Blog Tour (Extract & Book Review): A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell (Or, An Account of Catastrophe by Stoudemire McCloud, Demon) – Luke Tarzian

Hello!

Attempt two at this as the train wifi and wordpress ate the first one. Today I am delighted to be joining the Escapists Tours blog tour for A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell by Luke Tarzian. This was my book of the year for 2022. I was honoured to be a beta reader and arc reader for this book, and I have read it countless times since. I ADORE this book, so I am glad to be able to shout about it again. Below you will find an extract to whet your appetite, as well as my review, with a few new comments in (brackets) as I’ve revisited the book this week.

There is also currently a chance to win a copy of this fantastic book for yourself over on my twitter (this is not linked to the blog tour)

Please do check out the rest of the posts from tour.

Book Summary:

BRIEFLY, 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.

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 (the first circle is a cornfield of snow)?

Behold the Morning Star, frantic on the annual Morning of Souls, the arrival of Damnation’s newest recruits (we only hand-pick the best)!

Someone has misplaced the kettle.

CHAPTER ONE, IN WHICH WE DISCUSS THE IMPORTANCE OF TEA

“It is not just tea, Stoudemire.”

“Actually, it is,” I said, adjusting my spectacles. “By definition, things are what they are. Water is water. Demons are demons. Ergo, tea is—”

“Essential!” Lucifer massaged the spot between his eyes. A migraine was close. “Look—yes, tea is just tea in the very sense of the word. But on the Morning of Souls—”

“‘Tea is the flame with which we thaw the cold uncertainty of death.’ I know. It was the very first thing I was told when I arrived however many millennia ago. It’s also on every one of your holiday cards.”

“Lest people forget,” said Lucifer. His arms were crossed to his chest as was common. His wings, numerous threads of brilliance streaming from his back, flapped and hissed of their own accord. Blessed be the one who incurred his wrath today; Lucifer was toeing the threshold of rage.

I sighed and adjusted my spectacles again. “Look, where was the last place you saw it, the kettle?”

“Atop the stove. Preemptive placement—”

“‘Is paramount to the perfect pour as stove and kettle must consent to the birth of sacred sip by means of acquaintance on the  Morning’s Eve,’ I know. For the record, might we reconsider a revision? It all seems a bit…wordy. Jumbled.”

“No, we may not,” said Lucifer. “Simplification is the death of tradition—I shall not forsake tea as God forsook me. That would truly be a sin.”

I rolled my eyes, withholding a snort. At the very least, being secretary to the Lord of Hell was never dull. A bit flamboyant and exaggerated, sure, but never boring.

“Right. Back to the matter at hand—the kettle was last seen atop the stove. Might we return to the kitchen to look for clues?”

“Do you intend to dust for fingerprints?” the Morning Star inquired.

I narrowed my eyes. I had wanted to be a crime scene investigator prior to joining the legions of Hell; I had utterly failed.

“I shall pretend your inquiry was not in jest,” I said, “and will attribute your tone to the obvious withdrawal.” (A story for later.)

Lucifer was silent.

“Right,” I said. “To the kitchen.” (Pronounced kit-SEE-hen, because we apparently ignore common conventions in Hell.)

CHAPTER TWO, IN WHICH OUR STORY FAILS TO PROGRESS (OR, A SEMI-ORAL HISTORY OF THE KITCHEN)

If, dear reader, you at the very least happened to skim the previous chapter then you’d have noticed the Morning Star and myself referenced the kitchen. Hell by definition is an absurdity, so it should hopefully not come as a shock that the kitchen—henceforward known as The Kitchen—is more than its name would imply.

But Stoudemire, you said that tea was—

I am well aware of what I said, thank you kindly. But not everything in existence is literal—and that includes The Kitchen.

So now we have to listen to you ramble about —

Educate, dear reader. I am going to educate you. While what I say here in no way, shape, or form will propel our story forward, it should hopefully provide context for the madness ahead (and curse me, there was a lot).

The Kitchen of Hell (if memory serves me well, and it usually does, I believe the good people of a New York repurposed that name with far my sinister connotation in line) is, for all intents and purposes, the nexus of our little land below. A mixing pot, if you would, an fluctuating amalgamation of ethereal dreamscapes the mind can scarcely comprehend.

There’s also a lot of food. (What—did you think a place called The Kitchen would be bereft of sustenance? I digress…)

The focal point of The Kitchen, though, is a plume of scalding steam. (Not flames; none of that fire and brimstone nonsense peddled by Heaven. We people of Hell are a civilized lot.) The only one of its kind, it boils the water for Lucifer’s tea and is aptly called The Stove.

(…I promise that one obeys proper conventions.)

CHAPTER THREE, IN WHICH WE DISCOVER A CLUE (OR, AN EXTENDED MANIFESTATION OF WITHDRAWAL)

Hell is a peculiar place, an absurdity as I’ve previously said. While there are day and night in the simplest of terms, these fluctuations in the emittance of celestial luminescence are more deeply tied to the Morning Star’s health. Ergo, the happier Lucifer is, the longer the days and vice versa.

As we sojourned to The Kitchen I watched sunlight wax and wane, observed the desecration and rebirth of myriad constellations. Beautiful from a distance yes, but to anyone privy to the fact these celestial happenings were indicative of worlds destroyed—horrifying.

