Trolls, Shub-Niggurath, and the Dark North

Valancourt Books (previously) has increasingly been releasing horror in translation in recent years. Their Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories does what work in translation should do, “bringing the news” from other parts of the world to your own, or at least to your own language, and has shown up in reviews, on syllabi, and other places of honor. Not coincidentally, the press won the 2021 HWA Speciality Press Award, testament to their impact on the field, from reprinting forgotten classics to their translation work, to the Paperbacks from Hell series.

Recently they released a book that’s even better than the norm for them: Anders Fager’s Swedish Cults (Valancourt|Bookshop|Amazon). I no longer buy books based on blurbs, but I can honestly say that the blurbs for this book are correct. It’s a vigorous collection of Lovecraftian horror that belongs on a shelf with Caitlín R. Kiernan & kin. Reading it, I felt the same old/new shock that I got on reading Charles Stross’s “A Colder War,” that sense of a new take. Fager’s blend of sex and surreality is distinctive, he has one of the best uses of Shub-Niggurath I can remember reading, and there are no bad stories in this book. If any of the above resonated with you, check it out. Good reading for dark nights…

Anders Fager's book on a shelf of Lovecraft books
Swedish Cults in their native (?) environment

I should probably say that I was predisposed to be interested in Fager’s book. Growing up Scandinavian-American, my childhood was full of the usual stuff: lefse, rosemaling, Ole & Lena, etc. It also featured more than a little Norse mythology and folklore, including trolls of all shape and size. My interest in that has revived in recent years, partly for personal reasons and partly due to encountering works like Midsommar and Swedish Cults. I’ve bought or repurchased various related titles, some pictured below.

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, Berenstain's The Troll Book, the Kittelsen/Nunnally edition of Troll Magic, and the Nunnally/Gaiman Complete and Original Norwegian Folktales of Asbjornsen & Moe

Tack for reading, and check out Fager if his book sounds up your alley at all!

Cosmic Horror: Credit Where Credit Is Due

book cover

Thomas Ligotti’s Noctuary

Sometime in the mid-90’s I picked up an anthology or year’s best collection (I no longer remember which one) and read a Thomas Ligotti [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s] story. I would like to think that it was “The Last Feast of Harlequin” that forever changed my view of what cosmic horror could be, but in truth I just don’t remember. I do remember going looking for a collection by him, and being blown away by Songs of a Dead Dreamer. I couldn’t lay my hands on a copy of Grimscribe at the time, so a year-ish passed, and then I picked up Noctuary at the library. (Some wit had scrawled on the title page, in thick lead, “Ob-noxuary,” which wound up being another lesson, of sorts.)

Noctuary gave me what I later realized was my first exposure to anything that felt like what we now call “flash fiction” in the third part of the collection, “Notebook of the Night.” Among the stories there, “Autumnal” blended what I by then recognized as Ligotti’s signature worldview with all things autumn and a scrap of story-feel, and moved me in ways that very short fiction rarely had to that point.

Reading Thomas Ligotti led me to hunt down Bruno Schulz, and also, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, Franz Kafka. It wasn’t that I’d never read Kafka at all–I’d read several stories, in both English and German–but I hadn’t made a point of seeking him out in the context of cosmic horror or weird fiction generally. For that nudge, and for everything else, I’m grateful to Thomas Ligotti.

***

book cover

Low Red Moon, by Caitlin R. Kiernan

In 1998,  I was roaming some bookstore or other and picked up a copy of Silk, the first novel published by then-newbie Caitlín R. Kiernan [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. I read the back cover copy, opened it to a page at random, saw a bunch of made-up words and something about angels, and I put that book right back on the shelf. It was the late ’90s, and horror was a shit-stew of late Splatterpunk, sketchy vampire novels, and wailing about the “end of horror.” The greats were failing to turn in great work, and trying-too-hard crap like Silk was flying under the “H” banner, so I figured horror could stand to compost for a while. A few years later, I saw that “that Silk person” had put out something “Lovecraftian” that involved… what? Dinosaurs? Time-traveling dinosaurs? Set in Alabama? “What the fuck ever,” I thought, and moved on. Surely this hodgepodge bullshit was not worth my time.

