This is another collection of Lovecraft homage, a cottage industry in the horror genre. Getting Lovecraftian stories published seems to be relatively easy nowadays, like shooting fish in a barrel. Before getting to the text, I want to mention the fine ink lines on the splendid illustrations by Randy Broecker. They reminded me of the classic work of Robin Jacques, who illustrated children’s books long ago, including some by Andre Norton.
The opening shot is ‘Innsmouth Bane’ by John Glasby which tells the story of Obed Marsh, the dodgy sea captain who changed the town forever. The narrative is on that hoary old manuscript tucked away in a secret place and was written by Jebediah Allen, a god fearing Baptist. It’s not a great yarn but it does nicely capture the feel of Victorian pulp fiction.
There’s a very different flavour to Kim Newman’s ‘Richard Riddle, Boy Detective’ in ‘The Case of the French Spy’. Dick, Violet and Ernest are on holiday in Lyme Regis and are alarmed when a mad clergymen smashes to pieces an ammonite they have found. The Reverend Mister Sellwood knows that the Earth is only six thousand years old and all evidence to contrary is the devil’s work. ‘The Case Of The French Spy’ also features a prisoner kept since the Napoleonic war and was inspired stylistically by ‘Swallows And Amazons’ and ‘Emil And The Detectives’, said the author. That’s an odd approach to Lovecraftian subject matter but there are amusing moments and it works surprisingly well.
‘Innsmouth Clay’ is credited to Lovecraft himself and August Derleth but is probably more by the latter who took charge of the great man’s legacy after his death. Jeffrey Corey is a sculptor who takes up residence near Innsmouth and works on a statue of a sea goddess using odd clay washed up on the beach. It’s nicely done but, though the plot may be Lovecraft’s, the scripting is not. Ye olde fiction atmosphere is maintained by the device of journal entries telling the story.
That method is also used for Reggie Oliver’s interesting tale about ‘The Archbishop’s Well’ which transplants the piscine horror to his fictional south west England town of Morchester. There’s an ancient well in the grounds of the cathedral which some of the modern clergy want to close off and convert into a drinking fountain for the tourists. The story is set in 1939 and features a Wodehouse-style fool by the name of Bertie. Oliver’s clergymen brought to mind those of Anthony Trollope in fictional ‘Barchester’ so, with Lovecraft, there’s a three way tribute going on in this yarn. The sense of menace builds nicely to a surprisingly action packed climax. I liked it.
Even more, I liked the hard-nosed private eye getting enmeshed in Lovecraftian myth in ’You Don’t Want To Know’ by Adrian Cole. New York sleuth Nick Stone is hired by three fishy looking characters to murder a man called Stefan Zeitsheim as soon as he gets off the boat from Odessa. Nick’s no assassin but he’s soon convinced he’ll be dead himself if he doesn’t take the case. This is a fast-paced thriller which also develops the premises of Innsmouth in an interesting and logical way. The hard-boiled detective story is often teamed up with horror themes nowadays, usually to good effect.
This volume is blessed with three stories from Caitlin R. Kiernan. She seems to have a thing about horrible lovers. In ‘Love Is Forbidden, We Croak And Howl’- also collected in ‘Lovecraft’s Monsters’ – she gave us a ghoul paired with one of the daughters of Innsmouth. This time it’s a normal man. A writer, actually. Well, they are strange. ‘Fish Bride’ is mostly set in a bedroom with the fellow thinking about his odd situation. It’s almost plotless but Kiernan’s fine writing carries it off.
Her second story ‘On The Reef’ describes a macabre ceremony performed on Devil’s Reef, near Innsmouth, by the light of a Halloween moon. Fashioned in dense text, with scarcely a word of dialogue, it is very like the work of the man who inspired this volume. Finally, she donates ‘The Transition Of Elizabeth Haskings’, about a reclusive woman in a small town. You’ll never guess what her secret is unless you look at the title of the book.
‘The Same Deep Waters As You’ by Brian Hodge also appeared in ‘Lovecraft’s Monsters’ and I praised it to the skies in that review. No need to repeat here. It’s great.
The small island of Alderney, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Britain, is the setting for ‘The Hag Stone’ by Conrad Williams. Usual theme but lots of visceral dream imagery effectively conveys the atmosphere of something ancient and rotten lurking in the water. This one starts slow, almost like a Victorian novel, but draws you in stealthily and makes your flesh creep.
Ramsay Campbell started out doing Lovecraftian fiction and still dips his toe in those dark waters now and again. ‘The Winner’ has Jessop entering a dingy dockside pub because his ferry has been delayed and finding the locals a bit threatening. I think all pub frequenters have done this occasionally. The author builds the sense of menace slowly with dialogue worthy of a Harold Pinter play. Ramsay Campbell is well regarded in the field and one really should get round to reading more of his stuff.
Continuing with the boozy theme, I identified with the protagonist of ‘The Chain’ by Michael Marshall Smith. Thanks to my own research, I can affirm that he accurately portrays the process of buying two bottles of wine, just to save another shopping trip, finishing one and then starting the other even though you know you shouldn’t. The hangover is also well described. The story is set in Carmel, California where there seem to be no down and outs at all. Why? (Hint: it isn’t Clint.) Our hero is a painter and there are interesting thoughts on the creative process.
Angela Slatter gives us a long story set in a school where Doctor Croftmarsh is a teacher and translator with a patchy memory. There’s more to the school than meets the eye and a lot more to the staff. ‘The Song of Sighs’ was entertaining but I liked her short piece better. ‘Rising, Not Dreaming’ is more musical, in fact it’s about a harpist lulling the bad old gods to keep them asleep beneath the sea.
‘The Long Last Night’ by Brian Lumley also dealt with the more powerful creatures of Lovecraft lore who have come to Earth and twisted London into a tower. Two survivors team up on a mission to the centre of the peril, wading through the flooded Underground system and avoiding the marine servants of the dark gods. Lumley drops hints so you think you know what’s going to happen but there are a few unexpected twists.
There was extensive flooding in south-west England a couple of years ago and global warming was much mentioned. Simon Kurt Unsworth dramatises this with a television crew reporting and a cameraman finding unexpected things in the water. The TV presenters are disdainfully referred to as ‘the talent‘, the implication being that the film crew and support staff do all the useful work. I wonder if real life crews see it that way. The story maintained an atmosphere of menace.
The only problem with these stories is that the writers can’t really surprise anyone acquainted with Lovecraft lore and the basic piscine premise of Innsmouth. The creepy build up of some protagonists finding strange goings on leads inevitably to the conclusion that men have bred with fishy things and are lurking about. The various authors do a good job with the atmosphere, the plot and the characters but the element of surprise, which was essential to the Spanish Inquisition, is not possible. On the other hand, fans of this sub-genre know that and are probably looking for variations on a theme by HPL rather than something startlingly original. It’s a splendid collection with a high standard of writing but there’s an inevitable sameness about much of it. For this reason, I recommend reading it in small doses over a period of time; but I do recommend reading it.
(pub: Titan Books. 371 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK), $11.95 (US), $16.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-78329-131-1)
check out website: www.titanbooks.com