Innsmouth Free Press, $15.00, ISBN 978-1-927990-16-2
She Walks in Shadows is basically a “ladies write about Cthulhu” anthology, although given that there are already quite a number of female authors doing this all this while, I personally feel that this angle is more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. In fact, some stories in this anthology get the side eye from me because they aren’t very Lovecraftian in nature at all. Now, I’m not a purist in that I won’t shriek bloody murder should an author take some liberties in style and format, but when I pay for cosmic horror, I expect cosmic horror.
But that’s me getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a look at the stories. There are twenty-five stories here, so this will take a while.
Ann K Schwader kicks off the show with Ammutseba Rising, which is a poem. Yes, yes, there is some Chaos Incarnate’s daughter and she’s coming to get us all, but I am never a poetry person, so I’ll pass on this clichéd thing about hunger, stars, and other Lovecraftian buzzwords strung together in a “I’m totes smart, y’all!” way.
Penelope Love’s Turn Out the Light retells the story of HP Lovecraft’s mother Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, but it’s completely mangled by having points of view of HP Lovecraft, unnecessary back-and-forth jumps in time, and other distracting narrative gimmicks that only take up precious real estate in this short story and preventing me from having a good idea of what is happening inside the head of woman who is either plagued by darkness or just slowly going mad. It ends with a predictable “No, not the shadows!” cliché ending that has never been built up properly. Lights out on this one.
The first treat in this anthology is the next story, Amelia Gorman’s Bring the Moon to Me, a beautifully wrought tale of a woman who finally bonds with her mother, despite her being a science person and Mom being more of a folklore and superstition type. Their common ground is the universal code of summoning the King in Yellow from the moon to devour us all on Earth. This is a very short story, but the beautiful unraveling of the growing darkness in the protagonist’s mind is exquisite, terrifying, and on point.
Nadia Bulkin’s Violet Is the Color of Your Energy is the author’s own take on HP Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space. Just like with most remakes and reboots, this one is unnecessary, as there is nothing here that hasn’t already been covered by the original story. The author just has the whole thing told from a female protagonist’s point of view. The whole thing feels kind of lazy, in my opinion. Can’t the author turn the whole thing into a slapstick comedy or something, just to make her story less of a carbon copy of the original?
Speaking of humor, De Deabus Minoribus Exterioris Theomagicae by Jilly Dreadful hits just the right balance of comedy and cosmic horror, when a scholar finds that there are consequences to studying the book mentioned in the title – a sinister tome containing rituals to summon forth the herald of the Lesser Outer Goddesses. I like this one, there is a macabre Evil Dead (the original trilogy, not the pointless remake) kind of vibe to it that really appeals to me/
Angela Slatter’s Lavinia’s Wood is the prequel to HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, as it tells of how Lavinia Whatley (that’s how her last name is spelled here) becomes pregnant with Wilbur, the spawn of Yog-Sothoth. There isn’t anything new to be learned here despite the story being told from Lavinia’s perspective: she’s just a tool of her father to summon the spawn, as if I didn’t know that already. Surely the author could have done something more here with the materials she has at her disposal.
Premee Mohamed’s The Adventurer’s Wife is one of the stories that manage to capture the narrative tone and style of old school cosmic horror with fidelity. A reporter drops by the home of the widow of a famous explorer, hoping to get some scoop on the late explorer’s life… only to learn far more than he bargained for. This one starts out mundane, only to slowly build up into something far more darker. While nothing here is particularly new or interesting as far as cosmic horror tropes are concerned, it is a well-constructed story that serves its purpose well.
E Catherine Tobler’s Lockbox is one of those annoying wall of text that serve as a vehicle for the author to show off how attuned she is to literary pretensions. Deliberately opaque and choppy, with liberal use of en dashes to show off how smart the author wants to be seen as, this one gets me eye-rolling and yawning at the same time. I suppose that’s something for the author to be proud of. Mind you, she’s not the only one guilty of being a wannabe here – there will be more down the road.
Every anthology needs to have at least one author who thinks that she will be seen as twice as clever as everyone else by using “you” in her stories. Meet Gemma Files – she takes this even further by alternating between first and second person points of view, so that the entire story is framed as the narrator telling the story to “you”, the reader. Her Hairwork is probably interesting, probably not, I don’t know, as I skip the story after trying to read a few pages. I’m too put off by the distracting narrative gimmick to care.
Molly Tanzer’s The Thing on the Cheerleading Squad attempts to bring horror into the internecine social politics of high school kids, and it’s a story that takes forever to reach a climax that is too mundane to be worth all that suspense. Oh, and this isn’t cosmic horror; I feel like the author had just added in some superficial mentions of darkness and chaos to some generic horror story so that it can fit into this anthology.
Selena Chambers’s Body to Body to Body is another “I am telling you, the reader, this story” thing, but at least the story here develops in a straightforward, coherent manner. Only, the title gives away the story completely before the body switching angle is even introduced, and seriously, why put two stories with similar theme back to back? Just like the previous story, this one also feels too much like any generic horror story given superficial darkness and what not coat of paint for the author to sell it to this anthology.
