I may not have been reading recently, but never let it be said I don’t have some pots on the fire. In conjunction with friend of the station Kyle Tierce, of the Memetic Supply Co. and also of being AKA Dr. Quandary, I would like to present Massimo e Massimo. Driven by a love of the (sub)genres, we just released a seven-track EP of songs inspired by imaginary Italian horror, thriller, and giallo movies, complete with posters, photos, and film synopses. Please enjoy.
So I haven’t written anything in forever — we’re preparing for our first baby due next month, which is consuming nearly all our free time and is hugely exciting!
I also haven’t read anything in forever — well, I’m halfway through The Happiest Baby on the Block, anyway, and working on 3D Engine Design for Virtual Globes for work, if those count. There are several upcoming releases I’m excited for, though: Nathan Ballingrud’s Wounds, John Langan’s long-awaited Sefira and Other Betrayals, and I believe Matthew M. Bartlett’s limited-edition chapbook If It Bleeds are all coming out very soon.
On the flipside of reading, I am extremely pleased that my short story Crypsis will be appearing in Martian Migraine Press’ forthcoming anthology of camouflage-themed cosmic horror, Monstrous Outlines!
I also have watched relatively few movies, other than a ton of horror movies (most old and cheesy to varying degrees) in October and November of last year. For the sake of writing something, anything, to justify the hosting fees for this place, I now present brief reviews of what I’ve seen in the last few months. Spoiler: Halloween III was the highlight by far.
True Detective, Season 3
I am actually not qualified to comment on this yet, as I still haven’t gotten around to watching the last episode of the season. That being said, up to that point the performances were exceptional (for the most part) and Pizzolatto continued to routinely make the second-best writing choices in any given situation and scene. I will revisit this once I’ve finished it.
Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino
Look. I desperately wanted to like this movie. I tried so hard to see it in theaters, although it never came any close enough, geographically, to make that happen. I was jazzed to see the trailers, the visual direction, the increased focus on dance. Unfortunately, I found this movie to be Bad. It dragged on, it was riddled with unnecessary subplot, the nightmare sequences looked like comically cheesy film-student quality b-roll from the video tape in the American remake of The Ring, and the ending was just… really lame. I was so ready for this movie to be good, and it wasn’t even a case of me overhyping it to myself; it was just straight up unenjoyable to me.
The Shiver of the Vampires, dir. Jean Rollin
I originally thought this was better than Daughters of Darkness, but with more hindsight I’m not sure if I still feel that way. It was reasonably entertaining to have on while I made dinner, though, and was generally pretty serviceable. The vampires were seriously underpowered and frequently got knocked over with a strong shove, which was pretty funny. The two shithead male vampires would have done a good job as the two leads in an adaptation Lovecraft's "The Hound".
The Stuff, dir. Larry Cohen
I heard about this (and several other films I watched around this time) from the Horny 4 Horror podcast, which is pretty damn funny. On the one hand, this is not a good movie. On the other hand, it's got so many fake commercials for The Stuff, it's got Big Ice Cream, it's got Chocolate Chip Charlie, it's got an extremely unlikable protagonist, and it's The Taste That Makes You Hungry For More™. Bonus half-star for generally being insane.
Wishmaster, dir. Robert Kurtzman
Also watched thanks to Horny 4 Horror, this movie is fucking radical. A dude’s skeleton erupts out of his body and walks around in like the first five minutes. Is it incredibly cheesy? Hell yes. Does it have cameos from just about every major horror actor? Yes it does. Is Verne Troyer also in it? Yes he is. With Kurtzman at the helm, the practical effects are as good as any I’ve seen, essentially on the level of The Thing, which is obviously saying something. This is a fantastic movie to drink with/to/about.
Sleepaway Camp, dir. Robert Hiltzik
Hilariously bad but somehow still excellent, this is definitely a movie that could only have been made when it was (1983). I enjoyed the hell out of it, especially with Joe Bob Briggs’ insight and commentary (which, by the way, if you’re not subscribed to Shudder for, is a serious oversight if you enjoy horror).
Daughters of Darkness, dir. Harry Kümel
Another one I saw thanks to Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In. This was definitely more coherent than Vampyros Lesbos, but I’m not really sure that’s a strength. It did kind of wear on, and there’s an awful lot of suspiciously day-bright, blue-gel “night” shots.
Vampyros Lesbos, dir. Jesús Franco
This movie is exactly what you expect it to be from the name. A passing semblance of a plot, a ton of vampire breasts, and some fucking wicked psych-porno-jazz. Also, how weird is it that this, Shiver of the Vampires, and Daughters of Darkness all came out the same year? 1971 was all-in on the erotic vampire movies.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch, dir. Tommy Lee Wallace
The hottest new film in the Halloween franchise is called Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Released in 1982 and having nothing to do with Michael Myers, this movie has *everything*: the mother of all earworm product jingles, commercials for the original Halloween playing on TVs within this film, android men in black, Chekhov's stolen Stonehenge megalith, masks that melt kids' faces and cause bugs and snakes to crawl out and then the snakes bite their parents, early-1980s casual sexual harassment, a concerted effort on the part of the filmmakers to convince us that Tom Atkins is sexy, a villain whose motivation to commit mass child murder appears to be "eh, why not"... what more could you want?
Terrified, dir. Demián Rugna
Pretty decent, definitely entertaining enough and moves along at a pretty good clip. Also fairly cheesy in parts, but not distractingly so. Had some pretty imaginative parts too! My main beef is that the English subtitles were *very* bad (at least on Shudder, where I watched it). Plenty of times where the English was really grammatically wrong, or didn't match what was being said in Spanish, or had bad formatting, etc. I did appreciate that it was less than two hours long, which is hard to find these days! Overall, a decent thing to watch on an October night.
The Haunting of Hill House, dir. Mike Flanagan
This was great, but the ending was way out of sync with the rest of the show and frankly tanked it for me pretty considerably. Which is a shame, because otherwise it was quite good!
Apostle, dir. Gareth Evans
The main younger husband from Downtown Abbey vs. the "REMARKABLE!" guy from Twilight, a dude from Silent Hill, and a meat grinder. Overall pretty good, didn't blow me away but kept me pretty entertained.
The Wailing, dir. Na Hong-jin
Beautifully shot, excellent performances, great use of sound. Overall a totally stellar horror film. Yes, it’s pretty damn long, but it’s worth watching. Really, really good.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been dealing with godawful toothaches/headaches, and a few times I glimpsed the ur-headache from which all others descend. For your enjoyment, here are some lesser-known varieties of the species:
Transtherial neuralgia: The etheric twin to a nerve cluster one one side of your head has become irritated and inflamed, causing debilitating pain through the eye, sinus, and jaw on that side. If left untreated, the psychic impaction will fissure open, splitting your mandible on one side as spined, curving growths of tangible astral pain erupt from your flesh.
Lithophthalmic: Your eye or eyes begin turning to stone (not to be confused with ossuophthalmic, when the eyes ossify into bone). The first symptom here is a painful heaviness in the eye as the humours begin solidifying. After several days this will proceed to blindness as the rest of the eye follows suit. Finally, the rods and cones change into new arrangements of stony cells, strange striations that allow sight only through solid stone. Of potential use, if the pain is worth dealing with.
