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A Commonplace Book of the Weird by Joseph Fink, editor

Cover art by Daran Brossard

Published by Commonplace Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Fans and would-be writers often ask published writers where they get their ideas. In turn, the published writers often respond with various facetious answers, ranging from a post office box in an oddly named town to an imaginary magazine or subscription service. The best answer I've ever heard is, "I have to beat them off with a stick." For the simple truth is, ideas are everywhere -- you can get them from an article in the paper, from a chance conversation, from a dream, from sitting around and people-watching at the mall, just about anything that you might happen to do. Prolific authors often have so many ideas that they have to pick and choose which are worth the time and trouble of developing into a completed story.

H. P. Lovecraft, often called the dean of American horror fiction, was in the habit of jotting down ideas in a small commonplace book. At the time of his death it contained 221 unused ideas. Some of them were only a word or two, while others were extensive descriptions, almost miniature plot outlines in their own right. A few appear to have been summaries of articles he'd read in a newspaper or magazine.

That little volume became the source of the stories in this anthology. Editor Joseph Fink took a random number generator and assigned ideas from this list to various writers. The conditions of participation were simple -- each author would use their assigned idea to craft a story, incorporating and developing all the elements of the idea. Obviously those authors who received the brief jottings would have a lot more latitude in developing them than someone who received a fully developed outline. Still, even very constraining forms can leave surprising range for creativity, as witnessed by the history of the sonnet in English poetry, from Shakespeare to the present.

The anthology begins with Kurt Chiang's "Tape," in which we have the narrator's estranged wife sending him a tape in which she talks about her trip to the faceless colossus in an ancient desert that is the prompt. But the weird element is not the monolith itself, but the nature of the tape -- it's interactive, somehow connected with her such that she is able to tell him long after she would have sent it that things are not going as originally intended.

Many years ago, one of my college literature professors was discussing the literary technique known as estrangement and said that one could not use it in a story of the imaginative genres (sf, fantasy, horror, etc.), only mimetic fiction. But in "The Horror on the Ebon Stair" Zack Parsons manages to give us a work of weird fiction in which the technique of estrangement works as we see our own familiar society and technologies through the eyes of an ancient immortal pharaoh whose people dwelt for ages in subterranean caverns beneath the pyramids, a people among whom the gods betimes walked. And in its ending there's even an echo of J. R. R. Tolkien's comment that the human-tales of elves would be about the escape from deathlessness, as opposed to the escape from death in human fairy-tales. And yes, our author even includes references to some of H. P. Lovecraft's most famous works.

The violation of a holy place, whether deliberate or unwitting, has long been the basis of ghost stories and other tales of the weird. Cemeteries in particular tend to be very dangerous when violated -- and it may not necessarily be the knowing and willful desecration that underlay the original Poltergeist film. Given that many small cemeteries have not been well documented, it's completely possible that the existence of one could be so completely forgotten that nobody realizes they were trespassing on ground hallowed by having been made the final resting places of the dead of another community or culture no longer recalled. In "Exorcise Love," Hannah Lott-Schwartz gives us a story of a subdivision built over a forgotten Indian burial ground, given a name which is claimed to honor the heritage of the former inhabitants of the land but instead is commonly viewed as mocking it. She makes it even more spooky by writing herself into the story as a character, in a manner reminiscent of some of Philip K. Dick's successful self-insertions. While in some stories such authorial self-insertions seem egotistical and amateurish, Ms. Lott-Schwartz's treatment of it helped create an air of verisimilitude that makes the boundary between the actual and the fictional grow uncomfortably thin.

There's long been a fascination with secret societies and the sinister implications of groups of people acting in secret. Even Lovecraft himself had the Masonic Lodge in Innsmouth become a locus of activity of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, the organization that mediated the pact with the Deep Ones. Rob Neill's "KPZSTRAZHYPHENSTARS" starts right out with the narrator's proud admission that he belongs to the titular secret organization, and how they have tendrils running through all of regular society, manipulating events, tormenting victims. This open boasting is what I find most implausible, to the point that it undermines my feeling of horror. After all, boasting about one's membership in a secret organization kind of destroys the secrecy that's its whole point. It's possible that he's supposed to be talking to a victim he's about to torment, but if that interpretation is correct, then it becomes a Standard Villainous Speech, which is problematical in other ways. I hate to say it, but I think this is one of the weakest stories in the anthology.

Alien invasion as a trope goes at least back to H. G. Wells and War of the Worlds, but it was only during the Cold War that it began to morph in popular literature into a war of infiltration, in which the aliens took human form and sought to subvert human institutions to alien purposes rather than invading in force with war machines. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the prototypical aliens-as-Communist-infiltrators story, but it turns out that H. P. Lovecraft anticipated the idea of aliens masquerading as humans for nefarious purposes, but just never did anything with it. In "Devotion" Jonathan Herzong expands Lovecraft's jottings into a story consisting of three parts -- a brief transcript of an interrogation, a note to the interrogator's superior, and a subsequent note by the former captive to his former interrogator, now that their positions are reversed. And this is one of the few "aliens come to Earth to eat humans" stories that didn't undermine the horror of it with the problem that the economics would be impractical -- because they don't see human flesh as ordinary nourishment, but as a sacrament, a holy act of uniting the victim with the celebrant of the sacrifice.

