The Stars Are In The Gutter | Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie | Book Review

First, some music

It’s a wonderful bonus that Alistair Rennie‘s debut novel Bleakwarrior has its own soundtrack, composed by the author himself, which you should definitely check out and listen to while you leaf through his gloriously crafted sledgehammer of a book. But for the purposes of this review, I propose the following piece of music to set the tone. I trust it will soon become clear why this selection was made.

New Weird or weird-weird?

There is an argument to be made for Alistair Rennie’s work slotting in rather neatly into the improvised sub-genre labelled ‘The New Weird’. After all his short story, ‘The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines’ was the only original entry in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The New Weird (2008), where it was presented as a sort of laboratory experiment of what’s to come — if anything is to come at all — for the genre under discussion, celebration and dissection.

Well, reams could perhaps be written about the ins-and-outs of the New Weird itself (for my part, I wrote something of a middling MA dissertation on the subject) but thankfully, Rennie went ahead and developed the germ of what lay in the original short story into a head-bangingly bizarre novel, Bleakwarrior, released earlier this year from Blood Bound Books.

Weaving in yet another short story pertaining to the same (secondary) world, which was also published under Ann Vandermeer’s watch during her all-too-brief and unceremoniously interrupted spearheading of Weird Tales, Rennie’s novel does boast a general thrust towards weirdness — but whether said weirdness can be pinned to the aesthetics of any particular genre is another thing entirely.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie (Blood Bound Books, 2016). Cover illustration by Maxwell John Hudetz

Bleakwarrior may resemble a superhero name — and he may have the abilities that vaguely match some superheroes — but the protagonist who wields it in Rennie’s novel has no alter ego. Neither do his erstwhile colleagues who populate the rather high-strung planet Rennie has concocted. In fact they boast names like Automanic, Gutter and The Light That Never Shines.

And their main mission in life is to obliterate each other with no rhyme or reason. Who needs alter egos, who needs a private life and relaxation time when endowed with such a single-minded mission? (That’s for the ‘Linear’ beings, not the ‘Meta-Warriors’ we’re concerned with right here.)

I’ll get to the main plot motor in a moment, but I’d like to dwell on this for second, because it’s important. 

What Rennie captures so well is the hedonistic and atavistic thrill of having just such a brutal sense of purpose in life. The knife’s edge walk between creation and destruction — more to the point, between sex and violence — is what Rennie appears to be insatiably obsessed with. The inexorable churn of brutality that these characters engage in feels both inevitable and — operating within the hellish logic that Rennie sets up — strangely beautiful.

In lesser hands this would have felt like an adolescent indulgence: an exercise in attention-grabbing antics to an audience of lobotomised gore-hounds and their scandalised elders.

But then, the kicker.

You see, Bleakwarrior suddenly grows tired of killing people without knowing the reason why. So begins his quest; which will of course be punctuated by blood and thunder — and blood and guts — while also being placed in direct parallel to that of The Sisters of No Mercy (their name a hint at yet another aesthetic fetish that Rennie very much gives vent to in the novel’s make-up): two expert warriors slashing and fucking their way through an organ-retrieving mission in the hopes of revitalising their dearly-departed ‘Middle Sister’.

This allows Rennie to have the cake and eat it too — an often-frustrated adolescent indulgence now given full vent. By placing a philosophical conundrum at the very centre of this monstrous clusterfuck, Rennie asks you to pay attention, all the while bending your mind with the very nature of this juxtaposition. Rennie has written eloquently on what makes the Sword & Sorcery genre so special, and  Bleakwarrior’s amoral world of violent supermen and women out for nothing but more violence certainly evokes that genre to some degree.

But the kicker kicks it all into crazy town. Since this is a book better experienced than explained, here’s a few extracts to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Whorefrost’s cock is long and thin with a remarkably bulbous head that makes it look like a bauble on the end of a stick. His testicles are disproportionately large and, like the rest of his body, hairless. More to the point, his egg-sac is teeming with semen that has an unusual potency: it is deadly cold and, to this extent, biologically devastating.

