Nightmares In a Red Brain’s Realm

S.T. Joshi has become one of the more prominent editors in the realm of horror fiction and related genres, but this work has tended to come in two distinct categories. The first consists of his efforts spent in producing textually amended and accurate editions of work by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Robert Chambers; the Joshi-corrected texts of Lovecraft’s stories are considered definitive these days. Here he has made an effort to provide the authentic texts of the stories in question whilst not viewing his subject matter with rose tinted glasses, making an effort to each of the pieces collect into the context of a writer’s wider career. His Chambers collection for Chaosium, for instance, makes a game effort to present the best of Chambers’ post-King In Yellow supernatural fiction, whilst quite candidly admitting that Chambers was kind of phoning it in for most of his career.

The other tranche of his work is as an anthologist, editing collections of stories by multiple-different authors – either great stories selected from yesteryear or soliciting new stories. Up until the 2010 publication of the first Black Wings anthology, this had only been a very occasional sideline of his, and he had only produced three such collections; after Black Wings, he has been more prolific in this vein, producing numerous collections both in the Black Wings series and outside of it.

Soliciting and accepting stories for a multi-author collection is, to my mind, a very different proposition from producing a collection of work by a single author. In the latter case, including stories of inferior quality can be sometimes be justified. It should still be avoided if one is billing the collection as “the best of” the author in question; a “best of Bram Stoker” collection which included the confused mess which is Lair of the White Worm should be rejected out of hand, for instance.

On the other hand, if the collection is intended to bring to light lesser-known stories by the author in question, or is meant to be a complete edition of the writer’s fiction (as with Joshi’s Machen collections for Hippocampus Press), or is meant to provide an overview of the author’s career spanning their entire professional period, even those times when their work wasn’t up to their usual standard (as with Joshi’s Chambers collection for Chaosium, or his multi-volume Machen collection for them), then including a few mediocre or outright bad stories is wholly understandable. If you bill a collection as The Complete Short Stories of H.P. Lovecraft and don’t include The Street, that’s false advertising, even though The Street is a horrible story. Likewise, if you’ve been tasked with producing a collection which, say, picks one story from a prolific writer’s output from each year of their career, and they happened to spend one year in the middle of it churning out trash, you’re going to have to hold your nose and pick out the least bad story.

The same considerations do not apply to multi-author anthologies; there is, frankly, little reason to include a story in such a collection if it is outright bad or not really in the spirit of the collection you’re putting out. In many respects quality is a matter of taste, so a good anthologist whose tastes broadly align with yours should be able to select a crop of stories which you as a reader will personally enjoy fairly consistently – if, however, your own reading sensibilities are not really compatible with what a lot of stories in the anthology are trying to do, that can be a sign that your tastes and the anthologist’s are diverging.

At the same time, it is possible for an anthologist to do an outright bad job here. Some of my bugbears I’ve mentioned on here in the past include goofs like:

  • Throwing in a clearly inferior story simply because it happens to be historically interesting, even though the anthology is meant to be a “best of this genre” sort of affair; if a story is not actually enjoyable it has no place in an anthology which doesn’t have a historical intention behind it.
  • Including a story by your favourite authors, even if it isn’t up to their usual standards. Especially infuriating when the author in question is a well-established writer: that spot could have gone to someone starting out on their career (or another story from the same writer that’s up to their usual standards).
  • Bringing in a story which clearly doesn’t fit the overall concept of the anthology, like billing a collection as being serious cosmic horror and then subjecting the reader to comedy nonsense.

Alas, it feels like in the glut of anthologies he has edited since the Black Wings first flapped, a few of these anthologies end up falling into these pitfalls. Whilst I do still like many of the Joshi-edited multi-author anthologies I’ve covered so far – I thought the hit/miss ratio on Black Wings was holding up pretty well until the fourth one – but these two didn’t work for me.

The Red Brain

This is very much marketed as a followup to A Mountain Walked, an anthology which followed the model of the seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos in the sense of collecting a mixture of brand-new stories and reprinted gems. However, it is substantially shorter than that volume – much less than half as long, in fact – which may give rise to suspicions that the well might be running a little dry.

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Abysses, Wine, Flowers, and Smith

Before Clark Ashton Smith was known for the much-celebrated fantasy, SF, and horror fiction I’ve previously covered, and carved out for himself a place in the Weird Tales pantheon, he was primarily known as a poet. In fact, he came into contact with H.P. Lovecraft as a result of Lovecraft sending him a fan letter in appreciation of Smith’s epic poem The Hashish-Eater. Without Smith the poet, we do not get Smith the weird fiction pioneer.

