May 11, 2015
The 1950s, depending on who you speak to and where you were living, are sometimes seen as a time of plenty and high standards of living following the austerity and hardship of the 40s. They can also be seen an age marked by secrecy, paranoia and distrust as a rapidly cooling relationship between previous wartime allies led to governments being increasingly wary of each others' influence and intentions. Suspicion of the Soviet Union led to a "Reds under the Beds" mentality permeating politics and society with McCarthyism running riot in the US. Eyes looked fearfully towards the sky as satellites beeped. Rock and Roll was heard across the airwaves. Established orders and mores were being questioned and challenged. Science was advancing at a frightening rate. Humanity had harnessed the raw power of the atom and had the means of creation or utter annihilation at its fingertips.This is the decade that forms the back bone of "Atomic Age Cthulhu" an entertaining anthology of Lovecraftian stories edited by Brian M. Sammons and Glynn Barrass. The thing that I really like about Sammons and Barrass' editing collaborations is that you always get an interesting mix of authors and stories. Some of the writers in the book are people who you know are going to deliver the goods. The real delight is finding those who you have never read before and going "More!"
First out of the gate is Jeffrey Thomas with "Bad Reception" about an ex-World War 2 veteran having severe problems with his TV's tuning. It is an atmospheric, sharply written and engrossing opening tale that provides a hellish glimpse of a possible future for humanity and an adversary that is really creepy. Why for the life of me he is not more widely read I don't know. Thomas has this wonderfully immersive and engaging style of writing that is more than ably demonstrated here. It is a great opening story.
The rise of TV and its ability to influence the masses runs throughout Cody Goodfellow's "Unamerican". This tale is set against the fallout of McCarthyism and the blackballing effect it had on certain people. Two people are escorted out into the depths of the desert by a shadowy G man to a secret base where experiments have been taking place in indoctrination and manipulation using broadcast signals. As one would expect from such a tale, the experiments have not quite gone according to plan and worse is most definitely to come. I don't want to give too much away with this one. Cody Goodfellow's writing has this weird kind of jittery energy flowing through it and it is so enjoyable to read a tale that has The Shan making an appearance. Great stuff!
Next up is "Fallout" by Sam Stone which is set in one of those idyllic picket fence towns that people are so fond of in 50s Americana. Where everyone is friendly, successful and the grass is always greener. But seeing as this is a slice of Lovecraftian fiction, looks can be very deceiving and one has to ask what would you really sacrifice to attain the American Dream? This s a cracking little story and Sam Stone is one of those writers that, for my money, has peaked my interest in reading more of her work. Exactly the same can be said of Adam Bolivar's "Eldritch Lunch". This is about William S. Borough's junkie nightmare as he finds himself recruited by shadowy figures to find H.P. Lovecraft. It reads like a deranged and surreal fusion of Interzone, The Naked Lunch and the Cthulhu Mythos.
Surreal comes to mind when reading "Little Curly" by Neil Baker. Set in the Soviet Union it follows the fate of the first cosmonaut aboard Sputnik 2. Originally thought of as dead, the occupant and capsule have come back radically altered as an emissary of things that have existed for far longer than we have and wish to reveal just how irrelevant our achievements actually are. I rather liked this tale especially the grotesque myriad of things that wish to reveal our true place in the cosmos.
Strange is something that can also be said about Charles Christian's contribution which takes a sideways look at the influence and power of rock and roll in the aptly titled "The Day the Music Died". Told from the perspective of the Big Bopper before a rather fateful flight, it is about how the US government has appropriated emerging Rock and Roll as an agent of the state. It is a neat inverse of the traditional view of it as a corrupting influence on American youth. Especially when you are facing the far more corrupting and destructive influences of Elder Gods, cultists and alien races! It turns out that the sonic frequencies of guitar riffs and high vocal range of rock and roll singing are highly effective when combating Mythos beings and gods. Unfortunately flight isn't one of the most effective means of travel when faced with colossal winged gods though and no guitars. Again, I really liked this story as it plays with convention and does not feel like a traditional Lovecraftian story.
Next up is "The Terror that Came to Dounreay" by William Meikle. The more of his work I read the more I love it. He is just a damn fine storyteller who writes these really enjoyable stories that you can just get lost in and read for hours. In this one, the Scottish nuclear reactor at the aforementioned site is experiencing problems and visitations from something that has taken up residence in the core. Of the stories in this anthology, this one most aligns itself with the idea of an atomic age story as physicists and the military discover that splitting the atom has severe repercussions if something exists in between those atom spaces. Let us put it this way, it doesn't end well.
The next tale, "The Romero Transference" by Josh Reynolds is an absolute peach of a story. It reintroduces a character called "Indrid Cold" who first came to my attention in World War Cthulhu. This character is just oh so creepy. He is the original G man who appears to have been slinking and sliding amongst the shadows for eons. There's a quote he has towards the end of the story that send shivers up my spine "things are learning to walk that ought to crawl". This is a great story with just the right amount of atmosphere, suspense and cold calculation that befits a 50s conspiracy story. Excellent work and a writer whose work I am going to start seeking out to buy and read.
