|LOST WORLDS OF SPACE AND TIME, VOLUME TWO, edited by Steve Lines. Cover by Steve Lines. Calne, Wiltshire, England: Rainfall Books, 2005 231 pages. $19.99 ISBN 0-9546178-2-6.
Cover illustration © Steve Lines.
[Reviewed by Matthew T. Carpenter]
Lost Worlds of Space and Time, Volume Two is the eagerly awaited second volume of fiction written based on, in tribute of or using themes and characters by the incomparable Clark Ashton Smith. I very much enjoyed Volume One. Just like its predecessor, Volume Two is a handsome trade paperback. The price on Shocklines is $19.99 (prices went up in the past year!), but with free shipping. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, nothing by Rainfall Books is available on Amazon. Page count is 230, very generous, a little higher than Volume One. Like before the cover art is by Steve Lines, and is based on works by CAS. It is similar to Volume One but the aliens are different and facing a different direction. I like it better than I did Volume One a year ago; the style has grown on me. The interior art was most welcome and also by Mr. Lines, who did the editing honors. On the whole, I am glad to have this book although I think Volume One is clearly stronger than Volume Two. Maybe the prose was more derivative across the board in Volume Two? Here is a bone I have to pick in general, not with this book in particular. It is about publication history. Who is responsible for the copyright info and publication history? For example, "Black Massif" by Stanley Sargent is listed as a first publication, and © 2005. But I have a copy of Ancient Exhumations +2 by Sargent from Elder Signs Press, © 2004, and it contains "Black Massif." The same thing happened in Hardboiled Cthulhu. Like James Ambuehl I have a copy of Hastur Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (They still have a few at Shocklines if anyone wants it.) published in 2003 by Vox 13. I finally opened it up tonight, and there is "Eldritch Fellas" by Curran! It is listed as original to Hardboiled Cthulhu. Similarly in that book, the inclusion of "Pazuzu's Children" in Unholy Dimensions from Mythos Books, © 2005, is not mentioned, although its 1997 premiere in Cthulhu Codex is noted. Hmph! Of the contents, the following are poems: "The Lord of Xiccarph" by Ron Shiflet, "The Maze of Maal-Dweb" by Steve Lines, "Orpheus at Sea" by Mark Francis, "The Cave Wizard" by Richard L. Tierney, "The Fane of Mordiggian" by Ann K. Schwader, "At the Yielding of Twilight" by Ann K. Schwader, "Plagues" by Franklyn Searight, "Cincor During Necromantic Rule" by Ron Shiflet, "Deepness" by Phillip Ellis, "Gylas' Hymn to Mordiggian: A Fragment" and "The Villanelle of the Last Days" by Phillip Ellis. I freely admit I was not won over by any of the poetry. Here's why:
I pass…but in this lone and crumbling tower,
Builded against the burrowing seas of chaos,
My volumes and my philters shall abide:
Poisons more dear than any mithridate,
And spells far sweeter than the speech of love . . .
Half-shapen dooms shall slumber in my vaults
And in my volumes cryptic runes that shall
Outlast the pestilence, outgnaw the worm
When loosed by alien wizards on strange years
Under the blackened moon and paling sun.
-- "The Sorcerer Departs"
Who can compare with CAS, the master? Regarding the stories, as in Volume One they are each set in some corner of CAS' fantastical worlds. For example, note all the Xiccarph stories written loosely as sequels to "The Web of Maal-Dweb." Spoilers may follow from now on so stop if that bothers you.
"The Reprisals of Maal-Dweb" by Henry Vester was set in the future time when an earthly spaceship comes to Xiccarph and humans try to outwit/out fight the potent old sorcerer. This was OK, easy to read if not too inspired.
"The Death of Maal-Dweb" by C. J. Henderson is a direct sequel to "The Web of Maal-Dweb." Again, reasonably engaging, not disagreeable. C.J. Henderson has written many other fine stories.
"The Legacy of Maal-Dweb" by Ron Shiflet is also a sequel to "The Web of Maal-Dweb," although in a very different way than the Henderson tale. For whatever reason, this was my favorite of all the Maal-Dweb stories. The mordant twist at the end would likely have brought a smile to CAS' face.
