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The Mountain and the Vortex and Other Tales (illustrated)
by Stephen Vessels
Muse Harbor Publishing, $17.99, $24.99 HB (forthcoming), 292pp
* ebook versions on sale for $2.99 through October 2016
Published: May 2016

These stories, in the horror and speculative fiction genres, are narrated with a restraint that lets horror bloom in the mind of the reader only as a result of the reader’s own comprehension, and astonishment dawn like sunrise over the ocean.  More than one of these stories was like seeing a green flash of the most startling imagination. The illustrations, by Vessels himself, Steven C. Gilberts, Alan M. Clark, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, and Jean Giraud Moebius, are phenomenal; the newly available HB edition contains additional artwork by Clark.

Each story stands alone, and yet there are themes, images, even single words that make bridges spun of diamonds and darkness that connect one story to another, and yet another. Their progressive coherence makes The Mountain and the Vortex a sort of modern-day Tales of the Thousand Nights and One Night. The beginning is grim; the author is looking into the heart of the worst of human possibilities, just as The Arabian Nights begins with the worst sort of abuse of power.  Vessels, like Scheherazade, gradually introduce elements of courage in the midst of despair, hope, humor, and love. In some instances, this only makes the horror more appalling; another quality shared by both collections. At the conclusion of The Arabian Nights, the Sultan had been transformed, some might say redeemed, by the stories Scheherazade has told him. After reading the stories Vessels has presented, I felt harrowed, but hallowed as well, and I had a great deal more sympathy for that Sultan, because for the first time I felt that he and I had something in common; we had both been schooled. 

If you wish to discover these for yourself entirely on your own terms, you may prefer to skip the brief descriptions that follow. If you like previews, read on! I will not, however, tease out the marvelous threads that tie one tale to another; it would be mean-spirited to rob you of your epiphanies.

No Night, No Need of Candle is purest horror, a Dante-esque post-apocalyptic landscape of souls who have abandoned all are abandoned to their terrible fate. (C.S. Lewis would have frigging LOVED this one!)

The Butcher of Gad Street has an unlikely hero who, to rescue his daughter, must defeat demons who have been systematically enthralling humans and tainting supernatural energies.

Lighter than Air is a true marchen (where’s the umlaut in Word?), in which dreary, deadly ordinariness is transformed into something wonderful, only here the magic is an act of spirit. Lester Gill is dying, and he’s morbidly obese; then he decides to…let go.

Bulbous Things is military SF/horror of the first water. As a team of scientists and their single military guardian explore a planet with a singular life form, the question is: which life form is studying which, and how? Fair warning: after reading this one, there may be times when you see the world through the narrator’s eyes and persona; if you are not okay with sharing your brain space with a quasi-psychotic muscle-neck, you maaay want to be careful with this one.  Active duty and prior service readers will feel riiiiiiight at home.

The Burning Professor is a fantasy parable that burns through so much crap it might as well be written in letters of white fire on black fire.  It may seem like a feminist story, but it is a story for everyone old enough to have regrets, or wise enough to know they will someday, regardless of present age. Women enjoy and benefit from countless tales with male protagonists; surely men can do as much with a lady protagonist.

Doloroso is a modern western of the drug-smuggling border, absolutely realistic, if you allow for a ghostly visitation.

Dining Strange is a splendid mix of Poe-ish revenge and SF realpolitik, as a galactic ambassador brings hard justice to a planetary government and its allies who have played favorites at his expense.

Verge Land is pure mischief: take a horror trope so familiar it is a cliché, then go all weird with it.  The way the horizons blur and merge into a Mobius strip reminds me of Dunsany’s fantasy tale of a woman on the shore.

The Alchemist’s Eyeglasses is more of a romantic romp, but the bubbling questions and issues of integrity, courage, and living blindly or with foreknowledge are real posers. An argumentative group of friends could have fun with this one for hours.

Significance is a darker sort of mischief; Loki in destructive mode.  Certainly a warning, possible predictive, it is a reminder that nobody f***s up like smart, fearful people with hubris and military grade technology.

The Fourth Seven is classic horror, Stephen King horror, where banal, human evil and supernatural evil conspire, and human decency has only a small chance to salvage anything from the cesspit.

The titular novella that closes out the book is a philosophical fantasy that reminded me of an obscure classic by George MacDonald called The Golden Key. Since I verified the author had never even heard of that story, let alone read it, I conclude that archetypal forces are at work. MacDonald’s story was for children; apparently, archetypal forces deem humanity mature enough for an adult version.  The Mountain and the Vortex is one of those cinematic stories that you see unfolding in your mind’s eye, as if some amazing director had just planted his rear in your hippocampus and taken over the direction of your waking dreams, with the aid of some naturally occurring psychotropics. 

Each story, no matter how fantastic, is grounded in the truth of this is how nature is, this is how people are. Some fantastic representations of philosophical ideas may be so accurate that a reader encounters them with a shock of recognition: I know this! I felt this, but I didn’t have the words for what it was I was feeling! Or the ideas may be familiar Zelazny and Lackey have used similar representations in some of their tales - expressed in a new form.  Either way, every single story in this volume is an adventure.  Another plus: the puns are subtle and clever enough that readers who hate puns can loftily ignore them, while connoisseurs can score points for detecting them.

To sum up this book, let me say that never in my life have I encountered such depth and poignancy of imagination. Vessels seems to have distilled the essence of Dunsany, Lovecraft, Zelazny, other influences I cannot identify, and certainly something of himself, to produce a brandy the gods would savour. These are the stories I have been looking for all my adult life.  ~~ Chris Wozney

For more titles by Stephen T Vessels click here

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