MIBDUL | Free prints for Patreon backers

First off: I have returned! 

Evidence of serious Scottish humour in Edinburgh

Evidence of serious Scottish humour in Edinburgh

Yep, on the off chance anyone’s listening… I’ve just come back from a very inspiring trip to the UK which encompassed a stop to the ever-gorgeous Edinburgh, as well as the not-exactly-gorgeous Scarborough.

Scarborough, however, played host to Fantasy Con by the Sea — aka this year’s edition of the British Fantasy Society’s annual celebration of fantasy and horror literature, rounded off by the Society’s prestigious awards, the most notable of which were this year snatched up the likes of Naomi Novik, Catriona Ward and Ellen Datlow.

I’ll be blogging more about the trip in general (and the Con in particular) very soon, but first, I’d like to big up a more immediate creative concern.

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So, we’re doing a six-issue comic book series called MIBDUL.

(‘We’ being myself and the awesome artist Inez Kristina)

We’ve got a Patreon page running.

And we’re offering free prints on it RIGHT NOW

You can follow this here link to find out all about the giveaway, and root around the very same Patreon page for more information on the comic itself, which will be Malta’s very first serialized comic, and should also be a hoot for fans of Star Wars, HP Lovecraft, Guillermo del Toro and all those concerned with the alarming facts of the Anthropocene Era (no, really).

You’ve got until Tuesday to avail yourself of the free prints offer, but I do so hope you will also support us in the long run.

Watch this space for more… of Mibdul, and other stuff too.

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Do it for yourself | T.E. Grau | Interview

Horror writer T.E. Grau is slowly but surely carving a niche for himself as one of the most eclectic and artful practitioners of the genre in the American scene, as is borne out by his critically acclaimed debut collection The Nameless Dark — which we reviewed right here just a couple of days ago. Now the man himself steps into the Soft Disturbances interview lounge to give an expansive, generous and impassioned overview of what inspired him so far, and what we can expect from his upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore… 

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

When did you first realise that you wanted to start writing fiction, and did you act on this impulse immediately?

From as far back as I can remember, I had an interest in writing, and starting in my early teens, I fostered a nebulous, long-range plan for engaging in the serious authorship of fiction at some unspecified date. But instead of hunkering down and just doing that, I spent decades dancing around the edge of the well, writing everything else but fiction, including music journalism, review work, two different humor columns, tech writing, ghost writing, and dozens of intensely mediocre screenplays.

I think what held me back was I thought I needed to write a novel to be an author, and I didn’t have any ideas for a novel that were worth a damn, other than some bullshit pseudo-Hunter Thompson tale about an American drifting to China to document the last vestige of the American Dream on the opposite end of the world. It would have been awful.

At the tail end of 2009, while I was writing one of those intensely mediocre screenplays – which just happened to be for a horror film for which I was brought in to “add in some Lovecraftian elements,” as I had read and greatly enjoyed HPL’s work back in college – my wife Ivy changed the course of my creative life forever. She’d read some of my scripts, and enjoyed some of the exposition (overly long as it was), but also saw that the medium wasn’t a good match on either end.

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Finally, as I was complaining about yet another round of ridiculous producers’ notes and re-writes on a script that probably wasn’t going to get made anyway, she said, “Why don’t you just stop with this screenwriting and write fiction?” That was it. No one had ever asked me that question before. Not in the 11 years I’d written scripts, nor the decade before while I’d written everything else, futzing around for local arts magazines and live music journals. The simplicity of her question – which hit my ears as a statement – was astounding. That I could just walk away from a medium into which I’d invested over a decade of my creative life but also grown to loathe, and finally pursue something that I’d always dreamed of doing. I “quit” screenwriting that very day, and Hollywood somehow plodded onward without me.

While reading and researching Lovecraft’s work for the script I’d just been working on, I’d discovered that there was such a thing as “Lovecraftian fiction,” stories written as pastiche, inspired by, and/or set in the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft. I had no idea this was a thing. But poking around a bit more, I found out that there were anthologies looking for short stories of Lovecraftian fiction, and that an editor (and RPG icon) by the name of Kevin Ross was looking for stories for his antho Dead But Dreaming 2, to be published by Miskatonic River Press (Tom Lynch’s outfit).

