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“The Variegated Alphabet” by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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Subterranean Press’s edition of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Variegated Alphabet combines seven alphabets Kiernan wrote over a period of fourteen years. Each one consists of twenty-six vignettes, with one piece in each set illustrated by John Kenn Mortensen. Some of them are complete stories in the vein of flash fiction; others are character studies or mood pieces.

The production values on this book are remarkable. The wraparound jacket, the textured liners of the cover interiors, and the printing are all impeccably done. The art is macabre and exquisitely detailed.

Of course, the most important part of a book is the story—or, in this case, stories. Kiernan’s background as a paleontologist comes into play in many of the stories here. Sometimes, characters find an unusual fossil or artifact, or compare something they’ve witnessed to long-extinct organisms. Since Kiernan is genderfluid, themes of metamorphosis and self-discovery often appear in their stories, and many of the pieces here feature characters who must confront some unexpected aspect of their own bodies or identities.

Kiernan is well-known for writing stories that intersect with the Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, they’ve written enough Mythos stories to form a separate collection, the excellent Houses Under the Sea. A number of the stories in Alphabet are Mythos tales as well, particularly those in the “Eldritch Alphabetos” section. One even occurs as a supplement to the title story from Houses. But Kiernan draws on a wider selection of inspirations as well. I was particularly happy to see a reference to the sinister circus from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in the “N is for Nyarlathotep” entry from the Eldritch Alphabetos.

Subterranean Press produced two editions of The Variegated Alphabet, and neither one is cheap. But the unique stories, beautiful construction, and wonderful art make it worth the price.

“The Language of Thorns” by Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books catapulted her to the top of various bestseller lists. With the collection The Language of Thorns, she deepens the setting by presenting folktales from Novyi Zem, Ravka, Kerch, and Fjerda.

The concept of this book is wonderful. Rather than just giving us additional short stories from the Grishaverse, Bardugo has chosen to present stories that people living in the Grishaverse would tell. Storytelling is a universal human constant, so giving a fictional culture their own folklore and mythology is a great way to make them feel more real.

The execution easily lives up to the promise of the concept. While the term “fairy tales” often conjures up the image of stories for children, the stories presented here are far from simplistic. While some of them do have morals, those morals reflect the complexity of an adult’s world. Characters in the first tale, “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” repeatedly exhort each other to “speak truth.” Despite their inclusion of spells and monsters, these stories speak truth about the messy, wondrous, and sometimes terrifying world we live in.

Another notable aspect of The Language of Thorns is the absolutely gorgeous illustrations. Illustrator Sara Kipin creates stunning images in shades of red and blue to accompany each story. The full illustrations appear at the end of each story, with individual elements expanding across the margins of each page to lead up to them. The illustrations for “The Soldier Prince” were especially intricate and impressive. I highly recommend reading a physical copy of this book to get the full effect of the illustrations.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “When I was a child, I read fairy tales in secret. Now that I am a man, I read them openly.” The Language of Thorns is a book of fairy tales that any adult can pick up and be assured of engaging stories paired with beautiful art.

“To Rouse Leviathan” by Matt Cardin

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While Vastarien co-editor Matt Cardin has written two books of nonfiction, To Rouse Leviathan is his first fiction collection, and it includes all the stories he’d published as of its release in 2019. The stories in this volume are complex and dense, inviting comparisons to Thomas Ligotti’s work.

Reviewers have described Cardin’s work as “philosophical horror” or “ontological horror,” and these are both fitting descriptions. The horror in these stories doesn’t come from monsters or serial killers but from the characters’ realizations that reality is fundamentally different from what they thought it was. While tales like “The God of Foulness” do include entities that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lovecraft story, it isn’t simply the existence of vast, unknowable beings that causes Cardin’s characters to “go mad from the revelation.” Instead, the source of the horror is the structure of the universe itself—or rather, the intimation that structure and order themselves are only temporary things.

