Eldritch Prisoners

Well, Twitter has its uses. It was the first place I heard about this book which just missed showing up for my birthday. Given that it has a David Hambling story, I bought it immediately.

Normally, a story by him would get its own post, but this is a Cthulhu Mythos anthology from Crossroad Press, and they’ve become increasingly elaborate affairs whose independent stories – often parts of authors’ series – also form part of complicated suites and mosaics. Like Time Loopers, this one doesn’t even have a listed editor which leads me to believe it was entirely executed by its authors. In fact, I suspect it was conceived around the same time.

Review: Eldritch Prisoners, 2023.

Cover by Leigh Whurr

One character in this book says, “Questions are a burden, answers are a prison”.

After finishing it, making notes, skimming parts of it again, I still feel somewhat burdened and not totally imprisoned.

Whether it’s my deficiencies as a reader or because it’s a deliberately and resolutely mysterious work, I’m not sure I completely understood what happened.

However, I can unreservedly recommend three of its four stories.

Having always meant to return to David Conyers’ Harrison Peel series after reading “The Eye of Infinity”, I was pleased to see Peel show up in Conyers’ “Broken Singularity”. It’s the oddity here, broken up into four parts, starting and ending the book and in between the stories, and often casting some dim light on their events.

Peel awakens naked from a pod to join three other people. There’s a drill-instructor like voice yelling them to get into their spacesuits and get working or the oxygen privileges will end. The work is to explore an airless planetoid and bring back information. None of the four can remember how they got there. Peel may be the primitive one here since the rest are posthumans, but his military training kicks in, and he takes command while the rest dawdle. Not that the party lasts long after seeing the oddity of a Humvee on the surface. Approaching it, it morphs, launches weapons, and reduces two of the party to cubes of their constituent chemical components.

Debriefed on the mission, he meets a woman who seems familiar. Well, part of her: a disembodied head and arm. She hints that maybe he should check out the connections on the pod he emerged from.

Peel does and wakens again, this time with memories of his last mission. The same can not be said of the survivor of the last mission who also wakes along with two strangers. Another slaughter occurs, but Peel manages to find a strange, singularity-like object under the surface of the world, and the reason for this strange prison world begin to be revealed.

I’ve been lukewarm towards Matthew Davenport’s Andrew Dolan series, but I liked “The Prisoner from Beyond”, probably because it’s a weird western and not Indiana Jones crossed with the Cthulhu Mythos. Narrator Hiram Cartwright is a member of the Esoteric Cavalry founded in 1841 by President Martin van Buren to combat menaces “not of this world”.  Cartwright fought in the American Civil War which saw both sides using magic to a limited extent which devastated the Cavalry. Now Hiram is charged with patrolling the empty lands of western America (the story is set in Nebraska Territory) and recruiting people including his older brother Buford. They are dispatched to Barrenstand to investigate the outbreak of a seemingly unearthly plague tied to a fog that appears every night. 

The citizens are suffering from visions of “worms” that appear in the air. But they are real enough to bite people, and the citizens also suffer from bad dreams. Eventually, the brothers track down a wizard in town who has been making some experiments with “essential salts” and hybrid creatures. Gunplay, explosions, and magic ensue.

I liked how the brothers are marked by their war experiences and how they are surprisingly reluctant to cut loose with their revolvers.

It’s a return to David Hambling’s Stubbsverse with “The Body Snatchers” in which Harry Stubbs not only gets to show off his talents as a boxer but also as a logician and empathetic negotiator. It not only has some passing links to previous Stubbs’ stories but mentions some characters from Hambling’s The Dulwich Horror and Other Stories.

Stubbs is approached by an acquaintance, Smith, on a delicate matter. Smith is still working at the local mental asylum, a job he took up to aid Stubbs in Master of Chaos. A recent patient brought in by the police is a man who claims to be a carpenter named Edward Haywood. Their due diligence put an end to his claims. None of his roommates recognized him though there was that strange bit where he denounced someone with them as an imposter. The strange thing is that a man named Haywood was employed by Smith’s girlfriend at her pub, and the putative Haywood knows all the details of that acquaintance.

Transfers of mind are just the sort of thing that one Dr. Estelle de Vere, a psychologist with visiting privileges at the asylum, would be interested in. And you really don’t want to draw de Vere’s attention or that of her fearsome TDS organization. Determined to stamp out offworld intrusions on Earth, their operational policy is a dead-men-tell-no-tales one. All of which puts Stubbs in a rather precarious position because TDS is his real “employer” under decidedly coercive terms. So, Smith and Stubbs want this whole matter resolved before de Vere gets wind of it.