"The Gordian Knot" by Robert M. Price -- Not bad! Price gives a very readable story of the real history behind the Gordian Knot, with some OK CAS imagery.
"The Letter" by Warlock G. Vance -- OK! Now we're getting somewhere! A detective on a murder scene finds a letter written to him, years ago by CAS. I found this story evocative and effective.
"The Night That Wins" by Joel Lane was a creepily effective story about a man who loses his family and seeks to understand what happened, and maybe get revenge.
"Cavern of the Golden Fleece" by E.P. Berglund -- Now here is a story that is a clear winner. I really enjoyed this from start to finish; Mr. Berglund really delivers the goods, with humor, grotesque touches and nifty prose. (Note: Byline on contents page was "Edward P. Berglund". -- ed)
"The Sarcophagus of Yiolh-Ngwehh" by Simon Whitechapel -- an acolyte plans to steal a relic from a priest and doesn't realize that spells may be effective even if their caster moulders in his sarcophagus. Decent read, didn't knock my socks off. I liked his story in Volume One better.
"The Xulthoom Dispatches" by Scott Urban -- Better than most of the other stories here, a young girl visits Xulthoom and does not enjoy the trip. I liked this story rather well, but I found the mock photo at the end didn't really have much impact. Maybe a prose finish would have been better.
"The Vainglorious Simulacrum of Mungha Sorcyllamia" by Mark McLaughlin -- Another nicely evocative tale about a man who longs for a woman he cannot have, and then tries to cross to her dimension. This brief description does not do justice to the prose or world painting.
"Maraeva" by Ran Cartwright -- I really wish I liked this story better. For me it was too derivative and the prose didn't hold up to the better stories here. It is a similar quality to the stories found in his book, Gretchen's Wood. On the other hand, the time travel paradox and denouement were handled pretty well.
"The Storming of Vrookhal" by Laurence J. Cornford -- Good story of a wizard and the advisors of a vain and foolish king who seeks to find an ancient magic that will give him eternal life. OK, the prose is no match for CAS but whose is? I liked it.
"The Black Massif" by Stanley Sargent -- A decent effort by Sargent about wizards trying to circumvent the end of humanity in the last days of Zothique.
Am I being too harsh? I dunno, another person might be more favorably inclined. For the most part I just happened to like the stories in Volume One quite a bit better than most of the ones here. Certainly the Berglund story was worthwhile. There was nothing here I especially disliked; every story had some merits. I was engaged for the whole book and never set it aside until I was done, so there is some charm to it; I can safely recommend it to all CAS fans and fans of weird fiction. I just wish I liked it better. In any event, I sincerely hope Rainfall will give us a volume Three in the future.
You may obtain this book from Shocklines.
|LOVECRAFT'S LEGACY, edited by Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg. New York: Tor Books, 1996. 352 pages. $19.00 ISBN 0-312-86140-0.
Cover illustration © (unknown)
[Reviewed by Matthew T. Carpenter]
Lovecraft's Legacy is an anthology in trade paperback from Tor, edited by Robert Weinberg and Martin Greenberg. Original publication was a 1990 hardcover, and the Tor paperback that I have was from 1996. LL costs $18.95 from Amazon, with free shipping in the US if you buy more than $25 worth of stuff, no discounts. The cover art is OK, nothing special, showing an ancient tome, a polyhedron and a specimen jar with something noisome in it. In the background is an alien landscape, and a photo of Lovecraft is on the back cover. My copy is showing some faint yellowing at the edges. Page count is 334. I believe all stories were new to this anthology when it first came out in 1990. James Ambuehl suggested I get this book, and I am glad I did. I'm not sure why I never ordered it years ago. There are some tepid reviews by customers on Amazon; that might have done it. It sure would have been a stunner in 1990, with all the new stories. Now I know I have a lot of them, including my favorites, in other anthologies. I think "The Barrens" and HPL were both in Cthulhu 2000, and "Meryphillia" was in McNaughton's The Throne of Bones, being a story that is one of a series
linked together to form the title novella. It is rather pricey particularly if you already own Cthulhu 2000 but you may be able to find a less expensive used copy. The premise was that these stories were written, not necessarily to make a mythos collection, but for each author to show some way that Lovecraft influenced or affected him. Robert Bloch's opening introduction is an affectionate description of Lovecraft's place in American horror. At the end of each story an author's note describes how they were affected by Lovecraft. As a consequence of this premise the stories are a kind of mixed bag of subgenres, some mythosian if not overtly invoking Cthulhu et al, some touching on themes central to Lovecraft of looking beyond the veil of reality, some not particularly having anything to do with Lovecraft. By and large I enjoyed them all. Minor spoilers may follow.
