Filler content with dreams and nightmares – Part 1

Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #46 as part of a feature on work ‘inspired’ by H. P. Lovecraft:-

DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES

Artist I. N. J. Culbard’s back catalogue contains several graphic novel adaptations of work by H. P. Lovecraft, including The Shadow Out of Time which I reviewed in a previous issue and the 2011 British Fantasy Award winning At the Mountains of Madness. For his latest foray into the lands of Lovecraft, Culbard has turned his hand to THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH (SelfMadeHero pb, 144pp, £14.99).

I see no reason to reprise details of Randolph Carter’s epic journey having already précised the plot of Dream-Quest in the previous section. Culbard manages to capture the essence of the story, portraying details of the greater story arc with verve and leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the small stuff, the non-essentials. There are echoes of other artists in the work – his closing depictions of Carter brought to mind Eisner’s Spirit, while the rendering of Richard Upton Pickman and his ghoul warriors reminded me of the heyday of Marvel’s Thor comic when Kirby and Lee pitted the blond god against an army of trolls, and with its exploding vistas the scenes in which Carter journeys through the dimensions back to his home reminded me of nothing so much as Dr. Strange when Ditko had the helm and brought the sorcerer supreme into conflict with Eternity. Culbard’s artwork brings the story to vivid life on the page, though I do have one small niggle, and perhaps that’s down to having first seen Von Sholly’s approach to the material, but it seems to me that Culbard’s use of an almost monochrome palette doesn’t work so well or display as great a range. At times it all seems a bit flat and I could have done with more colour splashed round on the page. For my taste there is too much of darkness here, so that the thing we remember most of the story is the black corridors of dream and the underground lairs of the ghouls, while the mountain splendours and the beauty of cities like Celephais makes less of an impression. With most of Lovecraft’s work a leaning to the dark would have matched the story’s mood perfectly, but for this more expansive work it doesn’t quite seem to capture the mood as well. We needed more of sunlight and less of shadow.

Edited by Nate Pedersen, THE STARRY WISDOM LIBRARY (PS Publishing jhc, 184pp, £20) has been generated from a novel conceit. In Lovecraft’s story ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ mention is made of the Church of the Starry Wisdom and their library of rare occult tomes, which included ‘The Necronomicon’, the Pnakotic Manuscripts and many other volumes. The premise at play here is that in 1877 before disbanding the Church organised an auction of these volumes through the house of Pent & Serenade (PS), and this book purports to be the recently discovered auction catalogue.

It’s a great idea, and an army of writers in the weird fiction field get to play at being distinguished academics and experts on the occult, producing learned essays on their chosen works. Using Ramsey Campbell as an example (mainly because he is the only contributor to have also been published in Black Static – yes, it is a form of nepotism), he gets letters after his name and is described as “Keeper of Rare Books at Brichester University and noted authority on British cultic activity. Author of The Woodland Goodmen, The Children of Eihort, and The Seers of Daoloth, amongst other scholarly investigations into English cults”. And, naturally enough, Campbell writes about ‘The Revelations of Glaaki’, an occult tome that he invented for his 2013 novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, so on that score there is no doubting Campbell’s ability to speak with authority on the subject. Other volumes under consideration include ‘The King in Yellow’, ‘The Book of Thoth’, ‘The Black Sutra’, and ‘The Nameless Tome’, and those are just the ones I can pronounce. And of course Lovecraft himself gets in on the act, with a reproduction of his thoughts on ‘The Necronomicon’.

Inevitably the quality varies, with some writers producing miniature stories within stories that give the whole history of the book under consideration, the events which have been linked to it, as well as vivid descriptions of what the work looks like (some of which will probably be adapted for use by limited edition publishers in years to come). Others seem to do the bare minimum, with simply a description and rather vague provenance. And, inevitably given the steps necessary to maintain the catalogue conceit, there is a fair degree of repetition, which can all become rather tedious – after about the umpteenth time of reading the details of a book’s binding my mind starts to drift. Perhaps the best way to approach this volume is to dip into it now and then, rather than read straight through as I felt compelled to do for purposes of this review. There are also some striking and “in character” illustrations courtesy of Liv Rainey-Smith. Warts and all, this is a fascinating volume, one that will act as a touchstone to the imagination, for readers and writers alike, and you come away from it slightly sad to think that these books don’t actually exist, and at the same time very glad that is the case.

Lovecraft’s most influential fiction usually weighed in at novella or novelette length, though he produced plenty of shorter work as well. Edited by Kat Rocha, WHISPERS FROM THE ABYSS (01 Publishing pb, 199pp, $11.99) announces itself as “An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Fiction”. It contains a grand total of thirty three stories, many of them falling under the umbrella of flash fiction, with Charles Black’s ‘The Last Tweet’ the shortest, a 140 character story, taking advantage of the format to deliver a full stop Lovecraftian ending. Some of the stories are superficial, delivering the same old same old in Lovecraftian trappings or starting off with a good idea only to fizzle out with variations on “and then the monster jumped out”. Overall though, there’s nothing here that I’d consider poorly written or that didn’t have at least something going for it.

