Tag Archives: Lovecraftian

Shades of Lovecraft in Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth

WEIRDERCoverFront_-_Copy_largeThe story behind the anthology Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth is almost more interesting than the stories in the book itself.  It’s the third in a series edited by Stephen Jones, all inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 tale “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” featuring the mutated denizens of Innsmouth and following in the damp, amphibious footprints of Shadows Over Innsmouth (1994) and Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005).  Both of the prior volumes were published by Fedogan & Bremer, a press that specialized in handsome hardcovers in the vein of Arkham House until ceasing operations after the death of co-founder Phil Rahman.  After several years of dormancy, F&B was revived in 2012 by co-founder Dennis Weiler, with Weirder Shadows being the second volume issued since the press’ return from the dead.

As with the prior volumes, editor Jones has assembled an impressive list of contributors, with authors such as Caitlin Kiernan, Conrad Williams, and Ramsey Campbell headlining the line-up of seven original stories and ten reprints. So, to start… since I cherry-picked those three author names, let’s start by taking a look at their contributions.

Kiernan actually has three stories included here, all reprinted from her subscription-based online periodical, Sirenia Digest, and two are excellent.  “Fish Bride” is related via the post-coital bedroom conversation between one of the blasphemous fish-people and her human lover.  Between the dialog and the human’s internal monologue, the tale perfectly captures the tensions of the cross-species relationship. “The Transition of Elizabeth Haskings,” meanwhile, begins as a story of a lonely, repressed female librarian and her relationship with her gay male coworker, but is gradually revealed to be something much more.

Conrad Williams offers up “The Hag Stone,” a lengthy tale of a recent widower who decides to get away to a remote inn in the Channel Islands, but soon finds the locale less than idyllic, plagued as it is by invaders from the nighttime seas. I’m a huge fan of Williams’ work, and this unfortunately isn’t as good as he’s capable of, but it’s still an engaging piece. Finally, Ramsey Campbell’s “The Winner” is likewise set far from the original Innsmouth stomping grounds, but the chosen locale — a bizarre pub, where a man and his family find themselves stranded after their ferry to Dublin is canceled — is suitably damp and disturbing.

The danger with any tribute anthology like this — and especially with an anthology series that stretches to three volumes — is that the stories will start to seem too familiar, too rote, and that is occasionally an issue here, but for the most part, contributing authors manage to put an interesting twist on their events.

Take, for example, Reggie Olive’s “The Archbishop’s Well,” which successfully merges Lovecraftian horrors with an antiquarian ghost milieu of the sort that Oliver frequently employs.  Or Brian Hodge’s “The Same Deep Waters as You,” which marries the Innsmouth basics with recent political events, resulting in a fast-paced and intriguing story of Innsmouth residents forcibly relocated to a Gitmo-style prison, where they exert a strange influence on the female protagonist, who was recruited by the government based on the work she’d done on her Discovery Channel show, The Animal Whisperer.

Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Chain” is another tale that transports the Lovecraftian terrors far from their origin, to the unlikely destination of Carmel, California, a picturesque coastal town that’s strangely devoid of any homeless population. Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “Into the Water” is perhaps my favorite story here, a quiet chiller in which global warming and dramatically rising waters afford the Innsmouth amphibians the opportunity to expand their territory.

Of course, as is almost often the case with a sizable anthology, there were other tales that didn’t work so well for me, such as those by John Glasby, Kim Newman, and Adrian Cole, to name a few.  Nonetheless, Weirder Shadows is overall a strong gathering of admirably diverse stories, nicely buttressed by a wonderful Les Edwards dustjacket painting and interior B&W illustrations by Randy Broecker.  Fedogan & Bremer has another anthology, as well as a collection by Scott Nicolay, scheduled for the coming months, and I recommend you put this reemergent press back on your radar.

Visions of a Grim Future in Tim Lebbon’s Still Life

STILL LIFE FINAL COVER2.inddA few years ago, in the course of writing a review of Conrad Williams’ powerful novel One, I declared Williams to be the “king of bleak, the lord of grim.”  After reading Tim Lebbon’s novella Still Life, published by Spectral Press, I’m inclined to say that there’s a new contender for the throne.

Set nearly a decade after an unnamed but seemingly Lovecraftian “enemy” made an “incursion” and conquered the human race, Still Life focuses on a small British village, where the residents are held captive, the village border guarded by deadly creatures and the villagers’ daily activities monitored by the “Finks” — the name given to the traitors recruited by the enemy to help keep the villagers subjugated.