I think I’m a better writer because my journey to prose took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles

I saw that as my shot to break in. I didn’t need to write a novel to be a prose writer. I could write a short story, and ease my way into the fiction game. Find out if I have a knack for it, and then see what happens. I started writing ‘Transmission’, then started writing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ almost simultaneously. I pitched both to Kevin, and he vibed better with ‘Transmission’, so I finished the story and sent it to him, and he accepted it. My first completed, and purchased, piece of fiction. I held back ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ for five years, and first published it in The Nameless Dark: A Collection, even though it was initially written in early 2010.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

So, my journey to prose was a long time coming, but I think I’m a better writer because it took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles, and mainly due to the constant rejection one faces as a screenwriter. In film (not television), the writers are on the very bottom rung, and receive no deference and very little respect for their integral contribution to the content-making process.

That was important for me to experience, if only to get over myself and realize my fingers don’t weave gold with every keystroke. Ivy working with me as my editor was the other important factor, allowing me to finally understand that the fine tuning is just as or more important than the initial burst of creativity. That not every sentence (or paragraph or page) is precious and sacred. Defensive writers aren’t great writers. Confident writers kill their babies, because they’ll always make more. She taught me that, and I owe her everything because of it.

Why is horror such an appealing genre for you, both as a reader and writer?

I think you’re either born a person who digs the darkness or you’re not. And I don’t necessarily mean people who play Halloween dress-up every day, favor goth fashion, live as wanna-be vampires, practice Satanism, or something similar.

That’s cool and all, if that floats your boat, but what I’m talking about is someone who has a genuine interest, fondness, and deep affection for things that reflect a melancholy, a gloom, a doom, a general decay and reflection of mortality or pessimism. Things that are just a bit askew from the norm. The incomprehensible or the unexplainable. Liminal places of abandonment and decay. Rain clouds and fog. Desolate fields. Ruined buildings and oddly constructed houses. The vastness of outer space. Magnolias draped in Spanish moss. Mausoleums. Subterranean places. Attics. Abandoned barns and industrial sites. Vast stretches of trees. Cheap carnivals. Ancient caves at the bottom of the sea. The beautifully grotesque and the (Big G) Gothic.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

These are the essential salts, the foundation elements, of horror and fantastical fiction. It either appeals to a person or it doesn’t. You can’t force it, you can’t fake it (although some do try).

And while I’m a generally upbeat and affable person, my mind and curiosity and sense of wonder call out to those things, and when I encounter them, while most would be saddened or creeped-out or uncomfortable, they make me happy and content.

I feel at home. That’s what draws me to horror literature, and to those who can capture this sense of gloomy atmospherics, dread, and impending doom in the stories they write. There’s nothing quite like that. It’s a true power.

There are many definitions of the ‘weird fiction’ genre (which you’re also associated with). What’s yours?

I get uncomfortable with the various labels going around for what I like to call “dark fiction,” as I think people spend too much time trying to create then box-up subgenres of fiction for discussion or marketing purposes, or just for “team-ism,” which is rarely productive or positive. But I do like the term “weird fiction,” as it nods to the late 19th and early 20th century authors, including all of those amazing pulp writers, who added so much to fantastical fiction.

Weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death

Weird fiction to me is work of writing that introduces the unexplained – and usually unexplainable – into our rational world. It can – and often is – laced with the scientific, the religious, the historic, and the cosmic, taking real world facts and beliefs and twisting them just a bit, then setting them back on the shelf to distract our eye, as something just doesn’t seem right about them anymore. It’s peeling back a common facade and finding something unexpected and unknown underneath. It’s the odd, the uncanny. The bizarre.

Also, and this is just a personal opinion, but weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death. Weird fiction can be quite subtle, but no less impactful in terms of unsettling a reader.

Would you agree that Clive Barker and Nathan Ballingrud are among the most powerful influences on the stories collected in your debut collection, The Nameless Dark? If so, why?

Clive Barker certainly isn’t an influence, as I had never read any Barker until the stories for The Nameless Dark were either finished and published in other places, or already plotted out. I didn’t read Baker during his heyday in the 80s, as I was still geeking out over high fantasy and sword & sorcery. The closest I came to horror was Conan books.

