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. 



"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 " 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 " 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.