Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday|The Trouble with Tycho

Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday | The Trouble with Tycho by A. Bertram Chandler and Clifford Simak, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two short novels printed upside down from each other.  Very nostalgic.

Bring Back Yesterday

Bring Back Yesterday stars John Petersen, a merchant ship’s second mate.  Or he was, until he decided to have a night of drugs and sex with one of his former passengers in port.  The drugs were more potent than advertised, and he wound up missing his ship.  Apparently, there is a surplus of starship crewmembers, as the line promptly fires him under their one-strike rule, and he’s blacklisted from any other respectable starship company.

Which leaves Mr. Petersen stranded on Carinthea.  His options are few, as there’s no jobs for starship officers on the planet.  He can take a menial, minimum wage job, competing with the local unskilled workers; sign up with the Rim Worlds starship line on the lonely frontier and their deathtrap ships; or wait until a ship goes by heading to Earth so he can be deported back to that dying planet.  Carinthea has recently left the Federation, so that might be a while.

None of these sound appealing, but Mr. Petersen meets someone who knows a person who’s looking for someone just like him.  Steve Vynalek is a private eye who needs a field operative that knows how to operate in space.  Why?  It seems there’s a retired starship engineer who may have invented precognition and/or time travel, and he’s living on Wenceslaus, Carinthea’s moon, under a spy-ray-proof dome.  The government would very much like to know what’s going on, but their regular spies have been stymied by other circumstances.

It’s off to Wenceslaus then, and Mr. Petersen soon becomes aware that someone doesn’t want him to get there, as the shuttle is sabotaged.  His space training really comes in handy.  From there, it’s dodging death while trying to discover the truth.  But the truth may not set him free, but instead condemn him to eternal imprisonment….

This is in the line of hard-boiled detective stories; our hero does relatively little in the way of mental detection, and a lot in the way of engaging in life or death struggles, including against the deadly Post Office.   It’s also got more sex than was common for SF in 1961, in that it mentions sex at all–Mr. Petersen gets it on with two women, and is interrupted in the middle of a third tryst.  No gory details of that, though.

There are also a number of improbable coincidences, with an actual reason behind them.  The science fiction bits make a certain amount of sense in context, and the action scenes are exciting.  Most of the female characters are there to be sex objects for Mr. Petersen or secretaries, but we do have Liz, the hard-bitten proprietor of the Spaceman’s Hostel, who has a bit more personality and gumption.

It’s middling-good science fiction.

The Trouble with Tycho

The Trouble with Tycho takes place on Earth’s moon.  Chris Jackson is a prospector who’s not been doing very well, and is in danger of losing his stake.  When he runs across Amelia Thompson, a stranded traveler, he learns that she knows the location of valuable salvage.  Just one problem–that location is in Tycho Crater, which no one ever escapes alive.  Joined by a scientist who has his own reasons for entering Tycho, they start an expedition to certain doom.

This is more of a straight-up adventure story with survival elements.  The deadliness of Luna’s environment is played up, and that’s even before the mysterious dangers of Tycho are added in.  It turns out that the secret of Tycho is highly implausible, but Mr. Simak does his best to make it all fit together.

Amelia is depicted as being reasonably competent, but undercuts this by emphasizing that she learned her skills from her brother (who should be the one doing this, but got sick) and giving her a “schoolgirl” appearance.  And of course, Chris is far more competent.  This was a thing in stories of the Twentieth Century; a female character whose useful skills are due to being related to a man who either taught them to her, or allowed her to follow in his footsteps.

The suspense is good. though, as their resources dwindle and their escape options are cut off.

Overall, not the best work by either author, but a fun read if you happen across it.

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