The One Lacklustre Book

The Travis family consist of university lecturer Susanne, second-hand book expert Don, and their 12 year old son Marshall. Relocating to the UK when Susanne gets a job teaching a course on cultural depictions of violence at Manchester University, their stay in the country gets off to a bumpy start when Don is on the receiving end of a road rage incident – the other driver being so furious at Don that he actually invades the Travis’ home to confront him. But it’s when the attacker is jailed that their real problems begin – because he is part of the Fancy family, local criminals who take this as a personal affront, and soon both the adult members of the family and Darren Fancy, a boy about Marshall’s age who is keen for the approval of his uncles, have embarked on a campaign of terror against the Travises.

This is a non-supernatural novel which finds Campbell in full-time social commentary mode, and ordinarily I’m cool with that, but this time around he loses me – mostly because the novel feels extremely heavy-handed. It’s always hard to judge these things, of course – there’s a natural tendency to imagine that people who are saying stuff you agree with are stating their case refreshingly forcefully, whereas people who are saying stuff you disagree with are being shrill and shouty. That said, here I agree with more or less all of the individual points that Campbell is making, but find the novel impossible to get into.

Continue reading “The One Lacklustre Book”

Advertisements

Still Warmth In These Bones

Scared Stiff is one of a few short story anthologies in Ramsey Campbell’s back catalogue to have a rather special status. As with most authors who produce a large number of short stories over a long career, most of Campbell’s collections are basically state-of-the-Campbell benchmarks, a grab-bag of the crop of material he’s churned out since his last significant collection along with, perhaps, an older item or two which hasn’t been previously collected and maybe a brand-new story if you’re lucky. That’s no criticism of them – when your ratio of hits to misses is as good as Campbell any random collection of stories is going to be pretty decent – but it does mean they tend to blend into each other.

Then there’s other collections which stand out for other reasons. There’s The Inhabitant of the Lake, for instance, which stands out simply because it was his debut collection and because it was so overwhelmingly dominated by the stylistic influence of H.P. Lovecraft. His second collection, Demons By Daylight, is perhaps even more significant; written largely as a piece, it found Campbell going the extra distance to find a distinct voice of his own.

Scared Stiff is significant not because of its impact on Campbell’s career but because it’s a thematic collection. Originally issued in 1987 before emerging in an expanded edition (with some stories from the 1990s and 2000s) in 2001, as its subtitle notes it’s all about sex and death, with a major emphasis on sexuality. These stories are explicit but not in a gratuitous fashion, because one of the big things Campbell does here is make sexuality central to the story, rather than lazily tossing in a sex scene to spice up an otherwise slack portion of a story.

All the sexuality and consent-related content warnings apply to this discussion, by the way; if you don’t want to read about rape and various other violations of consent at all in a horror story, no matter how thoughtfully the subjects are handled, this really isn’t going to be your bag and that’s fine.

Continue reading “Still Warmth In These Bones”

Plundering the Lovecraft Estate

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Though Robert M. Price was line editor for Chaosium’s Cthulhu Mythos fiction line for most of its early years, he wasn’t the only anthologist allowed to put out work through that avenue. Thomas M.K Stratman’s Cthulhu’s Heirs, from 1994, was one of the first collections in the series. Though it does include a few reprints, most of the material it contains is original to it, the intention of the anthology being to present a new cohort of Lovecraftian writers for a new millennium.

That said, it has certain issues – enough that it’s not wholly surprising that Stratman hasn’t produced any further anthologies since. For one thing, in his introduction he shows a startling ignorance of his subject matter; he cites Zealia Bishop as a Lovecraftian writer, but shows no apparent awareness that whilst that statement is technically true, it’s also asinine. Yes, Lovecraftian stories did appear credited to Bishop – The Curse of Yig and The Mound. They’re Lovecraftian because they were entirely written by Lovecraft himself; Zealia Bishop was a revision client of his and so far as can be made out, Bishop actually contributed nothing to the stories in question beyond, at most, a vivid central image around which she asked Lovecraft to construct a story.

Stratman’s introduction goes from being just a bit clueless to being outright astonishing when he openly admits admits that contributors to the anthology were subjected to numerous delays and paid only minimum rates. Maybe this was his way of protesting against the circumstances he was working under, but it honestly doesn’t read like that. I’m not sure how it was supposed to read, but in context it feels like Stratman is trying to thank his writers for being patient with him; however, openly declaring “I run late and I don’t pay well” is a terrible idea for an editor. It’s tantamount to an overt declaration that he’s a shitty editor to work for and you’d be better of submitting your stories to anyone else with more credibility and standing than him, because if you give him your story you won’t get so much money for it and it might take ages for it to actually get published.

Continue reading “Plundering the Lovecraft Estate”

When Tourists Visit Goatswood…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Made In Goatswood, published by Chaosium in 1995 and edited by Scott David Aniolowski, is much like Aniolowski’s later collection Singers of Strange Songs. Like that volume, it’s a tribute anthology of short stories by various authors honouring a significant figure in recent Lovecraftian writing; whereas Singers was a tribute to the highly hit-or-miss-prone Brian Lumley, Made In Goatswood is dedicated to the outright excellent Ramsey Campbell, and was compiled to celebrate his Guest of Honour Appearance at NecronomiCon 1995.

