Various: ‘New Cthulhu, The Recent Weird’

WORK IN PROGRESS, CONTAINS SPOILERS

Here you will find reviews of all the stories contained in the 2011 collection ‘New Cthulhu; The Recent Weird’, edited by Paula Guran.
Spoilers throughout.
Various, (2011), ‘New Cthulhu; The Recent Weird’, ed. Guran, P., Canada, Prime Books

Jump to Review:
‘Pickman’s Other Model (1929)’, Caitlin R. Kiernan, (2008)
‘Fair Exchange’, Micheal Marshal Smith, (2005)
‘Mr Gaunt’, John Langan, (2002)
‘The Vicar of Rlyeh’, Marc Laidlaw, (2007)
‘The Crevasse’, Dale Bailey & Nathan Ballingrud, (2009)
‘Bad Sushi’, Cherie Priest, (2007)
‘Old Virginia’, Laird Barron, (2003)
‘The Dude who Collected Lovecraft’, Nick Mamatas & Tim Pratt, (2008)
‘The Oram County Whoosit’, Steve Duffy, (2008)
‘The Fungal Stain’, W.H. Pugmire, (2006)
‘A Study in Emerald’, Neil Gaiman, (2003)
‘Buried in Sky’, John Shirley, (2003)
‘Bringing Helena Back’, Sarah Monette, (2004)
‘Take Me to the River’, Paul McAuley, (2005)
‘The Essayist in the Wilderness’, William Browning Spencer, (2002)
‘The Disciple’, David Barr Kirtley, (2002)
‘Shoggoths in Bloom’, Elizabeth Bear, (2008)
‘Cold Water Survival’, Holly Philips, (2009)
‘The Great White Bed’, Don Webb, (2007)
‘Lesser Demons’, Norman Partridge, (2010)
‘Grinding Rock’, Cody Goodfellow, (2003)
‘Details’, China Mieville, (2002)
‘Another Fish Story’, Kim Newman, (2005)
‘Head Music’, Lon Prater, (2003)
‘Tsathoggua’, Micheal Shea, (2008)
‘Mongoose’, Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, (2009)
‘A Colder War’, Charlie Stross, (2002)

Pickman’s Other Model (1929): Caitlin R. Kiernan
Following directly on from one of H.P.L’s best known short stories, Pickmans Model, this story, sans framing narrative, essentially deals with a female movie star who modelled for Richard Pickman. Succesfully investing the original story with women and sex without damaging it in any way, Kiernan respectfully serves up a tale in which most of the horror is implied and merely in the mind, as the truth of what is described is rather tame but points on to much nastier depths. A little overwrought in places perhaps, but overall a fantastic updating of a classic tale.


Fair Exchange: Micheal Marshall Smith
A pair of petty criminals rob a house in London and come away with a haul of silver jewellery that hails from an American town with a name that sounds like Portsmouth. It sells very well, so one of them decides to go back for more.
The narrator feels like a proper low-life Londoner, not mean, just selfish, and the tone of the prose is very authentic. The story is subtle, almost secondary to the character study, and while not necessarily the creepiest thing I have read, it once again hints at what lurks in the dark. The street scene with the light is particularly well done.


Mr Gaunt: John Langan
Langan manages to weave a pretty demonstrative short weird tale into a domestic scene, making tips of the hat to Henry James and M.R. James, the stories own obvious forebears, along the way. A man’s father dies, leaving him a cassette upon which he narrates the story of his brother and nephew and their butler, the eponymous Mr Gaunt, and the terrible fashion in which the nephew dissapears. There is also a dire warning about the man’s own future if he has anything to do with his uncle and his sinister butler. A masterful story, weaving together the traditions of weird and realism to great effect. The story is very self-aware of its own literariness, but suffers from this not a jot. Fantastic.


The Vicar of R’lyeh: Marc Laidlaw
A programmer who writes horror computer games based on Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy novels is hired by a company to write a simulation of the rising of Rl’yeh. The company is responsible for the rising of Cthulhu by makinglots of people perform the correct rites under the guise of a tabletop RPG. This is perhaps the best conciet in the story. When it becomes obvious that the protagonists heart is not in the job, the company issues him with a crown thing which gives him a direct mental link to Cthulhu and allows him to finish the job. In doing so, his mind becomes interlinked with Cthulhu’s and he actually becomes Cthulhu by the end. This story reminded me of the plot of Alan Moore’s ‘Neonomicon’ where the protagonist becomes mother of Cthulhu, only without all the nasty tentacle sex, whilst the tone is the poor cousin of Charlie Stross’ Laundry novels with their Cthulhoid take on Dilbert.