Humidity hung to the Fetid Mountains like a lubricant. The slopes were thick with an organic welter of sprawling variations of fecundity and decay. There was an aura of prototypical distinction between emergent species that took the principle of diversification to extremes that hardly seemed worth the bother.

…But what was most alluring in the appeal of the girl whose name they didn’t know was the potency of her vaginal juices that spilled over the lips of The Sisters of No Mercy with a sublime and syrupy thickness that seemed to fill their brains with infusions of erotic wonder. The taste had a weighty tang that produced an effect of mild invigoration mixed with a prolonged sense of internal melting, like being absorbed by the outer shades of a celestial aurora.

Notice how the perfectly sculpted — and it must be said, somewhat arch and archaic — prose serves as a jolting cymbal crash when combined with the XXX-rated stuff under consideration? Of course, it’s also funny, which feature Rennie exploits to full effect.

Yeah. This shit will fuck you up.

Hail, Dionysus

Bleakwarrior is literature to the Nth degree. It’s a work by someone who is hopelessly infatuated with the ‘lower’ genres but whose love and enthusiasm for them is filtered through a mature intelligence and a respect for and knowledge of the art of fiction. The obvious clue of the ‘Meta’-Warriors gives that detached postmodern element to all the craziness.

In fact, this is a novel that gets its animating friction from the simple fact that it’s at constant war with itself. It’s a novel chock-a-block with one sensationalist set piece after another — a Jacobean display of torture porn Grand Guignol that will serve as a benchmark for prose brutality for years to come — but that’s delivered through a strong narratorial voice with no interest in simply remaining in the gutter (with the Gutter). Instead Rennie wrings the experience for all that it’s worth, making sure to play with ideas as well as bodies.

But gods damn it, what will remain etched in your brain is the images. The voice will only help you take them seriously as part of an interesting new project in genre writing. One that will hopefully spawn a plethora of imitators — to say nothing of more, more, more from Rennie himself, hopefully — which will grow over the literary terrain like rancid but glorious fungus.

For Bleakwarrior is a a child of Dionysus filtered through the voice of Apollo… until you realise that it’s not Apollo at all, but a trickster god the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

In short…

This shit will fuck you up.


A couple of months ago, one of the most exciting voices in weird fiction at the moment – Molly Tanzer – kindly passed on an advance review copy of Swords v Cthulhu, a new anthology she co-edited with Jesse Bullington for Stone Skin Press. Published at the tail-end of July, the 22-story-strong collection mashes ‘swift-bladed action’ with HP Lovecraft’s cephalopod alien-cum-existential dread milieu to great effect, to the point where I was inspired to review every single story in the anthology. Now, I (virtually) sit down for a chat with Molly and Jesse about the ins and outs of the anthology, and what it was about the concept that really got them going.


Lovecraft anthologies are a dime a dozen these days. How did you set about to make Swords v Cthulhu as fresh as possible?

Jesse Bullington: It always comes back to the authors, doesn’t it? So long as you have a wide array of interesting voices engaged with the project you can make any subject feel fresh and exciting. To that end we knew from the beginning that in addition to inviting certain authors we wanted an open reading period for submissions – some elements you know you need from the very start, but others you don’t recognize until you see them.

Molly Tanzer: I’d like to add that when it came to soliciting authors, we wanted a mix of people known for their S&S, as well as authors who write horror or fantasy, just to keep the tone different piece to piece. We also found a delightful amount in the slush, that was super-hard, just so many unique and interesting twists, that it was difficult to make calls sometimes. I was really impressed by the range and talent we acquired one way or the other for this book.

The world of genre small press can be dangerously insular: a tight-knit community where – thanks to the internet – everyone knows everybody else. How did you avoid the pitfalls of what could amount to nepotism when selecting the tales in the anthology?

