The Tower of Péng the Unprepared, and Whimsy’s Throne

I’ve started a Patreon for the Locations that keep coming to me! You can find it here, at Whimsy’s Throne. There’s a free version of my first finished World Seed there, The Tower of Péng the Unprepared. Here’s the cover art, from my friend Worsey.

Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

I’ve finished two good books recently, A Memory Called Empire and Hammers on Bone. They both deserve more than a passing mention, but I’m only going to talk about Hammers on Bone right now—I’ve struggled to find good ways to cover A Memory Called Empire without spoiling things, and I’m taking the easier way out.

I read Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone through the same bundle of four novellas that brought me to The Ballad of Black Tom and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. I’m glad to say that this book deserves its company. Reading this has inspired me to tell my own investigative horror stories again, through its good example and obvious love for the material; for comparison, these days Lovecraft only evokes that kind of reaction for me by way of spite and a fierce desire to do better than he did.

Perhaps that’s what drove Cassandra Khaw. Whatever the case, they succeeded.

Evocative, punchy, and more full of body-horror and gore than I’d expected, this book wears its love for the stylings of noir on its nicotine-stained sleeve. Seriously, I haven’t read about this much smoking in years. But it’s a story that comes with all the scummy details and twists I expect from old PI noir, alongside the horror of the Cthulhu mythos and a grasp of descriptive language that leaves me reeling in envy and admiration. Not everyone should try this style of evocative, nearly synesthetic detail, but DAMN does Khaw make it work for me. Their prose lays on atmosphere so thick it’s like drowning, mashed face first into the yellowed pages of cheap detective pulp.

And it works. The quasi-hallucinatory perspective, with its depth of detail, goes beyond merely fleshing out a character voice; it rapidly told me more than I’d realized about who our narrator was… and how Mr. Persons was not at all what I’d first thought.

It’s not a big book, not a long story. It’s a quick and potent read, much faster for me than most of the other pieces in the Tor.com novella collection. If you like horror and noir it’s practically a must. I definitely recommend it. Get it here. Or buy the whole bundle (which I’ve enjoyed so far) here.

The Ruins of Ghalburg

Nestled in foothills between the high peaks of the Sefghal Range, the lonely ruins of Ghalburg are only kept company by the wreckage of Ghalburg Keep on the slopes above. Though the burgeoning town was once known as a welcome stop on the way through the mountains, it has been shattered, pulled apart stone from stone, vast swathes of it put to the torch. Here and there, once-mighty timbers still stand as charred skeletons of formerly sturdy homes, memorials to their missing inhabitants.

The keep, perched in the hills above the town, is no less desolate. While it was spared from the same vast devastation, it still was broken open like a raw egg, its innards tumbling down the hill towards the town. The outer curtain wall was shattered in several places, and one whole corner of the central keep is gone, strewn across the grounds and out of the bailey. Like the town below, all the keep’s defenders are missing. No bodies remain to be found in any of the wreckage.

Now, this ruined settlement lies as a fearsome warning and an unanswered mystery. What force laid waste to the castle and its town? Was it some unknown group of raiders from the steep, storm-wracked peaks above? Or did Baroness Ghal set this horror in motion with untoward experiments in her obsessive effort to resurrect her family’s fortunes? Rumors abound, but no story yet bears the imprimatur of truth. The only certain thing is that none of the town’s residents have been seen or heard from since, and travelers through the region now avoid the once-popular town like the plague.

The Lonely House

Nestled in the shadows of the trees, a small hut sits neglected and lonely. Fieldstone walls open around a squat doorway, a lintel of old timber splintering across its top. The door itself sags on cracking leather hinges, drags across the dirt when opened, and its ancient boards creak back and forth in the wind. Like the rest of the house, the roof has seen better days; the thatch has mildewed, and tufts have been lifted up by breezes and small animals until they stick out like recalcitrant cowlicks. What was once a window is now simply a gaping wound, and the hut is dark and musty within. It is not an inviting place.

