No detours, a review of Cemetery Beach

Rating: ★★★★★

Maybe Warren Ellis is in my head, or maybe what he and Jason Howard achieved with Cemetery Beach is just genius, wrapped in subtlety (a shocking claim, given the number of explosions it contains) wreathed and garlanded in weirdness.

If you want to know what’s going on, if you need answers, if you enjoy carefully laid out intricacies, then Cemetery Beach is not for you.

By a certain measure, the 7-issue story (now collected into a single volume) is nothing more than a series of provocations. I see that more as a feature than a bug. It is entirely possible that a year and change of being subscribed to Ellis’ newsletter – Orbital Operations – has rotted my brain, like the chemical inhaled by the gas mask wearing denizens of the outer ring on the planet where Cemetery Beach takes place.

Cemetery Beach provides a vicious, demented contrast to eutopic visions of a post-scarcity world (such as Corey Doctorow’s Walkaway – more on that soon). The unidentified (though by no means unnamed – protagonist, scout, and Earthling Mike Blackburn provides a number of expletive laden possibilities) planet on which the majority of the story takes place is literally made up of the material necessities for life: a substance, a mix of protein, sugar, etc. oozes out of cracks in the mantle; the planet is ripe with refined nuclear material, providing functionally unlimited energy; and a mysterious pool provides the means of extending the human lifespan – the exact process is (perhaps mercifully) vague, but seems to involve fungal infection and cancerous cell growth in addition to longevity.

Whether the found of this – in their words – Utopia are Nazis or not is never entirely clear. The early-20th century military aesthetic of the ruling class automatically produces the comparison, and knowing that the colony was a result of a secret program in the 1930s does little to disabuse the idea. However, they could just as easily be British or American, handily collapsing the distance between the various strains of fanatical social engineering which sprouted up as we moved from the Victorian into the Modern era.

The lack of clarity regarding the exact quasi-historical origins of the hideous situation Mike stumbles upon, as part of his reconnaissance mission from Earth to this recently uncovered project, is a refreshing break from the unwieldy exposition we have come to expect (and accept) from dystopic and/or apocalyptic fiction. While it might be a stretch to say that its absence lends the narrative anything like ‘realism,’ it, at least, does not demand the attenuated suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, while the native guide explains to the non-native (and the audience) how all this came to be… While they get shot at.

Instead both Mike and the audience are left to speculate and extrapolate as to the processes which resulted in the colorful and horrifying tableaus Mike and dissident Grace Moody (imprisoned for “murderous shit”) make their way from the prison in the capitol (inner ring) out to Cemetery Beach (last outpost before the wastes) where Mike’s transport home awaits. All the visitors from “Oldhome” must make up their own minds about this alien, if not totally foreign, world.

This is the point where I say something like: ‘the guiding principle of an extractive “economy” – one encompassing the physical, biological, environmental, etc. – which guides all life on Utopia can be seen as a caricature of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism. A ruling class – whose sole interest is their own self-perpetuation and maintenance of power, an avarice so fervent they operate without care, or seeming awareness, that the end result of their project will be their “utopia” sitting  atop a blasted, toxic wasteland – can be said to reflect the probable outcome of willful inaction on the part of the ruling classes on our Earth to protect any kind of “greater good.”’

But Cemetery Beach can just as easily eschew any kind of overtly political analytic hack job and instead stand as an oasis, a space apart from the dystopic/apocalyptic mainstream.

Sometime after the half-way point, Mike says, “You know, at some point along the way, this stopped being fun.” They have just breached the outer ring, mercilessly slicing their way through the denizens of this perverse, human “cold storage” – the icy waste that Grace Moody called ‘home.’ She checks over the bodies littering the snow, looking for survivors. The moment, a reprieve in the otherwise non-stop, nuclear-powered, at times literally face melting pace of the narrative-action, provides the opportunity to reflect on the real stakes within the story.

Amazingly, it turns out that a simple demand for empathy might be an effective way to solicit it.