I’ll reproduce the ToC in its entirety on the Case Notes blog when I get a moment (and expect more Lovecraft related material on the blog throughout May), but for purposes of this review I’ll only discuss the stories I thought the best and/or most interesting.

After an introduction by Alasdair Stuart, we get into it with ‘Iden-inshi’ by Greg Stolze, told in the form of a series of diary entries written by an imprisoned scientist forced to work on a cloning project at the behest of a dictator seeking immortality, but the DNA she is using in her experiments is that of a Deep One, with dire results. It’s an engaging story, well told and with a hint of something sublime in the subtext that underlies the main narrative, the idea that the alien DNA could be an evolutionary tool. ‘Nation of Disease: The Rise & Fall of a Canadian Legend’ by Jonathan Sharp tells of the career of the eponymous rock band, whose members dabbled in the occult with horrendous results at their final concert, the story told as rock journalism and certainly absorbing, though the end was pretty much par for the course. There’s a certain poignancy and sense of tragedy laced with regret to ‘When We Change’ by Mason Ian Bundschuh in which a couple’s return to their hometown of Innsmouth has terrible consequences for their children, the story selling the reader a dummy and inviting our condemnation before revealing what is really going on.

In the enticingly titled ‘Nutmeat’ Martin Hill Ortiz gives us the tale of a scientist who discovers an unusual parasite, but doesn’t realise how widely it has spread, the story a variation of sorts on Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Lovecraft’s own ‘The Colour Out of Space’. And if you have ever thought that there was something fishy about US President Richard Nixon, then Jason Andrew provides validation with the marvellous ‘Fear and Loathing in Innsmouth: Richard Nixon’s Revenge’, in which gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, hard on the campaign trail, discovers links back to New England, the story as delightful and invention packed as it is audacious, making it one of my very favourites in the book. ‘My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Age 7’ by David Tallerman is a wickedly clever piece in which only the reader has a full grasp of the implications of all that Daisy reveals about her friend, and the picture of innocence so exposed is almost harrowing.

From A. C. Wise we have the vivid, fast paced, almost kaleidoscopic fury of a story that is ‘Chasing Sunset’ in which a son must take drastic measures to avoid becoming the pawn of his evil father. A suicide finds that there is no release in the lurid and surreal vision of a story that is ‘I Do the Work of the Bone Queen’ by John R. Fultz, the text littered with Barkeresque imagery and a terrible sense of doom hanging over it all. The brief and bitter ‘Suck It Up, Get It Done’ by Brandon Barrows presents us with the picture of a sewer worker whose first day on the job isn’t quite what he thought it would be as there are ghouls lurking in those tunnels. The idea is intriguing but what makes the story so effective is the kick ass end twist.

From Nick Mamatas we have the fascinating but oblique ‘Hideous Interview with Brief Man’, packed with ideas, literary theory and Lovecraftian references, all of which I loved even though I have little grasp of what it was all about, at least in a sum of the parts sense of the thing. ‘The Sea, Like Glass Unbroken’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia tells of the despair of the young woman passed over for sacrifice, the story offering an unusual slant on a common enough fantasy (and real life) scenario. Some humour from James Brogden with ‘The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread’ which delights with its deadpan telling of a member of the general public phoning into Gardeners’ Question Time for advice on dealing with the Deep One in his garden pond, the whole quintessentially British and unreservedly hilarious.

In Jeff Provine’s story ‘The Floor’ we have a house with a nasty secret, the story short, well written, and with a few surprises to elevate it above the mundane premise. Time travel and the manipulation of events is at the heart of ‘Waiting’ by Dennis Detwiller, the story blindsiding the reader with its WW2 setting and suggestion of a link to the Manhattan Project. It’s an engaging read with a surprise to deliver at the end, even if with hindsight you cast about for a point to it all. ‘Other People’s Houses’ by Sarena Ulibarri is a clever piece with some unsettling imagery, as a man who likes searching other people’s houses unwittingly becomes the victim of a magic rite of transformation, the story effective for the way in which it reveals more to the reader than it does to any of the characters.

The longest story has been kept to last, a tour de force by Josh Finney titled ‘Death Wore Greasepaint’ in which children’s entertainer Wilbur the Clown uses his TV show to seduce the town’s children into helping him raise the Octopus King. The story races along like John Carpenter’s They Live on acid, fuelled by a manic energy and gonzo invention, while as an aside commenting on several aspects of modern life, including the way in which we allow the television to play too great a part in the lives of our children. It’s a strong end to an anthology that had many fine moments and in which the good far outweighs any bad.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

 

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One Response to Filler content with dreams and nightmares – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Filler content with dreams and nightmares – Part 2 | Trumpetville

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