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Lovecraft Unbound Paperback – October 13, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The 16 new and four reprint stories Datlow (Poe) assembles for this outstanding tribute anthology all capture what Dale Bailey praises as horror master H.P. Lovecraft's gift for depicting the universe as inconceivably more vast, strange, and terrifying than mere human beings can possibly imagine. Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud, in The Crevasse, evoke this alien sensibility through an Antarctic expedition's glimpses of an astonishingly ancient prehuman civilization preserved in the polar ice. Laird Barron's Catch Hell depicts a Lovecraft-type backwoods community in the grip of a profoundly creepy occult mythology. Selections range in tone from the darkly humorous to the sublimely horrific, and all show the contributors to be perceptive interpreters of Lovecraft's work. Readers who know Lovecraft's legacy mostly through turgid and tentacled Cthulhu Mythos pastiches will find this book a treasure trove of literary terrors. (Oct.)
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The 16 new and four reprint stories Datlow (Poe) assembles for this outstanding tribute anthology all capture what Dale Bailey praises as horror master H.P. Lovecraft's gift for depicting the universe as inconceivably more vast, strange, and terrifying than mere human beings can possibly imagine. Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud, in The Crevasse, evoke this alien sensibility through an Antarctic expedition s glimpses of an astonishingly ancient prehuman civilization preserved in the polar ice. Laird Barron's Catch Hell depicts a Lovecraft-type backwoods community in the grip of a profoundly creepy occult mythology. Selections range in tone from the darkly humorous to the sublimely horrific, and all show the contributors to be perceptive interpreters of Lovecraft's work. Readers who know Lovecraft s legacy mostly through turgid and tentacled Cthulhu Mythos pastiches will find this book a treasure trove of literary terrors. (Starred Review - Oct.) --Publishers Weekly
Top customer reviews
Sounds like a tall order, but the twenty tales she’s lined up manage to pull it off with aplomb. They have more of a focus on the essence of the intangible, existential, more cosmic and creeping horrors, the bigger picture as it were.
“Cold Water Survival” by Holly Philipps is my personal stand-out favorite of the bunch. Set on an immense iceberg, the descriptions are so vivid and the atmosphere so real, you’ll be shivering with chills long before the weirder events start setting in.
Speaking of chills and icy atmosphere, Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Crevasse” is another arctic adventure … though certain aspects made it difficult to read (poor doggies!)
I also particularly loved “In The Black Mill” by Michael Chabon; it hit just the right notes for my fondness for small towns with dark histories, secrets, archaeology, and ominousness.
“Marya Nox” by Gemma Files had similar elements of appeal, encounters of mysterious temples and a strange but compelling goddess, told in the form of an interview transcript … first class stuff.
“The Mongoose,” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, is fiendishly clever and fun, the kind of playful literary twist I always enjoy.
My biggest complaint with this whole book is that I must’ve forgotten at least twelve separate times I was reading an anthology. My mind kept resetting to novel-mode, so there I’d be expecting a next chapter to continue the tantalizing intrigue, only to find the start of a new story instead.
In Lovecraft Unbound, Ellen Datlow brings together stories that are inspired by Lovecraft without slavishly imitating him. The drawback for some readers will be that some stories seem too loosely inspired, not "Lovecraftian" enough. I admit that I thought this about one or two of the stories in this anthology, but I don't see much value in pursuing the point: Lovecraft is so influential a writer that almost any modern horror tale could be said to be influenced by him, and in any case what matters is that the stories are good. And in this volume, they are. A few struck me as underdeveloped, but even those had such strong style that it's hard to complain.
I've now read "The Crevasse," the collection's first story, twice: once in this volume and once in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, also edited by Datlow. On first reading I was disappointed by the story. It seemed to me too interested in subtle effects at the cost of narrative substance. It was like reading the first twenty pages of a fine novella and then having it abruptly stop. On second reading, I was better able to appreciate the intensely evocative prose Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud bring to it. For a story in which very little happens, it's remarkably atmospheric, and confronts Lovecraft's deepest themes, and some of his narrative motifs, in a new way. It's still a story I respect more than enjoy, but I respect it a heck of a lot.
"The Office of Doom" is the best kind of comic horror: it's funny without skimping on the chills factor. This brief story by Richard Bowes has surprising scope and real charm. Anna Tambour's "Sincerely, Petrified" takes a while to get going and sometimes seems to indulge in quirkiness for its own sake, but by the end it's evolved into an excellent, creepy take on the power of the imagination. Brian Evenson's "The Din of Celestial Birds" is another one that lacked the edge I was hoping for, but it's a more than competent story of a man's strange transformation. "The Tenderness of Jackals" has a protagonist who's Evil But Not Really Because He's World-Weary, which is not the sort of thing that sits well with me, but Amanda Downum writes this about as well as it can be written. "Sight Unseen" by Joel Lane starts well then ends a bit abruptly, but what climax there is creepy.
