Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby! and Other Cosmic Insolence by Will Ludwigsen

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“And Justice for Doll”
“Speaking Mouth Dog”
“The Trespasser”
“Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby!”
“Portrait of the Horror Artist as a Young Man” 
“Raw Recruits”
“Representative Sample”
“You’re Welcome”
“Exit Laughing”

In his foreword, Will Ludwigsen tells us he writes “strange-stories-that-make-you-laugh-but-also-disquiet-you.” His short fiction arises from the twisted interface of humor and horror—sometimes disturbing, yes, and sometimes tasteless, but always memorable.

He leads off with “Anomie, a clever tale of one convenience clerk’s revenge against a homeless alcoholic patron. The way the clerk uses his academic knowledge to justify his revolting act reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, updated to the 21st Century, of course. “Anomie” scores high marks as a humorous and disquieting story, but the 2nd person POV was unnecessary. Mr. Ludwigsen, I really didn’t need to get inside this guy’s head.

“And Justice for Doll” is a pediatric courtroom drama told by the plaintiff’s grandfather, a retired judge. When eight-year-old attorney-wannabe, Jessica, finds Sun N’ Fun Barbie frozen in a block of ice (followed, in quick succession, by the discovery of several other gruesomely murdered inanimate playmates), she accuses her older brother Eric of the crime. The story’s a bit of a slow-starter, but the fun of the trial and the unexpected punchline more than make up for that minor defect.

What if the Loch Ness monster pitched up dead in your backyard? That’s the premise of “Nessmas,a less successful story. Marian and her husband, Ian, respect Nessie and want to do right by her, but Ian’s brother, Malcolm, sees the corpse as a moneymaking opportunity. In Ludwigsen’s endnotes (which are often as much fun as the stories themselves), he apologizes for knowing nothing about Scotland. But he must at least know that the currency in the UK is the pound, not the “buck.” Minor quibbles aside, this one goes on too long, and the characters never quite snap into focus. Ludwigsen tries too hard in the ending to achieve his desired level of disquietude.

Even more tedious is “Speaking Mouth Dog, a faux-scholarly treatise on a disabled individual who, thanks to technology, communicates to the world through meaningless poetry. Like the Peter Sellers character in Being There, people are free to assign whatever meaning they like to poet Broman Sumner’s work. Yes, it’s fun to see folks like Oprah Winfrey gush over meaningless verse, but I tired of the joke long before Ludwigsen. The story’s uneven tone, at times dry and scholarly, at times crude, rankled after a few pages.

In “The Trespasser, Ludwigsen adopts the tone of a 19th-Century writer, a surgeon who receives a partly decomposed cadaver for an autopsy. This is no ordinary cadaver, though; suffice it to say, the story will appeal to the X-Files fans in Ludwigsen’s audience. Although I had fun with “The Trespasser,” I especially enjoyed Ludwigsen’s comments in the endnotes:

Before finding its true home in Cemetery Dance, several editors criticized the story by saying, “Try to write in your natural voice.” Well, uh, that is my natural voice.

If you’ll excuse a moment’s editorializing, can you imagine worse advice to a writer? Where would fiction be if writers only wrote in their “natural voice”?

With “Billy, Ludwigsen again looks at childhood through his oddly warped vision. Janine’s father raises beefboxes: huge, brainless, and spineless creatures which live on pap, grow large, and go to slaughter without upsetting any animal rights activists—it’s not like they’re conscious, after all. But anyone who has witnessed a child’s attachment to a stuffed animal knows how little it takes to secure her love. “Billy” is Janine’s favorite beefbox, and she makes up her mind to save him from his intended fate. Her actions, while not believable (could a child her age really operate a forklift?) are certainly surprising and disturbing.

“Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby!” is this collection’s titular story. Ludwigsen calls it his “obligatory Lovecraft pastiche,” and in that I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.” Like Gaiman’s story, “Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby!” finds an ample source of comedy in Lovecraft’s mythos. Lovecraft’s earnestness (and humorlessness) make his work prime material for satire.

