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Review: The Lovecraft Squad: All Hallows Horror by John Llewellyn Probert January 2, 2017

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cover102520-mediumAnother Netgalley free read in exchange for a review. With opinions and spoilers.

Lovecraft Squad? Misleading advertising, it seems to me. This is supposed to be the first of a series of books inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft. You could probably delete no more than a hundred words and no one reading it then would make a connection to Lovecraft.

After some strange experiences, including experiencing visions of swarms of the undead and encountering magically powerful pages of a lost Chaucer manuscript, a group of people find themselves investigating an allegedly haunted church. Strange and evil things happen, and before you know it, three of the surviving characters find themselves undertaking a long and arduous journey through Dante’s Inferno, at the end of which lies the Anarch, a giant insectoid servant of Hell. There are a few passing references to Lovecraftian story elements that don’t really work here. They feel more like they were grafted on at the last minute. There’s none of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror; this is coming out of a much more generically Judeo-Christian worldview than Lovecraft ever had.

So, looking at it as a horror novel rather than a Lovecraftian one, how does it work? Well, there are spooky and suspenseful moments, especially earlier on, but once the long journey through Hell begins, it’s just one thing after another with no real suspense. Enter an area of hell that’s based on one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell, struggle to find the way through to the next circle, repeat. All that to find out what’s actually going on. A protagonist actually asks one of the antagonists, isn’t this an overly complicated way to get what you want? Well, no one said this kind of thing was easy, is the response.

There’s an afterword that puts the book into a slightly different context: it’s sort of a prequel to some zombie apocalypse stories I’ve never heard of. Still not terribly Lovecraftian.

Overall, a bit of a slog, with some good moments but not much actual plot. At a time when so many writers are taking Lovecraft seriously and doing interesting things with his life and work, using his name for this series seems like marketing more than anything else.

Review: The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker August 28, 2016

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y648So, another Canadian literary novel. Jacqueline Baker has apparently written literary fiction set in western Canada, but this book is something very different, set very vividly in Providence, Rhode Island, home of a certain American writer.

H.P. Lovecraft may be his own most enduring character. He’s become widely known, even to those who’ve never read his work, as a strange, reclusive writer of horror stories. He’s been used as a character in many horror stories by other writers. The problem is, all too often writers present seriously skewed versions of him. Some horror writers who know his work fairly well present him as someone who believed in the kinds of things he wrote about, something Lovecraft himself would have perhaps been amused by, given his devotion to rationalism, materialism, and science.

Lovecraft had no use for ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and other old horror tropes. He was intrigued by cosmic horror, with its two main sources of horror: the realization of humanity’s utter insignificance in the cosmos, and the idea that that which breaks down our understanding of reality is horrifying. From that perspective, there should be nothing frightening about a story of, say, demonic possession ended by an exorcism, at least not for a Catholic, because demons and the efficacy of exorcism are already part of their understanding of the world. On the other hand, discovering that there are entities of great cosmic power who are utterly indifferent to humanity and could wipe us out as uncaringly as if we sprayed insecticide to kill some pests — that should disturb both the religious and the rational.

And yet, as a character, Lovecraft has all too often been presented as a mystic or a magician or someone vouchsafed true knowledge of cosmic evil. In at least one novel, he was presented as a cackling evil magician straight out of someone’s pulp fiction — but not his.

It’s a relief, then, that The Broken Hours is not one of those books. In fact, it takes some time to realize exactly what kind of book it is, and judging by many reviews online, some readers never actually do realize it. The ending is subtle but there are clues. At least, I think I interpreted the clues correctly, and the last one is far from subtle. Some other reviewers have come to the same conclusion. If you’re thinking of reading this book and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now. Really. It’s worth experiencing with some mystery, even if you figure it out early.

Jacqueline Baker’s book is beautifully written and subtle. She tells the story of Arthor Crandle, who, desperate for work, takes a position as an assistant and secretary to a writer he’s never heard of. And then all the strange things begin to happen. The writer, Lovecraft, won’t see him in person, even though they’re in the same building. Crandle has visions of a young girl in the backyard, feelings of some oppressive horror at certain points in the house. He finds things moved around even in his locked room, and is sure he sees his mysterious employer at times, only to realize no one is there.

