South Park Self

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

I've always wanted to use that for a subject line. Life Goal Achieved!

I buy, as I have many times confessed, an awful lot of books online. Mostly this is because I have a pitiful saving throw versus Literary Shiny, and actual disposable income with which to indulge it. However, a lot of this is also because I read an awful lot of blogs by science fiction and fantasy writers (viz. left sidebar and my Friends page), and they are forever mentioning either (a) books they read and enjoyed, and (b) books they themselves have recently published. Amid my burgeoning shelves in category (a) we find, for example, Lud-in-the-Mist and The House Called Hadlows, both courtesy Neil Gaiman, and Libba Bray, courtesy Sarah Rees Brennan, excellent recommendations all. In category (b) are a large number of burgeoning-shelves culprits, but also, courtesy Elizabeth Bear, my current reading matter. This is a suitably large and be-tentacled tome entitled New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, and containing stories by her, among other luminaries including Neil Gaiman, China Miévelle, Charles Stross, Cheri Priest and Michael Marshall Smith. It is, in short, a High Status Collection.

It's been an interesting week or so of reading, and Cthulhu be praised, has not made my dream-life any odder than it is usually, although frankly that isn't saying much. I am struck, however, by the really strange variation in quality among these stories. I'd judge that about a third of them are somewhat pedestrian, slightly arbitrary, nothing special. Another third are clever, effective, chilling, nicely done. The final third are blow-your-socks-off-wonderful, with added TNT; mostly these are by the Big Names, but not always, to which I say, strength to your elbow, lesser mortals who are rising like R'lyeh, and whose other writings I shall now proceed to seek out and order online. It's the Circle of Books!

As an exercise in Upbeat, I shall now proceed to burble enthusiastically about the really good ones.
  • Neil Gaiman's story in this anthology isn't "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar", the one everyone knows; it's "A Study In Emerald", which I think I first read in Fragile Things, but the Victorian newspaper mock-up online version of which is perfectly marvellous. It's one of those stories whose twists and oddments sneak up on you, so I shan't say anything other than it's a combination of Cthulhu and Sherlock Holmes pastiche, it's desperately chilling, and, this being Gaiman, the voice is pitch-perfect. It was lovely to have an excuse to read it again.
  • Marc Laidlaw's "The Vicar of R'lyeh" is notable both for its oddly effective crossover between Lovecraftian horror and the mannered English countryside of Trollope, Austen and Hardy, and its ability to configure the crunches and compromises of the corporate coding environment as chilling Cthulhoid horror. It's the one story in this anthology I really enjoyed while feeling that the writer didn't quite pull it off, but it's still a striking piece.
  • Michael Marshall Smith's "Fair Exchange" is Innsmouth in urban London, its voice all lower-class Brit, its denizens lesser criminals and fundamentally anti-social dole drones. Evil, the story says, is no less evil for being really petty.
  • William Browning Spencer is no-one I'd ever heard of before, and sounds suspiciously like an overly-literate alias. He is responsible both for the story "The Essayist in the Wilderness", and for the fact that I've just spent forty-five minutes and several hundred rand on Amazon Marketplace to discover his other work and purchase same. This story is possibly my favourite in the anthology (OK, favourite after "Emerald"), because it's, once again, an immaculate exercise in voice, but also has a restrained, blackly funny, lateral sort of comic horror which creeps up on you very, very slowly and mostly by dint of being just very slightly wrong. I haven't had this much fun reading in a very long time.
  • Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom" is deservedly a Hugo novelette winner; it's an example of that rare and wonderful thing, a Lovecraftian pastiche which is deeply and sensitively political, and which achieves the almost impossible feat of creating empathy for a Lovecraftian horror. It's also a late 1930s period piece, and its mythos elements are beautifully enmeshed in pre-war politics; its awareness of American and German racism is a thoroughly satisfying antidote to Lovecraft's own bigotry.
  • Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's collaboration, "Mongoose", is a deeply weird and lateral sf story about Kadath Space Station and its infestation of weird other-dimensional raths and toves and bandersnatches, which you hunt with an alien phase-tentacled beastie called a cheshire. It made me very happy. Lovecraft/Lewis Carroll crossovers are as inevitable as all get-out.
  • Finally, China Miéville's "Details" is about perception. He's always about perception. Here, horror is about perception, which is really the nub of it, isn't it? Once you've seen the horror, you can't unsee it. You're screwed.
I am struck by how many times in the above list I've referenced voice; even when I haven't mentioned it specifically, these stories do voice, or at least perspective, very well. It seems to be one of the classic features of horror: the writer needs to be able to immerse you in the world and feelings of the protagonist for horror to actually be effective. It's why Stephen King is as good as he is. For all that the Cthulhu mythos is about unimaginably massive, alien, indifferent forces in a vast and uncaring universe, their effects must be personal for us to apprehend their power. It's why a lot of these stories are better than Lovecraft in some ways. No-one touches him for rendering the indescribable, but he didn't, ultimately, depict people particularly well, probably because he didn't like them much. I think really good writers do.
  • Current Mood: anxious nameless horror
The borrowers
I would like to borrow the collection when you are done. I love short stories :)
Re: The borrowers
You are welcome to, indeed, but will have to get in line: I've already promised it to Lara first. Sorry! You can crane over her shoulder and tell her to hurry up lots. Alternatively I might just buy her her own copy for her birthday, she was very excited about it. When is her birthday, anyway?

Am saddened by your tweets re horrible weekend. What happened? *concerned*
Re: The borrowers
Lara's bday is in August, usually at the same time as DF, the 10th I think.

Eh, weekend was very very busy. Also ended with headache and fight with P about thesis that won't be finished this year. Sigh. It just won't die.
Re: The borrowers
Dear gods, what is it going to take to bury that thesis? Staked through the heart and buried at a crossroads with a contents page full of garlic? Because we can arrange that, you know. Simply say the word and we can put a team together.

I'm sorry to hear that it's lingering. I know how the wretched things take over your life and make doing anything else impossible. I was only able to finish my last one after my nice supervisor staged an intervention and forcibly reduced my teaching load, I have no idea how P even manages it with a full-time job. Also, they're notorious for wear and tear on significant others. Fortunately I never managed to coincide a significant other with a significant thesis write-up, which is in retrospect probably significant.