Today I am delighted to be reviewing an arc of A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell: (Or, an Account of Catastrophe by Stoudemire McCloud, Demon) by Luke Tarzian. I have been so excited for this one ever since it was first talked about, and yet I was still unprepared for just how powerful this short book would be or how much I would love it, and is often the case in those situations I don’t feel as though I’ve done it justice here in the review. All I can say is that it is fantastic (and devastating, there were tears), and you need to pre-order this book!
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, and I also had the honour of being a beta reader for this one, however all thoughts are my own.
BRIELY, A WORD ABOUT ORDER
Order is the focal point around which existence revolves. Without order there is only chaos. And in the halls of Damnation (pronounced Dam-NAWT-ion, thank you kindly) the first sign of impending chaos is a cup of tea made without the water having first been well and properly boiled in a kettle.
Why is this relevant, o nameless narrator? you ask. Who cares about the preparatory order of tea in the fires of Hell?
Lucifer, dear reader. After all, how does one expect to properly greet the newcomers to Hell without having first had a hot cup of tea to bulwark the cold?
Behold The Morning Star, frantic on the annual Morning of Souls, the arrival of Damnation’s newest recruits.
Someone has misplaced the kettle.
I will admit I was a little trepidatious before reading this one. On the one hand, Tarzian is an absolute must-read author for me, and probably one of my most re-read authors nowadays, and I know without a doubt that the writing will sweep me up into the weird and profound and everything else I have come to associate with his work. My concern – if it can even be called that is that I wasn’t sure how I would do with absurdism as it is something that I generally struggle with and is a subgenre of fantasy I tend to avoid.
I needn’t have been worried.
Yes, there are those elements, but A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell is so much more – A delicate blend of profound and weird, whimsy and reality, grief and humour and truth and metaphor.
This book was a joy to read for so many reasons, not least because it allowed me to feast on one of my favourite author’s writing again. It was also devastating. An emotional gut punch that I was both expecting, and yet still utterly unprepared for, and A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell has officially joined the short list of books that have brought me to actual tears.
Tarzian’s prose has always been one of my favourite aspects of his books, especially the balance between raw emotion and poetry, and that remains true here. There is a little less description than in previous books, and not just because of the shorter length of this work. A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell is written and feels very much like a story being told to us, an oral recollection of multiple threads, and it is very true to that style that the description is a little more dialled back; and what it does mean is that the description and imagery that Tarzian does give us, is more potent because of that. It also does an exceptional job of creating an otherworldly setting, and a vision of hell that is utterly unique (and I still laugh at the pronunciations…and the endnotes. Yes, there are endnotes and they are glorious).
‘He unfurled them, six brilliant lengths of inscribed parchment tipped with scarlet plumes. His body was of the same configuration, myriad sheafs of parchment tattooed with divinity, each glyph unique in its purpose.’
What I also loved, however, intentional or unintentional it was, is that you can see the influence of the Adjacent Monsters and Shadow Twins in this book. Or maybe that should be vice versa. This is a separate work, yet the imagery, the writing, and the knife-edge precision with which the author wields words and emotions make this an utterly Tarzian book.
‘Trauma was not a memory; it was a reaction to a memory.’
It is that emotional knife. The weight of sheer humanity, for all that we are following Lucifer’s search for his teapot…and so much more, that sets this book apart. And makes it so devastating. Tarzian has always trodden that boundary between dark fantasy and psychological fantasy, and in many ways, A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell feels like it has crystalised those aspects.
‘… misery is ever-shifting; it subtly decays the mind, rewrites memories like a virus in a lullaby.”’
Perhaps, it is the juxtaposition of the fantastical with the weight of the real-world recollections, or that the absurdism casts a light on the reality of the emotions. Or maybe it is that the emotions explored in this book – predominantly, but not solely Grief – will resonate with everyone. Not in the same way. These are not emotions that can ever be experienced in the same way by different individuals, but the core understanding can be shared; and I think that is why it works so well here, the absurdism allowing each person to find their own sense in the madness.
‘“Fiction,” says the silhouette. “It’s all real, just to varying degrees.”
I love this line, and the more I have thought about it, the more I feel it reflects Tarzian’s books and writing across all his books, but especially here, where reality is enshrouded in metaphor and surrealism. It is fiction, and yet at the same time it’s not, it’s more and less, and how far it leans to either side is one of the many aspects that I think will differ from reader to reader.
A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell is a pulsing, bleeding heart that you cradle in your hands. It’s such a raw, personal story, and intimate for all the whimsy and wonder of the fantastical elements, and yet, it never feels as though you are invading. It feels as though you have been invited in to sit down for that cup of tea, and it is a tale, and a sharing of emotions that will resonate, and reflect differently in each reader that sits down to enjoy it – and each visit will be different.
I read this book multiple times while beta reading, and again while working on this review, and each time I have found a different point has hit home. This re-readability has always been a hallmark of Tarzian’s writing for me, and this book continues that tradition. Not, only that, but I think that it is an essential part of what this book is, because the emotions it delves into and exposes in their rawest forms, are not those that are a one-time experience, they can lie dormant, they can soften to a murmur, but they are ones that will return or that will need to be revisited, and it is entirely fitting therefore that this book has taken on that aspect too.
A brief interlude…
The second part of this book is not fantasy, although the influence and connections can still be seen. Instead, this section titled ‘Thoughts on Grief and Mental Health’ has several non-fiction essays on the topic, some I had read previously, and others were new to me. Each was important and powerful, and when paired with the story of A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell, even more so. They are all incredibly personal and fitting for this book, and the story – and more importantly the emotions that were shared, and I feel as though they add another level to this book, especially when you look back after reading them. It’s a little like seeing the curtain pulled back in the Emerald City, to see the wizard as they really are – and there again you have that humanity shining through and raising this book to new heights.
A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell (Or, an Account of Catastrophe by Stoudemire McCloud, Demon) as one must give it its proper name at the end, was an incredibly difficult book to review (hence the rambling), partly because as with many of Tarzian’s books there is so much of it that must be experienced and felt by the individual. Perhaps it is heightened here because of the sheer emotional rawness it shares with the reader. It’s a book that will have you soul searching alongside Lucifer, it will have you looking at your dreams, yourself, and your demons, and make you feel. This is a small book that packs one hell of a punch, and it’s a book that examines and talks about so much that we often keep buried, that we try to hide from even to our detriment. It’s an incredibly important book, that’s so personal and yet so encompassing at the same time. A stunning addition to Tarzian’s body of work, one that is simultaneously both lighter and more whimsical, and yet in some ways just as dark.
I cannot recommend it highly enough, just maybe have some tissues on hand.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.