Superspectral: Due to encounters with extradimensional forces, the topology of your soul has been changed. As your consciousness is being rearranged, parts of your mind begin shifting, sliding, and skipping across the occult superspectrum. At times your skull might be visibly illuminated from within by previously-unseen and -unseeable colors. At other times your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears may drip and leak otherworldly music that cuts like barbed hooks. None of this feels good.
Greater scintillating scotoma: Imagine the aura that accompanies visual migraines, only the aura starts puckering and ripping open and things start coming out and only you can see them, but also you have a debilitating migraine.
Buscard's pleromalphasia: Parasitological linguistic infection causes the language centers of your brain to become increasingly efficient. At first this can be helpful, as you pick up new languages remarkably quickly and can follow deductive leaps from the barest of philological information. Unfortunately, the condition doesn't stop at being helpful, and soon your mind is crowded with words, too many words, sentence structures of impossible languages, new declensions that contort your ability to reason or function beyond the point of failure.
Gateways to Abomination, Matthew M. Bartlett
I’d seen a lot of word-of-mouth hype about this collection, and I was surprised and pleased to see that it lives up to everything I’d read. More of a novel presented as a series of connected short stories, some only a few pages in length. Bartlett has a great sense of both visceral, surreal horror and weirdness, and this was just an absolute pleasure to read. Even though Weird Massachusetts is a pretty heavily-used trope (one of which I myself am guilty of using), his Leeds remains totally original. A witch-cult running a local radio station is sublime, at least in his hands. I will gladly continue to tune into WXXT, way down on the sinister side of the radio dial. Highly recommended.
The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, Matthew M. Bartlett
A very brief companion piece, essentially a chapbook, illuminating the lives of a number of the wicked characters appearing or mentioned in Gateways. The illustrations by Alex Fienemann are well done and match the semi-absurd, sometimes humorous evils of the coven described.
Unlanguage, Michael Cisco
Unlanguage is, I think, a masterpiece, albeit one nearly entirely beyond my ability to describe, let alone expound on; I have more to say, more I want to say, about Cisco’s novel, but I can’t find the words for it. In some ways during reading I found myself reminded of House of Leaves over and over, which isn’t to say that Cisco’s work is derivative or even that the two pieces are similar. The mental, emotional, and physical effects of the two, though, are comparable. It might be that what House of Leaves did with and to the structure of the novel, Unlanguage does with language itself. I haven’t read anything else by Cisco, so in that regard I have nothing to compare it with, but I often see his other works described as “challenging” and “experimental”, so I have to assume they’re similar in some ways. Even so, I can’t imagine anything can really touch Unlanguage. There are the books you read that make you think, “I could write this,” and the ones that you make think, “I could write something like this, but not as well,” and the ones that make you think, “this is way beyond what I could ever write.” Unlanguage is in a further category, the “I don’t understand how anybody could write this, or how it even exists” category. It’s a truly singular creation, and like House of Leaves and a handful of other works, the closest thing to a true mind-warping magical tome that we have in our world.
Black Helicopters, Caitlín R. Kiernan
Unfortunately, I felt like Black Helicopters took what I liked about Agents of Dreamland, padded it with a bunch of stuff I wasn’t into, and then also diluted the stuff that worked for me. The prose itself is still very good, Kiernan is a great writer, and a lot (most?) of what I didn’t enjoy is more due to my own tastes than anything the book does right or wrong. It just didn’t really work for me, unfortunately, coming off as too scattered to fully congeal or even really hold my attention. I’m all for books that jump forward and backward in time and space, but there was a lack of cohesion for me that kept things from really coming together. The parts of the story I was more interested in were given relatively little time on the page. Read Agents of Dreamland first if it sounds appealing; if you’re really into it, give this a shot, but otherwise I can’t really recommend it unless you’re a big Kiernan fan.
The Children of Old Leech, edited Ross E. Lockhart
I’ve had this since Christmas and shamefully only just finally got around to reading it, but better late than never. Definitely a strong collection overall, especially for those (like me) who can't get enough Laird Barron. John Langan's "Ymir" is the standout, unsurprising given both his superb writing and his close friendship with Barron, but several of the other stories were great as well. I really enjoyed Stephen Graham Jones' "Brushdogs", "The Old Pageant" by Richard Gavin was nice and subtle, and Scott Nicolay and Jesse James Douthit-Nicolay's "Tenebrionidae" was excellent for its rail-riding voice and weirdness. Michael Griffin's "Firedancer" didn't hit 100% for me, but did leave me wanting to read more of his work. In total, it's a great supplement to Barron's own stories. I don't know that any besides "Ymir" are strictly required reading, but none were bad and the average quality was quite high
Deep Red, dir. Dario Argento
As a huge fan of the giallo aesthetic, it was pretty criminal that I hadn’t seen this; it’s finally been rectified. There’s good reason that this is frequently cited as one of the quintessential entries in the genre, because it is absolutely superb. Obviously, Goblin’s score is excellent and perfectly supplements the film, which is Argento at his finest. Even though it came out several years after The Man From Y.E.T.I. aired, Deep Red really hammered home for me just how much giallo influence there was in that series, and it’s no secret that endlessly analyzing that bizarre show is one of my prime hobbies; for that, I doubly enjoyed the film. If you’ve any interest in the genre and are late to catching this like I was, do yourself a favor and set things right.
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, dir. Shunya Ito
I’d vaguely heard of this series somewhere, was too brain-dead tired to pay scrutiny to anything too attention-heavy, and had two free months on Shudder; therein lies the story in my watching this art-meets-exploitation women-in-prison number courtesy 1972 Japan. On the one hand, the film is exploitation to the core, with essentially every character save Scorpion being almost cartoonishly nasty and brutal; Scorpion herself is almost entirely characterized by her speaking barely a handful of times throughout the whole movie. I was surprised that there’s less nudity than I expected, but regardless, just about every interaction between any and all the characters is savage and nasty. On the other hand, Shunya Ito seemed to basically be able to do whatever he wanted, resulting in a lot of surreal, beautiful shots and sequences. The juxtaposition of the two headspaces here gives me ample ground to use hefty red string to connect Jailhouse 41 to giallo on my film conspiracy board, despite very clear tonal differences. I’d be interested in watching others of the Scorpion films to see how they stack up. All things considered, though, any recommendation here hinges on whether you think you’d like a sometimes-surreal women-in-prison exploitation film, which is doubtless something you already know about yourself.
Mandy, dir. Panos Cosmatos
Apparently, after Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos got really into Twin Peaks: The Return, listened to a ton of metal albums, and then called up Nic Cage. This is what I’ve mentally reconstructed from the evidence that is Mandy, anyway. It is the most metal thing I’ve ever seen. It is probably the finest vehicle Nic Cage will ever have, in terms of enabling him to go full-on Nic Cage. The score is absolutely flawless. It is, as you would expect from Cosmatos, blisteringly beautiful, with colors and cinematography like a downtuned acid trip with scorpion-sting chaser. It is also kind of weirdly misogynistic, not unlike Black Rainbow, which is unfortunate, although at least Mandy is a bit less so than that earlier film. Or it seems that way to me, anyway. Still, if you’re a fan of Nic Cage, heavy metal (the music, movie, or comic, take your pick), or insanely gorgeous film, and you’ve got the patience for a pretty slow first half, you owe it to yourself to check this out. My only disappointment was the incredibly limited theatrical release, because I desperately wish I could see this in a theater.
