“The Oram County Whoosit”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at The Weird Tradition group on LibraryThing.

Review: “The Oram County Whoosit”, Steve Duffy, 2008.

Cover by Obrotowy

I liked this story. Not only does Duffy provide two well done narrative voices but some evocative historical details and also a bit of a rumination on the myth of the American West.

The story starts out on a rainy day in Oram, West Virginia, a coal mining town.

The narrator is Fenwick, a newspaper photographer, waiting for the arrival – along with the town’s dignitaries — for Horton Keith, a famous writer who will become even more famous in the intervening years between 1924, when this story takes place, and the 1980s when Fenwick is telling it. 

Keith has come to town to investigate a report of a something found in a lump of coal from the mine. After meeting Fenwick and finding him suitable company, the ambitious Keith points out the local miners trudging off to work and then briefly mentions his days as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco and, on the quest for adventure, how he joined the Klondike gold rush. He juxtaposes the joy the prospectors approached their work, even though neither he nor many others found significant amounts of gold, with the attitude of men who will see pay, however small, for their work. The prospectors were dreamers like him, and they sensed, with the closing of the American West, this was their last chance for adventure. 

Discussion then returns to the reports of the “toad in a hole” as Fenwick calls it. He’s skeptical of such reports and attributes them to either fraud of the Fiji Mermaid variety or newspapers desperate for stories. 

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Eldritch Prisoners

Well, Twitter has its uses. It was the first place I heard about this book which just missed showing up for my birthday. Given that it has a David Hambling story, I bought it immediately.

Normally, a story by him would get its own post, but this is a Cthulhu Mythos anthology from Crossroad Press, and they’ve become increasingly elaborate affairs whose independent stories – often parts of authors’ series – also form part of complicated suites and mosaics. Like Time Loopers, this one doesn’t even have a listed editor which leads me to believe it was entirely executed by its authors. In fact, I suspect it was conceived around the same time.

Review: Eldritch Prisoners, 2023.

Cover by Leigh Whurr

One character in this book says, “Questions are a burden, answers are a prison”.

After finishing it, making notes, skimming parts of it again, I still feel somewhat burdened and not totally imprisoned.

Whether it’s my deficiencies as a reader or because it’s a deliberately and resolutely mysterious work, I’m not sure I completely understood what happened.

However, I can unreservedly recommend three of its four stories.

Having always meant to return to David Conyers’ Harrison Peel series after reading “The Eye of Infinity”, I was pleased to see Peel show up in Conyers’ “Broken Singularity”. It’s the oddity here, broken up into four parts, starting and ending the book and in between the stories, and often casting some dim light on their events.

Peel awakens naked from a pod to join three other people. There’s a drill-instructor like voice yelling them to get into their spacesuits and get working or the oxygen privileges will end. The work is to explore an airless planetoid and bring back information. None of the four can remember how they got there. Peel may be the primitive one here since the rest are posthumans, but his military training kicks in, and he takes command while the rest dawdle. Not that the party lasts long after seeing the oddity of a Humvee on the surface. Approaching it, it morphs, launches weapons, and reduces two of the party to cubes of their constituent chemical components.

Debriefed on the mission, he meets a woman who seems familiar. Well, part of her: a disembodied head and arm. She hints that maybe he should check out the connections on the pod he emerged from.

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“The Eye of Infinity”

Since it’s relevant to an upcoming review, here’s a retro review of mine that originally appeared on the Innsmouth Free Press website on December 1, 2011. Conyers has been busying putting out collections of his Harrison Peel stories on Kindle, so this one is, or soon will be, easily available.

By Randy Stafford

Conyers, David. The Eye of Infinity. Perilous Press (2011). 84 pp. USD $12.00. ISBN 978-0-9704000-4-8.

As Cody Goodfellow suggests in his introduction to this novella, the modern writer of Lovecraftian horror isn’t content to populate his stories with wimpy students of folklore and mathematics, hapless college professors and genealogists. The new version of the Lovecraftian hero is as comfortable wielding a Glock as reading a grimoire. Some versions are even government employees and battling cosmic horrors is in their position descriptions. They don’t wade through erudite analyses of occult tomes and abstruse dimension-rupturing mathematics. They’ve got people and supercomputers for that. Thus, we have the Lovecraftian espionage tale as most famously practiced in Charles Stross’ Laundry series. Goodfellow doesn’t see this as some sort of post-modern genre mashup but merely continuing the Weird Tales tradition of “blending genres to wring unique new surprises out of familiar pulp tropes”.

I have to admit, though, I haven’t read enough of any author’s “tradecraft meets Lovecraft” stories (to borrow Tim Powers’ description of his novel Declare) to fairly compare them with Conyers’ work in that area. I haven’t even read the prequel to this story, The Spiraling Worm co-authored by John Sunseri with Conyers.

