Twisted in Dream

Since I mentioned Ann K. Schwader’s poetry in the last post, I thought I’d post this Retro Review that first appeared on the Innsmouth Free Press site in 2012.

Schwader, Ann K. Twisted in Dream: The Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader. Hippocampus Press, 2011. USD $15.00. ISBN 978-1-61498-004-9.

Yes, I’m talking about poetry. Don’t roll your eyes and click on the next page.

This isn’t that kind of poetry, no odd-looking bits of text that seem to be mumbling something behind a screen of obscure language and esoteric allusions. I assure you this isn’t like that stuff your old English teacher made you read. There may be sonnets here, but it isn’t Shakespeare. The closest you’re going to get to that is “Ophelia’s Moon” and, when Schwader does Hamlet, Dad’s shade isn’t the Prince’s only ghost problem.

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 4

After about a year, I decided to finally finish reading S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu anthology series. Partly, that’s to read some David Hambling tales in later volumes, and partly to finally finish at least one of my reading projects.

Review: Black Wings of Cthulhu 4, S. T. Joshi, 2015, 2016.

Cover by Gregory Nemec

In his “Introduction” to the book, Joshi notes how several stories here rely on a sense of place. He also mentions the anthology’s one poem, Charles Lovecraft’s “Fear Lurks Atop Tempest Mount”, a retelling of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear”.

In Lovecraft, of course, terrors often come from the past, an idea he inherited from the gothic. Indeed, merely calling something “ancient” in Lovecraft is often used to evoke horror. For me, some of the most memorable tales here are archaeologically themed, an element in Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Out of Time.

Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper” is my first exposure to her Cassie Barret series. She’s a former anthropology student who now works on a Wyoming ranch, packs a revolver, and has two Rottweiler dogs for companions. Ranch foreman Frank, perhaps because his grandfather was a Crow “man of power”, appreciates the thinness between dreams and reality. Shortly after a flyer shows up in the mail advertising “THE PIPER WITH A PURPOSE”, a local branch of a non-profit advertising and its “Authentic Ancient Designs for a Stronger Community”, they both begin having strange dreams involving coyotes. And the Kokopelli on the flyer seems reminiscent of a sinister version Cassie has seen before. Soon, reluctantly, she gets out the journal of a vanished archaeologist who thinks that particular Kokopelli derives from a far more ancient culture.

Schwader cleverly splices the Cthulhu Mythos into the prehistory of the American Southwest. But, for me, the descriptions of Wyoming and rural poverty evoked things I’ve seen myself, and that made the story richer. Justly renowned as a poet, Schwader proves she’s also a talented fiction writer.

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Memento Mori

My look at West’s #Savant series concludes.

Review: Memento Mori, David J. West, 2020. 

Cover by Warren Design

Most of the plot revelations were taken care of in the preceding #Savant book, In My Time of Dying. About half of this story is a chase with Elizabeth Dee and bodyguard Porter Rockwell trying to rescue John Dee from Count Germain. And John isn’t going to be offering much aid remotely to Elizabeth this time since he has been almost completely silenced and immobilized by Germain aka Edward Kelley, Dee’s old associate.

The story starts around Cheyenne with Elizabeth and Porter Rockwell attacking a train to get John Dee back. It will end in the Liberty County Jail in Missouri – a place Rockwell knows all too well since he spent – as he did in our timeline – many months imprisoned there.

Along the way we get cameo appearances by Crazy Horse (who fights a duel with Rockwell) and the James Gang and a special guest villain appearance by Helena Blavatsky.

There’s mayhem aboard trains and steamboats, and Rockwell will once again get to use those prototype pistols John Browning gave him.

This story is darker, moodier than its predecessor since we get some flashbacks to violent episodes in Rockwell’s life. (I wonder if one particularly strange one is a recap of another Rockwell story West has written.)

Another winning weird western from West, and I look forward to the third installment of the #Savant series.

In My Time of Dying

I liked the fourth installment of the #Savant series enough, “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” in Tales of the Al-Azif, that I decided to check out the first installment in the series. (The crosshatch in the series title makes sense in terms of the story, but I wonder if there also isn’t some Twitter marketing ploy at work.)

Review: In My Time of Dying, David J. West, 2019. 

