Review: T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies

The Ceremonies

This is Klein’s one and only novel and is essentially an expansion of his novelette “The Events at Poroth Farm,” reviewed last week. That terse description doesn’t quite do this novel justice because it takes a long short story and transforms it into a 500+ page novel, adding not just backstory but entire new plots, sub-plots, and detail throughout.

Elements that are greatly expanded:

  • Background on how Jeremy and the Poroths met, including a first visit that Jeremy made to their farm almost two months prior to his stay on the farm.
  • The “Old One,” an extremely old man from the Poroths’ community—like, a supernaturally long-lived man—who sets everything in motion.
  • The addition of a major female character, Carol Conklin, a virginal young woman who had been a novice in a Catholic religious order before deciding that she didn’t want to be a nun, and who is now trying to live on her own in New York as she struggles on a part-time librarian’s salary.

Interestingly enough, while we see a lot more of Jeremy’s interactions with all the other characters, rather than just reading some of his journal entries, I don’t think he becomes much better known to the reader, and he’s certainly not more likable. On the contrary, in his interactions with the residents of Gilead, he comes off as a bit of a smug oaf, and his failed efforts to hook up with one of his hot female students aren’t exactly endearing.

There were definitely a number of places in the novel that I wondered if the added detail was worth it. “The Events at Poroth Farm” was such a tightly-written, dense story that I’m not quite sure that we needed as much added detail as we got here. Part of the issue is that The Ceremonies is not just a novel, but it’s a long novel. A taut, 250-300 page novel might have added some richness and sub-plots to the story framework without slowing it down. And to be sure, the novel is a slow burn. Klein is a great writer with an eye for detail that really makes his characters and settings come alive, so it doesn’t feel like a slog, but you have to be patient. For example, when Carole Conklin first visits Poroth Farm, she gets delayed in traffic, gets lost, has to ask for directions, and reflects on the scenery, but I think the only actual part of that several-page passage that we needed was when Sarr’s mother sees Carole pass by, she realizes that Carole is the redheaded woman referenced in a prophecy. So that’s just a single example of a spot where we get a lot of new details that aren’t strictly needed to advance the plot.

Having said all that, Klein is a masterful, under-rated writer–my only complaint is that he isn’t more prolific.

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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “The Events at Poroth Farm”

“The Events at Poroth Farm” can be found in the extremely inexpensive and wonderful collection The Cthulhu Mythos Megapack (see below). I’m reviewing this tale because it became the basis on which Klein’s sole novel, The Ceremonies (to be reviewed next week) is based.

What a great story. This is the very definition of an atmospheric horror story with a slow creeping realization that things are not right and are getting worse and worse as the story progresses. I have always been a big fan of epistolary tales, and that’s just what we get here: The journal of a young PhD student in literature, Jeremy, who is renting a room in a house in the isolated rural community of Gilead, New Jersey, for the summer because he needs time away from the bustle of the city to read a bunch of books in preparation for teaching a new course in the fall on Gothic horror. The room he rents is at a farm run by Sarr and Deborah Poroth, a childless couple in their 30s who have seven cats and are members of one of those simple-and-agricultural lifestyle religious sects that has some odd but inoffensive views.

Jeremy’s tranquility at the farm is gradually invaded by a series of events, none of them overtly alarming or profoundly weird, but they add up to some oddities: One of the Poroths, probably Deborah, seems to be poking through Jeremy’s things and reading his journal when he’s not around, and they’re not even especially subtle about it. Enormous moths are drawn to the light in his room, so they’re always crawling over his window screen. The room itself gets infested with crickets and mold, and the spray he purchases to use there is both ineffective and then goes missing. One night, everything goes silent—if you’ve ever spent time in nature, you know how loud the ambient noise of the natural world can be, and how eerie those sudden silences are—and then resumes, but Jeremy has a sense that there has been some sort of rupture or (negative) change. He’s right. He sees Bwada, the meanest of the cats, dead in the forest. There’s no doubt about it: she’s dead. But then she comes stumbling back to the house, changed. Things get darker and darker from there, descending into violence and madness. The ride is sufficiently interesting and unexpected that I am reluctant to provide more details. It’s certainly a great story, and one of my favorites from Klein.

One possibly missed opportunity in the story is the religion that the Poroths belong too. Maybe Klein simply didn’t take the easy way out and make it a secretly dark religious cult that was behind the weirdness on the farm. That would have been a bit too trite, I think, and certainly a plot that we’ve all read far too often. But ultimately I’m left wondering what a difference the particular community/setting/context made on the story—for all the importance of this backdrop to the events of the story, it could have been set in any rural or suburban locale that had an outsider staying in a home near some woods. I’m not sure this particular community’s isolation made much of a difference.

