Retro Review (2012): Cthulhu’s Reign, ed. Darrell Schweitzer, 2010.
This anthology’s theme is grim and simple. As predicted — and prevented in many of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, Cthulhu and the Old Ones once again dominate Earth.
Rape, transformation, and religion are themes that show up in several stories.
On a metaphorical level, a sort of intellectual rape – the forcible introduction of unwelcome, devastating knowledge into the mind – occurs in many a Mythos story. But, in two stories, Cthulhu commits a literal rape. A group of survivors find themselves trapped and experimentally winnowed down in an Italian necropolis after Cthulhu’s return in Ian Watson’s chilling, first person narrated “The Walker in the Cemetery“. In John R. Fultz’s “This Is How the World Ends“, an Iraqi War veteran finds himself holed up in a mine as a horrible transformation is wrecked on the world outside.
Not exactly rape, but a gathering of horrible knowledge anyway, is the theme in Brian Stableford’s “The Holocaust of Ecstasy“. In this story, full of imagery that owes more to Clark Ashton Smith than Lovecraft, a biology professor from Miskatonic University, finds himself reincarnated into an alien ecosystem. Of course, Cthulhu’s return is a time of transformation, and many stories take up that theme. In Jay Lake’s “Such Bright and Risen Madness“, a resistance movement secretly meets on a blighted, chilling Earth to hear of a new weapon which may free them from their masters, the Old Ones. Slowly transforming from “Innsmouth Syndrome”, the narrator feels the almost forgotten stirrings of sexual desire when he meets the plan’s architect. But he also encounters a figure from his past in a brilliant tale of despair and resolve. The hero of Mike Allen’s “Her Acres of Pastoral Playground” inhabits a zone relatively safe from the Cthulhian horrors outside, but cosmic chaos still intrudes in unwelcome changes to his wife’s body.
Of course cults and magical rites were frequently a feature of Lovecraft’s own Mythos stories, but several authors here ambitiously take that religious element even further. The most stunning here is by a onetime religious scholar, Matt Cardin. “The New Pauline Corpus” logically, horrifyingly, weaves an account of the sights of a Cthulhu dominated Earth with the writings of a Protestant theologian to produce a melange of Christ and Cthulhu, Jerusalem and R’lyeh, a new, “less agreeable” Revelation. Don Webb’s “Sanctuary” has a man sent on a mission, by a Catholic priest, to retrieve a special bible three years after Cthulhu has risen in the Pacific. The priest has some disturbing ideas about what man’s new purpose on Earth is. Will Murray’s “What Brings the Void” (sort of a sequel to his “The Sothis Radiant” in Miskatonic University) reinterprets the pantheon of the Mythos. A remote viewer from the National Reconnaissance Office is sent on a mission to see, in the normal way, what’s going on in the zones of America controlled by the Old Ones and finds a another Catholic priest, but this one is preaching a strange new gospel of death. While the title of Darrell Schweitzer’s “Ghost Dancing” alludes to a famous end-of-the-world cult, its hero is offered, by an old acquaintance, a chance to make himself useful to Earth’s new masters.
Several stories are sort of off by themselves. Since it mentions Yuggoth and is written by Richard A. Lupoff, who used that same planet of Lovecraft in his brilliant “Discovery of the Ghooric Zone — March 15, 2337”, it’s sort of a surprise that “Nothing Personal” is a rather standard tale of how an alien-human war breaks out and its resolution. Not a bad story but it doesn’t have much of a Mythos feel to it. Fred Chappell’s long “Remnants” also often seems, in its story of members of the Peaslee family pathetically living in caves to escape the Old Ones and their shoggoths, rather more like regular science fiction than a Mythos story. But there are elements of cosmic horror as the family decides to heed the telepathic message received by its autistic member.
A couple of stories are as blackly light hearted as the collection’s theme will allow. Ken Asamatsu’s “Spherical Trigonometry” has a wealthy Japanese businessman, his wife, and the narrator and his wife retreating to a safe house with no angles. In there, they hope to ride out the “Change”. “The Seals of New R’lyeh” by Gregory Frost is sort of a cross between a hardboiled crime story and a Mythos story as two thieves look for a seal to magically expel Cthulhu from Earth in the ruins of New York City.
Two outliers of stories stand alone in their style and ambition. “The Shallows” by John Langan combines a family drama with imagery from Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and never explicitly mentions any of the standard Cthulhu props of blasphemous books and malevolent alien entities. Laird Barron’s “The Vastation” is, I think, a solipsistic tale of a time traveling religious leader who may just be the last real human on an Earth populated by androids in the wake of an alien invasion, massive genetic engineering, and racial purges. You may find yourself concluding, like me, that these stories don’t quite work even after a second reading but still applaud the authors’ imagination and ambition to combine cosmic horror and the trappings of the literary puzzle story.
This anthology is so good that I think even those unfamiliar with Lovecraft may like it even if oblivious to some of the nuances. It’s getting a four instead of the perfect five because not every story was great but many were.