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Return of the Old Ones: Apocalyptic Lovecraftian Horror Paperback – January 25, 2017
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What I’d have to say straight off the bat is how much I enjoy reading Brian M. Sammons’ edited anthologies, especially the ones with a Lovecraftian hue. He has this innate ability to seek out a nice balance of stories and contrasting styles that make for very entertaining and fun anthologies. Well, perhaps “entertaining” and “fun” aren’t strictly the right words to use in this context. This is after all a bleak and nihilistic hued anthology about the Old Ones wiping the slate clean and reclaiming their dominion over humanity. Hardly the epitome of lightness and joy but methinks you’ll most definitely find some things in among the nineteen different apocalyptic perspectives to enjoy. I know I most certainly did! The approach that Sammons has taken with the anthology is to divide the book into three sections that mirrors his introductory quote from The Dunwich Horror; “The Old Ones were, The Old Ones are, and The Old Ones shall be.” So in effect the apocalypse from a prior, during and post event perspective. And it works an absolute treat.
The initial section of the book, “In the Before Times”, kicks things off with Jeffrey Thomas’ disorientating and creepy “Around the Corner.” This follows a tenant in an apartment block called Franklin who begins to experience weird spatial anomalies and distortions that begin to chip away at his sanity. Whether this is the due to suppressed memories from his childhood or due to his neighbors’ curious habits is initially somewhat ambiguous. However, as the visions intensify, the foundations of his world start to crumble and the true nature of reality is laid bare for all to see. What can I say? Jeffrey Thomas is a dab hand at crafting atmospheric and haunting stories that linger in the memory and this is no exception to that. The feeling of something bubbling away just beneath the thin skin of reality is heightened in the surrealistic “Tick Tock” by Don Webb. In this, a conspiracy theorist finds that his ability to distinguish between truth and fiction is about to be sorely tested. It would appear that the dissemination and accrual of all the odd, arcane and downright weird stuff in the world has weakened the fabric of reality so much that something is begin to leak through and manifest itself. It’s a smart and bizarre slice of writing with a really rather hallucinatory ending.
The power of knowledge to distort and influence how one perceives and interprets reality forms the basis of Glynn Owen Barrass’ fantastic “Causality Revelation.” This story reminded me somewhat of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome in places as a hacker called Lloyd helps disseminate a virus called Web Driver Torso through the internet. As the invasive and corruptive data starts to spread, so humanity’s collective consciousness and flesh becomes more malleable and receptive to the influences of a far more insidious and disturbing message. I have to say that I loved the body horror subtext and imagery throughout this though I don’t think I can quite look at electricity pylons with anything other than suspicion after this. In a similar vein to the effect that information can have on opening your eyes to the world around you, Art has the ability to transport and transform your consciousness. In Scott Goudsward’s “The Hidden”, a group of cultists are intent on opening the doorway to their sleeping god by creating a rather unique expression of their belief. In this particular case, you fully understand that saying about sacrificing yourself for your art, especially when you have such an admiring audience wishing to demonstrate their appreciation.
This is something that Jane, the protagonist of Lucy A. Snyder’s “The Gentleman Caller” perhaps could have been more aware of when she accepts a token of thanks from an admirer. The disabled half of a pair of conjoined twins, Jane works on a phone sex line where she receives a curious necklace from one of her regular clients. I can’t help but think of that old childhood saying about being wary of accepting gifts from strangers when reading this. The gift bestows Jane with the power of translocation. Fantastic if you have a deep seated desire to experience how the other half lives, less so when you discover that it can be a one way ticket with serious repercussions. This is the first time I’ve read Snyder’s work but methinks that it will certainly not be the last. It’s a taut and sharp tale.
There’s long been a theory of thought that people who have lost one of their senses have other abilities heightened to compensate. This is an idea dialed up to the max in Tim Curran’s overwhelming “Scratching from the Outer Darkness” as a blind woman starts to hear odd noises that push her increasingly over the edge of sanity and into the arms of those that wait on the other side. I rather liked this story. Curran has a style that can be construed as somewhat over descriptive but here it works a treat in describing the sensory tsunami that washes over Simone Petrioux, leaving her rattled and unsure as to what is real or imagined. This becomes even more pronounced when the veil is lifted from her eyes and she can finally see what lurks beyond. Seeing life filtered through a lens and the skewed perception of reality that this can represent forms the heart of Stephen Mark Rainey’s “Messages from a Dark Deity.” This follows a war correspondent who begins to perceive that something dark and sinister may be hiding in plain sight; perhaps his prolonged exposure to the horrors of conflict and pain have given him the right kind of eyes to see what lurks beneath the mundane skein of reality. It’s another sharp and stylish tale with some rather jarring imagery from the outset.