‘The Crevasse: Dale Bailey & Nathan Ballingrud
A doctor haunted by memories of world war 1 and his dead wife travels across antartica on a rescue mission. Just as they reach the location of injured man, a crevasse opens in the snow into which one of the husky’s fall. The doctor goes down the crevasse to kill the injured dog, and discovers a cyclopean staircase. He is brought back to the surface, and as he does so see’s something drag the dead dog into the darkness. A relatively simple tale woven through with pathos, the howling empty wastes of Antartica, and the loneliness of death, both of the dead and those they leave behind. Subtle and evocative Faint echoes of ‘The Thing’, but much better.


Bad Sushi: Cheire Priest
A old Japanese chef works in a sushi restaurant in America. One day, after the owner changes suppliers, the smell of the fish changes. It reminds him of when he was attacked by a wierd octopus thing during a night-time seaborne retreat from an island during the war. More and more of this stuff turns up in the fish, and the patrons grow addicted, silent, and sinister. Eventually after being attacked by the patrons he goes in search of the source of the fish, and in a factory basement he finds his answer and his death.
Initally a very well crafted tale, with an extremely well drawn protagonist. The quality doesn’t drop, but the resolution demanded by the storyline leaves little room for the craft shown in the first half. Still, very good and a nice little riff on HPL’s hatred of seafood. Struggle’s a little with the ‘don’t show’ side of things, but bears up very nicely nonetheless.


Old Virginia: Laird Barron
A grizzled but ageing black-ops veteran of both Cuba and WW2 is sent to babysit a research project in the woods of Virginia. Things start going wrong that are reminiscent of sabotage, so he enquires further into the project. There are two scientists conducting observations on an old woman. Eventually, the old woman escapes, taking one of the scientists and all of the men apart from the protagonist. The scientist raves a bit, before the old woman comes back, riding on the back of a soldier that she controls via tentacles in the spine. She tells of a terror called ‘Mother’ who is older than mankind, who has given her preternatural longevity and will return the world to darkness. She then takes the veteran.
Tense, well written, and very nicely paced. This keeps the interest and the readers attention beautifully, whilst growing towards a creeping horror that is only marginally represented by the vile old woman.


The Dude who Collected Lovecraft: Nick Mamatas & Tim Pratt
A black man (it’s relevant…) whose grandfather corresponded with Lovecraft goes into a shack in the woods to sell the HPL memorabelia to a creepy old guy. He is consequently drugged, and his blood is used as a conduit for the creepy old guy to travel back in time and take posession of the correspondants body, thereby to meet with Lovecraft and take control of his body. Unfortunately the man wakes up early, follows him back, and in doing so allows the ‘thing’ to emerge. Snap back to present, legs it with the money.
An entertaining tale, if a little reliant on both hokey horror tropes and references to HPL’s stories for plot points. Also a bit distressingly literal in it’s portrayal of the big nasty. Entertaining, but not up to the mettle of some of the other pieces presented here.


The Oram County Whoosit: Steve Duffy
1920’s midwest America, a mining town in Oram County. One of the miners finds a weird fossil inside a piece of coal, and a pohotgrapher and a newspaperman are sent to investigate. After seeing the imprint of the thing in the coal, the newspaperman tells a tale of a similar thing found in Canada when he was there during the Klondike goldrush. A nasty, flying, unkillable thing that liked to take heads.
Turns out this thing is the same. Both get away, and photographer tells tale years later of being haunted by it. Newspaper man follows the quest around the globe until he gets got.
Pretty straightforward tale, once again with notes of horror in a frozen landscape. The Klondike tale takes up most of the horror, with the Oram County bit merely providing a framing narrative and repeating various details of the main relatively simple story. Full of colour, though, and well written if not overly strong on craft.


The Fungal Stain: W.H. Pugmire
A Bohemian poet meets a mysterious woman in a bookstore. They share a love for wierd poetry. The town they are in is covered by a thick blanket of fog. Over the course of a few days, he realises she is some kind of wierdy vampire creature.
The story is basically a monster study, a wierd fungal vampire who brings fog and has been conjured by the poets reading aloud of certain weird fiction. Pretty much a dull tale, but with a few colourful touches. The foggy atmosphere extends to the prose itself and is a nice touch, but nevertheless is pretty average.