MT: I wasn’t too worried about it. For one thing, we held open submissions, and took a ton from the slush; for another, we had a lot of material to choose from, so the competition was pretty fierce. We rejected friends and accepted people we’d never heard of; we also accepted friends and rejected strangers. Sure, we know a lot of the folks we accepted, but I think the individual stories’ quality speaks for itself.

JB: Yeah, and then there’s the fact that when you’re working as a pro writer and editor you make a lot of friends because you love their work. The vast majority of the friendships I’ve made in this industry have grown out of an appreciation of an individual’s writing, so if I were to never publish someone I’ve come to know personally I’d be cutting myself off from many of my favorite contemporary writers.

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer

The predecessor to Swords v Cthulhu within the Stone Skin Press stable was Shotguns v Cthulhu. With their in-yer-face mashing together of genre-furniture with Lovecraftiana, these titles suggest pulpy fun above all: they’re great attention-grabbers. Do you think your collection in particular offers something more than just pulpy comfort reads, however?

JB: Before saying anything about our anthology I think it’s worth noting that Shotguns v Cthulhu was far from a straightforward action anthology. Editor Robin D. Laws had some fast and fun pulp yarns in there, sure, but there are plenty of brains to go with the brawn (Ekaterina Sedia’s weird wartime tale and Nick Mamatas’s kung fu headfuck immediately jump to mind, for example). So with Swords v Cthulhu Molly and I were very much trying to live up to Robin’s precedent of providing depth, variety, and style as well as action and monsters…but plenty of those, too!

MT: Pulp and comfort reads are two things that are very individual and difficult to define—like pornography, you know it when you see it. I mean, many people probably find the 1982 Conan the Barbarian pulpy, but every time I watch it I’m moved and reminded of what’s important in life. So, whether the book provides more than pulpy comfort seems like something for readers and critics to decide, more than its editors.

Is ‘swift-bladed action’ something you seek out in your own reading? Are you fans of swords-and-sorcery and the kind of historical fiction that the authors in this anthology draw from, and if so, what would you say are its main pleasures?

MT: I read a little of everything, but yes, fantasy and historical fiction make up a large part of it. I’m actually doing a series over on Pornokitsch right now, with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, where I’m reading (and she’s re-reading) the first four Gor novels. In the latest of those, there’s a war between hyper-intelligent, technologically advanced praying mantises and cloned human slaves armed swords and makeshift spears. That sounds far more awesome than what is actually happening in Priest-Kings of Gor, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, when I’m done with that, the next thing in line is Amy Stewart’s Lady Cop Makes Trouble, so yeah, I was very pleased to see our authors draw on everything from the English Civil War to far-flung planets more metal than any mind of man could comprehend.

I suppose historical and fantastical fiction provide pleasures both similar and different to any well-written novel or short story—that of stepping outside one’s life for a few moments to experience another. Fantasy gives us barbarians and/or dragons and/or wizards and/or whatever; historical fiction provides us fancy dresses and/or interesting archaic weapons and/or insight into our past, but to me it still comes down to getting acquainted with characters and seeing what they’ll do when stuff happens to them, no matter what sort of stuff it is.

JB: I also read a ton of fantastical and historical fiction, and for the same reasons. I’m in agreement on the source of much of their appeal, too – the only thing I’d add is that I think when we read fantasy or historical fictions we often see the conflicts as being far more dramatic but also more clear-cut than those in our own lives. Even though no sane person would want to actually solve their problems with a sword, it can certainly be an appealing daydream otherwise!

Jesse Bullington

Jesse Bullington

The 22 stories that comprise this anthology are an eclectic bunch, to be sure. But we’d be lying if we don’t say that some recurring themes, motifs and general narrative set-ups didn’t stick out: the colonial milieu in both Ben Stewart and A. Scott Glancy’s story, for example, along with the literary revisionism of Natania Barron and Carrie Vaughn. Did you engineer these commonalities yourself, when you were selecting the stories that would finally end up in the anthology? And if not, why do you think authors were drawn to these motifs in large numbers? That is, what do you think it is about the ‘Swords v Cthulhu’ brief that inspires writers to chase these particular storytelling elements?

