Love’s Labyrinth of Peakean Peril

Alliole wakes up in a bedroom somewhere in the Castle in a bad way. Her hands have been hacked off. She has amnesia. And there is a Voice in her head calling to her from far off. The matriarchal family of sorcerers who lord it over the Castle – a vast, sprawling complex, sustained by food grown in its Courtyard, and with no apparent exits – keep her sedated with drugs and platitudes until she gains enough strength to refuse to be controlled in that manner. Later, she gives away the Voice which torments her in return for the services of a demon, Slaarngash, to act as her bodyguard and her hands.

As she develops relationships with the Castle inhabitants, Alliole must navigate a web of hostility, deceit, political ambition, and magical peril. Soon she is drawn into the efforts of Xoon, heir-apparent to the ruling Parrar, in his efforts to uncover the secrets of the family’s ancestors and arrest the dynasty’s slow decline. The enigmas of the Castle contend with the enigmas of Alliole’s past – and it may be impossible for her to learn one without sacrificing all hope of uncovering the other. For now, her curiosity will keep her digging – but what happens when she starts to value some of the connections she makes in the Castle, and when the price of knowledge starts to seem too great? And how will her actions play into the power games of the Castle?

Penelope Love’s Castle of Eyes is an overlooked gem of fantasy fiction, a book which so far as I can tell came and went without anybody taking much notice of it. Part of this may come down to it being published by Chaosium, more famous as a tabletop RPG publisher. It was the second book released in their fiction line, after King of Sartar by Greg Stafford and before The Hastur Cycle inaugurated Chaosium’s well-received Cthulhu Mythos fiction line, but it ended up being kind of the odd one out in that portfolio. King of Sartar was set in Stafford’s world of Glorantha, the original setting of the RuneQuest RPG which, when it originally emerged, put Chaosium at the head of the tabletop RPG pack and arguably transformed the hobby. The Cthulhu Mythos line, obviously, was in support of Call of Cthulhu, which from the 1980s onwards has been Chaosium’s flagship RPG. (A shorter-lived line put out fiction in support of the Arthurian-themed Pendragon RPG.)

By contrast, Castle of Eyes is an entirely original novel in an entirely original setting, not tied to any of Chaosium’s RPGs; my hunch is that back when it was first released in 1993, this led RPG fans to overlook it in favour of material with a more obvious connection to their favourite games. Meanwhile, because this was 1993 and the most prominent example of a tabletop RPG company putting out fiction at the time was TSR, right in the middle of the glut of highly variable tie-in fiction they were flooding the market with (which would later come back to bite them when larger-than-expected returns from distributors contributed to the financial woes which brought them low).

In other words, it was the era when Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels clogged bookstore shelves. Booksellers were likely to stash Chaosium releases with the rest of the RPG fiction; choosy consumers were inclined to overlook it. This was something of an injustice to Chaosium. Their game lines often took inspiration from somewhat more literary sources than the pulp adventure fiction that informed Dungeons & Dragons and the like; whilst Lovecraft is now commonly associated with the pulps, in terms of style and theme he was very much out of step with them, Pendragon literally uses the Morte d’Arthur as the basis of its setting, and so on.

This meant that there was always plenty of grist for the mill when it came to Chaosium putting out a fiction line which maintained a somewhat higher standard than your typical RPG tie-in line. Their Cthulhu Mythos line, in particular (along with the penumbra of non-Mythos horror material that they’ve put out from time to time) was the great success story of their fiction department, and for good reason: Chaosium had a real knack for coming up with a truly varied like of books based around the broad theme of “vaguely related to the Cthulhu Mythos”.

Let’s just take those entries in the line I’ve reviewed here. You’ve got your collections of stories based around particular themes (like The Hastur Cycle). You’ve got books focusing on the work of particular peers or followers of Lovecraft (like Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, and Lin Carter), You’ve got reprints of classic Cthulhu Mythos anthologies, as well as brand new ones, including tribute anthologies with authors paying homage to the likes of Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley. You’ve got collections focusing on authors whose work inspired Lovecraft and provided a precedent for the cosmic horror used in his work, such as Arthur Machen and Robert Chambers. You even have a brief dip into non-fiction to examine some of the real-world occult ideas that Lovecraft wove into his fiction.