But more than a few have sheltered there, nestled amongst the tired and rotten furniture within while a storm rages without. Most who do seek shelter move on as soon as their storm passes, thinking nothing of the sad little house someone put so much effort into making many years before. But others, whether because the world outside has been buried in snow, or because a more metaphorical storm of villains still hunts them, make themselves at home. And it’s these people who begin to learn the truth of the place: settling in, fixing small things around the home, replacing what one has used or storing more than one has found… this invites offerings from the house. Sometimes that means dry firewood in a previously covered basket, or the woodworking tools needed to fix a broken stool. At other times, it may mean the clucking of a hen brooding over her eggs out back, or a stand of improbably ripe grain in a clearing amongst the trees nearby. Indeed, the house often offers food, though any food inside the house may disappear, clearly eaten without any trace of whoever ate it. Cautious guests are sure to always make leftovers for someone else, whoever they may be.

There are stories of those who’ve lived comfortably in the small house for a month, giving over their time to repairs and little improvements, making it a better place to live as they clean it and fix its broken pieces. Those who live there for so long often grow nervous, eventually. The house offers up pieces of itself, places which should not have been missed before, until no one can pretend that the house is anything but magic. Some tales of the house swear that doors appear behind fusty old blankets, leading into well-appointed rooms too large for the hut’s exterior, while others speak of finding an old well-stocked root cellar full of marvelously preserved supplies. These new spaces are never as decrepit, but still they exude a lingering age and neglect, as though they yearn for the care of a meticulous and indefatigable housekeeper. Most who live there for long enough to find those spaces lose their nerve, leaving the house as graciously as they can, swearing out loud to whatever spirits of the place may listen that they mean neither harm nor disrespect but simply must be on their way.

Perhaps this is because people who are offered more by the house than they return, or who do harm to what they find, discover things going missing. Belongings they brought with them may vanish—and where once the house replaced such things with objects of higher quality and greater craft, now their things are simply gone. Rooms and passages they’d grown used to using may disappear, along with all their contents, only perhaps found again through diligent work and careful repairs.

There are horror stories shared by some, of people trapped inside the house. These ungrateful guests find their doors no longer lead outside, nor to anywhere else that makes sense. There are whispers of those who’ve fled through the house as though it were a vast mansion, but each chamber behind them disappears as soon as they’ve left it without even leaving a door… until the ungrateful guests themselves vanish without a trace, a small meal for the hungry house.

Of course, those stories couldn’t be true; no teller with first hand knowledge could have escaped to share them. But the little hut remains, lonely or hungry or both, shelter for weary travelers and wary prey, offering hospitality of some strange kind to any who show they’ll be good guests.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was a slow burn, and a good one.

I admit that it lost its compulsive hold on me part way through. I was distracted. My reading wandered, and I consumed several other tasty books. But when I returned to it after some time away, I finished it in one sitting. And while my hair did not stand on end (much harder now with its covid-length), this story does an excellent job of peeling back the skin and exposing fresh, homemade, very human discomfort.

Another friend of mine absolutely adored this book and inhaled it in one go, unable to put it down. In talking about it, we speculated that my distraction in the middle may have come from gendered differences. Perhaps, we thought, I was less caught up in it because it felt less intimately personal. Your mileage may vary.

Whatever the source of that difference, I absolutely agree with her (and with whomever decided to bundle these books at Tor) that like The Ballad of Black Tom (my review, Goodreads), this book does a beautiful job of reimagining abysmal source material with vibrance, reality, and truth. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe captures the same strange wonder and eeriness of Dreaming that I remember enjoying from Lovecraft’s work, while shedding Lovecraft’s awful baggage. I firmly believe that this story, like The Ballad of Black Tom, is superior to HPL’s work.

Read the originals only if you must, and only if you’re ready for how much worse Lovecraft was.

Speaking of ‘must,’ this story is an adventure of musts and mustn’ts. It’s about being pushed, pressured by society and those with more power. And this story is more concerned with wily survival against the wishes of malignant potentates than with any fulfillment of internal, personal dreams and desires. In fact, it’s about quashing one’s own hopes in order to conform, in hopes that conforming will offer some protection. That is part of what sets this story up so well as a piece of slow horror, but it’s also foundational to why it feels so honest. Our protagonist, Vellitt Boe, struggles against constraints even as she tries to uphold them; she’s caught in a vise, doing her best to protect the little island of home she’s found, the little space for broadening life’s horizons she’s been able to settle into… but to do so, she must drag another woman back from those broadened horizons, back into a constrained life, lest many more lives be lost.

