The owner, publisher and editor of Weird Tales have all changed since the last issue of the magazine, and it shows. No longer innovative, with cutting edge fiction, it is now filled with pastiches of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, a throwback to the early days of the magazine. The Hugo-Award-winning team of fiction editor Ann VanderMeer and editorial and creative director Stephen H. Segal are clearly no longer choosing the fiction or art that used to brighten each issue, and the intelligent nonfiction that completed the magazine is nearly gone, though Kenneth Hite’s exploration of Lovecraft’s work, “Lost in Lovecraft,” continues; the fourteenth entry in the series is in this issue. This change is not for the better.
Still, if you love Lovecraft, you’ll find plenty here to suit your taste. Matthew Jackson’s “Drain” is the best of the offerings in this vein, updating Lovecraft to the present day. Pam is going about her usual housekeeping, scrubbing the bathtub, when she discovers something clogging the drain — something with tentacles. When it frees itself from the drain enough to turn its single golden eye upon her, she finds herself eager to search for her grown son’s old aquarium in which to house the creature. The creature’s grip on her is such that she empties her refrigerator, and then her freezer, of meat to feed it, not eating or sleeping herself. The creature grows at a tremendous rate and Pam must move it again, and yet again; and still it needs more meat. The eventual source of further meals is fairly evident from the beginning of the tale, but the writing is fresh enough to keep one happily reading right up to the end.
Brian Lumley’s “The Long Last Night” is less successful, primarily because it more closely apes Lovecraft’s own work. It tells the story of an old man creeping through an old subway system in what used to be London with the narrator of the tale, whom he presumes to be his ally. The old man is headed for the area beneath the twisted tower that rose the day they arrived, carrying a heavy suitcase, to accomplish a mission he will not describe. The area they traverse is called the Bgg’ha Zone, named for the octopus god-thing that created the tower. The old man tries to discourage the narrator from accompanying him, citing the dangers of the trip, especially when they reach flooded areas of the subway. But the narrator keeps moving with the old man, until he finally reveals his purpose. It’s a long, rambling story that contains plenty of strangely spelled words with oddly placed apostrophes, so you know you’re in the Cthulhu Mythos; but it is surprisingly stale, coming from such an accomplished writer.
“Momma Durtt” by Michael Shea is a decent story, crossing the Mythos with gang violence. The story features a pool of toxic chemicals, a brew comprised of the waste products from pharmaceutical companies, pesticide manufacturers and plastics plants. It isn’t surprising that such a pond would be home to one of the Great Ones, nor that the Mob would be behind the illegal disposal of toxic chemicals. Combine those ideas, though, and you have a gangster who finds the stockpile the ideal place to dispose of unwanted personnel and gain eternal, damned life. One can only root for the two young ne’er-do-wells who escape this fate.
An odd letter from an old friend sparks Michael Reyes’ “The Darkness at Table Rock Road.” The friend is interested in revisiting some great drug experiences with the story’s narrator, and they’ve barely met at the airport before they’re popping mushrooms. Once the friend picks up the narrator at the local airport, he tells how he got rich. He was hired, he says, to recover artifacts from the Iraq museum that was looted immediately after America’s invasion of that country. Those on the mission would generally return the artifacts they were ordered to, but split everything else they found. An eerie thing happened when they invaded one man’s house: that man was devoured by camel spiders before their eyes. Somehow this all led the friend to set up housekeeping in the Red Desert in Wyoming and to set up a one-man religion worshipping Azathoth and Nyarlathotep. The Iraq angle on this story gives it enough flavor to make it worth reading.
Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Runners Beyond the Wall” is the tale of a shipwreck in the nineteenth century. Only one boy, the narrator, is rescued before the ship breaks up and drowns his parents and all others aboard. The boy is taken in by a relative he’s never met before who maintains a library full of strange books prescribing odd means of worship of unnamed gods. He meets two other children who are eager to have him play with them, but their notion of a game seems to involve blood and death, not to mention abandoning him in the cold. When he is rescued yet again, this time from the trap in which the other children left him, his patron, Lord Blessingleigh, whips him severely. The boy soon concludes that Blessingleigh worships where he ought not, and devises a plan to win the lord’s confidence for long enough to wreak vengeance upon him. The Sentient Chaos that lives in the manor helps, of course.
A short, funny tale by William Blake Smith, “The Thing in the Cellar,” offers relief from the looming , dark, depressing tales that precede it. In this story, a boy takes Lovecraft’s tales too seriously, and kills — well, that would be telling. I particularly enjoyed the final line of the story, which testifies to the magic of libraries.
A piece entitled “Found in a Bus Shelter at 3:00 AM, Under a Mostly Empty Sky,” is printed with smeary, almost illegible type, impossible to read unless you have a magnifying glass to hand. Stephen Gracia’s very short story is apparently intended to be an artwork as much as a tale of a man driven mad by the Dark Gods. It is not sufficiently original to warrant the headache you will get if you persevere in reading it despite its design.
The last two stories in this issue are mercifully free of tentacles. “To Be a Star” by Parke Godwin is a ghost story of sorts, in which the actor Melvin Migran (stage name: Edmond Dantes) haunts Mildred Smoot, a young woman just lately come to New York to seek her future on the stage. Migran coaches her through an important audition, ultimately achieving his own reward. The amusing story is vaguely reminiscent of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The best story in the magazine is Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “The Empty City.” This tale is narrated by a woman who comes to an unnamed city that is almost empty of occupants. Livita and Fidalgo are the only ones there to greet the narrator when she arrives, having escaped her pimp in dramatic fashion. The city is a strange place, offering succor to those who seek to find themselves. The language in which this Weird tale is told is lovely. This tale makes me eager to read more of Salmonson’s work.
This issue of Weird Tales was close to publication when Ray Bradbury died. It therefore contains a short section intended as a tribute to Bradbury, published at one end of the magazine upside down to the rest of the issue and with its own cover. The section contains “The Exiles,” a Bradbury short story that editor Marvin Kaye claims is one containing a scene involving H.P. Lovecraft. It is not Bradbury’s best. An article entitled “My New Ending to Rosemary’s Baby,” originally published by Bradbury in the Los Angeles Times in 1969, is also included, along with a piece containing Marvin Kaye’s personal memories of Bradbury, which is really a piece about Kaye, and a review of the recently published Shadow Show, a volume of short stories celebrating Bradbury. The section closes out with a poem by Bradbury called “Remembrance,” which serves to illustrate that one can be a genius short story writer and a bad poet simultaneously.