Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stealing Cthulhu

Stealing CthulhuStealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, I learned a number of surrealist games meant to spur creativity and put one’s mind into a frame where those playing the games could see the world in new and surprising ways. For example, “n+7” is a game in which one takes a text, say a paragraph from a novel, and identifies all the nouns. After this, the player grabs the nearest dictionary and looks up the first noun. Then, in the dictionary, the reader counts the next seven nouns and inserts the seventh noun for the one in the original text. This is an excellent way to spur the brain into an entirely different mode of thinking, having a form of logic, but with illogical, even jarring, signposts along the read.

Now imagine taking the already strange works of H.P Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, and Colin Wilson, pulling elements out, decontextualizing, then re-contextualizing them. Vary the levels of granularity (from such elements as a mythos monster, to a specific trait of a mythos monster, from a thematic element to a specific setting, for example), and you instantly have a multifaceted mythos mixing board from which you can subtract, to which you can add, wherein you can focus or blur – you get the picture.

This, along with the "Playing the Game" section of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook should give enough tools to any would-be horror writer (whether of games or fiction) to create a fantastic breadth of work that still retains its core “Lovecraftiness”.

This is all well and good, but my introduction to the work here seems far too mechanical. As I review books, I always like to take notes to inform my later review of the book. In this case, though, I want to give my updates to you in their raw, unadulterated form. Not because I’m lazy (though I am), but because I cannot effectively convey the utter delight I felt in reading this book, not from the post-reading perspective. This book made a strong impression on me, and I think it best to show that via the notes I made in real-time. So, here they are:

“This is one of the best arguments for plagiarism . . . er, adaption of another's material that I've ever read.”

“Well, this is definitely whisking away my reading time. Easy read, great advice.”

“The color out of space is quickly becoming my favorite "bad" guy.”

“Ah, I see, this is where we take the wisdom gleaned from earlier chapters and apply it to specific creatures of the mythos. Good stuff. I like that structure - helps the lessons to really sink in.”

“Leveraging Flying Polyps as representations of elemental creatures. Interesting. Hadn't thought of that. And substituting other elemental creatures (fire, earth, water, ???) in the seminal story "The Shadow Out of Time" to turn it into an adventure - simple, yet brilliant. Walmsley is giving a textbook lesson in adventure writing here. So glad I hunted down a hard copy of this book.”

In essence, I loved it. I can't recommend it strongly enough. And I am really glad I bought the hard copy (good luck - they're out there, but they're not cheap, and you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead hands). I will be returning to this book again and again. It is definitely making it near the top of my list of books about writing (which I normally despise), whether for games or for fiction. Apply these techniques to any genre you can imagine, heck, it's probably best to intentionally cross genre lines while using them. The possibilities are . . . expansive.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead (Ender's Saga, #2)Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been just under five years since I first read Ender’s Game at my kid’s bequest. As I pointed out in my review, the last chapter of that book, which occurred after all the action, was the part of the book that I found most compelling (and which pushed my assessment from a mere 3 stars up to 4). I mentioned this to my kids and they, having read almost all the books in the “Ender” series, told me that I should read Speaker for the Dead, that I would enjoy it much more than I did Ender’s Game.

They were right!

While far from perfect, I found Speaker for the Dead far more interesting and complex than the punch-‘em-in-the-face shoot-‘em-up that was the prequel. I had expected Card to take a condescending tone and to push his religious views on the reader, but found that Ender’s philosophy and the tackling of religious, moral, and political themes that predominate throughout, was much more subtle and nuanced than I expected. I also found the complexity of relationships and the navigation thereof to be, if not altogether believable, given the timelines involved, interesting and surprising.

To give a plot outline would involve me accidentally spoilering things that I ought not, and others have addressed the plot adequately already. Like many good works of literature, the plot doesn’t really matter all that much – it’s a platform from which Card explores, more than anything, the notion of forgiveness and compassion. There were moments that I found emotionally affecting, and was brought near tears more than once. It is not a comfortable read, and anyone who is paying attention to their own reaction as they read it will find that one’s emotions run strong. Some will feel manipulated. Others will feel guilty. Others will try to blow off their feelings and accuse the writer of being shallow and even callous. Still others will become angry. Just take a look at all the Goodread’s reviews! In any case, this book has a way of getting “under the skin” and provoking a reaction.