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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Nadelman’s God”

“Nadelman’s God” is the fourth and final novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection.

I’ve seen this one described as a comedy of errors but I don’t think that’s quite right. While there are a few absurd elements in the story, I read this one as a straight horror, and found it to be effective. The eponymous Nadelman is a married advertising executive in New York City—Klein is really, really good at bringing 1970s NYC to life—who wrote a really dark poem during college that was published in an undergraduate literary journal. He hasn’t thought about this story in decades until a college buddy of his, who is now a music producer, used the poem to inspire a really dark song that comes out on a heavy metal album. The poem in question concerns the existence of an ancient god called “The Hungerer” that has been replaced by a more modern, palatable conception of a deity. This would have been just a flash-in-the-pan windfall and interesting cocktail party story until the song inspires a listener to create an effigy of this deity that the man says has come alive and, he strongly implies, begun killing people at its creator’s behest. Nadelman gets involved in the situation and rapidly realizes that (1) the man probably isn’t quite as insane as he seems and (2) a series of gruesome murders and disappears is spiraling closer and closer to Nadelman and his family. Very good stuff.

Oh and one note on the novella’s title: While “Nadelman’s God” works well as the possessive form (i.e., the God of Nadelman), I think it would also be appropriate to think of the title in its other meaning, i.e., the contraction for “Nadelman is God.” Huntoon certainly thinks of the thing he creates as a god, and Nadelman’s poem explicitly presents The Hungerer as a replacement god, to this thing, once it is created, Nadelman is worshipped as its god. It watches over him, tries to protect him, and does what it thinks is his bidding. I think it’s an interesting set of reflections on the relationships between deities and their worshippers, who are also their creators. Like all of Klein’s work that I have read, this is a story that will reward re-readings.

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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”

“Black Man with a Horn” is the third novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection, though you will find it reprinted in many other collections as well.

The most explicitly Lovecraftian novella in the collection, and one that is explicitly tied into the Cthulhu Mythos. This is the story of an elderly man who, in his youth, was a correspondent and friend of the much older H.P. Lovecraft. Our protagonist is now a lonely old man living in New York City who seems to have spent most of his life as a writer of weird fiction who is likely still trying to find his own authorial voice, remaining as he does in Lovecraft’s shadow. The novella opens with a scene in which the writer is returning to New York on a plane and meets a very strange missionary who has been living in Southeast Asia for years, where he encountered and ran afoul of the abominable Tcho-Tcho tribe (you will recall them from several stories written by Lovecraft and August Derleth, and later enlarged upon). In this conversation we learn of one of the Tcho-Tchos’ practices: their ability to plant a kind of seed in a victim that somehow spawns a kind of black humanoid with an elephant trunk that they use as an assassin. (I actually really enjoyed this scene as a sociological blast from the past because I am just old enough to remember when you could smoke on airplanes—among other differences from the air travel of today—and this scene captures some of those differences very nicely.) All of this is uncomfortable for the writer: not only because the missionary is clearly unhinged and more than a little paranoid but also because he knows that the Tcho-Tchos are simply a literary creation, which places him in the awkward position of seemingly being aware that he is now living out some sort of Lovecraftian tale. Despite these misgivings, the writer gives the missionary his elderly sister’s address in Florida because the missionary is going to be staying down there coincidentally. (Ah the ‘70s, when you’d give out a relative’s address and phone number to a stranger you meet on a plane…) When the writer’s sister begins telling him about a series of mysterious deaths and disappearances in the area, he suspects that there is likely more going on than can be comfortably explained away.

The horror is subtle, but ominous throughout; I think that having an elderly and not particularly physically capable protagonist helped a great deal in highlighting the menace. It doesn’t take much to pose a potentially lethal menace to a handful of retirees. I liked the story a lot while at the same time I wanted more from Klein on this one. I wanted to know more about the narrator, his life, and his motivations for investigating the matter. What we got is very good—I enjoyed the commentary on living life in the shadow of Lovecraft as a writer who knew him—I just wanted more. Still, a very entertaining story.

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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Petey”

“Petey” is the second novella in Klein’s Dark Gods collection.

