HUMAN VOICES, an in-depth review of Dreams from the Witch House

Cover and Illustrations by Danielle Serra

Dreams from the Witch House edited by Lynne Jamneck is a gorgeous book.

It’s a larger than usual format—25.5 cm by 17.8 cm—soft cover, with beautiful full bleed, color illustrations by Danielle Serra. With a smooth, matte cover and generous layout, it feels good in the hands and easy on the eyes.

“There are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths, and now and then some evil soul breaks a passage through. When that happens, the man who knows much strike before reckoning the consequences.”

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”

In her introduction to the collection, Lynne Jamneck muses on the fragility of male sanity, particularly in Lovecraft’s own work, and the willingness present in the feminine experience to encompass unknown and unimaginable possibilities.

She lightly admonishes the puritanical impulse in some corners of Lovecraftianism, a reminder that the genre is dedicated to exploring the far reaches of all possible universes. This is a task which demands the greatest possible plurality of voices, a mere fraction of which she has gathered here.

Jamneck opens the collection with a restrained and dreamy historical piece, “Shadows of the Evening” by Joyce Carol Oates, which sees a young woman travel from her German-Hungarian neighborhood in upstate New York to the home of an aged aunt in Massachusetts. Its Lovecraftian elements come through in the setting and the manner in which the young, innocent protagonist is drawn in by some force far beyond her ability to understand, only in part because she has literally left her known world behind. The style is exquisitely crafted, harkening back to the language of a by-gone age, melding an early-20th century style with something older still.

Oates cleverly builds tension throughout the story by compressing time and allowing the future to project itself into the narrative of the past. The reader knows that the young woman will live to be quite old and that she will get married and have a family, which creates anticipation as the audience – aware they are reading a horror story – is rushing ahead of the story to figure out where and what will go wrong. The answer, of course, is almost impossible to describe.

The globe spins. In the next story, the reader finds themselves in an untamed wilderness during the early days of white settler incursion into New Zealand. Tamsyn Muir’s “The Woman in the Hill” is an epistolary story in the form of one letter and a single footnote. It lingers on the terror of wandering out into the hills only to encounter something too old to even recognize. It draws on the primal fear of the wilderness, how it has always been able to close around people and make them disappear, while also asking, “What comes back?”

The story poses an implicit question about the dangers of curiosity and empathy as the land – far more ancient and dangerous than anything else the settlers have encountered – makes its victims into accomplices, consuming them, spirit and flesh, until even their attempts to save the people they care become acts of complicity.

Cat Hellisen’s story “The Face of Jarry” will be a treat for anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and stories that slip through the cracks between our world and the ones that exist alongside it. It weaves together something like Lovecraft’s dreamlands with something more Fae. The narrator is delightfully mundane; she believably sells herself short without becoming self-pitying or obnoxious.

Hellison goes beyond the discovery of other worlds and the roads whereby we find them (usually by accident). She also lets a cautionary word linger: when we dream of becoming someone else, we seldom ask who would become us.

Lovecraft was old-fashioned to a fault; his cosmology, even when it ignores conventional supernaturalisms, retains a scholarly, religious-Rationalist Anglo-Saxon outlook. Caitlín R. Kiernan does away with that. In her story, humanity is clever enough to recognize when they have violated an alien sanctum, but they all work hard to deny the urge to make the intuitive leap from “structure” to “temple”—something inconceivable to Lovecraft’s protagonists.

“Our Lady of Arisa Mons” is a perfect blend between the cosmological introspection of the Weird and technical specificity of hard SF. The detailed descriptions of professions, processes, and scientific principles make the archeological excavation on the Mars colony seem plausibly concrete. Yet, it never loses sight of the philosophical core of any good piece of Weird fiction; life at the human scale colliding with something entirely beyond its capacity to comprehend.

Kiernan’s artistically inspired tale is charged with compressed potentiality.

The grimoires need updating, or we face the prospect of fighting horrors that we may have been able to defeat, were it not for a case of short-sightedness.

Lynne Jamneck, Introduction

Lucy Brady’s “The Body Electric” is a delectable morsel for any fan of artificial intelligence stories. Narrated with a careful academic disinterest, it packs a serious punch, eating up every possible philosophical approach to the question of programmable intelligences and spitting out a tale of alchemical triumph and personal responsibility that Mary Shelley’s own Modern Prometheus could only dimly foretell.

It dips into the territory dominated by Silicon Valley’s AI hysteria – regarding a computationally unlimited artificial intelligence able to reach back in time to affect its own creation. Unlike Elon Musk’s philosophically unread terror in the face of Roko’s Basilisk, Brady recognizes the ways in which the body of human knowledge has already prepared us for that which lies ahead.

Marly Youmans’ “The Child and the Nightgaunts” is a quaint magical realist imagining of a young Lovecraft and his nightmare haunts. It is, perhaps, excessively kind towards a man who was unable to find kindness in himself to extend to those who were different. Nonetheless, it is a poetic interlude which easily slips between historical reality and the phantasmagoria of dream.