Horrible. Perfect.

Now, some very light, very generalized *SPOILERS*…

The late-in-the-story turnaround leading to the story’s final resolution seems obvious when I think about it now, but it caught me by surprise in the best way. And throughout the story, I loved that Vellitt Boe accomplished more through her own previous experience—and the relationships she’d forged over her well-traveled life—rather than through any personal skill mastery or super-ability. Being experienced in the ways of the world, having old allies, and knowing how to convince people to do what she wanted all did more for her… and that felt perfect. In so many ways, Vellitt Boe is the opposite of the heroes or narrators chosen by Lovecraft, or his contemporary Robert E. Howard. And the fact that Vellitt Boe’s connections to other people are so fundamentally instrumental to her success… it feels to me like a beautiful refusal of the ideologies of the source material.

End *SPOILERS*.

Look, I like this book. I definitely recommend it. More deliberate than fast-paced, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is full of subdued horror, is uncomfortable but rewarding, and is very good.

Tel’s Spring

On a small mountain rising out of the rain forest, nestled in an opening amidst thick-trunked gray-brown trees wreathed in lianas, a cool dark pond bubbles up from the rock below. Barely convex with the force of its spring, the pool does not reflect the light of the sky overhead, only the undersides of trees’ leaves. When rain falls, as it does every afternoon of the wet season, the sky’s water slides off the quietly bubbling spring and seeps into the rocky earth around it. It is only in those moments, when that thin sheet of sky-water oozes away across the pool like oil, that one may see the gray clouds or spotty blues of the sky overhead reflected on the pool.

The spring’s water is uniformly cold to the touch. Soothing on a hot day, local animals sometimes swim in it, never fighting while sharing the spring’s waters. Indeed, the local wildlife is larger, healthier, and more frequently docile than others of their kind. But a careful observer will note that no animal drinks more than a single sip from the pool on any visit, preferring instead to dip themselves in the spring without drinking from it. But the trees around the spring, watered by it, grow strong and tall. And these local animals eat freely from the small fruits hanging on those thick-trunked trees, casting seeds far and wide.

The spring is reputed to belong to the jealous god of life, growth, and small beginnings, a formidable being who is not to be trifled with, taken for granted, or scorned. The story goes that anyone who drinks too fully from the spring offers themselves to this god of life, Tel, and invites Tel to work through them. Often, the story ends with an incautious and thirsty person clutching at their mouth in horror as mushrooms erupt from their skin and a small fruit tree with glistening gray-brown bark roots down through their feet and branches up through their skull. So it is that the spring is held to be both sacred and dangerous, a place to be venerated and, for the most part, avoided.

There are exceptions, of course. There are stories of some few more-favored by Tel who drank deeply from the spring and were blessed without becoming trees. And the people who hold the spring as holy do visit at certain times of year, as new growth burgeons and as seeds are sown, to make offerings and perform the rituals known to be pleasing to Tel. Those who are coming of age are bid to take one sip from the spring during these rites, in hopes of long and fruitful lives, while those whose limbs have been wounded, withered, or warped may sip in hopes that Tel will guide their limbs once more. But apart from these times, the spring is left alone on its mountaintop, a world apart from its surroundings, its strange reflections and turbulence unexamined and untouched.

The Softest Road

Beneath the kindest branches of the go-now trees, ushered on by a warm wind now at one’s back, now easing the sweat from one’s brow, the most fortunate travelers wander on the Softest Road. It is not, it’s said, a route any may find by hunting it. It is rumored to be the least helpful road of all: only those who wander without urgent need may find it, and only those who continue on their path without worry may enjoy it. The focus and drive to seek a place, to rush from here to there, will lead any traveler on the Softest Road away from the giving earth which springs beneath their feet to deposit them on the hard and rocky dirt with no way to return. Those who stumble off the Road can find no path behind them, no hint of the Road they had just trod.

