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Posts Tagged ‘H. P. Lovecraft’

Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi

June 18, 2014 3 comments

Black Wings III jacket

Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi (PS Publishing, 2014) “Houdini Fish” by Jonathan Thomas is a wonderful way to start a Lovecraftian anthology with an obsessive archaeologist and some of his students digging up an old machine of unknown purpose. Curiously, it gives off a glow despite being left in pieces. Having satisfied himself the parts are not radioactive, he begins to assemble them and fails to connect this activity with the rather strange appearances and disappearances about town. Academics never seem to see beyond their noses even when rubbed in it. “Dimply Dolly Doofy” by Donald R Burleson uses an original trigger for the arrival of this particular threat. This is a particularly interesting idea, but it then falls into very predictable territory. Similarly “The Hag Stone” by Richard Gavin is a story built around an impressive central image that it doesn’t quite sustain interest over its length. “Underneath an Arkham Moon” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W H Pugmire is a very traditional story you read for the quality of the prose which is pleasingly poetic without being excessive. So often, stories like this wander off into detail. This avoids redundancy, cuts quickly to the meat, and then deals with the consequences. “Spiderwebs in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer is delightfully wry as it charts the growing friendship between a bookseller and a customer who randomly comes and goes. It seems this interloper has looked back in time to discover these two men are to become fast friends so, of course, he popped over and made it so.

“One Tree Hill (The World as Catalysm)” Caitlin R Kiernan (also appears in The Ape’s Wife) is another story that delights in the ambiguities and inexactitudes of language as we meet the science journalist who fears the lake and adjacent cemetery. but won’t be deterred from walking up the hill. Put it down to perversity or destiny as you will. He’s going to climb that hill no matter what. The result is elegantly inconsequential. “The Man with the Horn” by Jason V Brock is a story with an uneasy balance between Erich Zann or comparable musicians, and other deities or mythological creatures who play horns. Although it builds a good initial atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty, what we see from the halfway point on is not sufficiently Lovecraftian. Similarly, “Hotel del Lago” by Mollie L. Burleson is one of these single experience stories that fails to resonate when the man finds an unexpected hotel as he crosses a desert landscape.

 S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

“Waller” by Donald Tyson is an outstanding story which perfectly captures the essence of the Mythos and then goes somewhere interesting with it. The title refers to people who literally fall through alley walls and find themselves in a different world where one part of their bodies is prized. Our hero contrives to avoid initial capture and then shows remarkable toughness when put to the test. “The Megalith Plague” by Don Webb is equally fascinating as history poses a question. Way back when, humanity was into megaliths and stone circles. Then all-of-a-sudden, we stopped. Putting aside the question of the benefits of stopping (like ten thousand years of wars and pestilence, and a few years of peace), what would happen if we started building these henges again? At the end, we’re left to decide whether the outcome is an improvement. “Down Black Staircases” by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr takes a man with a mission on an unexpected detour into Kingsport where he’s forced on the run. Barely managing to escape, he’s then pursued by natural paranoia until he can run no more. This has a frenetic pace and energy about it that commands attention and nicely captures the fear of the pursued.

“China Holiday” by Peter Cannon continues the theme of paranoia as an American couple go on a holiday to China and he discovers, to his amazement, that the beings who may once have lived in the waters off Innsmouth, may have taken up residence in the newly created waters now controlled by the Three Gorges Dam. Or perhaps he’s just dreaming more vividly and worries to much about using the primitive Chinese plumbing. Either way, the story takes slightly too long to get going. “Necrotic Cove” by Lois Gresh asks the always pertinent question about two best friends, one a man-trap who acquires wealth through marriage, the other physically deformed and alone until her friend comes back from the latest marriage. Their relationship endures but, as the one who’s deformed develops cancer and is approaching death, they make one last trip together and discover a new aspect to their relationship. Ignoring the Lovecraftian overlay, this is an impressively insightful story about the two women. “The Turn of the Tide” by Mark Howard Jones is a rather affecting story in which a young woman struggles to decide whether she wants to share her life or to find a different place in which to seek happiness. Again, this says something potentially profound about young people and the choices they must make about family and relationships, particularly when it affects where they might decide to live. “Weltschmerz” by Sam Gafford shows a man whose daily routine commuting to work in a bank where he works as an accountant, defines his world-weariness. Then one day, a new “runner” who delivers internal mail, breaks into his bubble of routine and exposes him to a different view of reality. Needless to say, things are never the same again. “Thistle’s Find” by Simon Strantzas is one of these “tooth and claw” stories in which a young man who’s down on his luck and needs somewhere to hide, remembers the kindness shown him by a neighbour when he was young. However, this memory proves to have unexpectedly dangerous consequences but, as they say, “any port in a storm”. Which leaves us with “Further Beyond” by Brian Stableford. This nicely matches the opening story with a machine enabling people within its sphere of influence to see more than they were expecting. It’s a very good way to bring a superior anthology to a successful conclusion. That there are a couple of duds is to be expected. A perfect set of stories is a rarity, particularly in the Lovercraftian universe where most ideas have been worked and reworked. On balance, Black Wings III maintains the excellent overall standard of the series and is recommended.