A young woman moves into the downstairs apartment, and they slowly develop a friendship. But the strange things keep happening. The story ends with some revelations, but doesn’t spell everything out in detail. So here come the spoilers. Lovecraft’s aunt Annie, who’s been away (part of the reason Crandle was hired as an assistant) returns, the downstairs neighbour Flossie disappears along with all the changes she made to the apartment, Annie recognizes Crandle and calls him Howard… well, evidently there never was any Crandle. He was Lovecraft all along, and Flossie was never there. The stories of insanity in the family, people’s strange reactions to Crandle, the fact that other people at times fail to notice Flossie’s presence, the revelation (not surprising to people who’ve read about Lovecraft’s life) that as a child Lovecraft’s mother grew his hair long and dressed him as a girl, the fact that Crandle never sees himself in a mirror, not to mention that he finds himself playing Lovecraft when he’s with Flossie… what seems to be an effectively creepy ghost story turns out to be a psychological tale instead. There is ultimately nothing supernatural happening. Lovecraft, ill, malnourished, poor, and separated from his wife, is having a breakdown.

It’s ironic — what seems to be the kind of horror story Lovecraft himself would never have written, a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story, turns out not to be supernatural or horror at all. It’s a spooky and ultimately emotionally affecting story.

Review: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson August 7, 2016

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cover87989-mediumAnother Netgalley review, though I’ve had a Tor.com page about this book open in an iPad browser tab for some time to make sure I didn’t miss it. So an honest review for a free preview of something I would gladly have paid for, and in this case, I’d’ve still been glad after reading it. Anyway:

Kij Johnson does something here that Lovecraft readers have needed for some time. Well, a couple of somethings, really.

First, and most importantly, Lovecraft was a product of his time in ways that are, frankly, difficult to accept now. His stories were at times appallingly racist, and he rarely portrayed female characters at all, never mind sympathetically.

Second, and important to Lovecraft readers, Lovecraft has become known as a weird recluse who wrote horror stories. Which, at times, he was, but not all of his work was horror. Some was science fiction, and some was fantasy. For example, one of his longer works, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which was about a human traveler in the Dreamlands, a real place where dreamers go but few remember. It’s connected to a few of his other stories and, though it features monsters and some of the entities from his other stories known as the Cthulhu mythos, the overall tone is very different. They’re tales of wonder and nostalgia, not horror, and owe a debt to Dunsany”s fantasy tales.

In The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson revisits the Dreamlands in a story that’s notable both because it specifically addresses the place of women in Lovecraft’s fiction and because, unlike the majority of the hundreds — or thousands — of Lovecraft-influenced stories, it deals with the Dreamlands, not the Cthulhu Mythos.

Johnson does the former by telling her story from the perspective of a native of the Dreamlands, a woman professor all too conscious of the lack of respect her college and students get from the male majority, Hers is a world where women are a minority, and where gods powerful and less so interfere with human lives. When one of her students goes missing with a man from the waking world, she has to travel the Dreamlands to try to find her before she travels to our world — because the student doesn’t yet realize her true place in her world, and Boe’s adopted home is at risk.

In Lovecraft’s original tale, Randolph Carter travels through the Dreamlands seeking a city he remembers, encountering many strange things and places. Vellitt Boe has a similar journey; her story echoes in his in some ways, while commenting on it and subverting some elements of it.

Brian Lumley set several novels in the Dreamlands, but his were uninvolving sword and sorcery tales that happened to be set there. (The first one was, at least; I didn’t enjoy it, so I didn’t carry on with the rest of the books.) Johnson’s story is much more thoughtful. She’s also much more of a prose stylist,

It should be mentioned that it isn’t at all necessary to be familiar with Lovecraft to enjoy this story. It may simply seem to be an enjoyable weird tale rather than a dialogue with a problematic writer, but don’t let that stop you.

Review: The Gods of Lovecraft November 25, 2015

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(Review based on free advance copy from the publisher in exchange for a review.)

I first heard about Lovecraft in 1975, thanks to a discussion of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in Lin Carter’s book Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings. I read more about him in the
introductions to various Robert E. Howard collections two or three
years later. I picked up the October 1979 special Lovecraft issue of Heavy Metal, and in December of 1979 I picked up my first Lovecraft book (The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories) and my first collection of Lovecraft-inspired mythos tales (Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos Volume Two).