Never have I been so wrong about an author.

Fast forward to 2005. I’d been busy with grad school and had barely written a word of fiction from about 1998 to 2002 or so, and I’d been warming the writing engines up again during library school.  I was wandering around in Magus Books in Seattle, and I came across a used copy of Threshold. It was $7.00, and I decided I’d give it a shot. Perhaps I might have been unwarrantedly dismissive. Reader, I have written at length in various places about the effect this had on me, but, in short, Caitlín R. Kiernan changed all over again my perception of what cosmic horror could be and do. I had been reading sundry Modernists for a while, and I’d developed the so-original idea of writing Lovecraftian fiction, but, like, with contemporary, taut prose, man. Reading Kiernan was exalting and devastating, because she did exactly what I wanted to do.

Not long after I read Low Red Moon, the sequel to Threshold, and it remains, to this day, one of my favorite novels of cosmic horror: delirious, beautiful, hinting at the shadowy world behind it all. I followed these up with a long-delayed read of Silk, which humbled me when I understood more about her aims, as well as Murder of Angels. About her short fiction it’s hard to say enough good things. If I one day manage to write a short story half as good as “Standing Water,” I’ll consider myself a real writer. When you can write an effective, striking story about a puddle, you have chops.

For her incantatory prose and leading me to think more broadly about the Lovecraftian tent, I’m grateful to Caitlín R. Kiernan.

***

book cover

The Croning, by Laird Barron

At some point late in the Oughts I started to hear rumblings of a New Guy, who was the next cosmic horror sensation to watch out for: Laird Barron [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. This was years after I’d started up on LiveJournal, and I’d occasionally see this guy with Hemingway and other tough-guy userpics, and he seemed both smart and funny. I had come to grips with the idea that authors were, in fact, real people, but in the vicissitudes of LJ comments and conflagrations I hadn’t sought out any of his fiction. I was, after all, busy reading other things, and there was a whole world of other authors out there on LJ I wanted to read. Then, sometime in the spring of 2010, I picked up Occultation, his then-just-published short story collection, and, once more, I was off to the races.

You know where this is going, right? Laird Barron blew me away. The stories in Occultation were often long, which threw me for a loop at first. The 5-10,000 word story had never much appealed to me as a reader, and I still don’t do it much as a writer, but he made me consider the possibilities of the long story. En route, he mashed up Lovecraft, noir, and lengthy sentences, refusing to be rushed. I was impressed. I read interviews with him, followed his blog, and realized that here was another writer who cared about cosmic horror, not in the yes-I’ve-read-Lovecraft sense, but in a holistic, all-encompassing way that was more Weltanschauung than mere preference.

And then in 2012 came The Croning, his first widely-published novel. (His 2011 novel, The Light Is the Darkness, slipped under the radar and didn’t get very much attention.)  The Croning is an unforgettable novel of cosmic horror. Hallucinogenic, vivid, and terrifying, it manages to pay homage to the forebears without feeling stale. Likewise, it’s unquestionably horror, and would alone have justified a revival of the genre, if it hadn’t already been cranking back up after the collapse of the ’90s. Why do I single out this novel for credit, which I read barely two years ago? There are many reasons, but the one I’ll cite is this: it’s a good short novel of cosmic horror. Short novels have always been around, but they aren’t much in favor right now, and if I need to think about what cosmic horror looks like at that length, I go to The Croning. That it didn’t win any awards is unfortunate, but there is a very long history of excellent works not winning awards for all manner of reasons. If I’m still around fifty years from now, and if I’m still rereading the books I have loved over the course of my life, I expect that The Croning will be on the shelf by my bed.

I’m grateful to Laird Barron for writing what he writes, as well as he does, at the length that he does. His engagement with and references to (in his fiction, interviews, and non-fiction) the masters of cosmic horror and the weird tale are a constant reminder that we are part of a tradition, and that strong trees have solid roots.

***

I’m grateful to these authors for the way their fiction has enriched my life and expanded my understanding of cosmic horror, and literature generally. I recommend their books to you, particularly those I’ve mentioned by name.

