Zach's Reviews > Lovecraft Unbound

Lovecraft Unbound by Ellen Datlow
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Apr 05, 10

bookshelves: horror
Read from March 29 to April 01, 2010

This is a terribly-titled book, because most of these stories have little to nothing to do with HPL. Cthulhu isn't even mentioned at all! Wrap your head around that (if you can).

Also, even for an anthology, this seems particularly uneven. More on that below:

1. "The Crevasse" by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud
       A dog-sled team in the Antarctic encounters evidence of a buried civilization under the ice. OR DO THEY?!? I really enjoyed this one, it did a great job of pulling off the creepy something-just-outside-your-field-of-vision feeling.

2. "The Office of Doom" by Richard Bowes
       This is a story about requesting the Necronomicon through ILL. Seriously. That is what this story is about. Someone thought it was a good idea to write this story, and then someone else thought it was a good idea to publish it.

3. "Sincerely, Petrified" by Anna Tambour
       Ugh. Ok, so to protect the treasures of Petrified Forest National Park, these two University of Chicago professors (one of psychology, one of geology. Or is it psychiatry? Who cares? Not me.) devise this Plan. I hesitate to even describe this plan here because I don't know if it's even possible to do justice to this Plan (or to the labyrinthine twists and turns of this awe-inspiring plot) on goodreads, but here goes: these two professors, using their intricate knowledge of the human mind that they have accrued through years of study and conference presentations and scrabbling tooth and nail to secure tenure-track positions and then FINALLY getting that prestigious full professorship (well anyway that's what the psychology guy brings to the table [side note: much is made of the fact that this guy is the heir to an orange juice fortune but he continues working in academia anyway, probably because he loves molding young minds so much {no he doesn't, this has never happened in real life}, I have no idea what the rocks guy is really around for, other than being kind of mean to the psychology guy)... ok I kind of lost my train of thought there but the point is that they will convince people that there is a curse on those who take pieces of petrified wood from the park! THAT will surely stop everyone! So they fake up some letters about people feeling bad for despoiling nature because the curse like gave them cancer or made their daughter not want to be a scientist anymore (seriously, this is one of the curses).

Now I imagine some of you think you know where this story is going, but let me assure you, you don't. No one has ever seen twists and turns like this before, because what happens is this:

THE CURSE STRIKES DOWN THE TWO PROFESSORS!!!

GOOD GOD, EVERYONE, THESE TWO GUYS MADE UP THIS FAKE CURSE AND THEN THEY THEMSELVES WERE CURSED BY THE CURSE!!!!

I'm sorry to have ruined this story for you.


4. "The Din of Celestial Birds" by Brian Evenson
       This is the first thing of Evenson's that I've read and I'll be sure to finally pick up some of his books that I've meant to read for ages. This one takes place in South America, I believe, and concerns a man whose body becomes infested with, well, celestial birds, after he discovers a creepy cage in a creepy hut in the village.

I think that I can safely say that the stories I really enjoy in this collection are the CREEPY ones, as opposed to the ones like, say:

5. "The Tenderness of Jackals" by Amanda Downum
       In which a ghoul/werewolf/guy-surrounded-by-ghost-jackals approaches a teenaged boy to devour him, while the teenaged boy thinks he is being propositioned by a john (you see what she did there). I'm not sure how you can take a setup like that and render it un-creepy, but somehow Downum managed. The whole thing actually feels kind of... inconsequential, which I think is the word I would use to describe a lot of the stories in this volume. Not really poorly written, but not great either, maybe it's just too much coasting along with too little climax, which would work if it was (ahem) creepy enough, but...

6. "Sight Unseen" by Joel Lane
       ... it wasn't, and this one wasn't either. A guy's long-estranged father dies and we slowly learn that the elder was abducted by aliens once and returned to Earth as some kind of living camera. "Slowly" is the operative word here.

7. "Cold Water Survival" by Holly Phillips
       The second Antarctic story in the bunch and another of my favorites so far. I could almost just copy and paste my review (is it fair to even call these reviews?) from the first story, but rather than WWI-era veterans, we have here a modern day group of adventurers colonizing an iceberg. Of course, it turns out the iceberg had been colonized before, and not by humans... OR HAD IT?!

This one also spiced things up a bit by being half present tense narration and half review/description of videos recording the ice climbing and glimpses of life in the water, which managed to be... CREEPY. Great story.

