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.

1460[1].JPG
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

Devil’s Bathtub, by Lois H. Gresh

“The ice scraped the fur from his skin, and he smelled his own blood and it scared him. And that’s when his bones shattered. The dog was aware that his body was a limp sack filled with mush. He didn’t understand.”

91bbKUt-kBL[1]At the Mountains of Madness is not only one of HPL’s longest stories (it’s really a novella), but also one of his most popular. There are perennial rumors of a del Toro helmed film adaptation, and so let me add my meager voice to the mix, I desperately would love to see that. Many, many Lovecraftian stories take Mountains for their base and a lot of them are collected in a single volume (well, now two it seems) called “The Madness of Cthulhu Anthology” Volume One, collected by that inestimable Lovecraft scholar, S.T. Joshi,  published in 2014 by Titan Books.  This present story is an example of one written by a seriously heavy-weight author, and one which I just couldn’t get into, even after a re-read.  Lois Gresh, according to her blurb, is a New York Times best selling author of over twenty-five books, and sixty short stories. She’s published in tons of languages and appears in many noted anthologies. So, her writing credentials (or at least, publishing credentials) are established. And let me say up front, I don’t think it’s the writing that bothered me in this story, so much as it was the plot itself.

At the Mountains of Madness is a harrowing tale of adventure, horrific discovery, and enormous implication. It’s one of HPL’s magnum opi, along with The Shadow Out of Time, which describe humanity’s rather insignificant place in the scope of the cosmos. Both stories are told with sweeping scope against a cinematic backdrop. Perhaps that background led me into this story with similar expectations, however unfairly, of scope and setting. Devil’s Bathtub, though, has a very narrow focus, as perhaps it rightly should, but for me I found it to be one which I wasn’t overly interested in.  It tells the strange story of a father and young daughter who reside at Vostok glacier outpost in Antartica, along with a few research assistanimage[1].jpgts. (Problem numero uno for me: what’s this guy doing with his kid in Antarctica? I don’t care who you work for, that probably isn’t going to happen, correct me if I’m wrong.) They’re investigating a strange circumstance near the South Pole where there seems to be a semi-sentient black ice/slime hybrid. “The ice is four hundred years old…and deep beneath it is the lake, filled with two thousand two hundred feet of liquid and life we don’t understand yet.”  Their poor dog wanders too close to the stuff and gets incorporated into it, broken down but yet still alive. It’s a bit squishy and would be terrifying if it weren’t slightly humorous. Humor I’m sure the author didn’t intend. I get trying to use a dog to tug on the emotions, but, for me at least, I have to be emotionally invested in the animal and it’s relationship to it’s human first  for that work. You can’t just toss a dog in the story and expect me to get all Old Yeller-y immediately.

What happens to the dog foreshadows, with a stunning degree of accuracy, exactly what happens to the guy and his daughter, as this slimy stuff converts them into the building blocks, quite literally bricks, of whatever it is it’s constructing. Perhaps this is the stuff of a shoggoth, perhaps not. “She looked down. Saw bright blue eyes, he whites huge around tiny irises. Stark terror. Dad. But he wasn’t really there. Only his eyes, and they were plugged into the sides of the wall like light bulbs.” And that’s really it, my chilly reconnoiterers. I didn’t find a grander, overarching theme. I couldn’t locate a clever sense of cosmic dread. There may have been a hint of a presence of a possible Lovecraftian monster, but maybe not. antarctica-29[1].jpgFor a story that talks about drilling deep into the ice, I found this to be a very surface level skate around the mythos pond. It’s possible it’s trying to say something about humanity’s insignificance by breaking the humans down into their constituent parts and using them to make something else, but if it is, to what end? There wasn’t enough of a “so what?” factor in this story to make me care about it and none of it left me with any kind of feeling of awe or dread. I hate to say it, but this has been the weakest Lovecraftian story I’ve read so far.

The writing here is unnoticeable, in both a positive and a negative sense. It doesn’t stand out as excellent prose, though it is functional and in a way, you sometimes want prose to disappear into the background of a story so the reader can get lost in the fiction. But then again, it’s also good to have a sentence or three that makes me, the reader, want to stand up and read it out loud in a public place. This didn’t do that. I have read other stories in this collection and they’ve been better, so I’d say the collection itself is definitely worth it if you’re considering whether to buy it or not. But I’m also saying if you do, maybe don’t start with this story.

I wish I had more to say friends, but sadly, I do not. The material didn’t provide it.

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

Limp prose about cold places and broken bones: “Her bones rattled and crunched, and oh yes, she should be dead, but here she was, a limp sack of skin filled with the debris of bones and organs and muscle. What had happened to her? What was she?”

 

Howling in the Dark, by Darrell Schweitzer

“I am certain only that we came to a high, dark place beneath brilliant stars and perched at the edge of a precarious precipice, so that with the slightest tumble, not to mention an intentional leap, we could have hurled ourselves off into the black sea of infinity forever.”

