Tales of Yog-Sothoth

I’m moving out of reading sequence here because David Hambling was kind enough to send me a copy of this and another book, The Book of Yig, which I’ll be reviewing next post. It promised to be just thing with not only another Harry Stubbs tale from Hambling but a weird western story in the book from David J. West.

Review: Tales of Yog-Sothoth, ed. C. T. Phipps, 2021.

Cover by Steve Smith

As Phipps notes in his “Foreword”, H. P. Lovecraft didn’t call his related set of stories the “Cthulhu Mythos”. He called them “Yog-Sothery”. Phipps likes Yog-Sothoth and regards that god, with his ability to open dimensional doorways and mate with humans, the key entity of the Lovecraft universe which has spawned who knows how many stories since.

The organizing structure is the same as Phipps’ successful anthology Tales of the Al-Azif: a set of stories from diverse authors, often working in their own Lovecraftian series, presented in chronological order with some links between the stories. I suppose, if you’re the sort of person obsessed by continuity and consistency, you may balk at that. I’m not and I don’t. I think of the Mythos as a bit like the Arthurian cycle of stories: a set of characters and their relationships which are reworked and elaborated by a variety of authors for their own ends. [Update: Matthew Davenport co-edited Tales of the Al-Azif.]

Or think of it as a literary equivalent of an AK-47: a bit loose in the way the parts fit together but reliable enough for rapid fire which usually hits the target.

However, I didn’t think this book worked as well that earlier book of Phipps.

It starts out well though.

Phipps’ own “The True Name of God” was excellent. I’ll admit my interest in the Crusades may have played a part in my enthusiasm. Set in Akka (aka Acre) occupied by the Crusaders, it follows Ali ad Fariq, an accomplished member of the Order of Assassins as he takes a strange job for an unexpected client. Rabbi Yosef ben Yosef wants him to hunt down something that’s killing Jewish women in the city. The victims include his own daughter.

Ali is aided by the local overseer of the Assassins, Karim. Ali likes the elderly Karim even if he’s hardly orthodox. Karim, like some other Assassins, has taken to some dark and blasphemous practices after Abdul Al-Hazred the Second showed up at the headquarters of the Assassins and tried to convert them to an older faith. And the orthodox Ali is really not going to like some of the revelations he comes across tracking down that killer, an investigation that will cross the path of one of the Assassins notable enemies.

It’s an excellent bit of historical Yog-Sothery that gets the book off to a strong start. I also liked Ali’s commentary on the various legends surrounding the Assassins. I hope Phipps does more Lovecraftian stories set in the medieval Moslem Middle East.

I was happy to see David J. West in the list of contributors. I had just bought a few of his Porter Rockwell books though I haven’t read them yet nor have I read any of his Cowboys & Cthulhu series of which this is a part. (I will actually be reviewing a biography of Porter Rockwell soon.)

And Porter Rockwell is the hero of “The Haunter of the Wheel”. The famed lawmen has headed out of Utah into Montana Territory in the pursuit of a gang of stage robbers. But that job ends early and mysteriously after seeing signs the robbers were attacked by something like a bear. Then there’s the lone survivor who warns against starting a fire even though he’s freezing to death. Soon, Porter finds himself once again the human champion of the mysterious Mr. Nodens. The latter doesn’t provide any useful information, just a magic bullet to be used when the time’s right. Porter finds himself not only embroiled with the historical Plummer gang, a mysterious local secret society, a very helpful prostitute, and a reputed magic circle of stones nearby. I particularly like how the unflappable Porter, no matter what he sees, doggedly sticks to a mundane interpretation of events.

And then the book started to disappointing me.

The narrative voice of Harry Stubbs is always a pleasure to hear. And it was nice to seem him now formerly engaged to a woman he met in Broken Meats and an appearance by a minor character from that story too. And Captain Cross, first introduced in Hambling’s “The Book of Insects” in Tales of the Al-Azif, returns to play a major and entertaining role in the story.

The Ghost Door” is a portal story which sees the Captain and Harry ending up far from London in a missing case involving the apprentice (and illegitimate son) of the well-to-do neighborhood plumber Charlie Baxter. Said apprentice disappeared in a house being re-plumbed, said Charlie saw a strange – and also disappearing – woman. One of Harry’s patrons, the fearsome Miss De Vere, issues another one of her scorched-earth directives about what he’s to do if somebody has made it through that portal.

Hambling doesn’t really present us any bit of exotic science or Forteana in this story, but plumber Charlie is there to provide some useful analogies between portal traveling and plumbing.

But the resolution of the mystery of Charlie’s disappearance was so sudden that I actually thought I had missed something in the text or some part of it was missing. And that impression was lessened much by rereading.

I liked Matthew Davenport’s “The Forever Gate” Andrew Doran story even less than I liked another installment in that series in Tales of the Al-Azif. I am not keen on the whole idea of a shadowy community composed of people with less than human blood in some rundown seaside town. And I didn’t like a major character who assists Doran in an investigation of a ship where people keep disappearing from.

On the other hand, I’m usually up for an Innsmouth tie-in, and we got that with Zadie Allen (presumably a relative of Zadok Allen from H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”).

To be fair, I think some of my fatigue and occasional annoyance with this story was that its hectic plot of passing through various portals into different times and places was a bit too close to a disappointing portal fantasy which I’ll be reviewing shortly. Good use of Mi-Go by Davenport, though.

With a title like “The Dun WHAT? Horror” and another type of character I’m not too keen on, the magician with an animal familiar, I was not expecting to like this David Niall Wilson story. But he won me over. This story seems to combine two Wilson series centered around Cletus J. Diggs (ordained minister, common-law attorney, journalist, and PI) and that magician, Donovan DeChance. It also takes place around a setting of many Wilson stories, Old Mill, North Carolina.

Yes, this is kind of a modern retelling of “The Dunwich Horror”. Well, sort of. A branch of the Whateley family has relocated from Arkham and up to their old tricks. Wilson has an interesting take on the dynamics of the Whateley clan. The brothers are weird but not obviously inhuman. They have no real knowledge of magic and have just memorized a few useful tricks dad taught them. For that matter, the elder Whateley doesn’t even really understand what he’s trying to do by opening the world up to Yog-Sothoth.

Throw in some local color and some colorful locals, and you have a winning story.

C.T. Phipps puts a coda on all this Yog-Sothory with the near future “The Final Gate”. Part of his “Cthulhu Armageddon” series, it’s a world where the Old Ones and all kinds of extradimensional creatures have moved in on Earth, pushing humans to near extinction.

It’s a bleak world with characters having bleak, unheroic pasts. Our narrator is part shoggoth. His wife is an ex-torturer for the government of New Arkham and his son-in-law is some creepy looking guy from Dunwich.

The whole story has a theme of moral compromise about it.

Yet, I liked it not only for its resolution, but its serious discussion on whether humans are going to have to outbreed – rather like the numerous premodern human “species” in our evolutionary past did – to survive. I’m not real fond of stories featuring families cobbled together from something other than genetic bonds. And fantastic fiction is pretty well stocked up these days on stories dealing with racial prejudice, here personified by the New Arkham Rangers. But, in the context of Phipps’ world, those things become more than sentimentality and moral platitudes.

There’s also a quest for redemption – for one character and the world – that makes a pleasing, serious tie-in to Phipps’ earlier story in the book.

So, while this anthology was somewhat disappointing, I can recommend two-thirds of its stories without qualification.

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