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The Damned Highway
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
The premise of Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas's The Damned Highway is the type that makes a lot of reviewers say "How did they ever come up with that!" (With a subtext, at times, of "What were they smoking?") But in fact a hybrid of the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson with the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, of radical political critique with cosmic horror, is eminently natural. They have in common a conviction that dark forces are moving behind the scenes, an exclusion from mainstream society, a paranoid intensity that is, under the circumstances, justified and saner than the usual variety of sanity. Cthulhu doesn't exist, but the pathetic tininess and isolation of humanity that he symbolizes is very real; the details of a given iconoclastic political ideology may be unconvincing, but that power serves itself at the expense of the mass of mankind is hardly arguable.

I am, alas, unfamiliar with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, so I can't judge how well Mamatas and Keene have captured his voice, but that their prose has a distinctive voice is indisputable. Cynical, frustrated, forceful, neurotic: descriptive labels come to mind easily enough, but only a quotation can capture it.

"The world has turned dangerous and strange, like some severely deformed child who should have been put down at birth in an act of mercy, but instead has been allowed to live and suffer for far too long. There is something prowling around outside my front door, and though I have heard it many times tonight, I don't know what it is. It can't be the peacocks because I killed them earlier in a moment of blind rage and gripping paranoia, but there is something out there, lurking in the night. It might be a deer or a coyote or a big bastard of a bear, but then again, maybe not, because the darkness has a way of changing things. Darkness is mother nature's LSD, and instead of a wild animal, the thing on my doorstep could be a cop or a politician or even an editor. Worse, it could be a fan. I hate fans as much as I hate editors. They fill my heart with fear and loathing. But never mind that, eh? I am armed with a typewriter and many guns, and I have cigarettes and whiskey, and a wide assortment of pharmaceutical enhancements that the peacocks didn't eat, and with these, I can handle almost anything."

Thompson's mood rarely gets much better as the novel progresses, and the wry bitterness that he maintains even as he finds himself hip deep in a bizarre and terrifying conspiracy, is laugh-out-loud funny. Ordinarily I try to avoid quoting the funny parts of a book, since readers should get to experience them for themselves, but The Damned Highway has so many great moments that I can share a couple and still leave plenty more to be discovered. There's his encounter with a nervous bus station employee:

"The ticket agent seems uneasy, perhaps frightened by the look in my eyes or the smile on my face. Her bottom lip quivers and she tugs at her earlobe. Enjoying the effect I'm having on her, I request a one-way ticket to Arkham. I pay cash, and she takes the bills cautiously, her expression suggesting that perhaps I've wiped my ass with them or sprayed the money with LSD. It is a good idea, and I make a mental note to try it later."

Or his thoughts on discovering Thomas Eagleton undergoing terrible torture at the hands of a Lovecraftian conspiracy:

"First I run to Senator Eagleton. As a journalist, I shouldn't interfere. As someone about to be pummeled to death, I should just leave. As a human being, I should be thrilled to see a real-live United States senator stretched out before me, injured and helpless, his brain full of guacamole. But I am a merciful god above all else, so I do the only thing I can-- push the two tabs of Kirby acid I have with me between his lips."

As the hints above might suggest, The Damned Highway has a hell of a plot, but I don't want to say too much about it: it ought to be experienced the way I experienced it, with no foreknowledge, in a single reading session that makes its breakneck pace and wild turns feel like the literary equivalent of an acid trip, if acid trips also involved profound political statement.

The Damned Highway's notion that Cthulhu might be behind Richard Nixon is more than a jeu d'esprit, the linking of one boogeyman with another. In one of the novel's many clever plays on Lovecraft's mythos and its modern development (others include such locations as Joshi's Place and Pickman's Motel), Thompson is given some very special hallucinogenic mushrooms: fungi from Yuggoth. The first time he takes them, he's granted a vision of a nightmare orgy involving Nixon administration figures and tentacled creatures. But when he gives them to someone else in an attempt to duplicate the experience, the visions that come are more real, and more terrifying. This is a novel of recent political history, of tragedy, despair, and a growing sense of helplessness, as relevant to 2012 as to 1972. As with the Lovecraftian inventiveness, the political insight comes fast and fierce, with a sarcastic edge, but it's not just a joke.