The story is a Broadway critic’s review of the new musical, Cthulhu Fhtagn, Baby!—penned by Abdul Alhazred, acted by the Innsmouth Players. Our unnamed critic pans the play (“The show isn’t simply bad; it is evil”) and provides plenty of details to help us draw our own conclusions. I suspect some of the jokes wrote themselves (such as the title of one song, “Don’t Cry For Me, Miskatonic”) but Ludwigsen has more than a few flashes of brilliance in this thoroughly enjoyable story.

“Soured” is another childhood horror story, this time about milk-hater Brandon’s brush with the creature which fortifies milk. None of the characters spring to life, and the story’s central twist proves more annoying than surprising. Good punchline, however.

Probably this collection’s best (and shortest) story, “Portrait of the Horror Artist as a Young Man,” gives a brief but intense glimpse of a very different father-son relationship. The father’s rant against his son’s disgruntled principal is riotous and satisfying. Yet he’s much more than a loving father defending his son; he’s also one scary son of a bitch. It’s easy to see why the young man becomes a horror artist.

Ludwigsen returns to his 19th-Century voice in “Raw Recruits, a story which describes a Union general’s attempts to enlist the souls of dead soldiers to spy on the rebels. His efforts fail, but in an unexpected manner. “Raw Recruits” hints at an afterlife different from anything any of us imagine; Ludwigsen wisely leaves the details to the reader’s imagination.

“Representative Sample” is pure fun. Why is Salvador Narcisse assembling a collection of shlock—everything from a Charles Manson folk song to 150 kg of tabloids? Oh, he has his reasons. But the answer to that question is only part of the fun; watching Narcisse manipulate his unwitting donors is a delight, too.

Long-suffering Neil can’t believe it when his college roommate adopts a retired police dog in “Bingo. Mac, Neil’s slacker roomie, wants the dog to track down marijuana. Mac’s plan fails, of course, and before long, Bingo gets them in trouble, then gets them out of trouble. It’s all a mite too predictable, so the ending, while satisfying, could have come sooner.

In the collection’s introduction, when Matthew Warner writes, “One man’s humor is another man’s offense,” I think he has “You’re Welcome” in mind. Necrophilia will surely turn off a percentage of one’s readers. In fairness, “You’re Welcome” has several nice touches, such as the narrator’s quirky moral qualms (necrophilia is okay, but with a child corpse? Pedophilia is so not his thing). Ludwigsen’s vision of what society would do with a horde of newly raised dead is disconcerting and, I suspect, probably accurate. If you don’t mind an unrepentantly necrophilic narrator, you’ll enjoy “You’re Welcome.”

“Solidity” is another superb short-short. The unnamed narrator (“you,” actually—in this story, the 2nd person POV works well) is a white collar office worker obsessed with the “chorus line of mumbling bums” he sees everyday on the street. Who are they yelling at? The question plagues him, dominates his imagination until he realizes he has to confront one of them to get answers. The ending is one of those corkers that turns the story 180, making the reader see the narrator in a whole different light. Strong work!

The collection closes with “Exit Laughing” (not counting Ludwigsen’s poem, “Grandpa, What Happens When We Die?”), a tale about a lawyer-turned-standup-comic who drives his audience away with painfully bad one-liners like, “If Soylent Green was people, did heavy smokers taste like beef jerky?” After the show, he tells the narrator how he got into business of humor. What follows is a straight horror shtick set in a Florida backwater. I liked the setup for this one, but the comic’s story was a little disappointing.

Overall, Ludwigsen’s collection is uneven, but there were enough deep belly-laughs and sparkles of brilliance here to make me look forward to his next work.

Publisher: Lethe Press (January, 2006)
Price: $8.00
Paperback: 148 pages
ISBN: 1590210522