Review: Invocations of the Submortal by William Jeffrey Rankin
Invocations of the Submortal is a small-town horror novella blending weird fiction, adventure, and suspense. This first installment of the Samuel Thomas Birch series reveals a world of both horror and hope.
Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed Invocations of the Submortal. I encourage you to check it out!
Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)
This review contains minor spoilers.
Invocations of the Submortal Publisher Description:
The brutal murders of John and Harriet Minster shocked the sleepy town of Middlesbrough, Ohio.
The prime suspect, their son Charlie, was found next to their battered bodies, the murder weapon in hand. But Charlie’s best friend, Sam Birch, doesn’t believe for a moment he’s guilty of the crimes, and is determined to clear his name. At the asylum, he finds Charlie in a manic state, babbling incoherently of pursuit by a nightmarish entity.
Sam realizes something all too real is at work in their town, one connected to his own experiences as a child. It all started with the strange, old book he found in his grandfather’s attic. With it, he had pierced the veil of another dimension, and drawn the attention of that which abides within.
Plagued with visions ever since, Sam vows to put a stop to the threat, not only for the sake of his own safety and sanity, but for that of the town as well.
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Invocations of the Submortal tells a spooky tale that straddles the line between ghost story and weird horror. The flavor was not unlike that of the Netflix show Stranger Things: a small-town setting, a destructive and decaying “other,” and close friends working to solve the mystery at the heart of it.
Rankin skillfully delivers both the adventure and suspense, in addition to the creepy chills. Each encounter escalated the action, complicated the situation, and demanded more from the heroes in a satisfying and believable way.
Unusual to a weird tale was the element of a magic system. Not the mad rituals of cultists or the hurriedly researched countermeasures of a few Miskatonic professors, but a fully established method to cast spells. This is intriguingly done, combining the use of grimoires, seals or runes, and physical movement. The result is a cryptic, yet beautiful, defense against the evil Samuel faces.
I found the main character Samuel very likable. He consistently displays courage, responsibility, and talent. He also is not above accepting help, and he keeps his friend Emmy in the loop instead of hiding things from her from some (nearly always narratively misguided) sense that it will protect her.
I appreciated that Emmy, for her part, did not have to be convinced or persuaded of the reality of the threat. She takes what Sam tells her at face value, even becoming slightly affronted when he suggests that she must believe him “now” that she witnessed it herself.
Obviously, in a novella, such an easy acceptance saves both time and space better devoted elsewhere. However, it also has an impact on the reader’s understanding of Emmy’s character. While a denial of supernatural horrors might seem like a realistic or logical reaction, it is also a reaction against the messenger. By believing Sam unreservedly, Emmy displays that she possesses mutual trust with him and will be a reliable ally.
Late 19th Century Setting
The historic setting for this story is an interesting choice. The favored setting for weird fiction, popularized by Lovecraft, is not for another few decades. At the end of the 1800s, the world had already changed a great deal and was poised to continue changing rapidly. There is a sense that the rural Ohio town already has one foot in a different, modern world.
There is a sense of quiet focus that a more modern setting would lack. The eerie quiet of the landscape and haunted house emphasizes the disquiet the evil has brought to that place. Furthermore, when the silence is broken, it feels that much more of a violation.
The setting also invites some tropes of the epistolary novel to make an appearance. While the narrative itself is told in a more traditional format, letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles make an appearance to craft a story very much connected to a specific time and place.
Invocations of the Submortal has a happy conclusion and an uplifting theme: that which has been corrupted can be redeemed.
Sam’s experience as a child, which had such disastrous consequences, arose from a guileless interest in a book of intriguing symbols and the innocent desire to play with and manipulate them. When the story concludes with the defeat of the enemy, Sam keeps his grandfather’s old book, which has lost the “feeling” of foreboding and in its place, he experiences hope and a sense of adventure.
The same holds true of the old house. Sam and Emmy visit it afterwards, in the daylight, and find that the unsettled feelings they had there before are gone. The sense of something wrong has passed. Where before it was not a safe place for grown men to spend the night, now children play there on a dare.
The defeat of evil corresponds with a redemption of the things and places corrupted by it, allowing the excitement of youthful exploration to return.
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Invocations of the Submortal is a haunting tale with suspense and adventure, crafting a tale of weird horror that concludes with the hope of redemption. I’m eager to see where the Samuel Thomas Birch series takes me next!
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