"A Secret of the Heart" by Mort Castle -- A man achieves immortality by bargaining with outré powers. He relates the biography of his younger days and how he managed to live so long. The theme of contacting other entities to achieve power or some such is very HPLish, but of course not original to or confined to HPL's worlds. Decent enough read.
"The Other Man" by Ray Garton -- A man suspects his wife is leaving her body at night for the astral plane to meet another man's soul. He follows and discovers a terrible being living in this astral world that devours souls. The love triangle stuff is not really something seen in HPL, but the creature lying in wait in the extrasensory plane, while not a named entity, is very like a mythos being. Again a decent read if predictable.
"Will" by Graham Masterton -- . . . OK if you read this it will spoil the story!!!
Did you ever wonder where Will Shakespeare got his powers of inspiration? Well he also used a contact with the Great Old Ones, Yog-Sothoth to make a Faustian bargain. The residual of his contact with Yog-Sothoth may still be found crawling in the muck in the ruins of the old Globe Theater, waiting to ensnare pesky archeologists. Yet another decent read. Haven't been blown away by any of these stories yet!
"Big 'C'" by Brian Lumley -- The Big "C" refers to cancer, that develops in an astronaut and sort of takes on a life of its own after exposure to alien influences, grows huge and, um, malignant, and sets up housekeeping on earth. Reminded me a lot of the working premise behind Radiant Dawn. Very Lovecraftian in sensibility although not involving conventional mythos entities. This was a great and creepy story I had never seen before.
"Ugly" by Gary Brandner was so so, about a man who's wife is cheating on him and is a hellion, so he devotes himself to a little lizard in a lump of plastic he finds as a curio at a swap meet. Results are predictable. This I found to be pedestrian and not Lovecraftian at all.
"The Blade and the Claw" by Hugh B. Cave -- A nicely creepy voodoo novel of possession, although not very HPLish. I thought it was an engaging read however.
"Soul Keeper" by Joseph Citro -- More like Misery, or even Psycho, than like anything by HPL. A not so nice man is injured in a car wreck and is held prisoner by some nutcase. Decent read but not much to do with HPL.
"The Papers of Helmut Hecker" by Chet Williamson -- This was a tribute story, sort of like HPL below. So Lovecraft is still alive in the soul of a cat and another author acquires the cat and starts staying up at night, eating ice cream, using too many polysyllabic words, etc. OK concept, fair execution. And I really dislike stories where HPL is a character.
"Meryphillia" by Brian McNaughton -- Not Lovecraftian at all but very enjoyable. I highly recommend everyone get a copy of McNaughton's The Throne of Bones and read this story in its proper sequence with the rest of his ghoul stories.
"Lord of the Land" by Gene Wolfe -- Kind of HPLish as a man investigates the truth behind ancient legends in the old west. Kind of like The Thing with an alien entity stuck here on earth needing somewhere to live (some host to live inside). Well written as you might imagine.
"HPL" by Gahan Wilson -- Well known to mythos fans, HPL still lives in this tribute by the incomparable artist/cartoonist Gahan Wilson. And he does! . . . in Wilson's imagination and memories as spelled out in the very nice author's note. And I just contradicted myself about disliking stories where HPL is a character.
"The Order of Things Unknown" by Ed Gorman -- Only Lovecraftian in the sense that possession stories are one device HPL liked to use. An ancient entity uses people to murder each other for sacrifices or some such. Well written and enjoyable.
