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Lovecraft's Monsters

Lovecraft's Monsters - John  Langan, Ellen Datlow, Fred Chappell, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Howard Waldrop, Karl Edward Wagner, Thomas Ligotti, Steve Rasnic Tem, Elizabeth Bear, Gemma Files, Steven Utley, William Browning Spencer, Nick Mamatas, Nadia Bulkin, Jo ‘Lovecraft‘s Monsters’ is a big anthology and this much gloom is probably best taken in small doses unless you‘re from Innsmouth. The very famous Neil Gaiman opens the billing but I’m heading up the review with ‘Remnants’, a short story by Fred Chappell. Fred Chappell! I mean no disrespect to the other great talents on display here but for me, a Fred Chappell story is a thing of glory. He writes beautifully, perhaps even more beautifully than Peter S. Beagle. He is a poet and has a poet’s ear for language and the rhythm of a sentence. I was mad for his ‘Shadow’ stories in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science-Fiction’ and intrigued to know what he would do with Lovecraft’s monsters. He doesn’t disappoint.

In the near future, Lovecraft’s Old Ones have invaded Earth, destroying most of the population with contemptuous ease, reshaping the Moon and setting about building monstrous machines for unknown cosmic purposes of their own. Remnants of humanity, small groups, hide out here and there. Vern, his mother and his autistic sister, Echo, scrape a bare living as hunter-gatherers in a wilderness area. Then Echo gets a telepathic message from somewhere but making sense of it with her limitations is difficult. She thinks in pictures, not words.

The best thing in this was the language used by the aliens, other remnants discarded by the Old Ones, who have picked up English from the libraries of relic human spaceships and don’t quite have it right. The first person narration by the alien captain, which alternates with a third person one from Vern, shows a masterful twisting of the lingo. You know what he means but he doesn’t say it how we would. Chappell is also proficient as describing the disorientating effect of the Old Ones’ machines on human senses. It’s a 45-page tale that deserves to be read in one sitting, as recommended by Poe. Wonderful.

‘That of Which We Speak When We Speak Of The Unspeakable’ by Nick Mamatas could be a prequel to Fred Chappell’s ‘Remnants’. Two men and a woman wait in a cave as the Elder Gods take over our Earth. China is already gone. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that if Cthulhu showed up today we would nuke the bastard. Well, they tried that and it just made him glow. (Men and horses sweat, women and Cthulhu glow.) The conversation of the doomed is interesting, them being an odd trio.

Speaking of Neil Gaiman, his contribution is ‘Only The End Of The World Again’, set in Innsmouth, as are a few in this book. It seems to be a favourite venue for Lovecraft homages. Lawrence Talbot is an Adjustor and a werewolf who is trying to prevent the end of the world. The fishy folk of Innsmouth are determined to bring it on, Elder Gods swallowing the Moon and that type of thing. Gaiman writes beautifully and the atmosphere of dark menace is nicely undercut with a bit of wry humour from the protagonist.

Quite similar in style is ‘The Bleeding Shadow’ by Joe R. Lansdale, another good piece with a pervading atmosphere of menace and dark deeds that Lovecraft would have liked. Lansdale is much better at snappy dialogue and smart similes than the old master and, as with so many stories from the man who gave us ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’, there’s a strong sense of place – Texas! Both these tales could have been written by H.P. Chandler or Raymond Lovecraft. Not as far out an idea as it seems because Chandler would have preferred to write fantasy stories but thought they wouldn’t make a ’thin worn dime.’

The purest homage to Lovecraft, with not a taint of any other author detectable, is delivered by Thomas Ligotti. The first person narrator of ‘The Sect Of The Idiot’ won’t give his name or the name of the old town in which he sits in a high room looking through diamond-paned windows at its seemingly unending strangeness. Solitary, he enters into fantastic states of mind and has dreams that may be more than dreams. This is the most Lovecraftian piece in prose, tone and mood in the book and could have been written by the old master himself as part of his dream cycle. A masterpiece of homage and quite different from the other stories herein.

