And we’re back to matters weird and Lovecraftian with the late Sam Gafford’s one and, unfortunately, only collection.
Low Res Scan: The Dreamer in Fire and Other Stories, Sam Gafford, 2017.
There’s a lot of Lovecraftian fiction here, mostly using the Cthulhu Mythos paraphernalia of gods, places, and blasphemous books. Not all of it falls in that category though.
Sweetening the deal for your purchase of this book, even if you’ve encountered Gafford’s fiction before, several stories are original to this collection.
One is “The Adventure of the Prometheus Calculation”. As you would expect from the title, it involves Sherlock Holmes. Well, a Sherlock Holmes with a Babbage Engine for a brain and the world’s only “living, functional robot”. It proceeds roughly along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes tale “The Final Problem”, but Mycroft Holmes and Professor Moriarty have different roles. There are also elements of Frankenstein in the story. Ultimately, though, it’s nothing special as either a Holmes story or steampunk.
And, where you find steampunk, you often find Victorian England as a setting. “Sunspots” is a Ripper tale. Jack tells us his story. (The novel seems to have nothing to do with Gafford’s Ripper novel Whitechapel – at least as near as I can tell from the latter’s description.) From a young age in Whitechapel, Jack has been troubled by blinding lights and noises and thoughts that worm their way into his head. They compel him to kill women. So what do the aliens he sees want? It’s another story original to this collection, but, again, it’s not a memorable story, just ok.
If Philip K. Dick wrote a superhero story you might get “’How Does That Make You Feel?’”. Like the protagonist in “Weltschmerz”, our hero Ed Connors is a socially isolated accountant at a Rhode Island bank. He isn’t married and has no sex. He’s been ordered into therapy after sleeping at his work desk and waking up and trying to shoot people with a “non-existent” gun. It’s off to mandated psychotherapy with Dr. Gull. Ed has a recurring dream where he’s pulp hero The Crimson Scorpion battling Dr. Primordial, a Nazi villain, in New York City in the 1940s. Every time he dreams, his conflict with Primordial picks up right where he woke up the last time. Given his boring life, Ed is not really keen on Gull trying to cure him. This one is somewhat memorable and also original to the collection.
If you think making a living making sales sounds like hell, you’ll probably like “The Gathering Daemonica”. Damned souls gather at a sales convention. How do you get out of Hell? Make your quota of other damned souls. The various characters are only identified by capital letters. That’s cute for a beginning, but it undercuts the story later on as it becomes confusing trying to keep track of whom is talking or being talked about. The plot centers around the rare demon who made his sale quota and is about to be sprung from Hell. Well, almost. He’s two souls short but that should be an easy affair to take care of in a weekend, right? It’s an interesting and amusing story but too vague in its ending and telling.
So, if Gafford’s original tales have some problems, his Cthulhu stuff must be worse, right?
No. Gafford’s Lovecraft related stories are skillful in their use of the Mythos. Not pastiches in tone, they also often use the Mythos to present allegories about the ills of modern life.
One of those ills is modern violence
“Casting Fractals” looks at the political violence of the 1960s. Set mostly in 1965, though starting in 1962, it’s the story of what happened to reporter Carl Eckhardt. He used to be the idol of our narrator, another reporter. Now he’s a drunk, washed up ex-reporter in a crappy apartment where he’s gone Charles Fort by collecting newspaper clippings. He’s interested in how things started to go wrong in 1958. It’s a good story and a good example of Gafford using the Mythos as metaphor. Not only does Eckhardt quote Lovecraft’s about how we’re better off without our mind not correlating its contents , we’re also told
There will be no apocalypse. There are no monsters. Cthulhu does not exist, but the concept of Cthulhu does.
It’s also an example of Gafford using a plot device he resorts to a lot: a narrator who gets distracted from looking at some important information he receives until it’s too late.
“Showtime” comments on a frequent target of Gafford’s: tv. Our narrator, a drunk tv producer, tells us about the dangers of the soon-to-be-nationally syndicated tv show he put together. Bill Turner, host of a kid’s show, is about to become a phenomena. And Bill is going to prove electronic media is far better at transmitting occult knowledge than some book locked up in the restricted stacks of a university library.