"The Barrens" by F. Paul Wilson -- To my mind, the best story in the book, very Lovecraftian in sensibility, vividly written. In a remote forest in New Jersey an ex-student from Miskatonic University strives to look beyond our perceptions of reality.
So that about does it! Expensive but decent page count, with stories that mostly had at least faint echoes of things Lovecraftian and were mostly decent reads. Some real stunners, and the one clunker wasn't even that bad. I guess if you already have Cthulhu 2000 and a Lumley collection with "Big 'C'", then you don't miss the most mythosish stories by passing this by. In that case you also need to get The Throne of Bones by McNaughton. But I also think anyone who gets this anthology will be able to idle away some pleasant hours reading. Maybe not a ringing endorsement but I don't regret spending the money . . . I guess that's sort of a backhanded compliment too . . . your call!
You may obtain this book from Amazon.com.
|BALAK, by Stephen Mark Rainey. [Cover by Amy Sterling Casil.] Wildside Press, 2003. 236 pages. $16.95 ISBN 1587152630.
Dust jacket illustration © (unknown).
[Reviewed by Matthew T. Carpenter]
Balak is a novel by Stephen Mark Rainey published in 2000 by Wildside Press. I've had my copy sitting around forever so I forget where I got it. It is now tricky to search out on Amazon, but is available from Shocklines. Cover price is $16.95 US, but it is offered for $14.95 with their usual free shipping. The cover painting is a stylized image vaguely suggestive of a sinister entity, very effective. I couldn't figure out who the artist was from looking through the entire book, but later learned through a third party it was Amy Sterling Casil. She also did the art for his collection of stories, The Last Trumpet. Production qualities are good. Again, however, my copy is already showing some yellowing from aging. Of course I don't keep my books in plastic wrap, but this still seems a bit early for this effect, although it is not as severe as The Gardens of Lucullus (2001), which is not as bad as Dead But Dreaming (2002). Interestingly, Dagon by Chappell in the LSU Press edition has a little blurb on the title page about the book meeting standards from some sort of book longevity society; more power to 'em. Page count is 236, a nice substantial book. Briefly, this is an excellent novel and is highly recommended to all fans of mythos fiction. This is what all us fans expect of Stephen Mark Rainey, well known for his many stories in various anthologies. Spoilers will follow -- you have been warned.
First of all, I had picked this novel up a few years ago, and could not get into it. The reason was that the protagonist, Claire Challis, had a four-year-old son kidnapped. I'm a father of two young boys and while I don't find horror fiction revolving around children offensive or off-putting, the description that he was allowed to run away from his mommy, a responsible parent, in a busy grocery store in big city struck me as absolutely grossly unbelievable (OK, this from a guy who is reading about giant alien entities . . .). Any parent in this day and age knows you chase them down, give them a stern warning and the second time they either end up in the cart where you ignore their squalling, or else you march them out of the store, abandoning your shopping for the time being. . . . Look, I'm just telling you why I set it aside for a few years. Well, Balak eventually worked its way back up to the top of my stack. The title relates to Rainey's very clever use of Biblical scripture to create a character, Balak, an ancient priest of a terrible ancient being, Golgolith, who is now represented as one of the Old Ones. Over the years Golgolith has granted power to Balak, who has done the same to his subordinates, through blood sacrifices that often involve the kidnapping of children. Balak is no longer anything resembling human. His main servitors are a human pastor named Lazar and a freaky part-human Nyle. A good prequel to this book would be "The Music of Erich Zann." In fact, in the author's note in Rainey's collection of stories The Last Trumpet he describes an interest in the ability of music to change spiritual awareness or cause a heightening of perception. This theme is threaded into Balak as well. A very appealing feature of Rainey's work is the well crafted prose and meticulous plotting. Claire overhears a neighbor's child being kidnapped, it turns out, by Lazar, the pastor of the Church of the Seven Stars, where Balak has the real temple to Golgolith. When she gets involved this sets events in motion that end up swallowing Claire, her boyfriend Mike Selby, his sister Nancy and eventually police detective Trotter. Balak and Lazar set their intent on using Claire as the blood sacrifice who will allow Balak to finally open up a gate for Golgolith to enter our dimension. One thing about mythos fiction, even though it is