Friday, July 07, 2017

Summer Reading: Lovecraft's Monsters

Recently I shared with an old friend my struggle finding Lovecraft-inspired material not written by the author himself. For every "Worms of the Earth" by Robert E. Howard there are a myriad of lesser attempts at aping H.P. Lovecraft's unique vision.

Given the wealth of Cthulhu mythos "fan-fic" available, the challenge is not in finding content, but rather in discovering stories that entertain without proving too derivative. A few days after this conversation, I returned to a Lovecraft anthology I had purchased many months earlier that had been repeatedly relegated to my "to be read" pile after only two of the stories had been read. Fortunately, this proved to be a mistake on my part. With a long car/train ride ahead of me, I once again picked up Lovecraft's Monsters and after enjoying the next two stories I turned to and was heartened by what I read.

The secret of quality Lovecraft inspired stories, to my personal tastes at any rate, is demonstrated by the majority of stories in this collection, edited by Hugo and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor Ellen Datlow. The challenge met by many of the pieces selected by Datlow is transferring elements of Lovecraft's work, such as mood and subtle characterization, into a setting or circumstance that, while clearly influenced by the source, extends those ideas into a new direction including culture, setting and time period. The organization of the text as a whole, including the front (Foreword by Stefan Dziemianowicz) and  back matter ("Monster Index"), contributes to a high quality presentation of the stories, even if a few fall flat for this reader.  

Each story is preceded by a single panel image that foreshadows a key event in the story to follow. While not always the case, many of the images are of the monsters encountered in the story to follow. When this is not the case,  the aforementioned "Monster Index" by Rachel Fagundes fills in the gaps by including both narrative and visual sketches of key Lovecraftian monsters that appear throughout. A  handy cross-referencing of
John Coulthart provides evocative
and creepy illustrations such
as this one that precedes "Red 
Goat Black Goat.
monsters with the stories in the anthology allows for the reader to choose those stories that feature favorites first. As an effective collection probably should, Lovecraft's Monsters is both a fine collection of ancillary stories by writers others than Lovecraft as well as a good introduction to the world of the author. When a recognizable monster, such as The King in Yellow or Azathoth, included in the back of the collections

Some stories such as "Only the End of the World Again" by Neil Gaiman and "Black As the Pit, From Pole to Pole" by the duo of Howard Waldrop and Steve Utley take a monster mash-up approach by pairing Lovecraftian creatures with more familiar ones (the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's Monster respectively). While entertaining and clever to this fan of Lawrence Talbot and the traditional horror icons, it is the more straightforward "new" tales that kept me reading. In each case, the author chooses to mix another literary genre with a dash of Lovecraft to effectively deliver compelling new takes on familiar creature. Standouts include:
  • "Bulldozer" by Laird Barron, pages 33-62. Set in the Old West, this is the story of a "Pinkerton man" on a "hunting expedition to the West." (48) As a bulldozer, a colloquialism for an investigator/security, our protagonist Jonah Koenig is on the trail of a criminal. This is not just any ordinary bad guy, however, but an individual who very clearly has taken part in rituals and dark magic related to Belphagor, one of the seven princes of Hell. Employing a contemporary narrative structure to the story (translation: unusual chronology of plot points), Barron ratchets up the tension and drama. As a fan of the neo-Western, I found this one very engaging. 
  • "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable" by Nick Mamatas, pages 303-312. Mamatas' vignette is a snapshot of a trio of revelers awaiting the end of the world, beginning of a return of the old Gods, depending on how you look at it. The characters reflect this dual anticipation in that one welcomes them, acting as a self-appointed prophet, while others fear for what is to come. The contemporary setting and familiar perspectives on the nature love in modern society help to make this a particular relatable story. While some of the stories in the anthology only suggest Lovecraft's creatures (for example "Bulldozer"),"That of Which" explicitly namedrops the shoggoths who arrive to welcome the new day (night). 
Other standouts include "Red Goat Black Goat" by Nadia Bulkin (65-76) and "The Same Deep Waters As You" by Brian Hodge (79-115). Whether a Lovecraft enthusiast or seeking an introduction to his rich world of dark magic and monsters, Lovecraft's Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow and published Tachyon is an beach read... especially at dusk.

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