The second section of the anthology, “Where Were You When the World Ended?” comprises seven stories set during the collapse of civilization. The first of these is the excellent “Time Flies” by Peter Rawlik which chronicles the mass arrival of that race of time traveling observers the Yith to Earth. Their arrival heralds a new Golden Age of prosperity for humanity as they bestow their collective wisdom and technology for the benefit of all. However that old adage about all that glitters is not gold rings very true here. The Yith have ulterior motives for their profligate philanthropy and it doesn’t bode well for those who have become close to them, especially when it is time to leave. I really liked the story that Rawlik tells here. It’s an acutely observed (no pun intended) tale that reinforces the idea that we are but playthings for the amusement of far older forces in the cosmos and how utterly alien emotions such as love and compassion are to them. The futility of having emotions and retaining some semblance of your humanity is laid bare in Tim Waggoner’s bleak “Sorrow Road” as a mother and her ill son find themselves trapped on a freeway in the presence of The Masters. Faced with stark choices about the nature of the world in which she and Danny now inhabit, Kris takes a calculated risk on the basis that compassion and love still have some meaning in this world of death and blind servitude. Suffice to say that it is a really bad judgement call on her part and even more so for her son. I don’t really want to say more about Waggoner’s story except to say that it has a conclusion that kicks like a mule and will stay in your mind’s eye long after you’ve finished reading.
Restoring balance and harmony in the natural world is at the fore in William Meikle’s rip roaring “The Call of the Deep.” Set in a near future world facing environmental collapse and beset by ravening hordes of Deep Ones, the military attempt to turn the tide by modifying the world’s temperature through harmonics. As one would expect, things don’t quite according to plan, especially so when what you broadcast is attuned to a much more primordial pulse. It’s just a great blast of exhilarating Lovecraftian pulp fiction. The quality continues with “Howling Synchronicities” by Konstantine Pariadis as a solitary cosmonaut, Anatoly, finds himself to be both observer and participant in witnessing the collapse of society from his lofty perch aboard the International Space Station. As he watches the world burn and experiences individual perspectives of the apocalypse, you begin to realize that his demeanor mirrors the cold and dark expanse of space from which the Old Ones have come, making him the ideal vessel to channel their words and visions. I can’t fault Pariadis’ storytelling. He’s definitely one of those writers who consistently hit home runs on the writing front.
Our species propensity for violence and inhumanity as a means to resolve issues may be one of the reasons why humanity is so alluring to influence by the Old Ones. It may be one of the themes bubbling beneath the surface of Sam Gafford’s “Chimera” but it could just as well be about the alienation and disconnection of youth or the fine line people consciously draw between stability and chaos. Perhaps I’m fueled by far too much caffeine in my system at this point and am theorizing about what is ostensibly a wolf in sheep’s clothing type of story. Set during a period of planetary upheaval, William Byers is plagued by nightmares and an abusive stepfather. Seeking the key to unlock his mind he decides to join a sleep study group being conducted at Miskatonic University. I think it would be fair to say that the gate that he unlocks is not one any of us in our right mind would want to step through. I’d also say that Sam Gafford is an author you might want to keep your eyes on.
Dreams and how they manifest themselves in reality is explored in “The Last Night on Earth” by Edward Morris. This story has a curious fragmented and disconnected style that feels rather like waking up from a particularly disturbing dream and not knowing where you are, who you are and what is happening. It’s a short burst of delirious like imagery that’s unsettling and effective. Similarly, Neil Baker’s “The Incessant Drone” blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy by depicting the global military attempting to fend off incursions of titanic “Threshers” into our world. As they fight an increasingly desperate battle, they begin to comprehend that the doors of perception swings both ways and what you see is not always what you get. Which is an apt way to describe how this story unfolds as initially it feels like a fun, pulpy mash up of cinematic references; Independence Day, Pacific Rim and The Empire Strikes Back immediately spring to mind, before morphing into something else entirely.
The third section of the anthology, “Life in the Shadow of the Gods”, takes a post apocalyptic perspective on humanity’s attempts to eke out an existence in the new natural order. The first of these stories is the grim and disturbing “Breaking Point” by Sam Stone. This is a raw and brutal slice of horror that examines the lengths that one might go to in order to survive, especially where there are many hungry mouths to feed. I’d have to say that this is one of the most effective stories in here of conveying the bleak futility and horror of life in a post apocalyptic landscape.
