Prime Books, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-60701-289-4
Despite the presence of the word “New” in the title, the stories in the anthology New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird aren’t new. Editor Paula Guran had picked and compiled stories that were originally published in various magazines and anthologies from the last few years. Not that I’m complaining, as I sort of expected this after reading the blurb at the back cover, but I’m just letting you guys know. If you have read anthologies of similar nature that came out in the last ten years, however, do take a peek at the last few pages that listed the origins of the stories, if you can, as a considerable number of these stories first showed up in those anthologies.
Also, I should point out that the editing of this anthology can sometimes be rather… lacking, let’s just say. There are various instances where there are spelling errors, missing words, and even wrong words that just happen to sound similar to those words that should be used instead. It is as if I had edited this anthology while drunk. I managed to overlook these boo-boos, but I don’t know about you or anyone else.
Okay, this anthology is all about stories with elements either inspired by or, in some cases, could be passed off as elements from HP Lovecraft‘s “Cthulhu mythos”. That man loved writing about fiendish otherworldly eldritch beings, usually awakened from their slumber over countless millennia, terrorizing people for reasons that are rarely fathomable to the mortal mind. His stories rarely offered a coherent insight into why things happened the way they did in those stories, but this didn’t matter as those stories were genuinely creepy and atmospheric. Emulating him would be like trying to successfully petition the Pope to approve one’s application for sainthood, and the authors of the stories here wisely attempt instead to put their own spin on everything slimy, eldritch, and pseudopoidal.
Well, other than Caitlin R Kiernan, anyway. She tries her best to write like HP Lovecraft in the opening story, Pickman’s Other Model (1929). The protagonist of this story is fascinated by a mysterious actress, and as he diligently attempts to learn more about her, discovers that she has secrets that are far more disturbing than he could ever imagine. Because this story shows up in this anthology, it is easy to see the twist coming, so after all the build-up, the revelation – if I can call it that – feels like an anticlimax. I can’t help feeling that the vibe of this story is akin to Cthulhu deciding to star in his own version of John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror episode called Cigarette Burns.
Michael Marshall Smith’s Fair Exchange starts out as an interesting tale of a burglar finding himself in hot slime, er, soup when he breaks into the wrong house, but things get ridiculous when the catalyst for the more unpleasant events of this story is a stupid piece of rock. Despite some pretty writing, the author can’t get me to overlook the fact that the stone – a shiny stone – is actually quite ridiculous.
John Langan’s Mr. Gaunt is about a man leaving behind a very detailed warning to his son about an evil uncle and that uncle’s disquieting butler. This one is a pretty decent horror story, although it’s a homage to the non-Cthulhu stories of HP Lovecraft instead of an “Ooh, tentacles!” thing.
Mark Laidlaw presents a video game spin of Cthulhu’s coming in The Vicar of R’Lyeh. Unfortunately, the twist is practically given away in the title alone, so there isn’t much suspense or surprise to be had here. A video game programmer is roped in to make a Cthulhu video game… gee, what would happen in the denouement of the story, you think?
Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud go all “What if the Thing in that movie is a Cthulhu thing?” in The Crevasse, as some unlucky sods doing their usual stuff in Antarctica tumble into a crevasse and learn that there is something disturbing stirring in there. This one does a great job in portraying a sense of helplessness and bleak despair, but I can’t help comparing it to that movie and figure that I like the movie better.
Cherie Priest’s Bad Sushi has an 80-year old Japanese sushi chef taking on some zombie-like beings after they have eaten sushi made from fish that isn’t as wonderful as fish should be. It’s all a plot of some slimy jelly-fish like thing (hence, the story being included in this anthology), and this story is awesome in an action-packed B-grade horror movie manner, made even better with its unconventional main character.
Old Virginia by Laird Barron is what I will get if Cthulhu meets the Predator. Only this time, the predators are replaced by a creepy old woman with ties to Dear Mr Cthulhu-thing. Again, not bad, but the twist can be seen coming a mile away. I roll up my eyes at the predictable and so clichéd “We humans are destroying the world!” message that the author just has to slip in. Then again, I guess every anthology needs at least one story with such message these days.
Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt present The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft, which starts out really good as an urban nudge-wink playful take on some people’s rather extreme obsession on everything related to HP Lovecraft, but events soon unravel into an unimaginative manner that is a complete 180 from its first half or so. Still, this one has its moments. The main character makes me smile.
In Steve Duffy’s The Oran County Whoosit, we have two men who meet in the 1920s when they travel to a mining town to examine what seems to be a fossil that had been unearthed by the miners. The fossil turns out to be not-quite dead after all, and it sends the narrator into an adventure that is harrowing for him and deliciously fun in an edge-of-the-seat way for me.
WH Pugmire’s The Fungal Stain is what happens when a fungal Cthulhu-wannabe decides to write gloomy poetry after one too many reading of Anne Rice‘s vampire books. Despite the intriguing premise, this story is dull, written in a self-indulgent manner that requires a considerable degree of humoring on my part for the author’s navel gazing. With so many stories here to read, I can’t be bothered to even muster the effort.
I have read Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald before, but still, it’s nice to come across it again here. This one is set in an alternate time in British history, when the Old Ones have awakened and ruled mankind. Our narrator is a John Watson-like fellow who lives with a Sherlock Holmes-like fellow, and his housemate ropes him in as that fellow investigates the murder of an aristocrat (who isn’t human but rather an Old One). There’s a nice twist to this entertaining romp that never gets old even when I’m reading it again.
John Shirley’s Buried in the Sky has a brilliant concept: it combines the more sinister aspects of urbanity with the Cthulhu mythos. Our heroine, a teenage girl, is still reeling from the fact that her mother was raped and murdered, and she is convinced that the man responsible is the same one that constantly hovers nearby in what seems to be a sinister manner. Her father decide to move the family to a new place… that isn’t what it seems to be. As I’ve said, this one has a great set-up, but events in the story unravel in a rather standard “monsters are coming” manner, and I feel that the execution isn’t as good as it could have been. The final scene involving the heroine and the man that haunted her all this while is cool, though.
Sarah Monette’s Bringing Helena Back is written in a style that reminds me more of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more horror-tinged stories than HP Lovercraft’s. It’s not exactly Cthulhu-like at all, so I’m not sure why it is here. Our narrator is wildly jealous when his best friend falls for a woman, and the one-sided bromance gets more complicated when this woman dies and the best friend wants to cast a spell to bring her back. Our narrator is asked to help, and bad things happen. This one is short, forgettable, and the protagonist is so annoying.
Paul McAuley’s Take Me to the River is like a hippie-dipstick interpretation of the Dagon stories, only this Dagon-wannabe deals drugs instead of trying to knock up human women. This one has a set of interesting characters and an interesting take-home philosophy to keep the story readable even as it wades to a predictable denouement.
William Browning Spencer creates the most hilariously snobby and stiff-lipped English professor ever and transplant this stereotype into a literal garden of nightmares in The Essayist in the Wilderness. This one functions better as a homage to HP Lovecraft’s stories rather than being an actual story in its own right, since much of its charm comes from the reader getting the inside jokes and recognizing the tropes. Still, it has its moments.
David Barr Kirtley’s The Disciple is 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.
Elizabeth Bear’s Shoggoths in Bloom is actually… friendly, so to speak, and the jellyfish things here aren’t as bad as the slimy creeps from the previous stories at all, as our hero learns while trying to figure out these jellyfish. He is hoping that discovering their secrets would secure his tenure at his university, but what he learns shakes him to the core. Wonderfully written and flavored with atmosphere, historical color, and human emotions, this story is just fabulous. It’s one of my favorite stories in this anthology.
Holly Phillips presents Cold Water Survival, another “Cthulhu in ice” story that sees five hapless sods trapped in a giant floating iceberg (called “Atlantis” for some reason), and of course, these guys aren’t alone. This one is a standard “cardboard characters are all going to suffer in the hands of flat stock monsters” story – nothing much to see or care about here.
