Review by Benjamin Wald
DAW Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780756406165
Date: 06 April 2010 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Anyone who is interested in H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos knows that the "end game" of the mythos occurs when the stars align and the old ones, the inscrutable, amoral, inter-dimensional gods of whom Cthulhu itself is the most famous, return to reclaim earth. But what happens next? How do people respond to the literal end of the world? This is the question that the stories in Cthulhu's Reign explore. This anthology of original short stories examines what might come next, after the old one's return but before they have (finished) exterminating humanity.
This anthology's premise creates a significant challenge for the stories it contains. The core of the Cthulhu's mythos' power is the fact that the old ones and their servants are utterly alien; beyond human rationality or understanding. The actions and powers of the old ones are utterly incomprehensible, and when they return they remake the world in their image. Thus, a world in which the old ones have returned is one that the human intellect is utterly insufficient to understand. This makes it difficult to set a story in such a world. What is there for the characters to do other than wait to die? For me, the stories of this collection are divided by how they deal with this problem.
Most of the stories fall into one of three ways of dealing with this challenge. The first is to minimize the problem by rationalizing the old ones. While humanity might fail to understand why the old ones act the way they do, this is due to our limited knowledge, not any fundamental incomprehensibility. Brian Stableford takes this route with his story "Holocaust of Ecstasy", a surprisingly cool and cerebral story about a radically transformed humanity existing after the return of the old ones. In this story, the old ones shape humanity for their own ends, and while these ends are bizarre, and even horrifying, they are not incomprehensible. The story is enjoyable, although the setting is revealed mostly through a series of info dumps, made necessary by the fact that the main character is a disembodied head growing from a tree and thus has limited agency in the story.
Another story to take this approach is Fred Chappell’s "Remnants", the longest story in the collection, and a bit overlong in my estimation. The story sets the invasion of earth by the old ones against the background of an interstellar war between the old ones and the "great race", complete with spaceships and an interstellar alliance opposing the old ones. The story is readable, if a bit overlong, but I found this approach to the setting too rational and scientific to capture the flavor of the Chthulu mythos, and I was disappointed overall. Indeed, this was my reaction to most of the stories that took this rationalizing approach to the mythos setting, and of all of them only Stableford's story was strong enough on its own merits to overcome this thematic dissonance.
The second approach is to accept that the old ones are incomprehensible, and to tell stories that chronicle the realization of this fact by those humans who remain alive. This approach is the most common, and is used to varying effect. "The Walker in the Cemetary", by Ian Watson, takes this tack and is by far the weakest story in the anthology. Cthulhu is reduced to the status of a slasher villain, picking the members of a tour group one by one over a period of weeks. The characters are mere sketches which spend most of their time waiting for death, and the story ends with a pointless tentacle-rape scene and no resolution to speak of.
On the other hand, "the shallows" by John Langan is a fascinating story that juxtaposes the unpredictability and incomprehensibility of the old ones with the everyday incomprehensibility of death, making for a slow-paced but powerful story. Other stories, like "Ghost Dancing" by Darrell Schweitzer and "Sanctuary" by Don Webb, don't do quite as much to link the idea of the mythos to our ordinary life, but do give us skillful portraits of the ways people might react to the collapse of their ordinary lives, capturing the power of the Cthulhu mythos quite well.
The third, and to my eyes most interesting, approach to the problem of incomprehensibility is to consider ways that we might come to terms with, and even assimilate ourselves to, the irrationality and madness of the old ones. Only two stories take this route, but they are both very effective. "The New Pauline... Corpus" by Matt Cardin explores the theological implications of the old ones emergence, and how Catholicism in particular might adapt itself to the worship of Cthulhu. "This is How the World Ends" by John R. Fultz explores one mans struggle against, and eventual surrender to, the terrible transformations the world undergoes once Cthulhu awakes.
As I said, this anthology's theme sets a difficult challenge for the authors who have contributed stories. Some of the authors rise to this challenge, and other fall short by greater or lesser degrees. This makes the anthology a bit of a mixed bag, There are some memorable stories in here, and some significant flops. Most of the stories draw on at least a passing familiarity with the Cthulhu mythos, so having read at least some of this style of fiction before would be an asset, although not essential. Overall, about half of stories are well worth reading, and most of the rest are at least entertaining, which is not a bad ratio for an original themed anthology. If the premise excites your interest, it's well worth your time.