Jennifer King & Paul Brian McCoy (Eds.)
Psycho Drive-In Press
Although they’ve only been publishing for a couple of years, and only have a handful of titles under their belt, I’m firmly of the opinion that Psycho Drive-In Press (PDI) are definitely a publisher to watch in the Horror genre. They first came to their attention last year when, scrolling through the Kindle listings for Horror books, I came across the cover image for their first publication, Noirlathotep: Tales of Lovecraftian Crime.
It was love at first sight – I can’t think of a blend of genres that could intrigue me more than Noir and Cosmic Horror, and the combination of that wonderful pun in the title and a phenomenal piece of cover art meant that I purchased the anthology instantly without even bothering to read the back cover blurb or preview the contents. That doesn’t happen very often to be honest, wading through the good and the bad of the Horror genre, and fortunately my faith in my impulse purchase was more than adequately rewarded. The original anthology was brilliant, containing sevne stories that provided everything from laugh out loud humour to a chilling and unsettling character study of desperation in a rundown rust belt town, and the different kinds of horror and depredation that can attack the soul in such a situation.
I greatly enjoyed the anthology, and was excited to learn in mid-2018 that a sequel was being published by PDI, and I was subsequently one of the first backers of the successful Kickstarter to fund Noirlathotep 2: More Tales of Lovecraftian Crime, which appeared in my inbox at the end of the year. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to review it immediately on publication, but it was at the top of my To Be Reviewed list for when real-life finally cut me some slack. Fast forward a few months, and I eagerly snatched up the anthology. There’s another fantastic piece of cover art by illustrator Daniel Gorman, who also produced the cover art for the first anthology, which again perfectly encapsulates the themes of the collection; and I was glad to see that many of the contributors to Noirlathotep had returned, and had produced stories that were mostly sequels/sidequels to those they had provided for the first anthology. That all boded really well for me as a reader and reviewer, and so I eagerly jumped in. As always with this blog, I’d like to note that for anthologies, I usually only highlight stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which affected me in some way.
The anthology starts with Little Girls and Other Nightmares by Dan Lee. The story opens with a distinctly noir feeling, our protagonist voicing his feelings of dark cynicism over people’s (non) reactions to yet another human tragedy. It’s immediately obvious that the quality of writing is top-notch, almost as if Lee was bathing in noir tradition:
“I was a man of unwavering faith in the belief that human violence and depravity were a boundless and ever broadening horizon to be explored.”
That quote sets tone of story and anthology as a whole. In this particular story we have as our protagonist a hitman, a man of unrestrained violence and a distinct lack of morals, happy to deal out death from the barrel of a pistol to anyone he’s paid to kill. It’s one of the key Noir tropes and Lee evokes it effortlessly, giving us a cool and slick murderer-for-hire with the requisite cynical view of humanity. But Lee also gives us some glimpses of personality, quirks that give him more depth than the usual Noir archetype; he collects cassette tapes for his car, for example, preferring youthful nostalgia over the advantages of digital.
Scanning the local newspaper for obituaries of targets and enemies, our protagonist is surprised to see an old friend, a man he worked with to undertake contractors for an unusual client; the exact nature of those contracts isn’t specified, but we’re informed they were unusual, violent and paid incredibly well. They allowed early retirement, hence the surprise at the man’s death. We get a further illustration of the inhuman nature of the client’s tasks when the hitman investigates wielding a gun – and a token bearing “a nine-pointed star enveloped by a serpent.”
From here-on-in, the story becomes stranger and stranger, the Lovecraftian influences become increasingly pronounced and the atmosphere deeply disturbing. The mysterious client communicates in messages in envelopes, left inside locked cars, and lives in a mansion that exists in a timeless dimension that doesn’t sit right with humans, including our hitman. He’s a monster – quite literally, something assuming a human form – and I have to admit it was refreshing for the protagonist to know their boss is a Lovecraftian entity from the beginning, rather the tired, formulaic trope of this being revealed only late in the story.
Lee evokes an deeply unsettling atmosphere, especially in regards to a certain creepy ancient mansion and its inhabitants, and that sense of unease is extended to the rest of the plot, as the hitman becomes involved in a Byzantine plot that involves kidnapping a teenager from a place even his terrifying employer cannot venture. We move smoothly from Noir tension to outright horror as the hitman tries to undertake his task, with the author creating an engrossing blend of Noir and Lovecraft that merges with Southern Gothic scenery to create truly nightmarish scenes. It’s a brilliant start to the collection that deftly demonstrates its overarching themes, Lee somehow managing to outdo his story from the first Noirlathotep collection.
