Tom Piccirilli’s Nameless Necromancer: Pentacle and A Lower Deep

I did a post on a few books by Tom Piccirilli earlier this year, and despite ending that post saying I would avoid his horror fiction for a while, I recently read two more of his spookier books, Pentacle and A Lower Deep.

Pentacle

1995 – Pirate Writings Pub
This is a collection of 7 short stories about a wandering wizard and his familiar spirit, Self. Self is pretty much just a small, sassier version of the Necromancer that follows him around, licking him when he gets hurt and attacking the people who inflict his injuries.

The Necromancer and Self stay at an abandoned hotel, go to a blues concert, visit a mental asylum, an art gallery and a native reservation. They come across demons, ghosts and witches in all of these places, and they rarely make friends. A lot of hexes are thrown about.

Speaking of hexes, I found Piccirilli’s novel Hexes a bit challenging when I read it, but I think it might make more sense if I had read it after this one. While Pentacle is not a sequel or prequel to Hexes, it is set in the same universe. Some of it is set in the same town, and both books feature Panecraft Asylum. They’re both from relatively early in Piccirilli’s writing career, and it seems a bit like he was trying to establish his equivalent of Arkham. I haven’t read it, but another of Piccirilli’s stories is also set in Panecraft.

The writing is very dark, and it reminded me of Clive Barker with its focus of blood and pain. It’s a bit more occulty though. It references a lot of real occult texts and authorities, and a lot of these stories feature real figures from the history of witchcraft. Matthew Hopkins has somehow come back to run the insane asylum. There’s a recipe for disaster.

Overall, I enjoyed this more than the other horror stuff I’ve read by Piccirilli. The writing isn’t super clear, but the short story form makes it easier for me to get through a plot without knowing exactly what’s going on.

A Lower Deep

2001 – Leisure Books

A Lower Deep is basically a novel sized continuation of the stories in Pentacle. This time the Necromancer’s old friend tries to get him to resurrect Christ so they can bring about Armageddon and storm into heaven. (Yes. The protagonist remains unnamed here. Oooooooh, so edgy!) I hated this book so much that I find it hard to believe that I wrote the above paragraphs. I’ve wanted to write positively about Piccirilli’s books for years, but in truth, his horror novels are crap. This book is boring, contrived shite. If you don’t have an interest in the Bible, this will be very confusing. There’s lots of references to the Book of Revelation, the prophet Elijah and the nephilim. Yuck.

This is really a work of fantasy rather than horror. There’s lots of blood and occultism, but nothing scary happens, and I hated every page. Self, the protagonist’s familiar is supposed to add comic relief, but I found him horribly disruptive to the novel’s tone. A one point during the beginning of the apocalypse, he starts speaking with a Jamaican accent. Sigh…

The brevity of the stories in Pentacle is what made them bearable. A Lower Deep is a short novel, but it’s still far, far too long. Honestly, it’s terrible. Avoid it.

I am probably done with Piccirilli. I gave him more than a fair chance, but his horror novels just didn’t do it for me.

Tom Piccirilli’s Horror Novels: A Choir of Ill Children, Hexes and The Night Class

I read a few of Tom Piccirilli’s noir novellas (The Nobody, All You Despise, You’d Better Watch Out and Loss) and I absolutely loved them. These dark, nasty books were superbly written. Unfortunately, Piccirilli died a few years ago, and maybe I’m wrong about this, but it almost seems like he’s being forgotten already. His books are not forgettable, but there’s not a huge amount of discussion of his work online. His personal website has been down for a few years now too. Maybe there’s a hidden Piccirilli cult somewhere, and I haven’t been looking in the right places, but my point here is that I think that Piccirilli’s writing should be better known than it is. I loved his crime fiction, so I thought that I had better check out some of his horror too. I read 3 novels for this post.

A Choir of Ill Children

Bantam Spectra – 2006 (Originally published 2003)
This was quite good. It’s about a psychic weirdo who lives in a mansion in a small town with his conjoined triplet brothers and their partner. There’s a bunch of witches and other freaks living in their town too. It was quite literate for a horror novel. There’s narrative shifts and symbolism and lots of that kind of thing. Piccirilli seems to have been a writer’s writer. The inside cover is absolutely full of quotes from other horror authors saying how great this book is. Even Thomas Ligotti sings its praise. I had a very bad cold when I read it though, and it was heavier than what I needed at the time.

Hexes

Leisure Books – 1999
I like Piccirilli, and I sometimes enjoy occult horror, but this one didn’t really do it for me. A black magician returns to his hometown because his best friend has been locked up in a mental asylum for digging up a corpse and showing it to a kid. Lots of people are going missing, and everyone in town is scared. Demons show up, and things get worse and worse. It sounds like a good story, and parts of it were quite creepy, but it didn’t really work. Piccirilli doesn’t really go in for much exposition, and the reader is left with a lot to figure out for themselves. This is fine in a crime novel, but when goetia, telekinesis and a potentially unreliable narrator are involved, it gets quite confusing. Also, I felt a bit like some of the occultism parts were a bit gratuitous. There’s one scene in which the protagonist beats up the naked ghost of Aleister Crowley. I’m all for fiction about Aleister Crowley being abused, but aside from that ridiculous scene, this book is dark, slow-burning atmospheric horror. Again, this is clearly well written. Piccirilli is good at what he’s good at, but I felt that the plot here just didn’t come together as neatly as I had hoped.

The Night Class

Leisure Books – 2002 (Originally published 2001)
I wasn’t super impressed by either of the above novels, but I wanted to give Piccirilli another go. I chose this book because it won a Bram Stoker award for Best Novel in 2002, so I assumed it would be pretty good.

It starts off with a college student sitting through an uncomfortable philosophy lecture. I spent 4 years sitting through philosophy lectures, so I was immediately able to empathise. This kid gets pissed off by his lecturer, so he goes home. When he gets there, he answers his ringing telephone to be greeted by silence. We then find out that a girl was brutally murdered in his bed while he was on Christmas vacation.

Ok, at this point, I was very much enjoying the book. We’re set up for a murder-mystery. Unfortunately, Piccirilli throws in the following elements, for no discernible reason, and things getting very confusing.

  • Caleb suffers from stigmata.
  • Caleb’s older sister killed herself and Caleb is haunted by her ghost.
  • Caleb’s girlfriend comes from an incest family, and her nephews and nieces are hydrocephalic.
  • There’s a mysterious love interest that goes nowhere and adds little to the story.
  • Nobody pays any attention to the bloodstains on Caleb’s bedroom wall.
  • Caleb’s friend Fruggy Fred is a hippy radio host who sleeps a lot. There are several brief allusions to this guy, but he never actually shows up, and Piccirilli doesn’t give the reader any reason to care about him. Unfortunately, he becomes an important character at the end.
  • The faculty of the unversity have sex with the students and kill them (and/or fail them) if they refuse. Are they demons or vampires or just jerks?

Honestly, I really wanted to like this one, but it was a mess. Maybe I’m really stupid and didn’t understand it.

Of the three novels I read, A Choir of Ill Children was the best. It was a good novel, but can’t honestly say I enjoyed it a whole bunch. I far prefer Piccirilli’s writing when it’s concrete and clear. I don’t need my horror to be tidy and entirely cohesive, but the tropes that he uses in these novels (inbred freaks, demons, stigmata…) don’t mix well with the literary, existential horror he’s pushing. These books were more confusing than scary. I’ll very likely read more Piccirilli in the future, but I might stick to his crime stuff for a while.