Young widow Jenni is a key character, her husband Marc having been killed in the war against the enemy, although she is seemingly somehow still able to communicate with him from beyond the grave.  In dying, Marc became part of the horrific “road of souls,” as described here:

She saw that endless roadway crossing the land, piercing its borders and wending across plains of dying crops, through valleys where some rivers still ran red, past scattered villages where survivors scraped a meagre existence in what was left after the ruin. Miles long, endless miles, and every part of it made from the shattered and crushed corpses of the vanquished. How many bodies?  was the question she sometimes heard, and the one she was so afraid to ask herself. How many dead do you need to build such a road?

Later, the construction of the road is described vividly:

The piled mass of humanity is ploughed down by huge machines, limbs severed, bodies bursting in rains of blood and flesh. Then come the rollers, giant things that bear immense weight onto the wretched layers of the defeated, crushing them down, squashing, merging men and women, boys and girls, into a complex mess of ruined flesh and bone.

Jenni is recruited by Damien, the leader of the resistance, to take part in an effort to overcome the Finks. What they will do next, if they succeed, is not so clear…but the desire to try and do something, anything, to fight back, is strong.

Still Life is a very compact story, quickly paced and a lightning-fast read.  And, for most of the way, it’s a dark and seemingly hopeless ride…but in end Lebbon provides at least a glimmer for the reader to cling to.

Out-of-this-world expectations — Brett J. Talley’s The Void

Brett J. Talley’s first novel, That Which Should Not Be, received quite a bit of acclaim — enough that I finally decided that I simply had to read it… but before I could do so, his second novel — also from JournalStone Publishing — was announced and a review copy arrived.  That second novel is The Void, and it’s a classic combination of science fiction and horror (a genre mash-up that I’m an absolute sucker for), in the same vein as Event Horizon, Solaris, or Moon (to cite film comparisons only).

Between the acclaim for That Which Should Not Be, the advance praise for The Void, and my affinity for sf/horror combos, my expectations for this book were sky-high, and that’s a heavy burden for any author to bear.  How did Talley fare?  Let’s examine…

Set aboard the intergalactic starship The Chronos in the year 2169, the story employs a small but interesting cast of characters that for the most part resists resorting to type and includes the following notables:

  • Captain Caroline Gravey, a recently-retired Navy veteran who’s taking the helm of a private vessel for the first time.
  • Navigator Aidan Connor, who has no memory of the catastrophe that destroyed his last ship, a disaster that only he survived.
  • Rebecca Kensington, a somewhat-secretive passenger who possesses a few misgivings about her hidden agenda.
  • Dr. Malcolm Ridley, the ship’s resident psychiatrist, a role that’s required due to the mental effects that sometimes result from warp-drive travel.

Warp travel necessitates that crew members and passengers be sleeping during the journey, and the “mental effects” mentioned above — which can result from the strange, frightening dreams experienced during warp sleep — essentially translate to insanity.  What’s worse, the affect can sometimes be gradual and insidious, so waking from warp travel and feeling fine is not necessarily indicative of anything.

When the Chronos emerges from warp travel, the crew discover that they’re not where they’re supposed to be.  Instead, they’re in a remote, unpopulated area of space, near an unidentified and seemingly derelict vessel, surrounded by black holes.  With a small window of time before the other ship is pulled into one of the black holes, the true nature of the situation into which  the Chronos has been manipulated is revealed, while the other vessel turns out to be perhaps not so derelict after all.

The fear of losing one’s mind is effectively conveyed, and later in the story there are seemingly human threats to deal with, but the greatest sense of terror here comes from the eponymous void — the endless reaches of space, the black holes, the vast nothingness.

So, at the end of the day, did The Void live up to my expectations?  To some extent, yes.  There’s no denying that there are the seeds of a very good novel here.  What detracts from the book’s overall impact, though, are a few occasional awkward sentences, some rather jarring shifts in style, and far too much time spent on chapters exploring the characters’ dreams, some of which really drag.  In sum, I’m glad I read The Void, but I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.

Quick Take – Stephen Mark Rainey’s Blue Devil Island

Obviously, I’m a fan of horror fiction.  I also have a strong appreciation for war-oriented fiction — being a big admirer of books such as Stewart O’Nan’s The Names of the Dead, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.  It should thus come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for war/horror hybrids.  Or that Stephen Mark Rainey’s novel Blue Devil Island, reprinted in trade paperback  in 2011 by Marietta Publishing (after appearing in hardcover from Five Star back in 2007) caught my attention.  Rainey’s tale features a World War II setting — the beginning of the American offensive against the Japanese in the Pacific theater during the autumn of 1943, to be exact — and is extremely rich in military and period detail. Rainey has clearly done his research, and the following excerpt gives a brief taste of the wealth of background information sprinkled throughout:

“The smell of avgas had replaced the tang of salt in the air, and the roar of Pratt & Whitney engines thundered above the grinding of the jeep motors…I firmly pressed each rudder pedal to make sure the tension was correct and then shifted the control yoke forward, backward, and side to side to check the action.”

