“Harrowing” is the best word to describe this fast-paced short story that serves as a prequel to the novel His Name Was Zach. The book is told in first-person, from the point of view of the title character, a young girl whose normal life is interrupted in horrific fashion.

As befitting an introduction to the world of His Name Was Zach, the book is intense and not for the fainthearted. Martuneac does a great job conveying the sheer terror of the speed at which Abby’s world collapses. Some of the techniques he uses in the text are quite ingenious, creating a memorable atmosphere in a brief space.

This is a very short story, and I think it is probably best read as a prologue to the main novel. I had already read the novel before reading this, but even though I knew what would happen, it still pulled me in.

There is one thing about the story that I felt could use a bit of expansion, but I can’t discuss it without major spoilers.  Let’s just say it concerns Abby’s reaction to a very traumatic event. She seems to accept it very quickly, more so than I would have expected. However, this is just my interpretation, and there’s no doubt that different people process traumatic events in different ways. (This is, in fact, one of the major themes of this series.)

I highly recommend this to fans of dark, post-apocalyptic stories. It’s a good intro to a gripping series.

Truly, the more I like a book, the harder it is to review it. I don’t want to give you my second-hand summary of the plot or the setting; I want to take you into this world to see it. Like previous books of Litka’s that I’ve reviewed, Keiree and A Summer in Amber, Beneath The Lanterns instantly enveloped me in its setting.

The world-building that he put into this thing! It’s breathtaking. I can practically feel myself looking out across the Azere steppes under the Yellow Lantern. Read Litka’s posts here and here about how he carefully crafted this setting.

With just a few lines, Litka can suggest a whole world, a whole culture. Most fantasy books with intricate settings have to spend pages and pages on description. Not Litka. As in his paintings (one of which you see on the cover above), he suggests a great deal with but a few strokes. His work reminds me of Joy Spicer’s fantasy novels in that regard. Spare, yet rich.

But what of the characters, you say? Ah, I’m glad you asked! Beneath The Lanterns features a character who instantly became one of my all-time favorites: Ren Loh, the daring, independent and stubborn daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne, who leads the scholarly narrator, Kel Cam, into one wild adventure after another as they flee toward Lankara.

What I like most about Ren Loh is her sheer audacity. Displaying the recklessness characteristic of most heroes, Loh realizes that “fortune favors the bold” and thus is always at her most aggressive when the odds seem most against her. Sometimes her gambles work, sometimes they don’t, but what a great character she is! Of course, I can also sympathize with Kel Cam, who prefers a quiet, ordered life to the sort that Loh leads. I would probably behave much as he does in his situation, which makes him the perfect Boswell for the larger-than-life Lieutenant Loh of the Lancers.

This is a wonderful journey across a fascinating world. A classic romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. As Litka describes it on his blog, “It is not an epic, but… about people caught up in the gears of statecraft, whose main concern is personal survival.”

And yet, somehow, it feels epic. I don’t know how to put it exactly, because it is certainly a very personal story, but at the same time it feels momentous, and not just because of Ren Loh’s status in the political machinations, but in some deeper sense. An epic about the human condition, about duty, about freedom… I could go on, but I can’t do it justice. Just read the book already!

Having now read three of Litka’s books and a good many of his blog posts, I have some understanding of his style and his literary philosophy. And all I can say is, the man is a treasure. He writes these wonderful stories, creates these fantastic worlds from nothing, and he does not do it for fame nor money, but simply because he loves it.

Since you are for some reason still here and have not gone out and downloaded the complete works of Chuck Litka, indulge me in a flight of cultural criticism, beginning by way of analogy.

As a teenager, I drank diet soft drinks all the time. As in, multiple cans per day. Diet Dr. Pepper was my favorite. Then, at some point, I read some articles about what’s in soft drinks, and decided to quit cold turkey and drink water instead.

Many years later, I had a diet soft drink again one day, and it tasted disgusting. “How did I ever drink that stuff?” I asked myself.

Our mainstream entertainments are basically the equivalent of diet soft drinks. What else can you say about an entertainment industry that does this, for example? The spark of creative talent is almost entirely obscured by the needs of marketing in this world, leading to endless reboots and spin-offs that all have this shared quality of soullessness.

If you want to wean yourself from these artificially composed concoctions and seek the pure waters of original stories told with wit and charm, know that the spirit of good storytelling is not dead. It lives in Litka, who tells stories for the sheer fun of it, for the love of the storytellers’ art.

Read his books. Read his blog. Look at his paintings. Above all else, be glad that there are people like Litka sharing their work with the world.

This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.