JB: We selected individual stories based on their own merits, and of course our taste as editors. As for why certain themes and motifs appealed to the contributors, I’m sure it varied from individual to individual and I’m reluctant to speak on behalf of anyone but myself. Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out!

MT: Jesse and I spent quite a bit of time mulling over our submission guidelines because we wanted to make it obvious what we were looking for. We had a vision in mind for the book, after all! Given our mutual love of fantasy and historical fiction, we suggested those approaches (among others).

Given that you’re both writers of fiction in your own rights, what kind of creative kick does editing an anthology give you that writing fiction from scratch can’t?

MT: Well, the pleasures of curatorship, I suppose. Sure, when I write a story or a novel, I’m arranging and compiling and creating, which all overlap with editing, but it’s internal rather than external. Doing that for others was a new thrill for me – this was my first anthology – but turning a skill set over and looking at it in a new way was something I enjoyed very much.

JB: Editing someone else’s fiction is an entirely different animal than editing your own, and if it affords a special kick I suppose it’s being able to identify areas for improvement without actually having to fix them yourself!

Do you think the small press genre fiction community is in a healthy place at the moment? What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out, or trying to break into the scene in which you guys are active?

MT: This is a hard one. Everyone in publishing, whether they’re with a small press or are publishing with the Big 4, can have only a keyhole perspective, though of course the size of that keyhole is highly variable. I think that the small press scene can be a great and vibrant place full of the weirder stuff you might not see coming out elsewhere. This isn’t to say big publishers won’t take on risky books, but… you see the problem here! Publishing is huge, everyone has their own perspective, and you can’t say much without massively qualifying it.

As to writers trying to break into the scene… what I have to say isn’t going to be too different than anyone else. Value yourself and your writing. Submit to the markets you read, and furthermore, submit strategically, either top-down or best-for-you-first. Be wary of promises that seem too good to be true, and ask for advice if and when you need it, preferably from people who you know are reliable, and who have similar careers to what you want for yourself, or broad experience.

JB: Haha, yeah, I don’t know if I’m in any position to comment on the state of any community! There are a lot of great books coming out through a lot of different small presses, so that’s good, right? Beyond that I think I’ll just second Molly’s assessment.

Advice for starting writers is an easier answer: stop spending all your time reading goddamn advice about writing and just fucking write! Do it all the time! Why are you still reading this interview when you could be writing? Wriiiiiiite!

Now if only I could follow my own advice…

What’s next for you?

MT: A few things … a standalone reprint of my novella Rumbullion: An Apostrophe will be published this year (it was previously collected in my out-of-print collection Rumbullion and Other Liminial Libations), and next year will see the publication of my second anthology, a cocktails-and-flash fiction book called Mixed Up!, which I’m co-editing with Nick Mamatas. Also, either late next year or early 2018 my novel Creatures of Will and Temper will be published, which is a sort of feminist retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but with epee fencing and diabolism and sisters arguing with one another.

JB: I’m currently completing revisions on the concluding novel in my Crimson Empire trilogy, which has been coming out under the pen name Alex Marshall. It’s a sprawling work of dark fantasy that should be solidly in the wheelhouse of anyone who appreciated Swords v Cthulhu…I hope!

Check out Swords v Cthulhu on the Stone Skin Press site. Meanwhile, click here to read the reviews of the 22 individual stories in the collection.

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon | Table of Contents

From mid-June till now, I dedicated some time to reviewing Swords v Cthulhu, a freshly-released anthology of ‘swift bladed action’ set against the backdrop of HP Lovecraft’s literary legacy and the monsters + existential dread that beset it, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington, and published by Stone Skin Press. Here’s the linkstorm to all of the entries. Enjoy!