On The Existence of the Female Tentacle

“Is appreciation of Lovecraft and the Mythos a Guy Thing, like the Three Stooges?” That was the beginning, a couple days back, of a lengthy conversation in a Lovecraftian group on Facebook. As far as I can tell, the editor who asked the question wasn’t setting out to irritate, enrage, depress, or offend a large number of dedicated aficionados of the Old Gent, but it happened nonetheless.  As the shitstorm he inadvertently brewed up has waned, I’m still quietly boggling.

One can understand, studying tables of contents and looking back on the long run of Lovecraftian, Mythos, and generally cosmic horror, how one might come to ask if it’s just a “Guy thing.” There are, for instance, a grand total of three female Cthulhu Mythos writers listed on Wikipedia. Most of the Old Guard are or were men, and Lovecraftian fiction hasn’t historically been a place to go looking for strong women.

The problem is that this conversation happens constantly in publishing, genre and otherwise. Someone looks around and asks, in apparently willful ignorance of past discussions and the thousands and thousands of women who read and write every stripe of fiction, “what about those women?” Asking this is itself a kind of erasure: it’s staring obliviously into the face of those women and asking if they exist. Lovecraft is no longer a cult author, and readers of things Lovecraftian are no longer a coterie: from Hellboy to Hello Cthulhu to a geek President of the United States who undoubtedly knows his Cthulhu from his Yog-Sothoth, the tentacles have crept into everything.

There were a number of articulate responses in the discussion on Facebook, some polite and some caustic, but for my money, this comment by Molly Tanzer was the best:

As a new thread gets going in this community asking the tough questions like “What are women writers? Are they like… regular writers? I mean, they’re women, right? So, like, what do they write about? What’s their stuff like?”, I just don’t know what else to say. Especially as the first comment is basically “I can only think of three lady Lovecraftian horror writers!” So, awesome. Anyways, I am happy to say that I have felt welcomed and valued by the editors I’ve worked with within the Lovecraftian horror community, very much including Mike [Davis, editor of Lovecraft eZine, who did not initiate the discussion]. But this whole conversation is starting to wear me out. Apparently in 2014 women writers must still do double-duty–by which I mean, it’s not enough (for some) for us to just, like, write and publish quality Lovecraftian horror. We must do that, while enduring comments about how women don’t mythos because baby-makin’ hormones, while also taking our time to alert people to the fact we exist, AND remembering do so very, very politely so as not to offend the sensitive souls of editors who apparently don’t like to be reminded that part of their job isn’t just publishing their friends, but paying attention–actively reading what is being published by strangers and newcomers alike–trying new things and new people and new voices. Oh, and doing all that while also somehow preserving our sense of humor about life and publishing while being talked down to about how historically “masculine” means this-or-that, or Lovecraft such-and-such. Jesus. I mean, I have a degree in Gender Studies, and a Master’s in humanities that focused on history. And I write in this community. So… yeah.


Here are links if you want to do some reading. No consistency to these, really, just grabbed a bunch. I wasn’t able to find explicitly Lovecraftian/Cthulhuvian free online fiction for all of the authors listed, or wasn’t sure which to pick, and so left things as I did, which looks a little odd on the authors list. If you have suggested links about women who write Lovecraftian fiction, feel free to drop them in the comments.

Commentary

Women Who Write Lovecraft

Women at the Lovecraft Film Festival

Favorite Women in Horror

All-Female Authors Issue of Lovecraft eZine

Lovecraftian Archetypes: the eternal feminine

Joanna Russ and Lovecraftian/Mythos fiction

Authors

Caitlín R. KiernanWikipedia. Amazon.

Ann K. SchwaderInterview. Story.

Elizabeth BearInterview. Essay. Story.

Molly TanzerInterview. Story.

Silvia Moreno-GarciaInterview.

Gemma FilesProfile.

Lois GreshCollection. Interview.

Amanda DownumInterview.

Livia LlewellynInterview.

Anthologies

Lovecraft Unbound

Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath

The Book of Cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu II

New Cthulhu: the Recent Weird

Cthulhu Unbound, Vol. 2