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New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Acolytes of Cthulhu

4th Oct, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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This month I intend to clear my backlog of all things HPL and we'll start with the reprint anthology Acolytes of Cthulhu, edited by Robert M. Price and released by Titan Books back in 2014. This bumper volume contains twenty eight stories and comes with the tag line 'Short Stories Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft'. The material ranges far and wide across the genre landscape, though personally I feel the Lovecraftian connection is tenuous in many cases. In his introduction, editor Price sets out his stall, outlining the importance and longevity of Lovecraft's oeuvre and referencing the work of the various creators involved here.

Opening story is "Doom of the House of Duryea" by Earl Peirce, Jr., in which a family scandal is wrapped up with the curse of vampirism, matters coming to a head with a meeting between estranged father and son. It's a competent if uninspiring offering, one which plays well on the tropes of the vampire subgenre, but really brings nothing new to the table, albeit that may not have been true upon original publication in 1936. As far as the Lovecraft link goes, your guess is as good as mine; there is nothing in the story that requires a nod of the head in the direction of HPL, though Peirce could well have been one of those who corresponded with and looked to HPL as a mentor (you'd need to ask S. T. Joshi to know for sure). Joseph Payne Brennan's "The Seventh Incantation" is a neat if unexceptional account of an occultist attempting to filch the power of an ancient entity only to have things go wrong for him at the last minute, with a sting in the tail that I didn't see coming. It was all rather run of the mill, but worth reading the once, as are most of these stories.

Editor Price joins forces with genre veteran Hugh B. Cave for the portentously titled "From the Pits of Elder Blasphemy" in which an anthropologist on the make attempts to discover the secrets of a cult, with unexpected consequences. Set on the island of Haiti and with voodoo trappings, this was a story that held the attention all the way and gripped the imagination with its depiction of ancient evil trying to get a foothold in the present day, while the final twist gratifyingly upset reader expectations. "The Jewels of Charlotte" by Duane Rimmel was something of a let-down, with the old, familiar plot of crooks after cursed treasure dusted off and given another outing. While the story has some gleefully gory imagery that would have probably delighted artists working for Warren comics, the setting and backdrop failed to convince, and the plot meandered hopelessly.

Manly Wade Wellmann brings us a story of occult detective and adventurer John Thunstone in "The Letter of Cold Fire", with our hero deftly countering the evil machinations of a rival sorcerer. Delightful as the story is, with move and counter move played out on the page, what makes it truly effective and memorable are the vistas of cosmic horror displayed and the hints of things that lurk just beyond our vision, such as the Deep School, with the power of suggestion used to telling effect. To my mind "Horror at Vecra" by Henry Hasse was the first story in the collection to feel Lovecraftian, with references to tainted soil that brought to mind "The Colour Out of Space" and cursed texts. The story builds gradually and with assurance, details accumulating that make us all the more receptive when the writer unleashes the horrors of his end game. It was a good story, though not a great one.

"Out of the Jar" by Charles R. Tanner gives us a variation on the old genie in a bottle device, and as ever there is a twist when the wishes are granted, one that proves the Lovecraftian verity that there are things people simply aren't meant to know. It's a nicely pitched tale, one that develops well even if events seem a little too transparent and predictable from the viewpoint of the reader. Edmond Hamilton's "The Earth-Brain" has three Arctic explorers making a terrible discovery, one that comes to cost both them and the world dearly. The conceit at the heart of the story is an intriguing one, with its personification of Gaia, but I rather baulked at some of the almost lurid imagery and the way in which the Brain uses earthquakes to pursue its goal, with the story's narrator entirely okay with mass destruction following in his wake providing his own existence is prolonged. Come to think of it there is something of Pynchon's Kenosha Kid in the way in which the story develops; in such circumstances I feel that suicide is the only honourable and logical course for the protagonist, and his tardiness in reaching a similar conclusion left me nonplussed.

"Through the Alien Angle" by Elwin G. Powers is the shortest story in the anthology and also the slightest. A student of occult texts gains help from a mysterious benefactor with dire consequences for himself and possibly for the world. The setup feels contrived, while the naivety of the story's protagonist is hard to credit, with little rhyme or reason to the plot, other than as a mechanism by which to deliver the story's admittedly enjoyable ending. Nice destination, but the journey was lousy. A woman who is a little too eager to inherit from an occultist relative gets her deserved comeuppance in "Legacy in Crystal" by James Causey. The story has nothing to offer regarding plot surprises and is rather undercut by the decision to use as main characters a Milquetoast and a rather ghastly maiden aunt from the oeuvre of Wodehouse, thus falling between the stools of horror and comedy, and failing to satisfy on either score.

"The Will of Claude Ashur" by C. Hall Thompson is the longest and best story in the anthology, one that is pure pleasure to read as the author lays out all the details of a horrific sibling rivalry that plays out over the years. It is a narrative that seems aware of every cliché in the genre but uses them splendidly well, so that only the most demanding of readers would object. The essential goodness of Richard and contrasting evil of Claude are fully realised on the page in a story that is beautifully paced, adding details to the plot with an almost stately aplomb, bringing place and period to vivid life, ringing its Lovecraftian changes with assuredness, so that we cannot help but be drawn into the narrative and care about the fate of these playthings of Thompson's devising. From best to worst, and another very short story, with "The Final War" by David H. Keller M.D., which reads like a Burroughsian (Edgar, not William) War of the Worlds, with Cthulhu as the evil overlord of Saturn, intent on the conquest of Earth. It's a story that seems to embody all the worst excesses of pulp SF and none of its vitality or virtues, a truly risible piece that I cordially detested.

