‘The Vermillion Book of the Macabre’: Dark Fantasy vs. the Eldritch

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Published February 9, 2021
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The Montclarion
Joe Pawlowski sent me his short story collection, "The Vermillion Book of the Macabre." Casey Masterson | The Montclarion

I had “The Vermillion Book of the Macabre” sent to me at the Montclarion office by author, Joe Pawlowski. It was an incredible honor, needless to say and I was excited to review the book. Pawlowski provides an interesting read, although it is hardly what I expected.

“The Vermillion Book of the Macabre” was published on March 31, 2020. Pawlowski, from what I can tell, is a self-published author and has three other novels. This book is his only short story collection, with 16 stories written in it.

It would be redundant for me to go over every short story, along with what I thought of all of them in a quick succession here. You would get bored reading this and I would get bored writing it. Therefore, I will speak of the book as a whole and highlight certain stories when I feel fit to do so.

The short story collections I have previously read do not usually have interconnected stories. This was something that caught me pleasantly off guard in “The Vermillion Book of the Macabre.” The short stories have shared characters and mostly take place in a town called Hastur.

We are never given a time period for these stories, but my guess is that it takes place during medieval times. Something that bothers me about any period piece is when the dialogue does not match. For example, if you have a story in medieval times, I would avoid bringing up things such as dates (like brought up in “Monster Man.”)

I will give Pawlowski the credit of trying, with words such as “aye” or “ye,” but these small changes were not enough to immerse me into the time period.

With this being said, Pawlowski creates a nice little world throughout these stories. It is my understanding that this world was further elaborated on in his novels, but I do not think they are required to read. I would have liked a map, to know where other towns were in relation to Hastur, but this is nitpicky.

Pawlowski even signed the book for me! Casey Masterson | The Montclarion

Pawlowski even signed the book for me!
Casey Masterson | The Montclarion

I could have done without the inclusion of chapters from his other novels in a short story collection. Even though this world may inhabit a shared universe to his other works, I do not think it should actually involve other stories. Novels are novels for a reason; they give the writer far more space to expound their world. Not doing this leaves the opportunity for two problems:

1. “His Greatest Battle” was confusing to me. It is not impossible to understand, nor is it badly written. However, I would have been more invested in the battle if I understood who the people on either side were and why they were fighting. This is an exposition that is likely to be found in his book. This could have been left out of the collection.

2. “Little” has the exact opposite problem. It is all exposition. This is also pulled from a book. I do not know if this is a beginning chapter, or if Pawlowski felt the need to fill in some blanks, but this was at least 60% exposition. I want a story, not explanations leading up to a story.

The other short stories were balanced in their world building. You may need other stories in the collection to build your understanding, but not other texts.

“The Vermillion Book of the Macabre” is marketed as “dark fantasy horror” on Amazon. Dark fantasy is a far more fitting label than horror for this collection.

Do I think the book has some dark moments? Yes. I would not quite call it scary though. The scariest story I can recall is “The Craftsman,” due to its gore, but that is it.

“The Vermillion Book of the Macabre” attempts to cement itself in eldritch horror, but misses the mark. Pawlowski captures the otherworldly aspect expected of fantasy, but does not go so far as to make the reader fear it.

Pawlowski has his own pantheon of pagan-like gods, such as Nebo and Osric. He occasionally mentions Dagon, who I believe is different from H.P. Lovecraft’s character of the same name, as this Dagon is mentioned to be a priestess of some sort.

Then Pawlowski mentioned the Great Old Ones. You need to earn your eldritch god call outs. They are not just some nebulous beings you can mention when you feel it will get a rise from your reader. The Great Old Ones should be invoked only when used for what they are: endless, all-powerful, existential beings.

They are mentioned in “Weaselbeek” briefly as Justinian calls to his lost lover. The Great Old Ones do not care for our individual strife and they would not appear with the opening of the underworld. They could care less about our human desires as we are nothing but the bacteria on the sidewalk we step over on our way to get coffee.

We are insignificant to them. To suggest otherwise implies a lack of understanding.

With that being said, I do enjoy the pagan pantheon that Pawlowski set up. If there could be more of that, rather than false incantations to the Great Old Ones, I would be happier.

With all of the negative criticism being said, there are two stories that stood out to me: “A Likeness of the Divine” and “The Mask of the Impostor.”

“A Likeness of the Divine” is reminiscent of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” A woman is gifted a painting by her husband, which urges her to commit crimes. I wish I could pinpoint what it was about this genre that I like. Perhaps it is the switch from Dorian’s evil actions being reflected in his self-portrait? Who can say.

“The Mask of the Impostor” is the best story in this collection because it deals with something so relatable. Do you ever accomplish something, but then go “If only I had done xyz, then it would have been perfect?” This short story is that sensation.

As a person who suffers excessively from impostor syndrome, I found this read refreshing. Even the best of us feel like impostors sometimes.

This book was good, overall. I would give it a 5.5/10.

Mr. Pawlowski, if you do read this, do not take my critiques to heart. I had a fun time reading this collection and I am forever grateful to you for wanting to hear my opinion. I cannot wait to read the next one.

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