We stopped beneath a purple willow tree and Lucifer took a seat against its trunk. His typically golden hair had lost its luster and his eyes were circled black. I sat on a rock a couple feet away, notebook open, pen in hand.

“What are you feeling?” I inquired. Secretary to the Morning Star was a deceptive simplification of my duties as also functioned as his therapist. My word, the stories I could tell (but shall refrain from doing so because doctor-patient confidentiality stills my tongue)…

#

LUCIFER heaved a sigh. He’d been doing that more often as of late, the missing kettle not withstanding. Everything seemed so much more…constricting, and the absence of a good hot cup of tea on The Morning Souls served only to exacerbate that feeling. Being the Lord of Hell was not easy, especially when you’d demons of your own.

“Deflated,” he murmured, his voice somewhere between wet gravel and day-old coffee. “Aimless.”

Stoudemire scribbled into his pad. “Why?”

Lucifer raised his eyes, gently arching his right eyebrow. “It’s always the same, Stoudy. Do I really need to elaborate?”

Stoudemire peeked over his spectacles, lips drawn to a line. “It matters. It always matters. There are deviations whether you can see them or not. Continue, please.”

Lucifer took a shallow breath but it did little to easy the tightening of his chest. It was difficult to drown one’s angels when they knew how to swim, and this one had been gnawing at him for millennia despite his best efforts.

“I still dream about the Fall.”

#

I SIGHED. I’d a feeling he was going to say that. Cast aside for differing views, barred from home because he’d dared to dream of something more than a life tormenting humans with the burden of myriad mental chains and woe.

“Paradise my wingless ass,” he sighed. Over the centuries, over our many sessions, Earth and Heaven had become synonymous with one another. Rather, they had become synonymous with the concept of Paradise in so far as they were both ruled by miserable people keen on spreading misery to all (at least, this was what I’d gleaned from our many conversations as well as my own few decades ‘mongst humanity).

“Do you know the worst part of it, Stoudy? A part of me, larger than I’d like, still longs to return to those golden fields. Despite  everything, a piece of my heart yet remains with my blood-kin in Heaven.”

I furrowed my brow, offering what I could only hope was a sympathetic smile. “I think maybe it’s that way for many of us, hmm?  I see this with the adopted. It’s not exactly the same but I think it’s the tug of the What-If.  The life that might have been. In no way is it a slight  toward the family one came to be a part of—just…curiosity and a tiny pang of loneliness.  Does that make sense?”

Lucifer took a moment before nodding.

I adjusted my spectacles—again—and held my pen at the ready, ballpoint hovering atop my notepad like a hammer ready to strike an anvil.

“Tell me about the particulars. I mentioned things deviate almost imperceptibly—what, exactly, is nagging at you?”

He frowned, pursing his lips.

“I remember a pot of tea…”

#

If, dear reader, you are wondering about this particular pot of tea, you will be dismayed to learn we stood and withdrew from the shade of the willow tree before Lucifer divulged anything more.

As I waited with baited breath, his eyes drifted, falling upon a feather. I’d noticed it earlier and thought nothing of it. However, the longer it held the Morning Star’s gaze, the more fixated on it I became. At first glance it was little more than a large white feather. Upon closer inspection however, I took notice of the fluctuations in color, of the fact the feather was not so much a feather per se but rather formed of myriad tiny leafs of parchment.

“Oh dear,” I murmured, and I could surmise from Lucifer’s glare we had come to the same realization.

Heaven had kidnapped 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. (Multiple times now !!)

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.

(I very much stand by what I said here, especially as a recent throwaway comment has had me revisiting a loss – of years – and I found myself picking up this book again, because of that conenction, because in the fiction and the absurbity, it was okay to feel that. To have it both crystalised and given a distance, allowed to resonate through a story that isn’t mine or yours, or anyone’s but the author’s – but could be. There will be points where we are all searching for that teapot).

‘“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.

(I also think that it broadens the target audience for this book, and might pull readers who lean more towards the non-fiction into the fantastical and vice-versa, because it is easy to see the links between the two and how A Cup of Tea at the Mouth came into being. Tarzian does a fantastic job in these essays in expressing something that is both deeply personal, but making it accessible, and again creating something that can resonate beyond the individual. )

*

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.

(Definately have tissues on hand, I believe this book is thus far holding true to it’s track record of being a tearjerker – it certainly has for me, and that’s with multiple rereads – which I think speaks to both the rereadability of this book. Afterall, beyond the fantastical elements (which are brilliant) and the absurdism (which appeals even to a reader such as me who would usually shy away from such things), this book – small as it is – deals with a part of humanity and life that is as old as time. Grief. Dark moments. They can occur for anyone and everyone, at anytime, and yes they will be different. And I think A Cup of Tea at the Mouth of Hell mirrors that, and you will find yourself resonating with different parts of it at different times. It certainly has for me.)

Luke Tarzian was born in Bucharest, Romania. His parents made the extremely poor choice of adopting him less than six months into his life. As such, he’s resided primarily in the United States and currently lives in California with his wife and their twin daughters. Somehow, they tolerate him.

Unfortunately, he can also be found online and, to the dismay of his clients, also functions as a cover artist for independent authors.

Social Media:

Website | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads


Purchase Links:

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Signed Books

**

If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.

Rowena

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