Smith’s poetry was published in a number of collections with very limited print runs in his lifetime, but since then his poetry has ended up rather neglected. Arkham House put out his Selected Poems in 1971 – some 10 years after his death, and 22 after he’d actually delivered the text to them in 1949. Almost all publications since then have either focused on his fiction or drawn together a few miscellaneous essays and notes and the like.

In 2012 Hippocampus Press finally addressed this by putting out Smith’s Complete Poetry and Translations, a three-volume set containing more or less all of his extant verse works. I am much less of a poetry reader than I am of prose, so I am not going to do a super-detailed review here, but I will give an overview of the set, what’s in each volume, and what’s missing as an aid to anyone considering dipping into this side of Smith’s work.

Volume 1: The Abyss Triumphant

This spans Smith’s poetic output up to 1926, and so constitutes much of the material written when poetry was his primary creative outlet, before he shifted gear to writing fantasy stories as a career. His juvenilia is included as an appendix; Joshi and Schultz set the break-off point for this at 1909, so the compilation begins with material from 1910 onwards.

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The Name of the Rose, With More Dakka (Second Generation Photocopy)

The Angels Resplendent are a Space Marine Chapter descended from the Blood Angels. Like all of the Successor Chapters who can trace their lineage back to the Primarch Sanguinius, their history has been stained by the curse of the Black Rage, an overwhelming fury in which the dying memories of Sanguinius can overcome a Space Marine who bears his geneseed and cause them to fall into a slathering fury. However, for some six hundred or so years the Resplendent have been able to protect themselves from this through following the tenets of the Arc Resplendent, a new philosophy which has guided the Chapter ever since its Reformation.

Among other things, the Arc Resplendent puts artistic endeavour at the heart of the Chapter as firmly as warfare; between battles, the Marines of the Chapter busy themselves creating masterpieces, and they are attended by Muses, human artists selected as companions for their inspirational creative gifts. Eccentric and heterodox by the standards of Space Marine Chapters – though hardly the only one to have ditched the Codex Astartes as their core doctrine – they rule their homeworld of Malpertuis from a distance, cloistered in their citadel of Kanvolis with their Muses and other human servants.

Yet all is not quite right; an unspoken horror sits right at their doorstep. It has been the longstanding tradition since the Reformation that before Aspirants are accepted for elevation from mere human into surgically transformed Space Marine, they must undertake a journey across the Reverie – a strange forested valley a little way south of Kanvolis, whose paths may not only extend through conventional space. Few Marines of the Chapter remember very much of their experiences there, since the Chapter makes a point of erasing the memories of recruits so that they recall almost nothing of their human life – but the lingering effects lie heavy on some.

At the heart of the Reverie is the legacy of a great atrocity – and a greater atrocity done during the Reformation, as part of a misguided attempt to help the Angels Resplendent command themselves. Soon the truth will become known to Varzival Czervantes, a high-ranking Marine of the Chapter, when the mysterious Paladin Satori involves him in manipulations that have lasted centuries. Can Varzival help keep the lid of this Pandora’s Box shut for just a little longer, or is the whole world of Malpertuis doomed to unravel, torn apart by the hole that lives at the heart of… The Reverie?

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A Maze of Dick

In my previous article on this very-close-to-completion series on the work of Philip K. Dick, I covered his work from 1965-1966 – a span of time when his friendship with Bishop Pike and his new relationship with Nancy Hackett (who he would marry in the summer of 1966), along with creative successes like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik, might have been expected to find things on an uptick for him.

However, as the late 1960s saw the hippie movement embrace psychedelia and the use of drugs to interrogate reality, Dick found himself an elder statesman to the same psychonauts who were avidly paying attention to the likes of Timothy Leary. The combination of an appreciative audience and a culture where taking unreasonable amounts of drugs was considered to be a cool way of sticking it to the man, rather than an irresponsible way of sticking it to your biochemistry led to a number of drastic decisions over the ensuing years, and with both Nancy and Bishop Pike exiting his life by the early 1970s, Dick would become unmoored again and enter what can arguably called his “crisis years”.

With this article, I am going to cover the final novels and stories Dick wrote before his transformative 2-3-74 experience. This does not include A Scanner Darkly, which is properly placed among the novels written after 2-3-74; although begun in 1972, Dick would make extensive revisions to it until it was finally in a state he was satisfied with in 1976, and among those revisions were a number of additions and tweaks which worked in themes and imagery related to 2-3-74.

