Review Round-up! ‘When The Stars Are Right’

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Scott R Jones’ When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality has been out in the world for a mere three months, but that’s enough, apparently, to get people talking. So we thought we’d round up a few reviews for easy tagging here on the MMP site. Excerpts below and links to the full reviews: see what the Weird Fiction community has to say about the book Laird Barron calls “sly, intelligent, and darkly entertaining. Jones gives Ligotti a run for his money in the Cosmic Horror Philosophy arms race.”

David Leingang of Unspeakable Gibberer: “What Mr. Jones has accomplished is beyond any Cult of Cthulhu or Esoteric Order of Dagon. It is not so much a practice of occultism, but rather a philosophical approach to what Lovecraft may have been hinting at in his writings. Taking a more poignant stance behind Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, and Dagon and unveiling a study in character of each of the gods, taking into account what they stand for and what teachings they have in store for those who are enlightened by what Jones identifies as The Black Gnosis.” > full review here

Allen Griffin of Innsmouth Free Press: “Once again, there is something here for everyone. At one point, the author states the whole project started as a joke. But I am reminded of Aleister Crowley’s famous pun in Chapter 69 of The Book of Lies, a pun which some claim laid bare the secret teachings of the IX degree of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a pun that would resonate with occultists over the course of decades, if not longer … When The Stars Are Right is a thought grenade and reading this tome may just send ripples through one’s thought processes. Contemplate these concepts at your own risk; you might just come out the other side a practicing R’lyehian.” > full review here

And a very well written Amazon review from Joseph Legander III: “Although relatively brief, it is in alternating turns wise, funny, insightful, practical, and a little scary. Like some exotic, eclectic cuisine, it’s full of hints of other dishes, but duplicates none of them. Traces of Buddhism, chaos magick, and shamanism are obvious. Bits of Ken Wilber’s Integral Philosophy appear (intentionally or not), and there’s even a soupçon of the author’s clearly less-than-happy Christian upbringing. But the odd alchemy at the heart of it creates something so strange, so alien, and yet so lovely that it never feels at all derivative or forced … When The Stars Are Right is simply light years beyond the typical scribblings of Necronomi-con-artists and Gothic poseurs. It combines the blackest insights of Gnostic imaginings with a beautiful, tear-worthy epilogue in the form of a letter to the author’s newborn baby daughter. Regardless of how deep in slumber great Cthulhu may be, I’ll bet he sits up and takes notice of this delightful, non-fictional addition to the Lovecraft canon.” > full review here

Jones recently appeared on the Miskatonic Musings podcast with Sean Thompson and Charles Meyer. Yes, When The Stars Are Right was talked about, but there was also discussion of embarrassing Halloween costumes, the possibility of a kind of chakra-based activation of Godzilla’s blue atomic-breath, why you should always try to include at least one giant phallus in any sculptural attempt of Cthulhu, and Jones waxing all fanboy-ish about Grant Morrison AND Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. So, something for everyone and nearly two hours of it. Right here, weirdos > http://www.miskatonicmusings.com/episode-53-always-look-bright-side-life/

Laird Barron likes the book. Reviewers and readers like the book. But the best response we’ve seen so far? Jones sent us a photo of the little girl to whom When The Stars Are Right is dedicated: his 9-month old daughter, Meridian, who finds it a toothsome read indeed! Normally we shudder a little when Cute-thulhu things happen (looking in your direction, Plush Cthulhu manufacturers!) but in this case we can’t help but allow it!

Not a year old, and already #KeepingItRlyeh

You can order your copy of When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality here. NOTE: there are ONLY 2 COPIES LEFT of the original print run, but we will be making arrangements this month to create a Print On Demand edition of the book. Missed out on the paperback? You can still order your electronic copy from Amazon (instant delivery to your Kindle) or directly from MMP (slightly-less-instant but still under 12 hours delivery). And follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates on the PoD availability, as well as news and weird links to things our readers enjoy.

Martian Migraine Press: the Best Kind of Headache!