Sonya Taaffe is easily one of the best contemporary writers of Weird fiction. Her work is often heavy with history — not “heavy,” as in cumbersome or excessively dense, but “heavy” in the way anything worth holding sits in the hand.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” meditates on the impossibility of a return to an Innsmouth which can be found only through dreams. The main character is stuck on the edges, pulled free of his birthright by the tangled net of history, culture, and distance, both geographic and temporal. He is surrounded by the remnants of Innsmouth — her people, her traditions, her legacy, writ in mind and body — and yet he is ever unable to reach out and grasp it.

Taaffe effortlessly draws on her own cultural heritage and the anti-Semitic reading of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and simultaneously she draws the line between allusion and reality, separating the “Innsmouth look” from the existence of a Jewish identity and tradition within Lovecraft’s mythos.

The story she tells is familiar to anyone born on someone else’s shores: the possibility of returning to the ancestral home, where we will be greeted with the open arms of our family, because they have been waiting for us to come home to a place we’ve never been, one we already know. She also captures the tragedy of the impossible return: the home of which we have always dreamt, though never found, and the gulf between who we have hoped to be and who we are.

Gemma Files digs into some of her own fears and draws on am Indonesian folk tale in “Every Hole in the Earth We Will Claim As Our Own.” The first person narrative, manifesting somewhere between a transcript and conscription of the audience into playing the part of mental health hotline operator, is conversational almost to a fault. It proves worthwhile for the way it folds itself into the story.

The story centers on the power of grief (especially at the death of a child) to push ordinary people to strike bargains with potentially catastrophic consequences. Drawing on the Indonesian folktale of the polong and pelesit, a pair of parasitic organisms with extraordinary powers, Files weaves a large, unbearably damning cosmic fabric.

Molly Tanzer takes the audience on a Victorian adventure in “But Only Because I Love You,” examining the complex relationship between two Imperial outsiders and the mute Tibetan boy who has volunteered as their guide. The audience is privy to Krishna’s rich inner monologue and his sharp and compassionate perspective, made all the more thrilling for its diegetic scarcity. Previously a synesthete, an encounter with a rock of unknown celestial origin and indescribable physical properties has given him an otherworldly sight and simultaneously robbed him of his ability to speak; in this way he becomes like Cassandra, privy to horrific premonitions and unable to communicate them.

The two women who enable Krishna to escape that which he fears in his village are the types of heroines only more recently found in stories of the British Empire. Well aware of the limitations placed on them by social convention, they have done both what they can and what they must to provide for themselves and others. Unlike the English Lordlings who left their names carved in the pillars of Egyptian temples and other vestiges of antiquity, the two women have become tomb raiders out of necessity. (A lesson in itself, regarding the price paid by those would-be innocents who have been denied the opportunity to pursue paths of greater legal or moral standing.)

The story is an action-packed 16 pages, but Tanzer ensures that none of the emotional impact of what Krishna has suffered, and what is ultimately asked of him, is lost in the furor of the action.

Kelda Crich’s “Cthulhu’s Mother” is a humorous bit of cleverness. A bit like reading about Cthulhu in the funnies section of the paper, it nevertheless does its part to reimagine the mythos as having a bit more feminine chaos in it. (Anyone who wishes to get into the details of “mythos canon” is preemptively disinvited from this party; gate keepers may see themselves out, post haste.)

“All Gods Great and Small” by Karen Heuler is difficult to swallow. Possibly the most Lovecraftian of the bunch, it focuses on the pathetic attempts of a man to impose his will on the Ecuadorian wilderness. Heuler’s protagonist, John Bream, sometimes reads like a caricature of the bitter, avaricious Imperialist:

“…he had wanted to show a white man what he had accomplished so far, and McClellan would have to do, whatever his weird ideas. No other white man had shown up in the months Bream had been here.” (178)

Despite the way the story sometimes teeters under the weight of its critique of colonialist practices, it maintains that piercing ring of truth. Bream is reminiscent of any number of mid-century Disney villains, whose greatest failing – even in the eyes of their would-be peers – is their unwillingness to recognize the limits of man’s power when confronted by the towering, indomitable possibilities contained in the natural world. A fool is he who believes his will enough to remake the world.

While Heuler cites “The Rats in the Walls” as her primary source of inspiration for this tale, she invokes the hubris which spells a terrible end to Denys Barry and his ancestral home in “The Moon-Bog”.

Lois H. Gresh’s “Dearest Daddy” goes about how you might expect a story with such a title to go. It features a nine year old narrator, an abusive alcoholic of a father, homelessness, prostitution, and drug addiction. More troubling, however, is that it does not really seem to be about any of those topics in any way. Gresh’s story leaves the impression that these are meant merely to create an unsettling backdrop before the more otherworldly aspects of the story kick in.

Unfortunately, even the parts of the story that might have been able to transcend the distressing mix of saccharine innocence and melodrama which colors the prose are undercut by the improbable insight and awareness (both of herself and her circumstances) of the supposedly pre-pubescent narrator.

