RogerBW's Blog

The Book of Cthulhu, Ross E. Lockhart 20 November 2020

2011 fantasy/horror anthology, consisting of stories inspired by Lovecraft.

What I look for first in Lovecraftiana is: does the writer get it? Do they realise the difference between horror and cosmic horror? A horror monster will eat you because it's hungry, or transform you into a copy of itself in order to breed; a cosmic horror monster does that by accident, probably not even noticing or caring that you exist. Some of Lovecraft descends from cosmicity into mere horror; and some of his imitators do the same.

"Andromeda Among the Stones" by Caitlín R. Kiernan is lyrical, but to my mind suffers from shifting the narrative out of order; as so often this is a crutch for the Big Revelation not really being as exciting as it should be.

"The Tugging" by Ramsey Campbell is very 1970s-England, with that dim and dingy feel; it's the 40-watt incandescent bulb as an aesthetic of life. I didn't feel any sympathy with the protagonist, but I found I didn't really mind.

"A Colder War" by Charles Stross is for my money his best interaction with the Cthulhu Mythos, in part because he didn't feel any need to keep the world intact. (And he got to use Project PLUTO.)

"The Unthinkable" by Bruce Sterling alas doesn't live up to its name. Two old warriors talk about the world with mythos-derived weapons in it, and this may have inspired A Colder War but it's much less interesting.

"Flash Frame" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is grotty sexuality in Mexico City, but the feel is excellent even if the resolution is too easy.

"Some Buried Memory" by W. H. Pugmire is wallowing in grotesquerie, but seems too careful and deliberate about its inclusions of decay and ugliness.

"The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" by Molly Tanzer is gothic treachery with a Lovecraftian flavour, and great fun. I understand she's written more about these people, all of which are collected in A Pretty Mouth, and that's now on my reading queue.

"Fat Face" by Michael Shea is rather too self-consciously grubby, but it does seem to be the origin of the "Shoggoth Lord" idea, and I can see influence from this in Beyond the Mountains of Madness and At Your Door.

"Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear pictures a world where the shoggoth is known only as a kind of sea organism. And the World War is coming… not much in the way of horror here but a very fine sensibility.

"Black Man with a Horn" by T.E.D. Klein is almost splendid, but tries a little too hard and then wimps out on having a decent resolution. Good for the way various innocent things combine to make horror, but didn't come together for me.

"Then Curse the Darkness" [sic here, though the original title has "Than"] by David Drake combines the horrors of the Belgian Congo with the horrors of the Mythos. But does anyone ever consider that maybe if they tortured and slaughtered the natives a little less the natives might be less prone to desperate world-destroying magic? Drake clearly knows this, but none of his characters can work it out.

"Jeroboam Henley's Debt" by Charles R. Saunders is much more interested in magical familial revenge than in examining the mechanisms by which it happened. Barely Mythos, apart from some names.

"Nethescurial" by Thomas Ligotti is a decent description of someone disintegrating under memetic assault, but my goodness Ligotti is in love with the sound of his own voice.

"Calamari Curls" by Kage Baker has a new seafood restaurant opening in a decaying town on the California coast… but an aggressively nasty viewpoint character removes all sympathy before it can develop.

"Jihad over Innsmouth" by Edward Morris follows an assassin (well, an Assassin) as he flies to kill the Reverend Waite of Innsmouth. Not brilliant, but good solid stuff.

"Bad Sushi" by Cherie Priest has a sushi chef with flashbacks to his time as a soldier for Imperial Japan, but doesn't quite do anything with that, and ends in bathos.

"The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" by John Hornor Jacobs is rather too obviously "women want to Steal Your Essence".

"The Doom that Came to Innsmouth" by Brian McNaughton:

After he died and I sorted out his disastrous affairs, I was left with a second-hand record shop in one of Seattle's more blighted areas, which I hung onto because I thought it would be a good way to find girls. I hadn't realized that it's mostly guys who buy old records. Correction: mostly guys who shoplift them.

Starts off splendidly, but has a mid-story twist that quite put me out of enthusiasm with it.

"Lost Stars" by Ann K. Schwader produces a superbly horrific atmosphere, and I'd love to read more… except for the change of pace right at the end which feels as though it's reaching too hard for conventional horror motifs.

"The Oram County Whoosit" by Steve Duffy has a reporter and a photographer coming to see the latest weird thing the rurals claim to have discovered in the coal mine. But the reporter at least has some idea of what it might be. Rather good.

"The Crawling Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale has ghastly people in the Wild West trying to fight a monster in oddly mundane ways. Interesting and competently written, but doesn't sing.

"The Fairground Horror" by Brian Lumley suddenly makes you realise how crude most of the writing here has been. Splendidly atmospheric, good plot, and characterisation too.

"Cinderlands" by Tim Pratt veers too far into the conventional imagery and tropes to work well as a tale of cosmic horror.

"Lord of the Land" by Gene Wolfe becomes suddenly conventional, with a collector of folk takes getting a really solid one… but there's more to it than that. Wolfe writes unusually straightforwardly given my previous experience of him (The Book of the New Sun), and it works well.

"To Live and Die in Arkham" by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. gives us the seamy side of the college town, and murder for hire. Like several stories here it's very deliberate in its tawdriness.

"The Shallows" by John Langan has a lovely atmosphere and setting, but wanders off into a secondary narrative that itself doesn't go anywhere. Why is Ransom keeping a giant crab as a pet? Eh, says Langan, look at the imagery.

"The Men from Porlock" by Laird Barron is perhaps too keen on blood-and-guts fighting, but gets the cosmicity absolutely right.

A higher hit rate than many anthologies.

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  1. Posted by David Pulver at 09:09pm on 21 November 2020

    I read this some years ago. The two that stuck in my mind were "A Colder War" which was brilliant and "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" which was an enjoyable read.

    A weakness (to my taste) of a lot of Lovecraftian work is that to some degree, good cosmic horror (if that's what you're going for) often requires more of an SF sensibility. Many authors from a horror background go for building atmosphere in the mundane world (much as Lovecraft built up Arkham country) but they often fail to go the extra distance and show enough of the cosmic horror element itself to give it that semi-plausible SF twist that Lovecraft could pull off in mid to late period works like Mountains of Madness or Dreams in the Witch House.

    Stross also does this very well, showing just enough to convince; other authors may be dripping in atmosphere, but their horror/dark fantasy sensibilities often lead to them fading to black at the last few minutes.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:46pm on 21 November 2020

    The canonical example for me is At the Mountains of Madness. You can read it as a horror story, and it's OK. Or you can read it as an SF story, and it's rather more powerful.

    In general I'm not a horror fan (or rather the things I like about horror when I do enjoy it aren't the horror-y things) and I tend to read Lovecraft as SF, which I think gives me a skewed but useful perspective when it comes to applying the ideas to games.

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