horror, after all these years it is, well, not very scary. I remember being about fourteen, up late at night reading "Winged Death," when a huge black wasp flew into my bedroom from a window, went straight to the light fixture and disappeared inside it never to be located again. That made me jump!! Rainey had one particular passage where Nancy and Claire are having dinner while examining a figurine of Golgolith, and while Claire steps out of the room, suddenly Nancy and the figurine vanish, as she is captured by the malevolent forces from the church. This gave me a real frisson of excitement in a way mythos fiction has not for a long time. Events move along as first Claire and then Mike fall into the clutches of the Church of the Seven Stars, while Trotter looks for them. The final several chapters are the culmination as Lazar, Nyle and Balak attempting the ritual that will open the gate for Golgolith. The pace picks up as the book races to its exciting conclusion. There are some nicely creepy descriptions of non-human entities and torments endured by the protagonists. Here is where I have a little bit of a bone to pick with the story. I can see where the police start destroying the seven-pointed, internally lit up stars around the church, incidentally at first and then more deliberately as they begin to understand their implications. It was totally internally consistent. I can also appreciate the way this works to obviate the ability of Balak to perform his ritual or even to banish the supernatural entities they have on church premises. What I thought was a little too pat was how the principal bad guys fell on one another to destroy themselves so abruptly, clearing the way to the survival of the protagonists. I could easily understand how Lazar was a pawn to be discarded to a terrible fate, but the demise of Nyle and the Sultan Tuskachimaqqua were just a bit too easy, contrived, I dunno. Have you seen those fake advertisements spoofing evangelical comic strips, where someone is trying to convince some college kid to start worshipping Cthulhu, where he is told his reward will be to get eaten last? This actually is true to mythos form and so I can see how Golgolith is either indifferent to the fate of Balak or was sadistically planning to cast him aside the entire millennia he was Golgolith's chief servitor on earth. I guess it was the timing seeming too much at the service of the story to allow Mike and Claire to get away that left me ever so slightly disgruntled. A very minor issue with a very good novel! I enjoyed this book so much I zipped right through the narrative in a few too-brief hours. It is highly recommended to all fans of mythos fiction. I will now turn my attention to The Last Trumpet, another book that I never got started on for some reason. Based on this book and my enjoyment of practically everything else Rainey has written, I ordered The Lebo Coven, although I ended up not liking it.
You may obtain this book from Amazon.com.
|ETERNAL LOVECRAFT: THE PERSISTENCE OF HPL IN POPULAR CULTURE, edited by Jim Turner. Cover by Nicholas Jainschigg. Golden Gryphon Press, 1998. 410 pages. $25.95 ISBN 0965590178.
Dust jacket illustration © (unknown).
[Reviewed by Matthew T. Carpenter]
While I was at a meeting in St. Louis I browsed the local Border's horror section. I came across this collection by Golden Gryphon Press. I don't know how I missed it before. Publication date was 1998. It was expensive, $25.95, but I basically have no restraint. For those interested it is available in Golden Gryphon's online catalogue. First, the production values are high quality with a nice hardcover binding. The dust jacket has a wonderful painting by Nicholas Jainschigg that depicts a glowing-eye stranger walking away as some entity, perhaps Yog-Sothoth, enters our dimension in the clouds. It is perhaps a little flimsy, already getting a few small tears in the edges, but then I was carrying it everywhere. The interior has some photographs of HPL. I hadn't seen them before, but maybe they are famous ones. The editor was Jim Turner. Yes, the Jim Turner. No, I don't know who the hell he is either. [Note: Jim Turner is Golden Gryphon's publisher and, prior to that, he ran Arkham House after Derleth's death. -- ed.) At any rate, his introduction is a nice scholarly essay mainly about "The Shadow Out of Time." At the end he describes the three sections he divided the stories into, ones in HPL settings or where HPL appears, ones where there is a more or less overt influence by Lovecraft, and ones that may imply a Lovecraftian cosmic view. Yeah, yeah (as I read) let's get to the stories. This was a compilation of previously published stories, and as such there is overlap with other anthologies (grumble). By and large, Mr. Turner has selected very high quality stories and I am sorry to write that he stated that this would be his last Lovecraftian collection. There may be some spoilers below.