As Darwinian theories of evolution became accepted among the intellectual community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people began to wonder if evolution could also work backward, if advanced forms could degenerate into more primitive ones. For Lovecraft, the fear of devolution was conflated in his mind with the fear of mixing with "inferior" races, as we see in his story "Arthur Jermyn." Brock Savage's brief poem "Finis Origine Pendet" explores the theme of the human devolving through successive ancestral forms to an amphibious creature reminiscent of the Deep Ones in "The Shadow over Innsmouth."

In "Dead Beat Dad" Marcus Goodyear gives us a story of a young man who grew up hearing his mother tell ever-changing stories about how his father died. He was a war hero. He was a drunk who wiped out a whole family while driving. He was an amateur pilot who crashed a homemade plane. He was struck down by various maladies. In time the young man becomes accustomed to his mother's strange stories, assuming it's a coping mechanism for not knowing the real story. And then his mother announces his father is coming back, and begins buying strange things -- fresh and saltwater aquaria to raise frogs and puffer fish, chemicals and tools. And then his father appears one day, and there are hints that something very terrible has happened to his mother in the process of bringing him back.

Kathleen Akerley's "The Opposite Door" tells the story of a man who awakens in a strange room, his mind fragmented by some kind of trauma. As he struggles to form a coherent thought, the evidence grows that he is in the hands of aliens.

In "Tea and Pie, Don't Pass Me By," Gary Belsky takes us to the Holy Land and its ancient cities. Except the secrets here are not from antiquity, but rather a fight that may or may not have taken place, and some information about the nature of glass eyes and their proper care. It's an odd story, but it has more of a mainstream feel than the typical weird story, in which we have a sense of the boundaries of ordinary reality growing thin and letting things from elsewhere slip through the cracks.

Will Hartwell and Christopher Scheer collaborate to give us "The Impossible," a story set in a gentlemen's club of Victorian England, where the protagonist offends by speaking to a certain man without being properly introduced. However, instead of being punished, he is told a story about the incident that left this man an agoraphobe, afraid to leave his comfortable environs. The ending will give a particular frisson to anyone familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories.

"Levittown (36. Disintegration)" by Mark Farr is one of those stories in which "weird" veers in the direction of "incomprehensible." It starts in a present-day subdivision, in which a character has a vision of a steampunk rocket and its astronaut. Then we get a letter from 1899 about one Benny the spaceman, followed by a sequence of scenes that I could not follow. It feels like an attempt at surrealism, with some of the mysticism of Alestair Crowley mixed in with it, but even after several readings, I'm still lost. Maybe I'm just not the right audience for this story.

Kyle Levenkick's longword word is the story of an astronaut who crash-lands on what appears to be Earth, only to find more and more signs that strange things are going on. Perhaps he has gone sideways in time to a parallel world, or perhaps he has fallen into some kind of simulation of reality. There are also transcripts of a couple of letters between security agents of a future America, and a copy of an official document with a bunch of things blanked out. It leaves you with a sense that something very strange and sinister is going on here, and a very bad feeling about the astronaut's fate.

"Dissipation?" by Daniel McCoy is in my mind the least successful of all the stories. It is a series of brief vignettes, each headed by one of the phrases in the idea the author was assigned. However, they never quite gelled into a story for me, instead stubbornly remaining a pile of disconnected pieces and leaving me with the distinct impression that the author just went down the list and accounted for each part of the idea without really writing a story.

In F. Omar Telan's "Vacancy at the Fenrick Inn," the protagonist of the first-person narrative is in the habit of driving around the New Jersey countryside looking for bits and remnants of the region's colonial past. One night he stops at a country inn, only to discover that it holds a most disturbing secret. There are elements in it reminiscent of that H. P. Lovecraft classic "The Shadow over Innsmouth," but when I finish reading it, I find that the effect isn't quite as impressive as the original, which was in many ways one of Lovecraft's masterworks.

"Meaning You are Beautiful or You are Wonderful" by Marta Ranier is another poem, and it is written in a highly abstract literary style that I must confess really doesn't do much for me. Again, I think this is a piece that needs a different audience that I just can't provide.