Non Omnis Moriar by Michael Cisco

The Lady of Shalott by Carrie Vaughn

St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls by L. Lark

The Dan no Uchi Horror by Remy Nakamura

The Savage Angela in: The Beast in its Tunnels by John Langan

The Dreamers of Alamoi by Jeremiah Tolbert

Trespassers by A. Scott Glancy

The Children of Yig by John Hornor Jacobs

BUMPER EDITION: Carson, Wilson, Grey

BUMPER EDITION: Stewart, Wagner


Without Within by Jonathan L. Howard

Daughter of the Drifting by Jason Heller

The Matter of Aude by Natania Barron

The Argonaut by Carlos Orsi

The Living, Vengeant Stars by E. Catherine Tobler

Of All Possible Worlds by Eneasz Brodski

The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang by Laurie Tom 


Meanwhile, I also got the chance to interview Tanzer and Bullington, which exchange you can check out here

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #18 | Laurie Tom

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I have dedicated an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method was peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These were presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification. This is the final review of the series.


The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang by Laurie Tom

Though it’s not technically the last story in the table of contents for Tanzer and Bullington’s anthology,  I think Laurie Tom’s contribution makes for a fitting ending for this review series. Never mind that it has ‘final’ in the title — this epic Three Kingdoms tale has got the kind of orchestral scope anyone or anything would want to go out on.

Like other writers in the anthology, Tom tests the bounds of the short story’s ability to absorb substantial content by going large — suggesting the wider arcs of this key, and much-mythologized period of Chinese history. However, Tom doesn’t overreach, and instead focuses on a single act of military recon to tell her story of honour, ambivalent friendship and the ghosts of prime ministers (recently) past.


Zhuge Liang as depicted in the Sancai Tuhui (1609)

After the passing of prime minister Zhuge Liang, the military officer Jiang Wei is charged with fulfilling his final request — pacifying the region as the war rages on. He is helped along on this complex and dangerous mission by the genderfluid Ma Yun, and the friendship between the two makes for a delicate pall across this story of carefully executed military manoeuvres — tinged as they are with the supernatural towards the end.

On the pulpy vs subtle binary that Tanzer and Bullington’s anthology appears to run on, Tom’s story falls into the latter category, with the thematic focus being on keeping one’s word no matter how metaphysically impossible the task at hand may be, and with the supernatural elements being borne out of long hours of study and shown to us through ghostly fog, rather than outre displays of action and eldritch gore.

An arresting and emotionally resonant tale with a wider universe right at the edge of its peripheral vision.

Read previous: Eneasz Brodski


And so ends my review series of Swords v Cthulhu! Thanks to everyone for reading — it’s been fun. But the fun is actually not over yet! Later on this week I’ll be running an interview with the anthology’s editors — Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington, so stay tuned for that. 

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #17 | Eneasz Brodski

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.


Of All Possible Worlds by Eneasz Brodski

We started this reviewing journey in Ancient Rome, and as we near its end we prove the adage that all roads do, indeed, lead back to the Eternal City.

However, Brodski’s take on the milieu is markedly different from that of Michael Cisco. Whereas the previous story slid in its weirdness among the Empire’s reputation for sterling military prowess and efficiency, here we are plunged into the city’s multicultural squalor — where violence and exploitation are the order of the day.

In other words, it’s less Neil Marshall’s Centurion and more Fellini’s Satyricon… with some mind-bending eldritch strangeness thrown in for good measure.

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Still from Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Our protagonist Marad deals with peddling animals for gladiatorial shows, and though he does betray hints of a conscience about his chosen profession, hints are all that remain. In fact, the phrase, “I am sorry. You must die so that I may live. I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life. But know I wish this world was different,” ends up being something of an anchoring chorus throughout this dizzying narrative.

How this plays out when placed side-by-side with classic Lovecraftian cosmic indifference makes for a good thematic twist, which I won’t spoil. But more importantly for the rest of the tale, that other Lovecraftian trope — the power of nightmares — is employed to give the story an animating force.

