Cthulhu 2000 Arkham House cover
Cthulhu 2000 Arkham House cover

Nothing like a new year for ringing in the Old Ones! Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology is one of many fine Mythos-inspired collections that have been assembled over the years. Edited by Jim Turner, Cthulhu 2000 was initially published by the legendary Arkham House in 1995 and reprinted by Ballantine/Del Rey in 1999—just in time for the Millennium (or the impending apocalypse of Y2K, as it was known at the time).  Cthulhu 2000 contains eighteen stories, many by authors we have mentioned before, written over the span from 1964 to 1992—and although none of the stories is set at the millennium, they are all meant to be relatively current events. A handful were culled from other Lovecraft-themed anthologies Arkham House had put out previously, but most of the rest came from such esteemed magazines as Interzone, Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

It’s hard to argue with those kind of pedigrees. And so, on to my notes on the contents—while all are fine reading, I have starred the ones I think are essential:

“The Barrens” by F. Paul Wilson is a plainly-written novella that places Lovecraftian elements convincingly in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

“Pickman’s Modem” by Lawrence Watt-Evans is a bit of joking Mythos whimsy, an unexpected approach to cosmic horror.

“Shaft Number 247” by Basil Copper is a tight, guarded, claustrophobic story set in an underground—possibly underwater– warren of tunnels and shafts. In tone it reminds me of John W. Campbells’ Who Goes There?

“His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” by Poppy Z. Brite is lush and filthy, and rotten with the Louisiana swamps. Overall the story is more vampiric than cosmic, but it approaches life and death as much less rigidly defined states, both desirable for different reasons.

“The Adder” by Fred Chappell introduces a new type of corruption wrought by the Necronomicon, one based on proximity rather than familiarity.

“Fat Face” by Michael Shea uses rich, visceral Lovecraftian language in this tale of a bubble-headed hooker’s encounter with a shoggoth in modern Los Angeles.

* “The Big Fish” by Kim Newman brings in Geneviève Dieudonnè from Anno Dracula to help a private detective who has run up against Dagon and the Deep Ones. Noirish, funny, and scathing, Newman incorporates studio Hollywood, wartime xenophobia, and organized crime into a lovely bit of Lovecraftiana.

“‘I Had Vacantly Crumpled It Into My Pocket…But by God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!'” by Joanna Russ is another story that is not overtly within the mythos, yet evokes the same sense of the beyond—gaping, hungry, and utterly inhuman.

Cthulhu sketch by Lovecraft
Cthulhu sketch by Lovecraft

“H.P.L.” by Gahan Wilson is typically, blackly funny, with a still-living Lovecraft, a resurrected Clark Ashton Smith, a Cthulhu Kids TV show, and some human sacrifice thrown in for good measure.

“The Unthinkable” by Bruce Sterling (normally known for his cyberpunk) brings Lovecraft into the Cold War, reframing the nuclear bomb as a weaponized Old One.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T. E. D. Klein—a novella I highlighted once before in my review of The Year’s Best Horror Stories, is a chilling interpretation of Lovecraft’s mythos made even more remarkable when set among other Lovecraftian tales. Insidious, dark, and haunting.

“Love’s Eldritch Ichor” by Esther M. Friesner is an unabashedly silly use of the Old Gods to help negotiate a contract with a predatory romance publisher, and a goofy break from all the cosmic despair. I don’t generally go in for funny spec, but Friesner is laugh out loud excellent.

“The Last Feast of Harlequin” by Thomas Ligotti is perhaps closest in style, vocabulary, and mood to Lovecraft’s originals—doomed and sullen and more subtle than you might at first think. This story uses clowns in their older sense, not as jokes but as warnings.

“The Shadow on the Doorstep” by James P. Blaylock is suggestive and moody, but without any particular plot or resolution is merely a dark vignette.

“Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe is as surreal and compelling as one could want, with an ancient Egyptian god lingering in the American heartland. The sweep between dreamland and real horror is classic Wolfe.

“The Faces at Pine Dunes” by Ramsey Campbell is suitably indistinct and creepy, with Campbell’s hallmark slippery language and barely described horrors.

“On the Slab” by Harlan Ellison retells the myth of Prometheus with his unmistakable scalpel wit and a peculiar and dismal conclusion.

“24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” by Roger Zelazny is the remarkable story that drew me back to this anthology. Gorgeous, dreamy, poetic, highly structured and literate and mannered and mythic—it is the story of a personal quest tied up in Japanese art, government agents, and cyberpunk elements.