Recently, during a chat with the Writers Supporting Writers group, I was talking about Lindy Moone’s novel Hyperlink From Hell. I asserted that as far as I knew, that was the only published work by this author.

Well, clearly I don’t know very much. I thought I remembered looking for other works after reading Hyperlink. And yet, when I looked up Moone’s works recently, I saw this short story, published in 2014. I could have sworn it wasn’t there before, but perhaps I am mad, quite mad. (But at least I don’t sing choruses in public, yet.) Anyway, if you haven’t already pegged me as having all the reliability of an average Lovecraft protagonist, maybe you should start now.

But one point on which I want to be crystal clear is that this story is excellent.  It’s a short story, very short; but the setting is so evocative it instantly captured me. The mysterious town of Fogland, full of odd things and odd people, and one raven with a “screech impediment.” This is the second book I’ve read this year involving a mysterious raven who brings warnings to unsuspecting characters. It’s a trope that always works.

In addition to the bird, we have a newlywed French couple moving to their new home in Fogland, a shady realtor, and an impertinent little girl. How does it all fit together? Well, I’m not telling. Besides, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ve already led you astray once regarding the very existence of books by Lindy Moone.  Why don’t you instead go pick it up and read it yourself? It will only a take a few minutes, and fans of short fiction and weird stories with twist endings (think The Twilight Zone) are sure to like it. Besides, the cover is simply gorgeous!

This is a science fiction adventure story, but not the sort that Vogel usually writes. Most of his books, such as his Scout series, feature upstanding, chivalrous heroes on noble adventures. Fortune’s Fool is different. It’s darker and grittier, and less romantic. (In the literary sense.) Whereas most of Vogel’s protagonists are honorable, duty-bound types, Mark Fortune is more of an anti-hero. Think James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or Han Solo early on, before his mercenary heart softens.

Actually, the first Star Wars is a good comparison for this book in more ways than one. In addition to a ragtag band including a scoundrel, his powerful, lumbering sidekick, and a beautiful woman with an acerbic wit, there’s a huge floating fortress they need to destroy.

The book is fast-paced and violent. There’s a lot of banter in combat, which is not necessarily something I’m a fan of, although I will admit some of the lines made me chuckle. Sometimes the action moves so fast, it was hard to keep track of where it was all taking place. But it was certainly intense and exciting. I especially enjoyed Fortune’s reliance on an archaic firearm instead of an energy blaster.

In broad outlines, it’s not too different from a Scout book: hero finds himself on a strange world, and must fight to survive and save a beautiful woman. But the devil is in the details. One can’t imagine the hero of a Scout book speaking to a princess the way Fortune speaks to Alis. Moreover, Fortune is quite ruthless and definitely not one to fight fair, although there are signs that he’s not quite as brutal as he would like people to believe.

Then of course there are the villains, who are an altogether nasty bunch of folks. The main antagonist, Maelon, definitely deserves to have someone like Fortune opposing him.

All told, it’s a fast-paced and exciting story. I enjoyed it for the most part, although there’s no denying some parts were quite dark. Vogel was well aware this book is a departure from his usual style, so much so that it was initially published under a pen name. I can understand this, as it would be a shock for fans of his lighter works to find themselves in this world of cruelty, cynicism, and a good many four-letter words. But as long as you’re prepared for that, Fortune’s Fool is a good read.

This is the third and final book in the Cassie Black series. If you’ll recall my review of Book Two, I didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Book One. And so now, I face the same problem doubled, because to describe the setting of this book risks spoiling the first two.

Hmm, what to do? Well, I think I’ll start by talking about an element of these books that I neglected previously: the food. To power her magical abilities, Cassie needs lots of sweets, and eats a steady diet of delicious foods throughout the series. I love Painter’s descriptions of her meals. In fact, the one that sounded best of all to me was a description of a salad in this book. Reading this series is sure to whet your appetite.

As for the rest of it? Well, Cassie is snarky as ever, and her sarcastic voice stays with her even into her final confrontation with the arch-villain. The supporting characters are once again enjoyable, and I was especially pleased with how the character arc of the ghostly Tower Warder Nigel turned out.

All told, this is a fun series for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures that don’t take themselves too seriously. Painter’s magical world is entertaining and populated with plenty of amusing characters. The Untangled Cassie Black is a fitting way to wrap it up.

This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolfwill certainly enjoy.

Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.

I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.

But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.

But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.

I heard of this book thanks to Joy V. Spicer’s review of it. Naturally, since I’m always interested in neo-Lovecraftianism, I picked it up.

