Posted on March 25, 2011 by Flames
Available at DriveThruHorror.com
The mythology of the British Isles fascinates me. Long before Christianity reached their shores, the people of England, Scotland and Ireland had their own fascinating, rich and complex religions. Sadly, their gods and monsters were given the short straw– devolving into leprechauns and pixies if they survived in our social conscious at all. But if you dig deep, you can usually find them still, primal and brutal, beautiful and mystic. And that’s where The Blackness Within shines.
The Blackness Within is Apex Publication’s collection of stories on the Celtic god Moccus, a god traditionally associated with boars. While both pigs and boars were held as sacred by the Celts, the boar was specifically revered for its ferocity and the strength one would require to bring it down. Little is known about Moccus– he may have been a fertility God, or one of the Hunt, or even a psychopomp, but little can be said for certain. The Blackness Within sets out to answer these questions with another: what would happen if the savage, earthen god returned today?
The collection opens with a rather powerful introduction by the editor, Gil Ainsworth. Titled “The New God, the New Order”, the introduction eerily asserts that the tales to follow are not mere fiction, but truth– warnings to be heeded. The tone is so dire and serious that one begins to question whether they believe they’re about to read works of fiction or accounts of true supernatural events, giving the anthology the feeling of a dark Bible, “The Gospels of Moccus” if you will. It’s well done and, like any good opening act, it sets up the reader for the main event without stealing the spotlight.
Unfortunately, the first story drops the ball a bit when it comes to keeping the tone of the introduction. “Secrets of Fatima”, by Steven L. Shrewsbury, depicts the return of Moccus’ son and servant through the actions of an American porn producer’s entourage. The story does a good job of setting up Moccus’ violent return, but aside from the violence and some cool “special effects”, the story is largely lacking in both style and horror. Unnecessary exposition breaks up the flow, and makes the reader forget they’re reading a tale of a horrific pagan deity, not the daily chores of particularly boring porn actors. While the introduction sets us up for the psychological horror of a violent fertility God’s return, the first story gives us the literary equivalent of a slasher film. It’s not that the story is bad– if you lie back and enjoy the ride for what it is, it’s certainly enjoyable– but it’s not subtle enough to be horrifying.
Lucas Pederson’s “Without Mercy” is the second tale of Moccus’ return, and here the anthology begins to pick back up. Pederson’s story transports the reader halfway across the world, to a dark Kenyan town where a murderer named Eadie does his dirty work and Moccus first makes his earthly presence known. Like “Secrets of Fatima”, “Without Mercy” focuses on the violence and gruesome imagery that Moccus’ return entails, but seems to do a much better job of affecting the reader. Pederson works hard to describe in horrific detail the maddening powers Moccus holds over life and death, and the results are violent scenes that move the reader and remind them of the foreboding introduction. There are also elements of anticipation– key word, again, subtlety– in which the reader is left to hang, ask themselves why: What is Eadie’s secret, the reason he is a freak, the reason he murders? Why is Moccus so interested in him? What is Moccus’ agenda? These questions are what will keep readers interested and afraid.
With “The Messiah of Mincemeat” by S. Clayton Rhodes, the reader gets a break from the violence, but the fear factor continues to mount. Set on a pig farm, likely in rural North America, the story follows five-year old Wesley as he is visited by Lord Moccus. In this incarnation we see more of the life-giving aspect of Moccus– no less a dark God, Moccus appears to Wesley as a Lord of the Flies-esque decapitated hog’s head– but here Moccus appears friendly, even helpful to his young Messiah. Like in the last tale, it’s the reader’s curiosity and anticipation that fuels the fear, not the violence and gore.
