Reviewed by Allen Stroud
Stoneskin Press’ collection of short stories taking quotes from Lovecraft’s essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is as inspiration makes for an interesting diversity, particularly with the wide selection of authors writing for the anthology. We have luminaries such as Jeffrey Ford alongside newcomers such as David Yale Ardanuy and so track an array of experience as well as approach, stimulus and execution.
There are some prevalent themes; the lingering images and intentional intangibility of Lovecraft features widely, but there are other stories that look to explore his racism, his Cthulhu mythos and more. As you explore the collection, it is clear a lot of thought has gone into the placement of each story and how it relates to the others.
The more clearcut ‘letters’ blend Lovecraft’s tricks with their own to build works that infer a fathomless depth to the life of the world and beyond. This is I think, Lovecraft’s intended legacy and makes for a thick, but flowing narrative, painting pictures with words as Turner might with his brush. The Lovecraft story slides away from direct confrontation or demonstrates the powerlessness of our perspective character so as to shift our focus towards the build sense of dread and the awful stillness of ancient horrors that inhabit our everyday lives, only becoming horrific when we consider them.
‘Past Reno’ by Brian Evenson is the first story of the collection and mixes personal character scars with a wider impression of the ritualised rules of our world. Through Bernt, we get an idea that the world functions on a clear set of guidelines, but Bernt’s ignorance of them, the assumption of others that he knows them, and ultimately his rejection of them, leaves us with the idea that they exist. Evenson replicates Lovecraft’s trick of reversing humanity’s quest for knowledge. Instead of journeying to find understanding, a glimpse of understanding is so strange and beyond what we expect that we are terrified by it and flee. This leaves the reader with the glimpse, not with the character or to some extent, the plot.
‘Only Unity Saves the Damned’ by Nadia Bulkin is a more visceral update of Lovecraft’s ideas, mixing a modern political and cultural comment into the expression of the ancient. The Blair Witch project influence can be seen on the story, as can many tragic real circumstances, like those surrounding the Slender Man stabbing involving Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. In this sense, the story feels more dangerous. By placing it second, there is some building up to it. If it had been first, other tales might have been disappointing in their message by comparison.
The stories that use Lovecraft’s mythos and style to make a hybrid work are of significant interest and it is here that the collection transcends the pastiche. ‘Allochthon’ by Livia Llewellyn blends macro and microplot, using the signifiers of mental depression to create a truncated narrative that depicts a surreal world of perception. In this, we have the internal and external explanations as expressed by Donaldson and we never know whether Ruth’s end is driven by a glimpse of the true nature of the world, by her own personal trauma or both.
Revealed personal tragedy has deep and meaningful consequence when set against a Lovecraft world witness. ‘Doc’s Story’ by Stephen Graham Jones also explores the theme of unreliable memory and revealing long hidden truth.
As with many collections, there are ebbs and flows. Playful horror and lack of clarity in the depicted presence of the ancient can make the execution of the weird tale less of a lingering memory, although as much of horror relies on communicating the personal experience, success or failure depends a great deal on the reader’s connection (through the story) with the writer’s intention. ‘Glimmer in the Darkness’ by Asamatsu Ken re-casts Lovecraft as an impressionable scribe influenced by a mysterious visitor out of time. This seems familiar ground from other writing and cuts against the prevailing themes of the work.
‘The Order of the Haunted Wood’ by Jeffrey Ford does continue the revisionist theme, but veers away from the personal and back towards the mythos, bringing into question our modern perception of fertility and chemical intervention. ‘That Place’ by Gemma Files blends the Lovecraft depiction of the unknowable and undefinable with C.S. Lewis’ artifice of children travelling through a portal to another world, only in this instance, the lesson on the other side is the opposite of Christian allegory, although there is a moral, more akin to ‘look before you leap’. A similar lesson can be found in ‘One Last Meal Before the End’ by David Yale Ardanuy and both are probably the most direct horror tales in the collection, looking to scare and shock based on the direct situational peril the perspective characters are placed in. This is less Lovecraft, but more akin to modern populist horror, albeit with less twist and more inevitability.
‘The Trees’ by Robin D. Laws reads as a myth. Interesting in its cyclical premise and in the way it relates to other writers. Laws cites William Hope Hodgson’s work in his introduction, but I would also mention Richard Wilson’s ‘The Watchers in the Glade’ for the similar exploration of sentience, consequence and humanity.
‘Horror at the Castle of the Cumberland’ by Chesya Burke draws from Lovecraft’s unintended legacy, focusing on prejudice and working this into the trappings of ritual. The tale is somewhat truncated in the middle, but highlights the flawed nature of one of horror’s most celebrated contributors, exhibiting both his vision and the limitations of his class, upbringing and world view. This witnessing highlights the complicity of inaction and sets the ideas of conformity into a dual is perhaps the more important lesson of the entire collection and whilst the story feels flawed in structure, the message transcends the purpose of the anthology.
Reading ‘Letters’ is a good exercise in identifying and understanding the influence of H. P. Lovecraft on modern horror and in looking at a collection of stories you can see the techniques he pioneered. It is also a good demonstration of how much a writer can still learn from the 1925 essay, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’. It also highlights how Lovecraft’s legacy needs to be taken as a whole; both his personal prejudice and ability to project depth; allowing us to glimpse a universe we cannot truly comprehend and through the stories, learn to fear.