Thirdhand Lovecraft

Title: The Last Ritual
(An Arkham Horror Novel)
Author: S. A. Sidor
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 352
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/20 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review.

I have never played any of the H. P. Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror cooperative games, so I have no idea how well this novel ties into the characters and mechanics. However, I have read a lot of Lovecraftian fiction and 1920’s detective fiction and, to be perfectly honest, this comes across as a watered down version of both.

There are some decent moments of surrealistic horror and creeping dread, but outside of those moments the writing and plotting did not impress. The investigation is desultory, characters react to disturbing events with unbelievable sangfroid, and the only real indication that we’re in the 1920’s is the presence of prohibition and bootleggers. Even “witch-haunted Arkham” seems watered down, deriving its sinister reputation primarily from prohibition-related crime and corruption rather than the sorts of things that Lovecraft et al. wrote about.

The horror set pieces saved this from being a complete waste of time, but its thirdhand nature (novel based on a game based on a writer’s works) weakened it to the point where it nearly slid into Scooby-Doo territory at times. If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror games you might want to give this a try, but if you’re just looking for Lovecraftian cosmic horror you can do a lot better elsewhere.

Weirdness Overload

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]Title: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Humorous Dystopian Weird Fiction + Urban Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book reads like the unholy spawn of Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft that was left on its own to watch untold hours of The Twilight Zone. Its quirky turn of phrase, foreboding Southwestern US setting, and mysterious dark forces (eldritch, dystopian, and librarian) come together in one of the strangest things I have read outside of a Franz Kafka novel.

In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, a paragraph ends with the completely irrelevant observation: “A magician wandered along the beach, but no one needed him.” Welcome to Night Vale is loaded with this sort of weird little digression. Some of them may be references to characters and events from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (which I have never listened to), but mostly they form a tapestry of weirdness against which the bizarre, bordering-on-farcical action occurs.

Characters include angels who are all named Erika [though no one is allowed to believe in angels so forget I said that], a teenage shapeshifter and his mother, and an eternally 19-year-old pawn shop clerk. I don’t know how to describe the plot without spoilers other than to say that it involves trying to figure out what is going on with a strange man who triggers a strange occurrence (though how anything can be considered strange in Night Vale is beyond me). Amid all the weirdness and witty phrases, it explores serious themes of growing up, family relationships, etc.

Overall, it was an entertaining read with its share of wit and wisdom, but it took me longer than usual to get through because I could only take it in small doses. There is so much random weirdness purely for the sake of being random and weird that I needed frequent breaks from the silliness of it all. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series and/or check out the podcast at some point, but right now I’m all weirded out.

Mixed Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to seriously outpace my reviewing this year, so to catch up a little here is a handful of mini-reviews (each from a different genre).

Title: Answering Jihad:
A Better Way Forward
Author: Nabeel Qureshi
Genre: Theology/Comparative Religion
Pages: 168
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Nabeel Qureshi (a former Muslim) seeks to give an honest assessment of the historical importance and practice of Jihad in Islam. While his assessment is not “politically correct” in relation to the Western narrative of Islam as the religion of peace, Qureshi has done careful, honest research into Islamic history, the Quran, and the Hadith, as well as drawing on his own experience as a Muslim.

He poses the idea of many Muslims coming to a crossroads where they are faced with the violent past of Islam and must decide how to proceed (Endorse jihad/”become radicalized”? Reject some foundational truths of Islam in favor of some new version? Abandon Islam?). His “better way forward” involves interacting with Muslims with love and compassion rather than fear and suspicion. The final section of the book offers the non-violence and self-sacrificing love of biblical Christianity as an attractive alternative to embracing jihad.

Title: The Landmark Arrian:
The Campaigns of Alexander
Author: Arrian
Translator: Pamela Mensch
Genre: Ancient History
Pages: 485 (plus 75 pages of indices, etc.)
Rating: 4 of 5

love the Landmark editions of ancient histories. Prior to this one I had read Landmark’s Herodotus and Thucydidesand this one continues to impress. Arrian’s history of Alexander the Great’s campaigns is a bit hero-worshippy, but gives a good basic overview from someone who had access to primary sources no longer completely available to us. The frequent maps keep this from being an incomprehensible catalogue of place names, and extensive commentary explains cultural issues and alerts to important alternate versions of events found in other sources.

System Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 3) by [Zieja, Joe]Title: Communication Failure and System Failure
(Epic Failure Trilogy: Books 2 & 3)
Author: Joe Zieja
Genre: Science Fiction (Humor/Satire)
Pages: 336 & 432
Ratings: 4 & 3.5 of 5

The first book in this trilogy, Communication Failure, was my favorite fiction last year. The second and third books still had plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but book 2 had a little bit of “middle book syndrome,” and I really didn’t care for the way the trilogy wrapped up. I suppose the ending made sense and was humorous in a Monty Python kind of way, but it was surprisingly downbeat and left a lot of loose ends.

Title: Orconomics
(The Dark Profit Saga: Book 1)
Author: J. Zachary Pike
Genre: Satirical Fantasy
Pages: 360
Rating: 4 of 5

The tone of this felt like a slightly less zany Discworld. It’s your typical “unexpected Chosen One and his band of rejects goes on big fantasy quest” fantasy/RPG sendup set in a world where dungeon crawling has become a big commercial enterprise. The story manages to deal with serious issues like racism, market manipulation, economic exploitation, and more without being overly preachy. Some of the pacing was a bit slow, but overall it was enjoyable, and I plan to read the next book, Son of a Liche, sometime this year.

Tales of the Al-Azif: A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology by [Phipps, C. T., Davenport, Matthew, West, David J., Hambling, David, Wilson, David Niall]Title: Tales of the Al-Azif:
A Cthulhu Mythos Anthology
Authors: C. T. Phipps, Matthew Davenport, David J. West, David Hambling, David Niall Wilson
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 264
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror anthologies, and I don’t expect them to be literary masterpieces. The Cthulhu mythos was born in the pulps and remains escapist pulp fiction for the most part. That said, this was one of the least enjoyable collections I have encountered.

The stories were not really to my taste. Most rely far more on insect-inspired horror than the nihilistic dread usual to cosmic horror, and most were of the “monster hunter” variety favored by Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith rather than the original creeping dread of H. P. Lovecraft.

If that were my only complaint with the book I probably would have given it 3.5 stars as “okay, but not to my personal taste when it comes to Lovecraftian horror.” However, the book (I read the Kindle edition) was riddled with typos. The number of omitted, duplicated, and misplaced words was absolutely ridiculous…completely amateur.

Gods & Thieves

The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy Book 1) by [Hanrahan, Gareth]Title: The Gutter Prayer
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy (Steampunk-ish)
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Gareth Hanrahan borrows characterization and tropes from across fantasy and horror sub-genres, and somehow combines them into a highly original dark fantasy setting. Worldbuilding was definitely the standout feature of this book. We get to explore the seedy underbelly of the steampunk-ish (trains, guns, alchemy, etc.) old city of Guerdon, inhabited by thieves, Lovecraftian ghouls, stone men (afflicted with a disease like leprosy that slowly turns them to stone), knife-wielding wax golems, and more.

Parts of this world are locked in a horrifyingly destructive “godswar” where deities and their possessed champion “saints” rage across the land, but the city of Guerdon has managed to remain neutral and relatively safe. Of course, things can’t stay that way for long or we wouldn’t have much of a story, so the story opens on a trio of thieves and a heist that goes horribly wrong and drags them into a maelstrom of political and supernatural machinations.

The writing, aside from the worldbuilding, was good, not great. It felt like it really could have used a bit more editing. There were way too many typos and misused homonyms for a final draft, some characters’ motivations/goals didn’t quite make sense or were ill-explained, and a couple sexcapades felt wedged in and cringey. (I’m also not a fan of the “f-bomb” being dropped every few pages, but that’s more about my preferences/standards than an editing issue.)

That said, I enjoyed the book overall. It was dark without wallowing in existential angst. Some plot points were resolved in a very deus ex machina fashion, which usually annoys me, but it worked within the author’s setting. It was a mostly enjoyable first read of the year, and I already have the next one ready to go on my Kindle.

Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

Title: The Book of Cthulhu
Editor: Ross E. Lockhart
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Pages: 544
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This Lovecraftian anthology is fairly middle of the pack. It didn’t have any of the stupid last sentence is an incredibly obvious twist ending in italics stories, but neither did many of them have that sense of creeping dread that really makes a good cosmic horror tale. Most of the stories seemed to be along the lines of trying really hard to come up with a clever, modern take on the “gods” and other beings of the Lovecraft mythos (Shogoths and Innsmouth seemed to be the two most popular targets). This made for interesting stories but not necessarily atmospheric stories. A few evoked the proper tone (the offerings by Laird Barron and Brian Mcaughton were probably the best), and most are well-written enough that the collection is worth your time if you’re a fan of cosmic horror.

In conclusion: here’s a picture that I took from my front yard back in April. (“The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”)

Image may contain: sky and outdoor

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!