In his introduction, also titled “Cthulhu 2000,” Jim Turner posits the question, “Why is it, one wonders, that a reclusive writer of weird-fantasy stories, who during his lifetime couldn’t even earn a decent living, now possesses the power to inspire, and even to affect the lives of, readers around the globe?” (xi). He goes on to answer himself with references to cosmic dread and a conception of evil that “conveyed no absolute meaning” (xiii), concluding that, for some authors who followed him, Lovecraft offered “a mythopoeic underpinning of appropriate magnificence and awe” (xvi). Those would be the intellectual answers. The more intuitive one is that Lovecraft inspires by the sheer possibility he opens with his various gods, monsters, and hangers-on. There are no limits. Anything can happen in this primordial atmosphere. And, as the stories above demonstrate, it frequently does.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Before any more time goes by I’d like to review A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—a strange, small, Persian-language vampire movie set in Iran but filmed in California. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, it began making the rounds of film festivals almost two years ago and was finally released online in April. So far it has only pulled in about $500, 000 at the box office. But while it isn’t a money-maker, it is a popular darling. The low-key, positive word-of-mouth about it never stopped—and for good reason.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night claims to be a vampire spaghetti western, and in some respects it is. But it is also a stylized horror film, a supernatural romance, and possibly even an avant garde coming-of-age story for our human hero. This is one of those weird, beautiful little movies that straddles classic and experimental in interesting ways and is well worth the hundred minutes it will take to watch it.

In broad strokes, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in a decaying western town where the life of a young man rapidly losing hope intersects with the existence of a vampire willing to show a measure of mercy. The town, called simply Bad City, is a bleak landscape of factories, tiny houses, packed apartment blocks, chain link fences, and graffiti. There is a railroad, and oilfields, and flat, dusty stretches of scrub. Bad City has its wealth, but it doesn’t trickle down.

Amirpour plays with incongruity throughout the film. Her vampire is a predator, one who will slaughter her chosen prey with no mercy and then steal anything of value she can easily carry away. But she is also capable of letting a young boy go under the implied threat in her question, “Are you a good boy?” She spares a not-entirely jaded prostitute, telling her the shared truth “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting. It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes.” And when she meets Arash, stoned out of his mind and wandering the streets dressed as Dracula, she makes the decision to bring him to her home when he tells her, “I’m lost.”

And lost he is. Arash knows he is being pulled inexorably into a criminal life, and his only chance to save himself is to get out. “Let’s leave Bad City. Come with me. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone” he begs the vampire. His wants, her mercy, and the decisions they make while knowing they do not know each other are the core of the story. Desperation is a serious driver.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Arash and the Vampire
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Arash and the Vampire

The black-and-white cinematography in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is gorgeous, at turns hallucinatory and starkly real. There are elements of Eraserhead, Near Dark, and Let the Right One In (the original, not the remake) in the lighting and atmosphere, and even something reminiscent of The Last Picture Show in the setting. Sheila Vand as the unnamed vampire and Arash Marandi as Arash, the young man who courts her are both luminous, beautiful creatures. It is hard to look away from any of Amirpour’s actors—even the criminal Saeed (Dominic Rains) and the aging prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) are rendered beautiful in their dusty, night-ridden world.

An amazing, electronica-heavy soundtrack carries along the story’s shifting moods effectively. For example, the opening scene has Arash walking past an open trench full of discarded bodies to the distorted rhythm of a tinny, carnivalesque song slowing down like a music box in need of winding. In between the songs there are strange, still moments without dialogue that only deepen the soundtrack’s effect. Even when the characters speak with each other, the dialogue is spare, structured, and often oddly formal, with much of the emotional weight remaining with the music.

But Aminpour doesn’t stand strictly on formality. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night she makes clever use of several old tropes. Classic vampire postures are reinterpreted here, with the vampire girl lying awake on the bed in her basement bedroom during the days, or her black chador billowing behind her like wings while she rides a stolen, completely incongruous skateboard through a deserted neighborhood. Beneath her flowing cloak, this vampire wears jeans and a striped tee shirt. And her basement room seems to be made of remembered eighties high-school trivia—a mirror ball, not-quite Madonna and Bee-Gees posters, string lights, a turntable and records. But against the teen-aged backdrop, there is something incredibly mournful in the young vampire’s face, framed by the black chador, her dark eyes ringed with kohl, blood smeared around her mouth like lipstick.

