Summary: On its first printing, the publisher shut down after a tiny first run. Now it is back, six years later, with some new editing and introductions, and is available to be read. How did this somewhat early Mythos collection hold up to those who came after (and now, before) it? I review the book as well as review (via blurbs) the individual stories.
BLOT: (23 May 2011 - 08:39:26 PM)
Miskatonic River Press's Dead But Dreaming, edited by Keith Herber and Kevin Ross
Had I read this collection in 2002, when it first showed up in its semi-infamous doomed printing (the company folded with only about 75-90 copies being put there, and about 1/5 of those were pre-destined to be contributor copies), I do not know what I would have thought. Back then, most of my experience with Mythos tales were those by Lovecraft himself, a handful of the various "masters" (August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith predominated though only a few tales by each stuck to my memory) and discussion of various others through sources like alt.horror.cthulhu. I am not sure I had read many stories not set in the first half the 20th century, and I know I had not read many that were not traditional Mythos tales: an investigator in the academic sense, or a hapless accident explorer of the every day sense, ends up uncovering the truth and it goes poorly. Over the past few years, my Mythos knowledge has improved greatly (hah, for CoC fans who willed me to mark off a few Sanity points) and so maybe had I read this back then it would have been a revelation. And maybe it would have been too far left-field. I have no idea.
Now that it has been reprinted (a 2008 trade paperback edition of Dead but Dreaming can be had directly from Miskatonic River Press), and I've had a chance to read it as my dozenth or so such collection, I like it. All, and I do mean all, post-Lovecraftian Mythos story collections are hit-or-miss. Even those like Black Wings, by far one of the better ones, are not pure gold. It's just the genre, I guess. It is hard to sum up cosmic horror in a way that is guaranteed to feel trite and dated. The big twist is that man isn't the center of the Universe? Wow, early 20th century science called and wants its discoveries back. Even knowing what we do, though, science still comes across all those weird mysteries and there is still a lot of weirdness in our fellow men, especially those "backwoods" sorts and those strange academic sorts. Part of it is all hokey and hooey, for sure, but there are plenty of things to write in a horror field, even one that seems as easily boxed up as Mythos horror.
I like it, I said, but what do I like about it? Well, the editors have done a a great job of mixing various voices. Young pups right up against old dogs. That kind of thing. There is a mystery or two, a couple with blackly comic overtones, a revenge piece right up against a sad sack tale. While it felt a little Cthulhu centric (maybe), with a desperate need for a few other Lovecraftian diversions, it manages to play properly fast and loose with the concept of the Mythos (Lovecraft, himself, would change rules and names around as per the needs of the story). Several of the tales lead one to think of extending the story (heads up, gamers) and several are satisfying where there are. There are a couple of duds (Morton's "Call of Cthulhu: The Motion Picture" is dud enough for two stories) but most manage to have a good set-up or a great ending. In the end, I think the three or four best works (for my money, Campbell's story, as well as "Salt Air", "The Disciple", and "Fire Breathing" with "Why We Do it" nearly making it and "Bayer's Tale" being worthy but not quite there) will elevate the collection with the second run (the two mentioned in the last parenthetical as well as "Bangkok Rules", "The Unseen Battle", and the closing "Final Draft") making enough weighty effort that the collection is worth it. And if there are those I didn't fully like ("The Motion Picture", "Epiphany", and "Aklo" were all fairly meh to me with others not being bad but not quite hitting the sweet spot), then that's just the way a Mythos collection tumbles. No doubt, there will be those who adore "The Motion Picture" but detest "The Other Names" and "The Disciple".
The overall collection is Good with stories ranging from blech to great. I think the mode of the collection would like be Fair, with the favorites bringing a warm enough glow to my heart to notch the whole thing up a rank. Rather than blend too much look at the stories themselves into the review above, I thought I would give a short blurb about each down below. Enjoy.
- Stephen Mark Rainey's "Epiphany: A Flying Tiger's Story" While it is interesting to see a story more in kind with William Hope Hodgson's House on the Borderlands than anything Lovecraft, and the choice of a fairly non-Lovecraft-standard protagonist has some nice potential, most of the story reads like a slow-paced dream sequence. The ending, where most of the value lies, only hits after a bit too much building-up has been utilized.
