New voices in Cosmic Horror are a dime a dozen. Unfortunately, good new voices in Cosmic Horror are just a bit harder to come by. All too often, the writer takes the tract of "just add tentacles" with no real understanding of what makes a Cosmic Horror story actually work, let alone any inkling of how early writers of the form like Lovecraft and Smith used baroque language and Gothic imagery to build atmosphere.
Which is why I was so happy to finally get my hands on an early review copy of Matthew Pungitore's new collection, The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers. This slim little collection offers up tales of madness, horror, and existential dread alongside the occasional moment of haunting, gothic beauty. And it's all told in a florid style, one newer writers mostly seem to have forgotten how to use effectively.
Readers, I'm here to tell you that Pungitore hasn't. If you've been looking for a writer whose prose style falls somewhere between that of Poe, Lovecraft, and Smith, Pungitore might just be the man to scratch that itch.
But what about the subject matter?
Well, if you want some idea whether or not this book is for you, there's a line in the title story that that offers a perfect litmus test. How you feel about the following sentence is more or less how you're going to feel about the book:
"Humans were never meant to plumb reality without nepenthean delusion afore their minds."
That line, both similar in subject to, yet stylistically different from Lovecraft's more famous "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents," pretty much perfectly encapsulates everything Pungitore is trying to do here. He's dealing with the same themes of Cosmic Horror, but he's doing it in his own unique voice, one much more influenced by older Gothic writers.
That said, this book is no simple Lovecraft pastiche. You won't find any of the Gent From Providence's Old Ones or Elder Gods, nor any mention of the Necronomicon. Pungitore, instead, has done the much harder work of creating his own interlocking mythos in these tales, subtle call backs and references to Abbeys, characters, and events that may or may not have happened in the characters' consensus reality.
That's an achievement in itself, and one that far too many "new weird" writers would shy away from even trying at this stage in their careers. Especially when low-hanging fruit like shoggoths, Cthulhu, and Nyarlathotep are all right there.
So why am I putting this under "Conservative Culture Review," instead of just doing a simple review column? The answer is in the way Pungitore handles religion, which is something I honestly believe sets him apart from just about anyone else writing this sub-genre right now.
The characters in many of these tales are God-fearing, often Catholic folks. As such, when they're confronted with the idea their belief system didn't account for the cosmic horrors and alien gods they encounter in the forgotten corners of the Earth, they don't react as "men of science" clinically describing the breaking of their own minds.
They react like men of faith, literally "losing their religion" in the face of a greater devil than the one they were taught to guard against by the church fathers. In other words, Pungitore took Cosmic Horror, re-examined it through the eyes of the devout, and used that lens to make it feel scary again.
After decades of snarking, cynical takes on the subject, Pungitore's refreshingly straight example of what Cosmic Horror can actually be is just the shot in the arm the genre desperately needed.
If you're a reader of Cosmic Horror, buy this book. Experiencing these stories through the eyes of Pungitore's characters will give you the same kind of thrill you had the first time you discovered the genre.
If you're a writer of Cosmic Horror, buy it, read it, but more importantly, pay attention. Pungitore has found one of the keys to making the genre work again, and he's applying it in a way that feels damn near effortless here.
With all this crowing about how impressed I am with Pungitore's ability to create atmosphere, build his own mythos, and make a tired genre feel scary again, I should probably say something about the stories. All 11 of the tales on hand were solid, entertaining reads, but the following ones left the strongest impressions.
The title story is the clear standout of the collection. It's a multi-layered tale about a Medievalist, his unrequited love for a working partner, and their discovery of a previously unknown chapter of Arthurian Myth with sinister implications. The middle section of this tale, in which the narrator recounts the lost myth, has an entirely different feel to the rest, one that strongly recalls Lord Dunsany's lyrical fantasies. The story's smooth tonal shift from Lovecraftian search for lost knowledge, to whimsical fantasy, back to Lovecraftian-style search, demonstrates an awesome level of skill on Pungitore's part. In lesser hands, this "story within a story" device would be jarring. Here, it just accomplishes the intended purpose of making the world feel older, richer, and far stranger than the narrator previously believed.