“’Good Morning, Innsmouth!’” also concerns tv and a sardonic take on real estate developers. It recapitulates some of the plot of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” with Kelly Shapiro, a minor league reporter (though she doesn’t think so) being shuffled off to another fluff installment of “Massachusetts Morning!” rather than being promoted. It’s not the old Innsmouth. It’s new, trendy, gentrified Innsmouth with expensive condos. It’s a remarkable renaissance headed by local boy made good, Richard Gilman. But the local old timers are resentful, and their willing to talk with Shapiro. A nice expansion of Lovecraft’s story with a memorable twist
“What Was That?” is another story original to the collection and also fairly memorable. It comments on society seeming to be getting dumber. Our hero Tim also thinks he’s getting dumber. He can’t clearly remember details of his past, and the younger people he meets are even stupider. Tim is met one day, in a park in Providence, by a stranger, a man who can seem to read his thoughts. He confirms people are getting dumber and getting more apathetic. He gives Tim an envelope with information detailing how a certain unnamed writer (Lovecraft) tried to convey singular ideas. Which is exactly what certain beings wanted. This story is also a take on the “commodification” of Cthulhu.
“Homecoming” may be set in Dunwich and may have a police detective named Armitage, but it’s not a mere sequel to “The Dunwich Horror”. Our narrator, a successful auto mechanic who now owns a garage, tells about the disappearance of his attractive 16-year old stepdaughter Ruth when she went jogging. Naturally, he was a suspect. But no evidence was found linking him to the disappearance. And he’s rightly suspected by Armitage – because the narrator did rape and murder Ruth. And he’s very surprised when she shows up five days later. Or, at least, something he calls the “Ruth-thing” shows up. Most of Gafford’s protagonists are socially isolated. Our narrator is too – he just doesn’t know it.
It’s more steampunk, mixed with Lovecraft, in “Static”. It’s got the usual appurtenances of airships and robots (and cyborgs and artificial brains since 1901). It’s sort of a retelling of Lovecraf’ts “The Whisperer in the Darkness” with the Mi-Go showing up to prepare Earth for the return of the Old Ones. One Dr. Sybaris invents a machine that accidentally taps into the thoughts of the Mi-Go. He tries to warn his friend Dr. Morgan about them. Morgan, predictably, forgets about it for a while until he looks up Sybaris at the Diogenes Club. Interestingly, as in George Mann’s steampunk series, Queen Victoria is no longer human and sort of a cyborg. However, unlike Gafford’s other Lovecraft related stories, it’s not particularly memorable though it also ties the Old Ones to the disintegration of human society.
An interesting Gafford technique is to retell some of Lovecraft’s Mythos stories from other viewpoints. In “My Brother’s Keeper” we hear about “The Dunwich Horror” from the viewpoint of Wilbur Whateley’s brother. It’s memorable even if we know the plot. “He Whose Feet Trod the Lost Aeons” is original to the collection. The “Dark One from Ancient Khem” aka the Black Pharaoh, sometimes known as Nyarlathotep, describes how he remade the earth and destroyed humanity by bringing the Old Ones back. Gafford cleverly doesn’t drop a lot of proper names, but Mythos fans will definitely know whom and what he’s talking about.
Two stories particularly showcase how Gafford uses the ideas and style of Lovecraft without name checks.
“Hellhounds on the Trail” uses Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Whisperer in the Darkness” subtly enough that no knowledge of Lovecraft is needed to enjoy it, one of the strongest stories in the collection. We hear about folk music collector Robert Easton. He walked into the Louisiana swamps in 1941 and never came out. The story is his hunt for the source of a recording done by famed music collector Alan Lomax. It’s a milieu not often used in Mythos stories, and I have to admit the subject of music collecting is one I have a mild interest in, so I liked the story. But you can know nothing about Lomax and his collecting and still enjoy it.
“’The Dreamer in Fire’: Notes on Robert Winslow’s ‘Sutter’s Corners’” This story, from early in Gafford’s literary career, is set up as a discussion of noted weird fiction author Robert Winslow and his story (published in a collection identically titled to Gafford’s collection and from Sargasso Press, the name of Gafford’s press). The tale’s structure is very interesting. We first get the synopsis of Winslow’s 1947 story. In it, a man, Richard Clay, travels to Sutter’s Corner after receiving a letter from a long-lost love pleading for his help. When he gets there, he finds no evidence of her. The locals insist she was never there. Then he gets more messages from her warning him away. Eventually, he learns the truth – and doesn’t care. Winslow died in a car crash in 1955, and some of his letters are discovered by an heir. They may answer the question as to whether Sutter’s Corner was based on a real place, and the story is presented as a scholarly attempt, by an unnamed writer, to answer that question.
I’d definitely recommend this book for Mythos fans as well as fans of weird fiction in general and, of course, William Hope Hodgson fans for the story “The Land of Lonesomeness”.