Stubbs investigation will lead him to encounter a reputed occult master and his menacing German student, an astrologer conman, and a menacing doctor and her very burly assistant and reaches a climax in the West Norwood Cemetery. It’s another winning combination of Stubbs’ simple and clear narration, occult history, and intrigue. I particularly liked Stubb’s reverie on the boxing greats buried in the cemetery.

If the archetypal Lovecraft story is somebody delving into the occult or their family genealogy, the previous three stories deviate from that. Davenport’s is a straight-up occult-tinged adventure story. Conyers’ is a military-tinged story that sees the Cthulhu “deities” in terms of forces from advanced physics. Hambling’s is an intricate mystery mixing history and the occult.

But John DeLaughter’s “Leng’s Labyrinth” does use that template – at first. Then it becomes, rather like his “The Terror Out of Time”, a corporate-military espionage story involving what you might term the Deepest State. At this point, the astute Lovecraft fan will know which of his tales other stories in this book draw from. DeLaughter’s debt is to Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” given the narrator is one Francois Luc DeLapont, a member of the same family featured in that story.

He’s a foreign exchange from Massachusetts studying in France. One Hallow’s Eve, he and a friend decide to walk the Labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. Said friend gets ripped apart by figures emerging from the shadows, and Francois flees. A genealogical report reveals to him the sordid past of his ancestors and extended family. Weird dreams drive him to a Jungian Institute and a session in an isolation tank.

And there the plot thickens – and I had a couple of problems. The narration shifts from first person to some parts in third person. Now, this can work, but it was jarring, and I don’t think DeLaughter quite pulled it off after spending so long with Francois.

Francois finds himself kidnapped to work on a secret government project – allegedly seeking extraterrestrial life via remote viewing – in a complex near K2. And here I had my second problem with one action scene going on longer than needed to provide the tie into a bit from Conyers’ story. (Though I found the training and indoctrination for Francois’ new job a bit amusing.)

The ending was a puzzle too.

I’m not sure what to make of this story, but, despite the above problems, I still liked it.

But then I’m still not quite clear about everything in the anthology or the anthology’s overarching plot. But fans of the Mythos, especially of the more puzzling sort of story, should like this one.

(Additional Thoughts and Spoilers? Ahead)

This book introduces a race called the Riders described by the Yiths, who are at the heart of the book, as a “conscious plague” than can infest Yith bodies.

But there is a third group, the Guild. I’m not sure if they are another race or representatives of Yithian orthodoxy, sort of Yithian police, and the Yithians seeking a Master are Yithian renegades.

And it’s entirely possible there’s another alternative explanation I didn’t catch.

Perhaps more examination will lock me firmly in the prison of a settled narrative.

7 thoughts on “Eldritch Prisoners

  1. Bookstooge March 27, 2023 / 7:45 pm

    I’ll take those prison bars any day! 😀

    • marzaat March 29, 2023 / 7:05 pm

      I actually recently read almost all of the Arkham Horror books. However, as with all the Babylon 5 books I read awhile back, I won’t be reviewing them since they are game tie-ins.

      I did enjoy most of them. But my patience was stretched past the breaking point with the second volume of Dark Origins, and I won’t be reading anymore in the Arkham Horror line.

  2. George Kelley March 30, 2023 / 7:32 am

    I just finished reading GRIM INVESTIGATIONS, that second volume in the Arkham Horror line, and had the same reaction you did. I won’t be reading any more of these anthologies, either.

  3. davidhambling April 5, 2023 / 2:38 am

    Thanks for the kind review! These themed anthologies are an exercise in herding cats: you have some shared ground rules, but writers follow their own fancy and quickly head off in very different directions. The Stubbs story keeps the background fairly vague and draws strongly on The Thing on the Doorstep, with beings which can repeatedly switch to new human hosts but whose original form is unknown. As prisoners, they have little interest in human matters, and are more involved in the internal struggles of their prison gangs while keeping a low profile. (And as in Thing on the Doorstep, there’s a suggestion they have a shoggoth, rather than a sharpened piece of metal). The others took inspiration elsewhere, and Conyers in particular built a vast structure around the idea, which gives the whole a framework it would otherwise lack. Like Frankenstein, we find our experiments are not always a total success, but the results are always worthwhile…

    • marzaat April 5, 2023 / 7:21 pm

      Glad you liked the review.

      BTW, do you have any plans, after the war ends in the Ukraine, to do another book on drones covering the types and military uses?

      • davidhambling April 6, 2023 / 2:18 am

        I would love to — they key point being ‘after the war’, at present things are moving way too fast for a book…but I am writing regular articles for Forbes (and others) trying to keep pace of drone developments https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/?sh=32caa6f6c11e

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