In fact, the only way to seek the Softest Road or remain upon it is to lose oneself in the enjoyment of one’s journey. Those who fall into a beautiful day’s travel, who marvel at the wonders around them and give in to the enjoyment of their surroundings, may find the ground beneath their feet shifting one step at a time, the land before them coaxing itself into a more even semblance of good footing and gentle travel. Slight slopes gain even grades and good gravel. Steep ones have regular steps, seemingly natural stones set perfectly for the walker’s gait. Dust never rises from the Softest Road, never choking and cloying, never thickening to sodden mud. Traffic, such as it is, is infrequent and rarely hostile. Beautiful vistas open themselves to the viewer on either side (or both) as the Softest Road meanders through gorgeous dells and sunny copses.

Trips which should have taken weeks may only require days on the Softest Road, though any given day’s travel might see one deposited early in a new place apart from one’s final destination, if the traveler gives over to dwelling on time or anything besides the joy of the journey. And there are stories of the opposite, of those who find themselves on the Softest Road for weeks when a trip should have taken an afternoon, too entranced by the marvel and relaxation of such perfect walking to find their way out.

There are stories of those who’ve found impossible places on their journeys on the Softest Road, visions of worlds unknown, of improbable structures and fabulous landscapes and even vast star-dotted emptiness. None know whether such places might be reachable, or found again, for none who’ve left the Road in their urgency to explore such have returned—at least, none who might be believed.

If nothing else, it is a certainty that the Softest Road does not traverse the space between two places. Those on the road are not seen by those off of it, except perhaps as momentary glimpses of travelers in strange places: striding upon high cliffs, stepping from tree to tree, or emerging from vast waters. The longer one walks the Softest Road, the further afield one may go and the stranger the things one may see.

It is not known who made the Softest Road, or if it was ever made at all. Perhaps it is simply some diffuse spirit of the vast universe finding its way to share with those amidst it. There are stories, tall tales told of some few who learned to find the Softest Road in one step; these folk strode without a care or a worry, passing from place to place in a joyous wandering, never staying long. They brought with them bizarre myths and ancient legends, and left behind them little relics of other lands before stepping out again never to return. Some say they’ve learned the trick of it too, but even these folk may lose their way from time to time, becoming too attached to a desire to truly live the aimless, wondering, wandering way of the Softest Road.

Rewrites, Dying, and Seeing Beauty

I wrote a scene in my Protectors setting soon after New Years, one that resonated really strongly with me. It felt good. It was obviously either the emotional climax of a story, or one of two emotional climaxes. That scene just as obviously needed more material to support it. It was, in some ways, like finding out that I’d built the middle of a bridge’s span and still needed to build the rest.

As I wrote the rest of the story, I discovered that—to remain honest to the characters and story—I either needed to write something that felt depressing and which I didn’t want, or I had to find a very different way of reaching the conclusion I’d hoped for. My first attempts at this didn’t go well. I tried forcing the conclusion I’d hoped for, and it felt dishonest, jammed into place. Then I mapped out what would happen in the depressing version, and just felt sad.

So, rewrites. Rewrites and talking with my mom (and crit group) about my narrative struggles.

My crit group agreed that I probably had to write out both versions and see what happened. They also noted that writing the depressing version might be more in keeping with the setting. My mom, on the other hand, offered up some observations from a book she’d read recently about mortality and the experience of approaching death and dying (Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, by Sallie Tisdale).

A little context: my mom has done a lot of work with the elderly (and is now reaching elderly herself). When I was a kid she did a good deal of work with patients in hospice—palliative end-of-life care. Her second husband, my stepfather, was a good deal older than she was, and the two of them met because they were both working in hospice. They read many books together, especially about philosophy, meditation, and the experience of growing old and dying. My stepfather died last fall. What I’m trying to say is, it’s hardly new for my mom to share something from her readings about mortality.

If you’ve read any of my stories in my Protectors setting, you’ll understand what I mean when I say those stories are rarely about growing old but often about the experience of encroaching death. My mom’s contribution was pretty on point.