I know a lot of authors who would love to get that kind of reaction from their readers, this one included.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Collapse of Horses

A Collapse of HorsesA Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've made no secret of the fact that I love Brian's work; both his non-fiction and his fiction. I've published his work myself not once, but twice. I've only had the chance to meet him in person once, many years ago, but have had correspondence with him off and on for a long time now. He even let me have the honor of accepting the International Horror Guild Award on his behalf when he couldn't make it to a convention I was attending. So I might be a little biased. But only a little; even if he appears in my personal appendix N. I try to be objective when I read Brian's work, which means that, at times, I am a harsher critic than I ought to be. Then, along comes a story that entirely blows my mind and, well, there goes any semblance of objectivity or decorum, for that matter.

And what did I think of this collection? Brian's The Wavering Knife is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time, so A Collapse of Horses is up against its own stiff competition. Here are my thoughts on each story:

The structure (though not the subject matter) of "Black Bark" is reminiscent of the opening and closing sequence of the Twilight Zone movie, but much, much more scary. Wanna see something really scary? Four stars.

"A Report" is Kafka . . . *cough* *cough* Evenson at his most Kafka-esque. It's the absence of punishment that makes the torture portrayed here so excruciating. Four stars for "A Report".

"The Punish" is a story of bullying. And a story of revenge, sort of. But it doesn't play out quite how you'd expect. There is little of vengeful anger, little emotion at all, involved. At the center of it all is the sense of what's fair, what tit-for-tat comprises and how it plays out over the long term. Like much of Evenson's work, it is brutal in its lack of emotion. Five stars.

A tragedy that is not a tragedy is all the more tragic because it is not, in "A Collapse of Horses". Five stars.

"Three Indignities". Yes. Yes they are. Four cringe worthy stars that made me flinch and tremble, especially after having experienced one of them immediately after my back surgery, a few years ago. I did not care to relive that.

Using "Cult" as the title of this story may be the most clever use of a title I've seen in a while. Not the best Evenson story, but it still creeps into four star territory.

"Seaside Town" is an eerie, dissociative story that may or may not involve time travel. It reminds me of the work of Roland Topor, particularly The Tenant. A four star stay at the seaside town.

"The Dust" has a sense of paranoia that is almost palpable. It's a claustrophobic psychological horror story in a science-fictional setting. Fairly straightforward, by Evenson's standards, and yet flawlessly written to unfold a psychotic narrative that reminded me, simultaneously, of Pandorum and Carpenter's The Thing, but exactly not either of those. Four stars.

Don't judge a story by it's title! "BearHeartTM" was way less stupid and way more scary than I thought it would be from the title. Four stars, and a nod to Talky Tina.

"Scour" will . . . er, scour your soul. Evenson's ability to put the reader in the protagonist's head and cause the reader to, with her, willingly make the emotional phase shift from fear to sheer absence of will, is a draining spectacle to behold and be a part of. Four stars.

"Torpor" was a bit of grotesquery that I just didn't much care for. But you always have to admire Evenson's technically-perfect execution. Three stars.

"Past Reno" is clearly a riff on Lovecraft's idea of man's inability to correlate all the contents of the mind, along with the notion that what is off-screen is often more terrifying than what is right before you. But I've seen this done even more effectively elsewhere (though I can't for the life of me remember the title of the story that appeared in Ellen Datlow's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror that used redactions to horrifying effect - I'd be indebted if someone could help me remember what that story was and who wrote it. It was brilliant.). Still, a solid four star story.

"Any Corpse" will make you laugh, if you have as sick a sense of humor as me. I'm reminded of Evenson's Dark Property, but with a wry grin that quickly fades into a grimace. Five stars.