For a review of the two anthologies in this series, see:
Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.

Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas

June 15, 2014 10 comments

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Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013) sees yet another example of the prose that makes this author so readable. All the stories in this collection have the trademark crisp clarity and directness, with efficient plots that deliver the goods with the least effort. As an aside since this is a personal rather than a general observation, I lashed out and bought the limited edition. It proves to be a handsome production. Although I find the internal illustrations by Erin Wells not quite to my taste, I applaud the principle of publishing illustrations to illuminate and enhance the written word. I wish more publishers would follow this example.

The first two stories see us back in Hades and Punktown respectively. When an author has great high concepts on the run, it’s as well to plunge back periodically to renew interest. “The Lost Family” sees us with the “fallen” angel making her way out of what’s left of Hell. We met her and her bone gun in The Fall of Hades, and this free-standing story fits into the story of her climb through the Construct in the hope of reaching Freetown. While trying to work her way around rather larger demons, she finds the titular family and there’s a bonding moment as smaller demons try to crash the party. “Counterclockwise” has a simple and elegant story about a man who finds the Church, if that’s what it is, operating opposite his apartment block deeply annoying. When the local police show a complete lack of interest in dealing with prickly interspecies disputes, it’s left to our “hero” to decide what to do. “The Holy Bowl” takes us into the realm of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that most revered symbol of rationalism as it floats through the air, meatballs as eyes, balls, and anything else designed to be round. “Do you believe?” I exhort. Well, if not, this could be the fate awaiting you. “In Limbo” asks a different question. When everything’s going to shit around you, what’re you gonna do? Naturally, you hunker down for a few moments. Then you might cautiously explore the hallway only to run back into your apartment when the darkness seems to be closing in. The important thing is not to panic, or at least not to panic too much.

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

“About the Author” is nicely metafictional as we read the product description of the first book in a new zombie series followed by a few well-chosen words giving the author’s biography. Naturally, the scathing review by Jeffrey Thomas is only to be expected. Such books are usually a crapfest and, as in this case, their authors should be housed in the nearest loony bins, if only for their own safety — the rest can all go to Hell. “The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo” sees us firmly in Lovecraftian territory with a story of a gangster who thinks the Necronomicon can be a useful weapon in the right hands. With ambitions to become a senior figure in the ranks of the Mafia, he sets about killing a few of the smaller fish (human variety). But, like all good things, there must come an ending. “Children of the Dragon” sees us in Vietnam for a little research into cryptozoology except, at least in the early stages, this is more like the usual sex tourism trip. Then there comes that rather awkward moment when the precise nature of the word becomes important. “Is that Dragon or Dagon?” You never know. That r could be significant.

