World War Cthulhu: A Collection of Lovecraftian War Stories
Brian M. Sammons & Glynn Owen Barrass (ed.)
Dark Regions Press
It’s been a few years now, but I still remember how excited I was by Dark Region Press’ announcement that they were going to run an IndieGoGo campaign to fund an anthology entitled World War Cthulhu: A Collection of Lovecraftian War Stories. As a reader who had only recently encountered the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the wider Mythos genre, as well as alternate history/counter-factual history, and who had been raised on a diet of war stories and old comic strips like Commando, War Stories and Air Aces, this anthology seemed custom-made for me. The deal was only sweetened by the fact that some of my favourite mythos authors would be featured in the anthology – William Meikle, Joshua Reynolds, Edward M. Erdelac and Pete Rawlik. I joined the campaign as soon as I could, and opted to go for one of the higher backer levels – I ended up getting the eBook, two trade paperbacks, and also a limited edition hardback, as well as assorted add-ons like some bookmarks, several signed prints, and two t-shirts featuring interior art from the anthology. The products were all delivered on time and exactly as requested, and I still have all three books on my bookshelf at home – they are incredibly high-quality products that I have read over and over again; and the limited edition hardcover is especially gorgeous, with a lavishly decorated signature sheet at the front that I am determined to get fully signed by all of the contributors before too long.
Before I move onto the actual content of the anthology, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the absolutely amazing cover and interior art that has been lavished upon this collection. The cover art, by Vincent Chong, is one of the most content-appropriate pieces I’ve ever seen as a reader and now reviewer: a visibly enraged Cthulhu rising from the ocean, effortlessly crushing the remnants of a Nazi aircraft and a U-boat in two tentacles, while the rest of its torso is covered in spears, pikes and other ancient human weapons that have obviously done nothing. On the shore, a solitary soldier opens fire on the Elder God in an utterly futile attempt to vanquish it. In one piece of art, the artist has deftly portrayed the primary theme of the anthology – humanity desperately fighting against Lovecraftian reality despite the utter futility of its actions. The interior art, one full-page illustration per story, is provided by M Wayne Miller; this was my first introduction to the works of Mr Miller, and it was enough to make him, by far, my favourite cover/interior artist I have ever seen. I absolutely love his style, and it perfectly complements the content of the anthology; while unfortunately I don’t know enough about art styles to comment on what his art style is specifically, all I know is that he absolutely nails the theme of each individual story, to the extent that I now have several of these prints on my study wall, and hope to collect more. Finding out that a title, regardless of the author, has art by Mr Miller is an automatic purchase for me – his work is just that good.
So the production values are excellent, the art work is superb – but what about the stories themselves? Superb, in a word. There’s a reason I keep re-reading the anthology, and it isn’t just for the interior art – every story is a great piece of war fiction, taking on the subtitle – A Collection of Lovecraftian War Stories – from almost every conceivable direction. If I had enough time, I would try and dedicate a section of this review to each and every story within the anthology, but unfortunately I can only try and highlight my personal favourites. The Game Changers by Stephen Mark Rainey is a taut, claustrophobic tale set in the midst of the Vietnam War, as an isolated squad of GIs stumble across the wreckage of a B-52 bomber and the glowing cargo it was carrying. As members of the squad are picked off by unseen enemies, one young soldier realises exactly what the cargo is, and why it was being carried by an American bomber, only to suffer the consequences years later. The Boonieman is another Vietnam tale, this time by Edward M. Erdelac that sometimes has shades of Apocalypse Now crossed with Lovecraft as American soldiers yet again come across a Lovecraftian horror, this time having to pay the ultimate price to try and keep it contained. There are some fantastic action scenes in this short story, and I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the South Vietnamese, who are so often written out of the history of that conflict.
The Turtle by Neil Baker is definitely one of my favourite tales in the entire collection, and it is accompanied by a particularly evocative piece of interior art by M Wayne Miller. Set in an alternate history of the American Revolutionary War where the Deep Ones of the infamous Innsmouth have suddenly decided to reveal themselves, turning the conflict into a three-way war, this is a tense tale of seaborne sabotage. Although the primary plot, of an attack on a Royal Navy vessel, is well-written and fast-paced, the background details that Baker teases the reader with just cry out for expansion – either in other short stories or in an entire novel; I for one would certainly purchase any book by Mr Baker that featured Redcoats and Revolutionaries fighting the forces of Innsmouth across the Thirteen Colonies. Vying for most-favoured status is Broadsword by William Meikle, which comes across as something like a feverish reimagination of Where Eagles Dare, except that the Allied commando unit infiltrating the remote , mountainous German facility suddenly find themselves face to face with a superweapon operated by beings from another dimension. Any story that features Winston Churchill angrily berating a Mi-Go is always going to be good, and Mr Meikle doesn’t disappoint. The Yoth Protocols by Joshua Reynolds is another first-rate story, featuring one of Mr Reynolds recurring creations – the inhuman Indrid Cold, theoretically an agent of the American government, but a creature with its own alien agenda. The author posits the deeply intriguing notion of an Eldritch Cold War between separate Lovecraftian factions, deep under the surface of the Earth, and what the consequences for humanity might be if such a conflict were to suddenly turn Hot due to outside interference. It’s an enjoyable, assured piece of writing, and an interesting take on the Cold War.
Towards the latter half of the collection, Lee Clarke Zumpe’s A Feast of Death takes place in a theatre of war long neglected in popular memory – the Middle East in the First World War, and specifically the conflict between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Set in and around a prisoner of war camp that has a horrific death rate, the author has written a slow-paced, chilling and even harrowing tale of an attempt by the Central Powers to unearth something that might win the war for them – but is far more likely to destroy everything on the planet. Mysterious Ways by the late C.J. Henderson is a short but intense tale of a man faced with making choices that inevitably lead to death – not his death, but those of others across the centuries of human existence – and sent shivers down my spine by the end of the story. And Cold War, Yellow Fever by Pete Rawlik introduces the King in Yellow to the Cold War, and is a great Deighton-esque spy thriller that looks at the immense cost of trying to keep Carcosa from entering the fray, painting everything in shades of grey (and yellow).
There are a total of 22 short stories in World War Cthulhu, making it one of the largest anthologies I’ve ever seen outside of annual genre collections; and this, combined with the extremely high-quality of the stories inside it, and the fantastic quality of the artwork (do try and get a copy that has them in colour for full effect) makes this a Must Have on the bookshelf of any Lovecraftian Mythos fan. It also marks yet another highly successful collaboration by the book’s editors, Brian M. Sammons and Glynn Owen Barrass, who have also collaborated on editing a number of other Mythos titles; they certainly seem to have a knack for curating the best stories for a themed anthology, and the credit should go to them as much as the writers, illustrators and publishers. By now, seeing their names on an anthology guarantees that I’m not going to regret my purchase at all, regardless of genre.