The quality only continues to escalate with Brenton Tomlinson’s “Dreaming”, a story set in the Australian Outback. “Dreaming” features perhaps the most complex characters yet in the anthology, as Richard, an artist from Sydney, travels into the outback with his aboriginal companion Yileen to see ancient rock paintings of a never-before documented boar god. The mythology of Moccus is blended nearly seamlessly into the Australian Aborigine mythology in a way that draws in the reader, making them eager for explanation. This story brings less horror to the front, instead focusing on a dark fantasy slant that nevertheless intrigues the reader and paves the way for Part Two of the anthology.
This second section, titled “The Life”, opens with “Daughter of God” by Maxwell Peterson. While the exact location of the story is unknown, “Daughter of God” takes place in mountainous jungles, and the tribe elder refers to the “men of the north”, so South America is a likely bet. In “Daughter of God” we see a myth-building tale in two primary parts– as an ancient myth told by the tribe’s elder, the keeper of the tale of Nyamun the boar god, and by the experience of the virginal woman Uwimana, to whom the story is being told. This well-written story expands on the mythology of Moccus and his influence around the world, and features an interesting spin. Nevertheless a dark tale, Moccus is portrayed as significantly less evil– just as wrathful, surely, but entirely justified. A minor critique would be the author’s assumption that the reader cannot make the connection between Nyamun and Moccus– twice, once by the elder and once by Moccus himself, it is said word for word that Nyamun and Moccus are one in the same. The bit of exposition is unnecessary and jarring, but a minor complaint to an otherwise thoroughly interesting and well-written piece.
Mark Grundy’s story “The Free Poor” takes the reader back to Australia, though this time to the suburban streets of Sydney. Ellen, a child’s services officer, begins to develop a nasty habit of murdering neglectful and abusive parents and guardians. While struggling to avoid arrest, she encounters a rag tag group of abused children calling themselves the Free Poor. From there Ellen’s life becomes continuously more wrapped up in the plots of Moccus, and we begin to see the formation and spread of his Cults. The story is violent and at times disturbing, perfectly fitting the feel of the anthology.
The short and surreal story “Bad Meat” follows, by Michael Keyton. “Bad Meat” focuses on a food administrator in Wales named Peter Johnson. After investigating reports of strange meat being served in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Peter finds himself lost in a strange black emptiness populated by identical, exotic women. “Bad Meat’s” exact place in the Moccus mythos is not exactly clear, save for a few mentions of the god throughout, but with a Stepford Wives-like creepiness to it, it is a notable piece of the anthology. Though less violent than many of the other stories, the dizzying surreality and body horror of this piece is powerful.
The eighth story of the anthology is “Chain of Hearts”, by Eric Gregory, and it reads like an action-horror tale with a bit of Lovecraftian influence tossed in. Brendon and Susanna are book store clerks, and over the course of the tale it becomes obvious that Brendon has modified himself through surgery to become a human-abomination– a vessel and tool for the god Moccus. This story shows just how strong Moccus has become, and sets the stage for an all-out war between Moccus and the other gods vying for power. It foreshadows both the technological prowess of the god as well as his struggles in the supernatural realm. An interesting, action-oriented and well-written piece with enough horror to make it fit.
Next is Conrad Zero’s “Big Game”, a horror story with a touch of action and suspense. This well written, if a bit predictable story, features private investigator Blake Richardson has he investigates a rash of missing persons in the top levels of a robotics company known as Animate Industries. The current CEO invites Blake to his remote cabin for a hunting expedition, and from there the typical tropes apply. Mysterious beasts, nightly visits and the like. Nevertheless, the story is well-written and engaging, and with enough gruesome details that it stays entertaining as it expands on the mythos and details Moccus’ spread through all forms of technology and global politics.