A bit confusing at first, this device ultimately creates a sense of thrilling discombobulation, one that perfectly matches the sordid and chaotic social underbelly in which the story is set.

A story with grit and teeth, told by a surrealist street performer who would just as soon slit your throat for all your cash rather than simply accepting your busking tips.

Read previous: E. Catherine Tobler

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #16 | E. Catherine Tobler

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.


The Living, Vengeant Stars by E. Catherine Tobler

‘The Thing That Should Not Be’ is a very Lovecraftian concept — and a Metallica song with that title was actually inspired by Lovecraft’s own story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. And in plenty of ways that aren’t obviously linked to the Lovecraftian milieu, a lot of the stories in Tanzer and Bullington’s collection defy expectation.

Orrin Grey’s A Circle That Ever Returneth In, for example, attempts a Choose Your Own Adventure conceit in a short story format, while Natania Barron and Carrie Vaughn‘s contributions re-jig literary touchstones with a Lovecraftian touch that is both delightful and surprising.

And Tobler’s story is perhaps the most defiant of all, in that it doesn’t simply test the bounds of the short story framework, but also the expected thematic scope of Lovecraft’s legacy. She does this by going for a story in the epic fantasy mode, and it’s quite something to see it unravel. Elspeth is given a mission from the ‘dark man’, and it is presented to us as such:

Had killing the invisible horror of S’tya-Yg’Nalle not been enough? Never en ough, the dark man said, and Elspeth understood the enormity of what he wanted of them; saw in the far distance the colossal, tentacled beast slumbering beneath green waters, bound to the prison stones with chains as thick as tree trunks. This was the goal.

This mission appears to Elspeth in a dream, and we all know that dreams — and their corresponding Dreamlands — carry a lot of weight in Lovecraft’s universe. On this count, Tobler falls in line with her predecessor, but the more mundane mission of rescuing Elspeth’s sister from the “horrors of Lowenhold Prison” is what further animates the narrative, as our protagonist is joined by a ‘party’ whose set-up is immediately recognizable to those familiar with the fantasy genre.

Moria by Alan Lee

Moria by Alan Lee

But whereas other stories in the collection have taken advantage of the gamification of fantasy, Tobler goes for something more classically immersive. But beyond Tobler’s inspired hand with descriptive details — a skill that comes to full fruition at the story’s well executed climax — Tobler also endows her protagonist with a philosophical mindset. After Tobler’s closely-focused third-person narration informs us that the party was established in the most generic and ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ way possible — the ‘dark man’s proposal in a tavern — she allows Elspeth some space to ponder the wider implications of their mission:

Each [of the party] was something to behold, possessing battle techniques Elspeth had not encountered prior to this adventure. She longed to know each woman better, but this was absurd. If they were all to die, what was the point? Perhaps, she decided, that was the point — to know their ways before they were lost to the world. To preserve and keep what they knew, to see some part of them carried into the inscrutable future.

A gripping and atmospheric story that teases and the wider potential of such a genre mash-up.

Read previous: Carlos Orsi

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #15 | Carlos Orsi

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.


The Argonaut by Carlos Orsi

In their introduction to the anthology, Tanzer and Bulllington described Brazilian author Carlos Orsi’s contribution as ‘Errol Flynn Goes To Hell’, and it’s a tantalizingly accurate description of what goes on in this ghoulish swashbuckler of a tale.

But the real hook of the story for me was the fact that this takes place on a Maltese vessel in what we can assume is roughly the Golden Age of piracy — and given that the Order of the Knight of St John had no qualms about sponsoring corsairs during their soujourn on the island, Orsi’s choice of setting and conceit is as apt as they come.

Nevertheless, the naval politics of the 17th century and their corresponding geo-historical context only matter up to a (sword) point in this fast-moving tale, whose key qualities lie in its cinematic scope and pace. Orsi conjures up some great images, but more importantly, he makes sure that things are constantly in motion. Stylistically, this is the polar opposite of Lovecraft, whose trembling paranoia inspires gloriously knotted prose that slowly but surely unravels a terrified but richly imaginative mind.

