Filler content with Hippocampus- Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on Hippocampus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-

HIPPOCAMPUS PRESS (continued)

From Ann K. Schwader, a writer perhaps better known for her poetry, we get DARK EQUINOX AND OTHER TALES OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR (Hippocampus Press pb, 259pp, $20), though I’d hesitate to describe much of what’s on offer as HPL derived despite that rider in the title. In lead story ‘Dark Equinox’ art student Jen gets to purchase a recent work by her favourite artist Leonie Gerard at a suspiciously low price, but as the picture changes she begins to get strange hints of how the artist died and the doorway that she opened in her striving after a unique vision. This is a strange, unsettling tale, one in which the vagaries and exaggerations of the artistic life hold centre stage, closing with a final image of which HPL would have been proud, the suggestion that something terrible has been summoned into our world. There’s a whiff of Poe, or maybe Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, about ‘The Sweetness of Your Heart’, as an unloved wife turns the tables on her murderous husband with a little help from a band of ghouls, the final image a delicious touch of black comedy and irony. It is predominantly a mood piece, with the reek of the charnel house and the dust of the mausoleum wafting off the pages, and given its limitations done supremely well.

In ‘When the Stars Run Away’ the child Megan and her astronomer father witness the phenomenon of the Big Rip, with the stars speeding apart. There are several levels to this story, with the suggestion of sympathetic magic in Megan’s tearing of a photograph of the universe in the pages of a book as the prelude to what follows, while elsewhere we have the distancing of the stars reflecting Megan’s mental turmoil, the grief she feels at the loss of her mother. It is, finally, a story in which macrocosm and microcosm reflect each other, a tale with the moral as above, so below. An old lady is abused by her bullying nephew in ‘Wings of Memory’, but the birds whom she feeds dole out a little bit of avian justice in this story of a bad lot getting his well-deserved comeuppance. Underlying it all is a portrait of how nice people can be taken advantage of by those less scrupulous. ‘Her Beloved Son’ puts a new spin on the tale of the Whateley brood, with Lavinia finding escape from the depredations of one son by turning herself over to the other, the story deftly tying into HPL’s mythology and at the same time asking questions about the true nature of those we consider monstrous.

In Rosemary’s Baby variation ‘Custom Order’ a young woman is employed as a nanny to a very special (and sinister) young man, but the wealthy father Alexander Blaine has other plans for Caitlin and it takes the spectral intervention of her IRA bomb expert brother to turn the tables on her employer. One of the longest stories in the collection, this seems a bit unwieldy and too short even at the length, but there are some lovely touches of detail, as with the satanic manifestations attending the child and the hints of something very awry at the clinic where Mrs Blaine was impregnated. I liked it rather more than not. The owner of a roadside attraction come museum sacrifices visitors to other worldly entities in ‘Desert Mystery! Gas & Go!’, the story effective for what it is, but what it is is little more than an exercise in tone of voice and ambiguity, of hinting at far more than you actually reveal. In the short and bitter ‘Rehab’ an agent preserves the sylph like figure of her model client with the aid of a Dr Laveau. Barely two pages in length, it is a delicious slither of flash fiction with a delirious end twist.

‘Scream Saver’ has the new head of IT at a company using a mystical screen saver to open a gateway for immigrants from another world. There’s not much to the story beyond the word play of the title and the central conceit of immigrants, but that’s enough to carry the plot through to the shock revelation at the end. Neglected wife and forgotten mother Mona finds solace of a kind in ‘The Water Lily Room’ of the rented house she and her family have taken for the summer, but as her situation becomes worse she disappears into the folds of the carpet she finds so beguiling. Yes, there is an element of the supernatural to this story, but the real thrust of the narrative is in how we can become so insubstantial that we are just simply ghosts haunting our own lives. In some ways it’s a mirror image of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, with a woman surrendering to nullity and non-existence instead of embracing madness. Death haikus and fine calligraphy are the key to immortality in ‘The Death Verses of Yian-Ho’, with a student piecing the puzzle together, but too late to save herself from becoming the latest victim. It seems a little far-fetched but Schwader makes it credible, letting us see what is going on even as her protagonist remains oblivious in this clever tale of soul transference.