“Dance of the Psychopomps” is the last story of the section titled “The Life”. I admit to a certain fondness to this story by Joshua McCune; “psychopomp” is near the top of my lists for both favorite word and favorite concept, and McCune’s take on the guides to the afterlife is original and interesting. “Dance of the Psychopomps” features Moccus taking a break from his world-conquering plans to compete with several other well-known psychopomps– including Muut and Anubis– for possession of a doctor’s soul in the jungles of Thailand. Again we see a friendlier side to Moccus; in this story he is less sinister and more clever, even kind, though no less intelligent. There are a few scenes of regrettable, corny silliness– Moccus using a pair of owls as nunchakku, for instance– but these are negligible when taking into account the overall worth of the story. Still, “Dance of the Psychopomps” is significantly less frightening than others in the anthology, though engaging nonetheless. It is also the first time we see references to other tales in the anthology, which does a good job in reaffirming the “Biblical” feel the reader was given at the beginning.
The third part of the anthology is titled “The Legacy”, and begins with the story “Song-Ji and the Wolf”, by Paul Williams. This story takes place in Vietnam a few years after “The Bullmen Wars”, during which earth was invaded by mysterious, alien bullmen. Song-Ji is on his way to negotiate with the wolves– yes, wolves– who have taken over one of the nearby villages. “Song-Ji and the Wolf” comes off not nearly as strong as its predecessors, which is a shame because it definitely seems to have potential. The sentence structure and word choice is repetitive to the point that it becomes frustrating, and the exposition is simply plugged in without flowing naturally. It does, however, substantially build up the world in which Moccus has begun his war, and refers directly to Zero’s “Big Game”. Readers may take some issue with a god of fertility and fecundity using machines, rather than living beings, to do his dirty work, but this is a minor issue in the long run– the point is, it’s Moccus’ world now.
This point is driven home in Camille Alexa’s story “For They Are As Beasts”. The third-to-last story is perhaps the best of the anthology, the diary of a women living in a British Isles town after Moccus has cemented his dominance over earth. Those who worship Moccus have been driven back to agricultural societies, in which all things are done to please Moccus so that His favored can receive fertile crops and children. “For They Are As Beasts” is wonderfully written and fascinating, describing an amazing post-apocalyptic world and the cruelties people enact in the name of religion. Though the ending feels a bit rushed, that may simply because I could have read nearly twice the story’s current length and still have been enthralled.
Following that, Geoffry W. Cole keeps the quality high with the story “Abattoir Blues”, in which a scientist of The Faith is put on trial for heresy. “Abattoir Blues” takes place nearly a century after Moccus’ departure from the earth, and it appears the world has regained much of its technological advances. The scientist, Toby Anderson, attempts to defend himself against charges of spreading heresy against Moccus. The entire story is done in dialogue, as a conversation between Toby and his captors, and much of it is exposition, but it is done in a truly fascinating and engaging way for the reader. The world that Cole builds is an amazing theocratic dystopian future, and, like “For They Are As Beasts”, it’s almost a shame that we don’t get more of it.
The final inclusion in the anthology is “The Holy Meal”, which receives its own segment titled “The Food”. “The Holy Meal” is simply a collection of three fictional recipes– in “Abattoir Blues”, the reader learns that a major tenant of The Faith is partaking of the body of Lord Moccus, and this small collection of recipes provides the means for doing so. While an interesting bookmark to the end of the anthology, it bears little weight– it is mildly disturbing, but only when paired with “Abattoir Blues”, and in the end they are simply recipes. It speaks little for the state of mankind in the Age of Moccus, a topic I personally am far more interested in.
Overall, The Blackness Within is a mixed bag of horror stories with the good far outweighing the bad. This anthology contains some great gems, including “Abattoir Blues”, “For They Are as Beasts”, “Daughter of God” and “Dreaming”, and overall leaves very little left to be desired. In the end it makes good on the promise made in “The New God, The New Order”, and becomes its own Bible. It truly is the tale of the rise of the Lord Moccus, a God powerful enough to plunge the world into two wars before taking his place as the one supreme Being. His rise to power is engrossing and fascinating, at times both horrifying and surreal, and this collection of His stories is well worth a look for any fans of mythology, horror or, of course, obscure Celtic gods.
Review by Zachary Woodard
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