Well, I have to confess (I feel comfortable doing that with you, my fellow cultists, and pray that trust is not misplaced) that when I looked in my notes and saw the title of this next story that was up for review I had a brief moment of panic because I didn’t remember the first thing about it.  I thought, ‘Have I gotten too far ahead in my reading that I’m beginning to not be able to recall the ones I’ve finished?’ But then I looked at my list, and no, I remembered each other one that was on the list. So, I’m afraid the first thing I have to say about this story tonight is that for me, it was not very memorable. Even when I went back and looked at it again, I have to say that not only was it not very memorable, but I wasn’t all that interested in it. So, that’s my confession to you, and you’ll have to decide for yourselves whether my feeble brain is just too addled from blasphemous texts and forgotten rites, or whether this story just doesn’t cut the mustard. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

b69062dd20873d040269e11d4f7f7b43[1]It’s a tough call to make, I assure you, as our author is not only a well respected and very prolific author in the field of weird fiction, but he was, from 1988 to 2007 the editor of a little magazine you may have heard about called Weird Tales. I came across the story in Black Wings of Cthulhu, Vol. 1, edited by none other than the estimable S.T. Joshi, the preeminent Lovecraft scholar, and published by Titan Books in 2012. Since then, this venerable series of Lovecraftian anthologies is up to volume six, so it’s only natural that not all stories will resonate with all readers.  This one tells the tale of Joseph (who goes unnamed until the end) in the first person, who lives a somewhat tragic life and is taken on noctural journeys through time and space by a spooky “stone man whose eyes do not really glow.” You get the sense that perhaps he is really going on these weird trips, but perhaps he is not; perhaps he is just wandering around outside, silently suffering some sort of mental break from reality on account of his circumstances.  His mother hints at this possibility when, after she catches him wet and cold from being outside, she asks, “Are you crazy? You’ll catch your death of cold!” But when the narrator could provide no explanation, “Mom began to talk about doctors and psychiatrists.”

The stone man takes him on trips through the blackness of night with increasingly regularity, seemingly coinciding with the progressively horrid conditions of his life.  He was beaten regularly, his parents screamed at each other, his sister gained obscene amounts of weight without end. 5078971[1].jpgFurther and further afield he is taken, but perhaps it is just further and further down into a severely depressed psyche. “If we are to achieve our place in the whirling darkness beyond the stars, he explained to me, inside my head without words, we must become nihil, nothing.” Eventually two of his family members suicide and the flying demons of his night jaunts close in. He is institutionalized, spends time with doctors for whom he doesn’t have much respect, and is finally released. He must have achieved some sort of equilibrium as he marries, has a daughter, and moves away. But the stone man and all the inhabitants of the darkness, his darkness, follow him.  More tragedy strikes, and finally, the descent into madness, or to the lost plateau of Leng, is near complete.

Like I said, this one really didn’t do a whole lot for me, nor can I really recommend it with any force. It’s well written, I’ll give it that. Schweitzer knows his craft. It just left me cold in the end, and not in a particularly Lovecraftian way. (Lovecraft’s stories actually never leave me cold. I always end up feeling something: awe, wonder, fear, and so on.) Perhaps, though, that is the point of this, to be an exposition on numbness, that particular demon of depression.

spitsbergen-eclipse-ngpc2015_92203_990x742[1]
“…we hurled through infinities without number until we came at last to a flat and frozen plain, beneath two black suns, and we knelt down and abased ourselves…”
I’ve never suffered from it, thank the dim star of Carcosa, but I know many who have and do, and it’s no joke. If that was Schweitzer’s goal, I’ll hand him credit where credit is due, he succeeded in writing a story about depression that left me numb, cold, and unfeeling. And I didn’t like it. Again, though, maybe that was the point. Beyond that, it’s not particularly Lovecraftian, nor is it startingly scary in any way. But it might be a good story, despite not fitting in this genre in my modest opinion. I suppose you could argue that the Lovecraftian nature of it comes in the expansive visions of the cosmos to which the narrator is exposed: “Now the stars swirl around us in a vast whirlpool, and then there are more dark dust clouds whirling, obscuring the light, and we pass through, borne by our captors, for I believe that is what they are, the ones to whom we have surrendered ourselves.” It’s beautiful, evocative imagery, but for some reason, it just doesn’t scream HPL at me.  Put another way, were this story not in this book, I’d likely never associate it with Lovecraft.

That about does it for this review, but before I go, let me say this again. Depression is no joke. If you’re suffering from it, you do not have to do so alone. Reach out. Tell someone you trust. Leave a comment for me if all else fails, for heaven’s sake. There is help. If you’re thinking of harming yourself, that is not the answer. This is National Suicide Awareness Week, and so for my part, I urge you, if you’re having thoughts of suicide, call this number:

1-800-273-8255

13496_AFSP_didyouknow_graphics_rebrand_d165[1].png

This review was composed listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Miroirs,” “Pavane pour une infante défunte,” and my personal favorite, “Gaspard de la nuit,” which is an insanity all of its own.

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