OR: Lovecraft Unbound

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #18:-

LOVECRAFT UNBOUND

Edited by Ellen Datlow

(Dark Horse Books paperback, 421pp, $19.95)

Following in the footsteps of her award winning Poe, this latest anthology from distinguished editor Ellen Datlow is inspired by the work of another horror genre luminary, celebrating Lovecraft’s fiction with stories whose debt to him is obvious but that also aspire to move on the dialogue he began.

There are slight echoes of The Thing in the opening story, Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud’s ‘The Crevasse’, with a polar expedition stumbling across what appears to be a cyclopean retreat in the ice. The bleak landscape, the isolation of the characters, with tensions running high, and the sense of the numinous are all portrayed perfectly in this subtle story, where hallucination seems every bit as frightening as the reality hinted at. ‘The Office of Doom’ by Richard Bowes has its tongue set firmly in its cheek, as a librarian sets out to rectify a mistake once made in requesting a copy of The Necronomicon. The story is deliciously deadpan, with an underlying appreciation of the essential silliness of it all, and yet by the end the feeling that something truly sinister may have taken place is seated in the reader’s psyche. A longer and more serious work, ‘Sincerely, Petrified’ by Anna Tambour sees a psychologist and a geologist joining forces to preserve a petrified forest from rock hounds by creating the legend of a curse, only things go very wrong for them. Beautifully characterised, with some snappy writing, it’s a story that shows how our reality is shaped by expectation, and asks questions about what may or may not be permitted in the name of a good cause. Not as successful, Brian Evenson’s ‘The Din of Celestial Birds’ has a man transformed by a stay in a strange enclosure on a mountain where he is haunted by the birds of the title, but to me the story was too diffuse and disjointed to entirely succeed, with the atmosphere not really gathering the power one might expect or hope for.

Set in Germany, Amanda Downum’s ‘The Tenderness of Jackals’ has a ghoul driven to murder by disembodied entities, but resisting the impulse. It’s a powerful story, rich in atmosphere and wrapped in a sleazy stew of sexual deviancy that reeks of decadence, with the idea of the ghoul brought to affecting life on the page. ‘Sight Unseen’ by Joel Lane has a young man going to deal with the affairs of his estranged and now deceased father, and finding in the man’s personal effects hints of Lovecraftian cosmology. Overshadowing everything here is the sense of urban blight, the sadness and solitude that it evokes, with the real thrust of the story having to do with a son coming to know his father. In ‘Cold Water Survival’ by Holly Phillips a group of ‘explorers’ have made camp on an iceberg heading south, but they find evidence of something hidden in the depths of the ice and now awakened. Like ‘The Crevasse’ it’s a story that revels in the bleak wastes and the claustrophobic paranoia of men and woman pitched into each other’s company with no hope of getting away. What happens is lit with ambiguity, as easily explained as snow blindness or similar as by an actual alien incursion of some kind. There’s a lighter touch to the delightfully titled ‘Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love’ by William Browning Spencer, whose protagonist falls in love with a strange girl, the member of a family with weird beliefs. It’s an artfully constructed piece, with the character of the lover beautifully realised and the casual hints dropped of something outré taking place, all leading up to the final reveal and a subtle, understated end note.

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ‘Houses Under the Sea’ is a story that put me in mind of TV series Surface, as the protagonist looks back on her love affair with the evocatively named Jacova Angevine, who ended as the leader of a suicide cult, after the discovery of something monstrous under the sea. So many strands of modern life merge and overlap in this obliquely written piece, with strong hints of something terrible going on in the background that play counterpoint to the emotional turmoil in the foreground. ‘Machines of Concrete, Light and Dark’ by Michael Cisco is even more oblique, an enigmatically phrased encounter between a man and his old lover, with a sacrificial denouement. It’s well written, but I didn’t quite get a grip on what was going on, with the suggestion of strangeness for its own sake rather than to forward the plot. Marc Laidlaw’s ‘Leng’ has an explorer and fungi expert setting out to discover what happened to two missing colleagues and falling foul of a fruiting body that transforms. The story is well paced and vividly written, a fusion of Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ with pharmacological fantasies touching on a different life form and methods of perception. The protagonist of Michael Chabon’s ‘In the Black Mill’ discovers the secret of the eponymous building, and the female dominated cult that rules it. The story is bleakly atmospheric, the decaying town unsettlingly realised on the page, each step in the plot unfolding carefully, and the power of suggestion used to telling effect.

Lavie Tidhar’s ‘One Day, Soon’ deals with the theme of ‘forbidden’ knowledge, with a sinister book that hints at arcane truth, but unlike the dread Necronomicon all that this volume contains are lists of names and numbers. The story is one of shortest in the collection, but punching above its weight with an insidious suggestiveness and Holocaust echoes woven into the text, so that we realise human evil can outdo that of the Elder Gods any day of the week and twice on the Sabbath. ‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates is a slow burn tale of sacrifices made in academia, the build up deft and assured, with Oates’ measured, one might almost say dogmatic, prose style a delight to read, and the final shocks coming completely out of left field. Imagine John Barth writing The Wicker Man. Simon Kurt Unsworth’s ‘Vernon, Driving’ operates at a more personal level, with the protagonist cast adrift by the loss of his lover to a Lovecraftian writer whose work he abhors, the story a catalogue of wrongs until the final reveal, which hits like a punch to the gut. In ‘The Recruiter’ by Michael Shea a down on his luck man is coerced by the lure of money into helping an eldritch entity, but at the end of the story he determines to choose life. The story works well in its description of how it feels to be at the bottom, with nowhere to go but up, and how the weak of society are the most vulnerable, with some nice touches in the out of body experience at the story’s heart.

Told in the form of extracts from a TV interview with an East European priest, Gemma Files’ ‘Marya Nox’ reveals how the old gods lived on by assuming the identities of their replacements, a superbly creepy story made all the more so by the matter of fact narration. It’s a traditional piece, but using the tropes of the genre well, and ending with an unsettling note of ambiguity. ‘Mongoose’ by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear combines Cthulhu with Carroll in a rip roaring tale of the fight against an other-dimensional infestation on a space station. One of the highlights of the anthology, this has larger than life characters, not all of them human, plenty of action and lovely touches of detail, such as the naming of space stations after Lovecraftian titles. There’s a strong feeling that what transpires doesn’t take place in a vacuum, the suggestion of a whole, wide universe out there into which this small part slots neatly without losing anything. ‘Catch Hell’ by Laird Barron is a series of effects that build an atmosphere and sense of expectation, as a couple intent on making a baby stay at a luxury estate with an ancient statue hidden in the grounds. The juxtaposition of an abusive relationship with chthonic entities works very well in a story that has more than a few echoes of Rosemary’s Baby about it. Nick Mamatas ends the anthology with ‘That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable’, a story in which Cthulhu and his progeny already rule the Earth and humans hide in the hills. Three of them try to make sense of things, but are too addled with drugs and prophecy to accomplish much. Then the shoggoths come, and the story has one of the best last lines I’ve seen in ages, demonstrating perfectly the unimportance and futile nature of humankind in the greater scheme of things.

Never less than entertaining, these stories taken together demonstrate that there is a lot more to Lovecraft than monstrous things with tentacles, febrile and inbred cultists, and writers working late at night on terrible revelations that…

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