Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #46:-
CRAWLING DOWN THE YEARS
There is a very simple premise behind editor Darrell Schweitzer’s latest anthology THAT IS NOT DEAD (PS Publishing jhc, 240pp, £25), the idea that Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and the rest of that hellish brood whose advent was chronicled by H. P. Lovecraft have been active throughout human history, and here recorded within these pages are some of the events in which they featured.
We begin in ancient Egypt with ‘Herald of Chaos’ by Keith Taylor, in which the Crawling Chaos that is Nyarlathotep travels the land and creates discord but is outwitted by the archpriest Kamose in a story that entertains and presents a credible picture of the ancient Egyptian deities, but at the same time it somewhat undermines Nyarlathotep by giving that entity a character that strips away the mystique and leaves him as just another bad guy. More rewarding is Esther Friesner’s tongue in cheek tale of temple prostitution in Mesopotamia, ‘What a Girl Needs’, in which the aptly named Shagshag, who is judged too ugly to secure a suitor, becomes the bride of Cthulhu. It’s predictable enough, but thanks to authorial lightness of touch a pleasure to read, with our heroine winning against all the odds and not judging her mate by the same standards as the world applied to her, Friesner getting in some great one liners along the way. A young Roman soldier spoiling for a fight hears the story of ‘The Horn of the World’s Ending’, but has too much attitude to take its lessons to heart. This piece finds John Langan in a sombre mode, grabbing the attention right from the start, giving us local colour and plenty of action, both human and monstrous, making it one of the most entertaining in the anthology.
Set in Central Asia in the second century, ‘Monsters in the Mountains at the Edge of the World’ by Jay Lake recounts something akin to first contact between the empires of Rome and China, the two joining forces to fight against a supernatural menace. Told from the perspective of the Chinese commander, a man who is something of a bureaucrat and slightly pedantic, a fusspot who manages to rise to the occasion, while offering a passage of arms it also provides a fascinating portrait of culture clash and a world that was more cosmopolitan than we often give it credit for. In ‘Come, Follow Me’ by editor Schweitzer we move to the time of the Crusades, with a warrior monk encountering an ageless entity and learning of how humans are used by such beings and the falseness of all our religions. Underlying the story is a soul crushing nihilism that personifies the archetypal quality of Azathoth and renders all hope null.
Don Webb’s ‘Ophiuchus’ has Elizabethan mystic Dr Dee hired by a Lemuel Whateley to translate The Necronomicon, but neither he nor his daughter can resist experimenting with the knowledge the book contains. Eminently readable, with twists and turns aplenty, vivid dialogue and splendidly realised characters, it is one of the best stories in the anthology. And underlying it all is something that could be taken for a feminist subtext. The seventeenth century is the setting for ‘Of Queens and Pawns’ by Lois H. Gresh, a subtle tale of intrigue in the Russian royal family and a curse that holds them in its grip and denies the longed for heir to the throne. His hunger to convert an Aztec is the doom of a priest in eighteenth century Mexico in ‘Smoking Mirror’ by Will Murray, with an older evil at play in a story that didn’t particularly grip or convince me, seemed just like a going through the motions.
S. T. Joshi’s ‘Incident at Ferney’ has Voltaire investigating a murder with the help of his friend Diderot and encountering Nyarlathotep. Again it’s a story in which the mystique of that being is undermined by a curious kind of anthropomorphism, but pleasing for the games which it plays with history and philosophy, and with an end twist that will only be fully appreciated by the modern reader. ‘Anno Domini Azathoth’ by John R. Fultz tells the true story of a massacre at a Spanish mission in the New World, the story certainly eventful but with little that feels fresh on offer, just a tale of savage cultists doing the stuff that such people do and with the good Indians pulling everyone’s irons out of the fire at the very last moment. Don Webb features again with ‘Slowness’ in which is revealed the terrible fate of reanimator Herbert West, how his creatures turned against him, and features an encounter with the undead Cagliostro, telling how the latter manages to survive in his newfound state. A clever and subtle piece, it manages to keep the reader off balance, hinting at the negativity implicit in an immortal state while ultimately delivering a vision of hope.
‘The Salamanca Encounter’ by Richard A. Lupoff has a female student defending her thesis against a university President who can’t see beyond her gender, but that thesis takes in the Old Ones and races that existed before mankind. It’s a fascinating exercise and told in a mildly sardonic tone of voice that solicits our interest and sympathy for the feisty heroine, but good as all this undoubtedly is, the final revelations seem to render it all null except as a rather convenient infodump. In ‘Old Time Entombed’ by W. H. Pugmire a sorceress raises an ancient being so that it can avenge the murder of her father, the story beautifully written and with a rich vein of weirdness running through it.
