The Ancestor

The AncestorIf someone were to ask me to direct them to a modern gothic novel, I’d point them straight to The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni. While I was drawn to the story by the premise of discovering a monstrous ancestry, I just did Ancestary.com last month, the sense of the gothic is what truly fascinated me about this read. Of course, cryptozoology also plays a significant role in the plot, and, since I previously won a contest concerning cryptid monsters for my flash fiction, Feeding Time, those elements of the story appealed to me too. Overall, Trussoni brought all the eclectic elements together into a perfect mix.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Alberta, finding out she’s the heir to the prestigious Montebianco family in Italy. I absolutely loved this setup because I had no second thoughts about why Alberta would be willing to go off and visit her family’s ancestral castle in exchange for a fortune. If someone told me I was royalty and had a castle, and I could pay off my student loans, I’d be on the first plane to Italy too. In horror stories, even exceptionally good ones, I often struggle to rationalize why the protagonist investigates a strange noise, heads into a spooky basement, etc. Trussoni deftly dodges that pitfall, and you totally buy Alberta’s willingness to travel to an isolated castle in the Alps. Before I get into some spoilers, I should also add that I listened to this story on Audible, and the reader, Heather Masters, did an incredible job bringing the narrative to life.

Spoilers Below (although I try to keep things vague)

Most of the story takes place in the Montebianco Castle, and you get the strongest gothic horror vibes from this section. Alberta becomes more and more aware of her own isolation as the helicopter that dropped her off doesn’t come back, and the harsh winter weather makes any other escape from the Alps impossible. She also gets better acquainted with the family’s dark secrets while exploring the castle and getting to know the residents. Throughout this part of the book, I kept assuming her ex-husband, Luca, would eventually show up and save her. I was conflicted on this point because, while I liked Alberta and wanted her to be okay, I didn’t want to see her turned into a damsel in distress rescued by her ex. Thankfully, Trussoni made a shocking decision regarding the character of Luca and his super nice father. This was the highlight of the book for me because it took me by complete surprise. Everything after that moment felt like icing on an already delicious cake because my assumptions on where the narrative was heading vanished.

The horror in this story comes from a lot of different places too. First, there’s the horror of isolation, Alberta being trapped in Montebianco Castle reminded me of The Shining at many times, except, in The Ancestor, the protagonist isn’t confined with family. Instead, she’s trapped with strangers, like the dangerous groundskeeper. Next, there’s the horror of Alberta’s monstrous ancestry. This plays out in two ways. One, she inherits a high risk of miscarriage. Two, there’s the horror of the actual identity of some of her relations, who are, let’s say, unique beings. All these ingredients culminate in a terrific book-stew. And I didn’t even mention the fast pace, which keeps you moving through the story quickly.

I highly recommend giving The Ancestor a read or listen. I first heard about it by watching The Lovecraft eZine, and if you’re on the fence about picking up the book, I suggest giving that interview a watch (it’s linked here). Trussoni also wrote Crypto-Z, a narrative podcast, that ties into The Ancestor, and I’ve listened to the first episode, which was excellent. Lastly, I had the pleasure of attending Trussoni’s first Writing Hang-Out Session via Zoom, and I enjoyed getting to listen to the attending writers and Trussoni discuss their work. I believe it’s open to any interested writers, and you can find the details about attending here.

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The Color Out of Time

The Color Out of TimeWhen I first read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, I was immediately excited at the thought of writing a sequel. The ending makes continuing the story an enticing proposition. When I investigated the subject, I found Michael Shea had already written a second installment, The Color Out of Time. This didn’t stop me from writing my own follow-up, A Night at the Arkham Reservoir, but I desperately wanted to read Shea’s work to see what he did with the same idea. I couldn’t procure the book until Ramsey Campbell, a Weird Fiction Legend, provided a link to an affordable copy on the Horror Writers Association Facebook page.

