Tim Pendry's Reviews > Cthulhu's Reign

Cthulhu's Reign by Darrell Schweitzer
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May 21, 10

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bookshelves: horror, popular-culture, science-fiction

This new anthology of original work has a simple postulate - that Cthulhu and his monstrously indifferent hordes have arrived and that humanity has to die or survive in their midst.

After that, the writers have been left to their imaginations and, as you might expect, the results are highly variable, crossing genres and even the two traditions of the mythos (orthodox Lovecraftian and heterodox, and tainted to us purists, Derlethian).

The best are short and keep to the essence of Lovecraft - a sense of unease or cosmic horror at the world turned upside down and a hint of psychological states that are mad in form but in real in content. There is a fair anount of the visceral but none of the writers over-indulge and the one that is most brutal in this respect (Ian Watson's) is fully justified by the story line.

Watson's has a pure Lovecraftian title, 'The Walker in the Cemetery' and others of this quality include contributions by Mike Allen with his psychological nightmare 'Her Acres of Pastoral Playground' as well as a tale of true spiritual horror that will unnerve anyone with faith in religion in Will Murray's 'What Brings The Void'.

There is a bleak but thought-provoking tale of mutating human resistance in the cracks of the new world from Jay Lake in 'Such Bright and Risen Madness in Our Names' and a work of true imaginative cosmic horror in 'The Holocaust of Ecstasy' from that old master Brian Stableford.

Indeed, only Stableford thinks his way with any depth into the Mythos, creating an extension of it that is a cogent update of Lovecraft's own vision, not dwelling on the horror of pain and suffering caused by the monsters but, like Will Murray, on the utter cold indifference of Lovecaft's creations to what we aspire to or want.

The underlying horror of the Mythos is that forces out there are not our enemy, we are just in the way. It is our projection of what we do to flies, wasps, slugs and cockroaches. 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport' (King Lear).

Others are good enough anthology material - solid work by Don Webb that echoes Stephen King (a good mix of the two masters' styles in 'Sanctuary'), Matt Cardin's noble attempt to get inside the skin of a theologian of the new regime, a traditional tale that slips over the edge into acceptability from John R. Fultz and a jolly bit of adventure with no side to it from Gregory Frost.

Laird Barron's ambitious but ultimately over-written 'Vastation' gets an honourable mention for effort - this could be a seriously good book with some discipline but cannot be contained within a short story.

As a footnote, in a book with remarkably little contemporary commentary and thankfully no obvious fashionable eco-think, Don Webb neatly manages to bring the current and recent scandal of priestly paedophilia into play but the instinct of the writers is to make the stories highly personal and familial or get lost in Golden Age tropes or accept that the new world of Cthulhu can have little concern with the old and will present us with existential challenges that place our current concerns as trivial.

The interesting psychological aspect of the anthology is that, faced with radical cosmic horror, the story tellers tend to let the destruction of humanity be pictured like a Hollywood disaster movie and then move on, consciously or subconsciously, quickly and far away from the social towards family, buddy and individual responses.

The irony, of course, is that Cthulhu's indifference results in a form of Stirnerism in which individuals shrink back into their existential selves with concern only for the remnants immediately around them. Is this what would happen if Professor Hawking is right and the aliens that we may attract one day are powerful and malign? Are we not, after all, more like rats than ants?

On the other hand, a few writers (who I will have the good manners not to name) are prolix and obscure in that way that only some self-consciously literary Americans can be or are just plain lazy, predictable, obvious and dull while the closing 'hopeful' Derlethian space opera (well hopeful, if the billions that currently make up the human race survives as a boy, an autistic girl, a tired mum and a dog, all of course from an American professorial family), which I hope was written in ironically pedestrian style with a deliberate lack of imagination, should not be in there at all. The least interesting always seemed to be the longest tales.

In other words, like all new and original anthologies, it is a mix of talent with diamonds amongst the rough. Recommended for hard line Cthulhu addicts but the rest of humanity may be puzzled by the in-references or depressed by the sheer hopelessness of much of the best content.
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