Lovecraft Unbound

I’m off polishing up work for other outlets, so you get this retro review from April 26, 2010.

Out of curiosity I added up how many anthologies Ellen Datlow has done since her career started in 1981. It’s eighty-nine by my rough count. A fair number are famous titles — at least as far as anthology titles go.

Review: Lovecraft Unbound, ed. Ellen Datlow, 2009.Lovecraft Unbound

Unlike Datlow’s earlier tribute anthology, Poe: 19 New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, where many of the stories, removed from authors’ notes and the context of the book, didn’t seem to have much to do with Edgar Poe, almost all these stories have an obvious Lovecraft connection. It usually isn’t a listing of the blasphemous tomes and extraterrestrial entities created by the master. Datlow wisely avoided that, for the most part, along with Lovecraft pastiches.

It isn’t an entirely new anthology. Four of the stories are reprints. But virtually all the stories are enjoyable and work as either modern examples of cosmic horror, horrific nihilism, or interesting takeoffs on Lovecraftian themes and premises.

The one exception is one of those reprints and, surprisingly, from the biggest name here. Possessing no discernable Lovecraftian theme, image, or plot element, Joyce Carol Oates “Commencement” also fails even in its internal logic. The plot concerns the allegorical cast of the Poet, the Educator, the Scientist, and the Dean and a fate they really should have seen coming at a future graduation ceremony.

The connection to Lovecraft is a bit dilute in other tales but still noticeable. In Lavie Tidhar’s “One Day, Soon” it’s a magical book that pulls a modern Israeli man into a horrible world of Nazi genocide in the Jewish heartland. It works as horror and as an alternate history premise not explored before. Anna Tambour’s “Sincerely, Petrified” isn’t very Lovecraftian in its plot of scientists rationally perpetuating the hoax of a curse (though petrification shows up in Lovecraft’s “Man of Stone“), but the story is entertaining, particularly the odd relationship between the two enthusiastic rockhounds. Vast, impersonal, sentient forces invading our world and literally devouring us is the revelation a woman has upon meeting a childhood friend she had, she hoped, lost track of in Mike Cisco “Machines of Concrete and Dark” but the story is marred by an end that doesn’t really work. “The Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson is another reprint. The parasitism and possession encountered in the South American home of a mysterious German émigré monk is certainly in keeping with Lovecraft, but the story has more of the flavor of Lovecraft’s friend Clark Ashton Smith when he was at the top of his form: lush, exotic, and morbid.

Lovecraft was fascinated by polar exploration and Tibet, and some of the best tales here use those settings. Dave Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Crevasse” has some Antarctic explorers in the 1920s catching a glimpse of something. And, as in the best cosmic horror, what is glimpsed is less important than all that it implies. Thrillseeking settlers of an iceberg in the south polar seas discover something deadly and almost invisible in the ancient ice of their vessel in Holly Phillips’ “Cold Water Survival“. Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng” adjoins that land to Tibet and sends an amateur mycologist there to explore it for legendary and new fungi. And, of course, he finds something. Effective first-person horror.

What would a Lovecraft tribute anthology be without sinister cults? “Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love” by William Spencer has a very introverted 32 year old man willing to go to great lengths to win the favor of a gothish girl. That includes meeting her father and reading her tracts on intelligent design. Michael Chabon’s “In the Black Mill” (another reprint) comes close to being a Lovecraft pastiche in its story of a sinister factory and its frequently maimed workers in a Pennsylvania town in 1948. Michael Shea’s “The Recruiter” has an elderly man receiving some much needed money from a sinister cult in San Francisco. Shea’s rhyming entities add a note of gleeful evil. Another reprint is Caitlin R. Kiernan’s superb “Houses Under the Sea“. Weaving back and forth in time, its narrator tells of his lover, a Velikovsky-like academic, and the cult she led – straight into the sea. The Lovecraftian themes of the call of heredity and intelligent and nonhuman survivals from prehistory are mixed with the very un-Lovecraftian theme of sexual attraction.

Other stories use Lovecraft as a jumping off point to explore personal relationships. Amanda Downum’s “The Tenderness of Jackals” has a teenage drifter at the end of his rope seeking some kind of change with the ghouls of Hannover, Germany. In his notes for “Sight Unseen“, Joel Lane notes the prevalence of absent fathers in Lovecraft’s work . His protagonist travels to Manchester, UK to learn about the father that long ago left him and the obsessions that made him fear the light. The protagonist of “Vernon, Driving” by Simon Kurt Unsworth’s doesn’t lose his lover to Lovecraftian horrors but a horror writer. Laird Barron’s “Catch Hell” has a creepy anthropologist and his resentful wife locked in an unhappy marriage and both getting their wishes in a Washingtown town where the Black Goat hides in the nearby woods.

The rest of the stories fall in no easy category but are all good. Interlibrary loaning the Necronomicon sounds like a joke or a cliched start. It is sort of a joke in Richard Bowes “The Office of Doom” – at first. But, amidst a tale of university politics, intrudes some wonderfully subtle and sinister notes. Gemma Files’ “Marya Nox” has an unusual structure – part of an after- lecture interview of a Nigerian Catholic priest who saw a strange church uncovered in Macedonia. Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s “Mongoose” postulates a whole ecosytem of extradimensional entities – rather like moles following grubs in a lawn – that plague spaceships. This story, despite the Lovecraft derived names of various space stations, owes as much to Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll as Lovecraft. And, finally, Nick Mamatas’s “That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” answers the question, effectively, of what some people would do when one of those Cthulhoid entities finally does return to our world. Some will always welcome the end of the world regardless of how it comes.

Only the Cisco and Oates stories mar this very good collection which should appeal not just to Lovecraft fans but horror fans in general.


The Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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