Arinn Dembo’s Magna Mater is another story that has me wondering how it ended up here. This one isn’t cosmic horror, it’s not even horror. Just the author screeching about the evils of white people and propping up “WE WUZ KANGS!” sentiments.
Lyndsey Holder’s Chosen feels more at home in an anthology set in the crap The Conjuring universe than the Cthulhu mythos. A young lady is haunted by dreams of an evil witch, ooh. The protagonist is somewhat sympathetic as she can’t fit in with the rest of the kids her age, but no, despite it trying to channel The Dreams in the Witch House (the witch in both stories is one and the same), this one doesn’t have the cosmic horror vibe. It’s just a story that sort of ends and that’s it.
It is a relief to read Laura Blackwell’s Bitter Perfume after the last few duds. More body horror than Eldritch evils saying hi, this haunting, bittersweet tale of an unusual kind of family is easily one of the best tales in this anthology. It’s apparent that something is wrong with the family from the beginning, but when I discover just what this wrongness is, it stops feeling wrong anymore. This mirrors the kind of fear found in cosmic horror: you become so exposed to the wrongness that you soon reject normalcy and embrace the wrongness as the true way to be. Because the characters feel so human here, the wrongness of their existence barely registers even after it is exposed – I care far more for their story than wanting to run the other way. In that light, this story is a winner.
Pandora Hope’s Eight Seconds is another generic horror story with the monster being slapped the name of Shub-Niggurath, in a most insulting manner, to fit into this anthology. I do feel for the protagonist, as she is a hard, cynical woman who finally decides to commit the one final right for the sake of her daughter. However, I’m more offended that the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young is now some shambling hulk in a canyon in the Australian outback who apparently challenges all comers to a wrestling match. In Australia of all places. Oh please.
Eugenie Mora’s The Eye of Juno is basically a werewolf story set in ancient Rome given the Cthulhu coat of paint. It’s alright, but I’m giving it the side eye for being in an anthology on cosmic horror.
Inkeri Kontro’s Cthulhu of the Dead Sea gets lots of love from me for (a) keeping to the cosmic horror theme and (b) giving a somewhat different take on shoggoths as microorganisms that just keep growing… and growing… Sure, it’s another tale set in a lab, like every other story of this sort, but the tension is there, as is the growing sense of dread as I turn the pages. It ends on the right note, too. Compared to most of the stories here, this one is solid.
Sharon Mock is next with Notes Found in a Decommissioned Asylum, December 1961. This is a more serious version of Jilly Dreadful’s earlier story: a lady in a loonybin talking about how she is the herald of death or something. It’s sort of just taking up space in this anthology; I’m not sure why it is here. Maybe there had been a shortage of contributions for the editors to choose from? Looking at some of the stories here, I’m suspecting that this may be the case. It’s this or the editors are choosing only entries by their BFFs, I suppose.
Rodopi Sisamis’s The Cypress God is like Ginger Snaps meets Elder Gods. Sexual awakening, teen angst, and worship of pagan goddesses all culminate in violence. It’s just my type of story. I wish it had been a little longer, as I’d love to keep reading. This one ends just when things are starting to become really good, and while I really like this one, I still feel like the author had left me high and dry.
Mary A Turzillo’s When She Quickens is about an undying empress of an old kingdom, whose soul is constantly transferred to a newborn at the time of the death of her current body, to ensure the continuous prosperity of her kingdom. Well, what she overhears at her most recent deathbed is going to put a huge damper on her future plans… This one is alright, I suppose, although it stops short of delivering a proper climax or even proper cosmic horror.
Wendy N Wagner’s Queen of a New America is another tale of an old ruler, Queen Nitcoris, who lives on in the brain of a young girl. This one sees her basically grumbling about how boring present day America is and how she’d like to create more chaos in that country while fermenting more hate and racism. Hmm, does this mean she has found her way into Donald Trump’s brain or Don Lemon’s? The mind boggles, and thinking about that is far more interesting than the story itself, which is just kind of taking up space in this anthology.
Priya Sridhar’s story The Opera Singer is about how a retired, faded opera star Circe finds energy from singing. This is a cute story with a more chilling undertone. Is Circe slowly losing her mind… or is there something darker lurking in her mind and soul? This story is too short to capitalize on this premise, though, so the whole thing ends up being just a piffle of a whatever.
Valerie Valdes’s Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses sees the cult members of this Outer Goddesses tormenting, heckling, and bullying some poor lady into becoming the newest cult member. That’s it. Short and pointless, the only reason this one is here is because the universe has somehow decided that this author should get some coins to spend.
I’m sure the infamous Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Provenance and Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas’s T’la-Yub’s Head are as amazing as the authors want me to believe they are, but these two stories seem more like a show-off exercise for these two authors to show off how many big, esoteric words they know. The former goes on interminably like a babbling professor way too in love with her voice, while the latter is fortunately so short that it’s a pointless waste of words all things considered.
So there it is, She Walks in Shadows. Like most anthologies, the bulk of the stories are very average and even forgettable, there are duds, and there are the occasional very good stories that make me feel that it’s worth wading through the rest just to find them. It gets three oogies, then, for being a typical anthology.