Shakespeare Vs Cthulhu
Edited by Jonathan Green
After devouring my first anthology from Snowbooks, the epic Sharkpunk, I was thrilled to see the announcement from editor Jonathan Green that another anthology was being assembled, featuring many of the same contributors from Sharkpunk. In January of this year, I duly backed the Kickstarter for Shakespeare Vs Cthulhu. Billed with the strapline of ‘An anthologie of fine stories inspir’d by the Bard of Stratford and the Lovecraftian Mythos’, it posited the intriguing idea of what might have resulted if William Shakespeare, rather than H.P. Lovecraft, had been the one to encounter the Elder Gods, and discover that the reality we know is merely the thinnest of membranes between humanity and the roiling, frothing insanity of Cthulhu and its minions. I absolutely loved the idea, and backed the Kickstarter at the Hamlet level to receive a Kickstarter-exclusive hardback of the anthology.
Fast-forward to late November, and the postman dropped off a sturdy parcel which contained my hardback of Shakespeare Vs Cthulhu. I’ve always been wary of Kickstarters, due to the significant element of uncertainty involved with them; projects overrun, funds disappear, and very often backers either get less than they backed for, or nothing at all. However, I trusted Mr Green to run a good Kickstarter; while I hadn’t backed any of them, I knew that he had run several other campaigns that had completely fulfilled their promises and delivered the promised books. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed in the product that came through my door. It’s obvious that this is a very well-made book, and has had some thought put into it: there’s a nice heft to it, the spine and cover are obviously good material, and the pages are decent quality, not the really thin stuff you sometimes get from Kickstarters or self-published books.
The cover image and text layout, front and back, look suitably Shakespearian, and the theme continues seamlessly inside the book. It has been laid out to mimic one of the Bard’s plays, with a Table of Contents split into Acts, as well as a Prologue, Epilogue and even, cleverly, a Curtain Call with a final tale. The books art is fantastic and of a consistently high-quality, from the monochrome illustrations by the likes of Neil Roberts (known for his fantastic Horus Heresy covers), to the borders and interior art that furthers the theme of a playbook. As a Kickstarter backer, the exclusive hardcover also has a two-page spread of facsimile signatures from all of the authors in the anthology, which fits in well with the overall style. Overall, I’m a very happy backer and feel the Kickstarter has fully delivered on what it promised – not always something that can be guaranteed, even with publishing projects which are usually fairly low-risk.
And so to the content of the book itself – 17 stories from a whole host of writers, including many who contributed to Sharkpunk, taking some element of Shakespeare’s writing, or more generally what is known about his life, and fuse it together with the well-known Lovecraftian universe to use as the inspiration for each of their tales. I think it’s important to bear in mind that the purpose of the anthology, and certainly the way it was pitched in the Kickstarter, was not to create a series of pastiches based on existing Shakespeare plays, in the vein of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: “Is this a Shoggoth which I see before me?” or Exit, pursued by Cthulhu etc., as some reviews I’ve seen of this anthology seem to imply. Rather, it was clear from the start that its purpose was, to directly quote the Kickstarter, ‘An anthology of short stories based on Shakespeare’s works, and world, but with a dark Lovecraftian twist’ – and this is exactly what was delivered. With that important point born in mind, then, it becomes clear that this is another anthology on par with Sharkpunk (even if my own sympathies will always be with Jaws rather than Macbeth) in terms of collecting together some quality stories. There’s an impressive range of talent on display, and a wide range of material being drawn on – not just 17 versions of Othello and Romeo and Juliet. We get to see tales ranging from the truth behind the tale told by Horatio to Fortinbras in the aftermath of Hamlet; how Prospero came to learn the sorcery used in The Tempest; and the truth behind the ‘miraculous’ victory of the English at Agincourt.
As with Sharkpunk, there are a few tales that manage to stand out even amongst the general high quality of the anthology. The ‘Ia’s of March by Andrew Lane takes Julius Caesar as its reference point, and is set at the point that Caesar is set to take the crown and be appointed as Roman Emperor. The tale slowly unravels the reasons behind Caesar taking the crown, and the dark conspiracy at the centre of his motivations. Lane is an excellent writer, and makes great use of the multitude of gods worshipped by the Romans to show how the Eldar Gods have infiltrated Roman society. While the ending of the story doesn’t bode well for anyone in its universe, I would love to see more stories set in it – and in particular, the consequences for the protagonist Publius Longus, a minor member of the conspirators planning to assassinate Caesar.
Another great tale is Joshua Reynold’s A Tiger’s Heart, A Player’s Hide. As with his entry in Sharkpunk this is another in his on-going Royal Occultist series; however, rather than once again being set in the 1920s, Reynolds transposes the action to Elizabethan times, and the protagonist is John Dee – astrologist, mathematician, close advisor to Elizabeth I, and in this universe also the original Royal Occultist. The tale really benefits from the different time period and new characters, bringing a fresh perspective to the RO universe in the form of the weary Dee and his apprentice, who are forced to investigate a sinister new play that seems to be resulting in death, destruction and the potential for the end of reality as we know it. The writing is Reynolds at the top of his game, in my opinion, with fantastic action sequences and great characterisation – particularly the sufferers of a mysterious ailment known as the Chattering Plague, an inventive take on the contemporaneous Dancing Plague that occurred in Strasbourg.
However, by far the best entry is Exeunt by John Reppion, which frankly rises above even the high quality of the rest of the stories in this anthology. Taking inspiration from the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, it posits that in the depths of his grief over the boy’s death, the Bard secretly wrote the ultimate tragedy – a play entitled Hamnet, which revealed the cold, uncaring realities of the universe – but which he was never able to finish until goaded into it late in life by John Fletcher, a fellow playwright. Several months after his meeting with Fletcher, Shakespeare summons Fletcher to discuss the play; so unsettled by what he had read of Hamnet, Fletcher vows never to meet Shakespeare again, but instead despatches two other contemporaries to meet with him instead. The tale then follows the two protagonists as they discover Shakespeare’s fate, and the realities he uncovered in the process of writing Hamnet. This is a genuinely disturbing piece of writing, in the best possible way, and to me evokes the finest of Lovecraft’s storytelling, such as Pickman’s Model and The Thing On The Doorstep, effortlessly creating a tale that I think surely Lovecraft would have written if he had been a contemporary of Shakespeare. I can only hope that Mr Reppion produces more in this vein – an entire anthology like this would surely be some kind of award-winner.
In conclusion, this is another winning anthology from Snowbooks as publisher and Jonathan Green as editor, elevated even further by the inclusion of the incredible Exeunt by John Reppion.