The story manages to achieve a number of genuinely disquieting images (the contortionist father transforming himself into a human wheel, for example) but it never manages to strike that balance where the mundane horrors of the world are able to compete with the horror of the supernatural. The mundane horrors in this story cling like spores to the skin in a way the fruiting bodies of the otherworldly cannot.

In Nancy Kilpatrick’s “Eye of the Beholder,” the mundane horror of social convention is pitted against something previously inconceivable. The story struggles a little to metamorphose from a kind of “banality of evil” – in the form of women re-enforcing stereotypes and heteropatriarchal expectations of beauty and fulfillment in motherhood – into something more. While the ultimate revelation is certainly shocking, much of the horror remains in the acquiescence to an implicit, “Well, you asked for it!”

It is perhaps particularly jarring because female-centric and “feminist anthologies” (loosely construed) often attempt to rehabilitate the view of “Women” as being inherently competitive, faithless, and catty. This tale paints a chilling portrait of the damage internalized misogyny and willingness to play the game can do. And aliens.

E.R. Knightsbridge proves that an economy of words in no way means a diminished effect. The exact nature of what the protagonist (an elegantly – perhaps inadvertently? – gender-neutral first person narrator) has encountered in “Down at the Bottom of Everything” remains murky.

The dark, indistinct atmosphere of the story is balanced in part by the humorous author bio at the end of the book, where Knightsbridge refuses to confirm or deny whether or not she is actually a collection of crab piloting a well-crafted human suit. The note helps bring into focus some of the physical elements amongst the apparitions of the nightmare she has conjured from the deep.

In “Spore,” Amanda Downum successfully strikes the balance between the horror of a fully human loneliness and the horror of an all-encompassing togetherness. Featuring a fungal spore which would be at home in a Laird Barron story, Downum probes what it is that makes us human and whether that very quality is what pushes us to transcend the limits of our experience.

Calling forth the seeking, greedy specter of the Fungi from Yuggoth, the story marks another turning away from the innate limitations of Lovecraft’s particular terrors. Downum recognizes that which is always implicit in the relations between the Lovecraftian narrator and his more adventurous friend or colleague; the company we keep reveals much about our character and our desires, regardless of whether or not we admit to it.

Christine Morgan’s “Pippa’s Crayons” is a lighthearted little story told entirely in dialogue. It alludes to the danger inherent in the material it draws on (the meteorite in “The Color Out of Space”), without letting itself get too serious.

It never really resolves itself into a horror beyond its association with the original Lovecraft story. Stripped down to the unwieldy language of a toddler, the facts of “The Color Out of Space” lose some of their power. The revelation of the source of the meteor’s influence on the child isn’t given enough time to coalesce before the whole thing is over.

Perhaps its horror is best found in what remains unstated: it is the ignorant and the innocent who are made into agents to unspool the terrible things to come.

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette weave an engaging, complex, and surprisingly funny tapestry as the backdrop for the wider world of which “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is a part. From Lewis Carroll to H.P. Lovecraft to Caitlín R. Kiernan, the universe is awash with literary references. This aesthetic creates an engaging counterpoint to the complex story about scientific morality, the epistemology of “forbidden knowledge,” and the assertion that:

“This is how war crimes happen.”

The story is undeniably exciting, with all the fun of space opera and the geeky delirium of cultural referents. It is also deeply moving in its examination the festering extremities of human ingenuity, and a compassionate indictment of human curiosity.

The monsters might look back at us from the mirror, but they are nonetheless fiercely and undeniably human.

The collection’s penultimate tale – “From the Cold Dark Sea” by Storm Constantine – is a wonderful retreat from the undeniably Weird and into that half-lit interzone where the influence of the Great Old Ones and the precipice on whose edge humanity’s understanding teeters is palpable but cannot be pinned down and displayed.

Featuring an old house, a strange family lineage, compelling ancient texts, and strange townsfolk, the story unfolds entirely in suspended expectation of something from beyond the realm of the known. The narrator and the reader can feel that something waits for them, if only they could reach out—through time, if not through physical space—and peek behind the veil.

Here, the desire to know that which exists beyond the small pool of light which encompasses the pitiful kingdom of human knowledge is not the nightmare but an inextricable longing.

R.A. Kaelin proves the twists and foundational concepts which launched Weird fiction persist today with all the power they had when they were first released upon the world. In re-imagining and re-contextualizing them, they show that they are truly timeless, and that for all that humanity has learned ever more about the universe, it is in looking backwards that we realize how little our progress has been and how vast is our ignorance.

“Mnemeros” is a story full of half-truths, folk tales, narrative slips, and sudden impossibilities. It is fresh despite its careful review of many of the classic twists of Lovecraftiana (writ large), and ends on a heart pounding revelation that lingers long after the last page has been turned.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

1 thought on “HUMAN VOICES, an in-depth review of Dreams from the Witch House

  1. Pingback: dailies (july) | desert/oasis

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