The Raid 2, dir. Gareth Evans
I watched The Raid: Redemption probably three to five years ago, thought it was awesome, and then forgot about it. Then I saw the trailers for Evans’ new film Apostle, and thought, “oh yeah, I should check out The Raid 2.”. Man! I watched this with my wife, a tremendously skilled martial artist, and we were both absolutely floored by this film. The choreography, filming, and performances with regards to the fighting were probably the best we’d ever seen. Most modern action movies are so cheesy, and everyone bemoans the 1/2 second shots and million-cuts-a-minute style that’s been going on for what seems like forever, but it’s still just unbelievably refreshing to see something done totally in opposition to that. Anyone who likes action or martial arts absolutely owes it to themselves to watch this; my only caveat is to watch The Raid first, and watch them close together; the huge gap between my watching the first and second films made it really hard to figure out who was who and what the hell was going on for the first 20 minutes, because this picks up right where the first one left off and explains practically nothing. Still, that’s one small caveat for so much excellence.
The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time, edited by Nate Pedersen
An anthology styling itself as the auction catalogue of every Cthulhu mythos-adjacent tome ever invented; a book concerned entirely with fake books, placing it immediately in my wheelhouse. The first and, in my opinion, most important thing to note here is that the typesetting and layout was done by the incomparable Andrew Leman, he of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, giving it an immediate air of historical legitimacy and outright beauty. At no point does the book ever break character and wink at the reader, which, given my own inclinations, I greatly, greatly appreciate. The entries themselves are numerous, uniformly quite short, and all generally of good to high quality; none of them stood out as anything less than enjoyable. A great many of the current heavy hitters in weird lit are present, including Stephen Graham Jones, Michael Cisco, Livia Llewellyn, Molly Tanzer, and John Langan, among many others. There are also several illustrations (woodcut or wood engraving prints) by the superb Liv Rainey-Smith. I will say that, despite being such a slim volume, it took me a fair bit of time to get through just because of the sheer volume of entries. Nonetheless, there is essentially no way I couldn't enjoy this. As another reviewer put it, "if this is the sort of thing you love, you'll love this sort of thing." They weren't wrong. Recommended if you are the same specific kind of weirdo that I am, and if you run any type of mythos-oriented tabletop RPG, it's practically a necessity.
Furnace, Livia Llewelyn
Llewellyn's prose is excellent, but this collection didn't make much of an impact on me. I enjoyed the opening number, Panopticon, perhaps because she lets her writing chops run a bit more wild than in most of the other stories. Cinerous was ok for me with its strange, alternate-history French revolution setting and impending disaster, and likewise Yours is the Right to Begin was a lyrically excellent love poem from the brides of Dracula. I got more mileage out of Allochthon, in which a 1950s (I think?) suburban housewife is stuck in time, and It Feels Better Biting Down was a great tangle of bizarre twinned limbs. The titular story, Furnace, is probably my favorite, and I realized I'd read it somewhere previously, though I'm not sure if it was in Grimscribe's Puppets or elsewhere. Regardless, I felt it struck the best balance of character, atmosphere, prose, and story, and enjoyed it even more this time than the first. The Last, Clean, Bright Summer seems to be the crowd favorite from what I've read in other reviews, and I can see why; it's got portions of Ligotti and Lovecraft both, delivered via the young teen girl protagonist's diary entries. It was well done, for sure, but not entirely my thing, which is really how I would characterize the collection as a whole. I'll also add that the reviews and copy for the collection really talk up the erotic / sexual angle, but while a couple of the stories certainly feature (or focus on) that, there's less than I expected given the degree to which it's talked about. In any case, there's no denying Llewellyn's skill or talent, but most of the stories here just didn't quite line up with own tastes in weird lit enough for me to really get into them. This is, of course, more a statement on my preferences than on the quality of the collection. Recommended for generally high-quality weird lit, although if you haven't read any Llewellyn and you tend more towards the Barron / Lovecraft side of the spectrum, I'd try it via library or digital edition rather than buying it outright.
They Don't Come Home Anymore, T. E. Grau
A nice, punchy novella from Grau dealing with teenage obsession and death's (im)placability. This work lands medium-high for me; as always with Grau, it's excellently written, and the subject matter and tone was enough to keep me interested and wanting to finish it briskly. It didn't hit the blistering heights of my favorite pieces of his (Transmission and Truffle Pig, both in his top-notch collection The Nameless Dark), but was very much worth the read. It struck a great balance between offering tantalizing information on the supernatural (or whatever you want to call it) element and keeping them enticingly unexplained, which is obviously a critically important tightrope walk for the genre. Recommended, though best as an appetizer or supplement to The Nameless Dark, which I'd consider required reading.
Agents of Dreamland, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Generally billed as a Cthulhu-mythos-vs-espionage-agency story, I wasn't sure what to expect out of this novella going in. Given my love for espionage stories and cosmic horror, and especially their intersection (cf. Tim Powers' Declare), this seemed like a necessary read. Overall, it was enjoyable, although I feel like that espionage angle is very much over-referenced in reviews and copy for the story; yes, several of the characters are employed by one agency or another, but it really does not have much of a bearing on the story here. And, speaking of the story, there is not an overwhelming amount to be found here. When I finished it I was initially disappointed, having hoped that the build-up would lead to a more satisfying climax. In retrospect, though, I think it's necessary to view this novella as a long-form short story (paradoxical as that is), rather than a short novel. In the more limited format of a short story, I wouldn't have thought twice about the way the story played out and how it ended; it was only in letting my expectations be tempered by the relative length of the work that I was let down. So, all things considered, I enjoyed it. Kiernan's writing here is quite good, and I'm invested enough that I ordered her related (and recently expanded) novella Black Helicopters. As long as you go in expecting atmosphere, flavor, and dread, rather than a novel's plot arc and a bunch of tradecraft, I would easily recommend it.
Berberian Sound Studio, dir. Peter Strickland
This film has been on my to-watch list for years, and I am so glad I finally got around to it; it immediately leaped into my all-time favorites with a speed not seen since I watched Resolution. Toby Jones' Gilderoy is a British sound engineer who has traveled to Italy to work on the innocently (and excellently) named The Equestrian Vortex, which to his surprise turns out to be the platonic ideal of 1970s Italian horror / giallo films. Aside from the stupendous title sequence, no footage of The Equestrian Vortex is shown, and so we are left only with the increasingly violent and deranged scene descriptions given in voice-over, the crunch and splatter of the foley work, and the endless screaming of the actresses. Long story short, the environment and the subject matter has an effect on poor, soft Gilderoy, though never in a way you'd expect.
Everything about this film is perfect. The cinematography is absolutely top-notch, the sound design is obviously flawless, the performances are great. The nods, winks, and nudges to classic Italian horror and gialli are pitch-perfect and truly hilarious; the scene descriptions got funnier and funnier in how perfectly on-point and over-the-top they are, presenting a demented, ultra-violent exploitation film believable enough that I'd expect to see it in a crusty video store somewhere. The projectionist, never seen except for his black-leather-clad gloves, operates his machinery in short, violent cuts straight out of any giallo. Everything is ominous, and the inexplicable brutality of The Equestrian Vortex and the people making it are offset by the staid, calm precision of Gilderoy's equipment and his work.
