Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: Letters To Lovecraft edited by Jesse Bullington

Love him or hate him, it's impossible to deny Lovecraft's legacy. He is considered a pioneer of weird fiction, even if others of his time or before his time wrote stories that could easily qualify as being in that category. His work has inspired many, and his Mythos alone has swollen to obese proportions with fiction, some of which are finely polished gems and others are borderline fan fiction and pastiche.

For many, myself included,  Lovecraft was an introduction into the world of weird fiction. I still remember reading "Call of Cthulhu" for the first time, home on break from college and the only one awake in the house, reading the story which had been posted on some website, white letters on a black background. It called to me, and the following day I found myself walking out of a bookshop with a Lovecraft collection in hand.

Lovecraft's fiction lives on, and Lovecraft scholarship is still alive and well. Books collecting his letters (he wrote letters like you wouldn't believe) can easily be found, as well as anthologies containing stories said to be Lovecraft's favorites among his predecessors and contemporaries.

Fiction and letters aside, Lovecraft penned an essay titled "Supernatural Horror in Literature." In it he spoke of other horror writers and stories, and laid out his own philosophy on what makes successful horror fiction.

Author Jesse Bullington recently edited Letters to Lovecraft, an anthology of fiction written in response to portions of Lovecraft's essay. The title is a slight bit misleading, as these are not letters written to Lovecraft in response to the essay, but pieces of fiction. In a world where the market is glutted by Mythos fiction and Lovecraftian anthologies such a different approach is a welcome treat.

In his hefty intro, Bullington puts it all on the table. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Lovecraft is laid bare without bias. The editor also makes an excellent point about "Supernatural Horror in Literature" being important not just for writers deriving inspiration from Lovecraft, but for anyone working in horror. The writer asked several authors he admires to read the essay, choose a quote that resonates with them in some way, and write a fictional response. Some stories support the quote they chose, others set out to prove that quote wrong, and others do a bit of both. This isn't a clear cut "I agree/disagree" with the passage as much as it is an emotional response. Some authors chose the same passage and came up with wildly different stories, depending on what the passage meant for them. The result is an anthology unlike any I have read before, one that truly stands out as one of 2014's finest.

Many readers decide whether or not an anthology is worthwhile based on the ratio of great/good/bad stories. In this case the anthology was to this reviewer's taste, as there isn't a bad story in the bunch, although some are more effective than others.

Brian Evenson's "Past Reno" and Gemma Files's "That Place" both use the same quote for inspiration and both deal with children settling the estates of their deceased parents. Otherwise they are very different stories. Evenson focuses on the idea of uncertainty and the unknown. His subtle tale of a man suffering severe anxiety on his drive to settle his estranged father's estate is an ambiguous tale. Is the man's reality coming apart because reality is truly wearing thin, or is it all a manifestation of his fear and anxiety? Gemma Files works with an expanded version of the quote from Lovecraft's essay, and uses the basis of Narnia novels as a foundation for a much darker tale. Siblings return home to settle their parents' estate and remember a weird game they played in childhood, which turns out to be a little more than just a game. Angela Slatter works with the second half of the quote Gemma Files chose,  and her story "Only the Dead and the Moonstruck" is a bit more overtly Lovecraftian. Another tale of loss, this story instead deals with a family coping with the disappearance of one of the siblings. Emotions run high, and guilt is shared by the mother and also the sister, who may have seen something the night her brother went missing. A very effective tale of dread indeed.

Writers Nadia Bulkin, Robin D. Laws, and Paul Tremblay all responded to a quote about how proper weird tales have "a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces." The three stories were some of my favorites from the anthology. Bulkin's "Only Unity Saves the Damned" is a story about three outsider friends who make a hoax based on an urban legend, and how it leads to all of their downfalls. The idea of small towns being a "black hole" whose pull is impossible for many to escape is a theme of her story and one she executes perfectly. In "The Trees" Robin D. Laws brings readers on a sailing voyage with a grieving man who is brought on board by his uncle. He feels out of place for the entire voyage, and even more so when the ship reaches it's mysterious destination and he realizes what the purpose of the voyage is. Paul Tremblay sets out to prove Lovecraft wrong with "_______." The story draws dread not from atmosphere but from a very commonplace setting and an awkward conversation where something is just not right. The story is a true chiller, and it takes an author with talent to infuse such a scenario with as much dread as Tremblay does.