“The Sea of Flesh” is novella length and a rather beautiful, tender story in which a couple seeking escape from loveless marriages find each other and negotiate whether they might be able to find happiness together. One is an archetypical white guy who puts in the hours at a new bio company which grows human tissue. His wife has already found a new partner although she continues to live in the same house as him (sometimes openly visited by her lover). The other is Vietnamese with a violent husband who has long stopped loving her. In a sense, both have ties. His mother is in a private nursing home waiting to die. She has a daughter who left home to escape her father but has yet to find herself a place in the world outside. They meet because she’s a nurse in the home where his mother is dying. Overlaid this touching human story is a supernatural dream world. As the story progresses, we come to recognise four people interact in this world. At first, it seems to be just the man and his mother. But his potential partner’s daughter is also involved. The point of the story is to observe the way in which the dream world overlaps the human world, perhaps partly contaminating it or driven by it. If you think of the cycles of the moon and the way its unseen influence moves the tides that crash waves upon the shore, remember human bodies are largely made up of water. So there’s always the possibility the moon or other planets may move the tides of men and women. The result is an outstanding story to finish the collection. Put all this together and Worship the Night is a terrific collection of stories and well worth the money whether you buy the trade or the limited edition.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown

An interview with Laird Barron

September 10, 2013 1 comment

This is a short interview with Laird Barron in celebration of the publication of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (Amazon) which has been delayed by the financial troubles of Night Shade Books and its subsequent acquisition by Skyhorse Publishing. Obviously with small armies of lawyers still talking about how to resolve all the contractual problems, the broader picture remains obscure. Suffice it to say, it’s good to see at least one book emerging from the mire. For those of you not familiar with his work, Laird Barron writes what may be classified as “cosmic horror”. Not following directly in the Lovecraft tradition, but on an adjacent path, he’s been very successful, winning Shirley Jackson Awards in 2007 and 2010 for the collections The Imago Sequence and Other Stories and Occultation and Other Stories, and for his novella “Mysterium Tremendum”. He’s also been shortlisted for the Crawford Award, International Horror Guild Award, Locus Award, Sturgeon Award, and World Fantasy Award.

Being an old guy, I first met H. P. Lovecraft and the Mythos in the 1950s when stories like “The Dunwich Horror”, “Rats in the Wall” and “Shadow Over Innsmouth” were anthologised. I became a fan and discovered August Derleth and Arkham House. It’s been steadily downhill ever since. Can you remember your first exposure?

We had trunks full of books lying around the homestead. When we moved from the suburbs into the Alaskan wilderness, those books were among the few treasures from our old life that got packed onto the wooden riverboat. I don’t recall the specific story, but I encountered Lovecraft among moldering volumes of anthologized fiction. I was ten or so. A few years later, after reading Fritz Leiber and Michael Shea, I returned to Lovecraft with more intention. That’s when I came across stories such as “The Shadow out of Time” and “The Picture in the House.” The latter remains my favorite of Lovecraft’s, although it’s a close thing.

Laird Barron

Laird Barron

It’s one thing to enjoy reading an author or works in that universe, and another to start writing your own stories. What persuaded you to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard)?

I’ve written stories of science fiction and fantasy since age five; wrote my first novel between ages nine and eleven or twelve, followed that with two more before I hit seventeen. All lost to time and misfortune. I didn’t turn to horror until my early thirties when I published “Shiva, Open Your Eye” with the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I’ve always loved horror. I’ve always possessed a keen interest in the weird and the occult, and I’d spooked family and friends since childhood with sinister tales and anecdotes. Why it took so long for me to submit to dharma and accept that I was born to write horror is a mystery. It simply clicked and the rest is on the page. Lately it’s changing. I feel the floodgates are slipping. Time will tell.

S.T. Joshi invites us to see past the tentacles to find the philosophical and literary substance of Lovecraft’s work (excluding the racism, of course). As an author with some years track record writing in this universe, albeit not necessarily writing explicit Mythos stories, do you now find yourself expanding the substance of the Mythos and seeking to give it philosophical heft? For my own writing, I imagine myself talking to a reader. I try to listen to myself and judge whether I’m making any sense. When you write a Lovecraftian story, is your imaginary reader an existing fan of the Mythos or do you aim for a more general readership?

I’ve tipped my hat to Lovecraft on several occasions, but with the exception of “Hour of the Cyclops” have not written in the old gent’s universe. When I write cosmic horror, or so-called Lovecraftian horror, I go further than Joshi’s prescription. I attempt to look past Lovecraft completely and gaze upon the ineffable dread, the awesome and the numinous visions that inspired his own. His work did not materialize from a vacuum and it’s that provenance that compels me. Obviously, his personality molded what was to come, but I do have access to the canon as he did. It is the tradition of the weird that incites me to creation, and it’s a tradition that goes back to Poe, Shelley, and Bierce, back to the Bible and the Mahabharata, back to petroglyphs and monoliths.