Aside from the perfectly chosen title, I immediately fell in love with The Color Out of Time’s cover, in all its skeletal glory. The artwork is gruesome and perfectly conveys the fact that this book is a work of horror. This is something that modern horror novels aren’t doing as much of. My attention was drawn to this subject by an excellent video called Horror Books Have Lost Their Identity by In Praise of Shadows, and I highly suggest giving it a watch if you’re interested in the subject.

As to the writing quality, I was already a fan of Shea’s Weird Fiction because I read his story, Tsathoggua, in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran. The Color Out of Time is written in a no-nonsense style that reminded me a bit of Roger Zelazny’s work. The story is effectively told, but I occasionally found myself wanting a little more from the descriptions. The Colour Out of Space is a rare story where, I feel, Lovecraft’s purple prose serves as an asset instead of a detriment, and I would’ve enjoyed reading a little more about the color in lush detail. I also felt that, while I loved the protagonists in Tsathoggua, I didn’t have an excellent sense of them in The Color Out of Time. There is a fantastic character introduced halfway through the story, but I need to delve into spoilers to discuss her.

Spoilers Below

While The Colour Out of Space’s Wikipedia page currently lists The Color Out of Time as a direct sequel, it’s actually not. The story posits that H.P. Lovecraft was inspired to write The Colour Out of Space by a real-life event that occurred in the 1930s. The Color Out of Time deals with the ramifications of a reservoir being built over the spot where those events occurred and where, like in Lovecraft’s story, a lingering piece of the monstrous color remains under the lake. That sets this story outside the universe of The Colour Out of Space. It’s an especially odd turn of events for the story because The Color Out of Time is written in such a way as to make the reader think it’s a direct sequel to The Colour Out of Space until about halfway through. When I got to the reveal, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be visiting Arkham or getting details on the surviving characters from The Colour Out of Space. I’m not sure why Shea decided to go this direction with the narrative. It could be that whoever held the rights to The Colour Out of Space didn’t allow Shea to continue the story. Sadly, since Shea passed in 2014, I’m unable to ask him why he made this choice, but once I got past that twist, I still enjoyed the tale.

To summarize the story briefly, two older gentlemen are enjoying a trip to a lake when they discover strange mutations and a negative psychic influence surrounding the area. They soon realize a mysterious, indescribable color in the lake is at fault, and when a park ranger dies, they team up with his surviving sister, Sharon Harms, to confront the color. Harms was the character I mentioned earlier. She’s motivated to kill the color as revenge for what it did to her childhood friend, who lived on the farm the color plagued, and for what it did to her brother. Harms gets my two favorite moments of the story. First, she relays how she met and befriended H.P. Lovecraft in her youth, and second, she faces off with the color using an Elder Sign. I’ll leave the ending for you to discover, but I thought it fit the story well.

Of course, having characters fight the color makes it much less frightening. Shea even has the color assume a more physical, spider-like form. The climax of the novel, where the three human protagonists battle the color, reminded me more of an adventurous Call of Cthulhu role-playing session then the end to a Lovecraft-inspired story. The real horror of the novel came from the primary human antagonist. He’s a vacationer who’s so committed to making money, off card games with the other visitors at the lake, that he won’t heed the protagonist’s warnings that everyone is in danger. He actively undermines their efforts to save lives. I couldn’t help thinking of businesses that fought to stay open during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, and the mayor in Jaws.

Well, this review sprawled a bit, but I appreciate you reading to the end. If you’re interested in this subject, you might also enjoy my review of Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space. I’d suggest you check out this book if you liked the Colour Out of Space, or if you want a quick summer read. The pace is fast, and the page count is small. If you’re extra committed to immersing yourself into your fiction, you can do what I did and visit a local lake while you read Shea’s book (pictured below). As long as you don’t start The Color Out of Time expecting it to continue the story of The Colour Out of Space, you won’t be disappointed.

Reading at Laurel Lake

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Milo

Milo Cover01001101 01101001 01101100 01101111 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100111 01101111 01101111 01100100 (Milo is Good). That’s my short review of fellow Seton Hill alumni Alexander Pyles’ excellent chapbook. It was published by Radix Media as part of their Science Fiction Futures Series. The company did a superb job of elevating the traditional chapbook into a more prestigious format. Aside from the stellar layout, the cover and interior art by Nico Roxe is stunningly original. So, what makes the story 01100111 01101111 01101111 01100100 (good)?