One interesting aspect of Cardin’s fiction is the degree to which it’s rooted in the Abrahamic faith tradition. Cosmic horror tends to treat the benevolent deities of various religions as nothing more than comforting illusions. In the world of Leviathan, some of the major Biblical figures are clearly real—Satan even makes an appearance in “The Devil and One Lump.” (The Father of Lies enjoying terrible instant coffee is a pretty amusing moment.) The version of God presented here isn’t omnipotent, though. He’s ultimately just as vulnerable to the inevitable decay of existence as any of His creations. In a way, that might be even scarier than the nonexistence of the divine. Nietzche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” at least has some weight or grandeur to it that “God is just a regular schmuck like everyone else” lacks.

Many of Cardin’s stories reference esoteric philosophical concepts or quote from philosophical and theological texts. Even when the central metaphor of a story is relatively simple—a play in “The Basement Theater” or a corporate organizational structure in “The Stars Shine Without Me”—the language and sentence structure are elaborate. This, along with the similarity in theme of all the stories, can make the collection feel a bit repetitive if it’s read all at once (as opposed to interspersing the stories with other books). That said, most of the stories were interesting and unsettling. I’m looking forward to seeing what Cardin writes in the future, especially if he chooses to branch out a bit in style and tone.

“The Overneath” by Peter S. Beagle

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Peter S. Beagle is best known for his novel The Last Unicorn, but he’s also written a great deal of short fiction. His 2017 collection The Overneath made me fall in love with Beagle’s short-form work.

Two of the stories in this collection feature Schmendrick the Magician. “The Green-Eyed Boy” is an origin story that tells how he became apprenticed to the wizard Nikos. “Schmendrick Alone” takes place shortly after he’s set out on his own. Both stories provide more insight into Schmendrick and should be welcomed by fans of The Last Unicorn.

Speaking of unicorns, Beagle has written several stories that deal with different cultural takes on this classical symbol of innocence and goodness. “Olfert Dapper’s Day” presents the quintessential unicorn—the single-horned white horse that only allows itself to be touched by pure-hearted maidens. The story asks deep questions about the nature of innocence and redemption. In particular, it raises the idea that the unicorn’s judgement of a person’s worth may not match up with the judgment of other people. Some of the same questions are on display in “The Story of Kao Yu.” The unicorn in this story is a chi-lin (the spelling used by Beagle; Wikipedia renders it as qirin). Kao Yu is a magistrate, famed for both his wisdom and his integrity. The chi-lin occasionally appears in his courtroom, rendering its own judgments. When Kao Yu finds himself conflicted about a particular case, he worries that it may also bring him into conflict with the chi-lin. Finally, in “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” Beagle gives us a very different take on the unicorn. Inspired by the Persian legendary beast, Beagle’s karkadann is regarded by the human characters as a dangerous predator that can be soothed only by the song of a particular bird.

The creativity of this collection isn’t limited to the stories with a connection to Beagle’s previous work. One of my favorite stories was “The Very Nasty Aquarium,” which merges a folkloric supernatural being from the Caribbean with pirate lore. “The Way It Works Out and All” is a wonderful tribute to Avram Davidson, and “The Queen Who Could Not Walk” is a poignant tale of forgiveness. “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You!” is probably the most imaginative dragon story I’ve ever read. There’s a lot to love in this collection, and while fans of The Last Unicorn will probably get the most out of it, it belongs on the bookshelf of every fantasy fan.

“Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies” by John Langan

John Langan’s Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies is a bit different from his previous collections in that it’s a tribute to the writers who inspired him. Each story is paired with a note about how it came to be and which writers (or filmmakers) Langan was drawing on when he wrote it.

Unsurprisingly, Langan’s inspirations include many of the classic authors of horror and weird fiction. Also not surprisingly, Langan takes the themes or subjects they wrote about and makes them his own. In the title story, he riffs on one of Lovecraft’s lesser-known tales, “The Nameless City.” In Langan’s version, the eldritch family secrets stand alongside mundane ones and may even be the less frightening of the two. The first story in the book, “Sweetums,” owes its origin to Robert W. Chambers’s “King in Yellow” mythos. Like Chambers’s work, it creates ambiguities about what’s real and what isn’t. Another Lovecraft-inspired story is “The Horn of the World’s Ending,” which is interesting for its historical setting.

