Noirlathotep: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime
Paul Brian McCoy and Jennifer King (eds.)
As soon as I came across Noirlathotep: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime in my Amazon recommendations, I purchased it. There was absolutely no hesitation, which is extremely rare for me – even with a favourite genre or author, I’ll at least take a look at the cover blurb or cast around for a review before buying something. But not this time – frankly it would be difficult for me to come up with a title that would appeal to me more – the combination of noir detective fiction and the Cthulhu Mythos just appeals to me at a primal level. The pun in the title alone had me hooked, but then let’s talk about that cover – a fantastic piece of cover art by artist Daniel Gorman, and one that does an outstanding job of representing to the reader the theme of the anthology. Cthulhu, depicted as a stereotypical noirish private detective, stumbles into his office while clutching a bottle of booze, only to encounter a buxom, barely-clothed ‘dame’ perched on his desk, holding a revolver in one hand. The whole piece is styled as a tribute to those fantastic noir paperback novels from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, complete with scuff marks and fading around the edges, and the accompanying font choices are perfect, showcasing it as a product from the Psycho Drive-In website.
As the Introduction to Noirlathotep by editor Paul Brian McCoy acknowledges, in the past few years there’s been something of a renaissance in Mythos fiction that deliberately invokes the tropes of the noir crime genre and seeks to blend the two genres together into something far greater than the sum of its parts. Another introductory chapter that is actually worth reading in detail and not skipping over after a cursory glance, as with most anthologies, McCoy provides some interesting details about the founding of Psycho Drive-In, and why the contributors to the collection wanted to write for it; but the meat of the chapter is to be found in McCoy’s concise and knowledgeable summation of just how and when the crime noir and Mythos genres first started being brought together. After tracing the origins of the ‘occult detective’ trope, the editor highlights that the two genres actually first truly blended together with the fantastic, but relatively little-known gem known as Cast a Deadly Spell, an HBO TV film that cast Fred Ward as Phil Lovecraft, hardboiled private detective seeking out the Necronomicon in a post-war Los Angeles where magic is very real, and very dangerous. It’s a brilliant film, and I was fascinated to find out that it was what had sparked Mr McCoy’s interest in both genres. But even with Cast a Deadly Spell, and the advent of other Lovecraftian films, it’s really only been in the last decade or so that the mashup of genres has made it to fiction writing – McCoy highlights titles like the Hardboiled Cthulhu anthology, Pete Rawlik’s seminal Reanimators series, and of course the Midnight Eye Files series by my own favourite author, William Meikle.
It’s a burgeoning subgenre, and as such I looked forward to seeing what Noirlathotep contained, especially after such an appetite-whetting introduction. The anthology consists of seven novella-length stories, and while it’s my usual method to just highlight the stories I particularly enjoyed, quite frankly they’re all so damned good that they all deserve to be highlighted. The collection starts with Let Sleeping Gods Lie by Dan Lee, and is probably the most ‘traditional’ of the tales within the collection, hewing quite closely to the tropes of the genre – a jaded PI at the end of his tether is contacted by a client and tasked with finding and returning a certain book that has been stolen from the client. Only the contact is made by an ethereal, half-invisible creature that can effortlessly strangle PI Glenn Mitchell without even breaking a sweat; the client seems to live in a country house that is simultaneously well-maintained and rotten to the core, depending on how you look at it; and the book happens to be one that can summon the Elder Gods. It’s a fantastic opening to the anthology, and although as I said it keeps close to the standards of the genre, Lee is an excellent writer who knows just how to pace a plot, and throws in some brilliant characterisations and a few twists that I genuinely didn’t see coming.
A Stutter in the Infinite by Alex Wolfe is next in line, and here the author decides to throw in some time-travel, cyber-punk and other influences to create a bizarre, often unnerving and genuinely disturbing novella, which follows a private investigator who finds herself reliving the same day over and over again, investigating the death of a friend. It’s a brilliant idea and played very, very well – the writing is top-notch, and the sense of horror is subtly ramped up with each time that the day is looped, things changing imperceptibly at first, but then becoming more and more overt, and Lovecraftian, as time moves on. It was one of my favourites in the entire anthology, and given the very high quality of the entire collection, that’s saying something. The Lurker in the Dark by John E. Meredith is a crime noir tale set in the heart of Lovecraftian Arkham, with a PI tasked with finding a dame’s mother, only to find that nothing is as it seems. Meredith does a brilliant job of bringing Arkham to life, even finding some new angles that manage to make the town – such a staple of Mythos fiction – even more disturbing than when it was originally portrayed by Lovecraft himself; and the apocalyptic ending was brilliantly done, tying the story up nicely while presenting some interesting ideas about some of the Mythos deities, and how they might manipulate humanity so effortlessly.
