SPECIAL DOUBLE FEATURE! Azathoth in Arkham; The Revenge of Azathoth, by Peter Cannon

“At the end of the session, I impulsively proposed to host the next meeting at my place, the very house where Edward Derby had grown up! The gang enthusiastically accepted my offer, and a date was set for the following week.”

9781568820408-us[1].jpgPeter Cannon kept company with an esteemed literati, including such lofty Lovecraftian personages as Frank Belnap Long, Dirk Mosig, S.T. Joshi, Robert Bloch, and others. Whereas a lot of the authors I read and review here are more modern in their context, Cannon was active in the early days of this contemporary renaissance of Lovecraftian literature. These two stories were first published in 1994 and collected in the volume in which I found them, “The Azathoth Cycle,” edited by Robert M. Price and published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1995. Do you remember 1995? Braveheart was in the theaters, that’s what I remember; and I loved it. But that was before most of us recognized that Gibson was an ass with a Messiah complex. In any event, these Chaosium volumes are intriguing, collecting stories focused on a single Lovecraftian entity or concept for the particular purpose of providing background reading to those who delve into the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Now, I’ve never played that myself, but these resource books are actually a fantastic boon to fans of the Mythos. Admittedly they are a little hard to read straight through due to the lack of variety (I mean, there’s only so much Azathoth I can take, you know? At least in one sitting…), but when you just want a story about that one elder God and can’t remember which collection you found one in, voila!, here you go.

Peter Cannon brings a vast knowledge and love of the original tales by the Old Gent, but doesn’t fully prostrate himself at the altar. Were he to visit the supposed grave of HPL, I imagine he’d smile wryly, maybe give the headstone a pat or two, and then walk away. He certainly wouldn’t leave a silver key, read poetry, or offer a malediction of blood, all things done fairly regularly there at the Swan Point Cemetery. galaxyy[1].jpgThis one-step removed posture allows Cannon to write with a wink and a nod, and infuse his compositions with an informed humor that you can only chuckle at if you’re as well-read as he in the native tales.

These stories are both sequels to The Thing on the Doorstep, imagining that it was Azathoth which somehow infected the minds of Asenath and Ephraim Waite. The first story, Azathoth in Arkham, follows the exploits of Edward Derby Upton, son of Edward Derby’s best friend, though never a particular fan of his namesake. “I confess that I never much cared for ‘Uncle Eddy…’ as a youth keen on such manly sports as boxing and baseball, I found Derby too flabby, too feminine.” The story takes place a little over a year after the events in Thing and finds Upton attempting to settle his own father’s affairs, who had died following a fit of madness and brief incarceration in the same padded cell at Arkham Sanitarium that had held Edward Derby. While doing some research on his father’s interests he learns of a group of young men who’d formed an interest group of sorts, the Dead Edward Derby Society. (Here, as elsewhere, we get a glimpse of Cannon’s sense of humor.) He ingratiates himself rather easily into the society and soon invites them to his home for their meetings, the home where Edward Derby had grown up.

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The Derby House in Salem, MA
They’re astonished and immediately accept the offer, though after a rich repast upon their first meeting there, the young scholars request spaghetti for the next dinner, which was lovingly prepared by the house butler, Soames. As with the previous story based on Thing that I covered, the tale ends unsurprisingly with a bit of a switcheroo.

However, Cannon isn’t done yet.

The second story, The Revenge of Azathoth, retells the action from the first story, but from the perspective of one of the Derby acolytes in the Dead Edward Derby Society, a young man named Vartan Bagdasarian. It’s important to read these stories both in order and together, otherwise you run the risk of missing important details and the full extent of Cannon’s authorial whimsy. In this sequel to a sequel, we learn the why of certain events from the first story and a fuller picture comes into focus. Vartan is a literary critic who isn’t as star-struck with Upton as his compatriots. Rather, he has a deeper drive to research Derby, and Azathoth, and will use the fortuitous happenstance of the Society encountering Upton to his utmost advantage, especially after glimpsing a cupboard that contained some of Derby’s writings. “There was a silence as I  waited for him to make the obvious offer. Finally, I spoke up, and in as casual a tone as I could muster, suggested that I’d be glad to save him the effort of examining the cupboard’s contents, not that I wanted to impose or anything…” A female foil (from Innsmouth, of all places) named Wendy is introduced, who provides a focal point for Upton’s transforming appetites. I do have to add, though, that there is a flavor of misogyny present around this character—even if it’s written in a less than flattering light—that this reviewer found distasteful. In the end, another rather unsurprising conclusion is offered as we all are once again supposed to gasp at miscegenation.