Dan Gildark’s CTHULHU Is The Best Lovecraftian Film You Didn’t Watch…

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… and Here’s Why You Should Fix That

CTHULHU (2008)
directed by Dan Gildark
written by Grant Cogswell, Dan Gildark, H. P. Lovecraft
starring Jason Cottle, Tori Spelling

Film efforts based on the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft most often fall into two categories: the loving yet slavish adaptations of specific stories (the excellent silent treatment of The Call of Cthulhu by the HPL Historical Society is a prime example) or the campy “(loosely) based on” goodness of Stuart Gordon’s decades of work. (For one instance, Gordon’s Dagon isn’t the story Dagon; it’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Spanish-style). Very rarely does a film come along that explores new ground, or attempts to frame the Lovecraftian thematic material in interesting ways from outside the accepted canon.

2008 saw the North American release of director Dan Gildark’s CTHULHU, a film that was plagued by negativity from a large part of the Lovecraftian fan community long before it graced a screen, a negativity that followed it into its general release. And that’s a shame, because CTHULHU is a unique and much-needed entry into a genre (and let’s be honest, Lovecraft is a genre, now more than ever) that over-values campy fun and a kind of eldritch hipsterism in its films over serious examinations of the Old Gentleman’s themes.

Resistance to the film takes a few forms. Gripes have included the fact that CTHULHU is not, in fact, a re-telling of The Call of Cthulhu, drawing instead from The Shadow Over Innsmouth for its source material; and given that, the setting for the movie’s Innsmouth stand-in (Astoria, OR) is in the Pacific Northwest, and not hoary old New England (oh, perish the thought); that Tori Spelling is in it for a couple of scenes; and that (and this last is by no means the least of the complaints) the main character, Russell Marsh, played with great empathy by actor Jason Cottle (Law & Order, The Haunting of Hell House), is a gay man. Even relatively positive reviews for CTHULHU can’t seem to shake off the lingering homophobia that leads to the use of disparaging terms like “butt buddy”.

Jason Cottle as "Russell Marsh" -- he's got the Look

Well, shake it off, Lovecraftians (once, twice, three times and you’re playing with it, mind), because today we’re going deep into CTHULHU, and why it’s one of the best Mythos-inspired movies you probably didn’t watch the first time round (for reasons) and why you should rectify that soon-ish.

First off, the technical stuff. CTHULHU can very rightfully boast about its sound and music design, which is minimal, tone-perfect, and creepy. Same goes for lighting, photography, location and set design: there are some breathtaking shots in this film. There is a single-shot car accident within the first 15 minutes that deserves serious kudos; a flash-cut stumble through black underground passages that’s particularly terrifying;

"I'm in your passages, subverting your ideas about what it means to be human."

dream sequences that pulse with nightmarish power and the kind of singular imagery one expects from German art haus films; and an excellent tracking shot over at least a hundred extras (members of the PNW surfing community as Deep Ones) slowly exiting the boiling tide that puts an ominous cap on the narrative. CTHULHU was shot digitally, there is a marine-layer of blue and dim, washed-out grey light that rolls over everything in the film like a bank of cold fog, marking it as a very West Coast film.

Now, if you’re into weird entertainment, and you don’t know about the films of David Lynch, then I don’t know what to say to you. Honestly, I’d think you were being a little disingenuous. Well, Gildark & Co. know their Lynch, and CTHULHU needs to be viewed through a Lynchian filter for its real beauty to shine through. Is the acting of every performer (other than Cottle) strange, wooden, and forced? Oh yes. Yes, and consistently so, which I believe is a deliberate choice, recalling the twisty mythic resonance of Twin Peaks. From the one-note leader of the Esoteric Order of Dagon…

"I'm plotting. This is my plotting face. First I do this with my hands, and then I stare off into the middle distance."

to the vitriol-spewing sheriff robotically chewing up the scenery with completely out-of-left-field quotes from Yeat’s The Second Coming; from the bland-as-toast gay love interest to the over-the-top come-hitherness of Ms Spelling’s tadpole-babymama in her ridiculous short-shorts, these are characters that are meant to be painted with broad strokes. Broad characters, stilted wooden dialogue, unlikely motivations, all these help to colour the narrative in sickly, disorienting hues, a narrative set in the final moments before the return of the Great Old Ones: these are end times (arguably, the End Times), the radio and television broadcasts that chatter in behind the scenes reveal an earth that is giving up the ghost, giving up all illusion of ever having been a rational place. There is no place in the world left for sensible human interaction. There are no sensible humans left.