Many writers try to relay the feelings and sensations one encounters in a hallucinogenic experience. Evenson is one of the very, very few that actually catch the sensation of displacement that one feels during those experiences. Then he takes it two steps further, causing the reader to question reality itself in "The Moans". This is the PERFECT Evenson story, something transcendent. Five stars.

"The Window" appeared in the Fearful Symmetries anthology. Evenson hits the theme right in the middle in this ghost(?) story. Four stars.

"Click" is my new favorite Brian Evenson story. It may become one of my favorite short stories of all time. The sense of disassociative insanity is a fugue of unreliable narration, a drowning flood of swirling irrealities. I want someone to turn this into a black and white noir movie. No, not "someone". Definitely David Lynch working with the Brothers Quay. No one else could do it justice. Five gray supergiant stars!

I think I just read a Brian Evenson vampire story in "The Blood Drip". I think so, but I'm not sure. It ties in well with the opening story of the book and provides a thematic thread tying the beginning to the middle to the end, but it just didn't have the "pop" and "smarts" that I expect of Evenson's work. Three stars.

All told, that's a 4.1 average. And while I absolutely love "Click" (which should go in the end-of-the-world master textbook on how to write a short story) and "The Moans", I can't justify bumping it up to five stars. Though "The Blood Drip" and "Black Bark" bookend the collection and "A Collapse of Horses" provides a third equine leg to stand on, the various voices of the collection, the incongruous tones created by the overly-eclectic manuscripts, just didn't "bring it all together" for me. I think what we have here is two collections mashed into one: 1) stories that are more "clever" and sometimes downright funny and, 2) the more somber and grim (yet more linguistically playful) tones. My brain couldn't reconcile the two in such close proximity to each other. I appreciate both for what they are, but the two tended to repel each other, rather than pull the collection tighter together.

Still, four stars. And you're a fool if you don't rush out right now and find "Click" and "The Moans", whether in this collection or in their original incarnations. As usual, even with intervening weaknesses, Evenson proves that he is one of the greatest artists of the short story form alive today.


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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Head of Vitus Bering

The Head of Vitus Bering (The Printed Head Volume III, #7)The Head of Vitus Bering by Konrad Bayer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no good place to begin a review of such a book. Because it "begins" all at once and "ends" all at once. Konrad Bayer's The Head of Vitus Bering is a phantasmagoric staccato nightmare of cannibalism and torture swirling in a tornado of anachronism and confused stories, none of which make an impact individually, but when combined into a stew of mixed syntax, somehow makes sense.

I would like to have a key or to have the patience to unlock any of the apparent formulae that Bayer used to write this work. There is a certain sing-song rhythm that betrays a pattern underneath, but like any work of complexity, the pattern can only be traced for a short while before one loses the path. This might be as much a function of intellectual laziness as inscrutability. How am I to know? Despite my shortcomings, however, there is evidence of rhyme and reason somewhere behind what would otherwise appear to be a random mess of words and broken phrases. I don't know whether to feel like Bayer is just messing around with his readers or if there was, indeed, a real plan, again, a formula, behind his experimentation.

Regardless of the real existence of possible patterns beneath the words, the evocative nature of the words themselves are sufficient to immerse any reader in the overpowering now that pulses out from the background of randomly-ordered events. By overwhelming the reader with chronological jumps to and fro, Bayer strips the reader of their sense of causation. In the whirlwind of suffering, all that matters is what is happening now. The sterilized academic tone of much of the book adds to this genericizing of time. Life, it seems, is just a machine through which one, including Vitus Bering himself, must pass, being ground down by the gears of experience. The universe is uncaring, the text seems to say, so why should the narrator of the work care? He is simply an observer, a canvas to be painted on, a manuscript to be typed with the impressions he receives.

What is the reader of this work other than a receiver of these impressions? Dare you try to interpret that which cannot be understood? Or will you just absorb the many lies and scant truths of The Head of Vitus Bering? If so, what are you, other than a palimpsest? In which case, time, chronology, causation really have no reward for you.

Now I find myself stuck in Bayer's most cunning trap: fatalism.