This is one of those books where no review can communicate just how effective it is: how powerful and compelling the narrative voice, endlessly acerbic yet deeply human; how cleverly bits and pieces of real history are reworked on Lovecraftian terms and Lovecraft's stories are given a political twist; how absolutely unique is the overall feel. (One might loosely compare it to Laird Barron, what might be called "macho cosmicism" if that label weren't terribly misleading; but the differences very much outweigh the similarities.) Perhaps the best summation is this: if, on hearing about the concept, you thought, "That would be really amazing if they got it right," have no fear. They did get it right.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 7, 2011
Format: Paperback
I've been a longtime fan of Brian Keene's (I ordered THE RISING the day Delirium put it up for sale.....), and, in my opinion, he's always been the "Old Faithful" of the Horror genre.....No matter what he's writing, whether it's a subject that fully captivates you or something that's been done to death, you usually put down the book thinking "DAMN, that was good!" He's an Author you can count on. Nick Mamatas, I'm embarrassed to say, is someone whose fiction I'm not very familiar with....I'll probably have to remedy that after reading THE DAMNED HIGHWAY: FEAR AND LOATHING IN ARKHAM.

THE DAMNED HIGHWAY's high concept is "Hunter S. Thompson does Lovecraft", which would seem to put it in the (Sometimes rightfully) maligned category of the "Mash-up" novel, popularized lately by such books as PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES and SENSE & SENSIBILITY & SEA MONSTERS. That would be doing THE DAMNED HIGHWAY a great disservice, since Keene and Mamatas have crafted a razor-sharp satire of the Watergate era, perfectly channeled through the voice of Hunter S. Thompson, or "Uncle Lono", as he's known here. Lono's cross-country trek through the seamy underbelly of Nixon's America takes him through Lovecraft's Innsmouth, where he uncovers a plot that stretches from R'Lyeh all the way to The White House, and involves many of the big political figures of the day. Keene and Mamatas manage to combine forces seamlessly, delivering a pitch-perfect pastiche of Thompson's voice and narrative style, and the story itself is hilariously demented. I'm glad to see Dark Horse get into the Brian Keene business, and I hope to see them publish more by him in the future. THE DAMNED HIGHWAY may be a departure from Keene's usual style, but it's just as enjoyable, if not more so, than the rest of his work.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I came to "The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham" because of my interest in works derivative of H.P. Lovecraft's horror legacy. A mash-up between the Cthulhu Mythos and Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo style seemed like an interesting marriage, and authors Nick Mamatas and Brian Keene seized upon the more extreme elements of Thompson's conspiracy theories to weave an entirely new narrative that, if not always terrifying, is certainly strange.

Holed up in his fortified compound, "Owl Farm" in Woody Creek, Colorado, Thompson decides to pursue the American Nightmare, the corollary to his unfinished book "Joint Chiefs" about the death of the American Dream. This is Thompson in his later years, infamous thanks to Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoon caricature of him, Uncle Duke, who was in turn inspired by Thompson's alias Raoul Duke. Thompson adopts a new alias as Uncle Lono, the Hawaiian deity of fertility, agriculture, rainfall, and music. It's not long before Thompson takes "fungi from Yuggoth" which gives him extra-spatial perception and a connection to others who take the alien mushrooms. This drug ex machina leads Thompson/Lono into the middle of a conflict between upper class Arkham thugs supporting the political machinations of Richard Nixon and the subhuman fish-people of Innsmouth. Their two deities vie for dominance: Moloch, a giant owl worshipped at the Bohemian Grove attended by Nixon, and Cthulhu, the Elder God we know and love.

We're never entirely sure what's going on thanks to Thompson's gonzo journalistic style. Lovecraftian references are often inserted at random; characters appear and disappear, and the narrative cuts away whenever there's action. The modern setting plays with our perceptions of political, historical, and Mythos realities, all the while reminding us that Thompson was a horndog junkie unafraid to speak truth to power.

The conclusion involves Mi-Go mind canisters, "Samoan Attorney" Oscar Zeta Acosta, Mother Hydra, and enough asides to make your head spin. The conclusion give's Thompson's suicide and Acosta's disappearance more resonance than reality might accord their seemingly random exits, but their passing will leave you wishing we had more drug-fueled crusaders of justice. Because "The Damned Highway" is set in the past, the authors aren't afraid to use their knowledge of future events of politics and ecological disasters to hint that even if Cthulhu didn't manage to destroy America the first time around, he's about to get a second chance in 2012.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Before you read this read "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" and some Lovecraft Cthulhu mythos before you read this and you'll have a great time. It stands on it's own as being truly trippy, but with the recommended reading it will really blow your mind.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2011
Format: Paperback
Oh my. It should be known that I both know and am fans of both Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas, both of the authors of this book from Dark Horse. But that's not important right now. Coming at you like a hit of eldritch LSD on a Jack Kirby tab, it's Hunter S. Thompson meets the Mythos. It swings and it connects, baby, it swings and connects.

I wasn't overly fond of Nick Mamatas' MOVE UNDERGROUND, a literary mash-up between Jack Kerouac and Lovecraft. I was never a fan of Kerouac, and I'm not a fan of Hunter S. Thompson. Couldn't get anywhere in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. But here, the charm works. The Hunter S. Thompson character is completely insane, but he is written in coherent sentences than link up into paragraphs that form coherent thoughts, which is where Thompson's own work loses me.