And as far as the dialogue is concerned, well, please recall that Lovecraft couldn’t have written a normal sounding conversation between two humans if his life had depended on it. When Cottle’s Marsh sits with his insane great aunt in an attempt to dig information from her, or interacts awkwardly with the girl from the liquor store, or hangs out on a dock with the film’s raving Zadok Allen stand-in, it works, somehow. Especially when you close your eyes to listen. It’s Lovecraft dialogue, updated to the 21st Century.

That’s the key, I believe, to the film: a (symbolic) closing of the eyes. (Don’t actually close your eyes; the photography, remember? It’s very good, gorgeous, even.) There are many dream sequences throughout its 100 minute length, but the whole thing is a dream. CTHULHU has the same languid urgency of a fever dream, profoundly unsettling singular images presented without commentary, scattershot logic and senseless narrative leaps. Leering faces. Headlong tears down darkened streets, claustrophobic corners, vast unfeeling land-and-seascapes. As Marsh’s dreams begin to bleed into his reality, the entire narrative opens up from a simple return-of-the-prodigal-son story into something far stranger.

"Ì like good wine, fine books, and long walks on the beach to check on the wretched sacrifices in the giant crate before the tide comes up..."

Alright, though. Let me address that simple story first. Because of course, it’s not so simple. Or rather, it is, but a single aspect of the story tends to overshadow the film (and the minds of its largely hetero critics) as a whole, namely the sexual orientation of the character of Russell Marsh. Yup, he’s gay. Nope, Lovecraft never wrote a gay character, or even came close to writing a character with any kind of sexuality at all. The complaints about CTHULHU tread this same ground over and over: “is the gay thing really necessary?” goes the refrain. “It’s exploitative.” And so on. And it might be, were the film a vehicle for some kind of homosexual agenda. But it’s not: what Marsh is (a son, a brother, a prodigal, a professor, and many other things before and beyond his orientation) serves the story, and not the other way around.

And really, of all the Lovecraft stories where a gay protagonist would work, The Shadow Over Innsmouth is top of the list! Shadow… is all about the fear of breeding, of monstrous genetic heritage, of sexual assault and unwanted miscegenation, mutation, body horror. Would Ms Spelling’s creepy drugging and rape of Marsh be less horrific if his character was a straight man? I submit that it would.

(An aside: the choice of Ms Spelling in the role of “Susan” here is, honestly, inspired. In the film we are presented with a community that has fully embraced and incorporated their Deep One heritage: like the rapidly decaying world outside its borders, it has been normalized. Horror is an everyday thing. Everyone is in on it, there are no detractors from the EoD dogma, and more importantly, no overt monsterism. Susan and her psychotic hubby may be using Marsh to spawn monsters, but they are not monstrous looking.

Russell. Russell, you are safer with the bear. Seriously.

And so Spelling is a great choice for the role: conventionally attractive, and yet it must be admitted that she has the wide face and slightly ophthalmic eyes that characterize the Innsmouth Look. Off-putting because of its familiarity. No robes and mutations here, these are cultists who pass.)

Anyway, back to Marsh. He is literally attacked by breeders, with (in the context of the story) all that the word implies. The results are horrific, nauseating. Gildark doesn’t show the viewer what’s in that clawfoot tub in the final moments of the film, and he doesn’t have to. That’s good scary filmmaking, right there, and the repugnance and horror of the situation is only made deeper and richer with a gay lead. It fits. It works. It’s not a distraction, or an aberration; it’s decent, thought-out narrative.