Still, it's sometimes intriguing to look up from the bottom of the pit and try to figure out the mechanism operating the trapdoor from far below, in the darkness. At other times, I'd rather just close my eyes and dream. But I can't stay down here forever, so, I climb.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants

The Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome TenantsThe Inhabitant of The Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From Campbell's Afterword, it is clear that he is a bit embarrassed at having written these early tales. I can see why. No, these stories are not terrible, not by any means. But if you've read any of Campbell's later work, you can clearly see an emergent, if struggling, genius trying to claw its way out of the pit of pastiche with this collection. August Derleth, who initially edited these stories, was generous to the young Campbell. The letters back and forth between the two during their initial exchanges before this book was first published paint the picture of a kindly mentor who, though unafraid to call out the young (and I mean very young) Campbell in strong editorial terms, shows a soft spot that this editor (namely: me) would have cut out of his own heart. Call me mean.

But if Derleth had let his editorial judgement cut too deep, Campbell might not have ever emerged as the writer he has. And that would be a shame. So, good for Derleth having a heart.

Enough of sentiment. On to the stories.

We begin with "The Room in the Castle," which was good, but not great. Clearly a pastiche of Lovecraft, this relied a little too heavily on the old "shell game" of teasing a reveal, then pulling it back, then teasing and pulling it back again, then revealing the thing that was previously teased about at the very end. Not very startling, honestly. Well written, as you'd expect, but the mechanics of the piece felt amateur and really distracted this reader. Three stars

"The Horror from the Bridge" is more like it. Though I think that Campbell tips his hand way too much by "giving it away" without the reader having to work for it, I still liked this story quite a bit. Campbell himself admits in the afterword that he is sometimes guilty of "telling too much too soon". I'd say that's accurate. This tale is not outright scary, but "the mythos" don't necessarily have to be. It exhibits well Mark Fisher's notion of "the weird" as something intruding in our world that should not be there. Features both undead and mythos! Four stars.

"The Insects from Shaggai" is full of great things. The semi-material nature of the insects and the notion of possessing the victim and leading them to bring catastrophe upon . . . well, I can't give away too much. Ramsey's one weakness, and I've seen it in each of these stories so far, is that he telegraphs way too much. Foreshadowing is not fore-10000 -candle-watt-shining, Ramsey. Tone it down a touch! Four stars.

I enjoyed "The Render of the Veils," but it is a story that definitely needs more breathing room (another early habit of Campbell's that he admits to in his afterword). One of the two main characters just seemed to willing to go along with just about anything with little or not questioning. A longer lead-in might have made it more believable. Naivete might have been developed, rather than curtly assumed. A longer story would have helped to develop more dread, as well. This might make an interesting setup for a Delta Green one-shot scenario, but it doesn't make for great fiction. Good fiction, but not great. Three stars.

The story "The Inhabitant of the Lake" fires on all cylinders, save one: The info-dump by the realtor is unlikely and un-necessary. The story would have been stronger without it. Still, that doesn't keep this one from five star territory. There is good reason for its reputation for frisson. It is a solid piece of cosmic horror that earns its laurels. I see why this was chosen as the title story. Five stars!

"The Plain of Sound" hits the sweet spot of giving the reader just enough to think they have an idea of what the horror really is, while keeping it "tucked away" enough that the reader's imagination reaches and claws for it, but never quite sees it full-front. And it's this yearning that creates the terror in the reader: the realization that you *want* to stare the horror in the face, but can't. A strange twist on possible invasions from another dimension that reminds me (though "remind" is anachronistic here, except that my reading order didn't match the publishing order) of Jeffrey Thomas's story "Bad Reception" from his collection The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions. Five stars!

"The Return of the Witch". Meh. Too much meh-tafiction in the form of a Doctor providing information he couldn't possibly know. Meh-chanically clunky grammatical structures. A meh-andering plot. Meh-phistopholes would have loved this story. Just meh. Two stars.

"The Mine on Yuggoth" was what I hoped for when picking up this book! Eerie, unspoiled by infodumps and credibility-straining coincidence. A protagonist who just can't help but want to know more, until he knows too much. Subtle until the end, then BAM! This is how cosmic horror is done! Five inscrutably sentient stars!