Cemetery Beach stands up to do the job which the previous decade’s cinematic revisitations of 90s graphic novels (an era known for its addiction to unremorseful violence, brutality, and sex) has failed to do. The 2008 adaptation of Wanted fell back on the unimaginative horror of having been duped by a shadowy international conspiracy – and having the hot girl you were lusting after die to save the world, and your ass. Then there’s the cognitive dissonance of Colin Firth in the Kingsmen movies – although by 2014, the shadowy international cabal at least had a veneer of political vitality, following the bank bailouts and the increased willingness of the super rich to outright state their plans to retreat to enclosed havens while the rest of the world burns (I’m looking at you, Peter Thiel). We could include the SyFy channel adaptation of 2014’s Deadly Class (also from Image Comics), with its relitigation of the Reagan-Thatcher era cuts to public services. Secret organizations – especially the kind that assassinate people – proliferate.

Warren Ellis is smart enough to know that the people who are most deserving of our compassion, and the people we are all most likely to become are the incidental casualties. Those with the power are likely to throw themselves into the line of fire to protect whatever travesty sustains their way of life. The rest of us will mourn or die as those who never had the chance to decide whether or not we want a revolution.

This isn’t to say that Ellis doesn’t make room for the political gallows humor which fueled the likes of Transmetropolitan (the work which converted me to an Ellis fan). Mike’s loved ones have all met with tragic ends, comprising a laundry list of social ills resulting from willful political inaction spanning the last three decades. The tragedy has left Mike with suicidal tendencies (a quest for “the good death” according to Grace) and a martyrous inclination to self-sacrifice. These traditional affectations of the male ego are nonetheless more palatable than the sexual assault and provocative political misbehavior which negatively impacts so much of the contemporary work produced by his generational cohort (yes, I mean Alan Moore).

It might be that fridging his protagonist’s entire family and social circle enables Ellis to avoid the sexist under-/overtones of allowing his hero to off-load his survivor’s guilt onto the nearest only sort-of vulnerable female acquaintance. Instead, it takes on a more holistic character, for a Freudian psychological substitution, with Mike seeking absolution for the failure to save one world, by saving another from the ravages of institutionalized madness.

Given that Ellis and Howard had scarcely more than 150 pages to work with, ‘Everyone I love is dead, at least let me save one person,’ is a succinct and digestible motivation. (The motivational Occam’s Razor, if you will.)

Cemetery Beach is a wild, 7-issue ride, and will leave you inquisitive and energized; two things we’ll need to face the coming future. After all, it’s already here. (You’ve been trained for this, hold on tight.*

*: to quote from my favorite part of Mr. Ellis’ newsletter

Trials of Communication and Triumphs of Empathy, a review of Avi Silver’s Two Dark Moons

DISCLAIMER: I do have a personal connection with Avi Silver, the author of this work. We met in freshman year of college and roomed together the following year. It is up to the reader to decide if that kind of intimacy and co-habitation makes a critic more or less likely to extend unreasonable courtesy towards a given author. I was graciously sent an electronic advanced reader’s copy of the book, and the review that follows is as honest and thoughtful as I am able to render a personal opinion. 

The world of Ateng is one rife with ritual and auspice. 

Ama and Cheheng, the two moons in the night sky over Ateng, govern most aspects of life in the hmun. In Ateng, the heavens do more than assign purported characteristics of personality, as the zodiac is said to do in our world. The moons one is born under determine most aspects of one’s life in the hmun; they govern gender assignation — male, female, or both; they inform what marriages would be considered beneficial; what positions one may hold in the community (leadership, responsibilities, etc); and more, in addition to the more familiar behavior and personality traits. 

The struggle of being out of joint, an interruption in the flow of life and tradition has been a part of Sohmeng’s life ever since her birth. But a catastrophe which resulted in a total collapse (literally) of the traditional migration of the hmun between its two mountain top territories, also ultimately stole the lives of her parents and stalled any chance of Sohmeng and her generational cohort of completing the ritual known as tengmunji which would usher them into adulthood.

The trappings of childhood grate at Sohmeng Par (the second name supposedly denotes the aspect of the moons in the sky on the night of her birth), and her impetuous, “speak first, ask for forgiveness later” character has gotten her into trouble again. The beginning of the novel finds her arguing with her brother as she goes to plead her case to the council of hmun elders.

The narrative of Two Dark Moons is the deceptively simple outer garment of a complex mystery. It follows in the tradition of “Young Adult Fantasy” or “coming of age” novels in that it includes a home, a fall, an adventure beyond the boundaries of what is known, and the journey to return, during which it becomes clear that the person who left the village at the beginning is a stranger to the one who now attempts to return. 

