Hardboiled Cthulhu

A retro review from March 10, 2009.

Review: Hardboiled Cthulhu: Two-Fisted Tales of Tentacled Terror, ed. James Ambuehl, 2006.Hardboiled Cthulhu

Down and out PIs, double-crossing dames, and wiseguys mix surprisingly well with the Cthulhu Mythos.

Some of those wiseguys are “Eldritch-Fellas”. Tim Curran’s tale of that name mixes said fellas trying to avoid an indictment by the Elder Gods with several hat tips to famous scenes from modern gangster movies and tv shows. Cthulhu, here, is, in the words of his bosses, “getting out of hand”. Funny, something of a tour de force, and one of the best stories in the book. The mob hitman narrating William Jones’ “A Change of Life” happens to be temporarily possessed by a member of the Great Race of Yith. The unusual perspective of the story, and the reason he involves himself with a singer fleeing Dutch Schulz, make this another highlight.

The mob enforcer of David Witteveen’s “Ache” has unexpected sympathy for his quarry, a youngster studying the Yellow Book and on the run for stealing mob money. E. P. Berglund’s “A Dangerous High” puts an ex-military policeman on the trail of a gang dealing in Tind’losi Liao, the drug from Frank Belknap Long’s classic mythos story “The Hounds of Tindalos”.

Lesser Lovecraft stories inspired Patrick Thomas’ “Then Terror Came” and Cody Goodfellow’s “To Skin a Dead Man”. Thomas’ story has the Department of Magical Affairs, a mostly overt Federal agency that handles occult menaces, and an ex-serial killer who works for them. The confusing plot of Goodfellow’s story is full of doublecrossings. But the plot isn’t the point. The story takes off on the black humor of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” as we meet backstreet corpse revivalists, zombie boxers, and a bored wizard.

Things need to be stolen in several stories . In James Ambuehl’s “The Pisces Club” an amulet needs to be stolen from the Kingsport offshoot of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. In John Sunseri’s “A Little Job in Arkham”, it’s nice to learn that Miskatonic University has finally put in some decent security for its rare book collection. “The Roaches in the Wall” by James Chambers explains why an extremely effective pesticide can’t be allowed to remain in the wrong hands.

David Conyers’ “Outside Looking In” is one of the few stories in the book that actually is kind of horrifying and starts out with the classic hook of a detective’s subject of investigation turning up dead. Eric J. Millar’s “The Devil in You” brings a little bit of a twist to the dectective- saving-damsel-from-human-sacrifice plot. “The Mouth” from William Meikle, featuring a British police detective, was one of the weaker stories here, not bad but it didn’t do anything new with its story. Occult detective Anton Zarnak meets a worshipper of Azathoth in “The Questioning of the Azathothian Priest” by C. J. Henderson. A detective has to pay a favor back to a mobster by picking up some Vermont moonshine in “The White Mountains” by Jonathan Sharp, and he runs afoul of some degenerate rustics there. There is a detective in “Some Thoughts on the Problem of Order” by Simon Bucher-Jones, but the story is mostly an hilarious look at a world where the ethics of the Lovecraftian deities are the norm and altruists, atheists, and Christians are the deviants. The hero of Ron Shiflet’s “Unfinished Business” finds out protecting art can be a hazardous business – particularly when the artist is Richard Upton Pickman.

Not all the stories feature cops, criminals, and detectives. Totally out of place given its prehistoric setting was Steven L. Shrewsbury’s “Day of Iniquity” (though it does feature a rescue mission of sorts). I suspect that if I had actually read any Conan stories I’d like it better. A bomber pilot falls into the hands of a monster worshipping cult during the first Iraq War in Jeffrey Thomas’ “Pazuzu’s Children”. The hero of Robert M. Price’s “The Prying Investigations of Edwin M. Lillibridge” is a reporter, and the story is a sequel of sorts to Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”.

Along with the Curran work, the stories that, by themselves, justify buying this volume are J. F. Gonzalez’s long “The Watcher from the Grave” and Richard A. Lupoff’s “Dreems.biz”. Gonzalez’s characters are all from the world of horror: a pulp writer and a small press publisher of horror. Sure, other mythos stories have given us histories of the real Necronomicon but few as elaborate as this secret history involving Sonia Greene, John Dee, Aleister Crowley, and one James Smith Long, 19th century horror writer. The story treats the pulps and horror genre with affection. Lupoff’s story combines his love of Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick in Dreems.biz, a service that offers an extensive catalog of lucid dreams one can enter and control, the possibility of reliving many historic events, of being many real and fictitious people. The narrator decides he wants to be Lovecraft as he writes “The Call of Cthulhu”. It’s not for nothing that’s the story with the dreaming god.

Twenty-one stories and one poem and, while some may be nothing special, most are good, a few exceptional, and none outright bad.

 

The Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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