Ah, those crazy folk-magic practicing villagers. I hate it when I stumble into their village and am sacrificed to Shub-Niggurath only to find that there are fates worse than death. Next time that happens, though, Campbell will have provided me with a great example of how to document these strange happenings with "The Moon Lens". Four stars.

Besides the strength of the stories (and I do think that most of them were strong), this volume includes an awkward tell-all afterword by the author, several pieces of correspondence between Campbell and August Derleth, and the first drafts of all the stories (and one that didn't - thankfully - make it into the collection). It's an interesting piece of Lovecraftiana that only owes its inspiration to Lovecraft. The ancillary materials add to the collection overall, I think, even if it predisposes one to judge the stories themselves a little more harshly. Actually, maybe they would excuse the stories' juvenalian aspects if one were to read the afterword first. But that would be putting the Lovecraftian cart before the horse and might spoil the eerie enjoyment that does infuse many of the pieces.

All-in-all, the book is not a good introduction to cosmic horror (though a couple of the stories are), but a definite must-read for those who love their Lovecraft or who want to read the seminal stories of one of the modern masters of horror.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Quay Brothers' Universum

The Quay Brothers' UniversumThe Quay Brothers' Universum by Marente Bloemheuvel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This entire book is a Wunderkammer. It's a memory of a relationship I've never had with the Quay's, incomplete snippets of our shared experience, though we've never met. I remember as I read, but there are memories hidden in the gaps between pictures and words, interstitial recollections that may or may not be fully material. This has steeped my brain in ether. I don't know if I will wake up. What is waking, what are dreams?!?

Suzanne Buchan's introductory essay "Short Circuits and Footnote Traces" is sheer brilliance, and by "brilliance," I mean a murky shadow of darkness. Buchan has articulated what I love about the Brothers Quay works in a way that I cannot. And I will not go into depth on her essay here. It deserves to be explored by you directly, without my interference. If you love Quay or are merely curious, let her essay be your Baedeker.

Beyond the introduction are dozens of stills from the Quay Brothers' films interspersed with prose selections by Robert Walser and Bruno Schulz. A short selection from The Diaries of Franz Kafka is also provided, like Walser's and Schulz's fictional pieces, without context. Those familiar with the Quay's films will feel the spontaneous firing of synaptic connections as they read, more from the feel of the prose than from direct situational or plot parallels (though they are present, as well). This method of loose association probably won't do much for those who are unfamiliar with the Brothers Quay cinematic art. But for those of us who already love their work, this book allows for a subconscious association with the film art while away from the film. The inclusion of fragments of Karlheinz Stockhausen's score for Helikopter Streichkwartet, Werk nr. 69 is another example of this dynamic. One cannot actually hear the music and one is not actually watching a Quay film in real-time, but one familiar with both will find their brain stretching to reach back into the darkness and pull forward "sounds" and "images" from memory.

And this is one of the qualities of Quay films that I love: The sense, while watching, that there is something hidden, some memory that holds the key to understanding, just outside of our conscious perception. I strive to find that (collective unconscious?) memory, but never quite find it. Yet, in that striving, I find something, some meaning, partially, at least, but never fully-formed, which keeps me striving even harder, which keeps me engaged, immersed.

I gladly submit to being thus lost, again and again. How can I resist the pull of the simultaneously eerie, yet numinous shadows that the Brothers Quay lead me into? I am driven by wanderlust into the dark, seeking enlightenment, doubtful that I will ever find it, though it is possible that, in seeking, I already have.


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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions

The Endless Fall and Other Weird FictionsThe Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've known Jeffrey's work (and Jeffrey) for a very long time now, nearly twenty years. I must admit that I am one of those horrible acquaintances that pops up every few years (or more) and remembers "Oh yeah, Jeffrey. I wonder what he's up to?"