By comparison, Edward Erdelac’s “The All Clear” seems almost joyous in its depiction of a subterranean society awaiting the opportunity to reclaim the earth’s surface. Set in a claustrophobic bunker, the surviving descendants of the apocalypse exist in a ritualized version of society with its own language and customs. For the past two hundred and fifty six years, a scout has made a pilgrimage to the surface to check that it is safe, the titular “All Clear.” This rite of passage has yielded no results until the fateful day that one of the scouts returns and it is left to the plucky Nougat to discern the truth. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Erdelac’s take on the apocalypse. He paints a vivid picture of a world that is vaguely familiar (Scions of Tist) yet also alien and threatening. It feels rather like there is some religious subtext going on with its portrayal of false prophets, blind faith and sacrifice but it does rather underscore the notion that hope and trust are lethal in the context of an inhospitable world bereft of such thinking.
Preserving some spark of humanity is at the forefront of Christine Morgan’s “The Keeper of Memory.” Set far, far into the future, civilization is non existent and the remaining vestiges of humanity scrabble around in the muck eking out an existence. The one overriding impulse in a world ruled by the shadowy Over-Seers and Under-Seers is to survive, unquestioning about the wider world and the implications of being human. The solitary link to the past is provided by the titular character, a traveling storyteller by the name of Mema, who is looking to plant the seeds of rebellion in receptive and fertile minds. This is another solid piece of quality work from the ever reliable Morgan that contradicts the notion that all those touched by the Old Ones are malignant and intent on our destruction.
It is a concept that is central to Scott R. Jones’ “Shoot/Kill/Revel/Repeat” which is for want of better words, a bit f****** mental. Set in the distant future this is a stylistically jarring and hallucinatory jaunt through the dimensional chaos that exists following the return of the Old Ones. Humanity as a species has been irrevocably altered and tainted from its aeon’s long exposure to the psychic and physical manifestations of the Lovecraftian universe. In an attempt to free us, a disparate band of rebellious aberrations and monstrosities seek redemption by attempting to detonate an androgynous bomb of pure human soul at R’lyeh. Well, at least I think that’s what it is about but the story is so out there that I can’t help but sit here and applaud Jones for his writing chutzpah. This is like Guardians of the Galaxy as directed by Stuart Gordon, utterly bonkers and an absolute gem of a story that had me beaming from ear to ear. Top work!
The final story in the anthology, “Strangers Die Every Day” by Cody Goodfellow doesn’t skimp on that feeling of bizarreness as exemplified by its predecessor. Set in and around the small town of Norman, this follows Tobin Thrush as he searches for a kidnapped girl among the cults and sects that now populate the land. This is a place in which sacrificial rites and the unreal go hand in hand with the commonplace and mundane. The story has this bizarre style of religious symbolism and iconography pulsing away in the background whilst throwing violently surrealist imagery and elements of spaghetti western, Noir detective and cosmic horror at you. I can’t quite shake the feeling that this might be what a template for an Alejandro Jodorowsky or Terry Gilliam horror film would read like. It’s a rather startling conclusion to the anthology that left me a bit stunned and breathless.
It is a sentiment that nicely encapsulates how I felt about the experience of reading this huge anthology from Dark Regions Press and Brian M. Sammons. Nineteen distinctive voices crying out as the world burns and the Old Ones return, who knew that the Apocalypse could be so much fun?
Editor Sammons opens his introduction with the famous quote from Lovecraft in The Dunwich Horror: “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.” And so to the book is divided into three sections – before, during, and the apocalyptic aftermath of the return.
Here’s a spoiler for you: If your introduction to the Lovecraft mythos is via the dreadful August Derleth pastiches he peddled as posthumous collaborations, you are in for a shock. Laban Shrewsbury and his magical sigil stones are not going to sweep in and save mankind at the last moment. This is Lovecraftian horror in the purest sense of the words. Lovecraft’s vision of mankind’s utter insignificance brought to that fateful day when the stars are right and nihilism is the best possible future.
There are no weak stories in the collection. Ones that leaped at me include: “Scratching from the Outer Darkness” by Tim Curran, which features a blind woman whose heightened hearing tells her something bad is coming long before anyone but she can’t tell who or what it is. Pete Rawlik’s “Time Flies” features Pandora Peaslee, who knows something is up when the temporal tourists, the Yith, all begin to gather. “The Call of the Deep” by William Meikle finds mankind battling against an amphibian onslaught, and the last hope of mankind may also doom it. And “Strangers Die Every Day” by Cody Goodfellow, a post-apocalyptic crime noir piece. It shouldn’t work, but it does. This is not to say it’s a perfect anthology – several feel like they may have been trunk stories hastily dusted off and revised to fit the book’s criteria.
Return of the Old Ones is a collection of grim and dark tales of bleakness and despair that not only don’t have happy endings, there are no ends per se since whatever the endgame is, humanity is uninvolved (other than as hors d’oeuvres). In other words, exactly what Lovecraft envisioned as the fate of mankind.