The last five stories concern the adventures of Cassie Barrett, who knows a little too much about the outré for her own good and sails rather close to spiritual winds. ‘Twenty Mile’ is the name of the family ranch where every year cattle are mutilated on a particular date, and her cousin Phil’s intent to sell the property leads to disaster. It’s the common or garden trope at work here of native lore proving superior to western adherence to laws of cause and effect, but done with some lovely touches of incidental detail and an off the wall slant with the cattle mutilations. In ‘Experiencing the Other’ Cassie reluctantly allows a professor and his students to investigate the cattle phenomenon as she desperately needs money for the ranch, but it is of course fated to end badly for all concerned, with an almost matter of fact quality to the macabre end twist. Again, this is effectively done, with the robust scientist getting his comeuppance and a delightful ambiguity to the ending.

‘Paradigm Wash’ finds Cassie joining an archaeological dig in New Mexico by way of a cheap holiday, but of course the professor in charge of things is bonkers and there are alien entities lurking in the woodwork that have to be repelled. I found the idea of Cassie’s vacation slightly less than plausible, but accept that and what follows is good fun, a story with some well-drawn characters, an interesting historical grounding and enough detail to make the archaeology sound convincing, all leading into a final and shocking confrontation with the macabre. ‘Night of the Piper’ sees Cassie volunteer her time at a charity using native designs in its branding, ostensibly to do good work but in reality to find out what happened to a woman who went missing after being recruited by PWP. Of course something Lovecraftian is on hand, Cassie barely escaping with her life as a gateway between worlds is opened, the story engrossing albeit little bits of the detail didn’t entirely convince me. Schwader wins out in her end game though, with some suitably menacing elements and images, and the idea of a charity being used as a front for the outré resonates strongly. Last but not least in ‘The Wind-Caller’ Cassie gets trapped in a small town where a man with command of the weather throws a hissy fit every time he thinks somebody has done him wrong. More Stephen King than HPL, this is a cleverly told story with a well-developed plot, though I felt certain elements stretched credibility a bit far, such as the fact that the town’s population only now try to revolt. It’s a welcome change of pace from the other Cassie Barrett stories though, and a fine end for a collection in which the very shortest stories seemed to work best, though nothing was entirely unsuccessful.

In his introduction to her collection CULT OF THE DEAD AND OTHER WEIRD AND LOVECRAFTIAN TALES (Hippocampus Press pb, 238pp, $20) scholar, critic, and editor S. T. Joshi refers to Lois H. Gresh as “one of the best-kept secrets in imaginative fiction”. Title story ‘Cult of the Dead’, the first of twenty, is set in the catacombs beneath Lima where a woman descended from Inca royalty encounters a creature from the Fourth Realm that holds the key to restoring Inca rule in Peru. The supernatural aspects are fascinating and have a novelty to them that is missing from most material in this vein, while playing counterpoint to the outré elements is an awareness of human suffering and human greed, things that negatively impact on each other. And while it may not be entirely agreeable to non-Incans, there is a rightness to the story’s end that makes the reader want to cheer. In ‘Devil’s Bathtub’ Antarctic explorers encounter an alien life form that melds with flesh bodies, the story reeking of strangeness and with part of it written from the viewpoint of a husky being “occupied”. The main thrust of the story concerns the relationship between a young woman and her father, the different values they have and how one is empowered to survive, flourish even, while the other dies, and this in itself makes for a more intriguing narrative than the usual monster mash fare.

We arrive in a future Innsmouth in ‘Dreams of Death’ where nano life forms known as Flotulum are infecting and transforming human beings, and one young man struggles to cling on to his humanity despite the changes his body is undergoing. It’s a fascinating tale, one in which even though the protagonist is doomed to fail we cannot help but feel for him and share in the triumphalism of his end. Dying Cassandra takes her friend Tatania to the isolated ‘Necrotic Cove’, a place where the dimensional barriers that separate us from the Old Ones have worn thin, and it is the catalyst for a narrative of transformation, with the true nature of the relationship between the two women at the very heart of what takes place. The end result is an engaging study of resentment and what it can do, how we use each other even when we don’t intend to do so. Doctor Curall comes to town with his marvellous Elixir in ‘Old Enough to Drink’, another tale of transformation, one which was a little too oblique for my liking, but with some remarkable and disturbing imagery woven into the text.