Cover by Deranged Doctor Design

If my reviews of West’s work seem a bit short compared to others, it’s not just because his stories are in the novella or short novel range. It’s because they are well-done modern pulp, and part of the enjoyment of a good pulp story is usually the plot twists and turns and the set action pieces.

And there’s a lot to like here in terms of plot.

Our story opens not in the American West of 1875, where most of it takes place, but in the Himalayas in 1874. In a mountain fortress, a group called the Knights of St. Germain have a prisoner, and they’ve had him a long time. His name is John, an emaciated figure of skin and bones chained in a dungeon as he has been for many a decade. He is a sort of reservoir of lifeforce, constantly recharged by mysterious forces and then drained by Count St. Germain. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself now. John knows him under his old name, Edward.

Certain readers will no doubt tumble on to whom these two men are, especially since our series heroine is Elizabeth Dee. But, for those who don’t, I won’t spoil West’s slow reveal.

John is a man of formidable resources, an ability to dominate wills, and he makes a break from the fortress – by flinging himself off its high walls.

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The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890

Since I mentioned the Ghost Dance in the last posting, I thought I’d post this about the classic work on the subject.

Raw Feed (1995): The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, James Mooney, 1896, 1991. 

I liked this ethnography from 1896. Mooney does a good job tracing Indian messianic movements from 1762 to the Ghost Dance of the late 1880s and the eventual Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. The 1991 introduction says some of Mooney’s statements about Ghost Dance prophet and messiah Wovoka being the son of the Paiute Ghost Dance prophet of 1870 are untrue but that his suspicions of a long, direct line of Indian messianic religious revivals were correct. 

I was fascinated to learn that most of these religions postulated not only a revival of the old life (particularly the return of the buffalo, the tribe’s old means of support) – often forsaking white man tech along the way, the resurrection of the dead and also a moral rededication with calls for marital fidelity, sobriety, and intratribal harmony. 

I was interested to see the cultural influences on the Ghost Dance (the use of Jesus’ name, Catholic type gestures, Mormon sacred garments becoming the Ghost Dance shirts) and predecessors like the Indian Shakers (not related to the Christian denomination of the same name) of the Northwest. 

I was also surprised to learn that it was only among the Sioux that the Ghost Dance turned violent because of their many justifiable grievances over U.S. treaty violations. Social conservatives like Sitting Bull fought – literally – with the progressive elements who thought the Sioux should try to adapt to the changing order rather than fight it. Sitting Bull’s death was the result of resistance offered by one of his followers when tribal police tried to arrest him. 

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Home on the Strange

My look at David J. West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series concludes.

Review: Home on the Strange, David J. West, 2021

Cover by Carter Reid

A wagon train is wiped out by Indians leaving only Hannah, a girl, alive.

Captain Brady, newly out of West Point and sorry he just missed the action of the recently concluded Civil War, leads a cavalry troop to bring the Indian leader, Crazy Snake, and his men to justice.

Porter Rockwell serves as their scout. As a Mormon, he’s suspected of collaborating with the Indians.

And then, around the sinister outcropping of rock called the Pulpit, sentries begin to be picked off at night.  

It sounds like the elements of a typical western except it’s not because this is another in West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu tales. There’s something in the Pulpit besides hostile Indians. And there’s a voice in Hannah’s head who is giving her advice that she and Rockwell will need to drive the enemy in the mountain off.

This is another winning entry in the series, and it is the closest yet to a classic western plot. It’s got the humor and well-done action of other stories in the series. It’s classic pulp adventure in the Mythos tradition and a good weird western whose many surprising delights I will spoil with no further plot reveals.

There are some nice scenes out of the main action like when Rockwell meets Tanner, an old acquaintance of his who knows firsthand the secrets in Pulpit.

And it was nice to see Wovoka, the Indian prophet who inspired the Ghost Dance, getting a mention.

“The Wedding Knell”

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

Review: “The Wedding Knell”, Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1836.

As you would expect from Hawthorne, this is a moralistic tale. 

Ultimately, it’s not really a weird tale, but it does have a striking weird image. 

The plot involves a wedding between the elderly and never married Mr. Ellenwood and a woman, Mrs. Dabney. 

The story begins rather whimsically (and there is humor throughout) with the account provided to the narrator by his grandmother who saw the events in person. However, as he cheerfully admits, he never bothered to research the New York City church in question to see if it could have happened. 