In short, Chaosium’s Cthulhu Mythos fiction line is a real cornucopia of treats, with Chaosium showing true inventiveness in finding interesting and different ways to expand and diversify the line and some genuine thought put into the books, both in the writing of the material and in its presentation. Even when there’s volumes which aren’t to my personal taste, I can at least see a point to them; for instance, Lin Carter’s Mythos fiction just ain’t that good, but if you must try it out, The Xothic Legend Cycle is about as complete and widely-available a collection of his Mythos work as exists. And by and large the range has more hits than misses.

However, that’s an assessment from the perspective of 2021, not 1993. Back when Castle of Eyes first came out, nobody knew that Chaosium’s fiction line was going to hit the standard it eventually would. So it’s understandable that non-RPG fans might have passed over the book as a result (especially if it got filed in the RPG fiction section with the rest of Chaosium’s output – quite likely given that it had similar trade dress to other Chaosium fiction publications of the time), even as RPG fans opted for books with more of a connection to the Chaosium games they favoured.

It’s a real shame, because Love reveals herself to be a pretty good fantasy author here. It’s understandable why the book would have come out through Chaosium – as a game designer, she had a pre-existing relationship with them, with her Terror Australis supplement being an early highlight of the Call of Cthulhu game line – but I genuinely think that it would be a meritorious addition to any publisher’s fantasy portfolio.

The influence of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is rather obvious – the book even leads off with a quote from Titus Groan to drive the point home – but it feels like a fresh enough take on similar material to be worthwhile anyway. (In particular, the characters feel more real and less caricature-ish than Peake’s). Love also shows a knack for presenting the reader with an array of mysteries whilst showing good judgement as to which to explain fully, which to leave mysterious, and which to provide hints to but not spell out fully. (I think I can hazard a guess as to who in the Castle’s history “Alliole” has been named after, for instance, but I don’t think it’s ever directly explained.) In this respect, it’s closer to Gene Wolfe than it is to Weis & Hickman, and presents a more literary flavour of fantasy than anyone really expected to come from an RPG publisher in the 1990s.

The pacing of the book is also rather wonderfully done; events pick up pace slowly but surely, at first almost imperceptibly, so that the novel begins depicting a world apparently in happy stasis, then scratches the surface to show how entropy is gnawing away at the heart of the odd little society of the Castle, and then the slow build that’s been going on all novel breaks just before the climax and a large number of things happen at once. In less skilled hands, the concluding 40 pages or so would seem hurried, but as it stands their rapid-fire sequence of events all hit perfectly, because Love has very capably prepared the ground for them, executing the sense of a long-awaited tipping point finally being reached with catastrophic consequences.

The end of the novel does not answer all the questions, but perhaps suggests potential for future stories; to my knowledge, Love has not revisited the setting. In the intervening years, it’s been all change at Chaosium; after a certain amount of managerial inertia culminated in some serious mistakes in the mid-2010s, which led to a significant shakeup and a new management team coming in. As part of that process. James Lowder was appointed as the new Executive Editor of the fiction line by the new regime, and there’s brand new books coming down the pipeline, now that Lowder has helped steady the boat and mend bridges (the old regime was kind of bad about doing those fiddly little tasks like “paying people money owed” which businesses often don’t prioritise very well).

I have no idea whether Penelope Love has a sequel to Castle of Eyes stashed away in a drawer somewhere, but if she does I really hope Lowder asks her about it. This is too good a book to be totally forgotten.

3 thoughts on “Love’s Labyrinth of Peakean Peril

  1. I have to say that I avoided Chaosium’s fiction back in this period because their good taste in selecting material to publish was offset by generally incompetent design (poorly chosen typefaces, text sizes, and line lengths, in particular) which made their books unpleasant to read. The only book of theirs I picked up was KING OF SARTAR, and whatever the value of the work, as a reading experience it did not recommend further purchases.

    I haven’t looked at any of their more recent stuff in the Lowder period; has it improved in this regard? (The Moon Design/Issaries reprint hardcover edition of KING OF SARTAR still combines a too-thin typeface with overlong line lengths, and since those are the folks now running Chaosium…)


    1. I haven’t read any edition of King of Sartar so wouldn’t be able to comment on that, and for me the line lengths/text sizes/typeface never felt like a problem. Grabbing some recent-ish releases off my to-read pile I note that text size/typeface/line length have all been adjusted towards more conventional parameters, mind you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A Postmodern Percival – Jumbled Thoughts of a Fake Geek Boy

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