Nor is that scene in the bathroom the only time such skill is on display. There are choice little moments throughout CTHULHU that allow the film to stand apart from the pack. A hallucinatory encounter with a strange gemstone in the attic of a fishing shack; the apparent (but never fully explained) return of a dead ancestor; a nice shout-out to Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness during a jail escape scene; and an encounter with a bad piece of CGI on a darkened highway that, again, works despite itself, because it is so brief, so out-of-context, so never-touched-on-again.

"What is that thing? Never mind, it's gone. NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN."

Weirdness piles on to weirdness, and the cumulative effect is very interesting indeed. For myself, I don’t need every little tic and odd thing classified and pinned to a board in order to feel comfortable with a film; the more strange errata are present, the more deranged (and happy) I am. Film should derange, it should unsettle, and horror films especially so. If Gildark was going for the nightmarish vibe of a descent into madness, then he succeeded.

There is however one moment, to my mind, where the whole effort trips over itself, and interestingly, it is a moment that could be considered as a bit of fan-service. About halfway through the film, Marsh finds himself in an empty house with a dead-eyed little boy who he suspects is the missing child he’s been looking for. The kid’s been waiting, waiting, watching snow on an old TV like every dead-eyed kid since Poltergeist has, and when he’s asked who he’s been waiting for, Bustah Brown breaks the fourth wall in a close-up shot and intones “CTHULHU”, and there’s a musical sting as it happens, a deep bass tone. It’s forced. It’s weird. There’s no follow-up, only an immediate scene change. Gildark, in an interview, has stated that “Cthulhu” for him, as a word, embodies forces that operate outside our perception. Which is fine on the surface of it, but in a film where so much is left unsaid, implied, hinted at, and obscured (there is no explicit mention of the Deep Ones, for instance, at least not by name, and the Esoteric Order of Dagon is present, but actually pretty goddamn esoteric, by all accounts) the actual mention of Cthulhu (less as the Great Old One and more as the title and theme of the film) by a moppet in short pants feels contrived. If anything, that one scene came across more as “Lovecraftian fan exploitation” than all the supposed gay exploitation. It could easily be removed without doing any harm.

So, if you missed this one the first time around, or went in expecting a standard Call of Cthulhu RPG scenario translated to film and came away disappointed as a result, I encourage you to shift your frame of viewing reference and give Dan Gildark’s CTHULHU another try. It’s not a perfect film, but then, films that get better with repeat viewings rarely are.

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Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Great Holes Are Dug: a review of “The Children of Old Leech”

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I didn’t grow up in the sticks, but I wasn’t an urban kid, either. I guess edge of the sticks might be an appropriate descriptor for my neighbourhood: the outside rings of cheap housing on the borders of a bedroom community which was itself on the outside of a mid-sized Cascadian burg. No sidewalks defined our roads, only aged grey asphalt crumbling at the edges into tarry pebbles, scrub pine needles and the discarded rusty skin of arbutus trees. There was a field bordering a line of warehouses near the railroad tracks on the walk to my grade school: older kids would harvest mushrooms in the fall there, and in the summer you could find hobo campsites. Black rings of sodden ash and garbage, the smell of piss steaming off the grass in the morning and discarded porno mags peeking out from under logs.

Above my school, the Sooke Hills bunched up to the north and west. There was a giant cannibal woodpecker that lived up there, in a gully near a clearing where we’d take our air rifles for target practice. Don’t ask why we called it a cannibal woodpecker; it only ate humans, that we knew of. Legends. A high school girl had died up there, in the gully. Overdose on something, on whatever the scary drug of the moment was. Beyond that gully was a make-out spot and smoke pit, and beyond that a rock outcropping where a slow Jehovah’s Witness kid I knew had caused another kid’s Ouija board to levitate and disintegrate itself in mid-air: a dead-easy thing to do, apparently. Just ask the device the true name of God, natch.

And a little farther on was the lake where the Tree lived. It wasn’t even really a lake, more a dirty pond, but it was narrow and boomerang-shaped, you couldn’t see the opposite end of it, so maybe it felt like a lake. Anyway. The Tree was this mostly-dead yellow cedar, fire-blasted and grey but still managing to green up a little each year, though its core had all rotted away into aromatic mulch. The only fish you could catch in the lake were these anaemic sunfish that seemed to especially go for the thick grey wormy pupae-type things that you could only find in that mulch, in that Tree. And the dare we’d always throw at each other, when fishing wasn’t the reason for being there, when new kids needed initiation, or a spot of cruelty was more entertaining than woodsy adventure, was always “go stand inside the Tree”.