The Exegesis makes this explicit: Dick breaks down particular, identifiable scenes from A Scanner Darkly and directly says that he included them as a result of the experience, rather than those scenes informing the experience, and included them in a manner which was conscious and deliberate, as opposed to the inadvertent subconscious inclusion of such themes in pre-2-3-74 fiction which he occasionally believed had happened. (Those of us with more conventional understandings of cause and effect may instead conclude that the 2-3-74 experience, being a neurological incident produced by Dick’s mind, naturally ended up reflecting the themes and concepts that Dick had been thinking extensively about over his lifetime.)

1967: Philip K. Dick Is Alive and Living In California

It’s become apparent to me as I work my way through this project that calling the span of years I’m going to cover in this article Dick’s “crisis years” is, though in some respects apt, is in other respects a bit of a misnomer. The fact is that chaotic incidents happened throughout Dick’s life, and they had been coming with increased frequency as time went by.

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GOGathon: Broken Swords From a Faulty Forge

When it came to point-and-click adventures, one specialist publisher of note is the UK’s Revolution Software. With the likes of Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution carved out a reputation with games which, in retrospect, aren’t necessarily that hot when it came to the gameplay and writing, but did look remarkably nice for the time and did try to do some interesting new things with the form, even if those things didn’t always pan out well.

Such are the qualities which would eventually feed into the Broken Sword series of games. Set in the modern day, these combined globetrotting plotlines, charmingly realised locations, historical conspiracies, and an endearing cast to attain perhaps the most critical and commercial success of any of Revolution’s products, with five games so far being released in the series. However, are the games actually all that great, or do they hover at that good-to-mediocre level which can yield sufficient sales to keep the lights on but doesn’t result in a product which it’s especially fun to revisit after the hype is done?

Shadow of the Templars

The premise of the first game is simple enough: American tourist George Stobbart is enjoying a holiday in Paris when the café he’s sat outside is shattered by a bombing committed by an assassin disguised as a clown. Slain in the bombing is a certain Monsieur Plantard, a highly-placed civil servant in the Treasury, who had invited intrepid journalist Nico Collard to the café in order to discuss a highly sensitive story with her. When Stobbart and Nico compare notes, the duo realise they’ve stumbled onto something big, and neither of them feel able to set the investigation aside until they’ve got to the bottom of it all. And the mystery seems to have something to do with the secret treasure of the Knights Templar…

1996’s Shadow of the Templars is the shortest of the Broken Sword games, and in its original version you only ever played George. However, an enhanced Director’s Cut version of the game – first released on Nintendo DS and Wii in 2009 before being ported to other platforms, including the PC – expands the game somewhat by adding a number of sections where you play Nico, providing both a new prologue section as you play through Nico’s initial entanglement in the case which sets up the fatal rendezvous with Plantard, and then a few additional episodes as Nico’s personal investigation progresses.

These new additions rather dry up partway through the game, though they do lay the groundwork for a new end-of-game cut scene; this is inevitable because Nico’s investigation reaches a point where the writers couldn’t really do much more with it without significantly redesigning George’s segments of the game, and I suspect they simply didn’t have the budget for it that. Still, on balance I do quite like these new additions; as well as fleshing out the story a bit more, it also boosts Nico’s role in the story appreciably, since in the original version of the plot she didn’t do all that much, and it means Shadow of the Templars is no longer the odd-game-out in the series – for in all the others you play both George and Nico at various points in the game.

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Folk Horror Harvest: Hellebore On Malefice and Scarfolk’s Map

The nights are drawing in, and whilst Halloween is over it still feels a bit like folk horror season. A good time, then, to take a look at the third issue of Hellebore, the rather good folk horror magazine which I’ve previously reviewed the first and second issues of.

The issue leads off with Lucifer Over Lancashire, a consideration by Catherine Spooner of the Pendle Witches case and its cultural impact. This is a terse introduction to the subject matter which is bigger on the cultural impact aspects than the facts of the case, and plays into the editorial by editor Maria J. Pérez Cuervo about how witches and witchcraft can be icons of resistance – the idea of women with spiritual powers that can have effective, status quo-upsetting powers in everyday life, rather than their spirituality being essentially focused around deferred postmortem rewards, being subversive to the status quo even if those accused in the past were wholly innocent of the accusations against them. (Notably, the issue is dedicated to “the thousands who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed during witch-hunts”, rather than making the less supportable claim that any proportion of those people were actually witches in the sense that the authorities were accusing them of being.)

