Review: Witch-Cult Abbey, Mark Samuels, 2021.
In one sense, this is Samuels in Gothic mode.
Rather than some young woman being lured to a sinister house or castle, our protagonist Saul Prior is offered a job at Thool Abbey. It’s 1940 in England, the middle of the Blitz, and he doesn’t have a lot of options. He lost his job when his bookstore employer closed. A bum leg means he’s not fit for military service.
Given the “bony myrmidon” servant who attends to him, the refusal of his putative employer Lady Degabaston to meet him, and his reluctance to go along with the pretext of such a meeting happening the next day, he decides he’s not staying over night and sets out on foot for the nearest railroad station.
But he doesn’t make it and soon finds himself back in the Abbey drugged, feasted on by bloodsucking worms, and chained to the floor of the Abbey’s library. His job will be to compile a bibliography of the Abbey’s extensive holding of occult books. Some of those tomes manifest occult activity apart from their mere words. Outside the Abbey, eternal darkness reigns.
What is to happen to him and can peace and rescue be found in the pages of some of those books?
About half way through the book, a defrocked priest shows up at the Abbey and we get the high point of the book: the back story behind one of Samuels’ most celebrated tales. That back story will reverberate through the rest of this novel.
With this book, it is becoming clear that Samuels’ is composing a mythos of his own. It is not a mythos based on a place as H. P. Lovecraft’s was centered around Arkham. It is centered around books. The number of occult works referenced in this novel probably exceeds the total mentioned by all writers of the Cthulhu Mythos. I will be reticent about specifics, but regular readers of Samuels will realize he is hinting at and sketching in a vast, horrifying mystery which reveals itself in the lives and literary productions of occult authors. Among other things, we learn books may create their authors.
In another sense, this is a more diffuse version, with its lengthy descriptions and longer length, of Samuels’ “An Interminable Abomination”, also from 2021. Yet, both stories offer another reality glimpsed only through literary works. Their endings are even, in a way, similar despite the dissimilarities of plot and setting.
The delights are many for Samuels’ fans, and those new to his work will be swept along with an increasingly surreal story in which basic expectations of reality are violated. Still, while Samuels puts the length of a novel to good use, I think his shorter work is stronger, and I’d advise those interested in Samuels to start with it rather than this novel. Given how many Samuels’ stories this novel links to, you could probably tap into the Samuels’ mythos with nearly any of his shorter titles you choose.