Standing inside the Tree was not pleasant. There was something old about it, older than the Tree itself, the wood and skin of it. Something sick and bad. I don’t recall anyone lasting more than three, maybe five minutes in the Tree. Kids, eh? Who knows why they do anything? But that’s what we did. Whatever it was we knew about the Tree, it was unspoken and it was true on a gut level. Instinctual.

I thought about the Tree while reading The Children of Old Leech, the new Laird Barron tribute anthology from Word Horde. I thought about the Tree a lot. This book really took me back there.

I haven’t read all of Barron’s collected work, but I’ve read enough to dig him, to get where he’s been and where he was at while writing; enough to maybe make a stab at where he’s going, and I’m pleased to report that the authors collected in The Children of Old Leech get him, too, and have riffed on Barron’s grim, muscular worldview with humour, insight, and a great heaving pile of unhealthy shavings from that Tree, or trees like it. This is an anthology to make you squirm, to gasp at the shock of sudden revelation, to think about man’s place in the cosmos (it’s low, so low), and do all this while treating your fiction-appreciation glands to a good massage. It gets right in there, too, and roots around like a sumbitch. Great holes are dug where Earth’s pores ought to suffice, to casually paraphrase old H P. A few highlights, then, since to break down every tale and my reasons for liking them would drag a little…

The Harrow by Gemma Files is the first shot out of the box, and it’s a doozy: poignant and sorrowful before descending to a very dark place, to black spaces in the earth and in the brain. The method of that descent? Oh, just a little bit of auto-surgery the ancients liked to practice. Yeah, trepanning. Goddamn if this isn’t a fascinating subject, with loads of medical, psychological, and spiritual import, and Files uses it to dig deep and deliver some true horror. Loved it. First story, and I was already loving the book.

A little later on came the epistolary Good Lord, Show Me the Way by the always-wry Molly Tanzer. There’s a thing with Barron’s treatment of bad things in the woods and in the holes, and that’s the kind of oblique way he comes at them: a glancing reference here, a bald but vague statement there. Desperate people attempting to get a bead on the unthinkable and unspeakable, only to see their shots ricochet off in useless, misleading directions. The bad thing is always there, in the center, getting worse and worse, defining its boundaries by what-it-is-not, and that suggestion is what makes Barron’s beasties (both real and metaphorical) terrifying. Tanzer here embodies this aspect of Barron’s fiction through a dry e-mail exchange between the professors, adjuncts, and thesis defenders surrounding a talented student who chooses to investigate and write her paper on a little known forest community, a cult, living in the woods near to where she grew up. Tanzer doesn’t show us what happens to the student, but then, she doesn’t have to: the glib, ivory-towered rhetoric and glazed snappiness of her superiors after the reality of her disappearance sinks in (or doesn’t) is terror enough. Masterful.

T. E. Grau’s Love Songs from the Hydrogen Jukebox telegraphs its punches a bit: before you’re a third of the way in, you can see what’s coming, but the trip there is pure amphetamine-fueled beatnik joy. This isn’t the only story in TCoOL to feature a boundary-busting orgy of weirdness (Michael Griffin’s Firedancing does that better, and weirder) but the energy Grau expends getting his proto-Cassady guru and his nebbish-y protégé out of San Francisco and up to the fateful world-ending party in the mountains, and the crunchy imagery he deploys once they’re there with the Truth and the Horrors, is great stuff. A good ride leading into the book’s very satisfying center.

The Old Pageant is another dark little gem in the crown of Richard Gavin. Barron’s crones and powerful, interesting women with connections are a staple of his world, and here Gavin taps into that deep old double-X chromosomal knowledge for another of his trademarked deft characterizations. Read any story by Gavin, and you will feel for his characters, mourn their losses, their catastrophic decisions in the face of the ineffable and deadly. The Old Pageant is no exception, and though it shares the pages with stories just as chilling or more so, the chill at the end of this one is especially unsettling. There’s trees in this one. There’s trees in most every tale here, but Gavin’s grove is creepy plus.

