Review: Innsmouth Free Press Issue 7 (June 2011)

Hot (and boy, is it hot) on the heels of my last informal book review, I’ve decided to take my typing fingers to town on another project in which my work has appeared: this time, it’s the latest issue of Canadian, Lovecraftian (or should that be Canadian-Lovecraftian?) webzine Innsmouth Free Press. IFP, as those who’ve been playing along might recall, have also published several of my reviews, including a twice-monthly column on horror games titled “A Pistol and a Flashlight.”

But we’re not here to talk about games or reviews or pistols or flashlights. We’re here to talk about good old squishy fiction. And that’s what Issue 7 is: squishy, slimy, goosebump-inducing horror, just in time for the stifling choke-hold of summer heat.

The word of the day here appears to be “pests.” From the mangiest dockside rats to the most insidious earworms, a pestilential epidemic afflicts these pages. Insects abound, in all shapes and sizes–and I do mean all. But it’s not just insects you’ll find inhabiting cocoons, undergoing painful metamorphoses, and leaving behind dull, bitter husks in perfect mockery of creatures that once gamboled and played.

I refer, in my insinuations, to the issues last, best work: “Every Little Sparrow” by Melissa Sorensen. Her bio declares this as her first published work, to which I can only reply that I hope it is the first of many. Set on the grounds of an Orphan Asylum during an insect epidemic (the peasefly, a parasite that causes putrefaction and necrotization in the flesh of its hosts), the tale is told through the eyes of 11-year-old Phebe Alexander.

I won’t spoil the rest–you’ll have to read the story yourself–but I will say that the child-as-protagonist was a smart move on Sorensen’s part; it works, as in Guillermo Del Toro’s best films, to intensify the alienating, awful effect of the horrors witnessed, human as well as supernatural. In this case, it’s less about the dehumanizing effect of civil war than that of illness, particularly on a pandemic scale. There is one stumble in the form of an unnecessarily aphoristic epilogue, but on the whole the story is creepy and tense, marvelously paced, and, thanks to Phebe’s convincing characterization–she is, as they say, every ounce an orphan–surprisingly endearing.

Working backwards through the table of contents, we run aground on Regina Glei’s “Black Sand,” another of the issue’s stand-outs. Taking place in a nameless village bordering the legendary “Cone Islands” in the “Lake of Stone,” “Black Sand” is more folkloric than its neighbors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; retuning our suspension of disbelief allows us to more readily accept the horrific sights to follow–black sand swirling up to form the shape of some tremendous winged thing. It also casts an air of mystery over the story’s more science-fictional aspects–would a more “advanced” culture be able to identify the silvery, shimmering lake-water, unfreezing despite the deadly cold it exudes? This intersection of fantasy and sci-fi was a crossroads well-tread by Lovecraft, but “Black Sand” manages to feel like more than mere mimicry, thanks particularly to a sympathetic twist in the depiction of the monster.

Stephen Woodworth’s “A Tour of the Catacombs” is one of the three shorter offerings that round out the issue–each of them a mere two pages in length. This is good, as it’s not really a concept that could have been drawn out much longer. It’s narrated as though by an unseen tour-guide, and becomes leagues more entertaining when you imagine it read in the voice of Lurch, the Addams Family’s gaunt manservant. I was not overly taken by the story, although the mention of “ovoid chrysalises” the size of sarcophagi did grab my imagination.

The two remaining pieces are by Don Webb and W.H. Pugmire, both among the leading names in Lovecraftian fiction. If anything, it just goes to show that you can never rely on fame or publication history to judge the quality of a piece of writing. Pugmire’s “Cool Mist” is a revised version of a previously published piece, but with phrases like “stabs of icy terror,” “those weird words of his cacophony,” and “his junky doom,” I’m not sure why he bothered. The story begins well enough, in a Poe-ish sort of way, with memories of a recently deceased lover, but the premise and the conclusion never seem to connect despite the brevity of the tale. Curiously enough, Webb’s contribution, “Nyarlathotep,” also concerns a dead lover. The dream-like atmosphere is nice, but in the end it didn’t transport me anywhere that Lovecraft hadn’t already.

And then there’s my contribution, “On The Generation of Insects.” I won’t say too much about it, except that it continues the insectile theme, with maggots the size of your head and weird metamorphoses right alongside opium nightmares and mountains of rotting flesh. It doesn’t fit neatly into the Lovecraft’s classic Mythos, but I hoped to evoke a sense that it could be at least contiguous with his universe, as well as with our own; it’s written as a sort of historical scientific apocryphon.

It’s an obvious recommendation for any diehard fans of Lovecraft, or weird fiction in general, but even if that’s not your thing you might be surprised by what you read. Just know that it’s a bit of a night moth, improved with time; if the early stories don’t impress you, press onward for the later, more accomplished works. On the whole, IFP #7 is a little bit creepy, a little bit crawly, and a great diversion for those torrid summer nights when the moon is full, the window is wide, and the cicadas are calling.

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