Finally we have Harry Turtledove’s ‘Nine Drowned Churches’ which brings us to the present day, with a rock musician finding a link between Dunwich in New England with its Whateley family and the Dunwich that sunk beneath the waves off the east coast of England. It’s a story that seems to be all hints and suggestion, with no real explanation for why Alistair is acting as he does and a vision of Cthulhu that reduces him to the level of a character on a Saturday morning cartoon show, but for all that it is well written, deftly melding history and mythology, and with a strong sense of place. Not the best end for the anthology, but that I guess was just down to the carbon dating.
There’s a similar chronological slant to WHISPERS IN THE DARK (Snowbooks pb, 352pp, £8.99) edited by Scott Harrison. The book consists of three “Cthulhu Novellas” according to the front cover, and each of them is set in a different time period.
Leading off is Thana Niveau with ‘Not to Touch the Earth’, which is set in 1960s’ California, with Bettie and Will heading off to San Francisco to dodge the draft. They become part of the hippie scene, experiment with drugs, protest the Vietnam War, and generally just chill out, to celebrate all of which and draw a line under the past, Bettie takes on the new name of Alice. But there are dark clouds gathering, not just the crack down on protesters, but something else, something to which Alice is intimately connected, at least if the dire and oblique comments of a fortune teller are to be believed. Something is coming through, something large and with tentacles. It’s a bravura performance, one that gives us a pitch perfect evocation of the 60s, a time when the prospects for the future seemed so bright and anything could happen. Niveau is superb at recreating this milieu and drawing us in through her young, innocent and well-intentioned characters. For all of which there’s an element of “and then the monster popped out” at the end, the contrast between the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the coming of Cthulhu not quite as hard edged as I might have liked. The story feels like the opening chapter of a much longer work, and not the thing itself. And, while Cthulhu might be referenced on the cover, the monster at the end could just as easily have been a kraken or a leviathan or any old sea beast really. The Cthulhu element doesn’t feel essential, and in a book like this that’s something I feel is wrong. But, regardless, what we get is an excellent creature feature, one that has far more to offer than just the big and squamous fall guy.
The action of ‘The Gamekeeper’ by Johnny Mains veers between 1946 and 1970. It’s the story of Roger Casement. As a child in 1946 he is out in the wilds with his gamekeeper father when the latter is killed, and Roger goes missing for eight months with no memory of what happened to him when finally he is found. There is a strange mark on his back that arouses the interest of an occultist, with dire consequences. In 1970, now a gamekeeper and father himself, though acting with the best of intentions, Roger makes a terrible mistake, the subsequent turmoil tearing his life apart. In the end he returns to the haunts of his childhood, which is when all the chickens come home to roost. Though it’s not as smoothly written as the other two stories, is on occasion rather rough round the edges, this was the most intriguing of the three tales on offer, the most ambitious. Mains is excellent at portraying country life and the role of the gamekeeper, while his depiction of family life, and especially the relationship between father and son, is beautifully rendered. At the heart of the story is the dichotomy of a boy who sees his father die, and a man who kills someone else, and in dealing with these things, the psychological fall out of such events, Mains is again very good, though I could wish that he had explored the implications more, made this the focus of the story, instead of the outré elements which seem almost a side issue at times. There’s a lot to this aspect of the plot and it’s all intriguing – the mystery of Roger’s disappearance and the mark on his back, the creatures in the cave, the interest of the Satanist and the strange powers Roger appears to have developed, the final scenes of apocalypse unleashed – but at the same time I didn’t quite get the feel of something bigger than the sum of its parts. The story reads like a fabrication of oblique suggestions and portentous questions, and there is no sense that the writer himself knows the answers to these various riddles. While the minimalist aspects of the story shine brightly, have a heartfelt quality to them, for much of the rest of the narrative it feels like Mains is winging it rather than working to some preconceived plan. As with the Niveau, Cthulhu doesn’t feel like an essential part of the package, and at the end it could really be any old apocalypse rather than a return of the Great Old Ones or their kith and kin.
Alison Littlewood’s ‘One Nameless Thing’ opens on an idyllic note, with a couple in the Maldives for a much deserved holiday, but soon there are signs that not all is well – shadowy things seen in the ocean, news of an earthquake nearby, people behaving strangely, on the television scenes of rioting and violence with no explanation. Something bad is coming and as the story continues the idyllic setting unravels with bodies popping up and the social ties falling apart, until we have the final confrontation with Cthulhu himself. And yes, though the C-word isn’t used, this time around there seems little doubt as to the identity of the avatar of the end of days. While the ultimate horror takes places on a cosmic scale, the build-up is disturbingly claustrophobic, an accumulation of little details and quirks of character, as previously sane and sensible people give in to the worst aspects of their nature, with gruesome visions of violence and bloodshed. The ending though is comparatively calm, something akin to acceptance that the world has changed and we must all change with it, adapt or die. It’s a strong end to an interesting and rewarding trilogy of novellas.