Miskatonic River Press, $17.99. ISBN 978-0-9821818-0-5
Unlike zombies, HP Lovecraft‘s brand of horror, the primordial destructive entities known as the Great Old Ones and such, don’t often register on mainstream consciousness, but they have a strong cult following. Maybe we should blame the Japanese, but the the whole tentacled-slime-creepy crawly trope associated with these entities also take on… shall we say, a rather polarizing kind of sexual fetish that is normally associated with high-pitched, pony-tailed Japanese girls in school uniforms found in those cartoons. Over the years, however, many authors have taken on these elements to spin stories of their own. After a while, the stories become more graphic, less atmospheric, and editors Kevin Ross and Keith Herber feel that those stories have somewhat strayed from what HP Lovecraft wanted his stories to represent: horror tales are rely on atmosphere and fear of the unfathomable unknown lurking behind the most mundane things.
Anyway, the anthology Dead but Dreaming hope to present a collection of stories that are more back to basics while retaining the authors’ unique interpretation of the dark universe created by Mr Lovecraft. It was first published in 2002 by DarkTales Publication, but the publisher went under shortly after its release date, resulting in only a limited number of books in circulation. This edition had been revised and corrected, although I notice some spelling mistakes still present here. Still, there is nothing here that stands out in a “Oh no, they spelled rogue as rouge!” manner, and that’s not so bad.
Stephen Mark Rainey starts the show with Epiphany: A Flying Tiger’s Story, in which a pilot is downed while trying to elude his Japanese pursuers, and finds something rather… unusual in the jungle where he crash-lands. A rather standard story, but still creepy nonetheless.
Loren Macleod’s The Aklo presents the journal of two archeologists in the 1920s who set out to locate sites and artifacts that would help them make a name for themselves in the field, only to stumble upon evidence of a horrifying realm under our world and the unspeakable atrocities its denizens committed upon the folks in the past. This one is another standard tale that adheres faithfully to the tropes originated by Mr Lovecraft, but its more graphic nature betrays its contemporary sensibilities. There is a nice build up in this story, and the graphic nature of the denouement is a nice way to end things.
Bangkok Rules by Patricia Lestewka is about a hitman who discovers that his employer has another hitman in his employ, and this employer wants the two hitmen to square off in an unusual test to determine who gets the next plum assignment. This one blends sex and horror in a graphic manner that the Clive Barker fan in me heartily approve of.
Darrell Schweitzer’s Why We Do It has a college student who brings the girl he likes back to meet his family… who is a part of a community that worships those things. This is a predictable tale that, at the same time, reads a bit too much like the revenge fantasy of a slobbering nerd who is furious at being locked into the friend zone by the hot cheerleader he wants to get to know better.
I’ve come across David Barr Kirtley’s The Disciple before in another anthology, New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, so I’d just repeat my thoughts about it here: it’s a quaint yet dark story of a cult that prepares its members to be the Disciples of Cthulhu’s best friend the Traveler on Ocean of Night. The cult operates openly in a New England college, much to the surprise of our gloomy emo protagonist. Cult members are trained by a professor, and graduation day involves summoning the big guy so that the Disciples can ascend to a higher state and become a part of the big guy as he travels across the universe. Can our protagonist graduate with flying colors? I really like this one, mostly because I actually didn’t see the events at the climax of the story coming, and I have a great time reading this one. It’s short, simple, but oh so satisfying.
Mike Minnis’s Salt Air is about a man who relates to the reader the strange story of his friend, Gammell. Gammell was a professor in Miskatonic University who was never the same after the deaths of his wife and son to the influenza outbreak that claimed so many lives in 1918. He was forcefully “advised” to take a long break from work by his superiors, so Gammell decided to go back to his hometown, where the “salt air” from the sea would hopefully help him become his old self again. His hometown was Kingsport, a place where the narrator encountered a disturbing incident one night when he was a boy. That incident couldn’t compare to Gammell’s discoveries in his hometown, of course. This one is very nice, as it has horror melded nicely with human tragedy and how our broken heart sometimes find succor and even healing in the most disturbing kinds of things.