"Weird Tales" by Fred Chappell: Actually a subsubgenre I find incredibly tedious is one where HPL makes an appearance. It does less for me even than stories where the characters talk about HPL's works that supposedly depict fiction. At any rate, this one did not do much for me. I guess it goes along with the fact that I found his novel Dagon so unenjoyable.
"The Land of the Reflected Ones" by Nancy A. Collins: I could swear I had read this before but I don't know where. Not to worry, it is a finely crafted and creepy story about the dangers involved in casting spells from a musty tome when you don't really know what you are doing. Very enjoyable and made me wish Ms. Collins has written more mythos stuff for me to discover.
"Sensible City" by Harlan Ellison: Nice, creepy, ghoulish, but no definite Lovecraftian allusions that I can recall. Nonetheless it reads well and does not sit out of place in such a collection.
"Ralph Wollstonecraft Hedge: A Memoir" by Ron Goulart: Lame attempt at humor. A low point.
"Crouch End" by Stephen King: Whatever anyone says, Mr. King deserves his accolades. This is a terrific tale, clearly the best story here. It was moody, atmospheric, had tension mounting beautifully and was plain scary. It concerns a couple who wander into a neighborhood in London that ends up being very far away from where they thought they were going.
"The Events at Poroth Farm" by T.E.D. Klein: This is only the second story by TED Klein that I have read. You can argue whether it is truly mythos or not, with no overt appearance by any of our familiar entities/creatures, but you cannot argue that it is another finely wrought story. Very creepy and tense. A professor whiles away a summer in a small farmstead and encounters an unnatural and unwelcome visitor.
"A Bit of the Dark World" by Fritz Leiber: This did not have specific Lovecraftian connotations, but it did have an appropriately Lovecraftian feel, as the darkness becomes an entity, or conceals one, in an isolated California house in the mountains. Like some others in the book, it did not feel out of place in a mythos collection, although it could have been included in a general science fiction or modern horror collection. It was nice to read a story by Leiber, who was a true artist.
"The Shadow at the Bottom of the World" by Thomas Ligotti: Creepy and effective, not overtly Lovecraftian by name, but certainly not out of place. I guess on several of these stories you could say they felt like mythos/Lovecraft indebted stories while not making outright mention of mythos specific trappings. I was glad to read it.
"The Turret" by Richard A. Lupoff: Hmph! I already have Made in Goatswood! I guess all editors should consult me to see if their contents will overlap my library! Anyway, an excellent Severn Valley story.
"The Golden Keeper" by Ian R. MacLeod: This was quite a find. A very good mythos novella set in the 3rd century AD, as a Roman official looks for golden treasure in a remote part of Egypt. Does he find riches? You decide . . .
"Her Misbegotten Son" by Alan Rodgers: Double hmph!! I have the collection Miskatonic University, although I haven't read it yet. This story is reasonably well written and has some creepy moments. However the ending was atypically (for goings on at Arkham) happy, and one does not normally expect Nyarlathotep to be banished by holy water.
"The Ocean and All Its Devices" by William Browning Spencer: A very good moody story of the sea and some of its less pleasant inhabitants.
"Daoine Domhain" by Peter Tremayne: Triple hmph!!! This story is in Shadows Over Innsmouth. Oh, well, it's a highly polished jewel, an absolutely wonderful story of the Deep Ones. The writing is very moody, setting the atmosphere beautifully. I loved it. I hope Mr. Tremayne has written, or plans to write more mythos.
"Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" by Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop: This is a well written story about Frankenstein's monster finding worlds inside the earth, following the events in Mary Shelley's classic novel. It finds its way here because the monster encounters some of the Great Race, not mentioned by name. The story didn't interest me too much; someone else might like it more.