The second story is better than the first, though neither of them particularly blow your hair back. Sure, there’s a chuckle or two to be had, especially with the flip way in which Cannon handles Lovecraftian material to which other authors, and HPL himself, assigned such grave importance and cosmic magnitude. There was something human in that, and somehow that was a bit refreshing. There is real genius in the second tale, though, and I would have missed it, I admit, had it not been for Robert M. Price’s introduction to the story. I quote, “The literary cult of Lovecraft himself becomes the basis for the “Dead Edward Derby Society,” and the chief Derby zealot who has moved to Arkham for the sole purpose of living among his hero’s haunts, Vartan Bagdasarian, is based on both August Derleth…and S.T. Joshi…” That’s both a fun and a tongue-in-cheek move, and I’m indebted to Price (who isn’t the darling he once was in the Lovecraftian community on account of his own outspoken xenophobic beliefs, and more recently, his public approval of Donald Trump as President) for pointing it out.

These two stories are a good example of some of the earlier work being done in this current wave of Lovecraftian fiction. Derleth, Bloch, Campbell, Carter, Ashton-Smith, and others wrote a lot of pastiches on the way to laying down a few of their own original bricks. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But this isn’t even on the same playground where Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín Kiernan, Ruthanna Emrys, and others are currently giving flesh to some of the best dark fiction period. If it took some pastiche work, and some less than inspired stories to get to where we are today, then I’m deeply grateful. Don’t get me wrong, gentle reader, these aren’t bad stories, and if you’re a Lovecraft fan you’ll have fun with them. They just aren’t up to the mind-blowing, reality-shifting status of some of the others I’ve reviewed here. I may be in danger of overvaluing the present at the expense of the past, but I don’t think too much so.

One final point, despite the intent of these tales, and despite their titles, they didn’t have a lot to do with Azathoth. I’m still in search of a really good Azathoth story, so if you know of one and can point me to it, please do so in the comments. I don’t know exactly what Daniel Upton found on his doorstep, but if Azathoth had anything to do with it, it was only in the inspirational sense.

This review was composed listening to the Spotify playlist “Classical in A Minor” compiled by Laura Guthrie.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

wash_away_my_demons__by_crimsonnonyxx_d49vzgx-fullview[1].jpg
“wash away my demons” by Deviant Artist: crimsonnonyxx

A Circle That Ever Returneth In, by Orrin Grey

“…each of the three possesses one portion of a riddle, map, or clue meant to lead them to the jewel…each one believes their portion to be the most pertinent and therefore of the most value…”

gost-cov300[1].jpgEarlier this year I read a story that I really enjoyed in “Autumn Cthulhu” called The Well and the Wheel (review here) by Orrin Grey. As I was just then beginning my exploration of these sorts of stories, Grey’s name was new to me. Well, it’s new to me no longer and thank goodness for it! I’ve since come to understand he’s referred to in the business as “the monster guy” for his many ingenious takes on familiar and not so familiar monsters, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to him expound upon his writing and his influences in a pair of “This is Horror” podcasts (available here or wherever you get your podcasts). A while ago I saw on his blog that his new collection, “Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales,” would be coming out soon and I couldn’t have been more excited. It is now in print (2018) and available from his publisher here. (I actually received a free e-copy directly from the publisher just for voting. That’s right, just for performing my civic duty and telling them about it, the good folks at Word Horde gave me a free e-copy of this great collection.)

There’s three noteworthy things about this collection that I’d like to draw to your attention, gentle reader. The first is obvious from the cover: Gemma Files has given the introduction, which, if that weren’t noteworthy enough, know also that it’s an introduction in which she describes her inescapable desire to eat Mr. Grey.  Gemma is a considerable talent and it speaks well of this current volume that she wanted to be a part of it. The second is that the author comments on each story after its conclusion. I think he does this in his other collections too, but I absolutely love this feature. There’s nothing I enjoy more after reading something that I loved than to talk about with others who’ve also read it, and these author notes are like getting to do so, however all too briefly, with the author himself. So, thank you for that! Third, and finally, when I got this book it caused me to temporarily put down the other book I was reading—Paul Tremblay’s latest “The Cabin at the End of the World”—which is a rare enough feat as it is, but especially so in this case as this novel by Tremblay is rather un-put-down-able.

journey1[1].jpgI reached out to Mr. Grey on Facebook asking him which of these tales was particularly Lovecraftian, and, because he’s the standup guy that he is, he actually got back to me and shared with me his own personal enthusiasm for the tale we’re examining here. A Circle That Ever Returneth In is a Lovecraftian/sword-and-sorcery mashup that is also a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.  That’s right, you read that correctly. What literary-minded child of the 80’s could forget these wondrous tomes?! Now, imagine all that you remember about reading these books and then add in both Lovecraftian and sword-and-sorcery elements and you’ve got the picture, and it is a sight to behold. It’s reprinted here in this volume, but originally it was published in “Swords vs. Cthulhu,” edited by Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer.