A Study in Emerald: Neil Gaiman
An entertaining little alternative fictive history piece following a certain baker street detective in a case about the murder of one of the royal family, who is distinctly Cthulhoid. Turns out that the detective we are following is not Holmes but someone else, and Holmes and Watson are the killers all along. A nice little twist at the end. It is obvious from about halfway that we are not following Holmes, but the twist is, if not a complete surprise, still an unexpected way to tie up the story.


Buried in Sky: John Shirley
A family who have recently lost their mother to an apparent murder move to LA, to a massive newly opened skyscraper. The middle child of 3, the irritatingly spelled Deede, hooks up with a ‘skate rat’ named Jorny to discover that the skyscrapers deep foundations plunged into a temple to Yog Sothoth, who has taken over the building and all the people in it except them. The interdimensionality of Yog-Sothoth is well presented, until the kids flip over into an alternative universe to discover what the planet is like under Yoog-Sothoth’s rule. Turns out it’s like a hellish Blade Runner. The kids beat the Yog by using a bust ipod and a ‘boombox’, and eventually Deede gets to kill the guy who killed her mum. An enjoyable enough story. A bit creepy in places. Let down by trying to be too hip and namedropping bands and tech. Things which will date it horribly. Also suffers from ‘youth speak’ as seen by a grown-up who is stuck in the 80’s. The kids are all popping chewing gum and ‘yo’. Most irritating.


Bringing Helena Back: Sarah Monette
A relatively straightforward tale about a rich dilettante who loses his wife to a cocaine overdose in the arms of another man. In his grief, he become obsessed with occultism, and finds a small book which shows how to perform a ritual to bring her back. Together with an old college friend, he performs the ritual.
Monette’s prose brings style and verve to a relatively straighforwards tale about summoning rituals and the dangers of crossing the circle. The only thing genuinely lovecraftian about this tale is the name dropping of books and ciphers, but it is done without the amateurish shoehorning of so many other lovecraft imitators. Simple, but effective.


Take Me to the River: Paul McAuley
Set in Bath in the 1970’s, a woman starts handing out free drugs to people, which when taken make them turn up at the bridge over the river Avon at night and throw themselves into the tidal bay in which a cthulhoid creature has been trapped by the drought. An interesting enough little mythos story, but its real charm lies in the character studies of the protagonist and his drug addled friend Dr Johnson. McAuley captures the tenor not just of the time, but of the fringe lifestyle of the minor drug user extremely well.


Essayist in the Wilderness: William Browning Spencer
An english professor and his wife of the same profession move to a new town to pursue their writing interests. She takes to tending a garden and writing a joycean misery memoir, and he decides to become an essayist of the Hazlitt mould with nature as his inspiration. He comes across a nest of crustaceans which he thinks are crayfish in the woods, and observes their weird behaviour. Meanwhile, his wife goes potty and runs away. He goes to see the crayfish in the middle of the night and realises that they are sentient and there is some huge creature blocking the moon. He legs it, finds out his wife’s garden is all eyeballs on stalks, and cowers in his room going mad whilst the giant thing thumps about the attic on its way to eat him.
Again, a pretty standard ‘it’s now upstairs, it’s coming…’ type of story, featuring some small versions of lovecrafty crabs out of space, and of course the cameo from the eyeballs on stalks. Well written with a good knowledge of literature on display, even if the protagonist is a bit of a dick.


The Disciple: David Barr Kirtley
A university student studies the dark art of binding his will to that of another under the tutelage of a mysterious professor. It all leads up to an end of term exam which entails the student binding his will to that of the ‘Traveler on Oceans of Night’, a cthulhoid god who takes clouds of humans wherever he goes as if they were gnats. The student realises his folly and refuses to bind himself, and eventually takes over the professors role.
Quite an original story, with a nice section about how someone with a knowledge of humanity’s place in the mythos can live happily.


