His Black Tongue by Mitchell Lüthi

Front cover of His Black Tongue by Mitchell LüthiLüthi tells four tales of very different people facing threats in very different worlds that are united by a sense of how fragile humanity’s control is in the face of a vast universe.

This collection contains two novellas and two short stories, spread across genres but united by a sense of dread.

  • His Black Tongue: Travelling across the plague-ravaged lands of fourteenth-century France, an ageing Franciscan friar and his saintly young ward discover the town of Enfaire strangely free of the plague—but gripped by the fear that portals to Hell itself gape open each night. Lüthi skillfully blends the religious fervour and intimate awareness of mortality that pervade medieval Europe with visceral supernatural evil, echoing the spiritual paranoia of Eco’s The Name of the Rose but as horror rather than doctrinal dispute. As befits a tale of people who fear the Devil is constantly nearby, evidence is open to more than one interpretation until almost the last moment, likely resulting in the reader sharing the characters’ misapprehension of the truth; while none of these reveals are inconsistent with the events that have been presented, there is neither overt evidence for the final twist nor direct impact on other plot threads from it and thus some readers might feel it is either a gotcha or a dangling thread to incite purchase of further volumes.

  • The Bone Fields: Separated by a storm, a raiding party of Vikings find their sister longship beached and empty on an island that isn’t on their map. Featuring unsettling but not impossible terrain and scouts simply not returning from patrol, this story has a similar feel to folk horror or serial killer tales. While Lüthi’s characters face events with a greater violence than is common, this is a courage based in feeling fear and pushing on rather than an unthinking brutality; and each of them displays a different blend of bravery, uncertainty, and motivation, making them feel like nuanced individuals rather than simply stereotypical warriors.

  • ‘The Knights of the Non-Euclidean Table’: Following King Arthur’s death at the Battle of Camlan, the surviving knights reunite in hopes of defeating Mordred and driving out whatever twists Albion into a parody of itself. Containing shadowy and twisted forests, deer that are twisted and bloodthirsty, and events that seem to be two different things overlapping, Lüthi’s tale is set in a darkly fantastical England where Mordred is in league with some unnatural and inhuman power. As with many more modern retellings of Arthurian myth, the knights are from several different realistic medieval nations rather than being homogenous representatives of a chivalrous ideal; in addition to making them more interesting as characters, this contrast strengthens the sense that this is a battle of humanity against a horrific other rather than simply political conflict.

  • ‘Necropolis’: After years as the last living inhabitant of a massive orbiting sepulchre, the caretaker’s routine is interrupted by a living visitor. Evoking the similarity between routine maintenance of ageing technology and the ritual calendar of organised religions, Lüthi creates a future where faith has taken science a sacrament rather than an opponent. With a cast of two, this tale shows the lengths devotion can go but leaves it to the reader to decide whether the journey is heroic or horrific.

Set in four very different worlds, these tales are united by a theme of humanity living in a small patch of fragile stability amid powerful and inhospitable forces. Combined with plot arcs that leave the question of whether events are mundane or not open for most of the story then soar to a reveal at the end, this produces a feeling that is similar to Lovecraft and other classics of cosmic horror even though the trappings are sometimes very different.

The combination of an underlying theme with very different characters and settings creates a balance between similarity and uniqueness that increases the chances readers who enjoy one story will equally enjoy the rest while reducing the sense of sameness that can sometimes come when reading the contents of a collection without breaks.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection immensely. I recommend it to readers seeking characterful horror that stems from humanity’s smallness rather than gore.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.


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