That book introduced Harrison Peel, an Australian soldier on loan to America’s National Security Agency. In that book, Peel traveled the universe via an alien wormhole system; encountered shoggoths; partnered up with fellow spy Jack Dixon, an ex-Illinois cop; and fell in love with Nicola Mulvany during some nasty events in Nevada.

This story starts with the hideous looking corpse of a radio astronomer in New Mexico, a dead man who now has too many eyes and too many mouths. Dixon and Peel quickly discover a trail that leads to a secret U.S. government project, INFINITE EYE. It uses the wormhole network of the Pentapods, aliens that built a city in the Antarctic millions of years ago, Conyers’ obvious updating of Lovecraft’s Old Ones from At the Mountains of Madness. With a six trillion dollar budget, it’s obviously something important, so Peel goes on a jaunt, guided by an ex-mountaineer and NASA employee, across several worlds and light years to see what lies at the end of this covert network.

Conyers’ story works as a spy thriller – with Peel and even his NSA superiors locked out of the secrets of INFINITE EYE and somebody suborning or murdering members of the project – and as Lovecraftian horror justified by quantum physics and sudden, violent assaults on Peel and others. Indeed, it becomes clear INFINITE EYE may threaten humanity.

Peel isn’t a supersoldier physically or emotionally, and I liked that. He’s beginning to feel the erosion of his psyche from all the horrors he’s seen, and Nicola has given him an ultimatum: either quit after his next mission, marry her and start a family or let her join him and use her training as an ex-counter intelligence agent with the FBI.

There were some problems, though. Yes, Agent Peel, modern ammunition will, in fact, fire in a vacuum. The gunpowder has its own oxidizers. That technical error took me out of the story and wasn’t even justified as being crucial to Conyers’ plot. The dialogue between Peel and Nicola was sometimes flat and sounded like bald character exposition mixed with some training script for police crisis counselors. Conyers’ avoids falling into some logic potholes only by sheer speed of narration.

Still, though, I liked the story enough that I’m going to pick up The Spiraling Worm and will follow Peel’s future adventures.

And, lest you think $12 is a mite steep for a novella, this one comes with some nice black and white drawings by Nickolas Gucker. His work nicely illustrates dramatic points of the story – whether they’re alien landscapes or sudden and gruesome deaths.

1816: The Year Without Summer

This is one of the rare books I got through a Kickstarter offering.

Review: 1816: The Year Without Summer, ed. Dickon Springate, 2019.

Cover by Mihail Bila

No, it’s not a non-fiction book about the climatic, political, social, and economic effects of Mount Tambora exploding in 1815. It’s something more unique. While there have certainly been other historically themed Lovecraftian horror anthologies, none have been this tightly focused. There’s one story set in each month of 1816. (The cover is incorrect. There are actually 13 stories here.)

There are a few things to note. First, not all of these stories are Cthulhu Mythos stories. Second, not every story strikes me as even Lovecraftian. Third, while there aren’t any bad stories here, the anthology does get off to a slow start.

David Southwell’s “Foreword” tells us how the book came to be and seems to see this as a collection of alternate histories about the hidden role of Lovecraftian entities in altering history’s trajectory.. I’d argue they are more secret histories.

Editor Springate’s “Prologue” sets up the book’s conceit that the events leading to Tambora’s eruption actually started about a 1,000 years ago in Newfoundland.,

And Newfoundland is where G. Groff’s “The Sepulchred Conflagration” takes us. In the wake of a Viking raid on the local skraelings, we meet a shaman who failed to stop their desecration of a local shrine to Katkannalu (seemingly the local name for Cthulhu). We then shift over to Tambora and then St. Johns, Newfoundland and get an explanation for that town’s long history of devastating fires. While the opening was certainly unusual for a Mythos story, the story struck me as a bit awkward because of its bridging the story’s opening premise and the year 1816.

The anthology settles into to its rhythm with C. K. Meeder’s “Documentation of Varied Scientific Endeavours”, and chemist Sir Humphrey Davy is the first of many historical figures we’ll come across in the book. It’s January 1816, and his journal relates how he visited a coal mine in the north of England to test out his new safety lamp. But he’ll find something weird and disturbing there.

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“The Basilisk”

This fine story is not set in Hambling’s Stubbsverse.

Review: “The Basilisk”, David Hambling, 2020. 

Cover by John Coulthart

We start with Lovecraft being examined by a doctor who looks to be about 80 years old. He talks in a clipped New England accent though the third man in the office, inquiring about Lovecraft’s health, speaks with an English accent. Lovecraft’s eyes are checked and his scalp wounds mended. The Englishman asks if Lovecraft has a concussion. Possibly, the doctor says, and he may have trouble with his memory for the next couple of hours.

