A Condescending Whodunnit

Title: I Am Providence
Author:
Nick Mamatas
Genre: Mystery (with a touch of Cosmic Horror)
Pages: 256
Rating: 2.5 of 5

A Lovecraftian, nihilistic worldview underlies much of the narration, in this book, but this is no Lovecraft pastiche. It is primarily a murder mystery set at a Comic Con style gathering of Lovecraftian writers and fans. The book as a whole lampoons fandom in general and Lovecraftians in particular. I recognized characters who were clearly S. T. Joshi and Robert M. Price and if I were more into this particular fandom I’m sure I would have gotten other in-jokes. While the satirical portrayal of rabid fandom was fairly amusing at times, it felt just plain mean spirited and condescending for the most part. With very few exceptions, the convention-goers (and Lovecraft fans in general) are portrayed as creepy white male social outcasts who spout racism, sexism, and/or some other form of prejudice…apparently if you like Lovecraft’s fiction you’re likely to be as horrible of a person as he was.

The story is narrated from two points of view: the first-person lingering/disintegrating  consciousness of the murder victim (probably the creepiest/cleverest part of the book), and a third person account which follows a first time convention-goer who is a female author (one of only three at the convention) and proud vegan (which has next to nothing to do with the plot but is mentioned repeatedly and self-righteously). Both characters reminded me unpleasantly of Holden Caulfield in the foul-mouthed, derogatory way that they talked/thought about practically everyone else; an impression heightened by the dead guy having written a mashup called Catcher in R’lyeh. The mystery itself was okay with the resolution striking exactly the right note for a Lovecraftian book. Overall, everyone in the book was so unpleasant that this just wasn’t a very enjoyable read.

Race-obsessed Horror

The Horror Stories of Robert E. HowardTitle: The Horror Stories of Robert E Howard
Author: Robert E. Howard
Genre: Pulp Horror/Weird
Pages: 560
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a major contributor to the development of the Swords & Sorcery sub-genre. This book collects a number of his creepier short stories, most of which were originally published in Weird Tales and show the influence of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft. Calling most of them “horror stories” may be a bit of a stretch – they’re more like action/adventure stories with a creepy, Lovecraftian element.

The usual Robert E. Howard theme of “barbarian purity vs. civilized decadence” figures heavily in many of the stories, but even more of them revolve around his racial stereotypes. Most of the stories prominently feature one or more of these characterizations: Aryans/white people who are heroic, courageous, and intelligent but out of touch with the supernatural; Semitic/Arabic people who are greedy, decadent, and cruel; “Swarthy” southern Europeans who are adept at dishonest political maneuvering; Africans/black people who are cowardly, devious, and uneducated but in touch with genuine supernatural power; and a de-evolved “mongoloid race” who serve as recurring villains.

There’s no doubt that the man could write captivating escapist fantasy, but I found the pervasive racial stereotyping (and occasional racial slurs) fairly off-putting. If you want to get a feel for Robert E. Howard, this is a good place to start since it samples a wide variety of settings and characters (but no Conan stories). Also, as with any pulp author, don’t read too many of his stories in a row or they all start sounding the same.

Less Lovecraftian than I hoped

Title: Lovecraft Country
Author: Matt Ruff
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

This is one of those books that has a great central concept and a disappointing execution. The highly episodic story stars a number of black people living in the era of segregation, sundown towns, and Jim Crow. The author uses the fear, danger, and paranoia of their daily lives as the backdrop for the entire book, skillfully demonstrating that you don’t need hyper-intelligent tentacle monsters to evoke a feeling of dread. Man’s inhumanity to man (including H. P. Lovecraft’s own virulent racism) are bad enough to leave a whole ethnic group living in their own “Lovecraft country.”

My disappointment with the book stems from the supernatural elements that drive the story…they just aren’t very Lovecraftian (especially not after the first chapter). Yes, there is a weird cult from the back hills of New England that seeks supernatural knowledge. However, most of their shenanigans resemble pulp sci-fi (a major thread of the book is the difficulty of being a black sci-fi fan in the 1950’s), polite little Victorian ghost stories, or Scooby Doo episodes rather than the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

The author is certainly skilled and has a great sense of humor, but didn’t really deliver on the Lovecraft that is so prominent in the title. The Ballad of Black Tom that I read a couple weeks ago (and reviewed here) isn’t quite as clever in its treatment of racism, but does a much better job of incorporating the right kind of supernatural elements.

What Really Happened at Red Hook

Title: The Ballad of Black Tom
Author: Victor LaValle
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 160
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The works of H. P. Lovecraft shaped the genre of cosmic horror. While I don’t practically worship him like S. T. Joshi, I enjoy his work, and if I read something in the horror genre it’s usually “Lovecraftian.” Unfortunately in addition to being a gifted writer, Lovecraft was an incredibly xenophobic racist. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his The Horror at Red Hook in which the Syrian, Yazidi, etc. immigrant communities in Brooklyn are portrayed as a dangerous hive of sinister criminals, devil worshippers, and other undesirables.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (who is black) retells The Horror at Red Hook from a completely different point of view, mixing in some “Five Percent Nation” (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam) mysticism along the way.  It still deals with issues of racism, but not in a “those dark-skinned people are all dangerous inferiors” way (though there might be a touch of “all white men are racist jerks”).

The book is well-written with the right feeling of dread. The horror comes from fear of the completely inhuman something “out there” rather than stooping to the lazy “graphic gore = scary” route. For me, a lot of the interest derived from seeing the tweaks made to The Horror at Red Hook, so I’m not sure how well it stands on its own. As a companion/improvement of the Lovecraft story it was a blast!