Justin Marquis gives us "Notes on Lemmings," a story in the form of a journal of a scientist in the 1930's who investigates sunken ruins. The idea that the fatal rush of lemmings to the sea as a remnant of an instinctive drive to migrate to a now-sunken land (in this story identified with Atlantis) is an old one -- but unfortunately it turns out that the story of the hordes of lemmings running over cliffs only to drown themselves in the sea is in fact an old wives' tale, and all those nature programs that show it were in fact faked, often in various nasty ways. Unfortunately, that knowledge really inhibits my ability to get chills out of this story, although the hint of the diarist's disintegrating sanity does bring unease forth.

Generally stories are written either in the third person (limited or omniscient) or in the third person. In "The Story of the Faceless Man" Brian James Polak gives us a story written in the second person. It is also written in a stream-of-conscious style reminiscent of some of the works of James Joyce and his contemporaries, which means it may not be for every reader.

Unfortunately Jeffrey Cranor's prose poem "The Man from Providence" is just a little too avante garde for me. I've tried to read it several times, and every time I'll get a few lines in and my eyes start to glaze over and the next thing I know I'm just skimming on my way to the next story.

That one is "Vampire Dogs (or What Came Out" by Meg Bashwinner. Unfortunately I also find this one disappointing. To me it seems disjointed and forced, and in several places it feels more like the author talking about what needs to be written rather than actually telling a story.

And then, after all those works I found disappointing, comes what may well be the finest work in the entire anthology, editor Joseph Fink's own "Relative Damnation." I'm well aware of the concerns about editors including their own works in collective works they've edited, particularly when that work occupies a substantial portion of the available space and thus could be seen as crowding out worthy writers in favor of personal ego-boosting and self-promotion. On the other hand, there are also situations in which an author has written a really nice story that just doesn't seem to have an obvious existing market, and decides to build an anthology around it.

"Relative Damnation" is the story of a young man whose father made a deal with the devil in order to gain success. Now the devil has come to collect his father's soul, and they want some way out. The devil agrees, but the price is particularly harsh -- not only does the father have to renounce all his ill-gotten gains, but the mother and son must also. And that means everything -- not just the physical possessions, but all the social advantages and connections, the education the son was able to get as a result of his father's unjustly elevated social and economic situation, even his relationship with his girlfriend.

And it is that last one that's the sticking point. The protagonist discovers that he can't dump her, not even to save his father from hell. So down the chute his father goes, and the devil taunts him with the agonies his father will suffer and his own powerlessness to break him free. For this is a hell that's actually competently run, not the sort of hell where two astronauts mad that their commander was condemned for the accident that took their lives can bust him out just by trashing the place. No, it's the sort of hell with security so powerful that even the entire nuclear arsenals of the US and USSR at the height of the Cold War would prove unable to blow down the gates and bust free a single man.

And thus our protagonist is left to watch his mother die of grief, and to live prematurely aged, with a shadow cast over his own marital happiness and the joy of his little daughter. It's an uncomfortable story, with some resonances to how individuals and societies can be the beneficiaries of past evils just by existing, and whether we bear some moral debt as a result of that benefit, or if the fact that none of us ask to benefit, that none of us even ask to exist but instead have existence thrust upon us by the acts of others should absolve us and that we should be free to live the best lives we can instead of continually be stuck Owing.

The anthology is concluded with author biographies and acknowledgements. Finally the numbered list of ideas from Lovecraft's commonplace book is reproduced in its entirety so that readers may amuse themselves by trying their hand at writing stories from the unused ideas, or seeing if they can come up with different stories from ideas that were used.

As a whole, it's a very mixed bag. There are a few truly excellent stories, several that (at least for me) clunked really hard, and a number that did well enough that I didn't wince to read them, but don't leave my thoughts haunted after I'm done reading them.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • "Tape" by Kurt Chiang
  • "The Horror on the Ebon Stair" by Zack Parsons
  • "Exorcise Love" by Hannah Lott-Schwartz
  • "Devotion" by Jonathan Herzong
  • "Finis Origine Pendet" by Brock Savage
  • "Dead Beat Dad" by Marcus Goodyear
  • "The Opposite Door" by Kathleen Akerley
  • "Tea and Pie, Don't Pass Me By" by Gary Belsky
  • "The Impossible" by Will Hartwell and Christopher Scheer
  • "Levittown (36. Disintegration)" by Mark Farr
  • longword style="background-color: rgb(0, 0, 0);">word by Kyle Levenick
  • "DISSIPATION?" by Daniel McCoy
  • "Vacancy at the Fenrick Inn" by F. Omar Telan
  • "Meaning You are Beautiful or You are Wonderful" by Marta Rainer
  • "Notes on Lemmings" by Justin Marquis
  • "The Story of the Faceless Man" by Brian James Polak
  • "The Man from Providence" by Jeffrey Cranor
  • "Vampire Dogs (or What Came Out" by Meg Bashwiner
  • "Relative Damnation" by Joseph Fink
  • Author Bios
  • Acknowledgements
  • "The Commonplace Book of H.P. Lovecraft" by H. P. Lovecraft

Review posted July 24, 2012

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