My sights are square upon the uninitiated. I’m not interested in pastiche, nor tie-in novels, nor updating the Mythos. I want to sink into the primary source and, by osmosis, produce something that is reflective of what currently exists, yet entirely my own. Otherwise, I have failed miserably, ignominiously.

One of the features of your work is the strong sense of place. Do you think the realism of the setting helps to make the incredible events seem more credible?

Setting is integral to how I conceive of my work. I rank the particulars of location with characterization and plot. These are primary aspects, or layers, of any given story I create. The desire to make setting a character, if not an antagonist, is probably connected to living off the land in Alaska, and traveling through the wilderness with a team of dogs. Thousands of hours, tens of thousands of miles, with those dogs, a rifle, and a magnesium flint to make fire. In a recent story, one of my characters gazes upon an ancient prairie and remarks that it’s the kind of landscape to deform one’s mind in the fashion of a kid playing with a Slinky. All that vast, primordial space crushes in upon a man, and it leaves its fingerprints.

The other half of the equation is that I was weaned on classic horror, pulp and westerns. Blackwood and Machen possessed a marvelous sense of place as their most famous stories testify. Jack London and Robert E. Howard painted a hell of a canvas of the North and Hyperborea respectively. The core westerns were nothing without their badlands and deserts.

It’s pleasing to see you turn to “straight” crime. Do you have a publisher lined up?

No, as I’m still in the process of completing the manuscript. However, there’s been significant interest in the novel already. I’ll hand it off to my agent in due course and see what happens.

That’s something to look forward to! Many thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Here are my reviews of four of his books:
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
The Croning
The Light is the Darkness
Occultation

The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire

March 1, 2013 2 comments

The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep

A few reviews ago, I was asking myself why I continue to read horror. The answer I offered then was that the discovery of Victorian and Edwardian authors during the 1950s set me off on a hunt. Like these more modern people who obsessively seek out roller coasters in the hope of matching or beating their last white-knuckle ride, I live for finding my next frisson of alarm or fear when reading. Ironically, as I’ve grown older and more “sophisticated”, the thrills are fewer and farther between. Too many modern authors either try to get an effect simply by being more extreme, or they slavishly follow the magic formulae that used to work twenty or thirty years ago. The area in which it’s most difficult to hit the right contemporary note is the Mythos. For all his faults, and there were many, H P Lovecraft was a very sophisticated writer for his day. This was not simply in the level of creativity where he excelled by creating a detailed context for his fiction, but also in the rather florid writing style which, probably more by accident than anything else, suited what we’ve now come to call cosmic horror. As the years have passed and more people have come to play in the Lovecraftian sandbox, it’s become very difficult to keep the content fresh. To be considered “good” today, you have to be way better than those writing twenty and more years ago.

The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep by W H Pugmire (Miskatonic River Press, 2012) is my second look at this author. In the late 1990s, I read Tales of Sesqua Valley and thought the content quite interesting but the style somewhat overdone. With Pugmire becoming a more regular figure on the Lovecraft scene, I though the time had come for another look. We start of this slim collection with the titular story, “The Strange Dark One” and we’re immediately pitched back into Sesqua Valley. For those of you new to this author, the valley is home to a group of beings who are not, strictly speaking human. Although they have have taken human form and some might say this involves acquiring a soul as well, they have created an enclave for themselves. Most human folk never manage to find this “hidden” valley and its community. You need to have an affinity with outside forces to gain admission. Of course, having found your way in, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to get out again. This time, the granddaughter of a book dealer who has taken over the business on her grandfather’s death, decides to sell some of his old books to a man from the Sesqua Valley. This is sufficient connection to open the door for her. What she finds proves upsetting as she learns not everything comes without a price to be paid. Although it has moments when the prose rescues the rather thin plot, I found the whole rather mechanical. “Immortal Remains”, on the other hand, is shorter and has a more pronounced sense of wonder about it. The young being confronts the ineffable and, after initial and not unexpected apprehension, embraces the chance to merge. It’s a pleasing balance between the prose style and the content.

