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Book Review: Cthulhu Fhtagn! Weird Tales Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Cthulhu Fhtagn!

Lockhart’s magnificent Book Of Cthulhu anthologies did an excellent job in compiling weird tales from across a wide spectrum of authors. I enjoyed both volumes immensely and have been wondering whether there would be a follow- up. Cthulhu Fhtagn! is a worthy companion piece, only this time all the stories are original to the collection. In his introduction, Lockhart explains that he meant for the stories to be about houses (literally or metaphorically). This is a rather loose motif, as is the thematic connection between the stories. Most but not all are lovecraftian to some extent, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the quality never flags and that all 19 stories are worth reading. Case in point:

The Lightning Splitter – Walter Greatshell

The ideal opener. The story goes from a well- worn premise (couple buys New England property with a strange history) to bugfuck insanity within a handful of pages. Most excellent.

Dead Canyons – Ann K. Schwader

A ground- breaking artificial life experiment goes horribly wrong (don’t they all?). Not among my personal favorites, but fun nonetheless. Thematically, it makes a nice companion piece to David Conway’s Black Static, from the epochal Lovecraftian collection The Starry Wisdom.

Delirium Sings at the Maelstrom Window – Michael Griffin

Slightly reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless, Griffin’s story is a haunting meditation on loss and despair. Also, it’s creepy as hell. Nice shout- out to The Music of Erich Zann as well.

Into Ye Smoke-Wreath’d World of Dream – W. H. Pugmire

Decadent poets and goth chicks mess around with strange artifacts in Providence, with predictably dire results. This being a Pugmire story, it’s sensual and playful in equal measure. I would argue that it’s more attuned to Clark Ashton Smith’s opulent, purple aesthetic than Lovecraft’s stately mannerisms. In any case, it’s a highlight.

The Lurker In the Shadows – Nathan Carson

Slightly distasteful and totally hilarious tale about a world where Lovecraft lived to become a household horror icon, had his work adapted for the screen by Hitchcock and Argento and struck up a correspondence with a thinly- veiled version of Stephen King. I suspect King would like it (and Lovecraft would not approve).

The Insectivore – Orrin Grey    

A small town kid meets a paranoid neighbor who believes he can see the future and has an irrational fear of bugs. But what if the guy is not crazy? More Bradbury than Lovecraft, The Insectivore is a nasty little tale with a neat, blackened conclusion. It’s the kind of conte cruel that Robert Bloch used to produce at a constant rate over the decades and I mean that as a compliment. Reminds me that I need to get Grey’s short story collection Painted Monsters.

The Body Shop – Richard Lee Byers

After alien entities invade earth, humanity is almost decimated. A former tattoo artist survives by offering an unusual range of services to the survivors- services involving bodily modification using alien grafts. There are side- effects. I’m not a big fan of post- apocalyptic horror on most days, but I appreciated the fact that The Body Shop is the most nihilistic story in the book. It’s quite a feat, considering the theme of the collection.

On a Kansas Plain – Michael J. Martinez

Your standard tale of apocalyptic cults, Elder Signs, paranoia, etc., but with a wonderfully cold- hearted ending.

The Prince of Lyghes – Anya Martin

The Prince of Lyghes has enough goo and gore to satisfy the most jaded Hugh B. Cave or Brian Lumley fan. The real strength of the story though lies in the way it depicts the mundane horrors of an abusive relationship. It’s exactly the sort of subject matter that most horror writers shy away from and it packs a punch.

The Curious Death of Sir Arthur Turnbridge – G. D. Falksen

Agatha Christie- style cozy murder mystery, mashed together with occult horror. Faulksen’s story is surprisingly effective, despite the fundamental literary differences of the two genres. Somewhat overlong, but very amusing nonetheless. Great ending.

Aerkheim’s Horror – Christine Morgan

A prequel to The Shadow over Innsmouth, pitting Vikings against the Deep Ones. Exactly as awesome as it sounds.

Return of the Prodigy – T.E. Grau

At the insistence of his wife, a grumpy, middle- aged husband arranges an exotic holiday in the Pacific. He settles for a cheap booking in an obscure island, but when they get there weirdness takes over. Grau’s tale is pretty funny at first but becomes more and more unsettling as the full, inevitable predicament of the couple unfolds.

