I have a confession: I am not a Lovecraft fan. I’ve never really been able to get through his work, try as I might. I guess my mind just isn’t capable of wrapping itself around his old-fashioned, dense, often complex style. And yet, I’m absolutely fascinated by the things he created and inspired. I’m intrigued by the Cthulhu Mythos, by the Old Ones and their alien servitors, by the disturbing settings and the upsetting themes, by the epic scale and the exploration of the (in)human condition. Though I’ve never been much for Lovecraft’s writing, I’m attracted to his legacy. And if this anthology is any indication, I’m not alone.
In New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, editor Paula Guran has collected over two dozen tales inspired by Lovecraftian creations and themes, all of them published in the twenty-first century. It’s an amazingly diverse, thought-provoking selection, representing a vast array of moods, themes, and styles. As Guran states in her introduction, “They do not imitate; they re-imagine, re-energize, renew, re-set, and make Lovecraft concepts relevant for today. After all, in this era of great unrest, continual change, constant conflict, and increasing vulnerability to natural disasters, it is not hard to believe that the universe doesn’t give a damn and we are doomed, doomed, doomed.”
What can we take away from this collection? Well, for one thing, Lovecraft’s themes are universal, easily applied to everything from urban fantasy to science fiction, mystery to romance. Horrible things happen to everyday people; quite often, their downfall comes in the form of a tiny chink in their emotional armor. Like some sort of bizarre morality play, ordinary men and women encounter something beyond their everyday experience, and suffer for their failings. And yet, there’s the occasional ray of sunshine and hope, breaking through the clouds when all seems lost.
It’s quite impressive how many interpretations of the Cthulhu Mythos are represented here. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study In Emerald” is actually a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, utilizing all of the traditional elements to retell the first Holmes story with a rather macabre twist. Gaiman’s blending of universes is seamless and effortless, giving us a world where the ascendancy of the Old Ones is almost matter-of-fact.
On the far end of the scale, you have “Mongoose,” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. It’s actually one of the most optimistic, reassuring stories available. Set in the far future, it’s a science fiction adventure in which a… well, call him a troubleshooter, is hired to clean out a “minor infestation” aboard a space station. In a clever bit of obfuscation, the alien critters encountered here are called boojums, raths, toves, cheshires and bandersnatches, borrowing from Lewis Carroll to describe the otherwise inexplicable. It’s a nice touch, and you don’t need to have your Lovecraft bestiary memorized to appreciate the way things are portrayed.
Kim Newman’s “Another Fish Story” is an odd piece of alternate history involving the Manson Family, as they get involved in matters far beyond their understanding. Seeming to invoke elements of Stephen King’s Randall Flagg, and the Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil” as well, it’s a story on the fringes of society and culture, definitely a subtler piece.
“A Colder War” by Charles Stross, and “Old Virginia” by Laird Barron, take similar approaches to their treatments of the Mythos, looking at how governments might react to the presence of powerful, yet unpredictable alien elements. Barron’s story hews more towards a CIA black ops situation, somewhat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, with unspeakable things happening in far-off jungles. Stross casts a wider scope, applying his changes to the Cold War in general, treating the monsters of the Mythos as WMDs or worse. In both cases, things definitely go wrong in a hurry.
Sometimes, normal people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cherie Priest’s sushi chef finds himself serving a most irregular dish in “Bad Sushi,” while Michael Marshall Smith’s house burglar steals more than he expected in “Fair Exchange,” and Marc Laidlaw’s game designer fights a losing battle against the inevitable in “The Vicar of R’lyeh.” In each case, these ordinary men have an opportunity to prove their strength…or their weakness.
Elizabeth Bear finds a noble, if alien, beauty in some of the least of the Mythos’ creatures, in “Shoggoths In Bloom,” which won the 2009 Hugo for Best Novelette. While in some stories the creatures of myth and legend are just that, unknowable and mysterious, here they’re something to be studied and appreciated.
Taking on an almost meta-fictional aspect, Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt’s “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” ties together Lovecraft and his creations, drawing inspiration from the author’s near-legendary volume of correspondence with like-minded creators. While it may just be a story, it helps to emphasize the fact that Lovecraft interacted with, and inspired, a whole lot of people in his time, as well as those who followed.
These are just some of the stories to be found in this anthology. Other authors represented include Caitlin Kiernan, John Shirley, China Mieville, Holly Phillips, and more. It’s a pretty impressive line-up, with nary a clunker to be found. Sure, I can admit that not all of these stories worked for me personally, but I can appreciate what they were working towards.
As Guran says, “If the strange gentleman from Providence were to appear among us today, he would, no doubt, disapprove of some of the stories his ideas have inspired. We certainly would not accept his racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry. But literature is an ongoing conversation and one hopes HPL would join in.” And I have to agree. For better or for worse, Lovecraft is one of those authors who somehow left a lasting mark upon the field, one which has cast ripples down through the decades. In this collection, we see just what sort of stories people are able to tell with the toys he left behind, the ones he inspired, and the ones he encouraged others to create.
You don’t have to be a Lovecraft fan to enjoy this collection. Heck, you don’t even have to be that well-versed in the Cthulhu Mythos to appreciate the stories. Sure, it helps if you know your shoggoths from your Nyarlathotep, but most of these stories are accessible nonetheless. You’ll find alienation, inhumanity, desperation, cruelty, insanity, hopelessness and despair, all set against the backdrop of a vast, unknowable universe filled with vile, indifferent monstrosities. You’ll also find beauty, hope, redemption, and the struggle for survival. What more can you ask for?
Final confession. I may not be a fan of Lovecraft, but I do have a near complete collection of plush Cthulhu and his pals, from the bilious green tentacled slippers to the unsightly Christmas wreath, from baby Shoggoth to Nyarlothotep. I even have several in a nice, sanity-shattering paisley. I can only hope Lovecraft is spinning in his grave at the thought of how commercial his legacy has become. But I digress. If you need just one volume of Cthulhu-inspired stories written within the past decade or so, this one will suit your needs perfectly.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at www.michaelmjones.com/wordpress.