Right now I’m reading David Hambling’s new novel, War of the God Queen, which gave me a good reason to read this book which I bought a few months ago when I was in the midst of reading William Hope Hodgson and various Scottish writers.
Reviewer parallax on this one is provided by The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviewer. I would have completely missed this title if he hadn’t mentioned it.
Review: Tales of the Al-Azif, eds. Matthew Davenport & C.T. Phipps, 2019.
Editors Davenport and Phipps have called up something impressively different here. They ensorcelled their contributors to give over their worlds and characters to serve a larger narrative, the story of something that is feebly and inadequately called a book.
If the language of their spells is a bit obscure at times or crafted to combine that which was separate and hide discontinuities, their vision and direction is to be applauded. They have created worlds from a throwaway title in a monograph from the Great God Lovecraft.
In six stories (one being broken into the opening and closing framing sections), we get the history of the Al-Azif, sometimes known as The Book of the Insect. Maybe the Mad Arab Abdul Al-Hazred used it as the source for the Necronomicon. And, maybe, he was torn apart by invisible demons in a day-lit market square. One thing is certain, though: Al-Azif is not just a static text. It shifts in meaning, is a power unto itself, a power often affiliated with those strange members of the Class Insecta we share Earth with. And the Al-Azif seduces with promises of wishes fulfilled.
It is the permutations of that text in stories ranging from the Middle East of the eighth century to Cairo of the nineteenth century to England and America in the twentieth century to the apocalyptic earth of the near future, that are as fascinating as the foregrounded plots and characters.
C.T. Phipps’ “The Skull on the Desk” gives us Al’Hazred as he ventures into the Nameless City and encounters the Yith and Vournath, priest-king of the Ixtol who came to Earth from Saturn’s moon Callisto. At first, Abdul seems a stock sympathetic character, an insatiably curious man who seeks knowledge rather than riches like his merchant father. But, as the story goes on, we realize how ruthless and brutal and power seeking he is. His fate and the history of the book he finds, the Al-Azif, is the concern of the other stories. In this, the first of Phipps’ three stories for the book, we hear about several of the old deities of the Cthulhu Mythos and some of Phipps’ creation. Talk of parallel worlds and “quantum frequency” provide the cover for fusing the separate universes of the other creators into a mostly coherent narrative.
“A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” is part of David J. West’s Porter Rockwell series. Set in a world where airship service exists between London and Cairo, Mormon gunfighter Rockwell is along to protect Elizabeth Dee, descendant of John Dee and a magician in her own right, on a trip to translate the Al-Azif. I wouldn’t call this a weird western given its setting, and I’m not a fan of full blown, routine magic users as heroes in my Mythos stories, but this one won me with Rockwell’s character and the intrigues and battles for possession of the Al-Azif. And The King In Yellow related content goes beyond the title.
Honestly, though, the reason I bought this book was for another Harry Stubbs story from David Hambling. “The Book of Insects” doesn’t disappoint. Sometime after the events of the earlier Alien Stars, which was the last appearance by Stubbs one-time partner Skinner, a friend of the latter shows up. Captain Cross, crippled veteran of the Great War, is an enthusiastic procurer of rare books, and he’s promised Al-Azif to a client. But some anarchists want it also to bring about their weird version of a utopia where humans are organized like ant colonies. Along the way, we get some memorable scenes about what happened to others who sought their heart’s desire in that book. And, yes, Stubbs’ employer Miss De Vere wants the book too. As usual, it’s a Stubbs tale which brings in illuminating metaphors and allusions from not only the natural world but literature.
Davenport’s “Andrew Doran and the Crawling Caves” is part of his series about the Dean of Miskatonic University, sort of an Indiana Jones-like figure who has devoted himself to getting dangerous occult books and magic artifacts out of circulation and into the Miskatonic U Armoury. But he gets a letter from his estranged sister telling him about disappearances in upstate New York and a strange boy who came out of the woods enfeebled and speaking a strange language that the Al-Azif may hold the clue to. As with every single one of the book’s non-frame stories, Davenport gives us some memorable and disturbing images using the association between the book and insects. Though most of the stories have links to their immediate predecessors in the anthology, his is particularly prominent. However, I found the story just ok, its action sequences kind of staid, and other elements of it (like a wendigo working at Miskatonic U) a bit off putting. Your tastes may vary.
Given it has no magicians, no academics, and nobody brandishing a gun, David Niall Wilson’s “Cockroach Suckers” feels a lot less part of the book’s mosaic than the other stories. But it is wonderful story that, in the end, does fit into the broader tale. I mean there’s a giant wooden cockroach, right? Bobby Lee claims to have found it in a flea market and that it’s his and his friend Jasper ticket to riches via a roadside attraction. But Jasper, even when the money starts rolling in, can’t get over his initial misgivings and revulsions at the giant bug. Wilson takes us to an unexpected conclusion. Prowling around on the internet, I see this one uses part of Wilson’s flexible setting of the Great Dismal Swamp.
Phipps’ brings in a whole lot of Mythos fixtures in “The Last Page”. The Great Old Ones have returned to Earth, remade it for their purposes, and most of humanity is dead or has the taint of alien blood. That includes our narrator, Sheriff John Henry Booth. Part man, part (hidden) shoggoth, he’s not too keen on a new visitor in New Ulthar, even if he claims to be there to destroy his copy of Al-Azif. This one is part of Phipp’s Cthulhu Armageddon series. While I appreciated a story of Earth under the slimy tentacles of the Old Ones, the western, post-apocalypse trappings and the existential element of finding meaning in humanity’s doomed existence, I found the story an uneasy mixture of smart-alecky humor and grimness, particularly in the Sheriff’s wife Mercury. She’s also another of those magic users in the Mythos who don’t appeal to my tastes. The plot is clever, though, and brings in an old character from Lovecraft with a rational and kind of sympathetic reason for his scheme.
Phipps’ “The Laughing Skull” picks up the opening frame again with the Mad Arab in somewhat reduced circumstances and learning the meaning of the previous tales. Phipps is a bit vague, at points, in this story and “The Last Page” about some things in a way that seems more inartful than just strategic ambiguity, but I think I still grasped the whole of the Al-Azif’s history.
Davenport and Phipps maintained continuity across works set in a lot of different series, and the contributors, with the exception of Wilson, provided little links to other stories. The book serves as a nice sampler for the many different series the authors have created in the immense radiative explosion of the modern Cthulhu Mythos. All the authors except Hambling were new to me, and I liked West’s story enough to consider reading more in the series. Phipps’ setting, if not his narrator, may beguile me into reading more in that world. And Phipps, more than any of the authors, should appeal to those who like full kitchen sink Cthulhu Mythos stories and the attendant sports of restructuring the chronology of the Mythos and plotting the permutations of its settings, characters, gods, and books.
All in all, a worthy Mythos book that tries something different and succeeds.