In some respects, Campbell made it a bit easier than Lumley for later hands to produce an anthology that hangs together thematically. Like Lumley, he’d invented his own swathe of Lovecraft-inspired horrors, but in addition to that he’d also invented his own geography of horror – a fictional region of the Severn Valley around the imaginary city of Brichester, a place similar enough to his Liverpool stamping grounds that he could write about it vividly but distant enough from reality to allow him to invent local histories of Roman occupation and ancient cults to suit the needs of his stories. Thus, all the stories here are set within the Severn Valley setting, which instantly offers a range of ties to Campbell’s body of Lovecraftian work as summed up in Cold Print.

Continue reading “When Tourists Visit Goatswood…”

Disciplined Anthologies

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In the heaped masses of Cthulhu Mythos-themed short story anthologies that have been published over the years, The Disciples of Cthulhu from 1976 (originally published by DAW books, reprinted in the 1990s by Chaosium) occupies a special place. It might not quite be the first such anthology to come out independently of Arkham House (in the sense of not either being published directly by Arkham House or being a reprint of an Arkham House release); Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy line had released The Spawn of Cthulhu in 1971, edited by the line’s mastermind Lin Carter. That said, Carter was not exactly a stranger to Arkham House, and Spawn entirely consisted of reprints, the majority of which were decades-old tales from Lovecraft’s peers and influences.

However, there’s every reason to believe the claim of Edward P. Berglund, editor of The Disciples of Cthulhu, that it was the first professional collection of all-original Mythos stories. Moreover, I would add something to that: it’s one of the first major expressions of the post-Derlethian Cthulhu Mythos. Coming out as it did five years after Derleth died, it’s a collection produced by someone who consequently had absolutely no need to keep Derleth happy, and features a set of authors that Derleth was in no position to veto the involvement of (what with him being dead and all). Whereas Derleth had previously acted as a gatekeeper for the Mythos playground, Disciples found a range of new voices invading it and making it their own.

Let me get the Boy’s Club assessment out of the way first: every single one of those voices was male, and that’s annoying. It’s especially annoying when in 2003 Chaosium had Berglund do a sequel volume and he almost-but-not-quite turned in another woman-free collection (I’ll dig into that point a bit deeper later). Taking a certain level of sexism as read, does Berglund at least show taste in the stories he picks? Let’s have a see.

Continue reading “Disciplined Anthologies”

Starry Wisdom, Vapid Songs

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

So, a while back it was suggested that I should cover Alan Moore’s various Cthulhu Mythos works, Moore having gotten deep into the Lovecraft tribute business right about the time I was doing my epic Lovecraft review and its various followups. To tell that story, though, I have to go back a little and tell the story of The Starry Wisdom, a curious little volume issued by Creation Books in 1994. Creation Books, back in the day, was a publisher that was vaguely associated with Creation Records and specialising in cult and underground books; edited by D.M. Mitchell, The Starry Wisdom has gained a reputation as perhaps the weirdest and most out-there Cthulhu Mythos anthology you can find, incorporating as it does texts from other authors (such as William Burroughs or J.G. Ballard) who, whilst not writing directly in the Lovecraft tradition, seem to conceptually butt up against it here and there, as well as contributions from the world of comics (both in terms of comics authors turning their hands to prose and some of the stories being presented in graphic novel format) and industrial music (Michael Gira of Swans has got a rant in here, for instance).

What it does, in short, is mash up extreme stories by traditional Mythos authors, Mythos-adjacent stories from extreme authors, and generally go broad as broad as you can in terms of what can constitute a Cthulhu Mythos story without losing sight of Lovecraftian cosmic horror altogether, and by and large it’s a great little ride. Heck, they’re even able to get a half-decent story out of Robert M. Price: his contribution, A Thousand Young, is an intensely sexualised story about a Shub-Niggurath cult posing as a society of modern-day Sadean libertines. The cod-Lovecraftian prose that Price seems to like to write in, when applied to this subject matter, actually seems weirdly apt for its confessional format. Here, supernatural horror is largely incidental to the horror of what narrator does in pursuit of his purported spiritual goals – Price once again scraping his way to a good story by engaging with his theological and philosophical interests in an imaginative manner.

Continue reading “Starry Wisdom, Vapid Songs”

Shadows Over the Anthology

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Stephen Jones’ Shadows Over Innsmouth series of anthologies takes an approach to compiling themed Mythos anthologies which represents a similar but different approach to Price’s ”Cycle” books – whereas Price’s Cycles take in stories which influenced or dealt with particular entities or concepts in Lovecraft’s fiction, Shadows Over Innsmouth compiles stories written in response to one specific Lovecraft story – namely, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This is a concept which unfortunately gets tired out before the first anthology, Shadows Over Innsmouth, is even done – let alone when you get to the followup anthologies.

Jones starts the first collection out with the obvious-yet-redundant choice of Lovecraft’s own The Shadow Over Innsmouth – it’s obvious because it’s the story that inspired the collection, but redundant because there’s no fucking way anyone who went out of their way to buy this thing doesn’t already own it. Our first dose of original material is Basil Copper’s Beyond the Reef, which sets the tone for the rest of the book by being an amateurish pastiche. Copper makes a token attempt at a Lovecraftian prose style, but it’s inconsistently applied and rather poor and wooden. Mere imitation cannot reproduce the long effort Lovecraft put into finding his voice, and slipping into and out of that voice over the course of the story just exposes Copper’s poor grip on it. In addition, he commits the basic error of having a framing story which establishes the main narrative as being a particular character’s witness statement, but has them talking about themselves in the third person and recounting conversations in detail despite the fact that they weren’t actually present. I couldn’t finish it.

Continue reading “Shadows Over the Anthology”