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Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow

In a previous review, I commented that an editor has an easy task with themed anthologies because it’s easy to identify, say, vampire or werewolf stories, and judge them on their merits. Yet, this simplistic assertion rather breaks down when it comes to Lovecraftian stories. This is one of the most consistently explored of “universes” and the professionals who would contribute to the Mythos have a responsibility to avoid clichéd reworkings of tired tropes. As the editor, Ellen Datlow has to balance the need to achieve quality in the writing against the requirement that submissions show canonical consistency to the Mythos (albeit with some degree of originality to mitigate the potential boredom of mere pastiche).

So, perforce, we must briefly consider what constitutes a Lovecraft story. There are a number of essential elements. The narratives must be enigmatic, i.e. there must be an undercurrent of cosmic mystery that is only partially resolved at the end. This lack of resolution emphasises the forbidden nature of the relevant knowledge. Indeed, because this knowledge is so dangerous, Earth’s population must be protected. To achieve this, the writers must not actually explain the events described. Think of it as being a mercy that we are kept in ignorance of the “things” lurking on the threshold. Humans always have the greatest fear of things “unknown”. Such fear defeats optimism and induces a paralysis of will — what point is there in struggling when we are so clearly outmatched. This leaves us with three key ideas, namely that:

(a) there are higher orders of beings that can, at will, violate what we think of as fixed, natural laws;

(b) we are insignificant creatures, only lately come into possession of Earth; and

(c) the previous occupants might come to reclaim it at any minute.

Authors and readers therefore enter into a conspiracy to treat the Mythos as real. The writing must be allusive, hinting only obliquely at matters of cosmic significance. If an innocent human is confronted by undeniably outré events in a “traditional” story, it must be an experience shattering all preconceptions as to the nature of reality. It must transcend understanding and, in religious terms, strike at the soul. Modern protagonists are allowed a little more spunk.

So it is that we come to Lovecraft Unbound (Dark Horse), edited by Ellen Datlow, twenty stories, sixteen original to the anthology. “The Crevasse” by Dave Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud places us in a familiar polar locale and challenges us to balance the hallucinogenic qualities of incipient snow blindness against a narrator who is less than wholly reliable as he struggles to come to terms with his traumatic experiences in W.W.I and, independently, the loss of his wife to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. It’s nicely atmospheric, musing on what might draw a man with a damaged psyche to explore, while his tough-minded companion prefers denial. “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips has our explorers adrift on a ’burg floating free from the ice cap. This time, the reliability of the narrative is mediated through the protagonist’s direct observation and a video record. This represents a form of mirror image in that the first narrator may be returning to the crevasse, whether physically or in his dreams, whereas the melting of the ice may be releasing more than the explorers expect from the past.

“The Office of Doom” by Richard Bowes plays the dangerous game of leavening Lovecraft with a touch of humour. Why dangerous? Because in our world of postmodernist sensibilities, an author can devalue the core concepts by inadvertently mocking them. Fortunately, Bowes manages to stay on the right side of the line and describes the life of a minion in a library who knows enough to avoid the fate of those who should have known better. “The Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson and “Light Unseen” by Joel Lane take the same theme of displacement. Outside forces take over the mind and body of a human carrier with results being respectively active and passive, but no less fatal. “The Tenderness of Jackals” by Amanda Downum speculates on whether ghoulish predators can sometimes show “mercy”. It follows in the same vein as vampires who bestow immortality rather than merely drain the victims and leave the empty husks. “One Day, Soon” by Lavie Tidhar is a short, elegant dream story which, so my ageing memory tells me, is unique in being an acknowledgement of the Holocaust in a Lovecraftian context. “The Recruiter” by Michael Shea bucks the more usual trend by being slightly optimistic. It’s good to feel that, every once in a while, someone down on his luck may find a little good fortune, even if only to follow the lead of someone rather delightfully rhyming femur with lemur. “Marya Nox” by Gemma Files is also different in adopting a transcription format for an interview with a priest. This is always difficult to manage and the sparse story is surprisingly powerful despite lacking the more usual trappings of prose.