W H Pugmire behatted and beguiled

W H Pugmire behatted and beguiled

“Past the Gates of Deepest Dreaming” is less successful because the conversations between all the interested parties both within and without the valley, lack credibility. People don’t speak to each other like this in real life. They speak using ordinary words even though what’s going on around them is wholly extraordinary. Indeed, it’s the incongruity between the everyday and the weird that heightens their and our emotional responses. This story is just trying too hard to use the heightened prose style throughout. It’s the same with “One Last Theft” where there are some genuinely strange vocabulary choices to distract the reader from a reasonably interesting plot. For example why “debauch” a plot rather than frustrate it? And what are we to make of this question, “Will you tell me of your rhubarb with the beast?” This must be an American usage of rhubarb meaning dispute or argument. “The Hands That Reek and Smoke” is more naturalistic and, set in a city, is more effective as Nyarlathotep offers himself as a muse. “The Audient Void” is another linguistically overwrought story with oddities, e.g. “. . .a blackness that whirled with spectral sentient.” “Some Bacchante of Irem” again falls into this strange hinterland of quite interesting plot and language which I find a poor fit. Finally, “To See Beyond” proves to be the most successful story as the series character from Sesqua Valley recruits an author from the human world and introduces him to a musician.

Taking an overview, we have some interesting plot ideas and, at times, the use of heightened language is very effective. But when the plot calls for the denizens of Sesqua Valley to interact with humans, I think the dialogue should moderate to something more everyday. The dissonance in the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary will usually enhance the sense of wonder. When everything is at the same linguistic pitch, it produces a slightly monotonous quality — no thrills for the roller coaster fans among you. This is also my first look at this small press. Sadly it fails to give the most professional impression. The type setting is left justified only and there are some setting mistakes, particularly in the use of linefeeds. Surprisingly, there are proofreading errors, e.g. entré as the past participle instead of entrez the imperative. So overall, I’m not beguiled (the author’s favorite word) by The Strange Dark One. Tales of Nyarlathotep as either a text or a physical object, although jacket artwork and internal illustrations by Jeffrey Thomas do hit the right notes.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2013) starts with a particularly amusing introductory piece by another of my favourite authors. Norman Partridge subversively plays with the commission and introduces the author and this collection with obvious enthusiasm. This is a collection that forces me to think about why I so like fiction that sits on the divide between horror and fantasy. To understand, we have to revisit the impressionable young reader growing up in the 1950s. Early on, he discovered novels, collections and anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian horror stories. He found some of them scary. There were the merely unknown sources of danger like “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant and “Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as one of many by M R James. But it was writers like Bram Stoker with The Jewel of the Seven Stars and The Lady of the Shroud, and William Hope Hodgson with The House on the Borderland and the Carnacki stories that clinched the deal with their blends of the supernatural, fantasy and horror. I suppose I’m still reading in the hope of finding new texts to invoke that same sense of goose-pimpled wonder. Among the modern writers, Laird Barron is one of the few who can still hit the sweet spot for my tastes, infusing Lovecratian Mythos with modern sensibilities.

“Blackwood’s Baby” was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow and is a wonderful example of how to use a hunt as a vehicle for suspense and excitement. Written in a pleasingly period style of prose, it begins by setting the scene and highlighting the differences in class that have so bedevilled our past as a species. Not content with finding distinctions in size, racial characteristics and gender, we had to go and invent an entirely new social classification system and assign people to its various grades. When men in a group are supposed to depend on each other for support and, if necessary, defence, the last thing you want are stresses and strains in the relationships. So when this group set off on the annual hunt for the fabled stag, we should not be surprised that not all will return. But the reason for each injury or death might be considered surprising unless the idea of an annual sacrifice to the woods and the creatures that live within is too weird for you to accept. “The Renfield Girls” switches genders as a different group goes off for a short break by a lake with an odd reputation. In theory, this is a more harmonious group of people who work together, but the dynamic is slightly thrown a curve ball by the unexpected arrival of a niece who adds one more to the number. Whereas the first story is more show and tell, this is an exercise in the manipulation of atmosphere. The lake itself, a little of its history and a few unsettling dreams are enough to start us off. What actually happens could just be accidents. People read too much into coincidences and talk themselves into believing all kinds of superstitious rubbish. It’s a very clever piece of writing.