In ‘The Same Deep Waters As You’, Kerry Larimer, an animal whisperer, is recruited by Homeland Security and taken to a remote island prison. There are sixty-three prisoners who have been held there since 1928, a fact unknown to most of the last fifteen presidents, she is told, because ‘There are security levels above the office of President. Politicians come and go. Career military and intelligence, we stick around.’ That certainly has the ring of truth. Larimer’s task is to communicate with the prisoners, a fishy bunch who like it damp. This is one of the best stories in the book thanks to Brian Hodge’s clear writing and a good plot with a great ending.

‘The Dappled Thing’ by William Browning Spencer has a team of adventurers searching the African jungles for Lord Addison’s missing daughter in Her Glory of Empire, a spherical kind of steampunk tank with tentacles. The author pastiches Victorian prose beautifully and the Lovecraftian theme comes in near the end. I was a bit dubious about this at first but liked it a lot by the time the last page was reached.

A similar Victorian style adventure is ‘Black As The Pit, From Pole To Pole’ by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley, a long story about Frankenstein’s monster journeying to the centre of the Earth. It opens with information about John Cleves Symmes and his hollow Earth theories and is interspersed with paragraphs about Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein. So its metafiction, playing with the fact that we know this is a story. Usually, this kind of thing is not to my liking and, in the beginning, I thought it was a bit boring. By the end, I was fond of the piece. It’s well written and, as far as I can tell, the authors have a good knowledge of the background material. I read ‘Frankenstein’ once because a friend told me it was impossible. It wasn’t easy, but neither is Lovecraft.

‘Bulldozer’ by Laird Barron is about a Pinkerton man on the trail of a bad guy called Hicks who was a circus strongman. I would like to quote a whole chapter: ‘Chapter 19. Maggots.’ ’Bulldozer’ is not quite ruined by having twenty-six chapters in twenty-eight pages because it’s a good yarn. To be fair, short stories are the place for stylistic experiments but this one didn’t really work for me. On the other hand, what’s good for an author might work for a reviewer, too.

The following brief paragraphs cover the shorter stories in Lovecraft’s Monsters.

‘I’ve Come To Talk With You Again’ by Karl Edward Wagner features a horror writer meeting some fans in an English pub. All is not what it seems.

‘Red Goat, Black Goat’ is that rare thing, a horror story about goats. Aided by the exotic setting, Nadia Bulkin manages to make it scary.

‘Inelastic Collisions’ by Elizabeth Bear is about creatures from a different plane trapped in human form. Bear writes stylishly but often leaves me puzzled, as here. I don’t know what actually happened at the end but getting there was okay, I guess.

‘A Quarter To Three’ by Kim Newman is just one scene really, about a young man working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour diner in Innsmouth when a heavily pregnant woman comes in. No real surprises but an excellent sense of atmosphere, lively writing (It’s H.P. Chandler again) and a jukebox that’s almost a character in itself. Very good.

‘Love Is Forbidden, We Croak And Howl’ by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an amusing tale about a ghoul who falls for one of the fishy daughters of Innsmouth. Not quite ‘Romeo And Juliet’ but the narrator admits that. Nice descriptions of the daily life of monsters and enjoyable dark humour.

‘Waiting At The Crossroads Motel’ by Steve Rasnic Tem has Walker doing what it says in the title. His wife and two kids are waiting with him but he doesn’t have the usual feelings about them. In fact, he’s a very unusual man. An air of real menace makes this uncomfortable reading, which is the point, I guess.

‘Jar Of Salts’ And ‘Haruspicy’ are poems by Gemma Files that are successfully Lovecraftian in mood.

The last tale in the book is a novelette, ‘Children Of The Fang’ by John Langan about Rachel and Josh and their family. Grandad lives on the top floor of the house and keeps something locked in a freezer in the basement. Rachel and Josh find tape recordings of Grandad telling their Uncle Jim, now vanished, about a lost cave city in the deserts of the Middle East with strange writings on the walls. This has all the classic ingredients of pulp horror fiction (The thing in the basement! The lost city!) so a brief description makes it sound like corny old rubbish. It certainly is not. The family saga is rich with realistic details and there’s a neat twist at the end. A fitting conclusion to a quality collection.

Eamonn Murphy
This review first appeared at https://www.sfcrowsnest.info/