In addition to these early writers, Langan also builds on the work of more modern masters, including Stephen King and William Gibson. Probably my favorite story in the collection was “Irezumi,” which blends cosmic horror with cyberpunk elements. It’s the kind of hyper-imaginative work I’ve come to associate with Langan. The stories “Inundation” and “Zombies in Marysville” both share a theme that Langan has some experience with: that of “approaching a great catastrophe from the margins.” Some of Langan’s strongest previous work, such as his story “The Shallows,” have adopted this perspective, and it’s great to see him return to it here. These stories were both inspired by the work of Stephen King, and while King’s characters are often right in the middle of the catastrophe, his focus on character interactions is a trait these Langan stories share.

It’s not only written work that has provided the spark for Langan’s imagination. Another of my favorite stories from the collection, “To See, To Be Seen,” draws on the classic horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Another strong story, “The Underground Economy,” had its genesis in both the stories of Robert Aickman and the films of David Lynch. This feels like a particularly apt pairing, since both artists were known for works that had a surreal or unsettling feel, rather than outright horror.

Overall, this collection does a wonderful job of showcasing Langan’s range as an author. It’s a great collection for both new and veteran fans: new fans because serves as a “travelogue” of his work, and old fans because of the exploration of Langan’s literary influences.

“Stranger Things Happen” by Kelly Link

Kelly Link’s offbeat stories have won her a number of both genre and literary fiction awards, including the O. Henry Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories. I loved her collection Get in Trouble, so I was very happy to find a copy of her earlier collection Stranger Things Happen at a (pre-Covid) convention.

Doubling and transformation are themes that recur throughout the stories in this book, and sometimes it’s unclear which one is happening. The metaphysical boundaries between characters in Link’s stories are often blurred, such that the reader isn’t sure whether they’re duplicates of each other or if one is metamorphosing into the other. This confusion between characters is perhaps most overt in “Louise’s Ghost,” where it’s made explicit by giving the two main characters the same name. “The Girl Detective” features several sets of twelve women, which may or may not be the same set of twelve women. In “Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water,” Jak finds himself beset by an increasing number of identical blond women.

Having previously read Get in Trouble made this aspect of Stranger Things Happen particularly interesting. The fluidity of identity that’s on display in STH also turns up in several stories from GIT, from the body-doubles in “Valley of the Girls” to the duplicate houses in “Two Houses.” This is clearly a theme that’s interested Link for a long time. It’s amplified in STH, which gives some of the stories an atmosphere like walking through a Hall of Mirrors.

 Fairy tales and mythology also figure predominantly in STH. “Travels with the Snow Queen,” of course, draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Snow Queen. “The Girl Detective” explicitly references the story of the twelve dancing princesses, while “Flying Lessons” derives some of its major characters and events from Greek mythology. Link seamlessly melds these ancient tales with modern settings—and in some cases, as in “The Girl Detective,” with modern story tropes as well. This introduces yet another form of split identities, with many characters embodying a legendary figure under the surface of their modern lives.

The breadth of awards she’s won shows Link’s command of both realistic and fantastical story elements. In Stranger Things Happen, Link demonstrates that she excels not only at telling different kinds of stories, but at blending apparently disparate elements to create stories that inhabit a liminal, dreamlike space.

“If It Bleeds” by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s previous novella collections, Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons, have yielded some particularly strong stories, like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Sun Dog.” His latest book, If It Bleeds, also gives us four pieces of fiction that are longer than short stories but shorter than novels.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” reads like a classic ghost story. The main character, Craig, finds that he’s able to communicate with his employer and mentor after the latter’s death using the iPhone Craig gave him as a gift. I’ve always appreciated ghost stories that place their hauntings in modern settings, sometimes even using technology as a medium. It gives the stories an extra jolt of creepiness because they feel more like something that could really happen. King captures that really well, and also does a good job of developing the relationship between the two protagonists.

“The Life of Chuck” was the weakest story in the book, in my opinion. It starts out with an interesting concept: the characters start seeing advertisements thanking someone named Chuck for “a great 39 years.” They have no idea who Chuck is, what he did to make those 39 years so great, or who’s running the ads. But the story is told in three parts, and the connections between the parts are tenuous at best. Each one could have been a great story on its own if further developed, or the story as a whole could have been great if the parts were woven together more cleanly. As it is, it just felt disjointed.