"The Giant Rat of Sumatra" by Paula Volsky: Sherlock Holmes meets the mythos. The story was a fair read, put in the shade by the many high quality stories included. I haven't yet read Shadows Over Baker Street so I don't know if this story is in there.
"To Mars and Providence" by Don Webb: Like I said, I don't care for stories where HPL is a protagonist.
"The Perseids" by Robert Charles Wilson: You can argue whether this belongs in a Lovecraftian collection. It was well written and had some creepy overtones, but could easily have been left out.
"The Other Dead Man" by Gene Wolfe: Science fiction horror that easily fits into a Lovecraft collection and easily can be excluded, like Leiber's story. Wolfe is a great writer so it's a fun read, but there are no specific mythos references.
So my final thought is that there are some magnificent mythos stories here, ones that I was previously unfamiliar with. Based on this I highly recommend Eternal Lovecraft. The overlap with other collections is minimal. A fair number of stories had appropriate feel, even without specific overtones, and a number could have been left out. There were only a few dogs, always a risk with a mythos collection. I am happy to have it in my library.
You may obtain this book from Amazon.com.
|THE COLOUR OUT OF DARKNESS, by John Pelan. Cover by Allen Koszowski. Cemetary Dance Publications, 2006. 153 pages. $30.00 ISBN 1-58767-113-1.
Dust jacket illustration © (unknown).
[Reviewed by Matthew T. Carpenter]
The Colour Out of Darkness by John Pelan is the latest novella in the Cemetery Dance series, # 17, I believe. Cemetery Dance is a well respected small press that regularly publishes a horror magazine that frequently features (but is not dedicated to) Lovecraftian fiction. I have never read any of the other novellas in the series as I don't think any of them have been related to the Cthulhu Mythos, however the high qualities of this volume make me think general horror fiction fans would do well to seek them out. The complete list of titles can be seen at their website, Cemetary Dance. I don't know what the industry technical definition of a novella is; I usually go with a short novel. Maybe a long short story? After a little reflection this book worked best for me when I thought of it just like that, a longish mythos short story. John Pelan is well known to the mythos community. The back cover leaf of the slip cover has a small biography of Mr. Pelan. Alas there are no author's notes on the text so all my inferences are just that. Some housekeeping: Production qualities are high. This book is a very attractive hardcover with a slipcover. Mine was # 468 of 750 (the total number of books in the (hopefully) first print run?), and signed by the author. Total page count was 153. But closer inspection shows it to be actually less. Dimensions are 6 x 8.8 inches, so the pages are not so large. Line spacing seems about 1.5. The first printed page of story was 9, the previous 8 being publishing information and dedication, etc. The back page of each picture was blank. Irregularly after a chapter or interlude would be another blank page, although this was not systematic in any way I could discern. I counted about 13 such blank pages throughout the book, so the real page count was 6 for art and 125 for text. What with the line spacing and all, the book was actually a very quick read. List price is $30, a bit steep for a book so small! Fortunately it is heavily discounted by Amazon to a more realistic $18.90, and you can get "free" shipping if you order more than $25 worth of stuff. Shockline's copies are autographed and ship free but are not discounted. The cover and interior artwork were by Allen Koszowski. I was not previously acquainted with Mr. Koszowski's work, but the cover was very attractive and spot on for the story's theme: A Cthulhu-like head appears to spring from a nude human body's shoulders. The human form is probably female but there is a bit of deliberate androgynousness (is that a word? If not, it should be.). But actually the Great Old One is engulfing the human, probing it with tentacles. I found the image creepy and effective. I also enjoyed the interior art and wished there was more.