Amirpour is skilled with these contrasts. There are ripples of playfulness, even silliness, generated by the skateboard and by the wanderings of a fat, placid cat. There are also elements of the surreal in characters like the silent man in a fancy western shirt, full female makeup, and a delicate head scarf dancing with a balloon, or the multiple unnamed people dumping bodies into the open pit in full daylight. The combination is one of carefully weighted unease and amusement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Vampire, Cat, and Arash
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Vampire, Cat, and Arash

In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour has created a small jewel of a vampire movie. With understated but well-placed gore and a reliance on what is not said, she makes a movie that is at once familiar and still asks her viewer to think. Even her final scene strikes a note of uncertainty, questioning what had seemed until then a foreseeable resolution. I enjoyed the discomfort. I look forward to what will come next.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

manhattanghoststory
A Manhattan Ghost Story, 1984 cover art

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first encounter with the late T.M. Wright was his 1984 novel A Manhattan Ghost Story. I picked it up as a teenager, thinking it was just another cheap horror novel. I was wrong. It treated the dead differently than anything else I’d read before—not as monsters, but as damaged people trying to get by. The old physical copy of the book is long gone, but the mood of the story has always stayed with me. It is a horror novel without horror. It is sad, instead of scary, thoughtful instead of graphic. Sentimental. Wistful. Messy, like life.

In many ways A Manhattan Ghost Story is an earlier rendition of the stylistic and conceptual quirks found in The Last Vampire. But while the two novels are thematically related, they look at the central idea of the lingering, still-wounded dead from opposite sides of the veil. I think because it has a living protagonist, A Manhattan Ghost Story is a more direct narrative. But it still repeats itself at frequent intervals because of the habits and patterns the ghosts are caught in. It is also inconclusive. It begins and wanders on to an end but never truly resolves—a difficult trait in a novel.

Still, A Manhattan Ghost Story may have been Wright’s most commercially successful work. It was optioned several times (with the rights last purchased by Disney in 2006), but in the end it was never filmed. Which may be for the best. The prose is straightforward and the settings mundane, but this is a strange, slow, dreamy, and at times blunt novel built on layers of perception rather than on action. What happens is often just repetitive motion, fragments of lives remembered and replayed on a loop, because so many of Wright’s characters are already dead.

In A Manhattan Ghost Story, Wright’s POV character Abner Cray receives the unwanted gift of seeing ghosts. Abner doesn’t realize it until after he has met and fallen in love with the ghost of his best friend’s murdered girlfriend. The novel follows Abner as he learns, painfully, to distinguish the living from the dead when he has already been drawn too deeply into their world.  As Abner explains, “I have learned that the living are not very different from the dead.  And I have learned that you often need a very good eye, indeed, to tell the difference” (50).

Here, Wright’s ghosts are physical and social and superficially have agency—but they exist within narrow parameters, able to create an illusion of free-will while repeating bits of their own pasts in a quest for resolution. The ghosts themselves are haunted. And this makes any interaction with them unnerving:

“‘Unfinished business,’ that’s what my mom says.”  He sounded much more petulant, now—a little angry, in fact.  ‘You want a puppy?  You can have one cheap.  Two dollars.’  I looked back at the boy… and the boy was staring up at me and giving me his   heart-rending plaintive smile again.  ‘Hey mister, you want a puppy?’ he asked. ‘You can have one cheap.  Two dollars.’ I didn’t answer. I had begun to have an understanding of what exactly was happening to me, and of the world I’d stumbled into” (123).

The world Wright creates for the dead is as full and busy as the world of the living, and as complicated, because in many aspects they aren’t very different: “Pettiness survives.  And jealousy.  And pretentiousness, fear, loneliness, depression.  I have learned that the living haven’t yet cornered the market on misery” (135). But there is more to it than that: “…the dead sing, and laugh, and sit up, look around, cry, want. And they’re confused, too.  Confused and lonely.  And they hurt.  And, at last, they come apart and go off to someplace else” (212). Essentially, Wright’s ghosts experience an incomplete and abbreviated version of their lives, existing as their own echoes before fading out.

It is finally that coming apart that brings A Manhattan Ghost Story to its indeterminate end. Abner may love a ghost, and she may in her way love him, too. But none of that can keep her anchored in the world: “I am coming apart,” she said.  “We come apart.  We all come apart … We leave.  We go away” (205). It is the ultimate unfinished business.

T.M. Wright
T.M. Wright

It is the falling apart, I think, the going away, that is the saddest aspect of A Manhattan Ghost Story. While Wright’s last vampire outlived his wants, these ghosts have not. They still desire what they had in life, even if it is messy and incomplete. Even if it is always unfinished. In that, they are indeed very much like the rest of us.