I was worried about this story, because like so many found footage films, it begins with a long sequence of mundaneness in which a host of unlikeable characters are presented, simply living their lives and doing boring things. Here, specifically, the setting is a housewarming party of a couple who has just moved into a fixed-up old farmhouse out in the country in Connecticut. I needn’t have worried. The horror is subtle, but hints of weirdness begin to emerge, rushing toward a horrifying ending. The hosts of the party and all of their guests are shown to be venial and banal (aren’t we all), and while they’re not utterly awful people, their quirks and pettiness are on full display and they don’t come off especially well. These are archetypal modern bourgeois consumers, obsessed with the acquisition of wealth and status. Much of the novella thus serves as a very good character study of middle-class suburbia. As it turns out the house’s former inhabitant was a strange fellow—don’t worry, he’s now safely ensconced in an insane asylum and we have periodic interludes of what he’s up to now—who left behind a pet, the eponymous “Petey.” Petey’s exact nature is left a bit vague, but he seems to have been…grown, after many unsuccessful attempts, and it seems he hasn’t been fed in a while so he’s naturally a bit hungry. I think of Petey as a kind of homunculus, though he’s only vaguely humanoid—he’s more ursine really—but there are intimations that he is what a French book of fables discovered in the house describes as a “petit diable,” a little devil, who seems to have been grown from a seed. Not exactly an ideal party crasher. There are some very nice references to the Tarot here as well, which I always enjoy.

Like “Children of the Kingdom,” “Petey” is a slow burn, with a myriad of hints dropped throughout that detail the nature of this story’s horror. Those subtle hints, growing ever more frequent and ominous are really the magic of this story. Again, now that I know what’s going on here, I need to re-read the story and reabsorb all of those hints. It’s a suspenseful story because the reader knows something terrible is coming all along, and that dawning horror comes to possess all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, rushing toward the reader like a runaway freight train. A very nice second story in the collection.

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Review: T.E.D. Klein’s “Children of the Kingdom”

I have heard many wonderful things about the horror fiction of T.E.D. Klein over the years, but it took some effort to actually get my hands on his work. He’s alive but not at all prolific: to the best of my knowledge he has published just one collection of four novellas (this one, Dark Gods), a single novel based on a short story, and a very limited-release-and-now-very-pricey collection of essays that might contain another story or two in it, and that’s about it. His novel, The Ceremonies, was brought back into print a couple years ago (yay!) but Dark Gods has been long out of print (why not reprint it, publishers?).

While I haven’t yet read Klein’s novel or the story it was expanded from, I have recently acquired Dark Gods and have decided to review each of its four novellas, one per week. Here’s the first.

“Children of the Kingdom”

This was my first Klein story, but given his overall reputation and the strength of this initial novella in the collection, I am very much looking forward to exploring the rest of the book. What a great story. Set in 1977 New York City, this is a grim vision of urban life, full of poverty, fear, crime, grime, and racial tensions. The unnamed narrator and his wife have to find a senior living residence for the narrator’s grandfather. They find a converted apartment building that’s run-down, but seems fairly safe, and at least the old guy will have some people to talk with. He quickly makes friends with his fellow residents and some other people in the neighborhood, including a man he calls “Father Pistachio,” who seems to be a defrocked Catholic priest from Costa Rica. The good padre has some rather odd views of human history and has spent decades writing and publishing what turns out to be a complete revision of the sweep of human history. Rather than coming out of Africa, as most of us believe, according to Father Pistachio, humanity emerged first in Costa Rica, fleeing elsewhere in the Americas and then later across the Bering Straits to the other continents because they were being hunted and pursued by an inimical race of worm-like(?) humanoids who somehow reproduce by raping human women. The narrator doesn’t believe any of this, of course, no one would, but strange events in and around the neighborhood begin occurring that suggest some genuine weirdness is going on. Then the blackout of 1977 hit and all hell broke loose. This was a very tough time in New York City’s history: crime was rife, racial tensions were running high, urban blight was everywhere, the Son of Sam was murdering people. This was an actual blackout that lasted for the better part of a day during a heatwave and ushered in a massive wave of arsons and looting. More than 4000 people were arrested, though that was just a tiny fraction of those who took advantage of the blackout to prey on their fellow New Yorkers. In any case, during the heatwave the ancient worm-like enemies of humanity emerge from their dwellings in the abandoned subway lines and tunnels under New York and commit a number of shocking atrocities. Klein doesn’t pull any punches; I won’t spoil the exact nature of what these things do but will just say that they are savage and horrible.

This is a distinctly Lovecraftian work, that I think Grandpa Lovecraft would have approved of in many ways—his visceral hatred of New York City would have drawn him to the setting, I think, and its themes are pretty much right up his alley—and there is even a fleeting reference suggesting that the humanoids were called the Mi-go at one point.

This is definitely a work that will reward re-reads; as the story slowly built toward its climax I realized what was going on and began reflecting back on just how many subtle hints and traces of these creatures had been dropped into the story at earlier points. I want to go back and experience those again now that I have more knowledge. While this discussion has mainly focused on the novella’s setting and plot, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Klein’s characterization and dialogue, both of which are top-notch—this is as much a character-driven story as a plot-driven one, and that is less common than we might like. “Children of the Kingdom” is a very creepy secret history of humanity and human civilization—an excellent start to the collection.