The story is what I would have called coke-fueled full speed ahead madness, but this is Hunter S. Thompson, who was much more into psychedelics. So it feels very mushroom-fueled, and these mushrooms are from Yuggoth, if you know what I mean. The good stuff. The plot centers around Hunter, in his persona as Uncle Lono, careening around, bouncing off various pieces of a vast American Nightmare until he comes to the point where he has enough information and feels the need to intervene. The writing is often clever, there's a lot of name-dropping (there's a bar in Arkham named Joshi's) that's a chuckle when you get the joke.

Occasionally, some of what I assume is the Thompson pastiche is a bit repetitive. How many times in one book should one mention a gorilla's stomach? All of Thompson's violence is Great and Terrible, like Wizard of Oz. I don't know if these are artifacts of Thompson's writing style, or simply repetition of a pastiche. But these are minor. The book is a solid, the speed frenetic without being completely chaotic. "Uncle Lono" is well-drawn, and his actions and reactions make sense in a way that the real man never did to me.

The cover is particularly worthy of note. It's the cover from a 1974 Panther edition of Mountains of Madness. If you look to the bottom left of the picture, you can see two small men who I suspect are Dyer and Danforth. Mamatas tracked down artist Ian Miller, and he was willing to have the painting on another cover, and there it is. Which to my mind was a brilliant move, as it captures the brain-exploding 70s wtf-ness of the novel extremely well.

A recommended book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2011
Format: Paperback
It's been a hell of a year for H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos with a Cthulhu three-part South Park arc, an appearance on Supernatural, Alan Moore's Neonomicon miniseries and what now seems to be a self-sustaining Cthulhu-based publishing industry. Oh, and there's going to be a Cthulhu Mythos app for your iPhone. Ai! Lovecraft, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

OK, you'd be 121 now, but that's young for some of HPL's less human protagonists.

So I guess it was only a matter of time until someone collided the worlds of eccentric outcast Lovecraft and eccentric outcast Hunter S. Thompson, as Keene and Mamatas do here with a "previously unpublished" section from Thompson's coverage of the 1972 American presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing: The Campaign Trail '72.

Having discovered that ancient deity/alien Cthulhu backs Nixon for president in 1972, Thompson heads out from his Colorado cabin to cover the story. Or stop Nixon. Whichever comes first. Keene and Mamatas do a lovely job replicating Thompson's gonzo journalism and gonzo prose style while also working in enough references and allusions to the Cthulhu mythos and its foundational stories and incidents that an annotated edition might actually prove helpful to the uninitiated.

Thompson's tolerance for drugs and alcohol serve him well as he tracks Cthulhu's influence across America, with stops in demon-haunted Arkham, decayed fishing-town Innsmouth, and squamous, leprous Washington, DC. The Republican Party serves Cthulhu. Whom do the Democrats serve? And can the world be saved? Does it deserve to be?

And what happened to the American Dream, depicted here as being as damned and monstrous and horribly malformed and mutated as any Lovecraft protagonist damned by fate or heredity or an accidental brush with the world-devouring Great Old Ones.

Keene and Mamatas weave together fact and fiction in rewarding, hilarious and surprisingly moving ways as they take their narrator straight into the heart of Hell...or at least some version of Hell. Events major (from J. Edgar Hoover's death to 9/11) and minor (Democratic hopeful Edmund Muskie's bizarre mispronunciation of 'Canuck' as 'Cannock' spins off into an entire sub-plot) butt up against Thompson's idiosyncratic personality and style, as well as Lovecraft's equally idiosyncratic personality and style. "We are all Cthulhu," Nixon tells Thompson at one point. Well, I hope not. I really hope not.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Nick and Brian channel Hunter S. Thompson like nobody can. With a Eldritch twist! Combining some of the key landmarks in Lovecrafts tales, our hero "Uncle Lono" takes a trip across country to unravel The Great American Nightmare.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas does the near impossible -- on the one hand a devastatingly funny reaction to Nixon's America and on the other a really scary Cthulhu Mythos novel. This is one of those books I wished I had written.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 29, 2012
Format: Paperback
While I do enjoy Lovecraftian horror, I've never been a fan of the author. And while I've yet to read a book written by Hunter S. Thompson, he's always struck me as a captivating character. So, all that considered, what the hell was I doing reading a book that melds the two? I'm hardly an aficionado of either subject. Honestly, I just thought it was a damned cool idea for a book.

Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas joined forces to craft a sincerely weird journey through the eyes of Hunter S. Thompson, under the guise of Uncle Lono, as he treks across America during the election season of 1968. It's treated as Thompson's attempt to further escape his own fame, while also getting up to his eyeballs in the same kind of gonzo legwork that made him famous in the first place. This time his mission is to unearth the American Nightmare, since the American Dream is dead. Boy, if he only knew.