The Englishman introduces himself as Jonathan Fortescue-Smith and says he’s glad Lovecraft is not badly hurt. He radiates ‘friendship and good-humour” and tells Lovecraft he was hit by a car on his evening walk maybe because he was “paying more attention to the fine architecture than the street traffic”. Fortescue-Smith saw the accident and took Lovecraft into his house and called a doctor. 

Lovecraft gives his name and is very pleased Fortescue-Smith knows it and his work. Fortescue-Smith is a scientist invited to Providence by Professor Wayland, an astronomer whose work Lovecraft knows. Fortescue-Smith suggests Lovecraft stay in the house a bit to recuperate. There are even snacks. While Lovecraft’s head hurts a bit, he can’t see any bruises showing where a car hit him. 

Lovecraft is grateful for the food and some coffee. The cutlery and dishes seem antique but used daily, and he looks around the well-appointed room. He notes there’s no sherry decanter and no ashtrays but that’s fine with Lovecraft. “Living through lean times”, Lovecraft considers it a “happy accident” that put him there, and he helps himself to some chocolate chip cookies.

On the third one, he notices something peculiar. While the cookies look and taste like they’re homemade, the chocolate chips are identically placed in each cookie. Lovecraft does what any reader does in somebody else’s home: he looks at the bookcase in the room.

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“Death in All Its Ripeness”

I picked up this anthology because it has two of my favorite authors in it.

One is, of course, Mark Samuels, which means this story gets its own post. David Hambling’s story will get its own post too. The rest of the anthology will be covered later.

Review: “Death in All Its Ripeness”, Mark Samuels, 2020.

Cover by John Coulthart

Death is, indeed, ripe in this story.

It’s the autumn of 1936, the last autumn of Lovecraft’s life.

Lovecraft is revising Mrs. Renshaw’s Well-Bred Speech in the late hours. It isn’t just the infelicities of Renshaw’s style that is tiring Lovecraft. It’s his strained eyes and, above all else, his poverty, a specter he tries to keep from distracting him.

A few days later a respite seems possible when a package arrives in the mail from one Ezekiel Nantwich. Inside is $200 and some fanmail. Well, not really, not after Lovecraft reads the letter.

While he’s flattered by the attention, he is not amused by Ezekiel’s claim that, with Lovecraft’s help, he can write a “true occult book”. At least Ezekiel knows the Necronomicon isn’t a real book. Lovecraft, ponders telling Nantwich he should turn his aesthetic attention to weird fiction rather than writing occult works. Being an honest gentleman, he sends the money back to Ezekiel since Lovecraft won’t commit to the project. 

The next scene is with Ezekiel, and we quickly learn he’s an unpleasant man. He lives on a farm where he beats his bedridden father, steals money from his father’s mattress, and drinks a lot.

Ezekiel goes to the country store of Joshua Corwin. After Ezekiel picks up his letter from Lovecraft and an issue of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, Corwin, who doesn’t think much of Ezekiel or his reading choices, asks if Ezekiel has a penpal. Ezekiel tells him to “stick to your Bible fairy tales”. 

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Helldorado and Other Tales of the Weird West

It’s the final – for now – book of the Dark Trails Saga.

Low Res Scan: Helldorado and Other Tales of the Weird West, David J. West, 2021.

Cover by Anna Stansfield

Helldorado” is a sequel to the first three novels of the Dark Trails Saga. Porter Rockwell is reunited with Roxy Lejune, Brigham Young’s headstrong, runaway daughter and her man, Quincy Cthubert Jackson as they travel to California after the events of You Only Hang Once. It’s something of a short novel taking up almost a third of the collection, and has lots of gunplay and death. Rockwell is summoned by a friend to get  involved in a classic western conflict – a landwar. His friend, Havenbrook, has actually found one of those lost Spanish gold mines that this series is so full of. The trouble is another man, Carswell, wants it to. And Mormon piety and comradeship isn’t going to stop Carswell from hiring lots of gunfighters to get his way. This one mostly plays out like a regular western with the introduction of a supernatural element fairly late. And the shadow of the Mountain Meadows Massacre on Rockwell’s reputation is also a factor

West puts introductory notes at the beginning of the stories, and the one for “Bad Medicine” explains it serves as an epilogue for the Rockwell novel Let Sleeping Gods Lie. Since it was written for an anthology of straight westerns, the weird elements of that novel are very obliquely allued to. The story is based on a real historical event: a shooting competition between Rockwell (aka James Brown) in this California mining camp and a man named Stewart. At stake is a $1,000.

