Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War

After reading Tales of Yog-Sothoth and The Book of Yig, I decided it was time to fill in the few gaps in my David Hambling reading.

Given the title of the anthology, I was intrigued to read a non-Mythos piece of science fiction from him.

Review: Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War, 2020.

This is a curious anthology in several respects.

First, as you will note above, it has no listed editor.

Second, it isn’t what its listing on Amazon mostly suggests. (I couldn’t even find it on the Crystal Lake Publishing site, but it’s still for sale.)

Third, it’s actually a Cthulhu Mythos anthology.

David Hambling’s “Introduction” looks at the universal appeal of a do over in our life, approaching life like a videogame where we can cycle and cycle through one level in order to level up to the next one. The reasons for doing that are many, and the book’s stories look at several. He also mentions several films and books and their use of the idea. We get our first hint of what’s to come when H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time is mentioned. What if something like its Yith showed a more sinister source and motive for time looping.

This book is structured something like a musical suite – if each movement was composed by a separate party. I’m going to go spare on the plot synopsis because these stories are also linked – linked in fact by the literary DNA of Lovecraft but also of one of the contributors, Byron Craft. That became obvious after I read some of his other works after finishing this book. I also don’t want to spoil many of enjoyable moments of revelation.

And, of course, time travel stories tend to have intricate plots with paradoxes. Not every mystery posed by these stories is solved. Not every ending has a resolved chord. But that’s alright. Mystery has its place in fantastic fiction and is a pleasing feature however much it comes across as mere incompetence in less skilled writers. And a puzzled reader, here, matches the frequently puzzled protagonists.

Our first loop is on April 5, 2018 in London. Hambling brings his usual attention to detail in “Time’s Revenge”. It’s a story of avarice and altruism.

Every day our protagonist Craig wakes up at 7 AM to do two things: get rich and commit the perfect murder.

Neither are as easy as they sound. Oh, sure, you can note stock prices and lottery numbers and horse race winners – but you have to remember all the details for the next time you loop. You can also learn things like how to steal weapons from black marketers and proficiently use them.

As far as the murder goes, well, it has to be done right to avoid repercussions the next day because Craig has control over the loop. Every day, at midnight, the Windlass app on his phone asks him if he wants to loop again. (The concept of Windlass is the key element of the anthology taken from Craft’s early work.)

Craig has looped so many times he’s forgotten things like why he spent so many loops learning Arabic. His daily call in to work to say he’s sick, even his daily conversation with his girlfriend, have taken on the air of robotic chats, an expected response always evoked by Craig’s practiced and precise wording. That human isolation is one of the things I liked best in this story.

Of course, Craig isn’t entirely isolated from humanity. Suddenly, in his loops, Kalishnikov Girl starts gunning for him . . .

Byron Craft’s “The Comatose Man” opens in Arkham, Massachusetts in 1955. Shame and family honor are its ultimate preoccupations. Police detective Elijah Ward has a mysterious man in the local hospital. He’s dressed weird. The date of birth on his ID is 1971. He belongs to some mysterious organization called Sam’s Club, and he’s got some box on him with one side made of glass and with buttons.

In contemporary Arkham, the narration shifts from the third person to first person with Ross MacIvor. He’s a junior professor of physics without tenure. And the Miskatonic University administration really doesn’t want to hear anymore nonsense from him about the possibility of time travel, much less time looping. But he seems to have one fan who delivers a mysterious book showing how to build the Windlass, a device for time traveling. And MacIvor, since his wealthy father owns an engineering company, has the means to build it.

And MacIvor means to undo a family tragedy in his father’s past.

Naturally, the two story lines will converge. If you’re the sort of person who likes lots of allusions to H. P. Lovecraft stories – to say nothing of their characters and their descendants (and to other Craft stories) – this is a story for you. Guest appearances by several of Lovecraft’s monsters too.

Innocent curiosity turns to obsession in Matthew Davenport’s “Time Trapped”. One day Irene, a librarian at the Arkham Public Library, comes across a strange book, uncatalogued. It just showed up one day. It’s the Book of Windlass. Neither her nor her boss Paul knows what it is though one of the “local weirdos” who hangs around the library does and offers to buy it. Paul tells her she can take it home to look at. She can even keep it. It’s not like they don’t have shelves full of occult books – hence the weirdos hanging about.

Irene can get it only open to one page. But, looking at it and tracing its diagrams, brings odd dreams like her being a doctor operating on a gunshot boy or a soldier battling shoggoths in the streets of Arkham. Except they aren’t dreams. They are psychic migrations into other bodies. And history also starts changing when she goes into work each morning.

This one ends on a memorable note of isolation to say nothing of a bleak extension of Lovecraft’s idea that, in a strictly materialist universe, there is no free will.

If you like Mythos stories in the militaristic and espionage vein, then John A. DeLaughter’s “The Terror Out of Time” is the story for you. (It reminded me a bit of the first non-Lovecraft Mythos I read, Brian Lumley’s first two Titus Crow novels.)  It also drops an impressive number of character names – or, to be exact, their descendants – from other stories and not just Lovecraft ones.

Our two main characters are Colonel Henry “Hank” Armitage, former commander of the U.S. Delta Force, and Dimitri-Laurent de Marigny. He’s an evil techlord more powerful than our Zuckerburg, Brin, Gates, or Dorsey combined. He’s a spider at the center of an information web, a puppetmaster pulling the strings of the global elite.

But he’s no sybarite. A modest amount of Scotch is about as far as he goes into the sensual pleasures. His obsession is power.

And, because he’s getting on in years, he’s keenly interested in immortality. And that’s where Armitage comes in. He’s to lead a secret expedition to the Antarctic to retrieve samples of those dead Elder Ones the Dyer Expedition discovered.

This one has got it all in terms of action, betrayal, and advanced science including the Elder-net. It also has a quite satisfying ending.

Epilogue: A Stitch in Time” is credited to all four authers. In all four stories, a mysterious time traveling character has shown up, an agent of powers moving up and down time. While he sometimes insists he’s just an observer, he does take an active role in altering timelines. This story is not about some human civilian thrust into a time war but a soldier in the time war, and it brings, in its ending, the theme of autonomy into focus. Well, maybe. There are other indications that the way out of the trap he sees may not be that clear or even available.

Fritz Leiber’s time war novel, The Big Time, seems pretty straightforward compared to the vision of this book. Definitely recommended for Mythos fans, and, though Craft’s and DeLaughter’s stories require a fair knowledge of Lovecraft to get all the references, I think the regular science fiction fan would like this one too.

5 thoughts on “Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War

  1. davidhambling June 8, 2021 / 2:43 am

    Thanks for the great review — this was another interesting exercise in collaboration with everyone pitching in with their own ideas, bouncing off each other and melding together into the final form. The changes in style and tone give it some texture so, while they are all on the same theme of looping, these are not simply variations of the same story. Although having the same tale written by four writers might have been a purer way of covering time loops… We actually had some plans for an even bigger schema, but the outlines of the Time War are perhaps more than enough, as readers want a story, not an encyclopedia entry. It’s a bit of an outlier in terms of Mythos fiction, as Lovecraft himself was obviously not inspired to do much with time travel, but we found it an unusual expedition into an area well worth exploring.

    • marzaat June 8, 2021 / 4:55 pm

      It was a nice assembly and a quite successful collaboration. A collection of Yith stories throughout history would seem a natural project, but I don’t know anyone who has done it. The only other use of the idea I recall is your own “The Monsters in the Park” — one of my favorite of your stories.

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