Instead, I believe that the beating heart of Two Dark Moons are the questions of language and communication – epistemology and belonging – which it engages so effortlessly. These questions are so intrinsic to the characters and the story that they are almost rendered invisible.

Every world, every community, every person has a story, a mythology, a structure which defines them and their place in creation. One of the great myths of humankind, passed down from the Ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, that encompass the Torah, the Talmud, the Bible, the Quran, ties language to divinity. We need not invoke the fall of Babel and the fracturing of mankind into disparate groups unable to communicate. Prometheus may have given humankind fire but Thoth taught Pharaohs and their priests to write and in so doing changed the fate of humanity forever.

The utilitarian definition of language sees it as a means of conveying information, words become signs which point to objects or abstract concepts thereby allowing individuals to articulate information about the world. It is also the framework within which any group or community makes sense of the world around them, and of their place within it.

Without sliding into linguistic determinism, Silver’s novel carefully lays out how language reflects and perpetuates the knowledge and structures of a given community. It is no surprise to those familiar with the convention of the “coming-of-age novel” that the limitations of culture and community, and the impositions they place upon the conception of the self, are tested by the experience of travelling outside and beyond them. 

Constructed languages (or “ConLangs” [1]) are a misunderstood though increasingly prevalent aspect of science-/speculative-/fantasy-fiction. In Two Dark Moons, Silver does more than apply the anti-censorship obfuscation tactic of TV (“She’s a fracking Cylon!”) or the use of “foreign” language as a way of making the Other more remote and unknown (“Cthulhu fhtagn” or “the practice of Kelno’reem”). Language is a vital component of life in  and structure of communication in the book form an important dimension of the story from the very beginning.

Language is a constant battle in Two Dark Moons. Sohmeng, the hot-headed protagonist, struggles to communicate, her “speak first, apologize later” attitude has landed her in hot water (the ‘again’ is implicit) at the beginning of the novel. 

As she makes her case before the council of elders, 24 total, representing each of the lunar phases, with the exception of Minhal – the darkest night, the “bad sign” of the new moons, when the Gods’ eyes are turned away from the hmun

As she prepares and makes her case to the council of elders, it becomes clear that Sohmeng is no stranger to the difficulties of communication. The complexities of clarity and diplomacy are rendered vividly. 

The struggle to remain both truthful and diplomatic (the first of which, for Sohmeng, is fundamentally compromised by the circumstances of her birth), to balance being understood and to convince others to give you what you want, is put front and center. 

At home, among the hmun, Sohmeng has already lost the battle and tipped the scales more toward brutal clarity, and suffers the subsequent social isolation familiar to anyone with an undisciplined tongue. Sohmeng is the victim of another trait of those who find themselves too close to the edge: she sees with great clarity the threads of responsibility and choice that bind her community together. She has the consigned/committed pariah’s certainty that if people would just take her seriously, life might be easier for everyone.

Somheng’s parents were traders and as such, she speaks the trader pidgin used to conduct transactions between different hmun[2], putting her a full step closer to bilingualism than anyone else in her community. The cognitive and intellectual flexibility introduced with any form of bilingualism (a trait the novel engenders through the use of the incorporation of hmunpa into the narrative), a subtle alienation from a unified or totalizing description of the world which can sometimes develop as a result of monolingualism, primes Sohmeng (and encourages the reader) to successfully re-evaluate the world around her and her position within it. 

Two Dark Moons does not limit itself to exploring language as an instrument of epistemology. It also commits itself to the complex project of understanding sentience and communication in both non-human and non-linguistic terms. In our world, the efforts of conservationists, naturalists, and cognitive scientists have done their part to show that the rest of the animal kingdom has as much claim to sensibility and complex cognition as does humankind and, moreover, that the distance between “human” and “animal” is insignificant.

The forests in the valley from which the five fingers of Ateng emerge shelter a reptilian apex predator, the Sãoni. Even from the safety of the hmun they are all too real to be dismissed as some kind of boogeyman. Like the stories European explorers brought back of panthers and leopards – natives ceding territory to the uncontested regents of the jungle – the Sãoni are a death sentence to those exiled or separated from the community. 