Next up we have two stories by Arthur Pendragon. In "The Dunstable Horror" an academic seeks the grave of an Indian shaman at just the time when the shaman's centuries old curse on a local family finally comes home to roost. It was an engaging read, with some lovely touches of atmosphere when the setting moves to primeval forest, but some aspects of the plot seemed rather like a matter of authorial convenience than convincing. There's another family curse playing out in "The Crib of Hell", which is entertaining enough for as long as it lasts, but in essence is little more than a poor man's version of HPL original "The Dunwich Horror".

And now we have three stories from Steffan B. Aletti. "The Last Work of Pietro De Opono" concerns the discovery of a forbidden text and its terrible author, an age old vampire whose work exerts a malign influence on whoever reads it. Similarly in "The Eye of Horus" an ambitious archaeologist makes a find he would have been better off leaving buried. Both stories are pretty much of the going through the motions variety, well executed but with nothing to distinguish them from hundreds of similar stories. Third story "The Cellar Room" has somewhat more substance to it, with a strong evocation of Victorian London and the Spiritualist fraternity, whose desire to prove the existence of an afterlife has tragic and horrific results for those involved. The story builds well, with a couple of engaging characters, a strong backdrop and some genuinely unsettling details, with the hint of something even more terrible taking place in the background, one that perhaps has echoes of Jack the Ripper and Dracula, as the author himself is happy to point out.

"Mythos" by John Glasby has an archaeological expedition taking on the mysterious statues of Easter Island in a story that hints at far more than it reveals, with copious talk of ancient civilisations and alien influence on mankind's development, a Lovecraftian cosmos in which we are mere witnesses to the actions of other, greater beings. And yet, solid as all this is, the framework on which it rests is simply another gotcha tale, with an obnoxious academic getting his deserved comeuppance as the story's big bang. "There Are More Things" by Jorge Luis Borges was a short piece that put me very much in mind of the work of Ambrose Bierce, with apparently unconnected details used to evoke the feeling of something very wrong. The story ends just before we are to discover exactly what is at the root of this wrongness, and what has gone before makes us perhaps grateful for such reticence on the part of the author.

Randall Garrett's "The Horror Out of Time" builds perfectly, with seismic disturbances throwing up a sunken landmass with a mysterious building the story's narrator feels compelled to explore. The atmosphere is done splendidly well, but what elevates the story is the final revelation, one that compels the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has gone before. I loved it. In "The Recurring Doom" by S. T. Joshi an academic and researcher unwittingly unleashes an ancient evil, one that could destroy mankind's supremacy over the earth. In style the story uses Lovecraft's trick of miscellaneous details from around the world to create a vivid sense of impending global doom, but Joshi lacks Lovecraft's skill and what results feels very much like something off the cuff and contrived, rather than convincing the reader.

Dirk W. Mosig's "Necrotic Knowledge" takes an unusual turn with the matter of cursed books, having the underworld use one as simply another revenue stream. I'm not sure that I was completely sold on the concept, but the execution was a lot of fun, with a nice twist in the tale at the end of its journey. Donald R. Burleson creates a delicious feel of impending doom and a portentous atmosphere in the brief "Night Bus" and then delivers a chilling resolution to make this short one of the most effective and eerie pieces in the anthology.

"The Pewter Ring" by Peter Cannon sees the descendant of an occultist travelling through time to meet his ancestor, but not everything is as it seems in this tale of chronological treachery. It's one of the weaker pieces in the anthology, with a plot that doesn't really convince and characters who don't quite come alive, though there is a neat payoff if you stay with it to the very end, a stroke of poetic justice, or the nearest thing that genre will allow, at least. More backwoods horror and echoes of "Colour" in "John Lehmann Alone" by David Kaufman, with an isolated farming family becoming the victims of an alien incursion. The power of the story lies in the depth of characterisation, with mixed emotions thrown into the brew, and the mood of fearful anticipation that the author so deftly creates prior to the horrific revelation of the story's end game.

Gustav Meyrink's "The Purple Death" has a surprisingly modern feel in its central conceit, that of a plague conveyed through the spoken word, bringing to mind echoes of Ballard and Suzuki, though the backdrop, with explorers seeking a forgotten Tibetan tribe, and the actual form that the menace takes seem charmingly antiquated. "Mists of Death" by Richard F. Searight and Franklyn Searight sees the release of an ancient being that could bring about the end of human life on Earth, and those responsible seeking a way to correct their mistake. It's an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable tale, albeit not one offering much in the way of originality, preferring to tread a familiar path instead of striking out into terra incognito. And finally we have Neil Gaiman's "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" in which an American tourist visits the English Innsmouth and discovers the delights of the local ale. Beautifully characterised and with tongue firmly in cheek all the way, it's a fabulous end to an anthology with more to like than not.





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