I suspect the only way I could like this movie more would be if I was a sound engineer myself, as there's clearly a lot of love and attention that you'd need inside-baseball knowledge to fully appreciate. That doesn't keep the film from being firmly lodged among my favorites, though, by a long shot.
The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani
What a title! What a poster! What a trainwreck of a film! I feel like Cattet and Forzani were going for a kind of Lynchian neo-Giallo, and at least in my estimation they badly missed every mark. All of the artsy techniques one might see in a Lynch film, but with none of the art; a plot driven by sex and violence, but with none of the appeal of giallo. This movie was a resounding disappoint to me. I'd have loved to be able to hang the poster in my office, but unfortunately, no thank you.
Common apocryphal knowledge holds that burying the tooth of a hydra will give rise to mighty warriors. It is less well known that burying the teeth of other creatures produces other effects.
1 - 2: Common Teeth
Serpent teeth: Grows small but dedicated warriors ranging from 3 and 3/4 inches to marionette-sized, depending on the size of the snake. They hate gemstones and will attempt to destroy them on sight.
Cat teeth: A small poltergeist, never seen. The corpses of ghost birds and ghost mice will be left near your sleeping area for two to four weeks.
Adult human teeth: If the person to whom the teeth belonged is alive, a small stream of blood will begin flowing from the area in which the teeth were planted within a week. Analysis would show that this is not the blood of the teeth's owner; nonetheless, the owner of the teeth will find it difficult to concentrate, like they had two cups of bottom-shelf jug wine. This lasts as long as the blood flows, about a day per tooth sown.
If the owner of the teeth is dead, the odontic farmer must take pains to irrigate the planted teeth with brackish water every third night at midnight for two weeks. This will produce a brazenhead with a circumference of one inch per tooth planted. If multiple teeth are used they must all come from the same dead person. The brazenhead will answer a number of questions equal to the number of teeth planted. It knows everything in the owner's life as well as their current afterlife situation and is compelled to answer more or less truthfully, but it doesn't want to exist and probably won't want to be very helpful. The bigger the brazenhead, the louder it is.
Children's milkteeth: If irrigated with milk and carefully tended, a handful of children's deciduous teeth -- they don't have to be from the same child -- will compact into a fist-sized bulb which will then sprout into a small shrub that produces more milkteeth as fruit. This could probably be used for some kind of scam if you put your mind to it. If you stop tending the shrub, you may come to learn that the tooth-bulb is actually the larval form of horrible little creatures. After a few weeks without milk, the instar phase of the creature will emerge from the bulb. They look like five-inch-long maggots with weasel legs and they eat bone. If they eat enough bone they'll eventually create a cocoon, molt, and emerge as winged fey creatures possessed of a malign sentience.
Hog teeth: Grows into reverse mandrakes; delicious truffles that coo and groan happily if you pick and eat them.
Cow teeth: Produces an amount of cud equal to the size of the pile of teeth sown. Literally a wad of chewed and semi-digested grasses and other plant material packed into a soggy bolus. Provides sustenance equal to an appropriate amount of trail rations for 1/2 day per tooth sown, if you can stomach chewing on it. You have to chew it continually though, if you take it out of your mouth it loses the magic.
3 - 4: Uncommon Teeth
Dog teeth: Requires a full set of 42 teeth but they don't have to be from the same dog. Six days after planting a fully-grown uncommon dog bursts forth from the earth, full of curiosity and mighty hunger. Roll on the Uncommon Dogs table.
Mongoose teeth: Plant mongoose teeth at evening and come back the next morning. The teeth will be sitting on top of the ground where you planted them. If you swallow the teeth you become immune to poison and become more agile in combat, but you are compelled to eat any scaled creatures you encounter, living or dead. These effects last an indeterminate period of time.
Spider teeth: Burying a sufficient amount (for unspecified values of "sufficient") of spiders' fangs will cause an elaborate origami sculpture the size of a lotus flower to grow from the dirt. You can't quite pin down what the origami is in the shape of. Unfolding it will reveal a blank piece of paper. The next time you sleep after unfolding the origami, you will have a fully lucid, protracted dream quest. You will not be yourself in this dream. You will be very prepared for whatever it is you do during the dream and when you awake you will possess a new skill -- roll on the Uncommon Proficiencies table. On the downside you will have an extremely difficult time distinguishing the dream from reality and vice versa, and characteristics of your dream-identity will likely haunt you; you may forget people close to you or spend the rest of your life pining over a lost love from the dream.
Stag teeth: Antlers grow from the ground. Extremely invasive, like ivy on steroids. Will deeply screw up local ecosystem if left unchecked.
Eel teeth: A clutch of land eels hatches in a week. They only live for a few days, and aside from not needing water, are identical to normal eels.
Alligator teeth: Nothing readily apparent is produced save for a slight depression in the earth where the teeth were buried. Any pressure on the depressed area will cause alligator jaws to snap shut on the object causing the pressure, with all of the force of an actual alligator bite. The jaws are actually composed of vegetable matter.
5: Magical and Monstrous Teeth
Gorgon teeth: Sowing six gorgon teeth will produce a stone ovoid about the size of an osprey's egg. It is warm to the touch. Inside is a red, glowing yolk; if poured over a petrified creature, they will depetrify. If the yolk touches non-petrified flesh, it causes horrific third-degree burns. The egg breaks much more easily than is convenient.
Theriomorph teeth: Wolfsbane grows on the spot. This is the only way to grow wolfsbane, which is not naturally occurring.
Vampire teeth: Drains all life-sustaining elements (nutrients, minerals, etc) from the surrounding soil in a 1 foot per tooth radius. Result is like you salted the earth on an extreme level; virtually nothing will grow in that spot again.
Chimera teeth: Randomly produces an outcropping of animal, vegetable, or mineral matter that acts as a carrier vector for the chimeric disease. Any creature consuming the growth will wind up fusing with some other creature due to the chimeric agents it now carries.
If mineral, it's a foot-tall irregular monolith of a random (solid) mineral, veined in a flaky, waxy prismatic substance. If collected and melted down, this substance is sovereign glue. Any creatures with mineral-based diets (rust monsters, etc.) are extremely attracted to the monolith and will attempt to eat it.
If vegetable, it's an otherworldly-looking and very attractive plant, like some flowers or a small shrub. The plant's pollen/sap/fruit can be collected and rendered into sovereign glue. Any creatures that eat vegetable matter are drawn to the plant and will find it difficult to resist eating.
If animal, it is a small and defenseless game critter, prime picking for any carnivore that may come across it. Its blood can be refined into sovereign glue.
Hag teeth: Grows curses.
Ghoul teeth: Corpse flowers sprout. Their repulsive stench is enough to drive most creatures away, but may lure carrion eaters. Prolonged exposure to the scent can cause vivid hallucinations of plague and death in humans.
6: Rare Teeth
Elemental teeth: Causes weather effects appropriate to the type of the elemental.
