Filler content with F&B – Part 3

Following on from Monday’s post, the third part of a feature on ‘recent’ releases from American publisher Fedogan & Bremer that originally appeared in Black Static #55:-

FEDOGAN & BREMER (continued)

Moving on, Joshi provides an introduction to the collection AWAITING STRANGE GODS (F&B hc, 278pp, trade $39.95/limited $125) in which he lauds author Darrell Schweitzer as “a Renaissance man” in the realm of imaginative fiction. Artist Tim Kirk provides the cover and interior illustrations for this collection of ‘Weird and Lovecraftian Fictions’. Opening proceedings is the evocatively titled ‘Envy, the Gardens of Ynath, and the Sin of Cain’. It’s the story of Opie, who in his youth becomes a willing disciple of the visionary Justin, whose family trade in secret knowledge, but when the promise of elevation is reneged on Opie strikes out on a course of his own. At heart the story is one of abuse and betrayal, of wanting to find the ineffable and being consumed by the quest, but by way of counterpoint to each other we have competing visions of the marvellous and the happiness of an ordinary life, showing how easily the one can turn sour and give sustenance to our hope for the other.

‘Hanged Man and Ghost’ is the name of a game played by children in the isolated community of Chorazin, but the heart of the tale has to do with their strange religious practices and how these effect outsider Miss White, the schoolteacher who really doesn’t have a clue what she has got herself into. It’s a tale that works through the power of suggestion, with more revealed as the narrative progresses and innocent things assuming ominous qualities, culminating in a tongue in cheek ending. Caroline, the young protagonist of ‘Sometimes You Have to Shout about It’, finds herself in a household where witchcraft holds sway, but uses her own special ability to redress the balance of power in her favour in a subtle, clever story, one where the bad people get just what they deserve.

The threat of Nyarlathotep’s return along with the other Elder Gods is behind the story of ‘Stragglers from Carrhae’, two Roman legionaries who, having survived the massacre, must deal with the realisation that our universe is not as neatly ordered as they had previously believed. It is a story in which horror is piled upon horror, with the atrocities of war seen as only the tip of some terrible iceberg. A troop of knights returning home from the Crusades stumble across a castle inhabited by ‘The Eater of Hours’ in a hallucinatory story where their own sins leave the men vulnerable, and while the surface adventure is gripping enough the story has complexities that hint at the true nature of reality, and call into question exactly who is relating the tale.

When his parents are killed in a shipwreck Jimmy becomes the ward of Lord Blessingleigh but ‘The Runners Beyond the Wall’ warn him of what his benefactor intends and show Jimmy the way to cheat his destiny. It is a story which reminded me strongly of MRJ’s ‘Lost Hearts’, cleverly done and with the victim turning the tables on his malefactor in the most impressive way. ‘On the Eastbound Train’ wasn’t entirely to my liking. The tale of an academic who discovers rather more than he is prepared to accept when he delves into the truth behind an ancient text, the story is subtle and full of dark hints of the unknown, but to my mind suffered from an overuse of ambiguity and suggestion, a failure to pin things down, and so was vaguely dissatisfying. There’s a similar feel of just missing the target to ‘Howling in the Dark’, which is filled with dramatic effects and hints of something cosmic and dreadful, none of which ever become greater than the sum of their parts. It’s saved though by an interesting subtext on the idea of a man who cannot become sufficiently detached from the human side of his nature to be accepted by the elder beings who promise him so much more than mortal life has to offer.

Cthulhu meets the counterculture in the delightful and amusing tale of ‘The Head Shop in Arkham’, with reality filtered through the medium of a comic book written by a madman, or something like that. Name dropping as it goes, this story was a delicious concoction, capturing the flavour of Lovecraft and R. Crumb, effortlessly witty and at the same time slightly minatory, one of my very favourites in the collection. There’s a rite of passage feel to ‘Innsmouth Idyll’ as a teenager falls in love with a girl and learns of his true heritage, but at the same time it has a loss of innocence quality to the text, with the realisation for the protagonist that after this everything will be changed. ‘Class Reunion’ presents us with the anti-Hogwarts, with the class of 65 returning to their alma mater for a bloody reunion, their memories of the past restored but too late to do them any good. It’s an intriguing idea, though one whose execution felt a little too rough round the edges for my liking.

We return to Chorazin in ‘Why We Do It’ with Howard luring a young woman back to be the sacrifice in their ritual, the story short and one where everyone knows what is really going on except the victim, with a dash of humour to carry things to their appointed end. Inspired by ‘Pickman’s Model’, ‘The Warm’ examines the relationship between an artist and the ghoul who poses for him, each taking on attributes and qualities of the other, so that the dividing line between the two wears thin. A bookshop owner is fascinated by the tales of a famous writer who befriends him, finally coming to realise that his friend really can travel through dimensions courtesy of what he refers to as “lines of touch” or ‘Spiderwebs in the Dark’, but there are also spiders, or a curious form of vermin that infects the life of both. It is a fascinating story, one rich in ideas and playing deftly with clichés of the genre, such as having the protagonist relate his story from the confines of a madhouse, here done with such verve that there is a certain freshness to them. ‘The Corpse Detective’ reads like a Sam Spade story if Hammett had been a surrealist, and while I found it fascinating I couldn’t make much sense of what was taking place on the page, though I felt I should be able to. Chalk one up to reader failure. ‘Jimmy Bunny’ and his friend Annabel pillage abandoned houses, but when they enter a certain building for Jimmy it brings back to him the terrible days of his childhood and the nightmare figure of his father. In ways the house acts as a palace of memory, with Jimmy unable to escape the monsters of his past, the story subtle and disturbing.

There’s a touch of Clark Ashton Smith about the next two stories. The young poet Adamphos seeks arcane knowledge to defeat his rival and win the heart of a princess in ‘The Last of the Black Wine’, but all his plans are brought to nothing by the passage of time until he is left only with the ultimate nullity of existence, coming to see that as a mercy. It is a dazzling display, one which captures perfectly the flavour of its inspiration, with lush language and vivid imagery throughout. Dreams and visions blur into each other ‘In Old Commoriom’, the story’s protagonist offered sights of such beauty and terror that he is blinded to his own fate in a tale with more than a touch of irony about it. The familiar trope of a madman recounting some greater truth recurs in ‘The Clockwork King, the Queen of Glass, and the Man with a Hundred Knives’, done with a startling vibrancy and offering us a colourful and haunting vision of the reality that underlies our own.

The next two stories are co-written with Jason Van Hollander. Artist Jodie encounters ‘The Scroll of the Worm’ and has her understanding of reality and concept of self undermined in a macabre, hallucinogenic trip into the twilight zone, one filled with disturbing imagery and undercut by knowledge of the art world that adds verisimilitude to the narrative. ‘Those of the Air’ reads like an updating of ‘The Dunwich Horror’, with Jerry returning to the family home to aid in the final transformation of his horribly deformed brother Jeffrey. In a way it’s a sad story, one of brotherly love and how you can’t run away from your obligations, and in the final twist something akin to the ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan, though the authors are not indifferent to the horror of what is happening either, with blood sacrifice required as part of the ritual of change.

Finally, Schweitzer flies solo again for ‘Ghost Dancing’ in which the Elder Gods have returned and the world is in a perilous state, which is the background for Eric performing the good deed he failed to do when a young man. It’s a bittersweet tale, one that marks the nullity of human action, but at the same time hints at the possibility of personal redemption. It marks a fitting end to a strong collection, one in which the author plays with familiar tropes and ideas, most of the time ringing new changes and making them his own.

TO BE CONTINUED

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