“If It Bleeds” features Holly Gibney, who first appeared in the Bill Hodges Trilogy and returned in The Outsider. I know Constant Readers have differing opinions on her. While I haven’t read the Bill Hodges books, I enjoyed The Outsider quite a bit, and I liked this story too. It should be noted that it’s pretty much a direct sequel to The Outsider, so readers who haven’t read that book may not get as much enjoyment out of “If It Bleeds.”

“Rat” is another take on a classic horror-story theme, in this case, a deal with a malign entity. It isn’t a particularly deep story, but it was fun to read.

I’ve long been a fan of King’s shorter fiction, and I was pleased to see that he delivered once again.

“Cold Print” by Ramsey Campbell

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Ramsey Campbell is Britain’s answer to Stephen King. He’s written dozens of novels and short story collections, the vast majority of which fall into the horror genre. Cold Print collects a number of his short stories written from the 1960s through the 1980s. Many of these are Lovecraftian or cosmic horror stories. One of the most interesting parts of reading this collection is watching Campbell’s development as a writer. Many of his earlier tales are direct pastiches of Lovecraft’s work, and while Campbell’s talent is still in evidence, the later stories are more rewarding. He references “my struggles to be myself” in the introduction, and reading through these stories in order shows that struggle playing out.

One of the ways in which Campbell makes Lovecraftian themes and ideas his own is by transplanting them into different settings. While Lovecraft did set some of his stories in cities (“Pickman’s Model” takes place in Boston, for example), most of his well-known stories are set in small towns (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Dunwich Horror”), isolated farmsteads (“The Color Out of Space”), or even more remote locations (“At the Mountains of Madness”). Cold Print, by contrast, places a surprising number of its tales in urban locations. The action of “Before the Storm” occurs entirely in a high-rise office building, and the main character of “The Tugging” is more likely to be found on a bus or in an office than sitting on the porch of a rundown farmhouse. But the best example of Campbell’s ability to evoke transcendental horror in a mundane urban setting is the title story, “Cold Print.” Campbell identifies this as the story where his struggles to be himself finally succeeded, and I would have to agree. He paints a vivid picture of a city coated in slushy, grimy snow—and the city’s inhabitants seem just as grimy. They’re perfect servants and/or nourishment for the unearthly entity Y’Golonac, and therein lies the real terror of the story: not in the sheer alienness of the Great Old Ones, but in the idea that deep in our hearts, we might have something in common with them.

Another example of Campbell’s original take on the Mythos is his willingness to use non-human entities as viewpoint characters. In “The Insects from Shaggai,” the human main character is possessed by one of the titular insects. It proceeds to show him the journey of its people from the distant reaches of the universe, and so a large chunk of the story is told from its point of view. “A Madness from the Vaults” goes even further, being set entirely on a distant world called Tond, with all its characters being inhabitants of that world.

There are two stories I want to give special mention to as being particularly unique. “The Plain of Sound” posits an alternate dimension in which physical objects can be formed by sounds made in our dimension. In addition to that intriguing premise, the tale is notable because of its ambiguous ending. Are the inhabitants of the other dimension truly as malevolent as the human characters come to believe, or are the tragic events of the climax due to the humans’ own paranoia and fear of what is different? The last story in the book, “The Voice of the Beach,” is one I had read before in another anthology, and I was happy to find it hasn’t suffered on rereading. The narrator’s growing sense of claustrophobia and isolation makes for a wonderful ratcheting up of dread, and the lyrical descriptions of the “patterns” on the beach enhance the terror rather than lessening it.

Overall, this is a great collection. Readers new to Campbell might appreciate the later stories more because they’re more polished and original, but longtime Campbell fans will enjoy following his growth over what amounts to the length of a single novel.

“Sefira and Other Betrayals” by John Langan

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John Langan’s third short story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, was finally published in 2019 after a long delay. It’s worth the wait.

Langan tends to anchor his collections with a novella-length piece: “Laocoön, or The Singularity” in Mister Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters and “Mother of Stone” in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. In Sefira, the anchoring novella is not the last piece but the first, and is also the title story. As with several of Langan’s other pieces of short fiction, “Sefira” is a reimagining of a classic monster, in this case, a succubus. A woman whose husband fell prey to the succubus chases the demonic being across the country, but her motives aren’t entirely about revenge: she’s undergoing a mysterious transformation, and the time to halt or reverse it is running out. This supernatural transformation serves as a metaphor for the curdling of the relationship between the woman and her husband and the psychological effects that has on her. Like much of the best horror fiction, the inner demons are just as terrifying and destructive as the external ones.

