“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, David J. West. 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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“Black Bargain”

This week’s subject of discussion over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Black Bargain”, Robert Bloch, 1942. 

This is an interesting story from a period when the modern weird tale with urban settings was starting to evolve. 

While this is a Cthulhu Mythos story by virtue of witchcraft and mention of Bloch’s own addition to the blasphemous tomes of the Mythos  – De Verimis Mysteriis, it starts out in a soda shop with the complaints of the narrator. He’s observant and catalogs all the annoying types of customers that come in and their routines and what they order. The job annoys him not only because of the customers, but because he is a trained pharmacist and the place sells drugs, but no one ever comes in and orders drugs. Bloch is known for his occasional humor, and the story has various sarcastic comments from the narrator.

One night a milquetoast of a man comes in at closing time. He looks like a bum, and the narrator is initially not going to take his request. When the man requests actonite, the narrator is reluctant thinking the man is suicidal. Not for the last time, the man says he knows what the narrator is thinking. He’s just a chemist looking to get supplies for an experiment.

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City of Sorcerers

Review: City of Sorcerers, David Hambling, 2022. 

Back in about 1000 BC, Cthulhu snatched a bunch of women from various points in the future, human wombs to be used by the Spawn. Those are octopoid beings liked to Cthulhu and serving his ends or, perhaps, merely another form of that mysterious being. But those women escaped the Spawn, built a Wintertown, and defeated the Spawn with an alliance of nomads, townsmen from Stone, and the fearsome Sorcerers in the Last Battle.

This is the middle of a trilogy, the Age of Monsters. The typical problem with coming cold to the middle book of a series is that it’s hard to get oriented and, when the work is done and the book is finished, the story doesn’t often seem complete.

Hambling evades this by having his presenter, one William Blake (a character to be found not only in the trilogy but The Dulwich Horror and Otherstoo) summarizes the previous volume, War of the God Queen, in his introductionand gives a cast of characters. At the end of this novel, all the main conflicts are wrapped up (ok, not all of them) in ways which nicely violate expectations.

Whereas Blake got his narrative for War of the God Queen from cuneiform tablets with English text left in a cave and discovered by would-be treasure hunters, this story comes from the evidence of “fringe archaeology” and automatic writing via a medium. That allows Hambling to go from the first person narration of Jessica Morton in the first book to the wider vista of multiple characters.

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Searchers after Horror

It’s not often that I personally get sold a book, but that’s what happened with this one. I was in Dreamhaven Books contemplating whether I should buy this shrink wrapped title or not because it had a Brian Stableford story in it. Dwayne H. Olson, shareholder in its publisher Fedogan & Bremer (and supplier of the Hannes Bok story in the anthology) talked me into it.

Low Res Scan: Searchers after Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

After finishing this book, I contemplated writing an essay on just the bad stories in it. But, after actually making notes on the stories, I realized there actually weren’t that many bad ones. But I’ll be getting to them later and the matter of unsatisfying endings in weird fiction.

I’ve already reviewed “Et in Arcadia Ego” by Brian Stableford and “Exit Through the Gift Shop” from Nick Mamatas. I don’t think my original interpretation of the latter is correct, but it’s not a story I’m spending more time on.

First story in the book is Melanie Tem’s “Iced In”. I’ve known, professionally and personally, women like the one in this story. Poor, a hoarder, chronically and dangerously indecisive, she finds herself trapped in her house after an ice storm. Told with empathy and memorable, it’s well done.

In the town I’ve recently moved to, a frequent question is “Do you ice fish?”, so I have a fondness for Donald Tyson’s “Ice Fishing”. In it, two Camp Breton Island ice fishermen, Gump and Mickey D, going out fishing one night. There is idle talk about the disappearance of an acquaintance a couple of weeks back and puzzlement why the local Indians aren’t fishing as usual. Tyson continues to impress me with his versatility, and this one has some humor too.

While it’s not a Cassie Barrett story, I was pleased to Ann K. Schwader’s “Dark Equinox”. It’s another tale of archaeological horror, here once removed because we’re dealing with strange photomontages of archaeological artifacts. Why did the photographer lock herself up in her studio one night and torch everything? And, more importantly, why do the photos seem to change over time?

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“Et in Arcadia Ego”

Review: “Et in Arcadia Ego”, Brian Stableford, 2014.

Cover by Richard Corben

The tone of this intellectual horror story is elegiac because it is about the passing of Arcadia and all it symbolizes and the beginning of the modern age. The combination of Lovecraftian elements and Ancient Greece is something, I believe, Lovecraft himself would have appreciated.

At the start we are told the Great God Pan is dead and history is in gestation meaning the documents that will produce history are in gestation but haven’t been collected yet. The chronology we call history has “not yet settled into a mathematical pattern”. 

Our protagonist is a poet who has come across a dryad’s body. He has seen the shadowy forms of dryad before but never one in broad daylight. Her body is pierced with an iron spike which he tries to pull out of her. The spirit folk are being hunted down and exterminated as “incompatible with the quest of civilization” and agriculture. It’s a shameful matter and killing the spirit folk is not talked about. The poet himself is ambivalent in his loyalty to civilization.

While trying to pull the spike out of the dryad, the poet is attacked by a faun and almost strangled to death except that one of the oldest of the fauns, a satyr, pulls the younger faun away. These mythical creatures speak Pelasgoi, a dying language spoken only by people like the poet’s household servant as Greek civilization spreads into Arcadia. The creatures are surprised the poet speaks it well.

The satyr says the dryad won’t live, but she’ll have a better death if they can get her to a cave.

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