The bit she mentioned was an experience which is sometimes shared by those who are dying, one she said my stepfather had spoken of: the heightening of one’s appreciation for the everyday, and for beauty in the everyday world. Not that the world is itself different, but that—in the process of dying, faced with imminent death—the world’s vibrancy and glory are more evident, more accessible.

And that felt like the missing key.

Thinking on it now, this feels like part of the gratitude and joy, or the quiet meditation on beauty, which I see in some Buddhist meditative tradition. And that experience of beauty, gratitude, and joy was the second step I needed to follow the first emotional climax. The transformative nature of those feelings, the fundamental shift from despair and depression to wonder and awe, is at the heart of the emotional shift I needed.

I still have to write it and make it stick, of course. I’m part way through that. I’ve got to put together another few scenes, replace a few others with new ones, and then print it up and see whether it makes any sense. I don’t expect it to work on the first (second?) attempt, but maybe it will at least look a bit more like a finished bridge… something I can work with.

Thanks Mom.

The Crystal Glade

The delicate traceries of crystalline trees rise from the glass-covered loam of an ancient forest. They glimmer, refracting sunlight until it dances across the earth around them, shimmering in their vitreous leaves. It is dangerous to walk among the trees with eyes or skin uncovered: many have been blinded by the brightness of the Stone Trees or burned when a leaf’s lens seared their flesh, and the fine-crushed debris of last year’s leaves will shred its way through any foot. On still and sunny days, the land around the Stone Trees smokes and bakes. On windy ones, the rainbows they cast dance.

Meditating in the heart of the Stone Trees’ glade is both a rite of passage and a form of augury for the wise ones of the local people. These practitioners say that the most potent prognostications are revealed beneath the sun’s brightest light, but they caution against the casual pursuit of such knowledge—the Sun-of-the-Trees can take as quickly as it gives, and more than one would-be oracle has fumbled their way out from the Stone Trees blind, bleeding from their dreadful stumbling.

The blood they leave behind soon disappears.

Near the edge of the Stone Trees, the glassine sheets of sloughed crystalline bark lie heavy and still amidst the leaf debris of the surrounding wood. The boundary there, between the old wood and the crystal trees which rise from their midst, is feathery and ill-defined. It wavers back and forth. Those few who’ve tried to track the edges of the stone tree grove within the vast and aged forest all disagree as to where the true edge lies. Sometimes, they even disagree with themselves. The only thing they can regularly agree on is that the boundary seems to move at times, replacing wooden giants of the forest with the refractive stands of the crystal trees. But the border shifts back as well, and a year after disappearing some massive trees thought lost to the stone and glass reappear as they were, fresh with their missing year’s growth. None have seen the border there shift and carried the tale of it back with them, but plenty have disappeared.

Those that disappear have never returned with the massive trees.

The center of the Stone Trees’ glade remains undisturbed, however. While the boundary may waver around the glade’s edges, the center does not shift. The locals say this is because the Sun-of-the-Trees—that refracted kindling glow that haunts the Stone Trees on even cloudy days, rising to blinding brilliance in full sunlight—lives there and holds the grove still in its presence. Those who doubt or discount local stories claim that the phenomenon is astrological and geological in nature, tied to the movement of the stars and the composition of the earth beneath the glade. While some have attempted to dig into the earth beneath the fractal crystal spires, to test their hypotheses, their expeditions have uniformly ended in disaster and failure. Digging through vast taproots harder than iron, facing frequent tunnel collapses as though the earth itself wished to smother interlopers… even the largest projects lose their workers when they hit the first crystals, breaking tools and hopes on the stone trees’ adamant foundations.

Most stories told of those digs ooze with the work’s dangerous drudgery. But some few shed the banal to speak of whispers down in the dark, or to hint at revelations seen in the gleam of a crystalline root. Few who’ve worked one mining expedition will ever sign up for another.

The Stone Trees have proven similarly resistant to attempts to remove them from their glade, though the acquisitive may sometimes depart with bark, leaves, or even a small branch. These artifacts and keepsakes are treasured by collectors of oddities, and have sparked the curiosity of many. But while plenty of the curious have attempted to enter the glade, far more stop at the edges, sit down, and simply listen to the music of the trees as they chime in the wind. It is, they say, the most enchanting sound they’ve ever heard: a portal to a space beyond, and a source of peace in the world.