"Black Torque Demon" is a tale of knightly valor, honor, and love, centering around a quest to lift an ancient curse. The order of the Black Torque Knights gives aid to lepers, pilgrims, and wounded vagrants. Sir Goswin vows to accompany his betrothed, the Lady Adelaide, to pray with them and work alongside them, a holy act which will lift the decades-old curse on her family. But curses don't go away so easily. Another great stand-out tale in the book.
"Idyll for an Allhallowtide Masque and Romance" is another almost Dunsanian tale, the story of a midnight dance with a mysterious masked stranger in the Massachusetts woods that leads to the classical Other-world of myths and legends.
"O Tumult Unearthly" is one of the two overtly Science Fictional pieces in this collection, taking place in the year 2642. The narrator is the sole survivor of a starship wreck, one rescued by a crew of mercenaries. He relates the nightmarish things he experienced, both before and after the crash. The visions of the future Pungitore presents here are downright hellish. Fans of the film Event Horizon will find a lot to like here.
"Jade Gorget Hex" is a story where Pungitore flexes a slightly more hard-boiled pulp influence. That said, it's still recognizably a part of this collection. The gothic atmosphere and baroque language are still front and center in this tale of a mercenary hired to recover an ancient artifact in some unspecified, cyberpunk-ish near future. Delightfully weird.
All in all, I recommend this collection to fans of Cosmic Horror, classic weird tales, and Gothic-infused fiction. Pungitore is a stylist who "gets it" when it comes to creating an effective mood on the page. Furthermore, he actually has the confidence to play the tropes of the genre dead straight. No winking at the audience, no subversions, no "too-clever-by half" takes. Just good, old fashioned horror tales, like the kind Grandpa H. P. & Great Uncle Clark Ashton used to make.
If that's not deserving of your attention at the beginning of 2021, I don't know what is.
The Report of Mr. Charles Aalmers will be released in paperback and ebook on March 21. You can preorder it here.
Last week, I took some random Twitter dumbass to task for mocking the idea conservatives have a culture. That post wasn't just meant as a "point and laugh" moment, however. I also wanted to highlight and call attention to some conservative works in my own little neck of the arts, SF and Fantasy. To that end, I included a list of writers and publishers who adhere to a couple of basic principles, ones that conservative readers I've talked to tend to value highly:
Admittedly, that last one is likely due to a heavy dose of selection bias, as I tend to run in Pulp circles these days. On the other hand, what else are all these "subversive" takes in mainstream entertainment attacking, if not those first two points?
Anyway, I don't plan to rehash that post here. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to highlighting conservative works in the genre, so this is the first in a series of reviews. First up is Singaporean author and Hugo and Dragon-Award nominee, Kit Sun Cheah, with the first volume of his Dungeon Samurai trilogy, Kamikaze.
Kamikaze begins in a dojo in modern-day Japan, where 19 year old Yamada, his best friend Hiroshi, and their fellow students are studying traditional sword arts. Cheah doesn't wait to kick the story off, as by the end of the chapter, a demonic entity has whisked the entire class off to another world, a place resembling a small island.
The demon, Yamada learns, has summoned people from various times and places in history for its own entertainment, and it's been doing so for some time. The demon's terms are simple: it is waiting at the bottom level of a dungeon. As soon as the people get there and kill him, they are free to go.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been an easy task. At the humans' Roman Army-like encampment, Yamada learns the operation to clear and take territory in the dungeon has been a years' long process, and they aren't even close to the bottom yet. Hundreds have died, and each time the numbers dwindled, the demon has gleefully offered to summon more "replacements" from Earth, the latest batch of which includes Yamada and Hiroshi.