Thank you for that, Mr. Wright. And, goodbye.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

I went into The Visit, the latest offering by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s, with high hopes and restrained expectations. I hadn’t seen anything of his since Signs and, based on widely-held critical opinions, had no reason to regret that. But there had been some good buzz about The Visit. Maybe Shyamalan had found his footing, again.

I think in some ways he has. The Visit is quite an effective little horror film about two children meeting their grandparents for the first time.  It was made for only 5 million dollars, and relies on nothing but finely-tuned acting and sharp camera work to make it scary. And it was—I jumped, I flinched, I gasped in shocked surprise. Is it derivative? Absolutely. Is it predictable? Frequently. Is it scary? Yes, indeed. While it has its flaws, The Visit is well-constructed and well-cast, with a minimum of gore and a number of solid scares leading up to the big finish.

Spoilers ahead

The Visit--Rebecca and Nana
The Visit–Rebecca and Nana

Visually, The Visit grabs the eye. Against the isolation of a rural winter and the drab costumes of Pop-pop and Nana, the children’s bright yellow, green, and pink clothing demands attention. It also allows the gradually-revealed threat to blend into the grey background until it is ready to spring.

Shyamalan sets up The Visit’s style immediately, by giving his adolescent female character a camera and the mission to make a documentary of a week with her never-met grandparents. Her project becomes the impetus for the storytelling and the device upon which Shyamalan hangs his cinematography. There is almost seamless editing between traditional filming and the hand-held/found footage effect, to the point that it is not always clear which is which. Certain scenes are strongly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project and the similar films that followed. I think the technique is better realized, here, even though it loses any shock value it may have had.

The cast is talented. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould as the protagonists Rebecca and Tyler have an easy chemistry that is almost too familiar for siblings of their ages (15 and 13, respectively). They are precocious and funny and comfortable in their roles, even when saddled with goofy quirks. As the children’s mother, Kathryn Hand invests her character with a youthful energy that speaks of an immature parent. She loves her kids, but the impression I got was that they parent her as much if not more than she parents them.

Deanna Dunagan as Nana brings an often believable portrayal of barely-checked madness to the film. She has a face like an aged china doll, making her lunatic turns all the more shocking. Peter McRobbie is less obviously insane as Pop-pop, and he inflects his character’s paranoia with the suggestion of a real desire for connection. At times he seems so lost it is difficult to not feel pity for him.

There were some false steps in the movie that bog it down. The children’s weaknesses are too precise and are exploited a little too plainly in the final showdown, taking away some of the impact. The final confrontation came across to me like a cheap thrill, an opportunity for an easy fright and a little gross-out. And I was left with a few random questions: Why do concerned neighbors stop by instead of calling? Why is there an internet connection fast enough for glitch-free Skyping, but no cell phone service or land line? Why did their mother not introduce the kids to their grandparents on Facebook? Why, knowing that their real grandparents have been replaced by progressively-more-unhinged strangers, would Rebecca ever go down in the basement?

My Take Away

Visiting Grandma
Visiting Grandma

Questions aside, I think The Visit is a small, scary movie that dips regularly into the obvious. The climax of the film is still Shyamalan’s usual twist, and it is intense and heavy-handed compared to the wonderfully inflicted build up. Its final message of “Don’t hold on to anger” seems just a wee bit maudlin after what goes before it.

But it is still a pretty good movie. The Visit probably won’t turn out to be as enduring or fondly remembered as The Sixth Sense, but it is well worth seeing. It is funny, it is tense, it is frightening, and it somehow makes you care about all of its characters. Even the wrong ones. That’s the kind of twist it is hard to see coming.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

H.P. Lovecraft’s output has been thoroughly mined and mulled over, anthologized and, as I’ve mentioned before, annotated. But the popular focus has long been on his Cthulhu Mythos. While “In the Walls of Eryx” has always been one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, it stands apart from that particularly haunted universe. Instead, its universe is a bit closer to home.

The Backstory

In addition to his own distinctive output, H.P. Lovecraft was a frequent collaborator. He lent his particular, disturbing expertise to at least thirty-three collaborative works during his lifetime. Some of his co-authors were famous in their own right, like Harry Houdini, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. Most of the others had more modest writing careers. And some, like Lovecraft’s co-author for the short story “In the Walls of Eryx”, barely made another ripple in the literary world.