Where Silver’s world building and empathic sensitivity shine, setting the shared world of Eiji and Ateng apart, is their refusal to recognize the traditional barriers of intelligence and love. Anthropomorphized animal narrators are a staple of fantasy fiction, as is the reversal of the seemingly “animal” into an intelligent Other. Silver chooses to remind us that speech is not the be-all, end-all of communication. 

Even as our own scientific exploration now shows that elephants, whales, and dolphins possess a greater capacity for complex thought than previously afforded to them by humanity, the colony of Sãoni she joins show Somheng that viewing language-based communication as the pinnacle of intelligent evolution is an affectation of humanity. 

Ultimately, the demand for complex empathy across species is a lesson which prepares Sohmeng (and the audience) for the much more complicated business of empathizing with those human strangers who look and speak in unfamiliar ways.

It is easy to focus on the tradition of social commentary which has defined speculative fiction from early eu-/utopias through the tradition of feminist and queer SF/F, a tradition of which Two Dark Moons is undeniably a part. Indeed, the novel works diligently to challenge the audience’s assumptions regarding the “natural” organization of human beings and expands the possibilities of gender assignations, linguistic conventions, and reproductive configurations, in addition to more common topics in mainstream SF/F such as styles of governance and environmental systems. 

Silver is also able to impart a wisdom so often lacking from the ever-rising tide of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction which threatens to overwhelm every imaginable media outlet. They recognize that a community and a culture, even in the midst of crisis, is often able to carry on with a semblance of normalcy which can conceal impending catastrophe. As an author, Silver is willing to confront the re-traumatization inherent in history and discovery. There are questions which lurk in the caves and hollows which will never yield answers and the grief of them is something Sohmeng, and ultimately her hmun, must learn to live with, without hope or promise of closure. 

There is a transcendental impulse in Two Dark Moons, best recognized and understood by looking out at the world and knowing enough of life and death to be able to name what is before and around us, that great cycle of which we are a part, as “One.” The decision not to hold one’s self apart from the complexity and intricacies of “everything” reminds us that we are governed as much by the salt of the earth as we are by the movement of the heavens.

Perhaps my only complaint, and it’s merely a matter of form and personal preference, is that the story ends not quite on a cliffhanger (that comes at the start of the novel, actually) but with an unrepentant promise of a sequel. There is much still to learn of Ateng, Eiji, the hmun and the travails that await them, but in a world gone mad for sequels, prequels, series, et. al. it can be exhausting to add another to the list. That having been said, I would not trade my experience traveling through Eiji for anything. 


Two Dark Moons is now available at Amazon. Grab a copy! (Not an affiliate link)


1. “Constructed Languages” can refer to a variety of different types of languages which are intentionally developed by individuals. There are conlangs which are nominally dedicated to facilitating global communication or even communication with extraterrestrials, such as Esperanto and AI. However, the kind currently proliferating are those often referred to as “Art Languages” or “ArtLangs” which are languages developed as part of a wider artistic endeavor or for personal use and/or entertainment. The most well-known artlang is undoubtedly Tolkien’s Elvish, though Dothraki (developed for television by David Peterson) and Klingon are not unfamiliar. Both art- and conlangs are held to fairly stringent linguistic standards, and to be a fully developed “language” must meet the same requirements as any organic or naturally occurring language. For example, they require grammars and vocabularies which exceed a specific quantity. Therefore, most conlangs are developed over years and decades and are the result of an astounding quantity of work and thought. For more information about Constructed Languages and the people who love them, check out the Language Construction Society. (They have a really great convention, I went to it once, it changed my life.)

2. I think it is a collective noun, it could follow the plural prefix format and be bahmun as a plural, but that might be a human/animal plural instead. Without a full grammar for the language, this will have to remain speculation. I hope that we do get a chance to dig into the linguistic world of Ateng in the future. 

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…

Capsule Reviews I

It has seemed incomprehensible to some that there should be any need or desire for horror fiction when one need only look to the newspaper or out the window to find things to make one’s blood run cold.

