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Black Goat Blues
by Levi Black
Tor, $25.99, 288pp
Published: November 2017

This is the second book in the 'Mythos War' series by Levi Black, an appropriately dark religious pseudonym for author James R. Tuck, and the series carries on precisely as it began, for both good and bad. (Book 1 Red Right Hand reviewed here)

Once again, it's a blistering quest for revenge that combines wild weapons and elder gods with punk dialogue and which ends almost before it begins because every single chapter is a short sharp shock. For instance, the first features our heroine, Charlie (short for Charlotte Tristan Moore), walking up to the door of a nightclub; the second features her reaching security; the third features her getting past security; the fourth... well, you get the picture. There's a point later in the book where Charlie battles a skinless hellhound and it takes up three entire chapters, at the end of which they've made friends and the fight becomes meaningless.

Now, this all sounds wildly excessive but it isn't, because this novel runs 270 pages but comprises 65 chapters, so they average about four pages each, which includes half a page for the chapter number and half a page more for the blank space at the end. As with the first book, this feels precisely like a prose version of a graphic novel, each chapter a double page spread with vivid action-packed panels, described very capably by our twisted narrator.

Tuck writes well for a novelist trying to write a graphic novel in prose, not least because he has a punk poet's diction. I don't just mean neat epithets like, 'Interdimensional teleportation is murder on your stomach until you get used to it' but more in depth swathes of text too. At one point, the goddess Ashtoreth attempts to name a concept to Charlie and the author explains it like this:

'The word that spills from her mouth isn't even human, much less English. It rolls off her tongue and hangs in the air between us, entwining on itself and rubbing syllable against syllable, consonents entering vowels, diphthongs squeezing and constricting. The word throbs at me and I feel it like a pulse against my skin and inside me, deep inside, there is an answering beat that nearly takes my breath away.'

One of his primary influences is clearly Nick Cave, not least because he quotes once again from his song, 'Red Right Hand', the same song which gave its very name to the prior book. What's more, half of this sequel could be summed up by a single line from that very same song: 'You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand.' Tuck often writes prose like Cave writes lyrics, which is hardly a bad idea to follow if you can manage it. He can.

His other obvious influence is H. P. Lovecraft, because this is a Cthulhu Mythos novel, albeit one punked up to eleven that doesn't remotely feel like it could have been written in the thirties. Tuck is more than happy to free Lovecraft's elder gods from their aeon-drenched cages and invite them to dinner. Nyarlathotep is one prominent character here, having driven the first novel and pissed off its heroine to the point that she uses this one to hunt him down with extreme vengeance. To do that, she has to team up with the goddess Ashtoreth and that skinless hellhound she befriended and wend her way into the very courtroom of the King in Yellow.

I did say 'punked up'. I won't explain quite how punked up because you deserve to discover the blasphemies of Shub Niggurath's incarceration for yourself. It won't surprise those who read the great lord Cthulhu's cameo in the first book, but it's ratcheted up quite a few more degrees.

There is substance behind the chaotic and cringeworthy fun. One highly interesting angle that Tuck introduces here is an exercise in irony. Talking about crazed cult members who want the elder gods to come and visit, Ashtoreth explains to Charlie: 'They don't realize that every time they perform some ritual, some summoning, some work, they actually draw power from the gods, weakening them and keeping them imprisoned. If they simply left them be, forgot about them, then they would grow in power until they could free themselves from the prison your ancestors' ancestors sent them to so long ago.' I like that idea, which is very deliberate.

In between the fun and the substance, I guess, is the way he plays with names. I don't just mean Charlie's snide habit of deliberately mispronouncing them for effect, but the way that they function in the Mythos. Introducing herself to a strange young lady by giving her full name, Charlie says, 'I've learned that names are important in this world. They mean things, more than they mean in our world. Every being in this weird reality has multiple names and titles and they all seem important in their own way.' This is to Mylendor. You know, the Fetcher. The Collector. The Gathererer. The Hunter in the Dark. The Shatterer of Bones. She Who Sucks the Marrow. The Hound of Carcosa. Ashtoreth has almost as many names and the King in Yellow has a few others too that many of us will recognise.

What falls by the wayside is a plot. When I said that this feels like a graphic novel, I probably exaggerated. It's more like a comic book. A 22 -page comic book, given that we've thankfully cut out the ten pages of ads. Maybe two comic books, if we stretch. That's not a lot of room for a substantial story and we don't get one. We didn't get one in the first book, we don't get one here and we're not likely to get one in the third volume, which I'll still devour as soon as I can get my grubby little hands on it.

Here's the plot. Charlie is pissed at the Man in Black and she wants to kill him. With the aid of Ashtoreth, she figures out where he is. With the goddess, the hellhound and an abused kid from Arizona who wants a revenge of his own, she goes there and makes a bargain that she thinks will give her what she wants. That's it, really. Deep storytelling is not what Tuck is aiming for here. He's all about texture and colour and style, things that he is able to nail absolutely, often through the characters and how they accessorise.

For instance, Charlie doesn't do much except move forward and get stabby, but she wears a sentient coat that's made out of the skin of an archangel. That's still the coolest thing I've heard this year and that's not the end of it. It secretes things for her, magically, things like a cursed living sword called Oathbreaker or Aqedah, the knife that Abraham used on Isaac. She can wish herself magically to the other end of lines of connection, whatever reality they happen to be in. And she talks smack to everyone, whoever or whatever they are. She picks fights with gods. She often wins. She's so frickin' bitchin' that she befriends a skinless hellhound and calls it Winnie. What else do you need to know?

All you really need to know is that this is a quest for vengeance, painted in blood in a series of encounters and showdowns. It's not deep. It's not meaningful. It has no interest in being either. But it's really frickin' cool. It's Tuck's way of doing what Nick Cave says the Man in Black does: 'He'll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy.' Eat it up, folks. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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