Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis is quite a trip. Initially, I gave it four stars, as I often do for an anthology -- every story doesn't workCthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis is quite a trip. Initially, I gave it four stars, as I often do for an anthology -- every story doesn't work for everyone, you know. But after some thought, I'm bumping it up to five because, thematically, it's something new (at least to me) in Mythos literature.
Madness, madness, madness. We all know the Old Ones bring madness to mankind. Happens all the time. But here's a twist: the motif of Cthulhusattva is pushing through that soul-shattering chaos to enlightenment on the other side. As Jones says in his preface,"When all is madness, there is no madness." A Tao of Cosmic Horror. What a fascinating way to break fresh ground!
Highlights for me included Gord Sellar's "Heiros Gamos," in which a self-taught acolyte experiences the ancient, cthonic Eleusinian Mysteries firsthand; "We Three Kings," Don Raymond's eerie revision of the Nativity story; and Rhoads Brazos' urban noir, "Feeding the Abyss," in which we meet the contractors who specialize in keeping the gods fed. Brazos' story also boasts one of my favorite sentences in the whole collection: "In a world of limitations, only a fool would hesitate to touch the infinite."
But the heart, and possibly also the point, of the collection is Ruthanna Emrys' "The Litany of Earth." Here we meet Aphra Marsh (of those Marshes), a mild, devout "Aeonist" in a world where they are a persecuted minority. Emrys turns our expectations of the Mythos gods inside-out (and lays in some fair social commentary in the process):
"Most religions consist largely of good people trying to get by. No matter what names they worship, or what church they go to, or what language they pray in . . . [a]nd every religion has its fanatics, who are willing to do terrible things in the name of their god. No one is immune . . . [i]t's a failing of humanity, not of any particular sect."
What if all those gibbering cultists we've grown so used to are the Aeonist equivalent of suicide bombers and snake-handlers? What if there's really another way?
One of the most consistently good neo-Lovecraftian anthologies I've read, which is not surprising, given Joshi's stature in the field. Under his deftOne of the most consistently good neo-Lovecraftian anthologies I've read, which is not surprising, given Joshi's stature in the field. Under his deft editorial hand the reader is treated to a fine selection of tales spanning close to a century (from 1933 to the present), each of which engages with Lovecraft and his legacy of cosmic horror in a markedly different way, yet as a whole flow and ring tonally true throughout. Not a single story bored me, and I tore through all 600+ pages of A Mountain Walked in about 3 days, but of course I had favorites:
- The now-classic "Far Below," Robert Barbour Johnson's 1939 tale of the brave men who work down in the deep, sunless tunnels to shield the New York subway system and its unsuspecting passengers against an unspeakable evil.
- "The Deep Ones," by James Wade, a chilling and perverse story of telepathic experimentation gone very, very wrong. You probably won't want to swim with dolphins anytime soon.
- W.H. Pugmire's dreamy "The Phantom of Beguilement," in which a suggestive but hazy painting by a mysterious Kingsport artist first attracts, then gradually reveals its true nature to a new owner. Quite lovely, in an elegiac way.
- "Virgin's Island," by Donald Tyson, is about two climbers who dare to scale an isolated and treacherous rock island and come to rue what they find at its summit. This one deftly combines the thrill of an explorer's adventures with chthonic terror. It's archaeology for the damned.
- Mark Samuels' "A Gentleman from Mexico" considers the possible metempsychosis of H.P. Lovecraft, and what it might signify for both the literary world and a cult of fanatics planning to raise his gods.
- Gemma Files' brilliant "[Anasazi]" tracks an ageless and nihilistic race as it invades human consciousness like a poisoned meme, an infection of random violence and eventual annihilation in just one terrible symbol.
- And finally, Caitlin R. Kiernan's "John Four" is a magnificently bleak vision of service in the Temple of the conquering Black Pharaoh, and it conjures the most impressively alien, "other" world in the collection. So many writers are good at the bits where the Old Gods are raised / summoned / awakened / eating your sanity, but here Kiernan masters the infinitely more difficult problem of After.
This collection followed me into my dreams. 5 full stars.
I'd love to write a really thorough review, but that's always difficult when it comes to an anthology. Overall, the stories were of high quality, thouI'd love to write a really thorough review, but that's always difficult when it comes to an anthology. Overall, the stories were of high quality, though as is also the case with most anthologies not all of them were up my alley. I'll settle for highlighting a few stories that really worked for me.
1) Clive Barker's "Coming to Grief" may be the most gut-wrenching, yet eerily calm, portrayal of bereavement I've read. This story of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her mother's death is profoundly unsettling because it magnifies and foreshadows (or reminds us of), our own fear and guilt around the death of a loved one. (Is it wrong if I feel nothing? If it's a relief? If there's just a hole?) Here, Barker quietly defines death as "an unknowable nothing that was the space where life used to be," and that void is the real horror. Barker was an early favorite of mine -- "Hellraiser" was my first big screen horror movie, and the next day I went looking for The Books of Blood -- but I haven't read him in a long time. Nice to know he can still deliver a gut punch, especially of the subtler emotional kind.
2) "The One You Live With" by Josh Malerman is the story of a mother's warning becoming prophecy, a story which strikes me as uncannily perceptive about what it means to hide your true face, to cope with the eerie chasms that define and separate our various masks. She tells her young daughter that " . . . the older you get, the more the split is gonna grow, breaking up the two yous, until you hardly recognize the you you are when you're out of the house and the you you are when you're not. I think it's the best thing a person can do is to try and keep those two yous as close together as they can." While her warning's effects on her daughter are less salubrious than hoped, I personally found it to be excellent advice for staying sane-ish.
3) "Picking Splinters from a Sex Slave," by Brian Kirk, feels like reading The Girl Next Door, only with punchlines. This deeply disturbing story of a man whose missing-presumed-dead daughter is returned to him after several years of horrific torture at the hands of her captor is only endurable thanks to Kirk's deft use of pitch-black humor . . . but it treads a very sick line.
Other high points are Maria Alexander's "Hey, Little Sister," a family revenge tale; Paul Tremblay's literary Mobius strip "A Haunted House is a Wheel upon Which Some are Broken"; "On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes," Damien Angelica Walters' take on the damage done in teen bullying; and "When We All Meet at the Ofrenda," Kevin Lucia's weird little tale of one man's strategy for keeping his beloved family together.
All told, a solid 4.5. Nicely done, Mr. Murano....more
Dreams from the Witch House is an altogether wonderful thing. The stories contained between its beautiful covers are of uniformly high quality, and DaDreams from the Witch House is an altogether wonderful thing. The stories contained between its beautiful covers are of uniformly high quality, and Daniele Serra's illustrations alone are worth the price of the paper edition. Together, editor Lynn Jamneck and Dark Regions press have created a weird gem. Highly recommended.