For a long time I've been interested in the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, creator of such entities as Cthulhu, the Deep Ones, etc. In high school I read collections of his work at the library and even purchased the film Dagon, an adaptation of his story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." In college I wrote "The Beast of the Bosporus," a Lovecraft tale set in the Ottoman Empire that is now in the capable hands of Digital Fiction Publishing.
So when my friend James R. Tuck brought a Lovecraftian tale of his own to our writing group, I was quite interested. It came out last year (under a pseudonym) and although real life has kept me busy, I finished it earlier this week. Now it's time for the review...
Charlotte "Charlie" Moore is on the way back from visiting her friend and possible love interest Daniel Langford--a visit that took an unpleasant turn when some old traumas surfaced--when she's set upon by a trio of skinless, homicidal hounds. She in turn is rescued by none other than the sinister Nylarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, an evil god-like being who seeks to recruit her for his war against his kindred gods. He claims that he's protecting humankind from an eventual invasion of our world and to ensure Charlie cooperates, he enthralls Daniel too.
So in a supernatural version of the film Collateral (in which hit man Tom Cruise forces Jamie Foxx to accompany him on jobs), Charlie assists Nylarlathotep in his mission, but soon finds out that he's even more malign than he seems.
*The book grabs the reader from the very beginning and doesn't let go. Charlie meets the skinhounds within a few pages. It's very, VERY good at getting the reader's attention and keeping it.
*The book has some incredibly vivid descriptions. An elder goddess appears as a crack whore in a rather disgusting scene, while another deity manifests through the cancers of dozens of hospital patients. Of particular awesomeness is how the descriptions of Nylarlathotep capture the Uncanny Valley effect. In his human form he's obviously, well, human but there's a hole lot about him that's just off--his teeth, his tongue, his facial structure. It's very well-done.
That is easily one of the best things about the book and reason enough to get it. Seriously, I had full-blown sleep-paralysis nightmares one night after reading a few chapters in the book. That hasn't happened to me in years.
*On the matter of Nylarlathotep himself, he's always been one of the most...human...of the Eldritch Abominations and it shows here. Rarely do Horrors From Beyond get really witty lines. As James said in an interview, the Man in Black was fun to write.
*The book moves along very quickly. It took me a long time to read it after I bought it because of real-life obligations, but once I buckled down to finish it, it took me only a few nights. If it were an e-book I could read on my phone or on a tablet at the gym, I would have probably finished it even faster.
*The book tells a complete story (Charlie's arc from a victim to a victor and dealing with the past trauma), but sets up a sequel and in fact a whole universe in which many stories can be told. Nothing is left hanging, but it's clear we have more adventures coming. I look forward to reading them.
*The novel meshes Lovecraft's philosophy of a naturalistic universe indifferent to the fates of both men and gods and a Judeo-Christian worldview in a potentially quite interesting way. Nylarlathotep, in a lengthy discussion about how he admires humanity, describes how at one point mankind was reduced to eight people in an ark of wood built by a drunk who had never seen the ocean. For those of us less than knowledgeable about the Bible, that's the story of Noah.
Part of Lovecraft's overall philosophy was that the universe was fundamentally indifferent to humanity, and the horrors beyond could wipe us out without affecting overall reality one whit. Even in the times where human triumphed over the eldritch abominations, it was because the universe was just as indifferent to the Great Old Ones as it is to mankind. The Judeo-Christian worldview holds that the universe has a Creator who cares about what happens and that justice will ultimately prevail. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of history bent toward justice, something that isn't possible in a purely naturalistic, indifferent universe. It could be explored further, but this is, after all, the first book in a series.
*The cover art is really well-done. Seriously. Charlie is well-captured, while Nylarlathotep is represented stylistically to avoid spoiling just how cool he's depicted. James describes how the cover art came together here.
*Charlie's back-story involves rape and the novel touches on issues dealing with rape, the difficulties prosecuting it, etc., but the book never gets preachy, becomes "a very special episode," etc. It's another part of Charlie's character, and a very big part, but it doesn't engulf the entire storyline.
