and perhaps not at all cathartic. For them and their loved ones, there is no sense of control, no knowing the story will end, and so their bravery in facing each day is heroic. But then again, maybe it will be cathartic. That’s the beauty of fiction. This is a powerful piece of writing by an author whose name deserves to be known. It’s unusual for me to get so lost in a story (with a wife, a dog, and two kids under eight), but when I was reading this, it was as if I was in that quiet forest, following that elusive doe, and the world around me had faded into the background.

When I was listening to her interview on the podcast, she mentioned that one of her writing goals was to appear in an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. She’s appeared on the list of Honorable Mentions quite a number of times but had yet to break into the table of contents. Well, just two days ago on February 20, 2019, Datlow revealed the table of contents for the forthcoming The Year’s Best Horror, Volume 11, and right there in the middle of it is Golden Sun, a novelette by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt. Congratulations Damien, you deserve it! Achievement unlocked!

That about wraps it up for today my fellow cultists. Remember, when your time comes, do not go gentle into that good night. This review was composed while listening to the Peaceful Meditation radio station on Spotify.

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

The plaintive plea of the wife: “I’m coming Jack. Stay there. Please stay there.”

Exposure, by Helen Marshall

“The black stars, a trick of that same light, because they weren’t black, not really, not stars really—something to do with the atmosphere, some sort of dust in the air, like how the northern lights could make the sky seem alive and crawling, the black stars were like that, except they made the sky seem dead, they made the sky seem like a giant bloated corpse crawling with flies…”

j5jRPVci_400x400[1]It’s Women in Horror Month! From the Women in Horror website: “Women in Horror Month (WiHM) is an international, grassroots initiative, which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre.” Here at the Miskatonic Review we want to celebrate all of the Women in Horror, but particularly those who are writing in the Lovecraftian vein. When I think about Molly Tanzer, S. P. Miskowski, A. C. Wise, P. L. McMillan, Nadia Bulkin, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Angelica Walters, Ann K. Schwader, (of course) Helen Marshall, and so many others, I don’t think “women in horror,” but rather about a group of artists who are in the forefront of the weird renaissance. You can read a lot more about WiHM at their website, linked above, and you can see particular individuals highlighted over at Horror Tree or Thinking Horror: A Journal of Horror Philosophy. At the Miskatonic Review tonight though, we want to highlight Helen Marshall.

cs+small[1].jpgHelen Marshall is the author of two short story collections, two poetry collections, and a forthcoming novel from Random House Canada, “The Migration” (available March 2019). I encountered her in the Chaosium, Inc. anthology “Cassilda’s Song” edited by Joseph Pulver, Sr. (2015). Her story in this anthology is entitled Exposure, and before some of you purists cry “Foul!”, I am aware that Carcosa, the King in Yellow, and the whole bit is first an Ambrose Bierce creation (An Inhabitant of Carcosa, 1886) and secondly developed in Robert W. Chambers weird fiction collection (“The King in Yellow,” 1895) all before being played with by Lovecraft (principally in The Whisperer in Darkness, 1931). From there it was adopted into the Mythos primarily by August Derleth and the rest, as they say, is history.  So yes, we are doing a King in Yellow story on a Lovecraftian blog. What makes it even more appropriate for this posting is that Cassilda’s Song is an entire collection by female authors. From Pulver’s introduction, “Cassilda’s complicated sisters, unwilling to be hidden away and boarded up, sound the thunder. Hot and colorful, in full view and shaded by the aroma of discord, they stand before you unmasked.” Pulver is not only an excellent assembler of anthologies, but also an expert on the King in Yellow mythos, and so is an apt guide through these ladies’ stories.

Exposure begins with a troubled tourist trip by a mother and daughter to a very real place (in the story) called Carcosa; it seems to be an island in the Mediterranean near Greece. While the mother clearly has reasons for going to such a destination, it does not a vacation make for Serena, the daughter. She’d much rather party on the white sandy beaches of Mykonos than visit lost, strange Carcosa. “Fucking Carcosa. She could have gone to Venice. She could have gone to Barcelona. Or Paris. Carcosa was nothing but rocks, ruins—no one went to Carcosa, not now, not anymore.” I loved how Marshall immediately locates Carcosa within reality, even though she hints with an enviable economy of words that it’s not what it once once. And Serena’s whiny gripe isn’t totally true either, because they’re on a sightseeing boat loaded with camera-laden tourists bound for Carcosa’s dim shores like it was Disney. Once they arrive there, she and her mother resume their argument and eventually split up, exploring the island separately. But when it comes time to go, and the captain calls all aboard, Serena’s mother is not among them.

A strange negotiation ensues in one of our first clues (though admittedly I blew right by it) that something is off. Serena says they can’t leave yet because her mother isn’t back, but the mate doesn’t care. He says they have to go, telling Serena in broken English that she will stay on the island and after he drops off the rest of the group back at home-base, he’ll return for her and her mother. camera in surf“They left her on the shore, standing in the wavering sunlight, feeling naked and exposed as they watched her, each of them smiling, each of them with their fucking cameras, each of them grasping after one final, fatal shot of the shoreline. Hours pass. Day turns into night. And then what has been an entertaining if fairly prosaic weird tale takes a left turn. Greatness follows.

In the final act, Marshall takes us on our own tour into the madness of the yellow king as things move from bad, right past weird, on their way to worse. When the black stars of Carcosa ascend, the night goes strange indeed. There’s a party around a bonfire, a liberated sensuality, a transmogification, all shrouded in a sort of cosmically out-of-place feeling that twirls and whirls the reader in its dizzying dance steps. Keep up. Carcosa is not a place where you want to fall out of step or time.

I really enjoyed Marshall’s writing throughout. It never got in the way, even when she deployed the f-bomb on numerous occasions. Not a word I like to use very often, but from Serena’s angsty lips it seemed right. Again, I loved the feelings she was able to evoke in the space of so few words. She sometimes had these long sentences, brimming with description but they never felt over full. They might have been long but they didn’t contain a single unnecessary word. And they flowed beautifully. It felt at times like I was in Serena’s head, just behind her eyes, seeing what she was seeing, and feeling what she was feeling (which in at least one scene was particularly uncomfortable, but that’s a credit to the author). This is a terrific story in a wondrous collection, and you’d do well to familiarize yourself not only with these works, but with these women authors.

GFmc66T[1].jpgThe title of the story relates at first to the argument between the mother and daughter over sunscreen, but then at the end it relates to what was exposed on some film. Marshall doesn’t share with us (for we would go mad) what was on the film Serena picks up. It might have been the Yellow Sign, but I like to imagine that it was the Yellow King, Hastur, him(it)self. At a deeper level, I thought about how far we’ll go in pursuit of our goals, the sorts of things, people, environments, even philosophies we’ll expose ourselves to in chasing after selfish aims. The danger of overexposure is not only that we ruin the picture by saturating it with too much light, it is also that we desensitize ourselves. Sometimes it’s better to stay on this side of reality. Sometimes, when they tell you that the play will drive you insane, you should listen, and burn your ticket.

This review was composed while listening to the Spotify playlist, “The King in Yellow,” compiled by Andy Michaels, and the electronica album called “The King in Yellow,” by Martin Kuzniar.

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

Movement in the Carcosa Rave: “She knew it. This was where she was supposed to be. This was always the place she was supposed to be. Maybe it was fucking Carcosa, but it was also fucking Carcosa, baby…She went out onto the dance floor, trailing blood-stained footprints behind her.