The book takes place in 1984, when the narrator stumbles upon a bloody backpack belonging to someone named Jared Palmer at a strange site in a remote part of the desert. He hires a private investigator to help him find Palmer and unravel the mystery.

However, their investigations only lead to more questions: Palmer is apparently mixed-up with a strange cult that practices odd rituals, and which apparently attaches some significance to the protagonist, due to the fact he is related to a certain famous author. (Not named, but there’s no doubt who it is.)

Things get weirder and weirder. The activities of the cult prove to be far more widespread and sinister than initially imagined. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and double- and triple-crosses. Above all, there is the possibility, as always in your really top-flight Lovecraft tales, that our protagonist is an unreliable narrator.

Basically, the book is pure Lovecraftian horror. Even the writing style evokes HPL’s. At times, it out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, if that is in fact possible.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, except that I was a satisfied customer–I came in looking for some good old-fashioned cosmic horror, and I got what I wanted.

That’s pretty much my review. If you like Lovecraft, you’ll like this.

Now, there’s one other comment I have. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but I hope not too much. Feel free to skip it if you want to maximize your surprise when reading the book.

As some readers may recall, I recently reviewed the film Wonder Woman 1984. There’s a scene in it where one of the characters meets the President–never named in the film, but obviously resembling Reagan–who reveals the existence of a secret satellite network capable of broadcasting across the globe.

In this book, there’s a scene where a character meets the President–again, not named, but it’s obvious who he is, not only because it’s 1984, but because of his manner and his fondness for jelly beans. And a top-secret satellite broadcasting network is integral to the plot of this book, also!

Apart from these details, Wonder Woman 1984 and Book of the Elder Wisdom are nothing alike. (For the record: Book of the Elder Wisdom was published in August 2020, WW84 premiered in December 2020.) But these commonalities were interesting to me. Why? Well, I’m not sure. I feel like it says something about the zeitgeist, the millieu, the cultural moment, and any other pretentious five-dollar terms you can think of that mean “what was happening at the time.”

But I don’t know what it is. I can’t even begin to speculate about what it is.

Ah, well. Like the fella once said, “The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  Who knows if there is any connection to be drawn at all, or if it’s just some odd coincidence. In any case: Book of the Elder Wisdom is a fun cosmic horror yarn.

Lovecraft! Few names are as loaded as his. The weight it carries, the emotions it evokes–what power this strange, little-known-in-his-time pulp writer has assumed!

Most of the time, when I talk about Lovecraft on this blog, it’s to criticize him. And there’s a lot to criticize. I’ve written about this before. But Lovecraft has this way about him: just when you’re ready to dismiss him, you remember some piece of his work that’s so interesting you can’t just write him off altogether.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: his 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.”

“The Haunter of the Dark” tells the story of a young writer named Robert Blake who moves to Providence, Rhode Island. Blake is fascinated by the occult, and soon becomes obsessed with a huge church on a hill far across the city, that he is compelled to stare at for hours from the window of his apartment.

Eventually, he visits the church, where he finds the remains of a reporter who apparently died while investigating the activities of a mysterious religious order called “The Church of Starry Wisdom.” He also finds a strange object in the abandoned church, and immediately upon seeing it, feels an evil presence.

This evil presence–some manner of alien entity, left vague in classic Lovecraftian fashion–can move only in darkness. But when a thunderstorm knocks out power to the city one night, Blake feels sure he is marked for death by the creature that lives in the church tower.

It’s not a long story. It can easily be read in one sitting. And for the seasoned HPL veteran there’s not a lot of new ground here: there’s a legend haunted New England town, a weirdly antiquarian protagonist, a nameless alien horror–this is all familiar. But there are nonetheless some things I find noteworthy about this particular story.

The first is, I admit, purely subjective. “The Haunter of the Dark” is my favorite Lovecraft story. Can I point to anything to say that it’s clearly better than some of his other really good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Hound”? Not really. I could probably make an argument for why it’s better than many of his most famous stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu.” But nevertheless, this is purely a matter of personal taste.

Or is it?

Well… maybe there are some other, non-subjective reasons why I can say that “The Haunter of the Dark” is the apex of Lovecraftian horror. Or maybe not, and what I think is objective is just more subtly subjective. But there must be some reason why this story stands out to me above all the others, right?

Well, let’s dig into the evidence–but all the while, bearing in mind the guarded distrust of the narrator that is the hallmark of any Lovecraft tale. After all, “the papers have given the tangible details from a sceptical angle, leaving for others the drawing of the picture as Robert Blake saw it—or thought he saw it—or pretended to see it.”

That’s as good a place as any to start. So, who is Robert Blake?

