Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows by Brian Hauser
Memento Mori: The Fathomless Shadows (2019) is horror writer Brian Hauser’s debut novel. The story follows three women: Tina Mori and A.C. Waite, avant-garde filmmakers in the 1970s, and Billie Jacobs, a teenage zine-publisher, in what is probably the late nineties or early oughts. The book plays with the macabre, the mysterious, The King in Yellow and the blasted shores of the city of lost Carcosa.
Memento Mori’s structure is a series of nested stories presented in the form of various manuscripts. Hauser chooses to use what I’m going to call The Colbert Maneuver, after Stephen Colbert (even though many writers have done it); introducing a character named “Brian R. Hauser” into the first page of the book. The character Hauser is a journalist and horror writer who stumbled across early issues of the zine Final Grrl, created by Billie Jacobs. Delighted and intrigued by the issue he finds, Hauser sets out to uncover more, only to discover that Issue Five is the last one, and Billie has vanished. After he visits her family home and gets permission from her mother to see her room, Hauser finds Issue Six, a manuscript written by someone else, and a letter.
We get to see parts of Final Grrl, in which Billie shares her first experience of horror. As a young child, in a fit of rebellion, she stays up after her parents go to bed, and watches TV. On a cable access channel, she sees a woman cut the throat of a male talk show host. That isn’t what gives her nightmares, though; the screen changes to a scene of a man in tattered wrappings, pale in color, against a night sky that is in negative so that the stars are black. Her screaming awakens her parents. The murder scene, she is told years later, was a stunt perpetrated by the infamous Super-8 filmmaker Tina Mori, who vanished in the 1980s. As the zine continues, Billie tells us she has a copy of the book The King in Yellow. Billie is a fan of Mori’s work and has risked a failing grade by writing a report about her for her high school history class. Shortly before she disappears, a man wearing a mask shows Billie a snippet of a Mori film.
C.C. Waite picks up the narrative via a memoir. Through Waite’s eyes as a college student in the 1970s, we see the emergence of Tina Mori, musician, artist, scam artist and budding filmmaker. Waite, her roommate, becomes her production assistant, location scout, minion, model and actor. Tina’s short Super-8 films catch the eye of the weird crowd, and also of a creepy and enigmatic benefactor, Dr. Holly. Waite, always at Mori’s side, doesn’t understand what is happening for a long time, but even she knows that images show up in Mori’s films that weren’t there when they were shot. And sometimes, people affiliated with one of her short pieces die afterward, usually in a gruesome manner.
Carcosa and The King in Yellow are elements throughout Mori’s work.
Author Hauser creates a suitably strange, bleak and eerie tone for all of Waite’s story. The prose immerses you like a dark tide of very cold water, sinking you in another reality before you quite realize it. Settings are powerful and haunting, whether it’s the park and graveyard Mori and Waite walk through on the way to meet the mysterious Dr. Holly or the rabbit-warren apartment house they visit in New York City on an errand for the doctor. All the morbid details are present, and the creeping sense of dread mounts. In contrast to the dark strangeness of Mori’s journey, the story gives us a mentor for Waite as well, a mystical botanist/gardener Lu, whose roof garden of lotus glows like an emerald against the blackness of the city night, equally strange but different. I wish Lu had spent more time in the story simply because she was a puzzle and I liked her. It’s not her story, though. It’s Mori’s.
In the early 1980s, Mori has disappeared. Waite has written her memoir, but the final document in the packet that “Hauser” finds is a letter to Waite, from Mori herself. Mori fills in the blanks and solves many, but not all, of the mysteries both Waite and Billie Jacobs witness. The culmination of those mysteries will usher in a new aeon for humanity.
You must read the Foreword and the Afterword of this book because “Hauser” is still telling the story, even after we’ve finished Mori’s letter. Memento Mori ends on a note of suitable foreboding, leaving us with unnerving, unanswered questions.
Hauser not only captured a textured sense of strangeness during the 1970s period, he made it feel Lovecraftian without reading like a pastiche or an outright copy. Drug use, sexual experimentation and artistic experimentation do not distract from the eeriness; they enhance it. In this sense the book pays homage to the original Robert Chambers’ weird “King in Yellow” stories, without taking us out of the 70s.
I had no expectations of Memento Mori, and, looking back, I can’t pinpoint exactly when the story pulled me in completely. I suspect it was fairly early, though, probably when Billie sees the murder and the king. I didn’t want to read this book at night, but I didn’t want to put it down either. There is gore, but this book will work best for fans of weird, psychological horror rather than those who prefer slasher-style chills. For us, it sucks you in and holds you captive until the end.