Sundowners” has Rockwell far afield from his usual range. He’s in Mexico to deliver a package, but – against warnings – he stops for the night at a town whose inhabitants lock themselves in every evening. Not that that protects them from rampaging insanity. Rockwell decides the problem just may be a sacred relic in the town’s mission

The Tears of Nephi” is a steampunk Porter Rockwell story, but I don’t think it quite works plotwise. It’s not the steampunk elements at fault – West does a good job with Rockwell and steampunk in his #Savant series. It’s the motives behind the kidnapping of a blind girl who Rockwell, at the request of Brigham Young, wants rescued.

Under the Gun” put me a bit in mind of Dan Simmons’ Black Hills. Both stories are weird westerns staring on the Custer Battlefield. Here a young Indian boy, Moon-Wolf, picks up a possessed revolver that speaks to him and wants to be called George. It also demands a lot of people being shot while conceding the boy will only have the gun until a greater warrior picks it up. Soon Moon-Wolf is renamed Man-Killer-Wolf by his tribe, and his uncle and Rockwell are determined to put a stop to the trail of bodies the boy and gun leave behind.

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Cold Slither and Other Horrors of the Weird West

Review: Cold Slither and Other Horrors of the Weird West, ed. David J. West, 2016. 

Cover by Anna Stansfield

You could call this, the fourth book in West’s Dark Trails Saga, the Porter Rockwell bestiary. West even provides an illustration, usually a petroglyph, for each story. And some of those beasts (jackelopes! Tumbleweeds!) are pretty audacious choices by West.

Cold Slither” is a long and very Robert E. Howard-type story. There’s a maiden to be sacrificed, a giant snake god, and lots of action. Porter Rockwell encounters a Ute shaman who is holding a ritual and keeping a sacred fire burning to keep the Blood Gods asleep. Rockwell isn’t keen on the shaman’s suggestion that he take over the duties. And other Indians want the Blood Gods back. The gods may have demanded human sacrifice, but they kept the white man at bay too. Naturally, Rockwell gets caught up in the battle to keep the snake god Coatlicue locked up. As he notes, “Sometimes the best you do in these situations is just survive.”

Rockwell battles the quintessential American monster, the thunderbird, in “Black Wings in the Moonlight”. He’s called in to take care of the critter which has already killed and eaten several people on the banks of the Mississippi. It’s another well-done action tale.

Soma for the Destroying Angels Soul” has zombies, escaped slaves, a patent medicine salesman, and a Haitian witch doctor. Rockwell comes across a town where people have been infected by some kind of fungus. He puts paid to the troublemaker in quite an unusual way.

Rolling in the Deep” takes place after a real incident in Rockwell’s life when he cut his hair – the source of his invulnerability to blade and bullet – to provide a wig for a widow who lost hers after a fever. Rockwell finds himself shanghaied and aboard the Dagon. And, yes, Captain Quinn does seem to have an affinity for a Lovecraftian creature.

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Arkham After Dark

Cover by Marko Serafimovic

Review: Arkham After Dark, Byron Craft, 2022.

If you like a tough-talking private eye as narrator (though his secretary is ugly, his wife beautiful, and a cobbled together family waits at home for him every night), encountering the dark mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos, then the Arkham Detective series is for you. (No, he has no other name except when he shows up in R’lyeh: The Lost Realm, the last volume of Craft’s R’lyeh series.)

This installment takes place right after the last one, Who Stole the Necronomicon?. It’s December 1934. Prohibition has ended, but the nation is still poor, including Arkham with some local, one-time bootleggers fallen on hard times. 

The Detective is hired by series regular Otto Meldinger, curator of the Arkham Museum of Antiquities, to find the brother of his girlfriend, Astrid Norse. The brother is Vernon Bellows, a professor employed by that same museum. 

Not so coincidentally, the museum is peparing an exhibit about the recent Lake Expedition to the Antarctic.

The Detective’s investigation will take him down the mean streets of Arkham, into pawn shops, and bookie hangouts, and even into the sewers.

Several characters from earlier in the series show up, and there are even some illustrations including one by Clark Ashton Smith – whose work is displayed at the museum.

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”

This week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”, Charles R. Saunders, 1982, 2010.

Cover by Obrotowy

This is an interesting story that uses the Cthulhu Mythos incidentally.

The story opens in October with the arrival one night of one Theotis Nedeau at the house of Jeremiah Henley. Theotis is a man of imposing physique and some means since he drives a new car, a 1933 Auburn. The location is near Chatham, Ontario.

The two men are black and old friends from their days at Howard University. Theotis has come at Jeremiah’s request.

When asked if he had had any trouble, Theotis says he was “delayed” near at a gas station nearby. Jeremiah thinks back to their college days when they were stopped by white policeman, and Theotis “flattened” them with one blow, and they escaped. Only a large donation from Theotis dad to Howard stopped a “major racial incident”.

Theotis asks after Jeremiah’s wife and sons. Their spending the night elsewhere is the reply.

Theotis hasn’t seen his friend in ten years, but he sees he’s worried.

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