The Curse of the Old Ones – Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington

It’s 1975 and Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing are shooting a Lovecraft- inspired horror movie on location in the UK. The script keeps changing, the studio is getting anxious and weird accidents plague the production, so the two thespians decide to investigate. And then Vincent Price shows up. Look, Cushing and Price are practically my patron saints and the late, great Ms Pitt is a goddess in my personal pantheon. I got the chance to interview her back in 2007 and I haven’t shut up about it ever since (shameless self- promotion:https://gangbangfanzine.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/ingrid-pitt-interview/). I even like that groovy Dunwich Horror adaptation with Dean Stockwell that everyone else hates. Unsurprisingly, The Curse of the Old Ones is my  favorite story in Cthulhu Fhtagn!.

Love Will Save You – Cameron Pierce

Oblique existential horror- and perhaps a metaphor for the ways that caring for others ends up destroying us. I didn’t understand it, but it intrigued me.

Assemblage Point – Scott R. Jones

Sequel to Ramsey Campbell’s The Render of the Veils. Apparently, Cambell has gracefully stated that Assemblage Point is actually superior to his story. He’s right. It’s a tight balancing act between a traditional Mythos story and a metafictional trick that announces itself on the first sentence. Assemblage Point is exactly the sort of story that could have been too arch and clever to entertain. Instead, it works so well that it made me remember why I love this occult horror shit in the first place.

The Return of Sarnath – Gord Sellar

It ain’t a Lovecraft tribute if the Dreamlands don’t make an appearance. Sellar examines our world through the eyes of Ajal, a dreamer, resulting in an evocative, colourful narrative. I ‘ve never cared much for that particular aspect of Lovecraft’s work (Nyarlathotep notwithstanding), but it’s a good story.

The Long Dark – Wendy N. Wagner

Gothic science fiction. The story itself was a bit too elliptical for my tastes, but the imagery is deliciously dark.

Green Revolution – Cody Goodfellow

A young eco- warrior comes to the Honduran jungle on the trail of an elusive, mysterious activist and philosopher. She hopes to receive knowledge that will revolutionise humanity’s relationship to the plant kingdom, but Gaia is not necessarily a benign entity. The Green Revolution is a tour de force for Goodfellow, a feverish, hallucinatory read and one of the most ambitious and original horror pieces that I’ve ever come across.

Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form – Laird Barron

In order to escape imprisonment, failed bank robber Delia Andersen joins a cabal of mystery women who are interested in her extra- sensory abilities. The cadre consists of martial artists, former intelligence operatives, sociopaths and assorted amazons- headed by the enigmatic Mrs. Shrike. Their job is to battle death cults, supervillains, cosmic beings and other weird threats. Delia heads to Alaska on her first assignment, as otherworldly agents of fortune move against her and apocalyptic mayhem ensues: Substances are consumed and luxury cars explode. Old acquaintances show up, puppets come alive to give snarky advice and blood is spilled. Also, Glenn Danzig sings a song.

Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form is looser and pulpier than much of Laird Barron’s previous work and it’s bursting with insane set pieces. It plays like the pilot episode of a TV series, but the reader gets the feeling of a whole universe squirming underneath the actual narrative. For all the gore, nihilism and nightmarish imagery, this is first and foremost a thrill ride; and like Zelazny’s Kalifriki stories and Karl Edward Wagner’s modern- day Kane stuff, half the fun is reading between the lines. It also retroactively elevates material that I didn’t care for in the first place (eg. More Dark) and makes me want to go on a rant about entheogens, road movies and the picaresque occult epics of the 20th century (The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Jim Dodge’s Stone Junction, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles comics) and how no one does them anymore. The point is that Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form is a blast. It slithers and slides like vintage AC/DC. Drumroll. Fireworks. 21- gun salute.

(-Dimitris Kontogiannis-)

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One Response “Book Review: Cthulhu Fhtagn! Weird Tales Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, edited by Ross E. Lockhart”

  1. 15/01/2016 at 2:47 am

    Thanks for the kinds words! But c'mon–it's more than "mildly distasteful." And there is nothing veiled at all about Stephen King's appearance. Cheers! 🙂

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