17 May 2015

Book Review: Penumbrae

One of the books I was most looking forward to this spring was Penumbrae, an anthology of occult fiction edited by Richard Gavin, Patricia Cram, and Daniel Schulke.  I was not disappointed. When I say this book was good, I mean it was practically perfect in every way.  Seriously, stop what you're doing, go order it, and then come finish reading this.

Penumbrae is unlike any other book of fiction I have ever read.  Instead of being a book of stories about the occult, it's a book of stories where the occult is just part of the landscape.  In most "magical" fiction you get heavy handed stories where the magick is the point of the story - the young boy learns to use magick to defeat the antagonist, the girl saves herself through the use of an ancient charm, etc.  In Penumbrae you get a more authentic occultism.  In these stories the magick simmers underneath the action, flowing through the story the way real magick lies beneath the surface of our everyday lives. 

The magick you find in "Turquoise on a Bed of Skulls" by Patricia Cram is the desperate folk magick of the hopeless.  Of all the stories in this anthology I found this one the most striking.  It's not a story about magick, but a story about terrible circumstances in which a woman takes power in the only way she can.  That happens to be through the use of what amounts to a series of Hoodoo jar spells.  However, the magick is not the point of this story.  This story has a much deeper message that sinks in to your skin and makes you itch for days afterwards. 

Most of the stories in this anthology are...not outright horror stories, but they are unsettling.  There is often something "not quite right" with the characters and their actions.  The magick and occultism they encounter tends to be extremely otherworldly - it doesn't quite fit in our reality.  So many works of fiction portray magick as a wondrous cure-all that just makes everything better, and yes real magick is a glorious thing, but it's not all white light and rainbows.  Real magick runs the gamut from gorgeous and uplifting to filthy and wrong.  When you really see magick changing reality is can be deeply, deeply unsettling - like when you see a movie displayed at the wrong frame rate and every movement just looks "off."

"The Spider" by Hanns Heinz Ewers was probably my favorite story to read: it's half mystery, half horror with just a pinch of the unreal.   This story has such a subtle thread of the unworldly.  It begins as a mystery that slowly deepens from the purely mundane to "that which should not be."  As someone who has practiced magick for a long time and who is widely read, I caught on to the occult elements fairly quickly.  I can't help but wonder how different this story would be for someone who didn't know the occult at all.  Still scary I would imagine, but much more shallowly so.

There were several stories in this anthology that had strong ties to Lovecraftian lore, though none so clearly as "Andromeda Among the Stones," by Caitlin R. Kiernan.  This story perfectly straddled that line between being uncomfortably close to reality and bearing the weight of unspeakable horror.   It highlighted the madness that deep occult studies often skirts and the consequences of allowing too much rigidity into our practices in the face of evidence that we should be doing things differently.  Unsettling, frightening, and yet magnificent.

So if you haven't done so yet go order this.  Then read it slowly while sipping a nice glass of red wine while listening to Debussy during a rain storm.

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