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Then we have “Hand of Glory” which turns out to be a classic hitman story of a young man following in his father’s footsteps and making a name for himself as an enforcer and killer for a local gang boss. Everything would have been wonderful except for his lack of self-discipline which leads him in self-destructive directions. Then a couple of freelancers try to take him out. He’s sober enough to be able to defend himself but this is all a little too much for his boss. Things need to be set right. So our “hero” must deal with the man who ordered the hit. Even without the supernatural elements, this is a tremendous read. Add in a little black magic and general spookiness and you have an outstanding story.

“The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” by Laird Barron describes the plight of a battered wife on the run with the emotional support of her lover. They take up residence in a remote cabin in the woods. Naturally, there are tales about an earlier occupant, but it’s only slowly the couple realise how believable old tales can be. This is a story firmly rooted in the reality of a fear so great and enduring that it destroys the self-confidence of the victim. The question it asks is whether flight or fight is better. The cabin can only be a temporary hiding place. Indeed, they may already have been discovered. So how far might one run if the opportunity presented itself? Laird Barron offers a nice answer because we can’t be entirely certain where the battered wife ends up. This first appeared in Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow.

In “The Siphon” we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe. This first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings edited by Ellen Datlow.

“The Jaws of Saturn” takes us back to the same milieu as “Hand of Glory” with the same character manipulating people for his own purposes. This time, a hitman finds his girlfriend acting strangely and rashly decides to discuss the changes with the man apparently responsible. “Vastation” is a surreal jaunt through time as the only real human becomes, in his own way (if not only in his own mind) as ineradicable as the Old Ones. The question posed is existential. What would happen to a being who could transcend time and become whatever he wanted to be? Being godlike, it would be possible to make and unmake the world. But what would be the point? You could wipe out all the humans, then repopulate and watch them make the same mistakes all over again. It’s all potentially futile and not a little boring as the millennia pass. So why bother? Even the Old Ones spend their time sleeping, or go off and do other things, or simply exist without thinking about anything. Any of those might be better than hanging out on Earth with no real friends. Perhaps real cosmic horror is realising you’re alone and stuck with yourself so long as you can stand the pain.

“The Men From Porlock” is playing the prequel game to “Mysterium Tremendum”, “The Broadsword” and The Croning, his first novel. All are set in or related to the Pacific Northwest as an area where events of cosmic significance are likely to occur. This takes us back to the time when the Slango logging camp was still functioning and in need of fresh meat. The small group sent out to shoot some of the game running through the forest encounters unexpected problems. In all things, who’s to say where the effects from the cause will stop? Finally “More Dark” plays the name-dropping metafictional game as an author discusses whether life’s worth living, particularly after witnessing a performance by another cultish horror author who never speaks in public but has a puppet to do it for him. Of course, the appearance of the puppet and what it has to say could be evidence of a cosmic intent to spread fear and disharmony, or it might just be an extravagant coup de théâtre designed to appeal to the horror cognoscenti. Let’s all take a shot at deciding which is true.

Put all this together and Laird Barron offers a particularly diverse range of tone in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (to understand the significance of the title, you have to read “More Dark”). We have everything from “traditional” adventure style horror to more explicitly Lovecraftian cosmic horror and the occasional burst of slightly comic horror. It’s a terrific read for anyone who enjoys writing that sits on the cusp between fantasy and horror.

For reviews of other books by Laird Barron, see:
The Croning
The Light is the Darkness
Occultation

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

I’ve also interviewed him here.