In one sense, he’s a stereotypical Lovecraft protagonist. He’s an eccentric weirdo who lives alone and is fascinated by the bizarre and the esoteric, and has seemingly no life outside his dedication to these subjects. Almost everyone in Lovecraft-world is like this.

But there’s more to the story: Robert Blake is a surrogate for Robert Bloch, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, to whom “The Haunter of the Dark” is dedicated.

All right, so who was Robert Bloch?

Well, eventually, he would go on to be a fairly popular horror writer himself. But in the 1930s, he was basically nobody; just a teenager who read Weird Tales magazine and had written fan mail to Lovecraft.

And Lovecraft wrote back. He encouraged the young Bloch in his own writing efforts, giving him advice and introducing him to other members of his literary circle. Lovecraft even gave Bloch permission to write a story in which a Lovecraft-surrogate was killed off. “The Haunter of the Dark” was HPL’s reciprocation of this gesture.

Now, of course in the 1930s, Lovecraft was not as well-known as he is today. But still, imagine what a thrill it must have been for teenager Robert Bloch to become so close (closeness being evaluated on a relative scale when it comes to Lovecraft) to someone he perceived as a great author.

“The Haunter of the Dark” is, among other things, a reader’s dream come true. What if your favorite author put you in one of their stories? Lovecraft even included Bloch’s actual address in Wisconsin! (Which today would be considered doxxing, but hey, it was a different time.)

Lovecraft often referenced his literary friends’ works in other stories as a sort of in-joke, but to write a whole story around someone who wasn’t really even a peer, but just a young fan, is pretty extraordinary.

But that’s not all that makes “Haunter of the Dark” special. In fact, usually fan service in fiction ends up being detrimental to the overall story, and to see why that is not the case here, we have to look at what Lovecraft did in designing the story’s antagonist. For this, Lovecraft plays on humanity’s most basic phobia: the fear of the dark.

Lovecraft rarely created rules for his monsters. He didn’t use vampires who only come out at night, werewolves who appear only when the moon is full, etc. Largely, this was because it was important to him that his alien monsters be utterly inscrutable to humans–beings whose motivations, if any, lay so outside our own domain as to be unfathomable.

And this is still true for the thing which haunts the deserted church on Federal Hill. But Lovecraft does give this monster one very basic, almost childishly obvious rule: it can’t go out in the light.

It sounds almost too simplistic. This is the kind of thing you’d make up in telling a campfire story about a generic boogeyman. But damme, it works! The climax of the story, with Blake watching in mounting terror during the huge electrical storm, is, in my opinion, the best thing Lovecraft ever wrote:

He had to keep the house dark in order to see out of the window, and it appears that most of his time was spent at his desk, peering anxiously through the rain across the glistening miles of downtown roofs at the constellation of distant lights marking Federal Hill. Now and then he would fumblingly make an entry in his diary, so that detached phrases such as “The lights must not go”; “It knows where I am”; “I must destroy it”; and “it is calling to me, but perhaps it means no injury this time”; are found scattered down two of the pages.

Then the lights went out all over the city. It happened at 2.12 A.M. according to power-house records, but Blake’s diary gives no indication of the time. The entry is merely, “Lights out—God help me.”

Lovecraft had a fair amount of disdain for classic ghost stories. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he wrote:

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

But with “Haunter of the Dark” Lovecraft hit a terrific balance between his own incomprehensible creatures of inconceivably distant worlds and the most basic elements of an old-fashioned scary story. In almost all his stories, Lovecraft undercuts the atmosphere somehow, but this time, he kept a steady hand.

And to me, what makes this especially remarkable–poignant, even–is that it’s Lovecraft’s final story. He died in 1937, shortly after “Haunter of the Dark” was published in Weird Tales, and I think he had a sense that the end was near when he was writing it. It feels valedictory, from the way he quotes his own poem Nemesis as an epigraph, to the fact that he dedicated it to a younger protegé as a way of passing the torch, right down to its final lines. Admittedly, having a story end with the protagonist’s last words before death is a Lovecraft staple, but

I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wing—Yog Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye . . .

…was the last thing he wrote for publication, and this seems intuitively fitting. H.P. Lovecraft could not go out any other way.

This is why “The Haunter of the Dark” is always worth revisiting, especially at this time of year–“the aeon-shadowed Walpurgis time,” as Lovecraft would say. It encapsulates so much about Lovecraft–his unique philosophy of horror, the evocation of the eerie atmosphere he sought to create, and perhaps above all else, his skill at cultivating relationships with other weird fiction aficionados.

It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.

So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.

My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.

I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.