Return of the Old Ones: Apocalyptic Lovecraftian Horror
Dark Regions Press
Brian M. Sammons (ed.)
When I planned my month-long review of books by author William Meikle, which I decided to dub #MeikleMarch, I knew that I would not only be reading and reviewing various novels and novellas, but also a number of anthologies that Mr Meikle has had stories collected in over the years. I always enjoy reading and reviewing anthologies because of the huge amount of variety that you get within such collections, particularly if it is well-edited; a good anthology will have an over-arching and tightly-focused theme (or occasionally themes) and provide stories that have an array of different writing styles, viewpoints and takes that come together to provide an ultimately enjoyable experience for the reader. There are occasions where I have read an anthology where it feels like that has been forgotten, or been lost in the editing process – the theme itself overwhelms the stories, or takes them over, so that it becomes a chore or a slog to actually finish reading it. However I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in the reading that has so far taken me through #MeikleMarch – all of the anthologies that have contained a story by William Meikle have all been thoroughly enjoyable to read, and often rank as some of the best I’ve ever come across regardless of genre. Mr Meikle obviously has a deft eye for a good anthology; and I also believe it isn’t a coincidence that the majority of them have been edited in some way by Brian M. Sammons – either alongside Glynn Owen Barrass, or by himself. For this latest review, the latter is the case – Return of the Old Ones: Apocalyptic Lovecraftian Horror is one of the latest anthologies to be published by Dark Regions Press – and it’s another cracking anthology from that team of editor and publisher.
[Note: Dark Regions Press kindly sent me a review copy of this title when I contacted them in preparation for #MeikleMarch]
This latest anthology is actually three separate anthologies in a single title, which is itself rather impressive. The cover blurb helpfully highlights how the overarching theme of the anthology is “…what lead up to the Old Ones coming back, what happened on that fateful day when the gates were flung wide, and how the world was forever changed in the aftermath”. That’s a huge task for a single title to take on, and to do so it separates itself into three separate titles – In The Before Times; Where Were You When the World Ended?; and Life in the Shadow of Living Gods. As you can tell from those titles, this isn’t going to be a particularly upbeat collection of short stories, even for something contained within the generally dark and bleak Cthulhu/Lovecraftian Mythos genre; but, to the anthology’s credit, although the stories are almost universally grim reading and often contain rather depressing or downright horrifying, it still moves along at a fast pace and never lets you, as the reader, get too dismayed or perturbed. The cover art for the anthology, by Vincent Chong, is up to the usual high standards of a Dark Regions Press title, a muted and washed-out painting of a multi-mouthed Lovecraftian horror chewing on some unfortunate skyscrapers. And, to my delight, the interior illustrations that accompany each of those three title changes are by M Wayne Miller, my favourite illustrator; there are only a few interior images, but they’re all fantastic; in fact the one that accompanies William Meikle’s story, The Call of The Deep is particularly evocative, with Deep Ones wading through a River Thames that has risen sharply and flooded much of London, a battered and waterlogged Tower Bridge in the background.
Turning to the stories themselves, the anthology contains a total of nineteen stories, many written by some of the biggest names in the Mythos genre. It gets off to a strong start with Around The Corner by Jeffrey Thomas, a slow-burning, paranoid tale of the coming apocalypse, a cult trying to spur it along, and the role of family; it’s a tense and rather mind-bending tale at times, especially towards the end, and Mr Thomas does an excellent job in constructing both a sympathetic narrator, and an incredibly tense and fear-laced atmosphere in and around the apartment block that the tale is set in. Causality Revelation by Glynn Owen Barrass is an intriguing tale of a cultist helping to bring the apocalypse to fruition, and his conflicting attempts to both attain his goals and also keep his wife safe from the mutations and chaos that the apocalypse would result in; it’s an incredibly evocative and imaginative tale, especially the flesh-towers that are formed as a result of the virus that is unleashed on humanity. Another twisted tale is The Hidden by Scott T Goudsward, which is a frankly fascinating look at how a Lovecraftian-style cult might actually operate; Goudsward really picks apart the motivations and backgrounds of the people who inhabit the cult, offering some thought-provoking insights while also delivering a disturbing ending that illustrates the cult quite literally coming together to summon their god. Gentleman Caller, written by Lucy A. Snyder, follows a disabled, wheelchair-bound woman who suddenly finds herself with the ability to inhabit the bodies of others; it’s a simultaneously moving and harrowing tale of how the coming apocalypse might actually be an improvement for certain people, albeit with a terrifying cost. I really enjoy Snyder’s work, and always look forward to seeing her name come up in an anthology. And Scratching From The Outer Darkness penned by Tim Curran is a tense piece of psychological horror, as a blind woman is confronted by a mysterious and dread-inducing scratching in the walls of her apartment that heralds the arrival of the Old Ones.
Moving from the preparation of the end of the world to the actual world-ending in the second arc of the anthology, I particularly enjoyed Time Flies by Pete Rawlik because of the way it portrayed that beloved time-travelling Elder Race, the Yith; at first seemingly innocuous and doing nothing but benefiting humanity, albeit in a mysterious manner, their true intentions are gradually revealed; and the sting in the tail provided by Rawlik is particularly venomous, as he puts a distinctly horrifying spin on why the Yith conduct their time travels. Sorrow Road, from Tim Waggoner, was a particularly difficult tale for me to read, dealing as it does with a mother determined to protect her child from the end-times, and with an ending page that I almost couldn’t read because it was that distressing. The afore-mentioned The Call of the Deep from William Meikle is a highlight of the anthology for me – he provides a rip-roaring and fast-paced tale of humanity’s attempts to fend of an invasion by the Deep Ones, who have been driven ashore by global warming; only for humanity to find that, despite all of the hardship and terrible losses, this was merely a precursor to the main apocalypse. And the action-adventure continues in Neil Baker’s The Incessant Drone, which is another impressive military Mythos tale from the author; humanity fights against gigantic Thrashers, city-spanning creatures that can only be defeated from the air, leading a multi-national air armada to constantly scramble to fight off the latest incursion. It’s an imaginative take on the apocalypse, and one of the better tales in the collection.
The final third of the anthology deals with humanity trying to survive after the apocalypse, all of its efforts to thwart it in vain. These tales get particularly dark and grim, including the excellent Breaking Point by Sam Stone, which is an uncompromising and somewhat graphic confrontation of what each human must do to survive in the aftermath of a disaster; it made me uncomfortable to read, but that’s certainly not a bad thing, and more challenging stories like this would seem to be a good focus point for another anthology – the limits that must be crossed simply to survive. Coming to a close, three final stories were a highlight for me. The All Clear, by Edward M. Erdelac, is a new take on a classic of the post-apocalyptic genre – the regressive remnants of humanity, surviving in an isolated bunker; it’s a well-formulated and well-written story worthy of a re-read. The Keeper of Memory by Christine Morgan is a fascinating tale of memory and the desperate fight to keep memories alive, no matter how degraded or misinterpreted, and the sacrifices that need to be made for those memories to continue; and finally, Shout/Kill/Revel/Repeat by Scott R Jones is a mind-bending and brilliantly chaotic tale of a wretched band of humans, mutants and psychopaths trying to detonate a weapon in Ry’leh that really needs to be made into a film.
Once again Dark Regions Press and Brian M. Sammons have come together in another successful partnership, producing a thoroughly enjoyable collection of short stories that effortlessly tie into a central theme cleverly divided into three distinct sub-sections. All of the stories are of a very high quality, well-written and flawlessly edited, and are supplemented by some excellent exterior and interior illustrations. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and hope to see yet more anthologies come from DRP and Mr Sammons in the future