Nathan’s work isn’t so much an influence either (as, similar to Barker, most of my stories for my collection were already either finished or plotted when I read his work for the first time in North American Lake Monsters), but his writing was and is very important to me in terms of what the genre of dark/horror/weird fiction is capable of in this new century.

No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud

So, in many ways, he’s not an influence so much as an inspiration, as the fearless exploration of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and generally horrible behavior that lies at the heart of many of his stories hit me like discovering a new color. I was floored when I read his collection. Still am. No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud. He’s also a genuinely scary writer, meaning he writes things that scare or disturb me. I rarely experience that reaction when reading anyone’s work.

north-american-lake-monsters

Barker is great (particularly his shorter work, like ‘In the Hills, the Cities’), and his Hellraiser universe is a horror staple (co-opted by Hollywood), but in many ways, I think Ballingrud is a superior writer to Barker, although I understand it’s difficult to compare based on time periods and conventions of the respective eras.

Long term, and deep down into my marrow, I’m probably more influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut, and Beatnik writers than anyone in horror fiction, although Lovecraft certainly influenced several stories expressly written for Lovecraftian anthologies, some of which ended up in The Nameless Dark.

The figure of Lovecraft looms over many of the stories too. Does the fact that there are plenty of Lovecraftian ‘markets’ open at any given time play a part in that? Or have you always been attracted to the core of Lovecraft’s work?

I covered a bit of this above, as Lovecraftian fiction was my entry into prose writing, and horror writing in particular. Regardless of how I feel about him personally, his work got me into writing fiction, which literally changed my creative life, and I’m grateful that he drew from and coalesced many of his influences (Bierce, Poe, Dunsany, Chambers, etc.) into the multiverse and mythos he created.

Cthulhu in R'lyeh by jeinu

Cthulhu in R’lyeh by jeinu

What originally drew me into his work was his sense of cold cosmicism, and a universe that is far more vast and malevolent and uninterested in our existence than our puny, needy human intellect can comprehend. There is no devil, no angels, no bearded man pulling the strings. There are no strings. Just endless voids, with the occasional Outer God and Great Old One brushing against our reality just long enough to influence primal cultures, establish secretive and murderous cults, and burst minds by their very existence. I loved this. It was very dark and menacing, very secret history and cryptozoological.

Growing up in a staunch, Evangelical Christian home, the stuff I was fed in church always chaffed at the back of my lizard brain. Stumbling across Lovecraft’s outlook on the universe was a revelation, and a breath of fresh, clean, pessimistic air. I was hooked instantly.

My most recent, current, and upcoming work doesn’t and won’t contain nearly the level of Lovecraftian influence, but his work will always feature somewhere in my writing, especially in my Salt Creek stories, a novel for which I’m slowly putting together.

A satirical edge is also present in a number of the stories, mainly focused on certain aspects of American culture that seem to irk you. Were there axes you needed to grind before you set out writing some of these stories? 

Before writing fiction, I wrote comedy for years, in various mediums with varying levels of success. I’ve been doing it much longer than writing dark fiction, so humor or satire is going to naturally bleed into my writing where appropriate (and maybe where it’s not).

I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture

I’ve never thought of my satirical viewpoints as grinding axes, per se, but I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture, and humanity itself. Hyper-religiosity, racism, misogyny, stinginess, greed, bad parenting, predation, xenophobia, and just general shittiness to others gather at the top of a very long list of grievances against my species.

Okay on second though, I’m grinding several axes. I’d guess dozens of axes are being ground at any one given time, depending on how many stories I’m working on at the same time.

Could you tell us something about your upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore? How would you say it builds on your previous work?

I always have a hard time summing up the novella without giving anything away, but here goes a weaksauce attempt: It’s a story about teenage obsession, conformity, parenting, class, and illness providing a backdrop for a somewhat jaundiced, slightly different take on the contemporary vampire tale.