- Loren MacLeod's "The Aklo" The biggest plus for this story is the humorous [to me] swap of race politics at the end from Lovecraft's usual Blacks + Asians = Horror. The rest, though, beats a little stilted and by the time the horror shows up, the story has lost most of its steam right before diving into an overwrought ending.
- Patrick Lestewka's "Bangkok Rules" After the unexciting pair of opening stories, mostly working off their endings, this was one a good little punch. Nice mixing of a crime story with sexually perverse Mythos blend. Only drawback is that it could have used more internal logic, but it wasn't really about that to beging with.
- Darrell Schweitzer's "Why We Do it" My first truly liked story in the collection. Short, directly to the point, maybe too much so for some, but evocative enough. Prior Mythos stories required to full get a feel of what's going on, but that's ok.
- David Barr Kirtley's "The Disciple" One of my favorites. While it seems to be setting up for one style, a delightfully dark twist pulls it all together. Its Mythos creation feels both appropriately cosmic, dangerous, and weird with what horror there is being more in having perspective realigned. In this way, it is possible one of the more authentic Lovecraftian tales.
- Mike Minnis's "Salt Air" By bringing up Kingsport, this story wins a special bonus award right off. Mixing more dream like moments (sort of) with a decent plot almost works, though some of the abrupt transitions suggest a story that would have worked better as a longer piece with more time to breathe.
- Walt Jarvis "Through the Cracks" While it works well playing off the irony of your average Lovecraftian protagonist going insane because he found out the truth, the ending is so obvious as to be problematic. You are so aware of what is going to happen that you expect a twist that never shows up.
- Brian Scott Hierbert's "The Unseen Battle" There has been a fair amount of discussion of the importance of place/location within the weird tale, and this one wins the evocative location award. Too bad it does so through broad strokes that can leave the reader a little confused as to time and place until later on. Still, the young innocent protagonist as witness is a nice touch.
- Adam Niswander's "Bayer's Tale" Considering the sheer amount of murder and weird happenings, I think more weird tales should invoke cops as central characters (come on folks, we got to get past "Red Hook" somehow). This one proves the worth of the concept and almost works except for being a little too forthcoming at the very end when elements of unsolved mystery probably would have worked better.
- Lisa Morton's "The Call of Cthulhu: The Motion Picture" Probably the biggest dud in the book. The Asian-American wannabe script writer spends far too much time trying to summon bile at Lovecraft, while simultaneously Morton herself tries "fixing the tale", and it comes across as cheap pastiche that would have worked as humor but there is too little to keep the motors running.
- David Bain's "Under an Invisible Shadow" If this one was read in 2002, prior to the massive explosion of zombie lit (especially Brian Keene's The Rising) then it could have been a fresh weird look at zombies. Now, it kind of comes across as a mood piece and not much else. Enjoyable but needed some punch.
- Robin Morris's "The Thing Beyond the Stars" The most epic story in the whole package, with a mythos being that would make most mythos beings weep in shame and terror, it trips itself up with a double feint (starts out with humans fleeing the shoggoth war, and then involves a red herring of a search for the Old Ones). It is also plagued by the same issues that hit up "The Cold Equations": how exactly is a space ship that is capable for traveling for years and whose crew knows its closest possible destination is 2 years only going to be stocked with a enough supplies to barely make it 4 years total? Would an extra couple of years of fuel and food been too unexciting? Hot damn at "The Star Eater", though.
- Mehitobel Wilson's "Fire Breathing" Another favorite of mine. Mixing a little of old punk mindset with a bit of weird with an element of the best sort of indie horror movie. It was actually really hard for me to not picture Norman Reedus (or maybe Eddie Furlong ala Night of the Demons) as the main character. Interesting end as well, that leaves enough questions unanswered to be fun.
- Ramsey Campbell's "The Other Names" This story was a big reason for me being the collection, and it did not disappoint. Just weird enough, just gory enough, to stand out. Puts absolutely nothing forward that it does not have to show, but shows plenty nevertheless. Fans of Campbell should be properly entertained, as should be most fans of modern horror. The Mythos elements of it are almost secondary and that's ok, too.
- David Annandale's "Final Draft" Starts out almost more M.R. James than Lovecraft, but ends up as the second most epic tale in the whole book. It is an appropriate ending to the stories, though its own ending suffers a tad by ramping every thing up almost from nowhere. There are also a couple of mythic coincidences that detract. Fans of Big-C, though, should note this one.
OTHER BLOTS THIS MONTH: May 2011