So, I’ve been reading Lovecraft-influenced (or Cthulhu mythos, if you prefer) fiction for a long time. I have a bookcase full of Lovecraft and mythos material, and a significant amount on my ereaders as well. I can safely say a fair number of mythos anthologies are amateurish, uninspired exercises in nostalgia. This age of self-publishing, micropresses, and ebooks has generated more of these than ever. Fortunately, The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Aaron J. French, is not one of them.

For a start, there are some good and well-regarded writers here,
including Martha Wells, Seanan McGuire, Joe Lansdale, and others.
There’s also a concept that shapes the book without limiting it: each story focuses on a particular entity or group from Lovecraft’s fiction and is followed by a few pages of lore on that entity or group, as if excerpted from the Necronomicon or some other dusty tome of forbidden knowledge. These bits of commentary are written with the occasional touch of macabre humour by Donald Tyson, who’s written a version of the Necronomicon, a biography of its alleged author, Abdul Alhazred, and other mythos works. Each story also gets an illustration, which explains the ebook’s large file size.

Adam LG Nevill starts the book with a story that I found a little
oddly written at first. It snapped into focus for me when it occurred to me that it read very much like a mythos tale as written by JG Ballard, in the style of his stories about damaged people in unexplained postapocalyptic settings. I don’t know if he was going for that, but it works.

A few of the other stories read as though they might be adventures of characters and settings the authors have used elsewhere. The stories aren’t all set in the word as we know it; there are hints of steampunk or alternate worlds or fantasy here and there. More importantly, though, the authors all seem to want to avoid the cliches of mythos fiction, and by and large they succeed. There’s a lot of fresh takes on Lovecraft’s gods and monsters.

Overall, this was a good, entertaining anthology, one I’m glad I gave a chance.

Review: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard October 22, 2015

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The Fear Institute cover

The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard

So, I liked Carter and Lovecraft a lot, and learned that Howard wrote another Lovecrafty novel, so I bought the ebook. You wouldn’t necessarily expect two Lovecraftian novels by the same author to be damn near polar opposites in pretty much every respect (except quality), but that’s the case.

I haven’t read any of the Johannes Cabal books before now. This is the third one. Where Howard captures a hard-edged, noir, American style for Carter and Lovecraft, here he uses a very different style, dry, witty, and cruel, like Cabal himself. There is a lot of humour in the book, frequently very dark humour at the expense of supporting characters, who don’t appear to have any reasonable expectation of a long life or a peaceful, painless death.

I really enjoyed the style. For example: “For the first time, he truly understood what Nietzsche had meant when he had yammered about looking into abysses. Not only had the abyss looked into him, it had noted his name, address and shoe size.”

As for the story: the sinister necromancer is approached by a trio who represent the Fear Institute, a group who intend to improve the world by eliminating the emotion of fear. And (here’s where Lovecraft comes in) they’ve determined that the source of fear is in the Dreamlands, another world that can be reached through dreams or physical visits, as portrayed in stories like “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

The book becomes a quest through the Dreamlands for the Phobic Animus. Some things are not as they seem. The rules of the Dreamlands take some figuring out, too. And the somewhat protracted ending goes through a few steps with some interesting revelations and a setup for the next volume.

Howard’s style and tone are as right for a Dreamlands adventure here as they are in Carter and Lovecraft for a very different type of tale. Both are definitely recommended for fans of fresh takes on Lovecraftian fiction, but they should both work quite well for relative newcomers to HPL, too.

Review: Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard October 18, 2015

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Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard

Another review written in exchange for a free advance ereading copy through Netgalley and the good people of St Martin’s Press.

This is how it’s done. Many writers have tried to mesh the hardboiled crime story with Lovecraftian horror and failed to pull it off. Jonathan Howard makes it work here, and that’s largely down to minimizing the Lovecraftian elements. The story certainly is Lovecraftian by the end, but it’s not about references to every bit of mythos lore. It starts with the capture of a serial killer that goes strange, and then there are other crimes that seem all but inexplicable, Meanwhile, the title protagonists are given time to become real and interesting characters.

