Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vox Terrae: Review

/ This is the gift of knowing what I know / Of knowing too much for the average puny minds of you human beings

I've been familiar with the fiction of John Claude Smith for some time now, yet I never got around to actually reading any of it, until now. After reading Vox Terrae, a chapbook published by the ever amazing Dunhams Manor Press, I regret not having read any of his work sooner, because I've been missing out on what everyone has been praising. Before I get into my review, let me just say this: if you like Weird Fiction, or anything in the realm of the strange, macabre, and body horror, do yourself a favor and read the tales of John Claude Smith, you won't regret it, I promise. Now, on to the review.

 For a chance at immortality; for a chance at gaining hidden knowledge, and discovering truths shrouded in darkness, how far would you be willing to go? How far would you let your obsession take you? For Kenneth and Alicia, two people whose love for one another runs deeper than any system of rivers--a love so profound, it cannot be expressed by any word from any language--they will find that their obsession will take them to realms unimaginable. As long as they have been together, Kenneth and Alicia traveled to far off lands in pursuit of their mutual goals, their interests in the black arts, and occult matters of the "bleakest nature." They wanted to piece together dark puzzles that they found most intriguing, and would spend countless hours researching. Their latest occult endeavor was an attempt to search for, and ultimately procure, a copy of an alternative translation of Vox Terrae, The Voice of the Earth. It was written in 1841 by the infamous necromancer Alessandro Vernielli. It was a tome of the blackest arts; it granted one the ability to communicate with the dead. Kenneth and Alicia saw it as a "deepening well of hidden knowledge to be gleaned." A means to eternal life. The alternative translation was written by a woman name Lorraine Blackthorne, and Kenneth and Alicia had been doing months of research and searching, exhausting every avenue they ventured down, until they came across a rather short article found a website that specialized in the occult and black arts. It wasn't much, but it did confirm the existence of the translation; however, later that evening, when Kenneth went to their library to gather Alicia for bed, he found her in her comfy chair, dead (this is not a spoiler, trust me). She was surrounded by empty bottles of pills, pointing to suicide. On her lap was a note saying she had found the alternative translation, that Blackthorne was the key, and that he needs to join her. Kenneth's pain and anguish was so great, he couldn't bring himself to do anything for several months, until he finally began feeling more like himself. Determined to solve the mystery of Alicia's death, along with discovering the secrets of Blackthorne, he calls on the help of his friend and fellow occultist, Ivan Sangkor. After much searching, they find an address for Blackthorne's house, in a town called Dry Creek, and the two set off to meet her. What follows is a journey into territories charted by only a select few.

A tome shrouded in darkness; the black arts; cryptic messages; mysterious deaths; hidden knowledge; the unknown. These are all potent elements that make for a classic Weird tale; ingredients for a dark, maddening recipe. I think Smith took all these elements, put them in a box made of yew, then went to an old graveyard, and, at the witching hour, put the box in the hollowed-out trunk of a tree. He then let it sit for twenty four hours, letting the ingredients mix with one another, allowing time for gestation. After that period, Vox Terrae was born. There is a poetic nature to Smith's prose, and he infuses it with darkness, morbidness, and the occult. The opening paragraph lures you in and immediately captures you, tethering you to the tale. You are then fed a phantasmagoria of horror and mystery. You are injected with grotesque and disturbing imagery, leaving you with a mark of taint on your soul, ensuring you will never forget.

The theme of obsession leading to ruination plays a major role in Vox Terrae. Kenneth, Alicia, and Ivan's unending pursuit of hidden knowledge, of truths that hide under the veil, can only lead them down the road to ruination. Sometimes, there are fates worse than death. With this obsession comes a certain lack of respect for their passions, despite their erudition in the occult and black arts. Couple the lack of respect with feeling no fear, and your fate is sealed. When Kenneth retells the first time he met Ivan in a bookstore, Ivan recommended some books to him, and then said to him, "For some souls, it's a matter of opening the door. Stepping through without fear. So many lose themselves to the distractions of this world, but you, young man, you show no fear." Ivan and Kenneth will learn that, sometimes, it's best to leave yourself to those distractions. Some things are better left unknown, and not having any fear is dangerous and foolhardy.

It's not until Kenneth and Ivan reach Blackthorne's house that they begin to realize that all is not what it seems. Their perception of reality slowly begins to fracture, like the beginning of a crack on a wall, it will continue to run up the wall until the whole thing is cracked. A feeling of repulsion sets in them, as Blackthorne's house defies common sense and logic. It's aged in the center, yet new, unfinished additions jutted out from the core, seeming to be inspired by whim. Unease slowly begins to settle in them, yet their quest for the truth forces them to press on. Blackthorne herself is an unproportional monstrosity. "Her neck bloated and deflated as she breathed, frog-like before the turkey ripples took over, while her upper arms were lumpy as cottage cheese, her fingers wiry and lacking distinct bends for joints." Her body is more like a shell, or a veneer ready to be peeled away. She knows of Alicia's death before they can even address her about it. Kenneth sees that Blackthorne's interests dove-tail into theirs; they all knew "broader vistas of light and dark." In this display of both ignorance and arrogance, he truly has no idea what Blackthorne really knows. Ivan is the first to come to the realization that he and Kenneth are out of their depth; that everything they have ever read about the occult, and anything pertaining to it, means absolutely nothing. They are street corner occultists in the presence of something beyond their comprehension. They feel the house shift, throwing them off balance, giving off the notion that the house is still taking shape, and their reality cracks more and more, pieces of it falling away, revealing something too horrible for words.

The character of Blackthorne addresses the insignificance of humans, a powerful theme in Weird Fiction. She points out our arrogance in thinking we dictate the rules of the universe, and our ignorance in thinking we are the dominant species. She informs Kenneth that there are many layers, and we lack the intellect to cross between them; we are feeble-minded, lower on the totem pole than even her race is, which we know nothing about, further driving home the point of our inferiority and ignorance to what lies beneath our 'reality.' Blackthorne will show Kenneth what she knows. "This is the gift of knowing what I know /  Of knowing too much for the average puny minds of human beings." There is always a price to pay for such knowledge, and Kenneth is no exception.

All these elements: the unknown, human insignificance, the defying of our logic, otherness, our tenuous reality, obsession with finding hidden knowledge, they all serve to help define a Weird tale, and John Claude Smith doesn't miss a beat in bringing us a tale that truly embodies Weird Fiction. He takes us on a chthonic journey into a nightmarish hellscape, where the price for hidden knowledge--for eternal life--must be paid in flesh; a place where language is experienced--not spoken--in the form of agonizing pain; your flesh stripped away as your body proceeds to undergo deconstruction, reconstruction, repeat. The mutability of the flesh makes us playthings for horrors we have no business knowing. Again, how far are you willing to let your obsessions take you?

No comments:

Post a Comment