Wizard teeth: A random magical aberration - like a sub-sentient living spell - occurs at the site of planting. May vary from harmlessly amusing (e.g. mystery-spot-like effects: water flows uphill, strange viewing angles, etc) to extremely dangerous (e.g. localized storm of arcane energy). Even if harmless, the aberration will make it difficult to access the buried teeth. If not dispelled, the aberration grows more intense and more aware with time. If the wizard is dead, the aberration will eventually coalesce into the wizard reincarnated; if the wizard is alive, it will coalesce into the wizard's doppelganger, who will not get along with the wizard.
Outsider teeth: Terraforms the area around the planting site to match the environment from which the teeth's owner came. Area transformed corresponds linearly to quantity of teeth.
Time-displaced teeth: Five days after burying, will cause bubbles equal to the number of teeth buried to pop out and hover a couple feet over the ground. The bubbles have an elastic, rubbery consistency and are somewhat resilient; you can poke them with your finger, but pop if crushed or punctured (i.e. they'd get smashed up in a backpack or other non-rigid container). Looking into a bubble causes mild vertigo. When popped, a bubble instantly causes time to move forward or backwards in a 10-foot spherical radius around the bubble. Direction of the temporal movement is determined by the time from which the teeth's owner had come; if they were from the future time moves forward 1d6 minutes, if from the past it moves backwards 1d6 minutes.
Golem teeth: Animates one cubic foot of surrounding material per tooth buried.
Doppelganger teeth: If the doppelganger was created through arcane means (e.g. via the burying of a living wizard's teeth), a new doppelganger will grow from the earth. If the teeth's owner is living, the two doppelgangers will seek each other out and fight to the death, though they are identical in appearance and motivation.
If the doppelganger was created through alchemical means, the teeth will gradually transmute into a mixture of essential salts and ground glass over the course of a fortnight. If the essential salts are separated from the glass, they can be used to alchemically reconstitute the doppelganger.
If the owner of the teeth is a true doppelganger, the teeth will disappear and be replaced by a gold ring set with carved jade bearing a mysterious symbol. The ring permits (or enforces) entry into the dark realm from which true doppelgangers originate.
"Let thou who would step upon the path of wisdom first endeavor to gather and order thy tools - and having done so, destroy them utterly. Not for thy work is the crucible, the aludel or the athanor, the vitriol or the aqua regia. Take in thy hands the unturned stone and raise the flame with the breath of thy lungs; set thy eye to the smoke and thy tongue to the ash. Light the flame with the blood of thy limbs! Cure thyself with the salt and swallow the sulfur! Thou are the vessel and the furnace - when thou are burned hollow, the quicksilver turns. Blacken thy bones and they shall be harder than steel."
- From The Alembic of St. Apollonius of Tyana
Among the relatively niche group of those familiar with his writing, P.L. Murtaugh has a reputation as strange and inconsistent as his body of work. Seen variously as a serious practicing occultist, a harmless prankster, a scholarly investigator and journalist, an outright fraud and hoaxer, or some mixture thereof, opinions vary wildly. There is generally very little argument, however, that the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is his magnum opus, for better or for worse. Published in 1982, the Grimoire represents Murtaugh's efforts to reconcile and synthesize the rather far-reaching fields of study that made up his earlier books. Threads that began in 1968's Walking with the Silent Ones, 1974's The Crescent and the Urn: Uncovering the Secrets of Mesopotamian Time Travel and 1981's Staring Down the Abyss: Scrying Applications in the Modern World are clearly woven through the Grimoire, and this attempted fusion of three distinct works is echoed in the form as well as the substance.
Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is comprised of three separate texts, each of which is followed by Murtaugh's notes, analyses, and expansions. These works are The Alembic of St. Apollonius of Tyana, Excerpt from "The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao", and The Glass Tablet of Sharab. Each of these is presented as an authentic esoteric text from antiquity, but as one might be forgiven for suspecting, there is no real proof that any of them actually exist. At the time of the Grimoire's publication, there had been no prior books on them, or indeed even mentioning them, and no indication that they came from anywhere save Murtaugh's imagination. Indeed, given his reputation as a prankster in the best case and a fraud in the worst, it is easy to believe that Murtaugh fabricated the texts whole cloth. However, as is so often the case with this author, the story is not so clean-cut; in addition to the texts themselves and his analyses, Murtaugh offers numerous and seemingly legitimate citations of research papers in obscure scholarly journals across the globe, the vast majority now defunct. In every case the supporting work in question has been nearly impossible to procure, but the scant handful of those that have been tracked down do indeed make mention of the Grimoire's parent texts. While never the focus, the academic papers make mention variously of their historical, linguistic, anthropological, and mythological provenances. In each case there are several additional scholarly works cited, even more obscure than those in the Grimoire itself; nevertheless, the Grimoire's subject matter does appear to have some kind existence outside Murtaugh's book. We are left to conclude, then, that either they are actually real and that Murtaugh affected a prodigious academic effort in drawing together both the pieces and the extant material that speaks to them; or, that the entire thing is an incredibly elaborate hoax or joke on the part of Murtaugh. In either case the work involved, and the result, is undeniably impressive.
The Alembic of Saint Apollonius of Tyana was, according to Murtaugh, written by Apollonius himself. For the unfamiliar reader, Apollonius of Tyana was a wandering neo-Pythagorean ascetic and wonderworker, a so-called "pagan Christ," who most likely lived in the first century C.E. Only scant fragments of writing from Apollonius are likely authentic, and certainly none with this name are known outside the Grimoire. The Alembic, while relatively brief, is considerably the longest of the three works in Murtaugh's book, clocking in at roughly 12 pages depending on the edition. The content and form is in no way characteristic of work from its purported era; indeed, in style it is much closer to the Rosicrucian Manifestos of the 17th century, being rather densely packed with alchemical allusions. Murtaugh attributes some of this character to his primary source for the text being a 1616 translation by one Ruprecht Klein of Strasbourg; he does, however, provide at times lengthy passages in the Koine Greek which Apollonius used. Despite the alchemical symbolism, the Alembic is not a piece of Hermetic philosophy; rather, it urges the reader to abandon the tools and methods of the Hermetic work and engage directly and bodily with the prima materia. As in the other two pieces in the Grimoire, there is a focus on un-becoming and unknowing in the Alembic, although it is less explicit here. Murtaugh's notes, comments and analysis are thorough and insightful, making reference to and comparison with not only the aforementioned Rosicrucian texts, but also the works of other neo-Pythagoreans, numerous of the alchemical treatises of the 16th and 17th centuries, and many other writings. He also draws parallels between the Alembic and Apollonius' only surviving writing, On Sacrifices, and here Murtaugh demonstrates an impressive eye in penetrating their surface differences. Several lines of inquiry from Murtaugh's The Crescent & The Urn are touched upon in this section as well, beginning his unstated goal of drawing together all of his previous works.