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Clarke Emerges From the Labyrinth

After her mammoth 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a monster hit, and her 2006 short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu received a positive but more muted reception, we have not had much from the pen of Susanna Clarke. This long quiet period has not solely been down to her own choice; she has made it known that she’s had struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome which have hampered her creative process. Now, however, the logjam might have cleared, yielding the short (under 250 pages) novel Piranesi. Which may well be not just the best thing she has ever written, but the best fantasy novel in quite some time.

In a vast House of many Vestibules and Halls, filled with various Statues and an ocean which sloshes around the Lower Rooms and sometimes arises in great Tides, our narrator exists and records his existence in a journal. This is the only world he knows – or believes he knows, since he sometimes uses (and does not – yet – recognise that he uses) idioms which could not possibly have arisen from here. Indeed, he’s aware of concepts like gardens and kings and popes and mothers and foxes and fauns and so on and so forth, despite the fact that no such things exist in here, largely because he is able to empathetically infer their existence from relevant Statues – so the statue of the Gardener implies gardens, he recognises the Faun as a faun and the Gorilla as a gorilla when he sees their statues, and so on and so forth.

Other ideas not existing in the House also appear here and there in his writing. He mentions that in his early Journals he used an odd dating system, based on weird names for the months like “January” or “November” for “first month” or “eleventh month” and a bizarre number like 2012. He has abandoned this and for the past six years or so has given years designations based on significant events that happen in them, which strikes him as more reasonable.

The narrator is almost entirely alone except for the Statues, the sea life in the oceans, and the birds who feed on the sea life. (This makes 2020 a particularly apt year for the book to come out.) He is not, however, totally alone. There is the Other, who calls our narrator “Piranesi” (though the narrator suspects this is not really his name) and comes and goes mysteriously. The Other believes that there is a magnificent secret knowledge to be discovered somewhere in the House, and since he is the narrator’s only friend in the world and the narrator recognises him as a fellow man of reason, the narrator goes along with it when the Other cajoles him into helping out.

However, in the process of helping, the narrator becomes convinced that the Other is wrong – that there is no big magical power to be uncovered in the House, that the House is not a means to an end, it is just itself. Once he starts questioning the Other, the narrator’s Journal entries start showing more cracks – some of which are evident to him, some of which will only be picked up by attentive readers. Why doesn’t the passage of time quite match for the narrator and the Other? Is there really a new person who has come into this area of the House, and what do they want? Who left these notes elsewhere in the House, and why are there entries in the Journals that the narrator does not remember writing? Is there really a Battersea, and if there is what happened there that the Other doesn’t want the narrator to remember?

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From Out of the Shadows, a Spotlight On Women

In reviewing various short story anthologies I’ve made a habit of using the Boy’s-Club-o-meter to measure what proportion of the stories included are written by men; the balance is invariably skewed towards men, often to an alarming extent. It kind of behooves me to make good on that and read some anthologies of specifically womens’ writing, so I’m going to start off with She Walks In Shadows from Innsmouth Free Press (also republished as Cthulhu’s Daughters), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles – the former of whom is the chief editor and main operator of Innsmouth Free Press.

The product of a successful crowdfunding campaign, She Walks In Shadows consists exclusively of stories written by women about women, with illustrations and art by women and edited by women for good measure. In this respect, it’s the sort of thing which the world of Cthulhu Mythos fiction badly needs. Ann K. Schwader leads us in with Ammutseba Rising, a poetic story and a call to the daughters of humanity to rise in the name of annihilatory chaos – just what’s wanted to set the scene. I am not keen on the whole Lovecraftian poetry thing, but this is mercifully short and less embarrassing than many examples.

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Darkness Reborn

After pioneering their distinctive hide-and-seek-oriented style of survival horror with the Penumbra games and Amnesia: the Dark Descent – the latter of which was their breakthrough hit – Frictional Games allowed The Chinese Room to expand their prospective Amnesia mod into a full-blown entry in the series, the divisive A Machine For Pigs (which I quite liked), whilst Frictional themselves delved into philosophical SF which didn’t quite land for me in Soma.