Bill Nighy as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise

Bill Nighy as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise

One would be tempted to throw Pirates of the Caribbean as an easy reference point for this tale on an unfortunate seaman charged with rescuing the husband of a Christian virgin aboard the aformentioned Maltese ship — which is assailed by shoggoths (subordinate figures in Lovecraft’s bestiary). Davey Jones would be the obvious figure that comes to mind once the bewitched sailors turn monstrous.

But Orsi’s prose — down to its rapid-fire style — actually recalls a more significant forebear: the work of Tim Powers. After all, On Stranger Tides was not just yet another (and ultimately disappointing) installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. It was actually the book that started it all: inspiring not just the theme park ride that in turn gave way to PoC film franchise, but also that other piece of piratical pop culture lore — the Monkey Island video game series.


And Orsi’s story, with its no-nonsense protagonist and equally no-nonsense approach to storytelling and style, channels Powers’s ability to grip the reader and keep them there. The supernatural is a by-the-by inconvenience here, but a real one nonetheless; much in the same way as Blackbeard’s meddling with the dark arts is a key obstacle for our protagonists in On Stranger Tides.

Whereas the other story in the anthology to channel pirates does so with added lyrical and surrealist gusto, Orsi’s tale provides some classic thrills.

Read previous: Natania Barron

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #14 | Natania Barron

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.


The Matter of Aude by Natania Barron

Literary pastiche can be both an artistic crutch and an ambitious undertaking, with writers either piggybacking on the work of their forebears in an attempt to short-circuit their own flaws, or bravely attempting to meet their influences head on and tussle with them to produce something novel.

As with most things however, the truth often lies somewhere in between, and Natania Barron’s story in particular channels a much-vaunted work of the Western literary canon to surprising effect as she attempts to meld Lovecraftian cosmic horror with the French medieval poem, The Song of Roland.

As the title of the story suggests, Barron shifts the narration from the military dynamic of the original poem to the secondary character of Aude, the sister of Roland’s best friend and comrade Olivier, who in the poem dies of grief upon learning of Roland’s — her betrothed — tragic death in battle.

The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460.

The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460

Instead of the passive mourning female archetype of the poem, with Barron’s help Aude is now transformed into a Joan of Arc figure, collaborating with Archbishop Turpin to influence the outcome of the critical battle with the help of the Heavenly Mother, Queen of Heaven. Apart from supernatural clairvoyance, Barron endows Aude with a keen, perceptive intelligence. It’s made clear to us quite early on in the story that this version of Aude would most emphatically not die of grief should Roland be felled in battle: “Theirs was a union of rank and reputation and she was not blind to it, even if she played it so.”

(Think of the way that JRR Tolkien’s Arwen had to be imbued with added agency for the Peter Jackson’s film adaptations in order to be palpable to contemporary audience; Tolkien, of course, being heavily influenced the medieval romance tradition.)

While some writers may be tempted to ‘pulp it up’ with a set-up like this, Barron chooses to concentrate on Aude’s relationship to the characters and her ultimate fate. In this way, she creates an opportunity for herself to slip behind the underbelly of the Chanson and explore its inner workings — making Aude into something of a master manipulator by means of her access to what amounts to Lovecraft’s dreamlands.

Nevertheless, the story allows itself some descriptive battle scenes as Aude follows her brother’s progress, and there’s fun to be had in her sparing but spot-on use of Lovecraftian monster lore.

A giant it was, surrounded by yellow-accoutered monks, all humming in a low chant. It rose close to twelve feet high, with sloping shoulders covered in boil-covered skin, pock-marked, and the color of curdled milk. From its mouth emitted an unholy stench; Olivier found his eyes watering through his visor. Sulfur, perhaps. This giant who was once Fierabras had but one eye, black and pupil-less, and Olivier could never tell where it was looking.

Read previous: Jason Heller

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #13 | Jason Heller

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.


