Recommendation: “Sarcophagus” by Philip Hemplow

In the Shadow of Chernobyl, Dr. Victoria Cox is told, “a little vodka keeps away the radiation.” Don’t look for blood and gore or fast-paced thrills here, but rather a steady doling-out of Slavic mythology. Soviet history, and nuclear folklore. Even a Japanese cult gets a fleeting mention, among other name drops, and together they move slowly but inexorably, like crawling chaos, toward a divine and terrifying experience.

Sarcophagus probably won’t suck you in from the very first sentence (few stories do, in my experience), but its opening paragraphs still set a fantastic mood which is maintained until the very last sentence.

Hemplow’s dialogue is, how can I put it any other way, human. You can practically feel the characters breathing through the pages, even when they appear for just a couple of pages. His writing style is also thorough, but nevertheless clean, simple, and unadorned, with only a few typos.

Most of the plot runs tightly, with not a single scene wasted. There are some points which I found to be predictable, but I can’t help but feel that, like a magician’s gun, their purpose was to misdirect me from what else was happening. I thought that I had the ending squared away, and then it crept out from a darkened corner and drove a knife into my back. If, like me, every new story is another chance to out-wit and predict the author, then I advise that you tread carefully.

The last few paragraphs of this story nailed it, and make this story pure gold. They are, while perfectly Lovecraftian, also inexplicably beautiful, and the very ending which this story and its world demanded. In the previous version of this review, written more than five years, I compared Hemplow to Ligotti. Now, with a new blog, a new review format, and half a decade of additional reading and writing under my belt, I want to revise that: I don’t want to make a sweeping statement about either author, but this story by Hemplow is better than any Ligotti story that I know.

(For what it’s worth, you can also read my review of Ligotti’s nonfiction work The Conspiracy against the Human Race here, on my other blog)

I despise Amazon and give as few links to it as possible, but you can also find Sarcophagus at Smashwords, among other places. There is also an audio version available at Audible. I don’t care for the narrator, but there’s a six-minute sample so you can check it out yourself.

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