Howard did this book as work for hire; it’s been optioned for TV. I’m hopeful that the TV version is not simply planned as an adaptation of the novel, because I want to see what happens next. The book’s resolution introduces a whole new world of possibilities that I’d like to see explored. I’d also like to see more of the characters Carter and Lovecraft. There’s a lot of character and relationship development waiting to be explored there, too. I hope it’s Howard who gets to do that in another novel, TV series or no, because he did a great job bringing these characters and their world to life. I really want to see more Carter and Lovecraft from him.

Expanding on what I posted at Netgalley…

Howard wrote about the book for Tor.com. He also wrote a previous novel with Lovecraftian elements and wrote about that one at Tor, too. I’m going to have to check it out.

There’s a novel that gets a lot of praise from Lovecraftians across the Internet: Nightmare’s Disciple by Joseph Pulver. It’s about a serial killer driven by his belief in Lovecraft’s mythos and the detective trying to track him down. I was surprised by the praise, because that book does everything wrong that Howard’s gets right: an unbelievable villain, hopelessly clunky dialogue, and way, way, way too many references to every bit of Lovecraftian lore Pulver could squeeze in, along with other references and in-jokes. Howard has a character named Lovecraft, yes, and she’s a descendant of HP (it’s a work of fiction, so why not), and Carter turns out to be related to Randolph Carter, a fictional creation of HPL in our reality; there are references to the Dreamlands and the films Re-Animator and From Beyond, but there’s not a single “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” to be found here. The chapter titles will draw the eye of the knowledgeable reader, though.

And then there’s C.J. Henderson’s pulpy mythos/hardboiled detective stories, which are, well, pulpy mythos tales of interest to the hardcore. Howard’s book has the potential to appeal to people who don’t know names like Chaosium, Robert Price, or S.T. Joshi. It’s accessible while still telling a story that will appeal to longtime Lovecraft/mythos readers like me. That’s no small accomplishment.

Review: The Dunfield Terror by William Meikle March 13, 2015

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Another free Netgalley advance read!

I read a lot of stories and novels that draw on the concepts and entities created in HP Lovecraft’s fiction. More to the point, I’ve read some of William Meikle’s short fiction in anthologies, though I can’t remember at the moment what I thought of them. But when this popped up on Netgalley I thought I’d give it a shot.

The title’s an obvious tipoff that this is something Lovecraftian, referencing The Dunwich Horror, and the info on the author’s site and publisher DarkFuse’s site doesn’t shy away from the Lovecraft connection, but it isn’t the kind of cliched list of Necronomicon knockoffs and Cthulhu companions that still pop up from time to time. The simplest description would be that it’s a cross between Stephen King’s The Mist and Lovecraft stories like The Colour Out of Space and From Beyond. It pulls off those different approaches by alternating between chapters set in the present day involving a small Newfoundland town hit by a blizzard and a mysterious phenomenon with chapters set decades earlier showing how that phenomenon was brought into being.

Meikle’s website gives the impression that he’s happy to be thought of as a pulp fiction kind of guy, and while it’s true that this book is more entertainment than art, it’s pretty good entertainment. The Newfoundland modern day chapters paint a believable picture of hard working guys in a small town getting a beating from the elements; the flashback chapters have a noticeably different narrative voice. As the book builds, the focus moves from dread and suspense to more action and all-out horror.

Meikle does a good job of presenting classic King-style horror and Lovecraftian cosmic horror without once mentioning the Necronomicon or Cthulhu or any of the other usual trappings. He’s not doing anything as unexpected as mixing Lovecraft with the Beat Generation, like Nick Mamatas did a few years ago, either, but so what. Sometimes you want a rollicking good yarn that keeps you turning the pages, and this book definitely delivered that experience. If I’d bought this I’d’ve figured my money was well spent, and I’ll be paying more attention in future when I come across Meikle’s name again.

Review: Billy Lovecraft Saves the World January 17, 2015

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Here’s another review of another book received as a free e-galley in exchange for a review. I’ve also posted versions of the review to Netgalley and Amazon.ca.

There are two ways to look at this book. The first is to assume the author is playing it straight, and that this is a book for young readers that happens to involve H.P. Lovecraft’s concepts instead of the more generic fantasy elements in the likes of Harry Potter. The other is to see it as part of the Lovecraft mashup trend of recent years, in which writers like Nick Mamatas and others cross Lovecraft with other writers or genres, like the Beats, Hunter S. Thompson, etc.