In "Cold Water Survival," Holly Phillips masters the sense of encroaching terror that pervades Lovecraft's best stories. A group of adventurers have colonized a giant chunk of ice in the Antarctic, but is there something alive down there? You know the answer, and watching the characters discover it is good scary fun. At times the stylized descriptions of action on the narrator's video camera are a little distracting, but this is a minor quirk in a great story.
"Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love" is a funny and oddly sweet comic romance about a guy in love with a strange girl. She's in this weird cult, but that won't be too much of a problem, or will it? This story has only touches of horror, but they're very well-executed, and the love story has real charm. I look forward to reading more of William Browning Spencer's work in the future.
For some reason I've been resistant to checking out Caitlin R. Kiernan's fiction, despite her high reputation among readers of dark fiction. The loss has been mine. "Houses Under the Sea" is a brilliant story, using motifs and structure reminiscent of Lovecraft but bringing a distinctive modern narrative voice in as well. Another of HPL's great talents was his ability to arrange seemingly unrelated facts to devastating gradual effect, and Kiernan has a similar gift. I've already purchased one of her novels, and look forward to seeing what other tricks she has up her sleeve.
Michael Cisco's "Machines of Concrete Light and Dark" is a little too abstract and dream-like for my taste; its style is unsettling in a way that's not only atmospheric, but just a touch annoying. Still, it's a fine creepy story that reflects Lovecraft's theme of broken-down psychic borders. Marc Laidlaw's "Leng" is a likable epistolary piece. It doesn't bring quite as much innovation as some other entries here, but that just means the joys of its elegant traditional structure are easier to savor, and it does have a couple twists to offer. "In the Black Mill" by Michael Chabon was one of the stories I was most excited about when I picked up the anthology, and it didn't disappoint. It too is closer to the bounds of "typical" Lovecraft than some, and Chabon writes in a less extreme versions of Lovecraft's typical manner, which he handles perfectly. I'm at a loss to describe quite why I'm so fond of this tale, except that Chabon is as always a master stylist.
Lavie Tidhar's "One Day, Soon" is an unsettling tale that lingers in the mind. It deals with a topic that I don't often enjoy seeing in imaginative fiction (he said vaguely, to avoid spoilers), but does so with a understatement that increases its horror. In "Commencement," Joyce Carol Oates satirizes the pomposity of the typical college graduation ceremony by describing a school where that ritual has a disturbing twist. It's not hard to see where things are going, but as always with Oates, the pleasure is in her hypnotic style and the portrait of the thought processes of her all-too-human characters. "Vernon, Driving" by Simon Kurt Unsworth is an intense, deeply-felt story of suffering, and an excellent read. Another writer could have used these elements in a weak story that felt dismissive of Lovecraft, but Unsworth's handling is just right. When looking at the table of contents to remind myself which stories were in this book, I had to think a minute about which one Michael Shea's "The Recruiter" was. It had already slipped my mind. Now that I remember it, I can't find much to say. It's a good story, with some interesting stylistic touches, I suppose, but I really don't feel much about it one way or the author.
I do love an epistolary horror story. Gemma Files's "Marya Nox" is presented as an interview with an exorcist priest, who recounts a strange experience he had in Southeastern Europe, in one of those churches that had incorporated an older pagan tradition, which seeps through in a disturbing way... The value of this format is that it removes the reader from the horror in a manner that paradoxically makes everything creepier. In "Boojum," Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear offer a fun dark science fiction story that's also an homage, not just to Lovecraft, but to Kipling and Lewis Carroll, and perhaps others that I missed. It's also about how attached one can get to an animal companion, even when that companion is, er, a trifle unusual.
Laird Barron's "Catch Hell" offers his usual distinctive, atmospheric prose, but its tale of a troubled magic and the extreme lengths to which the couple will go to help themselves is also a little longer than it might be, and the setting doesn't mesh with the characters fully. It's still a worthwhile read, of course. And the collection closes with Nick Mamatas' "That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable," a story that might be baffling to readers who aren't familiar with its non-Lovecraftian literary antecedents, though the author's note will help them cover this unfortunate gap in their reading. For those who know what's up, this delightful and sad story is the ultimate reminder that Lovecraft's themes aren't limited to creaky retreads of his basic forms, but can be-- and should be-- re-imagined over and over again. Lovecraft Unbound shows some of the finest modern writers of dark fiction doing just that.