De-bigoting Lovecraft

Reimagining Lovecraft: Four Tor.com Novellas: (The Ballad of Black Tom, The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe, Hammers on Bone, Agents of Dreamland) by [Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan]

Title: Reimagining Lovecraft
Four Tor.com Novellas
Authors: Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 342
Rating: 4 of 5

I enjoy stories that incorporate H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, but some of Lovecraft’s stories can be cringe-inducing for the wrong reasons. The man was virulently xenophobic, racist, etc. (I would say well beyond the “product of his era” racism/sexism that you would expect in many older authors), and his prejudices made their way into much of what he wrote.

The Four novels in this collection skillfully riff on Lovecraft’s mythos while avoiding (or even subverting) his bigotry. A general knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos will make these more interesting, but isn’t strictly necessary. Here is a quick mini-review for each one:

The Ballad of Black Tom: (4.5 out of 5)
This story follows a young hustler from Harlem who gets involved in the events described in Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook. Having a relatively sympathetic black protagonist showing us “what really happened” turns a lot of the story’s racism and xenophobia on its head. This is the only straight-up retelling in this collection, and a knowledge of the Lovecraft original definitely gives it some extra punch.

The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe: (3.5 out of 5)
I find Lovecraft’s “dreamland” stories to be his least interesting (preferring his alien god-monsters), so this novella set in the world of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath wasn’t my favorite. That said, it was clever to reverse the story by featuring a resident of dreamland on a quest to the waking world rather than the other way around. At times the author seems to be more interested in making a point (“patriarchy & theism bad”) than telling a story, but overall this tale of a middle-aged woman on a reverse dream quest was a more interesting than the original.

Hammers on Bone: (4.5 out of 5)
This novella fuses hardboiled detective fiction with the Cthulhu mythos and places it in a more-or-less modern setting. The author doesn’t follow any particular Lovecraft story, but rather pulls elements from all over the mythos. It’s really weird (and gross), but it definitely works.

Agents of Dreamland: (4 out of 5)
This first installment in the aptly named Tinfoil Dossier combines Area 51/tinfoil hat/black helicopters style conspiracy theories with Lovecraftian horror (especially The Whisperer in Darkness). It’s trippy, disturbing, and pretty open-ended. It was a bit more profanity-laced than I usually like to read, but another well-thought out reimagining of the mythos.

Dogged Detection

Title: The Giant Collection of the Continental Op
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hardboiled Detective Fiction
Pages: 769
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I have a weakness for hardboiled detective stories from the 1920’s-50’s, and Dashiell Hammett’s nameless Operative of the Continental Detective Agency is the character that got me hooked. He’s not as well knows as Hammett’s womanizing Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon or pleasantly inebriated Nick Charles of The Thin Man, but I prefer the tubby little tough guy to either of them. Because he is based on Hammett’s own time as a Pinkerton operative, he’s a bit more believable, and his appearance in 20+ stories and two novels allows for some character development (even if it’s driven largely by meeting expectations of three or four different editors over his career) .

There’s nothing fancy about the Continental Op. He stubbornly plows through the evidence, stepping on toes and poking at suspects to see what happens (usually something violent). Over the years he becomes increasingly cynical and violent, getting the job done even if it isn’t tied up in a nice neat bow.

As with any pulp fiction, you have to be willing to look past some product-of-its-era prejudices, but it’s not as bad as most. The Op’s thoroughly unromantic nature eliminates most of the rapey (or otherwise troubling) womanizing that you see in some older pulp (though unfortunate racial caricatures persist in some stories).

Also, as with any pulp fiction, you probably don’t want to read through all of these too close together or they start sounding too much the same. Hammett is better than the average hardboiled writer (Raymond Chandler is probably the only one in the same league), but there’s only so much you can do with characters and plot when you write for Black Mask. This particular book provides a nice chronologically arranged collection of all the Continental Op short stories: perfect to pick up and read a story or two when you need some escapism.

Two from the TBR

I just knocked two more books off my TBR Pile Challenge list. Both were a bit on the”pulp” side, and each is part of longer loosely-connected series.

Title: The Roads Between the Worlds
(Eternal Champion Series, Volume 6)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 391
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume in the Eternal Champion series does not  feature any of the better-known iterations of the Champion (e.g. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon). In fact, other than the concept of the multiverse and preachy idealizing of anarchic government, most of the plot elements that pop up in Eternal Champion stories are absent or receive only the subtlest of nods.

The three novellas that make up the volume are on the more sci-fi side of Moorcock’s writing and largely involve political maneuvering and/or revolution on alternate versions of the earth. As is usual with Moorcock, the plots are an odd blend of pulp sci-fi and preachiness. If you’re really into the Eternal Champion series, this is probably worth reading, but for casual readers something featuring Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon would be a more entertaining introduction to Moorcock’s style.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) by [Gardner, Erle Stanley]Title: The Case of the Velvet Claws
(Perry Mason, Book 1)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Genre: Mystery/Crime Fiction
Pages: 193
Rating: 3 of 5

My past exposure to Perry Mason was the older, fatter, gentler version in the later TV shows; this book features the hard-boiled original. Perry Mason’s code of ethics dictates that he works for the interest of his client regardless of how nasty (or even guilty) they might be, and this client is as dishonest and manipulative as they come. The plot twists and turns through a pretty middle-of-the-road pulp mystery. There’s none of the snappy snark that you get from authors like Raymond Chandler, but it’s a decent tough-guy detective/lawyer story.