Monday, December 13, 2010

Girl On Week Action: Lovecraft Unbound

Lovecraft Unbound. Edited by Ellen Datlow.

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Aside (via Wren):
Well, some of you may have heard my recent appearance on the Halloween special (episode 87) of critically acclaimed Sarcastic Voyage Podcast (which I was totally invited to because of my comedic skill and not at all because my husband and good friend run it). During the course of the show, while liberally and irritatingly plugging this very blog, I may have mentioned that Doomwench had reviewed Lovecraft Unbound...ahem...she hasn't. I hoped this would slip by people, it very much didn't, so here I'm staying late at the GoBA offices to write a punishment review for my mistake. But, my punishment doesn't end there, as Doomwench doesn't trust me with her column and is standing over my shoulder making me take dictation of her thoughts on Lovecraft Unbound as well (we take media accuracy very seriously here). Fortunately, the subject matter was easy to get through. Since Doomwench purchased this book over a year ago, it's been making its ever more crumpled way through the ranks of our friends (each one reading it and then going out to purchase their own copy). All of us have found a handful of new authors to love (ones besides Caitlin R. Kiernan) thanks to this collection. So please enjoy the public shaming that is our Lovecraft Unbound review.

General Review (via Doomwench): Ah, Lovecraft Unbound, you wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to divide up these stories, nor would you believe the immense pressure of picking my two favourites– there were too many good pieces from which to choose. Alas, I did narrow it down after some haggling with Wren.

The first story I want to talk to you about is Amanda Downum’s “A Tenderness of Jackals.” Before coming across her work in this anthology, I had never heard Amanda Downum’s name, but this tale pulled me in and held me in its grip like a velvet-lined vice. Some of the references to ghouls and warrens were – to me – reminiscent of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s novels. The setting evoked a long history of murder, atrocities and a serial killer (Fritz Haarmann) I’ve had occasion to read a bit about in the course of my research on vampires. Downum presented a realistic setting and then through the character of Gabriel and the wolves in the shadows urging him on to hunt and kill she added a wonderfully realized element of the uncanny. I came away feeling haunted and wary of the shadows on a cold night.

Second, I’ve chosen “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips, another name with which I was not familiar prior to reading Lovecraft Unbound. For me, this story is what “At the Mountains of Madness” could or should have been, rather than the somewhat dull slog that it actually is (I will freely admit that it’s one of my least favourite Lovecraft tales, you may tar and feather me if you like). There is a tangible sense of the madness of explorers in here, and a seeping cold that hits you as you read about these people living on a huge ice berg and finding something in the ice. I don’t want to tell you much more than that because you really have to read it to get the atmosphere – that sense of cosmic dread that Lovecraft was so good at portraying in his best stories, which also permeates through Phillips’ piece.

Now, with a collection with so many solid contributions we couldn’t just pick two stories each, so here are my runner’s up for top spot. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Commencement” was a great spectacle of a story and for a good part of it you’re waiting for the world it presents to shift into the unheimlich and it’s satisfying when it finally happens. The other piece I’ve chosen to mention is “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon which for me evoked the best of Lovecraft’s depiction of Innsmouth – a city where the inhabitants don’t seem quite right and the protagonist is left attempting to unravel the mystery that starts to gnaw at him. The more he learns, the greater the feeling of dread – it was really well done and stuck with me for a good while.

For me, one of the few that seemed to miss the mark was “The Office of Doom,” by Richard Bowes. Don’t get me wrong, I see the potential for a very potent narrative in it – but that potential is never realized. The attempt at the humor in it fell flat as well. In my mind, the shortcomings are focused on one important fact: Bowes leaves all the wrong things unexplained and gives us explanations and details about things that really detract from what the thrust of the story should have been, both in terms of making it funny and giving it that sense of pervasive dread that I associate with Lovecraft inspired works.