Now, for a guy like me, my only familiarity with Hunter S. Thompson thus far has been the film adaptations of his work--the Johnny Depp stuff, basically. You would probably expect a book like this to be almost too inside or inaccessible for non-fans of Lovecraft and/or Thompson. Well, even with a vicarious hold of both men's work, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Right from the get-go, despite no direct utterance of Thompson's actual name, the character feels instantly recognizable, not to mention genuine. And I imagine that after I read Fear and Loathing and Hell's Angels, both of which sit somewhere in my home, I'll have an even greater appreciation for all of the work Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas put into this book.

Just a straight-up tribute to the man and his work would have been enjoyable enough, I imagine, given the artful manner in which his style and mood were captured. But throwing in the Lovecraft elements, both direct and alluded to, put the story on a different plain. From stumbling upon ritualistic torture in a seedy bar, to popping mushrooms from Yuggoth in an eighteen-wheeler bound for Arkham, to watching an old companion get carnal with a giant sea creature, the psychotropic rabbit hole Uncle Lono burrows down is too surreal to properly relate to prospective readers.

If there's fault to be found in the book, it's that it is a lean, and very mean two-hundred pages. I would have been content to see the antics carried out over a longer period, but it's hard to begrudge a book that has been distilled down to such a potent proof.

An added bonus comes with the allusions to the 2012 U.S. election, as Uncle Lono opines on the status of American politics in 1968. His inevitable showdown with good ol' Tricky Dick was especially splendiferous--in a macabre kind of way.

Between this, and Supernatural Noir (which I read and reviewed last year), if this is the caliber of fiction Dark Horse plans to publish outside the realm of comic books, then I can't wait to read what they have in store down the road.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2011
Format: Paperback
There are some books that are easy to explain and on its surface this book is one of them. The problems start when you scratch the surface and reveal the green fleshy otherworldly skin hidden below its veneer of a normal book. Anytime you throw Arkham into the title of a book, you know there will be some influence courtesy of a tentacle faced elder god who sleeps beneath the sea.
This book makes no bones about its Hunter S. Thompson roots. This book is actually written as a kind of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" sequel. When I encounter works that are a part two and not written by the original author, I am normally skeptical, but I simply couldn't pass up a mixture of Hunter S. Thompson and Cuthulu! Because of his drug addled writing style, Thompson is a hard nut to crack when it comes to emulating his writing style, but Nick Mamatas and Brian Keene cracked that nut and may have gone nuts in the process. I think it is a tribute to Thompson that it actually took two authors to get his style right.
At its most basic level, this is a road trip book. Who doesn't like a good road trip? After the first few pages though, you quickly understand that this is as far from your typical road trip. The amount of alcohol, drugs, and occult activity combine to create a trip like no other. This book takes place in the 70s and, minus one major flaw, they truly captured the Vietnam malaise that was gripping our country. I love Uncle Lono's Rock star journalist status and the advantages and disadvantages that result from it. This story takes Uncle Lono almost completely across the country in search of the darkest aspects of America. With the time period the story is set in combined with the writers' skill, the story truly feels pitch black. There are scenes that take place during the day, but the haze of drugs and impending Armageddon maintain that inky darkness.
Uncle Lono is a shining example of the amoral man. The great thing about him is that he revels in it. He is unapologetic and ready to commit violence against anyone who gets in the way of his story or drug consumption. In this journey, Uncle Lono runs across a cast of characters that could fill two freak shows and still have leftovers for the ad campaign. The authors do an outstanding job of giving us candid snapshots of these freaks that allow us to get to know them without dwelling on them.
I was worried that this book would end up being too political and in a sense it was, but I was okay with that. If you are turned off by politics in your fiction, stick with this one. Politics are a major theme of this book but there are so many zingers and juicy bits between world ending plot involving Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hover that are worth reading. I appreciate the balance that Mamatas and Keene strike while covering the mythos: The authors include it, it is central to the story, but it remains understated and mysterious until it needs to be unleashed (and oh boy is it unleashed!) Let's just say that at one point a civil rights lawyer takes a long swim in a frozen river with mother hydra.
This book is not for everyone. This is not a book that I think many people who don't know about Lovecraft will be drawn to, but even with these factors working against it, this is an entertaining book. The authors have channeled the sprits of Lovecraft and Thompson to create a road trip like no other. This book is definitely more Thompson than Lovecraft, and I'm okay with that. One thing I did learn about this book is that when you mix drugs and Lovecraftian horror, the drugs don't seem to make that much difference. Uncle Lono might disagree, but remember what Mr. Mackey says: "Drugs are bad M'Kay!"
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