“The Third Always Beside You” is another story that uses a supernatural lens to examine a marriage strained to the breaking point by infidelity. Here, the paranormal element doesn’t enter until the very end of the tale, though once it’s revealed, the reader can see where its influence made itself felt earlier.

William Faulkner famously said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even really past.” That’s a major theme of the works in Sefira. While the title story and “The Third Always Beside You” apply this to interpersonal relationships, “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos,” portrays the effect of a past evil on the mind or soul of the people who committed it. Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the way in which the pull of the past on individuals is mirrored on a more cosmic scale. Is the being the main characters encounter at the climax bound to them as much as they’re bound to it?

A symbol briefly mentioned in “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos” links that story to both Langan’s own “Mother of Stone” and to Laird Barron’s “Old Leech” stories. Langan’s novel The Fisherman includes a reference to “Mother of Stone,” extending the chain of connected stories. Another piece from Sefira keeps that chain going even further, with Langan having said that “Bor Urus” is meant to take place in the same universe as the others. Here, the gateway to an otherworldly place isn’t fixed in a circular stone chamber or along the banks of a creek. Instead, it appears from time to time at the height of particularly intense thunderstorms. Once again, Langan makes masterful use of juxtaposition, this time between the natural and unnatural. He also gives us a haunting portrayal of the tension between fascination and terror the one would expect might accompany an experience of the supernatural.

While Sefira doesn’t quite reach the heights of Carnivorous Sky—both “Mother of Stone” and “Technicolor” in that collection are truly extraordinary stories—it’s a very strong book. People who are already fans of Langan’s work will find a lot to enjoy here, and hopefully it will introduce new people to a writer whom the L.A. Review of Books was right to call “a Leviathan of modern weird fiction.” (And for those who’ve read The Fisherman, I see what you did there, L.A. Review of Books writer.)

“The End of All Our Exploring” by F. Brett Cox

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The End of All Our Exploring is F. Brett Cox’s first short story collection. It’s a wide-ranging book, with pieces that fall under the umbrellas of historical fiction, magical realism, science fiction, and horror.

While I enjoyed the book overall, it unfortunately gets off to a weak start. The first two entries, “Legacy” and “The Amnesia Helmet”, end with a summary of the main characters’ lives over the next few years. These endings feel limp and perfunctory, even though the stories that came before them were engaging.

Luckily, Cox hits his stride soon afterwards and doesn’t let up. My favorite story in the collection is “What We Did on Our Vacation: My Whole World Lies Waiting.” I’ve always loved the sort of weird fiction or “quiet horror” that strives to be unsettling rather than outright terrifying, and Cox nails that style here. The piece maintains an eerie atmosphere throughout, partly because exactly what’s going on is hinted at but never explicitly explained. It’s also very character-driven, using the supernatural phenomenon encountered by the main characters as a metaphor for how people can grow apart over time, becoming strangers to each other.

Another story I particularly enjoyed was “The Deep End.” Most stories about mysterious phenomena understandably locate them in sparsely-populated areas. Also, when not in the wilderness, they tend to be in old structures. “The Deep End” sets its tale of a supernatural encounter in an artificial, modern, contained location that’s crowded with people at the time. This makes the story feel truly fresh and original. I also appreciated the references to various urban legends about the jets and pumps in pools, as well as one gesture toward Chuck Palahniuk’s infamously disturbing short story “Guts.”

A trait many of the stories in this volume share is their keen sense of time and place. This is only to be expected for the historical fiction pieces, especially since, as described in the notes at the end, a couple of them are based on real incidents in places Cox has lived. But the more fanciful stories share this grounding in realistic landscapes and communities. “It Came Out of the Sky” is a particularly strong example. The story’s details of landscape and community make it feel like something that could really have happened and make the plot feel even more otherworldly by contrast. Throughout the book, Cox’s writing is at its most powerful when sea serpents, zombies, and witches exist alongside battered pickup trucks, women gossiping in beauty salons, and the awe-inspiring beauty of a star-filled summer sky.