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.

Sympathy for the Devil?

Image result for heart of darkness and the secret sharer bantamTitle: Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer
Author: Joseph Conrad
Genre: Classic Novellas
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

I would categorize these classic novellas as interesting rather than enjoyable. In them, Conrad displays his usual bleak view of human nature and society.

Heart of Darkness records a barely fictionalized account of Conrad’s own experience piloting a steamer in the Belgian Congo. It pairs well with King Leopold’s Ghost (which discusses it at some length). Unlike King Leopold’s Ghost, which reflects current attitudes toward racism and colonialism, Heart of Darkness is loaded with product-of-its-era prejudices. The narrative deplores the dark and horrifying nature of the European characters while at the same time showing a general contempt for the Africans who are on the receiving end of their cruelty.

Our narrator’s response to “what evil lurks in the hearts of men” is complex. He is disgusted by the pettiness, greed, and violence of the Belgian traders but fascinated by the charismatic Kurtz who started out with seemingly higher ideals but has done far more horrifying things. His feelings for Kurtz teeter between sympathetic defense and disgusted horror. Trying to untangle the message of this bleak classic provides an interesting challenge. (Also, I’m using this for my Classic Novella category for the Back the the Classics Challenge)

The Secret Sharer features another narrator who sympathizes with a dark-hearted character. In this tale, a young captain hides a fugitive aboard his new ship. He becomes oddly obsessed with the idea that this self-confessed murderer (“justifiable homicide” of course) is his double. Tensions escalate between the captain and his new crew due to the secretive, bizarre behavior required to keep the “secret sharer” of his cabin hidden. While quite different in tone from Heart of Darkness, it includes the same tangled message of a sort of sympathy for a cruel person paired with a cynicism toward society.