Daughter of the Drifting by Jason Heller

One of the key tropes of HP Lovecraft’s ‘mythos’ fiction is how deeply ancient and unreachable the truths of the universe are, and that even the prospect of contemplating them leads one into a destructive spiral of madness it is impossible to recover from.

Though Lovecraft spends plenty of time suggesting the historical scope of the Great Old Ones — it’s no accident that a lot of his stories feature excavation or historical exegesis as their inciting incident — and on making sure we realise just how thoroughly devastating even gazing upon these creatures can be for one’s psyche, that’s often where it all stops.

We learn nothing of the biological workings of the Great Old Ones — save for their ‘alien’ make-up — and we certainly know nothing of their political system. Lovecraft never quite felt like peering too deeply behind that curtain, and the genuine paranoia over the full implications of this hidden parallel universe that he feels is arguably one of the strongest strands in his fiction.

Cthulhu in R'lyeh by jeinu

Cthulhu in R’lyeh by jeinu

Heller, on the other hand, takes this hitherto unexplored challenge head-on, and plunges us deep into the unpleasant and cruel logic of an entirely non-human world. But instead of the paralyzing reveries that this world suggests in Lovecraft’s fiction, Heller creates a schema in which battle and ritualistic murder is the order of the day.

Heller takes full advantage of the anthology’s ‘sword’ brief, endowing the blade wielded by the hard-bitten protagonist with the cultural cred of an Excalibur. Only this time, the blade isn’t a cue for feudal solidarity and benevolent justice, but an instrument that further propagates a vicious circle of violent domination. This set-up reminded me of the recent novel by Alistair Rennie, Bleakwarrior, which I will be reviewing soon and which also posits a world of uber-humans whose sole purpose is to vanquish each other.

Heller’s choice to go for a first-person narration, as well as his poetic handling of this strange universe, make the whole experience immersive as well as alienating. Like the previous story we considered, this is another work of bona-fide weird fiction, albeit one that exploits a markedly different strand to this eclectic genre.

Read previous: Jonathan L. Howard

Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #12 | Jonathan L. Howard

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.


Without Within by Jonathan L. Howard

One of the great joys of the anthology under discussion is that Tanzer and Bullington appeared to have transferred their shameless enjoyment of literary pastiche to their contributors, so that most of the 22 tales crackle with the lively literary fetishes being fulfilled.

This has resulted in some funny, pulpy entries that will go down a treat with readers endowed with corresponding interests. Howard’s story, however, is remarkable and enjoyable for taking something of an opposite tack.

Being a story of Lovecraftian happenings in a suspicious tunnel inspected by a military regiment during the English Civil War, the itch that this would have scratched for me would be something like Ben Wheatley’s mad masterpiece A Field in England — set in the same era and featuring what appear to be drug-addled protagonists trapped in the titular field by some mysterious, cthonic force.

A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2013)

A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley, 2013)

Instead, Howard’s tone is sober and disciplined, which ultimately results in a fine work of weird fiction whose strangeness is embedded, and eventually serves to undermine, the sober, stiff-upper-lip attitude embodied by our main character, Major Bell.

What starts off as little more than a logistical headache for Bell — who has to repair a broken wall while his men mutter about a mysterious ‘tunnel’ nearby — turns out to be a descent into a nightmare world occupied by ancient and seemingly unstoppable horrors.

So far, so Lovecraft — and the excavation aspect of the story reminded me of the Lovecraft original The Rats in the Walls in particular. The overall structure of the tale doesn’t venture too far off from the Lovecraft schema of Curious Discovery –> Madness, but Howard’s sensitive and haunting prose style lends its own weave to the cosmic horror tradition.

“It was manlike, but whether it had ever been a man he sorely doubted. It was more in the nature of a device in the form of a man, as though some ancient corpse had been the pencil sketch and the final shape the inking of an artist who had never seen a man and allowed new fancies into the design.”

See what I mean?

Read previous: Andrew S. Fuller, M.K. Sauer