There are the inevitable weak links, sadly delivered by Joyce Carol Oates and Simon Kurt Unsworth. “Commencement” by Oates is an attempt at injecting some humour into proceedings, but it proves overly long and lacking in intelligence. Even if there’s some form of collective amnesia among the vast number of family members and hangers-on actually attending the graduation ceremony, the immediate “world” is watching courtesy of all the cameras present. This breaks the prime directive of Lovecraftian “forbidden knowledge”. Should there be no direct coverage of the ritual climax, it’s inconceivable that the annual loss of key people would not be noticed and investigated. Finally, with only a gesture at Herbert Westian student experimentation, the dynamic is totally unLovecraftian. “Vernon Driving” by Unsworth is a revenge story only relevant to the anthology because one of the victims writes Lovecraftian fiction. This is unfortunate because, in other anthologies, both stories would be considered better than good.

“Sincerely Petrified” by Anna Tambour is the first of three standout stories. Told in a deceptively simple way, this is a thematically complex story. Imagine the disease vector of bacteria released from careless research laboratories. Now translate this into the power of myths to infect the world once free of the academic minds hoping to manipulate them. Her characterisation of the professors is pointedly satirical, but this does not detract from a neat biter-bit story. The second is “Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love” by William Browning Spencer. The notions of “love at first sight” and “soul mates” to some extent depend on the willingness of the pair to suspend disbelief. But suppose there was a test of compatibility — something to remove all uncertainty. Now that’s something that would inspire all concerned with confidence as to the future. Then comes “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. All I can say is this must have been fun to write because it’s great fun to read. The future history of space exploitation with Lovecraft meeting Lewis Carroll is probably my favourite story of the anthology. It’s a pitch-perfect Mythos story with genuine affection for the tropes on display. Thank God(s) the Akhamers make friends!

The engine room driving the core of the anthology comes with the best of the “traditional” stories. This comprises “Houses Under the Sea” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng”, “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon, and “Catch Hell” by Laird Barron. Kiernan reworks the Innsmouth theme with the worship of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. She follows in the footsteps of other authors by moving West, this time to Monterey, and the story replicates the idea of Cult members being allowed entry to an undersea civilisation. As in other stories, drowned bodies show up and the whole is treated as a mass cult suicide. It presses all the right buttons in a playfully reverent style the Marsh family would have approved.  Laidlaw continues in the venerable tradition of an expedition, this time to Leng. Experienced readers will immediately recognise the payoff once cordyceps is mentioned but, in reality, all this does is heighten expectations. This is a beautifully judged story in which the desire to “know” inevitably proves the undoing of the seeker. Chabon also delivers another seeker story with an archaeologist digging through ancient burial mounds only to find an all-too-contemporary threat. Like O. Henry stories, there’s an expectation of a “twist ending” for Lovecraftian stories. That afterthought where you wonder why you never thought of some key element. In this instance, I cannot recall anything on such an epic scale before. Finally, Barron has us in Nyarlathotep territory with a figure in a remote Seattle wood offering an insight into a potentially chaotic world in which, literally, we become as little children to find the spiritual outcomes we were searching for — it’s all one big cycle of life, after all.

With “Machines of Concrete Light and Dark” by Michael Cisco we are into an interesting parallelism. Remembering images of cold as a metaphor for orderliness and cleanliness, we think of Eric Zann’s music or the cracks in the plasterwork of Keziah Mason’s witch house as being portals to different dimensions. It’s always interesting to speculate on what the precise mechanisms might be for moving from one place to another if not explicitly rooted in the Mythos. Cisco’s answer is cleverly ambiguous allowing ideas to trap us in the mundane, while nevertheless inviting us to consider other possibilities. This is probably the story taking the most risk. And, as is always required, the story to end with, “That of Which We Speak. . .” by Nick Mamatas has a magnificent gesture of defiance with Teacher’s (only a blend and nothing worth saving) finally put to good use.

On balance, this is one of the best Lovecraftian anthologies I can remember reading for a long time, so kudos to Ellen Datlow and all who contributed.

Fortunately, there were no authors from Wales included in the anthology — sorry, an in-joke.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Supernatural Noir

As an added note, Lovecraft Unbound was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award 2010 for Best Anthology.

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