The narrator above is Lieutenant Commander Drew McLachlan, a veteran pilot who leads a squadron that goes by the nickname of “Blue Devils.”  The squadron has recently been deployed to a remote island in the Solomons, from where they’re launching sorties to try and take some of the backbone out of the Japanese defense.  Unfortunately for the squadron and the other military personnel on the base, they soon find that they are not alone on the island, and that the Japanese are the least of their worries.

The island is home to volcanic caves that seem to run deep beneath the surface, and which are home to something that begins to speak to the soldiers, subtly at first and then with increasing influence and hostility.  McLachlan is one of the first to understand the nature of what they’re dealing with:

“…Drew, just what is in there do you think?”

‘Something very old,’ I said softly. ‘I believe we’ve woken something up. And it is not happy. No, it is not happy at all.'”

As the evil draws closer to the surface, first manipulating its minions and later emerging itself, the novel moves rapidly into cosmic, eldritch horror territory.  Blue Devil Island is tailored with a pulp sensibility, but written with far more intelligence and attention to detail than most traditional pulp fiction. In fact, it’s that attention to detail that is the only minor flaw here — there is so much detail that sometimes the sheer amount of it threatens to derail the narrative.  But fans of historical and supernatural fiction should find much to like here.

Riding the Crazy Train with Nick Marsh’s The Express Diaries

The Express Diaries, the fourth novel from UK writer Nick Marsh, features a highly unusual gestation, certainly one of the strangest that I’ve seen: the book is an authorized, although not official, novelization of a campaign for the horror roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu — specifically, an out-of-print campaign, originally published in 1991, called Horror on the Orient Express. Further, the book is the first title from a new press, Innsmouth House Press, an offshoot of the Lovecraftian game fan-site yog-sothoth.com, and its publication was funded by a kickstarter.com campaign. Got all that?

Backstory aside, The Express Diaries is set in 1925 and is told in more-or-less epistolary fashion, via the journal entries of the various characters. Representative of its RPG roots, it also includes images of several “artifacts” of the story, such as train tickets, flyers, and newspaper clippings. Indeed, the entire tale is presented as sort of a 1920s version of the “found footage” approach that’s been such a popular motif for horror films in the last decade. As the Editor’s Note states:

The tale that is told within these pages did not give up its secrets lightly. The story of how the disparate parts were pieced together is one almost as fascinating as the story itself. From humble beginnings – the chance discovery of the journal of a Mrs Violet Davenport – it took almost a decade before my colleagues and I were able to unlock the final piece of the mystery, and view the story as a whole.

It’s an offbeat and engaging approach… at least initially. But eventually the style wears a bit thin, and ultimately creates a sense of “distance” between the reader and the story that is not conducive to suspension of disbelief.

The main cast of characters features retired Colonel Neville Goodenough, the group’s matriarch Mrs. Betty Sunderland, her secretary Grace, and her niece Violet. Betty attends a lecture by her friend, Professor Julius Smith, regarding an ancient statue called the Sedefkar Simulacrum, which he is in pursuit of. Shortly thereafter, Smith is critically burned in a fire, but before dying he reveals that others with evil intent are also after the statue, which has been broken into several pieces but which, if recombined, will bring great power to its owner. At Betty’s urging, the group takes up Smith’s quest, embarking on a journey that takes them across Europe via the famed Orient Express.

The narrative is initially related in such a genteel fashion that it’s truly shocking when violence intrudes and characters suddenly die. In fact, even hough the story may ultimately go where the reader expects, the journey to get there is paved with more than a few surprises. It’s also notable that Marsh frequently interjects subtle humor — for example, when juxtaposing Mrs. Sunderland’s journal entries, which make vague allusions to the medicinal nature of her late-night libations, with others’ entries, which openly complain about her drinking problem.

As is hopefully obvious from the above description, there are some wonderful aspects to this book, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, due to the journal-based approach, which left me feeling a level removed from the story, as well as an remarkably over-the-top and ill-advised late scene in which our intrepid investigators manage to re-board the train while it’s traveling at high speed.

Postscript: Taking a page from Innsmouth House Press’ book, Chaosium — the publisher of the Call of Cthulhu game and the Horror on the Orient Express campaign — has announced a kickstarter.com project of their own, to “raise the money required to reprint and revise the iconic boxed set, originally published in 1991.”