8. "Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love" by William Browning Spencer
       Another kind of inconsequential piece about a hapless graphic designer who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be some sort of immortal guardian of the life on Earth. Intelligent design without the Christian God. Kind of light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek, which I think horror stories can be close enough to even when they are serious, so it's kind of too easy a mark, you know? This was particularly disappointing because I had been meaning to read his stuff for a while.

9. "Houses Under the Sea" by Caitlín R. Kiernan
       Another one about video recordings and water... and another of my favorites. Herein a journalist struggles to come to terms with the world (and her/his[?] obligation to write about it) after her/his, um, romantic partner (I hate to use the word "lover"), a fallen academic/oceans cult personality, leads her followers into a watery grave (which is where the recording, by a deep-sea ROV, comes into play). I think this was the best of the bunch so far, wonderfully written and despairing in a truly bleak way. Also, you know, creepy. I had to say it.

10. "Machines of Concrete Light and Dark" by Michael Cisco
       I had mixed feelings about this one because it was more like a description of an idea for a terrifying story about machine-like organisms that feed on... sanity, basically, than an actual story. A woman runs into an old friend, who tells her about her theory about these things driving people insane, and then slashes the protagonist/narrator to death with a razor. I was really tired when I read this one and it's kind of a blur, which seems appropriate.

11. "Leng" by Marc Laidlaw
       A mycologist quests into the heart of a Tibetan plateau (the most explicit Mythos reference in this volume? Aside from those stories that are, you know, meta-Mythos references, which doesn't/shouldn't count) in order to track down the members of a previous expedition and to discover some new species of fungi. Of course he gets MORE THAN HE BARGAINED FOR (I've decided some of these reviews need to be written as if they are voice-overs for movie trailers, apparently). This was a good one.

12. "In the Black Mill" by Michael Chabon
       I think this one was the truest example in this volume of someone following Lovecraft's style: an archeologist doctoral student investigating a dig in Pennsylvania is sidetracked by the mysterious mill at the heart of the town. This had a properly Lovecraftian buildup, plus it's about a guy who brings about his own doom because of his curiosity regarding things better left unturned.

I mean really, how could I not love a story where monsters and capitalism conspire to ruin people?

13. "One Day, Soon" by Lavie Tidhar
       Another inconsequential story that didn't really belong in a volume inspired by Lovecraft anyway (except for the creepy book angle I guess). A guy in Israel finds a book that looks different depending on who is looking at it, which seems like a list of names and dates to him-that transport him to an alternate war-torn WWII Israel-but his wife looks in it and just sees a boring old pulpy novel. You.... you see what he's doing there.

14. "Commencement" by Joyce Carol Oates
       Here's a funny thing about this one. "Joyce Carol Oates, huh?" I said. "I didn't realize she did genre stuff." I read Foxfire a really long time ago, so I had Oates nicely tucked away in my mind as someone who produced pretty mainstream work, if relatively grim for most audiences.

Anyway then I started this story and a paragraph in thought "This seems really familiar" and checked the copyright and sure enough, it first appeared in Redshift , an anthology I bought and read around the time it came out (in 2001). My copy was sitting like a foot away from me as I read this, actually. I'm an idiot.

Anyway this story would be great if it was like half as long.

15. "Vernon, Driving" by Simon Kurt Unsworth
       Another one that I loved, although there was nothing actually supernatural about it and I can't say much of anything about the plot without ruining the great sense of dread you get as the narrative unfolds.

16. "The Recruiter" by Michael Shea
       Another tongue-in-cheek goofy story about a down on his luck guy who ends up working for some Old One-esque entity by... driving a school bus full of zombies into the ocean?

17. "Marya Nox" by Gemma Files
       Presented as a transcript of an interview with a Jesuit who had once participated in the exorcism of an unearthed church dedicated to Our Lady of the Night, the matron of which starts taking the lives of local children after the church is desecrated. The highlight of this was definitely the beautiful description of the interior of the church, but then the story itself just kind of peters out.

18. "Mongoose" by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear
       A surprising far-future science fiction story in which inter-dimensional monsters (all with names borrowed from Lewis Carroll) infest a space station and must be rooted out by a guy working with a friendly inter-dimensional monster (a cheshire cat, ha ha). I really enjoyed this one... it was creepy. A little too optimistic for this collection, though. I'm getting a little burned out on these reviews, it seems. It just occurred to me that this story might be a riff on the Hounds of Tindalos.