This collection won the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards® for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Authors are entirely human (unless they are AIs who’ve broken through into the fiction business) and, as is only natural, tend to get caught up in their own interests and obsessions. So when we go back to the start of the Laundry Files series, Charles Stross thought it was a wicked cool idea to take a Lovecraftian theme and wrap in into a pastiche format. Ignoring the shorter contributions, this worked rather well with the fairly generic style of Len Deighton for The Atrocity Archives but was, to my mind, a dismal failure with Ian Fleming when the joke proved repetitively interminable in The Jennifer Morgue. I think the series got back on track with The Fuller Memorandum because, although Stross claimed it was a pastiche of Anthony Price, it was nothing like any of Price’s novels. More to the point, even if it had been, only geriatrics like me have read and loved Price. So few people read him now, no-one would have known whether it was a reasonable approximation of the style. In other words, despite protestations to the contrary, Stross wrote an amusing Lovecraftian book. With the fourth book now out and titled The Apocalypse Codex (Penguin/Berkley, 2012), he’s again indulging in thematic pastiche. This time, we’re in Peter O’Donnell territory. Frankly, I haven’t read a Modesty Blaise book in more than forty years and wouldn’t want to read one today. I found them terrible. What was quick and amusing as a comic strip died when it was translated into prose. So here Stross introduces a strong, but occasionally vulnerable, woman to put up alongside the doughty Laundryman.

Charles Stross pretending to be Emperor Ming

 

Who’s this woman, then? Well, as in the originals, she has a vaguely Greek background and, having wandered around Europe, ends up a British national. Of course, there’s the required trusty sidekick as well. Like Willy Gavin, he’s tough, has throwing knives, and is not at all frustrated in a strictly platonic relationship with the Mam’selle. Having given up the life of crime, they’re recruited into MI6 by Sir Gerald Tarrant as external assets which is where this novel takes up the thread.

 

The good news is the more serious tone of the novel. Although I’m not against the idea of an author introducing a general air of levity into “end of the world” scenarios — that Douglas Adam chap was moderately successful in getting a laugh out of the destruction of the Earth — there comes a point when the arrival of one or more of the Great Old Ones has to become more threatening given the likely loss of amenity around the planet. Indeed, the plot of this novel assumes the arriving being will be a little peckish and need to have a light snack to build up its strength. That’s why this cult has been planning for so long and has developed the power to ring fence several million people into an outdoor eating area otherwise called Colorado. So although there’s some of the mild satire on civil service speak and organisational culture, the primary focus is on Lovecraftian matters with the sidekick and the televangelist being Deep One hybrids.

 

In line with the slightly darker themes featuring baby production facilities and parasitical infections, there’s also more intelligence in the discussion of organisations and how best to structure them to get the best results. Although this particular version of reality is fictional, I applaud Stross for taking the time to explain the point of his satire on the civil service mentality. Too often, jobs have been mechanised so that anyone can do them with only a minimal level of intelligence and experience. This compensates for the systemic failures of the education service to spit out sufficient numbers of clever people to run government “properly”. With jobs defined by lowest common denominator ability requirements, administration can continue, with policy overseen by a small cadre of more knowledgeable individuals. The point of the institutional speak is to hide the differences in intellectual ability. With everyone speaking in the same preprogrammed way, it takes marginally longer for the general public to work out whether they are talking with a high-powered Mandarin or lowly clerk.

 

Put all this together and The Apocalypse Codex is the best of the series so far. It has a better balance between the characters with the series character, Bob Howard, sharing the point-of-view limelight with our new female heroine (and sidekick). The Lovecraftian threat is escalating nicely with portal technology allowing entry into a different dimension for on-site conflict. The evolution also extends to our view of the British Government and we see more clearly where Bob’s career path may be leading — if not into middle management. The good final piece of news is this can more obviously be read as a stand-alone. Although knowing the background from the previous novels and short stories would enhance your enjoyment, everything you need to understand this is thoughtfully included.

 

For reviews of other books by Charles Stross, see:
The Fuller Memorandum
Neptune Brood
The Revolution Business
Rule 34
The Trade of Queens
Wireless

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi

October 18, 2012 1 comment

Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror edited by S T Joshi (PS Pubishing, 2012) sees the second anthology offering stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft. I’m not convinced this is as good as the first but there are some outstanding stories to be found here (more towards the end than at the beginning).