Shoggoths in Bloom: Elizabeth Bear
Set in the mid-late 1930’s, a professor investigates the breeding habits of Shoggoths off of the coast of Maine. The Shoggoths bloom, rather like plants, and he collects one of their spore. With this he discovers that Shoggoths can be ‘ridden’ and are completely controllable, as well as effectively immortal. He destroys this knowledge before he allows the Shoggoths to become enslaved by humanity, however.
This is perhaps the most accomplished and nuanced tale in this collection so far. The story itself is wildly creative, well beyond the other template efforts on display. What really pulls it into the stratosphere, however, is the characterization. The professor is black, grandson of a slave and one of the first black professors in the US. He is also a veteran of the first world war, as is the white fisherman who takes him to the island of the shoggoths. The period is essential, as there is historical colour regarding the Germans starting to round up the jews. The professors quandary then, is between using the Shoggoths as a weapon to prevent war, or to hiding the knowledge to prevent a whole race entering slavery, albeit however willingly.
Brilliant.


Cold Water Survival: Holly Philips
A group of 5 survivalist adventurers spend some time on a giant, frre-floating iceberg named ‘atlantis’ for no readibly discernable reason. They are in trouble almost immediately when one of their number dies from a climbing accident, but they decided to continue. A series of increasing odd sightings culminate in one member of the party going missing. Whilst going out to find him, they are caught in a snowstorm, in which the iceberg breaks up and becomes a cthulhoid sort of city populated by half seen creatures of air.
This is a pretty stock story, no real shocks or innovations. A little difficult to follow because of the lack of any real characterisation or motivation, and the annoying modernist-lite telegraphese that it occasionally lapses into.


The Great White Bed: Don Webb
A young boy in America looks after his senile Grandpa during one summer. His Grandfather finds a book from somewhere, and starts reading it. It says that it reads him, too. Whilst reading the book he becomes better, but son takes a turn for the worse.
The title refers to the king size bed that the boy sleeps and dreams in. His dreams are that he is being ‘read’ by a great ‘whatever’. One night, he sleeps, and dreams that his legs are being sliced up by tiny knives. He wakes up missing his legs. Everyone goes into care. Eventually it turns out that the legs of his dead Grandma appeared in his Grandpa’s room the night that his own legs dissapeared.
Interesting story with good characterisation. I like that the horrible bit is never really explained. Was the Grandma coming back to life? What did it have to do with the boy? Was he a sacrifice? We don’t know (and are better off for not knowing).


Lesser Demons: Norman Partridge
Set in small town America, a sherrif is the only survivor of a zombie / monster incursion / plague, and spends his time going around killing nasties with his shotgun. Great fun, and some pretty cool gribblies, but overall a standard story with nothing much to make it stand out from a low budget computer game plotline. Nice prose, though.


Grinding Rock: Cody Goodfellow
A firefighter in California fighting a brush fire gets cut off from his team. In the depths of the flame, he witnesses a rite in which an old man allows a young, newly married couple to be ‘taken’ by an oily amorphous blob from deep within the Earth, apparently to prevent a massive earthquake from swallowing the land. The old man says that this has to happen every twenty years to keep the land safe from the things that would destroy it. The firefighter survives the fire and has flash forwards to what will happen if he does not perform the ritual one day.
Pretty straightforward, nice idea, but devoid of any real horror or novelty.


Details: China Mieville
Every morning a young boy takes some food to an old woman who lives in a house opposite him. He never see’s her, she just snatches the food before slamming the door. Eventually she tells him her story in a cryptic fashion. She had learnt to see patterns in everything, using details to view beyond the mundane. There she saw something vast and old and hungry, and it used her eyes as a doorway into this world to come and get her. The only way she could escape was either to put out her eyes, or to paint everything flat white and not see anything in which patterns or details could be made out. A variety of other people hang around her door trying to get her to open it. Eventually one of them uses the boy to force entry, and he no longer has to run the errand every day.
A fantastic take on things that lie behind the ordinary from Mieville, and a very original riff on the idea of things living in the ‘angles’ of space. Excellent.


Another Fish Story: Kim Newman
Kept getting distracted from this one. It’s a story about a devil (the devil, perhaps) who runs into Charlie Manson and his family deep in the desert. Manson is harbouring a fish woman from whom he is getting his quasi-imaginary revelations from. The devil (named Leech) leads Manson deep inside a mountain above LA where he finds a sea under the desert. Carved into the rock is confirmation that Manson’s dreams are true, and that he could crack the mountain and smother the world with a deluge, returning it to the fish-people. However, the devil is not finished with humanity, and trades Manson his life for a promise that he will not drown the world, which Manson accepts.
A typically Newmanian tale, rooted in history and popular culture, but with a lovecraftian twist. Good stuff, if a little slow to get started.


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