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 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.