Walt Jarvis presents the demons that are Great Old Ones as the ones that haunt our minds in Through the Cracks, where the greatest horrors are the ones that manifest only inside our heads and haunt us in a manner that alienates us that the people around us, and the only way to save ourselves is to completely surrender our humanity. This is a decent read, but pretty predictable from start to finish.
A young girl in Tahiti befriends a soldier suffering from what seems like PTSD after World Wars 2, despite the warnings from her mother and other people in the neighborhood, in The Unseen Battle. She discovers that the soldier does suffer from PTSD, but not only because of the war. The horror elements are to be expected – it’s in this anthology, after all – but I really like how the story starts out as an unlikely friendship between two people, only to have the creepy undercurrents build up into a terrifying pitch as it hurtles toward its tragic conclusion.
Adam Niswander’s Bayer’s Tale is about a police detective who is confronted by a gruesome case: eighteen people were found dead in a cemetery, the bodies burned to the point that they had melded into one almost unidentifiable mass. Of course, it’s all related to the Dark Master. This one is a pretty standard tale with familiar tropes typical of a story of this sort, but the author manages to inject some fresh new twist to the recognizable approach. It’s quite impressive how having a cop instead of the usual scholar narrate the story can shake things up considerably.
Lisa Morton presents The Call of Cthulhu: The Motion Picture, in which a scriptwriter is commissioned to write exactly what you think it is. He succeeds… at great cost to the world. Another pretty standard tale, although it has some interesting take on the familiar, such as having HP Lovecraft himself as a pawn or catalyst for the dark overlord’s sinister plans.
Under an Invisible Shadow by David Bain is a zombie apocalypse story, where human survivors that have an ability to sense souls and such discover the presence of an immense being that is slowly killing off the zombies and devouring their souls. The more souls it devours, the larger it becomes. This one isn’t a conventional horror story, in that the horror elements arise from the sense of dread of the unknown, that what could have been a savior could easily become one’s doom overnight. I guess one can extrapolate this story into some kind of parable about the uncertainties we face as our lives become increasingly dependent on new and potentially destructive technologies. This one is a short story that packs a pretty big punch. I like it.
Robin Morris steers everyone back to more familiar territory in The Thing Beyond the Stars, set in a future where man has discovered how to travel to distant planets. Just in time, too, as they learned and, worse, awakened the Shoggoths, the former slaves of the Great Old Ones, who left Earth nearly barren of life. Some foolish people, discovering that the Great Old Ones had another ancient foe that nearly defeated them, decided to awaken that alien race too, and this alien race enslaved and killed the remaining humans that couldn’t flee Earth in time. Folks have since forgotten the threat of the Old Ones, learning about them mostly in scraps of information left behind by the folks that came before them. In this story, a dashing captain of a human colony’s fleet to discover and reconnect with humans on other planets discover clues to the existence of the Old Ones, and he just have to hunt for more clues. As you can imagine, he doesn’t like what he finds. This one is a pretty solid story, as it is the only one that presents a truly apocalyptic threat that people most likely have no hope in avoiding, in a tale that has a great, if somewhat predictable, build up.
Mehitobel Wilson’s Fire Breathing is all about terrors that lurk in the head of a radio DJ. Pretty gripping stuff, but the narrative is a tad too gimmicky and pretentious for my liking.
Ramsey Campbell’s The Other Names has a kid who, after being bullied, may have stumbled upon a great gift from far from benevolent forces that allow him to turn the tables on his bullies… and the rest of the world. Pretty standard stuff, this, but murderous little kids are always a premise that can’t go wrong.
David Annandale closes the story with, appropriately enough, Final Draft. A scholar is invited to study and analyze an old cathedral only to learn that its age is far older than anyone can ever imagine, and, worse, it’s purpose may go beyond the site of worship dedicated to a benevolent deity. This one has all the right ingredients for a good horror story, as long as I don’t think too hard about it and realize that the whole thing is actually a mess that hinges on horrifying coincidences happening one after another.
The stories in Dead but Dreaming are all pretty solid horror entries, with none that stands out as a clear dud. All things considered, this is a nice way to bask in some creepy moments during a lazy afternoon.