General Review (via Wren): Picking just two out of this excellent collection was none too easy. We both kept saying things like "this was one of the strongest stories in the book" about 15 of them...and there are only 20 stories in it. Despite the challenge presented to us by the overall excellence of the stories, "Mongoose" (by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and "the Crevasse" (by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud) made the biggest impression on me. "The Crevasse" captured one of my favourite things about Lovecraft (besides making fun of him for being a weird guy who was afraid of women) and that is the sense of forbidding isolation. There are few people besides Lovecraft who've made me buy that we're all unimportant and surrounded by a universe that is vast, uncaring and filled with things we can't possibly understand. In "the Crevasse" we follow a group of Arctic adventurers who have been out on the ice long enough to hate each other (I think that'd be about 10 minutes for me) dealing with one of these unknown monsters. It's a lonely, frightening story that wormed its way into my subconscious and stayed there.

"Mongoose" is less obviously Lovecraftian, sure there are the giant pulsing horrors and some excellent sci-fi elements, but this could have easily been in a non-Lovecraft collection. And I mean this in the best way possible, I didn't read it thinking "oh well they swiped this from the Dunwich Horror, I see what they're doing here." I read it thinking "what a surprisingly charming story with a great use of language and culture." In this story we're on a space station that's been infested with trans-dimensional monstrosities and our main characters are the exterminator and her highly intelligent pet. Ahem, I certainly didn't immediately connect to this because of my love for dangerous adorable all. It alludes heavily to Alice In Wonderland in a way I haven't seen before, which is damned difficult because those books are about as heavily referenced as anything can be, and the world building was particularly impressive for such a short story. I've since checked both of the authors responsible for this and have fallen in love with Elizabeth Bear. Unfortunately, I've found Monette's solo work to be insufferable and dull.

As for my two runner's up, a couple of the stories attempted to make Lovecraft funny and failed spectacularly, "Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love" (by William Browning Spencer) is the only one that managed it. It was both light hearted and disgusting. "The Din of Celestial Birds" (by Brian Evenson) was another well done piece that captured the Lovecraftian theme of hopelessness. Along with being beautifully written, it had the feeling of impotence against forces beyond our control, that shouts Lovecraft at his best.

Despite the superlative nature of these stories, there were certainly a few stinkers. I have yet to read an anthology where every story was a winner. "Catch Hell" (by Laird Barron) was not a winner. The story of a woman dealing with her warlock husband isn't a bad idea in and of itself. However, is an idea that I've seen in more than one 80 and 90's anthology of horror shorts (including the infamous Merlin's Shop of Mystery as done by MST3K). It has some alright atmosphere, but it's too long for such a simple idea and for a story about revenge it really doesn't have any teeth. Finally, you'll see the dramatic twist coming from a mile off and it's actually the same twist as in the aforementioned MST3K movie.

The Houses Under the Sea (via Wren): As those of you who've been reading us for a while know, we could easily be called a Caitlin R. Kiernan fan blog. After a bit of arguing and threats of a duel to the death, we decided the best way to talk about CRK's "the Houses Under the Sea" would be to cut the baby in half and do it together. CRK's short stories are typically very strong and this is easily in the top five of her best. She juggles what to show and what to keep mysterious better in this than in almost any of her other works.

The Houses Under the Sea (via Doomwench): I think the voice is also one of her strongest to date, the narration really draws you into the story. I was keenly interested not only on the uncanny elements of the story, but in the characters, both the narrator and the half-mad Jacova Angevine. There is such a sense of personality to both of them, and coupled with the sense of the unfathomable Kiernan creates a very compelling story.

Lovecraft Unbound is an excellent short story anthology, it's gotten us both jazzed about several writers we were totally unaware of beforehand. And writing such a long review together turned out to be a lot more fun than we were expecting it to be. So, go out and buy a copy of this book and look forward to seeing more reviews like this one in the future.

Terry's review of Lovecraft the man: Lovecraft was....not cute.

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