AUCTION, BURNING, HUNGER, SPORES, VORTEX, LETDOWN: AUGUST QUICK REVIEWS

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.