Now Frictional have returned to the Amnesia franchise with Amnesia: Rebirth. The time is 1937; Anastasie “Tasi” Trianon and her Salim have signed onto a mining company expedition to one of their remote sites in French Algeria, with an eye to improving efficiency. The plane carrying this little colonial expedition runs into trouble – weird trouble – and comes down in the middle of the desert.

Recovering consciousness in the wreck of the plane, Tasi finds she is utterly alone – but there’s signs that others also survived and toted the supplies and wounded out of the crash. At first it seems Tasi has been bizarrely forgotten, but as she explores to try and track down the other expedition members she realises this isn’t the case – she’d left the wreck with the party, and whenever she ends up closely retracing her steps she has hazy recollections of what happened the first time around.

So what is she doing back in the original plane crash? What’s happened to her memories? Where are the others? And why is it that whenever she gets extremely scared or angry she seems to find herself overcome with strange symptoms, a discolouration of her arms, brief visions of strange places and of herself doing brutal, animalistic things? How is it that whenever something that should be fatal happens to her, this same blackout overcomes her and she wakes up safe elsewhere? The answers are both inside Tasi and outside of our universe altogether, as she discovers when she stumbles into a hellish, green-tinged otherworld…

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Small, Distilled Doses of Ligotti

In interviews and the like Thomas Ligotti has not been shy about disclosing his struggles with depression, with chronic anxiety and severe anhedonia combining with and contributing to serious cases of writer’s block over the years. As a result of this, his production of new fiction has always been rather sporadic; an optimistic way to look at this would be that he has emphasised quality over quantity, but that would be a rare instance where optimism is at all appropriate when speaking of Ligotti.

His most recent release, for instance, is a slim volume from Subterranean Press – The Spectral Link – containing a mere two stories. Possibly this material will later be incorporated into a fuller collection of Ligotti’s in the future, just as the brief Sideshow and Other Stories and In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land were later incorporated into Teatro Grottesco.

Or maybe it won’t – maybe these are the last Ligotti stories we get. As expressed at length both in his fiction and in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti does not find much joy in life. Were it to be learned that he had committed suicide one day, it would be said, but also perhaps the least surprising news that could be received. Suicidal ideation and the idea of a painless exit from a painful existence clearly does not linger far from his thoughts. In addition, he has more recently faced serious health problems in 2012 that required two surgeries, after a serious bout of diverticulitis – his treatment complicated by the medics’ initial assumption that Ligotti had overdosed on the alarming combination of tranquilisers, mood stabilisers, and sleep drugs that he had been prescribed for his psychological ailments.

Out of this incident came the flickering burst of creativity that yielded the stories in The Spectral Link. First up is Metaphysica Morum. This is the more obviously autobiographical piece, presenting a narrator who is undergoing therapy and expressing highly suicidal ideas, with a particular fixation on being peacefully euthanised via anaesthetic. The story discloses how he discovered that he was a metaphysical mutant, doomed as long as he exists to destroy the hope and love of life in others. If it this is Ligotti’s summation of the overall course of his career, it is a characteristically pessimistic one, but also a compelling one, with the protagonist’s strange dreams of the Dealer coming as close as Ligotti ever has to a confrontation with God and a long letter from the protagonist’s estranged family suggesting that some metaphysical mutants spread misery in a much more crude and direct fashion.

The longer story here, however, suggests that Ligotti need not fret that his powers have left completely. The Small People is an account of the narrator’s childhood obsession with, and hatred for, the titular “small people” – strange doll-like puppet-people who seem to live an existence in parallel with human society but which goes unacknowledged. They may be a delusion of the narrator’s – but maybe not, since he has at least one friend who hates him just as much, and in observing the small people they see how they build these fake little towns which are nothing more than crummy, run-down facades… and then the narrator realises that his own society is an equally crummy, equally run-down facade, and then perceives that there may be pawns of the small people everywhere.

It is evident that by the end of the story that the small people and ordinary people are really no different after all, save that the small people’s nature is more obvious; the parental fretting at his bigotry against the small people is really fretting at his bigotry against others, and yet is it genuinely bigotry when it is truly, genuinely directly at everyone? Perhaps from a Liggotean perspective the root of bigotry is in imagining that oneself or one’s own demographic is intrinsically clean of the flaws one perceives in others – certainly that seems to be the error the protagonist makes.

As the sort of reader who would rather have two very good stories than a dozen merely good ones, I am glad to have The Spectral Link. I continue to hope for a future harvest of stories from Ligotti, but if this is it, I can make my peace with that.