The second primary text featured in the Grimoire is Excerpt from "The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao," which Murtaugh ascribes to no specific author. As we may expect, "The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao" is not a known piece of writing; Chang Kuo Lao, better known as Zhang Guolao, is one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism. By all accounts Zhang was a real historical figure, living between the 7th and 8th centuries C.E., who has become a well-known Chinese mythological figure. Naturally, no work known as "The Jade Law" is attributed to him. However, the Excerpt's seeming provenance is no less interesting for not being written by Zhang. A significant portion of the piece in Murtaugh's book is almost a word-for-word interpretation of the apocryphal "Iron River" Sutra, an esoteric Buddhist text supposedly written in the 5th century. The Sutra was an early minor text of Zhenyan, but is said to have been lost in the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution of 845. Fragments of it were known to circulate in Shingon communities once esoteric Buddhism was brought to Japan, but no full version is known to exist. That large portions of the Excerpt not only match the known fragments of the Iron River Sutra, but also expand on them in a style in keeping with those sources, is surprising to say the least. Murtaugh himself acknowledges the similarities between the Excerpt and the Sutra, though he maintains that the text from which he worked was The Jade Law of Chang Kuo Lao.
Conceptually, the Excerpt (and by extension, portions of the Iron River Sutra) straddles a complex line between standard esoteric Buddhism and totally unorthodox teachings. On the one hand, in keeping with the tenants of esoteric Buddhism, the piece declares that Enlightenment is not a distant possibility but is instead directly achievable, and that the exoteric doctrines are merely helpful and are not the Truth itself. On the other hand, the Excerpt states that esoteric doctrines are also incapable of communicating the Truth, and that "the wise must forget the wisdom they have learned and the wisdom they have taught." Furthermore, the Excerpt argues that Enlightenment is not only attainable but is immanent rather than transcendent, and that it is beyond teaching and being; these passages bear more resemblance to the Tao Te Ching than to many Buddhist texts. The common theme of the Grimoire, of the necessity of unknowing, is more clear here than in the Alembic. Murtaugh here revisits some of his arguments from Staring Down the Abyss as well, mainly regarding the misguided nature of discerning reality through esoteric practices.
The third and final piece of the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is also the shortest; The Glass Tablet of Sharab takes up about two full pages, while Murtaugh's analysis goes on for more than 50, though some of this is more of a conclusion to the book. The Glass Tablet is immediately recognizable as being a line-by-line refutation -- or, as Murtaugh says, a Nemesis -- to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. The Emerald Tablet, of course, is the cornerstone of Hermetic philosophy, proclaiming that "...as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation." The Glass Tablet, by comparison, states that "...as all things have as their source not one but nought and the nescience thereof, so too are all things borne by the dissolution of nought." Murtaugh spends comparatively little time on the supposed history of the Glass Tablet, for the most part choosing only to state that is said to have been written by the "semi-mythological philosopher Sharab of Ur" in the late 2nd century B.C.E.. Murtaugh does concede that Sharab is not a Sumerian name, and that the reason behind the appellation "Glass Tablet" is unclear since the text is reputed to have been recorded on clay, as was the norm of the time. Regardless of its origin, the Glass Tablet is an intriguing work, speaking directly on the unknowing that the other works in the Grimoire intimated about and touched on. Nemesis, being the goddess that enacts retribution against those who succumb to hubris, is a tremendously apt identification on the part of Murtaugh; where the Emerald Tablet promises that "by this means you shall have the glory of the whole world," the Glass Tablet simply states, "you do not need glory. And you will see, but never gain perfection." In both the Glass Tablet and his analysis of the text, there is a sharp focus on the illusory nature of transcendence and of esoteric wisdom itself, echoing Murtaugh's thesis in his Walking with the Silent Ones.
As a whole, the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix is more than the sum of its parts. Even if the parent texts that form its backbone were written entirely by Murtaugh, they present a unique take on the nature and applications of esoteric studies throughout history. Murtaugh's impressive exegeses on the works provide sharp insight that even a studious reader would be likely to miss on their own, and form an invaluable commentary on the three texts. Fact, fiction, or somewhere in-between, the Grimoire of the Unbound Phoenix delivers a fascinating examination of the philosophy of a perennially controversial author. While it has been out of print for some years, we can unequivocally say it is worth the effort to track down.
Lenticulating oats: A cereal grain inedible by humans, the seeds of which are translucent. When the seeds are dehusked and rolled or cut, the flakes refract recondite portions of the superspectrum, allowing e.g. some invisible things to be seen through them. You have to figure out how you're going to effectively look through a pile of transparent oatmeal.
Rusk: A low, sparse bush that grows relatively high on some mountainsides. Its buds, when harvested and ground, can be mixed with an equal measure of sand and left covered overnight; in the morning the mixture will have congealed into a solid piece of dark glass. The glass is difficult to see through, like overly-dark sunglasses, but allow the wearer to see through one meter of solid stone. The glass is coveted for use as lenses in stoneshades.
Walkingfruit: A one- to two-meter tall shrub growing on the borders of deserts and famed for its fruit, which are seemingly living ruminant animals attached by stems to the shrub. The fruit feed on the leaves of the shrub, and die when the leaves are gone. The fruit has blood similar to honey and a somewhat chewy meat.
Swyshemorem's Gluttony: Originally the product of a botanically-minded wizard's crossbreeding project, the petals of this flower can be eaten to allow the consumption of normally inedible material. It is difficult to gauge how long the effect lasts, and what exactly it will allow you to eat.
Rhu's Tongue: A dark moss that grows on the roots of certain trees. Two people that eat from the same patch of Rhu's Tongue can hear each other's whispers from any distance, for a period of time.
Grurnsh: The leaves of this herbaceous plant, when rolled and smoked fresh, will cause you to cough up a fist-sized glob of blood and mucous. This is as gross and painful as you imagine. Smoking the crushed flowers of the same specimen allows you to see and hear from that glob's perspective for five to ten minutes at a time. The glob dries up / congeals over the course of a an hour or two.
Vitiatus: An innocuous, ground-based creeper that will work its way into bags, packs, and clothing, and spoil any perishable goods within.
Swyshemorem's Folly: The wizard bred this herb in an attempt to create a psychoactive compound for use in inducing visionary states. This attempt largely failed, and the tenacious plant now grows in the few cloud forests in the far east of Gult. Folly secretes an oil which, on contact, causes you to ooze a foul-smelling, milky substance from your pores. This substance is highly flammable. If consumed by another person, the substance delivers confused visions of your memories, fears, and secrets.
Pracc: The seed pods of this well-known plant are dried and ground to produce a mild, warm-tasting spice. If improperly dried, the seed pods can cause powerful hallucinations; you'll believe that various of your internal organs are communicating with you. The communications give you instructions on arcane methods of modifying and strengthening the organs in question.
Marablood: A dark red ivy that is sometimes seen on high, rocky cliffs. It produces a viscous sap that causes unpredictable anomalous effects.
Thraum's Oak: A seemingly normal oak tree. Its acorns are full of a dense pollen that cause a horrific, disruptive rash as each particle of pollen causes the flush it touches to be randomly time-displaced; the net result is e.g. your arm boils and distorts as its displaced by a thousand different durations. Attempts to use this as a weapon generally go poorly as the acorn shell is remarkably fragile.
Thievesbane: A maple-like deciduous tree. When its leaves have fallen and dried, they become incredibly brittle; stepping on them is absurdly loud. Additionally, the crystalline fibers of the broken leaves are uncannily sharp and tend to penetrate through shoes and boots and lodge in the foot as painful, near-invisible splinters. Naturally, they produce an inordinate amount of leaves. Predators know to listen for them.