This next part deals with the topic of rape and might upset people. If that's something that will cause you stress, you might want to skip the next couple paragraphs.
*The wicked men who raped Charlie never got justice for it, something that is, unfortunately, quite common. I cannot fault the book for highlighting a grave problem with our society. However, one reason most rapes go unreported, let alone un-prosecuted, is that most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, not strangers lurking in alleys. And most rapes don't result in injuries to the victim (beyond, well, the obvious), which discourages prosecution. After all, a huge percentage of them involve the victim impaired by alcohol, not threatened into submission or physically battered. Our legal system is supposed to prevent innocent people from being prosecuted (see this quote from Benjamin Franklin about better a hundred guilty men go free rather than one innocent be condemned), but that has unfortunate side effects.
Charlie's attack put her in the hospital with internal and external injuries, including a broken jaw. It apparently did go to trial (something that doesn't always happen), but the perpetrators were found not guilty based on their lawyers' highlighting how Charlie had drunk alcohol (not much), worn a skirt (a long one), and didn't say "no" (even though she did say "stop"). See this article here (it's long) about how unpleasant defense attorneys for accused rapists can get. However, between the extreme violence of the attack and no indication of any factor like Charlie having dated one of them in the past or her even knowing them, the perpetrators getting away with it as easily as skeevy frat boys who get naive freshmen drunk at parties doesn't seem believable. Ariel Castro, Phillip Garrido, Brian David Mitchell, the Carr brothers, and this band of scumbags from Knoxville got nailed to the wall, and this article here states that it's easier to prosecute a stranger attack (like those I just listed) than a date rape.
If I were writing it I would have toned down the violence (making it purely a case of Charlie being incapacitated by drugs or alcohol) so a good lawyer could spin it as a drunken hookup and not an assault, or something that was initially consensual and quickly went awry (like this case here, in which no charges were filed despite an account so damning that the players dropped their defense of their teammates upon reading it). Or, if making the attack as violent as it was was necessary for the story (someone isn't going to spend years taking martial-arts classes to avoid being roofied), I would have made it so Charlie was bullied into not pressing charges by powerful friends of the perpetrators (football coaches, school officials, the town sheriff) like how Kobe Bryant's accuser refused to testify after being harassed by his fans. Or, to keep the fact that it did go to trial in the plot, make it take place in some football-loving small town where the chance of beloved athletes getting convicted is essentially nil.
*Related to the above issue, when the perpetrators have a very final and well-deserved meeting with Nylarlathotep, none other than the FBI (which would probably have not gotten involved with a local criminal matter in the first place) contacts Charlie the next day, assuming she had something to do with it. Given how the perpetrators had all gone their separate ways (with one living in another city and another being so marginalized to the point nobody would notice him), they'd have to be reported missing, someone would need to make the connection between them, etc. It would probably be days if not weeks before the police investigated Charlie, not the next day.
Something That Has Potential
*Black's incorporation of Judeo-Christian religious themes could have been explored further. Is the God of Abraham a Lovecraftian being of some sort? He could be one that genuinely cares about humanity or, like the Ally in F. Paul Wilson's Adversary Cycle (which "collects" worlds rather than consuming them) or August Derleth's Elder Gods (who simply oppose the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones), an entity that isn't a friend of humanity per se but is still beneficial. Exploring how one might mesh a personal god with the notion of a universe indifferent to the ultimate fates of men, other sentient beings like the Mi-Go or Deep Ones, and even gods themselves could be interesting. Since this is the first book in a series and not a stand-alone, there's plenty of room to go deeper later.
*Per my concern about the FBI coming into Charlie's life so quickly, could there be some kind of anti-occult agency in the Bureau? The Deacon Chalk series that James wrote under his real name depicts an FBI agent involved in investigating supernatural episodes, after all. If Nylarlathotep seeks someone related by blood to H.P. Lovecraft for his shenanigans, perhaps ALL of his relatives are being watched just in case.
Go read it, especially if you like Lovecraft. 9.0 out of 10.
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