This tale, like so many of its ilk (well, those worth their mead anyway) begins in an inn, with a group of adventurers around a beaten up table near a roaring fire. You (because, of course, this is written in the second person) overhear their conversation and your interest is peaked. There’s maps, treasure, danger, and everything that goes along with it being discussed. tavern_by_ltramaral-d55g796-1024x595[1].jpgBut then, there’s a disagreement, a parting of ways, and you’re left with the choice of following only one of the three adventurers, the sell-sword, the cut-purse, or the doll mage. I immediately chose to follow the doll mage (duh), being instructed to turn to a numbered section rather than a page, as it was of old. I figured I knew what a sell-sword and a cut-purse were, but of the doll mage I only had high hopes. She did not disappoint.

88e1e11768bbcbb365d0ca09798614df[1]The doll mage’s tale took us through a few hasty voodoo-like lessons wrought on the anvil of you, the main character. “You see that she is holding a doll, a tiny effigy of cloth and wax, and you notice with a start that it looks like you…she pulls out a black stitch from across the doll’s mouth, and suddenly you find your voice.” You discover that you’re searching for the Shining Trapezohedron (putting versed readers immediately in mind of The Haunter of the Dark) and that you must cross the Forbidden Plateau in order to seek it out. Naturally, it is overgrown with large, predatory fungi. Past that you enter into the court of the King in Yellow and must decide how you’ll handle him, for he holds the Shining Trapezohedron in his hands. I fully admit giving in to my old bad habits while reading these stories and reading with a few fingers (in this case, e-bookmarks) placed at different junctures—come on, you did the same—while at the same time reading with one eye closed so I didn’t accidentally see the bolded final sentence detailing my fate.

I enjoyed my ride through this adventure so much that I went back through it a second time, choosing the sell-sword this time and was pleasantly surprised by how different the story was. Even set pieces that I thought would be static were not and were actually dramatically different lending a completely different feel to the story, though I eventually met the same end. I fully intend to go back once again and see where the cut-purse’s tale will take me, and then maybe go through it all over again making different choices. There’s enough paths here to make that worth your time, while also being short enough that that doesn’t feel tedious.

r1heyg3hbtwz[1].jpgThe prose here is not particularly special, but it isn’t meant to be and it doesn’t have to be. It reads exactly as I remember a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reading, which may or may not be an accurate recollection of reality. The ideas are simple, the journey enjoyable. But, don’t let that fool you. As an homage to this singular slice of juvenile literature, it’s brilliantly conceived and, more importantly, lovingly executed. The Lovecraftian elements are thoughtfully included, yet don’t take over. The King in Yellow is, of course, properly a Chambers creation, but has been adopted into the Lovecraft canon pretty fully by now I think. You’ll enjoy seeing the different interpretations Grey takes with him in each iteration of the story. The sword-and-sorcery elements are more prevalent, calling to mind Fritz Lieber’s iconic characters and land—Grey admiringly nods to Lieber in naming his country Lankhende.

Above all, I had fun while reading and rereading this, and I think that is his main goal. I was taken back to early mornings huddled in the school library, trying to decide if I could finish my journey before school began, or if I needed to check the book out. I was taken back to my family room floor, surrounded by dice and friends and DM screens and character sheets. I was taken back to watching my taped-off-TV copy of Conan the Barbarian. I was taken back to a time when adventure mattered more than anything, to when traps were actually deadly, and to when the endings could be rewritten as often as you liked. I was taken back. And I loved it. Thank you, Orrin Grey.

This review was written while listening to the soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian, the movie, transcribed for organ, because why not. I have to imagine there aren’t many people who’ve listened to this album.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar

Roll for Initiative: “Gone are the cyclopean walls, the towering buildings with their many windows for trysts and burglaries. Here the walls lie in rubble, the towers rise a few stories and then terminate abruptly. It is a ruin, and what better place than a ruin for ghouls to dwell.”