Algamb: A dangerous, fast-growing algae; quickly spreads through any fresh water into which it's introduced like Ice-9 and converts it into saltwater, then dies. Effective siege weapon, difficult to find as it so quickly destroys the fresh water it needs to survive.
Drytouch: A small tuber, the inside of which is intensely hydrophobic. Ground and turned into a paste, this can be used to coat equipment with a waterproof layer. If eaten, death is nearly assured.
Swyshemorem's Wrath: Another seemingly unsuccessful cross-breeding project, this tough grass is a dull blue with a coarse texture. Anything on which the seeds are spread will grow into the grass, including stone, other plants, animals, metals, etc. The seeds must be tended to fairly carefully, however, as they only germinate under specific conditions, likely making this a difficult weapon to employ. That being said, travellers across barren lands tell of sometimes coming across sporadic fields of Swyshemorem's Wrath, growing in patterns describing ruins of towns.
Mailfern: This cubit-tall fern grows near some difficult-to-reach swamps of Gult. Cut the fern's stem near the root and embed it in your body; it will grow fast to you, its fronds forming an overlapping scale-like mail, surprisingly damage-resistant. The implanting of the fern is painful and you will need several just to cover one arm, etc.; that being said, caring for it is relatively easy as long as you drink plenty of water and get a fair amount of sun. However, you will be driven to return to the swamps from whence you picked the fern, in order to sporulate at inopportune times.
Yradin: This jungle bromeliad grows high on the tallest trees. You can infuse the liquid in its tank into your veins, replacing your blood. You'll have to do this slowly, over several weeks, and you'll need to find more than one Yradin to do so. Once you're done, all your blood will be gone and it'll just be Yradin juice, a thick fluid that barely seeps from cuts. Over time, this will soak into the walls of your veins and arteries and saturate your organs, until after some years you won't bleed at all.
Salt-tooth: A cactus that's one giant spine projecting from the baked and broken ground, like a jagged canine tooth. Drinking its juice makes you faster and sharper than you should be, both physically and mentally. It also gives you a predisposition to clever violence and your eyes ooze thick blue-green jelly flecked with red.
Hapax: There is only one hapax, period. No one knows where it is or what it looks like. Touching it lets you make something unique; i.e. there used to be many of something and now there's only one.
Swyshemorem's Hubris: Likely the wizard's final effort, Swyshemorem's Hubris is a small, gnarled tree not more than a foot tall. If the seedpod of the tree is ingested, it lodges in the back of the throat in an irritating and painful manner, though you can still eat and breath normally. As the seed sprouts, it wraps its roots around your spinal column. It begins consuming the bone and flesh of the head to fuel its growth, and after it has consumed the entire head over the course of several months, you are left an animated body controlled by the small tree growing from your neck. Around this time you probably disappear and are likely never heard from again. Where the victims of the Hubris go and what they do is unknown. It is generally said that Swyshemorem themself was the original victim.
Ash Heather: A dark grey shrub, utterly non-native to Gult; it comes from some other world or dimension, and is widely known to be a sign of congress with dark forces. Its flowers are black. Often grows when reality is bent or things are disturbed which ought not to be.
Dogsign: Dogs, extinct from Gult for untold ages, have nevertheless left their mark. Coming across dogsign indicates that the remains of a dog, whether physical or ethereal, are somewhere nearby.
Ichorice: Said to only grow on the graves of an ancient race of witches. Its sap can be used as ink in hypergeometric tattoos.
Huntress's Favor: Grows where an old god is said to have left a trail of blood after a particularly trying battle. Can facilitate congress with those who came before, along with potentially granting other boons.
I originally wrote this in April 2017 to submit to Broken Eye Books' "Welcome to Miskatonic University" anthology, then promptly forgot to send it in.
Good morning, everyone, and thank you all for joining me for your freshman orientation here at the Distance Education Annex. Please help yourself to the coffee and snacks over there at the table. No donuts, I'm afraid, but it should be enough to get you through the tour. Has everyone signed in? Very well then, if you'll just follow me we'll begin the tour. Right this way past the offices. I'm sure you all noticed when you came in, but this is where you'll meet with advisors. They can help you plan your semesters, make sure you're on track for graduation, tell you about opportunities you might not be aware of… For example, did you know that we offer study abroad programs? Indeed, there are some amazing travel opportunities for you here. If you're pursuing our historic structure preservation program, work credit at Exham Priory in England may be of interest to you. We also have a superb sequence on taxidermy that will take you all the way to the Congo basin. Who needs the main campus when you have the Distance Education Annex, eh?
The Distance Education Annex was, of course, first founded in 1964 to teach technical skills not covered in the standard Miskatonic curriculum, and while we've... expanded since then, we don't take our past for granted. See -- here we are in the original Vocational Studies building, still as sturdy as the day we opened. From that first class over 50 years ago to today, the Distance Education Annex prides itself on being the destination for hands-on learning. Take our air-conditioner repair school, for instance. It's one of the best in the country -- directed by Professor Williams, who studied under the late, great Dr. Muñoz in New York. Feel that chill? You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone better qualified. Zip those hoodies up and just keep walking this way.
Ah, yes, now how many of you are enrolled in our mortuary science program? Two, three, four… A sizable handful of you this year. Well, you've clearly done your research, because the Distance Education Annex is very competitive in that field. You'll find that we take a more... holistic approach than some other higher education institutions. To be the best, we know that it takes both a bold march forward towards innovation as well as a keen insight into history. Under those guiding principles, you'll learn the very latest skills and techniques, and practice on the best and most advanced equipment available. You'll be under the watchful eyes and guiding hands of our peerless faculty, like Dr. Cain. Indeed, you'll be pushing the very boundaries of mortuary science here at the Distance Education Annex.
As I said, however, we look both to the future and the past at the Distance Education Annex. So while you'll learn all that the inestimable Dr. Cain has to offer, you'll also drink deeply from the well of history under the tutelage of Dr. Allen. In fact, here he is now. Good day, Dr. Allen. Don't let his youthful appearance fool you, students -- Dr. Allen's knowledge of the past is so thorough, you'll swear he'd been there himself. Though his primary field of teaching regards archaic methods of preservation, I think you'll find his command of historic life quite impressive. In fact, he has been known to regale a few students with little-known facts about their own ancestors! Here at the Distance Education Annex, the faculty is full of surprises.