The last authors to tackle a shared quote are Jeffrey Ford and Chesya Burke. They chose a quote about fertility rites being performed by some degenerate, subhuman minorities. Jeffrey Ford's darkly humorous "The Order of the Haunted Wood" sees a fertility cult evolve alongside civilization, and to continue to exist behind the scenes of the corporate pharmaceutical world of "male enhancement" medicine. Chesya Burke's approach to the quote instead has nothing to do with fertility cults, and all to do about Lovecraft's racism, which is apparent in the quote. In "The Horror at Castle of the Cumberland" Burke writes about a young white man who has fits, whether they are of a religious nature or purely biological and accompanied with hallucinations isn't too clear. The story is about having a choice, and whether people make a choice based on what they believe or what everyone around them believes. For many, sadly, it is easier to be a follower rather than a leader. The boy witnesses a black man and his daughter become the victim of a mob for a crime they didn't commit, and the boy is left with the choice of going along or speaking out. It's a story that packs quite a punch.

The rest of the stories didn't overlap in which quotes they chose to respond to, but some overlapped in other ways. Stories by Orrin Grey and Ken Asamatsu both involve Lovecraft himself. In Grey's wonderful "Lovecrafting" HP is referenced, along with other classic weird fiction writers, but doesn't take center stage. The story is written in movie script format, making it further standout, and is one of the highlights of the anthology. Asamatsu's "Glimmer in the Darkness" features Lovecraft more at the forefront, as he has a conversation with a strange man while eating ice cream. Not the most effective story in the anthology, but entertaining nonetheless.

Livia Llewellyn's fiction always hits the mark, and "Allocthon" is one of the most effective stories in the anthology. It follows a woman in the 30's living in a company house in some sort of depression work town. Llewellyn chose a quote about nature and it's mysteries, and how nature "speaks" to man. The woman in Livia's story is stuck in a humdrum life and feels much like a bird trapped in a cage, longing for escape. Things change as she goes on a company picnic and nature has an odd effect on her. She seems to be stuck in a loop, replaying the same day over and over, different every time.  A powerful story, as Llewellyn writes nothing less.

"The Lonely Wood" by Tim Lebbon follows a man visiting a cathedral and experiencing a sort of "personal apocalypse" making him question his beliefs (or lack thereof). Cameron Pierce's "Help Me" tackles a quote about judging a weird tale not on it's highest points, but on what it can achieve emotionally at it's most mundane point. Inspiration from Lovecraft's Innsmouth permeate this creepy little tale. David Yale Ardanuy tackles the legend of the Wendigo in "One Last Meal, Before the End." The story takes place in isolation, and gore abounds. Stephen Graham Jones brings his master storytelling talents to bear in "Doc's Story", a werewolf tale. Kirsten Alene's "There Has Been a Fire" is a subtle, poetic story about a professor. This was one of my favorite stories and the first fiction I've read from Kirsten Alene. The story is surreal, and manages to be both creepy and lyrically beautiful at the same time. A powerful combination.

The anthology ends with stories from two heavy-hitters of current weird fiction. Molly Tanzer chooses a quote about weird often appearing in works that viewed as a whole could fit a different genre entirely. "Food From the Clouds" goes forward in time to a London which has reverted back to more ancient ways of doing things. Barons own private lands in the aftermath of some sort of semi-apocalyptic comet crash. The story follows two poachers as they enter a walled-in area that no one else has set foot in since the comet crash. A fun story with bits of creepiness, Tanzer has managed to convey the feel of a much more fleshed within the confines of a short story. Not many fantasy authors can pull off such a feat.

The Mandela Effect, which is when people (usually many) remember things happening differently. Often these are unimportant things, such as people swearing that the Berenstain Bears was once spelled Berenstein Bears. It's mostly chalked up to man's memory being unreliable at best, but more esoteric theories abound dealing with parallel dimensions and all sorts of strangeness. "The Semi-Finished Basement" by Nick Mamatas is about four people meeting in a basement as a sort of support group. They eat blondies and bicker and discuss how they remember certain things in history as different from the rest of society. That the change was effected over the whole race but for some reason the veil wasn't pulled over their eyes. One man, a schizophrenic, goes on and on about The Crawling Chaos and Egypt. The ending is a riot, and a definite twist that I didn't see coming. Mamatas is an intelligent writer, and his Lovecraft-inspired tales are among the best.

By looking beyond the superficialities of the Cthulhu Mythos, and bypassing common Lovecraftian themes to look instead at the essay that outlines Lovecraft's philosophies behind weird horror, Jesse Bullington and his 18 authors have done something truly special. Letters to Lovecraft is easily one of 2014's best anthologies, and a must read for weird horror fans.

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