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Let Sleeping Gods Lie

After reading West’s “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” and “The Haunter of the Wheel”, I wanted to read more of West’s fiction with Porter Rockwell. The latter story is part of West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series, and this story seems the first in the series.

Review: Let Sleeping Gods Lie, David J. West. 2019. 

Cover by Carter Reid

When three Chinese miners show up at Porter Rockwell’s saloon one night, they are in a hurry to abandon their diggings around the camp of Murderer’s Bar. One of them is dying. They want to trade a “dragon bone” and a book for a horse and wagon. They found working them their claim on the putatively haunted Scorched Devil Ridge. Rockwell trades them a cart and mule for the goods but not before the Chinese mention the Old Ones and hungry ghosts, and that, in two nights, the stars will be right.

Well, the group doesn’t get far on the trail to Sacramento. They are found dead on the trail by two sometimes comical characters – though courageous enough — Zeke and Bowles. For that matter, the night watchman at the saloon is killed too.

And they won’t be the last killings Rockwell, employee Jack, faithful hound Dawg, and the fearsome Bloody Creek Mary will have to contend with. The question is are they just the depredations of the local Mountain Hound gang or something far stranger?

This one has more the feel of the traditional western than “The Haunter of the Wheel” with Rockwell spending almost as much time battling outlaws as a menace from the past linked to Zealia Bishop’s and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Mound”.

Of course, the mysterious Mr. Nodens shows up, always willing to provide hints to Rockwell but no actual help. Sasquatches do too.

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The Day of the Triffids

Raw Feed (2006): The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham, 1951. 

Cover by Richard Powers

Brian Aldiss referred to the work of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”. I don’t think, in retrospect, he meant that the disasters of Wyndham’s works are improbably nice and clean. I think he was referring to the narrative strategy Wyndham used in this and The Kraken Awakes: first person narratives centering around one or two individuals who have limited knowledge and explanation of the disaster they face. For instance, the narrator here has no definite proof that the blindness which strikes most of humanity is the result of satellite weapons — an interesting idea for the beginning of the satellite age — or that the lethal plague which breaks out after the blindness is an engineered disease — and limited means of dealing with it. This stands in direct contrast to the best-seller idiom of later American works like Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.  (I don’t know enough about styles of the time to know if something similar to Niven and Pournelle existed in disaster fiction prior to this book.) 

John Christopher, another English writer from the time, fits into this style, and a prior American work, George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, does too. In fact, as the story progresses and we hear about how the houses and roads and bridges of England were being eroded away by nature, I was very much reminded of Stewart’s novel. Tonally and thematically, though, there is nothing cozy or comfortable about this novel.  There is something very visceral about the blinding of most of humanity, an unclean disaster that requires, for disaster fiction, an unusual amount of lifeboat ethics in that the narrator and some of his fellow survivors realize they are not doing the blind any good by temporarily saving them from death. 

Wyndham’s genius, of course, is combining the blindness with the “invasion” of genetically engineered, ambulatory, poisonous triffids. As with Wyndham’s Re-Birth and The Midwich Cuckoos, we are constantly reminded of the Darwinian struggle for life, of competing species and supplanters in our midst. As the narrator memorably remarks in a book of many memorable, philosophical lines, custom and tradition have been long mistaken for natural law. 

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Re-Birth

Raw Feed (2005): Re-Birth, John Wyndham, 1955. 

This isn’t one of Wyndham’s disaster novels. You could see it as sort of an amalgam of the species supplanting children of The Midwich Cuckoos (though here the supplanting is by nuclear war engendered mutations as opposed to alien-human hybridization) and Wyndham’s famous disaster novels. 

Here the nuclear war was centuries in the past, and the plot involves a group of telepathic children dealing with their oppressive society which is dedicated to maintaining genetic purity (or, at least, paying lip service to it — beneficial mutations like giant workhorses are allowed if they only deviate in size) at all costs.

Whereas The Midwich Cuckoos was a horror story of man’s replacement, this novel celebrates the telepathic mutants and the constant change and evolution that is life. It is well narrated by its telepathic hero who briefly glosses over the numerous brutalities inflicted on him and his fellow mutants. At story’s end, a high tech civilization of telepaths is found in New Zealand. 

The narration isn’t as slick or of the same tone as Wyndham’s Out of the Deeps since the narrator engages in a lot of description.