I see a few of you are noticing some rather enticing smells as we round this corner here -- let's just poke our heads in and see what Professor Shadrach is cooking up, shall we? This is our culinary studies area, and as you can see Professor Shadrach keeps a well appointed larder. Say now, Professor, what's that you're cooking up now that smells so aromatic? I'm sorry? What's this about your engine? Ah, of course, Indian - I thought I smelled curry and coconut. Why yes, these are the new students, fresh in for orientation. Never you worry, Professor, I'm sure they'll cross your table soon enough. Now, come along everyone, let's leave the good chef to his victuals and be on our way…
Here we have our recreation area, adjoined to the dining hall. We may not have all the space of the University, but we find that just provides for more personal connections to be made here at the Distance Education Annex. Naturally, it is our duty to make sure you have a place to relax, study, and meet up with fellow students. In addition to the various student-led clubs and organizations, there are a number of special events put on by the staff and faculty of the Distance Education Annex. You'll want to be sure not to miss the Yuletide festival; there's something of a masquerade, and a rather indescribable vacation has been awarded to a lucky few. Now, if you'll please continue following me…
Right through these doors, yes. I'm sorry, was there a question in the back? No, no, there's no music program at the Distance Education Annex. The piping is simply something you'll get used to. Yes, just through here. Watch your step, now, it can be rather hard to catch your breath out here. The elevation and all. Now, I hope by now you've seen that for all the refinement of the University, there are more than a few points where we surpass them. We may not have their library, but do they have this prime location on the Plateau? Do they have the Cold Wastes just outside their back door? I assure you, they do not. The opportunities for learning, dear students, is fathomless. Ah, yes, another question? Unseasonable snow? I suppose it is rather cold, yes, but I assure you: you'll grow used to it in time. Now, if you'll step this way, towards that cube-shaped tower. I believe it's just about time to formally welcome you into the Distance Education Annex.
The first season of True Detective is some of the best television I've ever seen (second only to Twin Peaks: The Return, as far as I'm concerned), but there's something I don't understand about the ending. Or rather, there's something I don't understand about how people see the ending. It seems that the general consensus was that the ending was disappointing, with the build-up towards the paranormal abandoned for a more-or-less mundane antagonist, with the larger conspiracy untouched, and with a seeming tonal shift for Matthew Mcconaughey's Rust Cohle that doesn't match his character in the preceding episodes. I've seen plenty of folks let down by it, or who feel the show was more drama than horror, or who chafed at the sudden character turn. Even the great Laird Barron has said an in interview that Cohle's remarks about how the light is winning rings untrue. Obviously I'm not here to tell Mr. Barron about horror -- the man knows his business better than I ever will -- but I have a different take on the ending, one I haven't seen anywhere else in the years since the season ended. In short, I'd argue that the ending is the perfect capstone in the downfall of Rust Cohle.
When makes Rust Cohle special, what makes him able to get confessions from suspects whom no other detective can crack, what puts him at the center of the story? It's his pessimism, his insight into the essential nature of the world, which is the classic reality of all cosmic horror; humanity is an aberration in an uncaring and inimical universe. Cohle, via the death of his daughter and his time spent undercover, has seen past the veil and truly understands what kind of story he's in; the show tells us this via Cohle himself in episode one, when he says of his philosophy that he "sees [himself] as a realist." He's not choosing to see things in the worst light, he's seeing them as they are. This is reflected in some of his hallucinations, like the Carcosa spiral made by the birds near the wrecked church at the end of episode two. As Cohle says, "back then, the visions... most of the time I was convinced, shit, I'd lost it. There were other times... I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe." In a Lovecraftian reality, what's the difference?
Once Reggie and DeWall Ladoux are done for in episode five, leaving Marty and Cohle to believe the case is closed, we see Cohle try to settle down and live a more or less normal life. His renowned ability to get confessions leads to the tip that the Yellow King is still out there, and this is all it takes to start Cohle's downward spiral going again. Over the next several episodes we see how he's ended up a seemingly dissolute bartender in 2012, but of course we also learn he's been working the case on his own. Episode seven introduces Cohle's conspiracy cave, as well as the video tape of Marie Fontenot's ritual murder, an artifact of both unspeakable horror and forbidden knowledge in its proof of the conspiracy's existence. Marty tells Cohle he shouldn't have the tape; Cohle agrees about its evil nature, responding "nobody should have this," but he also tells Marty he "won't avert [his] eyes." Cohle's seen further into the void than ever, and he knows there's no going back. Until seeing the tape, Marty wasn't exactly convinced; it's precisely this forbidden knowledge that let him and Marty tackle the Yellow King, in the same way that Professor Armitage had to learn more than he ever wanted to from the Necronomicon in order to deal with the elder Whately sibling in The Dunwich Horror.
When Cohle and Marty arrive at Childress' farm for the climax in episode eight, Cohle immediately knows they're in the right place; he can recognize the taint, his "smelling the psychosphere." Childress, for his part, can recognize it too, calling Cohle "little priest" as he goads him on in the warrens of Carcosa. And, ultimately, that's exactly what Cohle has been; although he keeps "other bad men from the door," Cohle's philosophy of the universe is essentially the same as that of the Yellow King. He's only chosen to act differently based on that philosophy. And yet, after his vision of the spiral galaxy and the end of Childress, we're left with a very different Rust Cohle.
In the hospital, at first Cohle is dejected that the rest of the conspiracy is untouched (as is evident from the newscast that totally covers up any connection between the cult and the powerful Tuttle family). This is an issue that many viewers seemed to have too, but Marty tells all of us straight up: "that ain't what kind of world it is." Marty and Cohle have their small, personal victory over Childress, but that's all it is. There's no true winning here, no fixing what's wrong, because in a cosmic horror story it's reality itself that's wrong from our narrow human perspective. There's no way to change that status quo. Then, finally, there's the real meat of the ending: Cohle's monologue about feeling his daughter's love as he was dying, and his insistence at the end that Marty's "looking at the sky thing wrong." He tells us, "once there was only dark... You ask me, the light's winning." This is a statement totally in opposition to the Cohle we've come to know til now, one that seems to paint a rather sappy, discordant end to everything that's come before. I'd argue, though, that it's this contrast that is exactly the point. Cohle's flipped perspective here is showing us he's lost his pessimism, and with it his insight into the nature of reality. He's given up, whether by choice or because he finally had taken more than he could bear, and he's undergone a kind of anti-enlightenment into the affirmation-delivering mediocrity he'd spent the entire series deriding. Without the protective cocoon of this false hope, he'd be forced to acknowledge that their getting Childress and closing the case was ultimately meaningless, that the only thing their forbidden knowledge brought them was knowing first-hand just how evil their world is and how powerless they are in the face of it. We, the viewers, know this, and we're left to watch Cohle become a hopeful rube, the exact kind of deluded fool he despised. The old Cohle would likely have preferred to die than suffer this fate, but the new, optimistic Cohle can't even realize that. Despite the illusion of a relatively happy if atonal ending, what we really have is the only possible outcome besides death for the cosmic horror protagonist: The annihilation of his self and his understanding of his reality, the only thing he truly valued.
"1. It is beyond the matter of truth and uncertainty both.
2. There is no difference between that which is within and that which is without. Through this the realizations of the work are transfigured and transmitted.
3. And as all things have as their source not one but nought and the nescience thereof, so too are all things borne by the dissolution of nought.
4. It is without father and mother, it was carried not and nursed not. The elements are of it; it is not of the elements.
5. Its force is entire only when it is interred in the earth.
6. Let the thin and crude seek to separate subtle from gross; with modesty and wisdom, it is indivisible and without division.
7. The dove and the serpent are the logos of illusion; by their dissolution its efficacy is shown through work.
8. You do not need glory.
9. And you will see, but never gain perfection.
10. All force is presupposed by it. The subtle and the hard have no secret which cannot be known by it.
11. It is not for the world to be created.
12. From this comes the understanding of that which cannot be known, as the means of it and its formlessness are together.
13. Hence I am called Sharab of Ur, who has the wisdom of no thing.
14. That which I have said of it is ended."