Spoilers Below

Well, I’ve already demonstrated one of my favorite elements. Pyles has his protagonist occasionally thinking in binary, which is rendered in the same manner I illustrated above. This is a uniquely cool idea, and it works perfectly in this tale. Milo, the namesake of the narrative, is a disabled man who decides to have his brain removed from his body and inserted into a robotic one. Things are great, at first.

There are two different elements at play in Milo that I really enjoyed. The first is the way the story reminded me of the horror inherent in the isolated brain trope, wherein a character has their brain removed from their body. My favorite example of this trope is in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, but Milo is not a horror tale. Pyles just renders Milo’s situation so well that readers will find themselves unnerved by the presentation of the character coming to grips with not having a body.

The second element is Milo’s slow loss of humanity in his robot form. At first, Milo only thinks in binary occasionally, but, by the end of the narrative, he only thinks in binary. This reminded me of moments in Paul Verhoeven’s classic, Robocop. Except, in this case, the robotic components consume the human, instead of the human transcending “literal” programming. The reader is left wondering what it means to be human, and I believe that is precisely the response the best science fiction should inspire in readers.

To conclude, Milo is an excellent story. It’s original, and it makes you think about fundamental questions we need to be discussing as a society. On top of that, you can pick up a copy without breaking your bank, and you’ll be getting a gorgeous piece of art to display on your bookshelf. You can also spring for a copy of the entire Science Fiction Futures collection from Radix Media and discover what the other entries in the series have to offer. I’m sure the quality is just as good as Milo. It’s a great time to be a reader when a chapbook can pack so much punch, but I’d certainly be interested in spending more time in Milo’s world if Pyles wanted to expand the tale further.

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Creatures of Will & Temper

Creatures of Will & Temper CoverIt was an absolute pleasure to re-discover the joy of book binging with Creatures of Will & Temper. My excitement levels were high when I discussed starting this novel in my post about coping with the world’s current COVID-19 situation. I am happy to report that my enthusiasm for the story carried through its entirety. I read it in only four sittings, and I finished the last 150 pages in a mad dash, the sure sign of a page-turner.

As an English Major, I was immediately captured by the Victorian setting and the elements derived from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. As a genre reader, I loved the short excerpts from the grimoire, On the Summoning of Demons, which start almost every chapter. As a writer, I was extremely impressed by Molly Tanzer’s pacing. She spends much of the tale’s first half developing the characters and adding layers to her world instead of rushing forward with heavy doses of plot, but the book’s momentum is never hindered. In fact, I think getting to know these characters and their world might have been my favorite part of the reading experience.

Minor Spoilers Below

There is young Dorina Grey, who is enamored with art and wooing attractive ladies. There is her older and more conservative sister, Evadne, who’s only true passion is fencing. And then there is the fantastic Lady Henry, the head of a demonic art appreciation society. She’s the David Bowie of this novel, and every story is vastly improved by a character who reminds me a little of Bowie. The villain reminded me quite a lot of Professor Rathe from Young Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I found that I was picturing him as the character before he was revealed as the tale’s primary antagonist. And since I love Young Sherlock Holmes, that only added to my enjoyment of this book.

One of the challenges of discussing a novel you really like is not rambling on forever, so I will try to keep my final thoughts brief. I loved Tanzer’s attention to detail. Minor things, like the fact that one character really likes ginger, becomes important later. I should add that the focus on ginger also made me crack open a bottle of Ginger Ale that I’d had in the fridge since February. It was delightful. About halfway through reading this, I started thinking about how fun a role-playing game set in the world of Creatures of Will & Temper would be. You could hunt down other demon worshipers or use your demonic powers for heroics. Finally, the story’s ending includes a thrilling bit of swordplay, but what I really loved about it was the profound cost of triumph for one of the heroes. It should go without saying, but a good ending needs to have characters suffer consequences and change. The Dorina and Evadne who begin their journey in Creatures of Will & Temper, aren’t the same ones who end it.

