BOOK REVIEW: Children of Lovecraft

Children of Lovecraft

Title: Children of Lovecraft

Author: Ellen Datlow (editor)

Publisher: Dark Horse

Published: September 2016

RRP: £16.99

Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s stories shaped modern horror more than any other author’s in the last two centuries: Cthulhu, the Old Ones, Herbert West: Reanimator, and more terrifying nightmares emerged from the mythos of this legendary writer.

Dark Horse teams up with Hugo and Bram Stoker Award–winning editor Ellen Datlow to bring you this anthology of original prose stories that are inspired by Lovecraft’s mythos. Features work by Richard Kadrey, Brian Hodge, A. C. Wise, Siobhan Carroll, Orrin Grey, and many more, with a stunning cover by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.

Well, this is a nice surprise. It was only last March that I was taking modern Lovecraft stories to task for not moving with the times, and it appears the Outer Gods took notice. There’s a very pleasing gender balance to Children of Lovecraft, with almost half the writers and well over half the protagonists here women. With them comes a flood of new viewpoints and new ideas, and a corresponding scarcity of sex objects and succubi.

And on the off chance anyone reading this is the type to worry  an increase in women authors will dilute the talent pool, fear not. This Lovecraft anthology is amongst the most satisfying I’ve read. Doubtless it helps that the collection kicks off with its two strongest tales. Both “Nesters” and “Little Ease” are well-written – the latter especially has some lovely prose – and full of appropriately disturbing imagery. Their real strength though comes from focusing on the horror of the mundane. The sanity-blasting supernatural nightmare is certainly present, but the heroines of each story already lead lives of quiet hideousness. The protagonist of “Little Ease”, Ginevra, is an exterminator working with chemicals that are slowly corroding her. Sally, the young girl central to “Nesters” has it even worse, watching her family’s small farm, their animals, and they themselves slowly die amidst the choking dust-storms of the Dirty Thirties. For her, the after-effects of the glowing meteorite that hit a nearby farm aren’t really any more alien than the concepts of money, or help from the government, or a day where you’re not coughing up scads of dirt. Even if what grows in the darkness of the Dubort place can be defeated, her lungs will still be full of dust. Her future will still be full of tragedy. At least Ginevra can give up massacring insects. Well, she can in theory, anyway: who would stick with a job which was slowly stripping off your face if there were workable alternatives? When your own daily grind causes hair loss, sore spots, queasiness, and flaky skin “like [you’ve] been trying to tan using a microwave”, why would you stay unless you had no choice?

This is all very depressing, and unpleasant, just like the best Cthulhu Mythos stories are.  But they also break from tradition in a fundamental and vital way. Tales of working-class women already struggling to survive the ordinary world make for a necessary change from Lovecraft’s own stories. They’re a necessary break from tales about gentlemen explorers and intellectuals who mainly get involved in nightmarish situations through a mixture of curiosity and a burning need to be racist about new people. These new stories are exactly the sort of update and improvement the genre needs if it is to be relevant in this century. “Little Ease” in particular is packed with strong, angry stuff about the way those with money treat those without. Cthulhu is the horror in exile. The flint-hearted super-wealthy are the horror in residence.

Of course, the problem with starting an anthology with your two best tales is that everything afterwards is a little bit of a letdown. Only “Mr. Doornail” here really reaches similar heights – a sublime story that manages to combine heart-eating tentacle horrors with social commentary and laugh-out-loud prose into a single glorious package. Where else would you find the idea that goats are a force for cosmic justice? Among such dizzy heights, the remaining entries can’t help but come up a little short.

That’s not to say there’s nothing else here that isn’t very good indeed, though. The collection tries to end on a double-whammy as impressive as the one it opened on, and whilst it doesn’t quite succeed, it comes close. Both “On These Blackened Shores Of Time” and “Bright Crown Of Joy” are cut from superior metaphorical cloth. “…Blackened Shores…” is another story which reminds us real life has plenty of horrors and monsters already, centering its narrative around a young man lost when his home street collapses, all because 19th century mining companies couldn’t be bothered securing their dead sites properly. It’s filled with righteous anger and bitter sadness, and builds to an ending that will stay with you. That said, though, it’s rather longer than it needs to be, especially considering the meat-and-potatoes prose. It also contains twin siblings with a mystical connection no-one else can understand, and the sooner horror writers are sentenced to a decade of hard labour for including that desperately tired idea the better off the genre will be.  A bit of judicious editing and cliche-pruning could have made this a classic, but what we get here is still satisfying.

“Bright Crown Of Joy”, meanwhile, is a post-apocalyptic tale of the After. I’ve seen explorations of the world post-Cthulhu (or some other flavour of mind-crushing uber-monster) become increasingly popular over the last decade or so (it’s not even the only such story in this collection), but Llewellyn’s approach is among the best I’ve seen. There’s plenty of imagination here, and lots of mysteries that attach to your mind like burrs as you read through. What really works about the story though is its tone – a refusal to wallow in the changes wrought on Earth that have more or less brought about humanity’s extinction. The world following the Great Old Ones’ rise is the most obvious place imaginable for the grimmest darkest grimdark, and Llewellyn instead turns in a much more subtle, contemplative tale. I can’t say much more without ruining the ending, but I will say the landing is nailed, and makes us question the value of apocalyptic fiction even as it works within it.