Well, my timing was good, at least, this time around. I had been poking around the Lovecraft eZine website and noticed that Jeffrey had a new book out at about the same time I had wondered what he (and his brother, Scott, also an excellent writer, though of a very different tone) was doing. When I saw the cover, I was absolutely smitten. I have a penchant for bizarre art, and the cover by Nick Gucker fit squarely into that crevasse of my brain that loves to dwell on pulp surrealism. It was not long after that the Lovecraft eZine podcast featured Jeffrey's new book on an episode. When I learned that the title story in this collection was based on the art of the cover, I dove for my wallet.

Like any short story collection, some stories appealed more than others. But none of them are bad, not even borderline bad. Not a one. But I expect a lot from Jeffrey. So let's see how he did!

"Jar of Mist" proves that weird, horrific fiction need not be unsympathetic or lacking positive emotions. This story tugs at your heart (but leaves it in your chest, even if it's broken). This was five star material. I love strangeness in my horror, but when you can tug at my soft spot while dosing out the strange, that's a winner!

"The Dogs" is a nice atmospheric piece. Weird, very weird, of course, but with less emotional impact than the first story. And the assumptions that go into the suspension of disbeliefaere a tiny bit difficult to absorb, but not so jarring that it throws the reader out of the story. Four stars go to the dogs.

"Ghosts in Amber" is a very strange story in which Thomas creates a palpable frisson with not only his creepy descriptions of bizarre things, but also through his evocation of the inner sense of fear, the raw feel of terror in your body. A sad story. Four stars.

"The Prosthesis" is good, but not great. Well-crafted, but I didn't feel that the twist "caught" me, though the setup was perfect. Could have been much better, like really over-the-moon cool, but it sort of fizzled for me. Three stars.

"The Dark Cell" is a near perfect example of effective auctorial sleight-of-hand. Oftentimes, I can tell when a writer is trying to deceive the reader, but the twist in this story caught me totally off-guard.

Pun intended.

You'll know what I mean when you read it. Five stars.

"Snake Wine" reads like a modern update of an old pulp horror story from Weird Tales. Well told, if a little "already done". Three stars.

"The Spectators" is a heartbreaker. Man, I ached for the narrator. An emotionally-effecting story with an incredible sense of loss, along with catharsis, to say the least! Five teary-eyed stars.

"Bad Reception" is the most Twilight Zone-esque story in this collection so far. And seeing that Twilight Zone is my favorite TV show ever (the original TZ, that is) and that this story is very strange and very well-written and set in the atomic age, I'm giving it five stars. Speaking of TV, you might not see yours the same way after you've read this story! I really loved this story. A collection of stories that gave me the same sense of dissociation, the eerie, and a twinge of nostalgia for an apocalypse that never happened; well, such a collection would truly knock my socks off.

"Sunset in Megalopolis" is a quaint, simple story about a superhero with no one left to protect. Cute enough for three stars.

"Portents of Past Futures" is exceptional. A freaky-weird noir detective story with surreal overtones centering around the subject of street art. Yet another story where a static-riven TV screen serves as a key plot device (the first was "Bad Reception"), giving the whole an un-nerving sense of evil just beyond our perception, but wanting to come in front and center. Thomas at his best. Five stars!

"Those Above" is as nihilistic piece as any I've read. It was great, however, I am not a big fan of steampunk. And here, the steampunk elements featured so prominently seemed over-emphasized, even shoehorned in. Perhaps this is why it was first published in Steampunk Cthulhu. I felt that the gears and brass and leather elements were so exaggerated, so forced that they were calling attention to themselves and away from the narrative. Four stars.

"The Individual in Question" is a marvelous 2-page story of cosmic horror in the idiom of detective noir. I really loved this little story. So much packed into such a little space! Combine this with "Portents of Past Futures" and add a few more similar stories, and you'd have one of the best weird-detective collections available. Five stars.

"The Red Machine" is an excruciating tale about a tough life and revenge. But it's not the revenge story you've come to expect. Thomas plumbs the depths of desperation in this excellent story. Five stars.

The titular piece "The Endless Fall" is a beautifully-strange piece of science fiction based on the book's cover art (by artist Nick Gucker). It is an atmospheric piece about survival and its consequences in a situation where time and causality have all gone wrong. A wonderful, wonderful way to end this collection! Five stars!

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