19. "Catch Hell" by Laird Barron
       I just can't get into stories that revolve around "hot" sexual violence directed against women. Sorry.

20. "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable" by Nick Mamatas
       Perhaps the most deeply disappointing entry in the entire book (I mean, Carver, Lovecraftian monsters, and the apocalypse? Sign me up!) because like three pages in it devolved into rape jokes? And I get that these are teenagers or whatever but after that last story this one can spare me too. Sorry again.
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Reading Progress

03/29/2010 page 200
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04/01/2010 page 375
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Terence (new) - added it

Terence I noticed one of the stories you particularly liked was by Caitlin Kiernan.

You might be interested in her other books as well - I'd start with Alabaster, which is a collection of short stories.


Zach I'll definitely do that, Terence. Thanks for the heads up.


Jeannie Sloan I hate to say it but half way through this book put it aside for a while because I was bored with it.I will finish it but I will probably just read a story here and there and try to get through it.Thanks for a really great review,though.


Henrik Thanks for the review, Zach. I disagree that the title is off, though. I think it's pretty good--since there is a distinction between something being Cthulhu Mythos (monster namedropping, dread books, Arkham County etc.) and something being Lovecraftian (focus on a certain kind of creepiness, atmosphere, cosmicism). And this one tries to focus mainly on the latter.


Zach Jeannie - thanks for the kind words.

Henrik - yeah, I should have made it clearer that I understood that this was supposed to be a volume of stories inspired by Lovecraft's atmosphere more than specific pastiches. I just still think it largely fell short of that goal.

I actually meant to mention that a large part of what I thought was missing was what you call "cosmicism" - very few of these entries evoked any kind of cosmic or universal apocalypticism like HPL often did, focusing instead on the individual or more localized terrors. Very rarely in here did I get a sense that all of humanity is doomed.


Louise Hi there - your review of each story was very useful to me. I basically stuck with those you recommended, and only momentarily forayed into a few of the others. BTW, I definitely recommend more by Brian Evenson. His Last Days has certain superficial similarities with "In the Black Mill" - you'll see what I mean if/when you read it.


Zach Louise - glad I could help. Evenson has definitely risen to the top of the list of authors I should check out, and hopefully I'll get around to doing that some time soon.


Steve I can see what Jeannie means. I put LU aside for a while due to a dull stretch. For the most part I agree with Zach's breakdown of the stories. So far Kiernan's story is best, with Phillip's running a close second. Those two are keepers. (And I'm taking note of Terence's recommendation regarding Alabaster.)I actually didn't like Laidlaw's story (kind of boring) -- and I wanted to(given the setting, etc.) Chabon's entry is also solid, and I liked Evenson as well. The first story was also really good. I wonder if this anthology would of been better at 200 pages or so? I have no idea why "One Day Soon" was in this anthology.


Zach terence neglected to mention that alabaster is out of print and impossible to find!


Jeannie Sloan I found Alabaster for $40 at Amazon-http://www.amazon.com/Alabaster-Caitl...
I read the book which I got at my library so that may be a way to get it without shelling out all that cash.I liked it.I didn't love it because her writing style can get on my nerves when I read too much of her at once but it was a solid book and I was glad that I read it.I also read The Red Tree which I thought was good but that book may be more attractive to women or men who are interested in how women think.It tended to drag a little in the middle too but I kept reading it and came away with a positive review of it.


message 11: by Zach (new) - rated it 3 stars

Zach that's still a little rich for my blood!

I still plan on checking out one of her collections sooner or later though.


Jeannie Sloan I don't blame you.Do check out the library though.I am Jonesing for the book called Borderlands 5 by Monteleone but it is like $45 so forget it for right now.I am also waiting for her new book of short stories to be published next month.
Happy reading Zach!


Steve When it comes to these hard to find classics, I've been using interlibrary loan lately. For example, Karl Edward Wagner's In a Lonely Place. Very expensive if you can find a copy. Cost me a couple of buck in postage. And it was a really good collection. Jeannie, I have Borderlands 5 -- but it's titled From the Borderlands (it says on the back it was previously titled Borderlands 5). Maybe you can find it cheaper under that title. I just picked it up last week at a used book store as part of a trade in.


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