I’m not sure how or if it does build on my previous work, although it is set from the POV of a teenage girl and follows her around in the world. In this way, it reminds me a bit of ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’, as it includes a bit of geographical wandering, which set the plot framework of ‘Tubby’.

they-dont-come-home-anymore-by-t-e-grau

I see it as something I’ve never done before (and probably won’t do again), marking my first and probably last vampire tale. Also, it’s my longest piece to date, which shows some building on my previous work.

And the cover – featuring artwork by Candice Tripp and cover design by Ives Hovanessian – is an absolutely stunner. I count myself incredibly fortunate to feature such a cover as the calling card for the novella. Candice is doing the artwork for my second collection, and we have another project in the works, as well. Crossing my fingers that I’ll be working with her for many years to come.

And finally… what advice would you give to writers keen to break into the weird fiction and/or horror scenes in particular?

First of all, write what you want to write. Truly. Honestly. Dig down deep, cast your gaze out as far as you can, and get it all out. Question everything, follow all leads. Don’t worry about genre or market or anything out of your control. Until you get paid for it as an employee with a parking pass, bathroom key, and benefits, don’t think of yourself as a “commercial writer.” Think of yourself as a writer, period, which means you write for you.

There are very few money-making fiction genres, and weird and horror fiction aren’t it

Make yourself happy and creatively satisfied, because if you’re writing weird fiction for money, a) you’ll fail in reaching your goal, because no one really makes any money, and b) your writing will come off as lackluster and passionless, which will make you even less money and lead to more failure. Don’t do that to yourself.

There are very few money-making fiction genres (and maybe one – romance/erotica, and I suppose whatever “literary fiction” is), and weird and horror fiction aren’t it. So, if you choose to write down here, crouched low in the shadows with the rest of us ghouls, do it for the right reasons. Do it for the love of the shade, the decay, the destitute and the forgotten. Do it to celebrate the beauty of the dark.

Then, get to work, and look for open markets. I’d hazard that with self publishing, online publications, and a recent proliferation of ‘zines and anthologies and fiction journals devoted to weird, horror, and dark fiction, it’s easier to place ones work these days than probably ever before in the history of written language. The markets are there. Write your best stuff and send it out.

And, in the end, if no one will publish you, publish yourself. Get your book on a shelf – YOUR shelf – and on Amazon, in indie bookstores and libraries, and build your legacy, if only for you and your loved ones. Gatekeepers are helpful, but they are not absolute. If you have the talent, the desire, and if you work your ass off, no one can hold you back from becoming a writer of whatever fiction you want to write, written however you want to write it. Very few of us are professionals, but a lot of us are writers. And there’s room for more.

Check out my own review of The Nameless Dark right here, and stay updated with all things Grau by visiting ‘The Cosmicomicon’

Read previous interview: Alistair Rennie

Featured image: ‘Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide’ by Ola Larsson 

Painting a beautiful ruin | The Nameless Dark by T.E. Grau | Book Review

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

T.E. Grau’s debut collection The Nameless Dark is a powder keg of imagination and potential. While the rag-tag gathering of stories sometimes slides too frequently into the unhallowed and by now well-trod annals of contemporary Lovecraftiana – a testament to it being made up of various magazine and anthology contributions over the years – the writer’s voice has a rich, fresh appeal.

Mining a vein opened by the likes of Clive Barker and more recently stretched further by the pained and earthy tales of Nathan Ballingrud – who introduces Grau’s collection, confirming that he’s a writer with a baton to pass – Grau regales readers with stories that have clear horror hooks but that don’t skimp on atmosphere or psychological exposition.

And as with the abovementioned precursors and influences, a keen handling of dread is another key wrinkle in the work, making for an unsettling but immersive experience.

One of my own favourite stories from the collection would have to be ‘Return of the Prodigy’, which I had originally encountered in the Cthulhu Ftaghn! anthology from Word Horde.

Detailing a late honeymoon in a Pacific island gone wrong, the story makes full use of its exotic setting to both seduce and unsettle the reader, while also letting in yet another trademark of the author’s work: a satirical streak; the targets in this case being the dull and bigoted American middle class. The undeniable pleasure of schadenfreude looms over the story – you know these unpleasant protagonists are in for an unpleasant time, which adds a giddy excitement to the terror.