Moving through the collection, Dan Shadduk’s Bad Luck Day from the pen of R. Mike Burr is a fast-paced, riotous and often laugh-out-loud take on a Mythos noir case, with a client that has tentacles rather than legs, a PI whose office resides in the fourth dimension and has an eldritch horror compelled to act as an enforcer, and a closing line that just sums up the entire subgenre so perfectly: “It’s Nyarlathotep’s world, baby. We’re just living in it.” Very well done, and a nice break from the otherwise grimly dark and bleak content of the anthology; a great decision by the editors to place the story half-way through the collection. One of the shorter entries in the anthology, In the Shadow of Reality by Dan Johnson sets a noir crime tale deep in the heart of Miskatonic University, as once again (as is wont in the genre) a university professor digs up something that shouldn’t have been disturbed and pays the price for accidentally invoking an elder god. An often disturbing blend of erotic horror and Mythos fiction, the author has written a great story with an incredibly chilling ending, as well as a literal femme fatal that I’d like to see feature in another story if there is ever a sequel to this anthology.
Coming to the last two tales, Into the Valley of San Fernando is another light-hearted tale that sees a PI hired by Kassogtha, mate of the one and only Cthulhu, to hunt down her two daughters who have gone missing in the seedier side of the film industry. That’s an amazing sentence to write down, and the story only gets crazier from there, mixing together a fantastic knowledge of the Mythos to provide a lot of easter eggs for close readers and a wry sense of humour to create an amusing noir comedy that I’d also like to see a sequel to at some point. And then we come to the losing story, The Shadow Over Braxton County by editor Paul Brian McCoy, and this is by far the best story in the anthology – the crown jewel of the entire collection, which is saying something quite frankly. McCoy deftly intertwines two very different stories in this novella; on the one hand we have Sammy, a recovering meth addict returning to her hometown, deep in Virginia, to attend her father’s funeral and attempt to come to terms with her loss, what her father meant to her, and what their relationship actually meant, all of this compounded by the presence of her Uncle Jack, corrupt local law enforcement officer who wants to involve her in his drug-related dealings. But it’s also a story about acceptance, and understanding of what one is on the inside, and how you actually come to terms with that, mixed in with a heady dose of Lovecraftian horror that McCoy subtly uses to heighten the already grim and dark baseline of a rundown town and the pathetic machinations of a mistreated and bitter police officer. It is a beautifully written and reflected story, drawing together those twin plotlines of a deprived, rustbelt town and its inhabitants and the eldritch horrors preying on those same people, with a wry eye for the different kinds of horror and depredation that can attack the soul. It has a dreamlike, ethereal quality at times, as Sammy collides with her Uncle Jack, a mysterious drug dealer, and an oppressive federal agent following her trail, bouncing between all three sides as they attempt to take advantage of her, only to slowly but surely realise her own potential, and the cosmic horror that actually entails. It’s the sort of story that needs greater attention brought upon it, and the innate understanding of cosmic horror writing that it portrays, certainly more than a single review, on a single blog can do, and it alone merits the purchase and retention of this anthology.
Noirlathotep: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime is one of the best Cthulhu Mythos and Lovecraftian anthologies that I have read in quite some time, certainly the best anthology not edited by editor Brian M. Sammons, who still sets the bar in regards to Mythos fiction collections. The writers featured in the anthology have produced some of the finest and most intense, detailed and enjoyable Mythos fiction that I have read in quite some time, and all demonstrate an distinctive understanding of cosmic horror, noir crime, and how best to blend those genres together. There are chills, thrills and gunplay aplenty, as befits the mashup of genres it represents, but also horrific, disturbing and occasionally even unsettling moments amongst the seven stories in the collection. This anthology deserves even wider attention than it currently has, and I understand that a sequel is currently in production. Good, I say; if it contains even a fraction of the quality shown in Noirlathotep, then it too will deserve to be read by all fans of cosmic horror, noir and Lovecraftian fiction, just as this anthology does