Book Review: Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow

22 February, LI A.S.

Great Cthulhu…Deep Ones…Elder Things…Azathoth…

These eldritch horrors and more are promised within the pages of Lovecraft’s Monsters, a 2014 anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, and published by Tachyon Press. My parents (love you guys!) bought me a copy as a gift, and I recently finished it, and now want to share my thoughts. In short, this book is creepy, it’s engaging, and it offers diverse and creative yarns of the Lovecraftian Mythos told from previously unseen angles. If you enjoy the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and are hungry for more stories of his Mythos, I would point you immediately to this anthology.

 

The book (at least my edition) is in paperback form, and well-presented with a glossy, full-color, and thematically appropriate front and back cover, as well as numerous internal black and white illustrations, all this unspeakable imagery the work of artist John Coulthart. After the Foreword and Introduction by Stefan Dziemianowicz and Ellen Datlow, respectively, the book launches into its eighteen stories by eighteen authors, starting with Only the End of the World Again by Neil Gaiman! (Worth noting, two of the eighteen included entries are poems, rather than prose.) The back content includes a neat little Monster Index running from “Azathoth” to “Shub-Niggurath,” and bios for each contributor.

 

What leaped out to me about this anthology just two stories in was the diversity in setting, theme, characters, and style. We get Lovecraft in the Wild West with Laird Barron’s Bulldozer, which follows a Pinkerton on the hunt for a criminal of unnatural ability; The Same Deep Waters As You by Brian Hodge takes us to the 21st century and the efforts of shadowy U.S. government entities to address what ancient horrors lie slumbering in the dark and slimy depths; Elizabeth Bear’s Inelastic Collisions lends us a peek into the world of two Hounds of Tindalos banished to our plane of existence; and Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole by Howard Waldrop & Steven Utley dramatically expands on the strange and tragic Arctic odyssey of one of literature’s and film’s most treasured monsters. The anthology nimbly crosses genres. Not every story is explicitly Horror in the usual sense, or even Adventure: Caitlin R. Kirenan gives us an adorable and bittersweet snapshot of monsters-in-love with Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl.

 

Expanding on that topic of diversity, I appreciated seeing Black and Asian protagonists and cultural settings. As gifted as he was, Lovecraft the man was also rather, um…ok, racist. Non-white characters are almost universally scheming, villainous, impulsive, easily-cult-influenced, criminal types in his stories. His ignorant views (and from what I know of his life, I think it really was ignorance rather than some K.K.K.-esque active hatred,) in that area are something that I as a reader and writer recognize, and then set aside as I appreciate his masterful descriptions, plots, and world-building. That makes it so welcome to, within the Mythos, get into the thought-process, language, setting, and experience of mid-20th century African-American (unofficial) private eyes and (contractually-reckless) Blues players as they wrangle with supernormal deals gone bad in Joe R. Landsdale’s The Bleeding Shadow, or to experience the ancient terror afflicting a contemporary Indonesian family and their new nanny in the superbly titled Red Goat Black Goat by Nadia Bulkin.

While I (gasp!) liked some stories more than others, I found something to enjoy in each. They variably gave me chills, hooked with an irresistible opening line, got a chuckle out of me for some piece of gallows humor, left me darkly pondering the questions of the universe and our place in it, led to me treading extra quietly around and checking every corner of my dark apartment, or produced a genuine grin of admiring joy at a story’s originality in concept. (Lookin’ at you, William Browning Spencer!) This is much more than a collection of “spooky” stories.

 

This would be the point in the review where I’d say the negative points. Gotta be fair and balanced, right? There truly aren’t many negatives here, but I’ll try. Many the stories take place in Innsmouth, or are directly related to the events and background of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Other people may not like that, (maybe?) but I had no trouble with it, since the authors who featured that blighted town and its fishy residents did so from such different character and thematic angles. Another sticking point is that there was one story where the entire premise honestly did not interest me, and then it went on for way too long, at least for my tastes. I don’t think it was badly written: the author’s take on the Mythos just didn’t resonate with me. One last thing to note, which isn’t a problem with the book itself but may affect a reader’s enjoyment of it: if you haven’t read all or at least most of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, especially the most famous one, expect to feel lost, and therefore limited in your reading pleasure. Since this is a book by and for Lovecraft fans, this isn’t a gripe by any means, it’s just a small disclaimer for anyone whose interest I’ve piqued, who isn’t familiar with the lore.

 

Overall, Lovecraft’s Monsters is a kick-ass anthology, and if you’re a Mythos devotee you’ll love it. The authors here have done a stellar job of expanding Lovecraft’s world in the dimensions of space, time, and human (and non-human!) emotion. Ms. Datlow chose the entries well, and the overall presentation is top-notch. As I read, I was transported through the rotting wharf of Innsmouth, to the darkest part of the Amazonian jungle, to the center of a hollow earth, to the End of the World, to a hidden city plucked from dark dreams, and to everywhere in-between. I saw eldritch horrors that would drive the sane to shivering madness, I heard the Doom call of the Deep Ones, and I watched with fascination as ordinary human beings struggled in body, mind, and soul against the emphatically Unordinary. I like this book.

-G.R. Wilson

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