My take on this story is that it took some inspiration from HPL's classic "The Colour Out of Space," but was by no means a sequel to it. I've read two efforts at a true sequel. "A Little Color in Your Cheeks" is a very agreeable short story by Mike Minnis in the anthology Horrors Beyond. The Colour Out of Time by Michael Shea is a novella-length sequel dating to the early 1980s. It was a bit more schlocky than HPL and, while it's worth seeking out, it dragged on a tad too long for me and had very derivative prose (it was from very early in Mr. Shea's career). Two other more-or-less sequels are Brian Lumley's "The Thing From the Blasted Heath" and David Morrell's "Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity," but I never read either of those. I often think the mythos is best served by short stories rather than novels. In the HPL story a meteor falls from the sky to land in Nahum Gardner's property. A globule in the meteor has a strange color: "They had uncovered what seemed to be the side of a large coloured globule embedded in the substance. The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor's strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all". This idea of a color not really perceptible by humans, not in the visible spectrum, but not really in the infrared or ultraviolet, perhaps more extrasensory, is used very effectively by Mr. Pelan. Only those who have ingested the strange drug essence can perceive this color, described as an unidentifiable shimmering radiance. However perhaps more than the color, the author uses the idea of a completely alien sentience split into lesser parts, each of which acts independently, trying to regain enough power/energy by manipulating humans to rejoin itself, patiently doing this over unthinkable millennia. You probably recall how a fragment of the color in HPL's story fell back to earth and still lurked in the well. Minor to major spoilers may follow, so don't read further if this bugs you.
Mr. Pelan turns away from the conventional mythos. He takes the very Derlethian idea of a cosmic war between outré entities where one was a distinct loser. It was rent into parts which were scattered about the earth. The chiefest part was entombed under the sea. Each part is now manipulating human psyches with the ultimate aim of reuniting and seeking its revenge. Here was an original twist for this book: there were not multiple Great Old Ones, rather they were all different ways these fragments were perceived through the limitations of human thought. There isn't even a Cthulhu, per se. The entity has no specific name. Rather, Cthulhu is how Lovecraft was manipulated into perceiving the largest part of this sentience under the sea, which was in turn interpreted as R'lyeh, and this was just one such example of many such influences of the alien on human thought. Parenthetically, I really dislike the plot device that Lovecraft was writing the truth disguised as fiction. This book deftly sidestepped that mortal sin; I'll call it venial and note I was not too annoyed with it. To extend human perceptions it gives its chosen acolytes a drug, essence. I won't give away the source of essence as it is one of the central shocks of the story. Unfortunately for the imbiber, in addition to unusual health and enhanced senses comes an inability to resist the unspeakable psychic commands of the alien. In fact, between each chapter is an interlude describing the actions of some famous person under the influence of essence. Let's just say Jack and Vlad had a little help from their friends. The plot revolves around a Goth-ish Seattle nightclub, Café Sepulcher. To start with, the story is told from the perspective of a down on his luck hanger-on named Josh, one of a crowd of former street people who depends on the owner, Lara. After she was disabled in an accident she got some windfall money and now provides jobs for her friends, Byron, Brian and Sheree, as well as Josh. Josh has been carrying a torch for Lara, but now seems to be out of the inner circle. He also starts to note weird scars on the others. About the same time, terrible things start to happen on the streets of Seattle. Josh is invited to try a new experience with Lara and the inner circle: essence. About midway through the book detective Joe Callaway comes on the scene investigating gruesome crimes. He starts to get an inkling of a new cult in Seattle and begins to trace it to its source, setting up a final vivid confrontation. The prose is quite good, very readable and descriptive. Seattle's seamy underside comes alive under Mr. Pelan's pen. The author does not shy away from graphic language, either for violence or for sex, un-HPLish, but it works here. I finished the book in one night, so obviously it grabbed me. The ending was jarringly abrupt but very satisfying to the mythos fiction fan. Initially the characterizations were very good; in fact the story was very cohesive and compelling while we followed Josh's slow realization of what was happening to Lara and his friends. His character development was a strong point. But maybe two thirds through we suddenly abandon Josh to the machinations of the cult and start switching point of view characters rapidly. This allows the plot to move forward at the expense of cohesiveness. I found this disconcerting; to me it was the biggest weakness of the book. Why invest all that time developing some interesting characters and then punt on them? So what's a mythos fan to do? Buy it, by all means! The price is at least reasonable at Amazon for such a handsome hardcover, the story is not just a pastiche knock off, and the writing is quite good. I think you'll like the original take on the mythos as well. I am very happy to have this title in my library.
You may obtain this book from Amazon.com.
Created: October 28, 2006