Paul Tremblay’s Notes for “A Barn in the Wild” is a stand-out for a lot of excellent reasons. I’m a sucker for diarist-as-narrator formats (because it can be flubbed so badly, when it goes well it goes really well), and following Tremblay’s narrator as he tracks down a McCandless-style free-spirit who goes missing in Labrador with the aid of a “Black Guide” (a travelogue listing bizarre and powerful places off the beaten path) is an exercise in literary puzzlin’ I loved. Only knowing what you’re being told, but knowing there’s more, much more? Goddamn delicious. Barn in the Wild feels like the first time you saw The Blair Witch Project, in every way that was good, before its sublime effect was watered-down by a decade-and-change of imitators. (An aside regarding the production of TCoOL: I pre-ordered the book early on, and I’m getting the diary, a Blue Notebook, with the entire text of the story, footnotes and scribbles in the margins and everything, written in Tremblay’s own hand, as a special add-on. How’s that for premium? Bam. I’m learning that with Lockhart’s Word Horde, it’s the little things.)

The Last Crossroads on a Calendar of Yesterdays was the only selection that I just couldn’t get into, but this is my own fault; I’ve been told repeatedly that Joe Pulver is “jazz” and is therefore an acquired taste. I’ve yet to acquire it, I guess. There’s a pack of bohunk neo-Nazis in this, and some kind of golem cobbled together out of blood and the text and paper of another Black Guide, but beyond that I couldn’t pull much from this. It’s atmospheric, for sure, and bops along with a sketchy energy I can appreciate, but I could have used some additional straight-up narrative.

John Langan’s Ymir, however, is a wonderful tribute to and continuation of Barron’s Hallucigenia, following Marissa, a private military contractor suffering from PTSD, who’s hired to guard the body of a classic Barron bad-man-with-money-and-time. This fellow is tracking down the vanished (transformed? transubstantiated? in any case, fucked) Wallace Smith and his wife Helen, not so much out of duty or concern, as for the hints regarding the monstrous geniuses of the Choate clan connected with the case. Their sleuthing takes them north, to the Arctic Circle, and a throbbing sore in the skin of our reality buried at the bottom of a mine. When Barron strikes his cryptogenetics chord, prepare to be disturbed, to feel body-horror deeply: his is the long view, a sere chuckling appraisal of our place in the red-fanged grind of Time. Langan here gets that view, and the ending (is there ever a true ending for a Barron protagonist? no) is perfect.

Of A Thousand Cuts is a killer transhumanist gladiatorial gore-fest from Cody Goodfellow. Honestly, I’ve never read anything like this. It was a revelation. Goodfellow gets down into the meat and viscera of what it means to be human, reshapes what he finds there, augments the weak parts with fierce bionics, overclocks the feed into the strong parts, laces the spastic fibres with nano-wires running molten streams of pure love and despair and consuming hate, and when that surgery is through, he sluices what’s left of the human soul through a dark-side-Zen psychical re-programming algorithm. At the other end of this completely transcendent mind-job is a shining, multi-faceted product, an exquisite artefact of a story that you actually hesitate to return and read again, it’s so goddamn sharp. But it’s the hesitation of a moment only. Want to learn how to kill with a poem? Right here, folks.

So, those are my top picks in The Children of Old Leech, but really, there’s not a dud in the bunch here. Each is a class in storytelling, every one is entertaining, and every other one is thought provoking. Lockhart and Steele have a winner on their hands, I think; this is one I’ll keep coming back to, much as I do with Laird’s work. Reading TCoOL was like standing in that Tree beside that lake in the hills, up to my ankles in smoky rot and grey grubs, unable to move, while the sun dipped down to dusk. Recommended.

Edited by Ross E. Lockhart and Justin Steele
Word Horde, (342p) ISBN 978-1-939905-02-4
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Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

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