Of Card Games and Airships: Two from Strange Company, by Pete Rawlik

“The backs of the cards were gray, and without embellishment, though they were creased and stained more than any other deck he had ever seen. Of the cards that sat face up, he could only see details of the top one. The background was white or cream, and held an image of a green line, a yellow curve, a blue five-pointed star, a crimson square, and a circle that was solid black. In forty years of gambling, the stranger had never seen anything like it, and he knew that he had finally found what he was looking for.”

45317055[1]A lot of mythos/Lovecraftian/cosmic horror stories take themselves very seriously, and to be honest, this is not a bad thing. It’s hard not to take the end of the world at the hands (tentacles?) of a galaxy-devouring elder god seriously. But Pete Rawlik is here to remind us that there is another way to look at things, too. A light-hearted, fun, over the top way, because when Azathoth sets his sights on earth, you might as well smile.  I first encountered Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine podcast, where he is one of the regular personalities and contributors, but until now I had not read any of his work. The good folks at Gehenna and Hinnom Books recognized that Rawlik had written and published a lot of short stories, but thus far had not put out a collection of unrelated short stories, and so they sought to remedy that.  STRANGE COMPANY AND OTHERS is the result, and I’m grateful to them for providing me with an e-arc so that I could end my ignorance of Rawlik’s considerable contribution to the mythos.  When I first glanced at the TOC I saw that it was divided up into three sections: “Mainstream Mythos,” “Other Horrors,” and “Alternate Mythos.” I didn’t think I could do justice to all that this collection entails without taking a closer look at a story from both the first and last sections, so that is exactly what we’re gonna do. First up, the second story from the collection, DRAKE TAKES A HAND.

DRAKE TAKES A HAND

This tale opens up in an unnamed desert town with a tall man in a well used duster, snakeskin boots, and a wide-brimmed hat walking into a saloon that boldly advertises, “NO GAMBLING,” sitting down at the bar, slamming a whiskey, and asking where the card game is. Immediately, I was hooked. Knowing that this story was in the “mainstream mythos” section of the book, I was very curious to read a Lovecraftian/western mashup, and DRAKE did not disappoint.

carl-hantman-cowboy-standing-against-the-bar-of-a-western-saloon[1].jpgIt’s hard to talk about this story’s plot too much without giving anything away, but I think it is safe to say that a card game does break out, and it is a most unusual card game to be sure. Now while this story takes itself a bit more seriously than the other I’ll review below, it isn’t without its pranks. As the rules to the card game take shape, I had to laugh out loud because it’s basically Uno, with a mythos deck! I loved how Rawlik slowly reveals the cards, the rules, the strategies, and ultimately, the stakes of this game: “The table shook, the lights flickered, and Drake was plunged into a nightmare vision of the universe.”  The players, too, are quite a cosmic crew: “He found the cigarette he had made earlier and struck a match. A figure came out of the darkness. Whatever it was that had come from the hall was not human.”

Eschewing Lovecraft’s more pompous diction and syntax choices, Rawlik instead opts for a tale told in everyday language, which allows you as the reader to easily slide into this card game and the world that surrounds it. I thought the sense of place he was able to evoke, and very quickly too, was effective and made the biggest impact on my enjoyment of the story.  There’s no grand message here, no moral or caution. Instead, it’s just good, old-fashioned pulp. At the same time, it is not a pastiche work either. This story, like most in this collection, demonstrate a serious command of and love for Lovecraftian lore. There’s deep respect for the original material here, even if viewed through the lens of an Uno game.

THE STRANGE COMPANY

I’ll turn now to the titular story in this collection, and one found in the final section of stories, the “Alternate Mythos” section. THE STRANGE COMPANY immediately snagged my attention out of the TOC because I noted that it had originally been published in the Brian Sammons anthology, STEAMPUNK CTHULHU. I’d never read anything from that anthology before, but boy was I excited to now! I wrote a moment ago that DRAKE takes itself a bit more seriously than this one, and you need to understand that before going in. While this is a ripping yarn, it is pulpy, a bit bizarro, jam packed with ridiculous action, and is complete with a cast list of the who’s who of the Lovecraftian mythos. And just as I said above, there’s a deep love and respect for the source material here. The name drops he gives, the places he references, the stories alluded to in rapid fire succession all tally up to say you’re not just dealing with an author who is a Lovecraft fan, you’re dealing with a Lovecraft student.  Casual fans will easily pick up on Dunwich and Cthulhu references, but will likely miss out on some of the best ones, like Lord Jermyn.  That said, if you’re in the mood for something atmospheric, weird, unsettling, or disturbing, let me stop you right here.

airship_by_terrylh-d60ffmw-970x342[1].jpg

This story opens in the “observation blister” of the airship “Strato-Sphere” in the midst of what sounds like a very long running, heated conflict between, you guessed it, the forces of good and the cosmic forces of ultimate evil.  Both heroes and villains are ripped from the Lovecraftian canon.  After a brief amount of discussion and plotting, the story charts a course for an action packed, steampunk battle. Physics is pushed well past its generally accepted limit as alien weapons are blasted about and evil scientists and warlocks alike are tossed to and fro. “Far below, the Strato-Sphere hung in the air like a soap bubble surrounded by a strange field of black light. Off to the side, on the top of another tower, a team of men were manipulating a massive array of emitters, while steam billowed out around their feet. St. John cursed the fusion of cheap energy and alien technology.”

While I was reading this, I couldn’t help wishing that instead of a short story, this was a comic book. I say that and I’m not even a comic book fan, but the material is just so well suited to that medium that somebody outta adapt it.  Rawlik writes in that anachronistic pulpy tone that makes you think you’re reading something from a bygone era, but were you to compare this side by side with something from Edgar Rice Burroughs for example, you’d find that Rawlik’s modern milieu is actually shining through more than you expect.  For example, female characters take center stage in the action, and not as damsels in distress but as heroes, something you wouldn’t find in the John Carter stories.

cbab9d9f344dca5adf5bd3f16b167ee8[1]I feel like steampunk, as a sub-genre, has run its course, and that makes me a bit sad because of just how much fun it is.  Rawlik clearly had fun writing this and I hope that this new collection is able to get stories like this into new readers hands who might otherwise have missed out on the steampunk craze.

In Conclusion

This is very different fare from what I typically enjoy and from what I’ve almost universally reviewed on this website, but I am glad I did. While it might not be my go-to style when it comes to cosmic horror, it was an amazingly fun detour. Lovecraftians and cosmic horror junkies alike, if you don’t have any Pete Rawlik in your collections yet, this is a wonderful introduction and a great addition to any bookshelf. Let STRANGE COMPANY take you on its wild ride and help you remember that even while raising up that which you cannot put down you can still have fun along the way.

This review has been brought to you by Dust of Ages: Essential Saltes for Every Household. Remember, a little dash will do ya!

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

I didn’t see that one coming: “Senor Clapham-Lee, haff you not come to understand that there ess nothing that you can keel that I, Doctor Rafeal Carlos Garcia Muñoz, el Reanimatador, cannot bring back to life?”

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