Neither is our protagonist in ‘The Screamer’ all that sympathetic and relateable – a corporate cog with very little love for his fellow man and woman beyond what he can get from them, Boyd gains a strange kind of dignity in his doomed trajectory as he follows the titular ‘scream’ that appears to infect his workplace with a siren-like call.

The regression into a submerged world of horror bubbling right under the urban sprawl is a common theme for Grau and his fellow peddlers of modern horror, and an atavistic charge – an escape from the mundane into a world of destructive bliss – is taken to its logical conclusion here.

More traditional thrills are to be found in ‘Beer and Worms’ – a brief but hard-hitting chiller consisting of nothing more except for a conversation between two friends out fishing, which by the end takes a truly sinister turn without our characters having to lift a finger to influence this very sudden and very real shift in the mood.

It’s a testament to Grau’s ability to wring horror out of any situation, which is made all the more seductive and poignant by his command of the language.

In fact, Grau’s emphatically non-minimalist style holds him in good stead throughout, and on this point he’s very much in line with Ballingrud’s approach to the genre. It’s not so much about ‘sweetening the pill’ of the horror with beautiful language. If anything, it’s rather the opposite: the language immerses you into the tale, and Grau is also careful to add texture and nuance to his characters – making the hammer fall all the harder when it does.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

But the writing is also, quite simply, a pleasure to savour, and notable passages can be picked more or less at random throughout the collection. Here’s one example from ‘White Feather’ – sins of the father horror on the high seas that takes its sweet time to establish a rich historical narrative before kicking into pulpy gear:

‘Chilton held the glass to his nose, working through the alcohol and molasses down to the subtle perfume of Newtown Pippins before they were picked, smashed, and ordered to rot. Back when they first emerged as springtime buds from a lifeless branch, so full of promise. This was the aroma of his home, of a particular wind and soil that knew him from birth and yet held no judgement. He wished he were a boy again, before his father lost his leg and his mother her will, before the responsibilities of adult life solidified a legacy that was as permanent as history written by the bloody victorious. Before his last raid on Nova Scotia’.

Sometimes it does dip dangerously into style-over-substance territory, as happens with the undeniably fun but largely cosmetic ‘The Truffle Pig’ – another story written for a Word Horde anthology, this time from Tales of Jack the Ripper – which envisages the world’s first serial killer as a member of a long-standing cadre of murderers who work in what they believe to be a noble tradition.

While the language and mood is certainly on point as ever, there’s not much to the story beyond this high-concept twist. A similar problem plagues ‘Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox’, in which Grau very convincingly transports us back to the golden years of the Beat Generation milieu, only to end his psychedelic journey with a Lovecraftian add-on that fans of the weird fiction genre (and the looming behemoth that is Lovecraft) will have experienced all too frequently.

But that’s not to say that riffing on Lovecraft automatically means reverting to formula, nor that Grau isn’t capable of adding something fresh to the mix.

Clear evidence of this can be found in the strongest entry in the collection, ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’. A tour de force in every sense of the word, the story does appear to have a coveted octopus at its centre, though the resemblance to Cthulhu is kept to a minimum, and Grau waits until the end to deploy it to full effect.

Instead, the bulk of the narrative concentrates on the journey of a young boy burdened with a stereotypically shitty home life, who nonetheless remains hopeful that his pursuit of the octopus in question will bring happiness… if not transcendence. The glorious kicker of Grau’s tale is that it’s largely told with a corresponding sense of wide-eyed wonder shared by Alden, our protagonist.

It’s a modern picaresque story with a Dickensian dynamic at its core, and as the beleaguered but resilient young man winds his way through vibrant, filthy streets and suspect alleyways – climaxing in a visit to an abandoned zoo – Grau paints a vivid, memorable tapestry.

The Nameless Dark is a rich and varied collection that taps into the best strands of contemporary horror fiction.

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!

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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

BUMPER EDITION: Fuller, Sauer

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 

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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.

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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_Kongming_Sancai_Tuhui

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

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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.

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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.

Swords_v_Cthulhu_DRAFT_COVER_350

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.

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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.

On-Stranger-Tides-by-Tim-Powers

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.

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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.

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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