“When Death Wakes Me To Myself’ by John Shirley is a Charles Dexter Ward type of story in which a mind from the past assumes control of a modern body, the main differences lying in the identity of the mind and the association with cats. It’s nicely done although, to my mind, it’s a little prosaic, lacking a truly cosmic feel. “View” by Tom Fletcher has a delightful sense of humour in describing an estate agent’s tour of a house for sale. With a little effort required of those viewing, they are rewarded by an exploration of a rather unusual extension. “Houndwife” by Caitlin R Kiernan is a richly evocative prose piece of temporal discontinuities as a woman iterates towards a destiny mapped out for her. She may have hints of the future courtesy of a tarot reading, or she may be the one who, in a thousand year cycle, finds a rather different role for herself as a human woman. Is this reincarnation and memories of previous lives, or are these discontinuities in memory from a single life moving inexorably to a climax? “King of Cat Swamp” by Jonathan Thomas gives a perfect demonstration of how the inexorability of the conclusion fires the tension. This is a beautifully judged piece of writing, not overstaying its welcome as the King returns to reclaim his home. “Dead Media” by Nick Mamatas is slightly flat being one of these trail-of-breadcrumbs type stories in which the curious end up in the wrong place. “The Abject” by Richard Gavin picks up the pace as human and alien tragedy overlap during an eclipse so that both get what they need to make their existences endurable. The atmosphere of this particular location is wonderfully described. If it exists, I would like to visit before I die or, perhaps that should be, so I can die happy.

S T Joshi — the ultimate Lovecraft expert

“Dahlias” by Melanie Tem is one of these unexpected stories which capture the imagination in a few words as different generations briefly share a moment and consider their own mortality. “Bloom” by John Langan is simply marvellous. The couple find a cooler sitting openly on the road and, thinking it might contain an organ needed for an urgent transplant operation, take it home and begin telephoning around the local hospitals. Only when all their avenues of inquiry come to naught does the notion take root that they have found something rather different. And, of course, after the rooting, comes growth and the blooms. As slow-burners go, this is one of the best. “And the Sea Gave Up the Dead” by Jason C Eckhardt is a not very original retelling of the usual island emerging from the sea. “Casting Call” by Don Webb shows the mark of a true professional is to stay calm no matter what’s going on around you. In this case, an actor who takes the Stanislavski method to its logical conclusion just fails to make the cut when Rod Serling holds a casting session for an adaptation of Pickman’s Model. It’s a pleasing riff on an old theme.

“The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man With the Hundred Knives” by Darrell Schweitzer is a remarkably good story — the best in the book by my standards — but I’m not convinced it’s even vaguely Lovecraftian. It’s clearly about access to different dimensions where battles for supremacy are fought, but anything else is all lies and speculation. Similarly, “The Other Man” by Nicholas Royle is fascinatingly spooky take on surrogacy, but the links to Lovecraft are tenuous at best. “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel” by Steve Rasnic Tem has the same problem if we’re going to be strict about looking for cosmic weirdness. It’s another engrossing story about the blending of humans and otherness with possible connections to themes raised in “The Mound”. Had I read it anywhere else, I would have been overjoyed. In this context, I’m not so sure. “The Wilcox Remainder” by Brian Evenson is thematically back on track with a very haunting story of an amulet that not only brings dreams but also judges the current person in possession. “Sorrelated Discontents” by Rick Dakan has that remarkable quality of a mistake in the typesetting of the title. It should, of course, be “Correlated Discontents” (as an aside, I noticed two or three other errors that escaped the proofreading stage but this is the first time I can ever remember seeing an error on the title of a short story). The story itself is metafictional in the recreation of Lovecraft, the man, through an AI project, capturing his personality and opinions through an analysis of the extensive collection of correspondence. The inclusion of the story bravely breaks with tradition and is a success. “The Skinless Face” by Donald Tyson wins the prize for the best final sentence. There’s a tradition in writing these stories that there should be something dramatic imparted by the end words. It does not need to be a “twist” but it should shed a different light on what has gone before. This archaeological dig gone spectacularly wrong is outstanding. “The History of a Letter” by Jason V Brock is a metafictional and intertextual contribution in which the author addresses us directly, explaining why he’s been distracted from writing the commissioned short story. The letter he has found is indeed intriguing and the consequences of his investigation seem to be advancing rapidly. Finally, “Appointed” by Chet Williamson is merely intertextual, finding parallels between a previous film and a con where fans can come and hobnob with the stars.

For a review of the other anthologies in this series, see:
Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror
Black Wings III: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.