There are two more stories inside the collection that I’d describe as above average. “Eternal Troutland” suffers a little from being third in the running order, arriving immediately after two absolute stonkers. Taken on its own terms, though, it has much to recommend it. It’s slow and smart and very sad, with a strong and well thought out central concept. It reminded me a bit of Ted Chiang, actually, if he was a little more interested in people’s lives. The ending is a real triumph, too, full of misery and ideas; it practically demands a re-read.

Even better is “Excerpts For An Eschatology Quadrille“. This is a very clever piece of work, which takes four of the most common elements of Cthulhu stories and gives each its own separate vignette. You’ve got the unnameable feeling of creeping unease, the violent horrors of cultist activity, the unnerving exposition involved in discovering the secret truth, and finally the terror of the incoming apocalypse. It’s all very postmodern.

The only problem is that this is all stuff to appreciate rather than enjoy.  Each tale is nicely told, but the best eggs, butter, flour and sugar in the world don’t taste as nice as a decent cake.  That said, the separation of the strands serves another purpose. It reminds us that any apocalypse – whether it be the rise of Cthulhu from the waves or the rise of those waves themselves thanks to decades of our own excess -would be something everyone would experience and (try to) survive in their own way. Billions of people would be handed their own thin slice of Armageddon. We’d all have a piece of the story; the end belongs to us all. It’s not just about the kinds of people that the kinds of people like Lovecraft deigned to find important.

That’s us halfway through the fourteen stories available here, then, and so far it’s all been distinctly above-average stuff, with some blooms of genuine greatness. Of the remaining seven stories, I’d say four of them manage to stay on the right side of poor. In this category we have “The Supplement”, which has a nice melancholy to it and some decent prose, but doesn’t manage to rise above its overly-familiar premise. “Mortensen’s Muse” has a fun central conceit, and some nice stuff about the nature of composition and how magic might work in a world that can encode spells into more than just handwriting. It too though features much that we’ve seen before, and the final flourish proves to be the dampest of squibs. “When The Stitches Become Undone” feels like it missed being something special by the narrowest of margins – so narrow in fact I wonder if I missed something during my two passes at it. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in there, certainly, and it’s pleasingly difficult to figure out where it’s going. Ultimately though that’s part of the problem. The story as a whole never quite coheres, and so the ending, whilst both intriguing and appropriately disturbing, lacks the weight it should have had.

The most interesting of these four stories isn’t so much average as sublime and infuriating in equal parts. “Oblivion Mode” has gorgeous prose – only “Mr Doornail” threatens to beat it on this front here – and presents a fascinating fictional world. It isn’t even remotely a Cthulhu story, though, more like a Gene Wolf tale with better jokes. Elements of CS Lewis are evident too, and perhaps even China Mieville on a week he doesn’t feel like tackling politics. All of which is fine stuff to riff of, obviously. But there’s a time and a place. The alien in Lovecraft is an unfathomable source of incomprehensible dread. They do not quip. They do not clash with rabbits who have found religion.

Reasonable people can disagree about how much any of that matters, of course. What bugs me more is that the story goes beyond Lovecraftian bleakness and despair and into unnecessary cruelty, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. In a different collection, I probably would have appreciated this one a lot more.

Finally we come to the three duds. “Glasses” treads terribly familiar ground and relies far too much on everyone involved being idiots. “The Secret Of Insects” reads like any number of Mythos tales that misunderstands how the genre works. Fan service is a bad idea in almost all forms, but when you’re trying to generate a sense of the terrifying, unnameable unknown, reaching for the big names practically guarantees disaster. Especially if your story works around figuring out who and what you’re actually deploying. What I think Kadrey was going for was to ask what would happen if Lovecraft had written Se7en. Unfortunately the answer is that it wouldn’t have been terribly interesting.

Lastly, “Jules And Richard” feels like the first time the collection slips back into the worst habits of the genre. A man finds himself ensnared by a gorgeous, wanton woman with a major sexual appetite who turns out to be more than she seems? Please. We absolutely should be past this. In fairness the story ends up somewhere more interesting than it threatens to. Still though, the conclusion is simply moving away from its rotten beginnings, rather than dealing with the root problem. The best thing I can say about this story is that it reminded me how well the collection did elsewhere in avoiding this kind of problem.

So there we go. Children of Lovecraft has a brilliant beginning and strong ending, with much to enjoy between the two. For each failure here there is a glittering, unimpeachable triumph, and everything else is certainly worthy of your time. And best of all, it’s evidence that the genre is taking real steps to correct its historical failures and remain relevant. It’s been over 90 years since Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu”, and the future of his terrifying, incomprehensible world is looking brighter, and darker, than ever.

Rating: 4/5

GS Reviewer: Ric Crossman

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