Kenneth J. Sterling was a Providence high school student when he approached Lovecraft for assistance in writing “In the Walls of Eryx”. Of course, as with many of his other collaborations, Lovecraft made it his own by writing the vast bulk of the finished story. And as was Lovecraft’s habit, even though the seeds of the story belonged to someone else, he inserted his insidious themes and colored the entire piece. What started as a straightforward, if juvenile, derivative misadventure became complicated with Lovecraft’s hallmark hints of cosmic doom: “I believe we have violated some obscure and mysterious law—some law buried deep in the arcana of the cosmos…”. “Eryx” may not be part of Lovecraft’s sprawling mythos, but it still manages to evoke the same haunting dread.

The Details

Lovecraft’s ventures into science fiction are much like Ray Bradbury’s or Fritz Leiber’s; the tales are science fiction only in setting, not detail, because their authors are fantasists, not scientists. This in no way diminishes the stories, but one should not approach them looking for solidly grounded scientific or technological ideas. Although it is set on Venus and throws about superficially impressive terminology such as flame-pistols, oxygen masks with sponge resevoirs, crystal detectors, N-force, and an alternate Venusian dating system, “In the Walls of Eryx” still hangs entirely on pure human fear, and brings Lovecraft’s beloved tentacles into the mix within the first page. It is a horror story masquerading as science fiction, not a syllable of it contingent on technology.

Scenes from a swamp
Scenes from a swamp

Lovecraft’s conception of Venus in “In the Walls of Eryx” is in keeping with how the planet was often imagined in the early twentieth century. Venus was pictured as a soggy place, swampy and hot and overgrown, and the jungles of Venus were a popular setting for a number of early fantasy and science fiction authors. Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury all painted Venus as wet and steamy—Lovecraft was in very good company.

In addition to his take on the swamps of Venus, Lovecraft also provides some vivid if not particularly active aliens for us to revile. The natives are described throughout the story as damnable, skulking, slinking, detestable, scaly wretches; man-lizards with “green, slimy, frog-like skin”, and an “accidental physical resemblance to terrestrial man.” The human narrator is disgusted by them but sees them as more nuisance than threat since they are so clearly lesser beings. I can only wonder if Kenneth Sterling had any say in them at all, since the creatures seem as much Innsmouth as Venus.

Tentacles
And some tentacles

In Lovecraft’s hands, the imaginary technology, grossly inferior aliens and gloomy Venusian swamps still produce an undeniably eldritch effect. This story is scary in the creeping, unclean way that all Lovecraft’s stories are scary. The marvelous, sticky dread Lovecraft weaves through all his work is in full bloom, here. He builds his mood with carefully chosen imagery rather that evokes huge off-page events, and the end result is his hallmark bleak despair.

The inherent uncleanness of “In the Walls of Eryx” does not lie in the farnoth flies or the slimy mud, the random dead body or the spongy vines. It is instead generated by the absolute hopelessness of the narrator’s situation. He has wandered into an invisible maze with twenty foot high walls, and he cannot find his way out. There is paranoia to be found here, and enforced helplessness. Like so much other work that Lovecraft left his fingerprints on, the end can only be grim for our protagonist.

Some Possibilities?

Part of Lovecraft’s appeal here is in how he builds up the creep-factor through repetitions of the character’s experiences, ratcheting up the intensity as he deals with a recurring yet progressively worsening scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” is twelve thousand words of a man trying and failing, repeatedly, to escape from an invisible maze. That is the summary of both plot and action—but it still manages to leave the reader with a grim tension not quite dispelled at the end.

That lingering tension is why I think this story could easily be expanded into a nerve-wracking film. While it doesn’t have the somewhat more action-driven plot as the famous, cult-movie inspiring Herbert West, Re-Animator (see our Mort Delciver’s reviews of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator for details), “In the Walls of Eryx” has potential. Its claustrophobia is a familiar horror trope.  The lurking aliens, the unsee-able maze, the utter aloneness of the narrator, all point to a creepy little film, should anyone wish to make it.

maze_wikimedia_commons
What maze?

It also provides an excellent gaming scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” did inspire a very simple browser video game a few years ago, but the premise can be exploited for so much more. Most Lovecraftian video games focus on the mythos. The tabletop games as well, dominated by Call of Cthulhu, do not stray very far afield. Certainly not as far as Venus.

Unfortunately, since the story isn’t part of Lovecraft’s main mythos, it tends to get shunted to the side (and I may certainly have missed something). But from the swampy landscape thick with carnivorous plants to the tentacled lizard-men, from the potential conflicts of a human commercial outpost on Venus to the starkly simple threat of an alien invisible maze, there is an entire extended narrative to be built from this. August Derleth had his shot. This one is ours.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!