Popular culture rears its (damn ugly) head in "It Came to Modesto" by Edward M. Erdelac. It takes staples of 50s American culture such as hot rods, mad scientists and B-movies and spices it up with a little bit of shoggoth surgery to create a wickedly inventive tale of revenge by an ostracized teen. I really liked this, especially the wicked tongue in cheek ending about a certain amorphous creature feature that was popular at the time.
Another writer whom I haven't read much of but most certainly will after reading their contribution is Bear Weiter with "Within the Image of the Divine". In this, America and one can only assume the rest of the world for that matter has been devastated by nuclear war and the irradiated and mutated survivors eke out an existence in a weird religious styled existence in thrall to "Angels". These beings are never explicitly described but they arrived shortly after the war and it doesn't take a great leap of logic to figure out what they actually are. When a local girl discovers a "pre" child what follows is a rather disturbing and disquieting turn of events as two children try to ensure that she fits in and is not discovered by their elders. The flow and tempo of this story reminds me a lot of old Twilight Zone episodes with its twist about how individualism and difference is perceived in 50s society. It is also a damn fine piece of storytelling.
As much as the 1950s produced stone cold classic science fiction and horror films it also produced classically bad stuff like "Plan 9 from Outer Space". It is only fitting that Ed Wood is given the opportunity to redeem himself with "Yellow is the Colour of the Future" by Jason Andrew. In this, Ed whilst rifling through the remnants of a storage warehouse comes across a certain play. Transfixed by the story he soon discovers that his cinematic piece de resistance is being directed by a far more talented hand. It is another solid and entertaining story. "Fears Realized" by Tom Lynch deals with the consequences of fiddling around with technology you shouldn't be fiddling with. In this case a scientist working at Area 51 receives a mysterious visitor who is about to provide humanity a valuable lesson in evolution, status and humility. Again, I can't really fault this. It is an enjoyable slice of Lovecraftian fiction that puts man firmly at the very bottom of a cosmic pecking order.
"Professor Patriot and the Doom that came to Niceville" by Christine Morgan plays around with those patriotic and clean cut public educational films that the US government issued in the 1950s. Instead of the perils of communism this is less "reds under the beds" and more "gods over heads" as the threat of Mythos induced chaos is very real. Again, this is one of those stories that really grabbed me in terms of its style and content. Christine Morgan is definitely a writer you should be checking out! "Rose-Colored Glasses" by Michael Szymanski reads like a 50s Cthulhu version of They Live where a drive in employee discovers that 3D isn't so much a gimmick as a lifesaver especially when the reactor nearby has seen a lot of new blood enter the community. Yet again I have no quibbles with this tale or the quality of the writing.
"The Preserved Ones" by Christopher M. Geeson was another story that kind of blew me away. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange it follows a group of survivors holed up in a bunker who progressively start to turn on each other to preserve their dwindling air and food supplies. There is also something outside desperate to get in. In this alternate reality, McCarthy became president and turned to some really bad allies to help him win the war. I really liked this story especially with the notion that bomb shelters are actually really good lunch boxes to keep your food meaty fresh and juicy!
"Putnam's Monster" by Scott T Goudsward felt like the plot to some B-movie. That could be construed as a somewhat denigrating comment but this is an enjoyable romp into mutated monster territory so beloved by many films of this era. In this, a research assistant finds out that the eponymous title character has been dosing sea life with serious amounts of radiation alongside using bits of a certain book kept under lock and key at Miskatonic University. Unfortunately physics and ancient incantations do not make easy bedfellows and predictably Putnam's experiment goes awry. In the face of a rapidly mutating monster the military prove ineffective and Walter resorts to using the only thing that can provide the means to combat such a beast, the Necronimicon, with predictable results.
Peter Rawlik delivers another impressively written and thoughtful story with "Operation Switch". Set during a P.O.W. exchange in the Korean War, mind control, time manipulation, the Great Race of Yith and predetermined destiny all go in the mix for what is a rather epic and min bending story. I would seriously urge you to check out his books "Reanimators" and "The Weird Company" as he is a great writer. The dark, paranoid and Machiavellian side of American politics reveals its many sided faces in Robert M.Price's "Names on The Black List". Set during the McCarthy senate investigations, the principal inquisitor begins to become a little too pre-occupied with a certain line of questioning and soon finds that the enemies of the state are a little closer to home, especially where the notoriously manipulative and duplicitous J. Edgar Hoover is involved.
Last, but by no means least is Brian M. Sammons and Glynn Owen Barrass' "The End of the Golden Age". In the early 1950s, comic books were seen as a corrupting influence on the youth of America and a strict moral code was enforced by the Comic Code Authority. Publishers like EC Comics with their classic "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Vault of Horror" effectively ceased to exist overnight. Taking this as a background setting, this story is about a government agent who experiences first hand the insidious effects of comic books through a series called "The Treader of the Stars" that appears to unlock madness, murder and mayhem in select and notorious readers minds. A great story with historical context it is very befitting of the Atomic Age.
So, yet again Sammons and Barrass have delivered the goods and done Chaosium proud. Apparently the duo is editing some more Mythos collections based around specific decades such as "The Summer of Lovecraft". On the basis of "Atomic Age Cthulhu" that is going to be just as readable and fun as this. Excellent stuff!