I started writing with the assumption that the book was indeed an attempt to do a middle grades book for kids that happens to be about the Cthulhu Mythos (in this case, more about Nyarlathotep, but anyway). I found myself gradually shifting to the second.

I’m a long way from 12 years old so I can’t judge how well this would play with a hypothetical younger audience. It’s trying to be more slangy and modern than the Harry Potter books, with a diverse young cast of characters, but the dialogue doesn’t always ring true and few of the characters are ever really developed all that much.

So think of it as a mashup between the kids’ books about kids with problems (dealing with dead parents, racism, social exclusion, bullying, etc) with a Lovecraftian novel. (And not just Lovecraft, there’s some Twilight Zone in there, too.) The tone’s too light and the challenge too easily defeated to be truly Lovecraftian (not a spoiler — check the title). On the kids’ books side, it seems to be ticking boxes at times. The prose is functional, much more to the breezy end of the breezy/purple prose spectrum. And yet the story moves, and I can visualize it actually working as a fun movie aimed at kids, if we lived in a world where kids were familiar with the mythos.

It’s a fun read for anyone who likes to see how H.P. Lovecraft’s influence can be twisted into unexpected new shapes, and much more enjoyable than I expected.

Lovecraft season December 21, 2013

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For me, Christmas is Lovecraft season.

It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.(H.P. Lovecraft, “The Festival“)

I believe it was autumn when first I encountered the name of H.P. Lovecraft. It was October 1975 and I was 12 and we were moving from North Bay, Ontario, to Edmonton, Alberta. One of the books I remember reading on that trip was Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings by Lin Carter. I’d discovered Tolkien earlier that year after discovering fantasy as a genre through CS Lewis, Alan Garner, and Lloyd Alexander, so this was a book I needed to read. (Unlike, as I learned later, any of Lin Carter’s original fiction. He was an essential figure in the development of the fantasy genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an editor, but as a writer of fiction he was a great fanboy.) Anyway, in his chapter on epic fantasy novels to read after Tolkien (and at the time he was writing, there really weren’t many at all) he included Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I didn’t act on the recommendation.

It was probably summer when next I read about Lovecraft, in the forewords and afterwords to some collections of Robert E. Howard stories in 1978. Lovecraft was mentioned as one of Howard’s peers and friends, along with Clark Ashton Smith, the third of the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales.

It was autumn when I next knowingly encountered Lovecraft, by way of the “adult illustrated fantasy magazine” Heavy Metal, in 1979. Their October issue was a Lovecraft special with an adaptation of “The Dubwich Horror” and a number of more tenuously Lovecraftian tales. I was getting pretty darn intrigued by now.

So then came Christmas of 1979, and with some Christmas present cash in my pocket, I went to my favourite books and comics emporium, Hobbit’s Fantasy Shoppe, and bought my first Lovecraft book.

And it looked like it might have been a mistake.

The book was The Doom That Came to Sarnath and Other Stories. The introduction talked about how Lovecraft changed horror with his Cthulhu Mythos and his classic stories, and this book was the other stuff that didn’t matter so much, his less essential stories. But I kept on reading, and I loved it. I bought more Lovecraftian stuff including my introduction to mythos stories written by others, the second volume of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. (Bought, as I recall, the same day I bought the LP of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.) I had not only a new writer to obsess over, but a whole new subgenre as well. There was no looking back.

A few years later I remembered that “The Festival” was set at Christmas time, and I started a tradition of reading it every other Christmas or so, strengthening the Christmas connection. So this year I’ve ordered a few more Lovecraftian/mythos anthologies to keep the link alive.

And today I read the pdf of what’s supposed to be the screenplay of Guillermo del Toro’s unproduced At the Mountains of Madness. Antarctica! Snow! Ice! Another reason for the season. Too bad it isn’t very good or faithful to Lovecraft’s original. It’s a remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing with bits and pieces of two different Lovecraft stories. Just as well, then.

Thoughts for possible future ramblings:

What made Lovecraft different as a horror writer, and what do would-be imitators and followers get wrong?
Remember when Del Rey created epic fantasy as a successful publishing genre?