But Professor Nobody, who makes his appearance in Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer, explains why it is exactly, in moments of turmoil and distress, that we turn to horror fiction, not as individuals, but as a collective:

“In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny the horror, to savor and suffer them at the same time. […] In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species.”
— “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures,” Thomas Ligotti

With that in mind, consider picking up the following titles the next time you are at loose ends and looking for something to read.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer

Beyond a barrier blocking off a portion of the Floridian peninsula, some kind of otherworldly natural rejuvenation is at work. In Annihilation, the first book, we join the 12th expedition, this time comprised entirely of female scientists, across the barrier as they seek to understand what is happening in Area X,. Few things in that otherworldly Eden are as they first appear.

The first installment works excellently as a stand alone narrative, introducing us to Area X and establishing the tantalizing promise of the Southern Reach, the government department tasked with understanding Area X. The subsequent two books take you deeper into the mystery of Area X and the Southern Reach to find answers that are as strange and satisfying as the questions to which they correspond. Vandermeer’s lush prose is rivaled only by the Florida landscape it describes and the elegant tapestries of his characters.

Ultimately, Jeff Vandermeer’s alienating masterpiece might best be described as it was by the reviewer Scott Christensen on Google Books: “It’s kind of a love story at the end. And I thought that was sweet.”

(Read Annihilation to prepare for its cinematic adaptation, starring Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac.)

Looming Low (Vol. 1) Edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan

The first anthology out from Dim Shores, a press established by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan in 2015 dedicated to Weird and dark fiction. The press has has made a name for itself publishing chapbooks from esteemed Weird fiction authors including Jeffrey Thomas, and more recently, Gemma Files and Joseph S Pulver, Sr.

Looming Low Vol. 1 serves as a whistle-stop tour of contemporary Weird fiction. While it features works by established names like Michael Cisco, Brian Evanson, Livia Llewellyn, and S.P. Miskowski, it also includes stories from less immediately familiar names. As a whole,  it serves as an excellent introduction to Weird fiction and its impressive variety of styles and topics; from the supernatural to the mundane, the romantic to the fraternal, and beyond, the human heart is metamorphosed before your eyes as it tangles with the incomprehensible and the irreconcilable.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has been described as a mix between Kafka and Lovecraft. His personal brand of transcendental horror, as if Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau had ascended to that higher spiritual plane only to realize that life is something worse than a cosmic joke, is utterly unlike anything else. His dreamy, rotting post-industrial landscapes peel back to reveal humanity dancing on the end of a string, while elsewhere, close by, the universe laughs.

Perhaps most effectively, unlike the hapless or blissfully ignorant characters which populate Weird and Science Fiction, who unwittingly stumble upon unimaginable horrors, Ligotti’s characters often walk to their doom with some foreknowledge. His protagonists are seekers after truth, aware that they are damning themselves by looking but unable look away.

The Penguin classics single volume re-release of his first and second collections of short stories (Songs and Grimscribe, respectively) is an opportunity for everyone to re-/discover this master of dread.

Edited 26 JULY 2018 (for typos/clarity)

On Thomas Ligotti

A follow up on my review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets:

I have now read Thomas Ligotti.

It changed my life.

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Thomas Ligotti can paint tableaus with his adjectives that repulse me. He can fill my head with images that burden me as they burden his protagonists. But no one has ever made me want to draw the way Thomas Ligotti does.

Justin Steele’s comment that Ligotti is not for everyone feels unavoidable, but nevertheless, I think everyone should read Thomas Ligotti. The things that make him difficult are, like with all good authors, the things that make him enchanting. His stories are immersed in an almost academic rhetoric that pushes the mind beyond quotidian engagement with the universe. In contrast to other kinds of contemporary fiction, he strays from the traditional depiction of the everyman. What makes his protagonists ordinary is their tendency towards base emotion: curiosity, irritation, selfishness, egotism.

More than all that, Ligotti is a Transcendentalist.

He follows in the footsteps of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, exploring the possibility of an interconnected universe. He leaves no doubt; his universe is interconnected. There is a higher knowledge, a greater understanding, and sits just beyond our usual sphere of perception.

But unlike Whitman or Thoreau or New Age prophets, his interconnected universe is not nearly so pleasant. Ligotti writes of a world where higher knowledge, undeniably satisfying to achieve, is always a burden. The existential project is a fruitless one, to understand the universe is to destroy the self. When you can see the cardboard trees for what they are, when you understand—truly understand—how the universe is all strung together, and what things exist, just beyond the blue sky – you might wish you hadn’t.