The Private Life of Elder Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris McDonald and Adam Gauntlett (book review).

Collections of short stories based on the Cthulhu Mythos are hardly new, but collections of short stories about people living alongside Mythos creatures and aliens is something distinctly original. I almost wrote living happily alongside such creatures but these are, after all, weird tales and happiness isn’t really the point. It would be better to say that the protagonists of the stories included here tolerate them or, under varying degrees of duress, acknowledge their existence.

In other words, what the three authors do here is put a new spin on the Mythos. Instead of simply describing the many ways humanity can be wiped out, they take a step back and ask what would happen if we had to live alongside unknowable and ineffable entities of vast power but obscure motives. The result is a collection of eleven short stories each featuring a different aspect of the Mythos.

The first entry, ‘Donald’, for example, deals with the amphibious Deep Ones from ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. In Lovecraft’s story, they largely represent his anxiety about intermarriage between different races and the narrator describes their horror in terms of what they look like and how they behave rather than any actual threat to humanity. Tchaikovsky takes this a step further and his story involves an oceanographer, who apparently makes friends with someone called Donald, who supplies him with all sorts of queer deep sea specimens. As the story unfolds, it is implied that Donald is one of the Deep Ones and, that rather than threatening humanity without reason, they are holding us to account for the damage we are doing to the planet.

In fact, Adrian Tchaikovsky seems to enjoy using the Mythos to make philosophical points. Another of his stories, ‘The Branch Line Repairman’, digs into the lore surrounding the Elder Things and the strong but mindless Shoggoths they created as slaves. Rather wonderfully, he sets the story on London’s Circle Line, hinting at a deeper meaning to the patterns the subterranean lines created as they bored their way through the clay. In the story where Lovecraft detailed the Elder Things in ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’, the narrator who explores the remains of the Elder Thing city ultimately develops a sympathy for them, but Tchaikovsky plays with the idea that the Shoggoths were slaves and that our sympathy for their masters may be misplaced. It’s subtly done, with enough ambiguity that this isn’t simply a good-versus-evil mash-up, but more a suggestion that hierarchies and oppression are nothing new and existed long before humans were on the scene.

If morality plays aren’t to your taste, some of the stories are just good fun. ‘Special Needs Child’ is one of Keris McDonald’s entries and just a hoot. As the story notes at the back of the book explain, Lovecraft’s ghouls are likeable enough once you get past their peculiar tastes. That’s the point of this story, having a US Army veteran working during the clear-up of some natural disaster. Out of one unidentifiable corpse she finds a tiny hand emerging and, given the context, decides to keep the child herself.

Over the years, the child is loving in its way, but different to others of its age. It’s tastes are strange, including a preference for fermenting vegetables over baby food and eventually raw meat over cooked. Eventually her partner can take no more, but the narrator rationalises all of this as the child being ‘special’ and that’s not something every adult can handle. Eventually the child, Preston, becomes a teenager and the hormones really kick in. But even at the horrific, if darkly comical end, when Preston’s nature becomes clear, his ‘mother’ still loves him.

The third of the authors is Adam Gauntlett and one of his stories is ‘New Build’, a Mythos take on those infernal property development programmes so popular on British television. In this case, it’s an derelict Victorian pub in London with a strangely built underground room almost like the inside of an egg. This is, of course, an allusion to the ‘Hounds Of Tindalos’ by Frank Belknap Long. The pub, it turns out, was the centre of occult activity in the past. But surely that’s not connected in any way to the strange deaths in recent days, apparently caused by large dogs?

‘Devo Nodenti’ by Keris McDonald is perhaps my favourite story in the collection. The title comes from an engraving on real object, a curse tablet found at an archaeological dig at Lydney in Gloucestershire. Meaning ‘for Nodens’, the story involves a female archaeologist, Peggy Connings, and is told in two parallel time frames: one, when she was a young student under the tutelage of a celebrated academic called DeAngelo and the other in the present, with the archaeologist now retired and awaiting a visit from her son and his children.

In the past, Connings was not only sexually harassed by her tutor, but her work effectively stolen and published under his name. In the present, Connings is now haunted by a black, demonic figure that makes it impossible for her to get a proper night’s sleep. Having made a deal with Nodens to have justice done upon DeAngelo, that was the price she had to pay. Combining elements of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ with a psychologically sensitive exploration of the tension between justice and guilt, ‘Devo Nodenti’ is simply one of the best Dreamlands tales I’ve read and the tender relationship between Connings and her Nightgaunt creates a unique story that works on many levels.

Basically, what ‘The Private Life Of Elder Things’ manages to do is shrink the Mythos down a relatable size. Against all the odds, perhaps this works rather well. Not every crisis has to be about the end of all life on Earth, sometimes just losing a friend can be enough. That’s what happens here and while Tchaikovsky’s stories do lean a little heavily on making some sort of political point, the stories are all good fun and short enough that they never feel indulgent or overwrought. For the price, easily recommended.

Neale Monks

August 2022

(pub: Alchemy Press, 2016. 248 page paperback. Price: £10.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-91103-402-5)

check out website: https://alchemypress.wordpress.com/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.