After being appraised of the situation, Yamada and the rest of the new arrivals are also hit with the harsh truth: food supplies on the island are limited, and no one in the camp eats unless they pitch in and help with their assigned tasks, be it support, medicine, or fighting. In other words, they're all being drafted into the war against the demon. As the title suggests, Yamada and Hiroshi are selected for service as dungeon delvers, their martial arts experience being the single most valuable thing either brings to the community.
All this is really just the first few chapters' worth of set up, which Cheah gets out of the way skillfully and efficiently, so the reader can enjoy the main show. The bulk of the book is a richly-detailed military fantasy, albeit one that takes place in an RPG-inspired world. It's a blend that works wonderfully. Instead of the usual gaming tropes of adventurer's guilds and grinding for XP, we get a host of tropes swiped from MilSF, like a realistic boot camp sequence, war as boredom-punctuated-by-terror, and the importance of espirit de corps and morale in a combat zone.
Cheah has called Dungeon Samurai the "Anti-LitRPG," and it's easy to see why. Contrary to most of the genre, his heroes don't begin with super powers, and never get overpowered at all. This is dungeon-delving from the grunt's eye view, not from the video game super hero's.
In that sense, it reflects a traditional, old-school value set the rest of the LitRPG subgenre seems to lack. Yamada and his classmates aren't video game addicted shut-ins, suddenly given a chance to play out some power fantasy. They're hard-working athletes, boys who know the value of sweat-equity, discipline and teamwork. Moreover, the situation they're caught in reinforces the need for these values as a survival trait. Their new community is depending on these boys to quickly become strong men, and Yamada and Hiroshi are eager to prove themselves up to the task.
Religion is also an important part of Dungeon Samurai, and not just in the standard "Cleric-class as healers" trope found in most game-inspired fiction. Cheah's characters are men and women ripped from their daily lives, and dropped into unimaginable hardship. Add to that the very real and tangible evil of the demon--something the modern characters like Yamada thought of as imaginary before the story opened--and their faith is all they really have to keep them going.
What I want to call special attention to is the realistic and subtle way Cheah handles it. The struggle to take the dungeon is a slog, like any long military campaign, and Cheah uses the quiet moments in between operations to explore how each of his characters acclimates to his new situation. Primarily, we experience the island through our viewpoint protagonist Yamada and his Shinto faith. But we also get hints about Christian Hiroshi, whose faith makes him sort of an odd-man-out during downtime sequences. He spends religious services with the Westerners in camp, and Hiroshi sees less and less of him when they're not on missions. That said, neither man ever treats the other as anything less than a blood brother. It's a realistic depiction of how clashing faiths, but close relationships, play out in a combat zone.
The other important relationship in Yamada's life is his blossoming friendship--and possibly romance--with young shrine maiden, Katsura. She represents something of a break from the regimented, militaristic life Yamada has found himself in, a small breath of normality in a truly abnormal world. Their relationship is sweet, chaste, and courtly--genuinely not the kind of thing you see much of in mainstream fiction these days.
The battle scenes are well-drawn and exciting, and Cheah's vision of what military life would be like in a game-inspired universe is worth the price of admission alone. It's LitRPG with a layer of trail mud, blisters, and the sore and aching soldiers only an infantryman could appreciate. He's also made it much tougher for me to take the rest of the genre seriously, even as light entertainment. I keep imagining how the average isekai or LitRPG protagonist would fare dropped into the FOB of Cheah's dungeon, with a squad running patrol Ops in the harsh, unforgiving dark. The answer isn't usually good.
Bottom line, Cheah has written a book that's sure to appeal to gamers of all stripes, be it Old School D&D players, console-era players, or modern MMORPG fans. What's more, he's brought back a sense of tactical and strategic thinking to dungeon delving, and married it to his knowledge of real-life martial arts and combat. The result is the single most refreshingly original isekai or LitRPG published in the genre in years, and I'm mad I slept on it for over a year before reading it.