The Breakers’ Strand

Out on the edge of Cape Hope, the Breakers’ Strand beckons. It is a dangerous lure, a vast and beautiful stretch of shimmering sands and tufted sea grass, marred by the ruined hulks of dead ships. Though its sands are coveted by Cymearnian glassmakers, it is a desolate place: vessels’ ribs emerge from the Strand’s shoals and sandbars like skeletal fingers, waves frothing happily around the remains of their victims. The Breakers’ Strand claims many lives every year, and sailors sing of its reach. Scared, they compose poetry, odes offered to the Strand in the fervent hope that it will accept their words… rather than clutching and dragging their hulls to their doom.

The Breakers’ Strand runs at least forty miles, but its outer windswept edge reaches even further into the sea. The currents deposit many gifts upon its beaches, and the heavy waves sometimes break through the Strand’s boundary into the brackish bogs and fens of Cape Hope on the Strand’s inland side. Here and there, amongst the Strand’s small occasional inlets, those bogs and fens form estuaries and salt marshes. Locals live in isolated villages, fishing communities sheltered by the Strand, and they sail out from the lees on either side of Cape Hope. None sail the waters along the Strand itself, unless they absolutely must.

Cape Hope straddles the only sea route between the ancient and storied vastness of Cymearn and the burgeoning wealth of the Guild-Cities. All shipping which would travel between them—as indeed most would—must tempt fate and ride the strong winds and powerful currents of Cape Hope to pass the Breakers’ Strand. The only other routes around all put so far out to sea that most journeys run afoul of flukey winds, requiring more stores and fresh water than it’s worth.

Of course, those reliable winds that scour the Breakers’ Strand make it all the more dangerous. Worse, they never seem to clear the frequent fogs which rise from Cape Hope’s marshes. Ships may believe they’ve given the Strand its proper sea room only to be driven onto its shifting sandbars, or pulled into the low fog-shrouded shoreline by the sea’s currents. If such ships are fortunate enough to come ashore in fine weather, they may manage to escape before their ship is bludgeoned to pieces. But few are so lucky: most that run aground on the Strand are broken in rushing seas, beaten apart, their sailors rendered unconscious by vast waves casting them violently, again and again, against the sand of the Strand’s shallows.

Ships’ corpses are not left unattended, of course. Salvage work is common amongst the locals of Cape Hope. Many local homes are built from ships’ timbers-turned-driftwood, and beachcombers wander the Strand after any storm to pick over whatever wrecks they might find. Most finds are small things, useful but picayune, but every so often a salvager may strike it rich: a ship’s pay-chest, or rare luxuries which survived the salty sea. More often, beachcombers are paid by shipping concerns for the slow trickle of their reports or findings—whether that means confirming the loss of a missing ship, or recovering some fraction of the ship’s lost cargo. There are even those merciful (or guilt-ridden) locals who risk their lives to rescue sailors when they may, forging out into the lethal surf to retrieve those blown ashore in terrible storms. The less adventurous or driven are sometimes employed to maintain the lights built by the Guild-Cities on either end of the Strand. Useful though they may be, those lighthouses remain insufficient to their task.

Of course, those lighthouses aren’t the only lights seen at night along the Strand. In fog, or on cloudy or stormy nights, less scrupulous beachcombers turn shipwrecker, carrying lanterns along the dunes to coax passing vessels to their doom. These scavengers would speed along their work, bringing unsuspecting ships into peril at places of their choosing. None of the small fishing villages that pepper the Cape’s coast and rise from its fens boast of these practices, but they are known.

Harder to explain are the lights seen even with no shipwrecker present, emerging from the bogs or riding across the Strand. Local lore warns that one should always flee those lights, whether they are ghost ships or simple lonely spirits. This advice is doubly true for any who’ve pulled a ship ashore to pick apart its carcass. The ire of the dead is not known for fine distinctions or discretion, and enough have died upon the Strand or in its waters to muster centuries of ghosts. For every sailor rescued from being beaten to death by the sea itself, many more are never saved. They instead have added their bones to the beautiful beaches, their last passage unknown.