The Book of Cthulhu
Edited by Ross E. Lockhart
Cover Artist: Obrotowy
Review by Benjamin Wald
Night Shade Books Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597802321
Date: 30 August 2011 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The Book of Cthulhu is the latest thick themed anthology from Nightshade Press. As the title indicates, this volume is devoted to works inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. In particular, this collection focuses on stories inspired by the Cthulhu mythos. This collection contains an impressive 27 stories, covering a wide range of different approaches to Lovecraft's work, from the bleakly horrific to the light and comic.
The choice of stories is a bit odd. There are stories included from as long ago as 1976, but all but 8 stories are from the year 2000 and on. Given that Lovecraftian fiction has been written for decades, this focus on the last 11 years is quite odd. This, along with the range of approaches makes the collection feel a bit unfocused at times. However, this very range of styles also makes it a good introduction to those who want to see the variety of approaches people have taken to Lovecraft's work.
The quality is a bit uneven; writing inspired by Lovecraft can very easily collapse into bloodless pastiche, but the more effective works are amongst the best horror stories I have ever read. About half the stories in this collection are profoundly horrific tales that are worthy successors to Lovecraft's legacy, the other half range from mildly entertaining to atrociously bad. Not the best ratio for those seeking Lovecraft inspired horror, but given the sheer size of this anthology that still makes for a significant number of first rate stories.
The stories in this collection take a variety of different approaches to the subject matter. Some of the more successful ones liven up the standbys of Lovecraftian horror by approaching the material from a new angle. Michael Shea's "Fat Face", for instance, has as a protagonist not the usual intrepid occultist or curious intellectual, but instead a rather incurious and na´ve prostitute. The story starts off with a light tone, slowly ratcheting up the unease towards an ending that is amongst the most unsettling and effective I have ever read.
Charles Stross"s story "A Colder War" juxtaposes traditional Lovecraftian themes with cold war brinksmanship. In an alternate history version of the cold war, the great old one's and their Shuggoth servitors are used as deterrents in the deadly back and forth between the USSR and the USA. Stross creates brilliant parallels between the bleak nihilism of Lovecraft's cosmology and the hideous threat of nuclear war. This is one of my favourite of Stross's stories; it is also his darkest, so reader beware.
Also included is Bruce Sterling's somewhat similar cold war and Cthulhu mashup, "The Unthinkable", but the unfortunate editorial decision to place it directly after "A Colder War" detracts significantly from its effect. "The Unthinkable" is a much shorter and lighter in tone than "A Colder War", relying in part on black humor to get its quite serious point across. Coming right after the longer treatment of a similar theme, "The Unthinkable" comes off as thin and unconvincing, which is a shame, since if it were situated somewhere else in the same anthology it would come off much better.
Not all stories depart in such significant ways from Lovecraft's own writings. Some authors, such as Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, and Ramsey Campbell can produce works that take similar approaches to Lovecraft's own writings and still come off very well by comparison. All three authors provide absolutely top notch stories to this anthology; my one quibble is that as good as Ligotti's "Nethescurial" is, I think his longer work "The Last Feast of Harlequin" is even better, and it would have been my pick for the Ligotti work for the anthology.
Not all the stories succeed so well, however. Quite a few authors have produced by-the-numbers Lovecraft pastiches that mimic all of the surface elements (cults, ancient texts, horrible sleeping gods, and so on), but fail to evoke any real emotional response. Silvia Moreno-Garcia's "Flash Frame" and W.H. Pugmire's "Some Buried Memory" both fit this description, and while not particularly painful to read, these stories fade rapidly from memory.
Other stories falter by attempting to use the Cthulhu mythos as fodder for humor. While this may be possible, it is very difficult, and none of the stories in this collection manage to make it work. "Calamari Curls", by the usually impressive Kage Baker, strives for comedy but falls utterly flat, while Molly Tanzer's "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" quickly devolves into a pointless one-thing-after-another recital of events.
Two of the stories manage to be downright offensive. Brian McNaughton's "The Doom that Came to Innsmouth" starts off by seeming to challenge Lovecraft's obvious and deep seated racism and xenophobia, by criticizing the harsh treatment of the citizens of Innsmouth by the federal government. However, it ends up endorsing this very same racism, by suggesting that criminality is indeed genetic and thus endorsing the racial profiling and religious intolerance that it at first appeared to criticize. David Drake's "Then Curse the Darkness" spends the first half of its length detailing the atrocities committed by the Dutch in the Congo, but then having those crippled by these cruelties turn to worshiping a dark god who would destroy the world, it ends up creating a moral equivalence between the colonizers and the colonized. We may be willing to overlook Lovecraft's racism since he wrote almost 90 years ago; authors today should be held to a higher standard.
In order to get the most out of many of the stories in this volume, you should have some familiarity with Lovecraft's work. The minimum would be to have read The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow over Innsmouth, without these two stories many of the allusions will be lost on the reader. This collection is overall a bit of a mixed bag, with some absolutely brilliant stories and others that are a total disappointment. It's not a bad buy, but there are plenty of anthologies devoted to Lovecraftian horror, and some of them are better bets than this one.