In Don Webb’s The Great White Bed, a poor kid discovers that his sinister grandfather is BFF with something evil. This one is a well-written story about… something. I have no idea what happened here, or why things happened, but I guess the point of this story is that when grown-ups really suck, the kids are the ones that suffer.
Norman Patridge lets his hair down and goes all “zombies, meet Cthulhu” in Lesser Demons. A sheriff takes on zombie-like things that came out to plague the living. He doesn’t care about why they show up or how they become what they are, because he is too manly for that kind of sensitive crap. He is happy to just keep killing them, but his deputy believes that they have found some spellbooks that contain arcane solutions to end this zombie festival. Our hero has his doubts about whether this is a wise thing to do, and as things progress in this story, it turns out that he’s right. This one is fabulously brainless and fun, and it’s a nice change of pace after the more solemn stories in this anthology.
Cody Goodfellow’s Grinding Rock has a firefighter fighting a losing battle with a wildfire when he comes across a druid-like fellow that insists upon sacrificing a few lives to some blob-like thing (the blob connection being the only reason I can think of to explain why this story is in this anthology) to save the world. This is a pretty mundane story – it’s not scary or interesting, and it just fizzles out shortly once it starts, into a lame ending.
China Miéville’s Details has the narrator reminiscing about an odd woman that he constantly brought food to as a young boy. That woman refused to leave her room, claiming that she is haunted by something unfathomably old and sinister that is using her eyes to get into this world. This one shows some very deft building up of tension and suspense to a unbearable degree by the author, and the tragic denouement is both terrifying and heartbreaking.
In Kim Newman’s Another Fish Story, our narrator meets Charles Manson and his happy helter-skelter family, Interesting premise, but the pacing of this story is all over the place and it’s too easy to lose interest after a while.
Lon Pater’s Head Music has some fellow becoming an impromptu midwife for a huge jelly-like blob thing, and it’s all gross and slimy and slippery, and I end up wondering what the point of this story is, other than to gross me out. I’m all for gross-out stories if they are done right, but this one doesn’t have much of a beginning or an ending, just an expulsion of gross-out moments. I feel like someone who just happens to be standing right under the spot where someone decides to tip a bucket of dung out the window.
Michael Shea presents a pretty unusual tale of two women – one ending up being part of a group aware of the existence of Cthulhu’s happy family, while another joining that happy family – in Tsathoggua. It’s an interesting story worth a read, but there’s not much to it once the novelty wears off.
Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette join forces for Mongoose. Think Cthulhu-meets-Aliens. In a distant part of the universe, guys like our hero use a mongoose-like pet/companion to destroy blob-jelly bad aliens that breed in various parts of man-made stations. If left to their own devices, these aliens can create very serious problems and even invite worse aliens to show up and join the fun. And our hero discovers that he may have been summoned to do a “clean-out” job way too late and the menace has grown too big to be contained by him alone. This one is a no-nonsense action-packed kick-ass in space story, and it’s another great diversion after the last few solemn stories in this anthology. It’s not a very Cthulhu-like story, though.
Finally, Charles Stross ends the anthology with A Colder War, where our protagonist, an officer in the most top secret body in the USA, witness various countries in this world trying to control gateways to Cthulhu’s home and use his family members to win various wars. Eventually, some country tries to bite off more than it can chew, and it’s pseudopod apocalypse time. This one is a ho-hum. There’s nothing awful about it, but there’s nothing amazing about it either. It’s an odd choice to close this anthology.
As you can probably tell by now, New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird is a mixed bag. It’s an overall very entertaining mixed bag, though, and the better stories can really deliver. Not to mention, this is a really big anthology, well worth the hefty cover price. As long as you don’t already have similar anthologies published in the last ten years (or you don’t mind finding a repeat story or two in this one), and you are looking for an occasionally creepy, sometimes suspenseful, and an odd unexpected moment of poignancy or two with disturbing jelly blobs from hell, this one is worth a peek.