Lastly, Molly Tanzer just put out the third entry in The Diabolist Library Series, which started with Creatures of Will & Temper. While I usually wouldn’t urge someone to begin with the third tale in a series, you could actually do that with this series. The books are set in the same world but don’t follow the same characters. Think of the Diabolist’s Library series as the Castle Rock or Fargo of novels. So why not pick up the newest installment, Creatures of Charm & Hunger, and support a book baby during this continuing COVID-19 catastrophe? Based on Creatures of Will & Temper, I can assure you of an excellently structured, detail-rich, and fun read.

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Surviving

Jeremiah and his wife, Mariah.

Early in Shaun of the Dead, Shaun bumps into his friend Yvonne, who asks him how he’s doing. He replies with, “surviving.” Later in the movie, when the zombie apocalypse is underway, Shaun and Yvonne cross paths again, only for Yvonne to ask the same question and get the same reply. Except this time, “surviving” takes on a darkly humorous connotation. Recently, I asked a friend how he was doing in the current crisis. I got the same comic response that Shaun got, and I mention all that to underline the fact that we’re living through a genuinely trippy time where Shaun of the Dead feels prophetic.

Mariah Cook's painting

First, let me say, I hope everyone reading this is doing well. I hope you’re avoiding the plague, and I hope you’re keeping yourself busy with creative endeavors. My wife has been painting and embroidering since her job closed, and she’s making some wild art. That’s her work pictured to the right. I managed to write three flash fictions and submit them to the NoSleep Podcast last week, but I’ve had a tough time writing because I’m working from home. Doing my day job at my writing desk, I’m finding it physically challenging to sit in the same space after my mandatory eight hours. I feel like my corporate gig has infected and morphed my place of passion like John Carpenter’s The Thing changed the unfortunate souls at Outpost 31. That said, I am incredibly grateful for my continuing paychecks.

Aside from the desk issues, I’m enjoying all the extra time with my good lady wife and cat. I keep reminding her that in any other circumstance, we’d be overjoyed to be staying home, guilt-free. We are still getting out for exercise by going for walks around the neighborhood and to our local park (yes, we’re staying a safe distance away from everyone else). When we’re not doing that, we’re playing one of our many games. We recently completed The Path to Carcosa campaign of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and we played a bunch of Mansions of Madness yesterday. I love Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files games because they allow me to imbibe the sweet narratives of Weird Fiction while including my wife.

Of course, games aren’t the only narratives we’re enjoying. We finished the third season of FX’s Legion, which was quite strange. The primary antagonists were pulled straight from The Beatles Yellow Submarine cartoon, they’re the Blue Meanies. I think the series is worth your time if you like a good dose of psychedelia with your superhero tales. We’ve also been re-watching a ton of Community. How has that show been off the air for five years now? It’s a classic, and I especially love the fascinatingly strange season six, which initially aired on Yahoo. On top of those, we’ve been enamored with Devs, Lego Masters, and Better Call Saul, which are all currently ongoing. And last night, I found a gem on Netflix called The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which I loved.

I’m not just watching television, though. I recently finished Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I loved seeing how much influence the novel had on Stephen King’s It and season two of Sabrina. Bradbury’s command of language is superb, but I would’ve liked a little more information on the villains of the story, their origins, and how their powers worked. After finishing Something Wicked This Way Comes, I started Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer, and I am loving it. I briefly met Tanzer at Necronomi-Con in August, during the Tor Nightfire event. She was super friendly and kind, so it was only a matter of time before I checked out her work. There’s a lesson for all my fellow writers, if you’re kind to people, they’ll probably buy your stuff. Well, at least I will.

Okay, it’s about time I wrapped up this overindulgent self-reflection. Keep washing those hands and staying inside. Don’t forget to reach out to your friends and loved ones to check in on them, play lots of games, and enjoy some art.

Stay Froggy,

Jeremiah