Kamikaze is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon. It has two sequels, Kama no Kishi and Seisen. If you're last-minute shopping for the gamer in your life, there's still time to get the entire trilogy in hardcopy before Christmas.
Take my word for it. They'll be happy you did.
This Tweet came across my feed earlier today.
Leaving aside both the bad-faith argument and the level of sheer bufoonery on display, I thought it deserved an honest response. Not so much for Mr. Black's benefit, since people who pose such questions are never looking for understanding.
Rather, this post is meant as a rally point. Something those on the right can point to next time some dumbass makes a comment like Mr. Black's.
If culture begins with storytelling, then conservative culture begins with the idea that things like Patriotism and Christianity aren't automatic punchlines or villains. For decades, "subversive" takes on these subjects have been the dominant storytelling mode in Hollywood and Big 5
(now Big 4) publishing.
And it's tiresome.
There are only so many times an audience is willing to pay good money to see itself and its values mocked. Sooner or later, they want entertainment choices that don't paint them as ignorant, evil, or both. If major media companies can't provide it, they start looking elsewhere.
The most comprehensive take on this subject is, of course, Brian Niemeier's book, Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You. I highly recommend it. You might not agree with everything he says, but that doesn't change the fact that he's right.
If anything, comments like Mr. Black's only serve to reinforce Brian's message. Black can't conceive of a "conservative culture" that isn't a repressive caricature of Christian values. The conservative worldview is so foreign to him, he literally had to use villains from an 80's movie to make his point.
The comments beneath his aren't much better. Several are worse. None of them line up with reality.
That said, there is a definite conservative culture, especially in SFF. Most conservatives I know gravitate to fast-paced adventure fiction over deconstruction and subversion. They want to read about people solving problems instead of navel-gazing, and they want strong heroes that reflect their personal values.
Here's a partial list of writers who deliver just that:
Jon Del Arroz
Bradford C. Walker
Kit Sun Cheah
Adam Lane Smith
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention two excellent publishers: DMR Books and Cirsova Magazine. If any publication can truly be said to have inherited the spirit of Weird Tales and Argosy, it's Cirsova. They specialize in the same kind of fast-paced adventure fiction many of the above writers do. DMR books specializes in classic-style Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet. They've released high-quality reprints of Golden Age classics alongside original fiction from modern masters of the craft.
Which segues into my next point.
Another great pillar of conservative culture--especially in SF and fantasy--is old stories, particularly the pulps. Classic writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H. P. Lovecraft are well known enough to casual genre fans. Their most famous creations are household names even to non-readers. But there are plenty of other, equally important pulp-era writers that have been largely forgotten, writers like Abraham Merritt and Manly Wade Wellman.
Conservative culture is also about reading and rediscovering these stories, and keeping them alive for new generations of readers.
If you need a roadmap, the two best resources for getting into old stories are The Pulp Archivist, and Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. The Pulp Archivist regularly posts on classic fiction from the Golden Age. Jeffro's book is an excellent primer and overview on the SFF scene as it existed before 1980. As a bonus, you'll also get lots of great insights as to how old pulps and the 1960s-70s SFF scene shaped early Dungeons & Dragons.
You want to see what real conservative culture looks like? Follow some of those guys. Better yet, read their books. Read the old ones, too, to see the style of storytelling they want to preserve, and what some of them are writing in conscious tribute to.
As for closing the rift in popular culture? That's a much taller order. Honestly, it might not be possible anymore. But if you're serious about it, then step one is to stop treating half the culture like the punchline.
As if 2020 didn't feel apocalyptic enough already. Any teenager that grew up in my generation grew up headbanging to Eddie's riffs. I vividly remember blaring classic Van Halen tapes while riding around in by buddy's old '88 Camaro. This music was the soundtrack to our teen years, even if it came out almost 20 years earlier.
Eddie was timeless like that.
Run on, Eddie. I'll be headbanging this one for you tonight.
It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.