Beautifully written, ‘Death Doll’ gives us an original take on the Grim Reaper, with a baby spared only to cause complications further down the line, the story arguing for the rightness of death in its time. I loved the ideas being put forth, and the first person off kilter narration by Death. ‘Let Me Make You Suffer’ tells of a digital whore and her pimp, offering us a glimpse of a future where eroticism and performance art have taken strange turns, along the way questioning the nature of humanity. The end result is a fascinating brew of science, sex, and horror. There’s a Machiavellian slant to fantasy ‘The Lagoon of Insane Plants’ in which a champion battles monsters to save the kingdom, a story which should be slightly naff, but thanks to endless invention and a constant playing with the tropes of this subgenre is enjoyable and provocative. Bork is an ogre who stays strong by consuming ‘Wee Sweet Girlies’, this dark fairy tale examining the things we do to survive, the compromises that are made and what comes from them, all under the guise of Shrek seen through a glass darkly. Warped ideas of beauty are gleefully satirised in ‘Debutante Ball’ with young women mutilating their bodies to fit some contorted vision of beauty and denial. It’s a strange and savage story, one in which the feminism bleeds from the text.

One of the longest stories in the book, there’s a hallucinatory quality to ‘Where I Go, Mi-Go’ as the last descendants of characters from HPL’s stories join forces and genes to defeat the Old Ones. It’s a tale that is buzzing with ideas and imagery, but which didn’t work to my liking thanks to the ways in which the plot seems to be all over the shop. In the amusing ‘Snip My Suckers’ the story is told from the perspective of a vampiric plant that has an obsession with the man in whose garden it grows, the narrative reading like a version of Little Shop of Horrors on speed, and I loved every blackly comedic moment of it. There’s a gonzo quality to ‘Psychomildew Love’, the story of witch Cora and how she realises her passion for neighbour Warren by turning him into an ant eater, and while it should be absurd Gresh’s prose and her willingness to go the extra bit further into madcap invention result in a story that I thoroughly enjoyed, even if in retrospect it does feel a tad insubstantial. And it has an interesting depiction of a modern day witch in the figure of Cora. ‘Little Whorehouse of Horrors’ takes us back into the world of digital prostitution with a Madame ordering her computerised whore to take johns to the edge of death, something to which the prostitute finds herself addicted. Like the previous story it looks hard at how we use everything that we have in the pursuit of pleasure, that ultimate thrill ride. How far we need to go before we come.

‘Willie the Protector’ maintains the three hundred year old Machine that runs his city, but recently things have been going badly wrong and there is the suspicion that older entities are crossing into our world with the Machine’s help. It’s a strange, obliquely written story, one that fascinates with its miscellany of ideas and odd setting but to my mind doesn’t quite manage to coalesce these into some artistic whole. In ‘Soleman’ we have an unhappy marriage and a foot fetishist having all of his dreams come true at an extreme cost in a tale of twisted eroticism, one where you can feel sorry for the character despite his obvious flaws, sympathise with his inability to realise his basically harmless fantasies. ‘Algorithms and Nasal Structures’ is the tale of programmer Amy who is trying to code smells and of Frank, the man who returns into her life. It’s full of ideas and has about it a feel of just desserts served for those most deserving. I liked Amy, and Frank was believable, but not especially likable, which worked fine for the story. And the thing with the scents added an element of novelty.

We get another manic story with ‘Digital Pistil’, the tale of two digital flowers in love, which is as crazy as it sounds, but done with considerable panache and conviction, so that their affair plays out like the mirror image of so many unhappy human relationships, with the cat High and Mighty performing a catalytic role. ‘Showdown at Red Hook’ is a prequel of sorts to HPL’s story, with a Sheriff Malone encountering the beast Dagon, and it all felt a little bit meandering to me, not one of the stories that works especially well. Two living computers investigate Arkham’s Witch House and unveil the true master of chaos in ‘Mandelbrot Moldrot’, another story that takes liberties with Lovecraft, but does so in such a charming and inventive manner that the reader can’t help but be entertained. You probably need a bit more scientific or mathematical knowhow than I possess to get the full benefit. Despite that it’s a lot of fun and an excellent end to a strong collection, one where the good far outnumbers the bad and indifferent, and even the lesser stories have something of worth in their composition.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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