R Mike Burr opens his story Dust Devil with a memorable description of a barren, desolate and damned community, stricken by poor weather and infertile soil, as well as a duststorm so fierce it can kill livestock through sheer force and the grit it contains. It’s an impressive opening that’s atmospheric as hell, to the extent that you feel like you could close your eyes, open them again, and be right there in the town of Hinton (not that you’d want to by all accounts). Burr tells the story of the tiny, inconsequential town of Hinton and the horrific fate that befall it when, in an attempt to survive a period of famine, the townsfolk launch a pogrom against some German farmers who have settled nearby and who seem to have sufficient food to last them. Buildings are burnt and blood shed, and only too late do the hypocritical people of Hinton realise their mistake; understand too late who, exactly, the Germans worshipped, and the price to be paid for harming its worshippers.
It’s a fairly short but intense tale, with Burr relishing in the chaos, destruction and death dealt to those left living in Hinton, and there are some nice Lovecraftian touches in the manner of execution. And while it doesn’t hit the usual ideas of a Noir story, featuring no private detectives or damsels in distress, what Burr does so cleverly is to actively strip away the trappings and stereotypes of the genre and go back to basics. Here we have a story steeped in murder, cynicism and a healthy dose of moral ambiguity, a small community turning on prosperous strangers in an attempt to avoid starvation. It all comes together to make another first-class entry in the anthology, particularly the commentary on xenophobia and anti-immigrant hatred that feels entirely relevant in today’s political climate.
Many of the stories in Noirlathotep 2 are sequels to their authors tales in the first anthology, none more so than Alex Wolfe’s Devil in the Machine. Mr Wolfe’s first story, A Stutter in the Infinite, was by far the best story in the original Noirlathotep anthology, a twisted tale of murder, time-loops and Lovecraftian insanity that worked on multiple levels. In this sequel, Wolfe shows us the point of view of jaded hacker Moonlyte, memorably described in the first story as “the all-knowing, all-seeing, filth-encrusted inner-city hacker hermit”. She was an intriguing character that unfortunately only warranted a cameo in the story, and I’m glad to see her return for this sequel.
And it’s a hell of a sequel, with police consultant Lindsay Alexander (protagonist of Wolfe’s first tale) dragging Moonlyte into a case involving the ritual torture, dismemberment and sexual abuse of young children. Not an easy topic, but it gels well with the greasy, cyberpunk/noir atmosphere that Wolfe elicits, featuring run-down apartments, dead-eyed cops and anonymous darkweb forums littered with the worst things imaginable. I loved the atmosphere, particularly as a lot of the plot is advanced via messenger chats, which always evokes an eerie Creepypasta vibe to me. The Lovecraftian cult (it’s always a cult) are in service to certain non-euclidian deities attempting to rise up and cause the apocalypse, and as the plot moves forward it somehow becomes even darker, and laced with computer-based cosmic horror. It’s an excellent prequel/sidequel to Wolfe’s initial story, and I really want to see this particular universe expanded upon again.
‘Journalist uncovers something eldritch and terrifying’ is one of my favourite Lovecraftian tropes, and it’s also to be found in the Noir tradition as well, so I was very happy to find Rick Shingler’s Belly of the Beast use it as the framework for its narrative. It may be a cliche but it can still be enjoyable in the right hands, and Shingler proves to have exceedingly adept ones. This is very much a character-focused story, and they’re fascinating ones. The jaded journalist who’s meeting their nemesis for the last time, trying to figure out if the strange tale being weaved for their benefit has even the slightest grain of truth in it; and the malicious crime boss striving for respectability and power despite the dark secret hidden in his past. The verbal sparring between the two is well constructed and flows naturally, all the more impressive because conversation-based narrative can so easily become dry and turgid. The climax of the tale is genuinely stunning as the villain reveals the source of his extreme longevity, Shingler using a concept that I haven’t seen in Lovecraftian fiction before now to great effect. A short but compelling tale with a chilling ending.
I wasn’t expecting the next story to open with a man eating a beetle filled with hallucinatory drugs, but that’s what Paul Brian McCoy presents us with in the opening paragraphs of The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of, and I’m always up for a little bit of Weird Horror mixed in with my Noir and Cosmic Horror. Johnson is a 1920’s New York professor who dabbles in the weird and esoteric, indulging in things like travels to isolated villages in South America and undertaking hallucinogenic vision quests and being patronising to the locals. One such quest suddenly takes him on a terrifying, mind-bending trip that results in something ancient and eldritch contacting him briefly, which leaves him shaken and questioning reality like all great Lovecraftian fiction protagonists. It’s a great start and McCoy maintains that momentum as Johnson becomes embroiled with an FBI investigation, while simultaneously contending with a homophobic and straight-laced Dean that tries to shut him down and end his studies.
There’s some fantastic characters and background details here, creating a story that’s very reminiscent of Kim Newman and his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Lovecraftian fiction. We have an FBI agent openly talking about Carcosa and the Plain of Leng, and contacting Johnson because the FBI pre-cognition unit (shades of Minority Report) named him as the only person able to stop an oncoming apocalypse. Or…at least Johnson thinks it’s the FBI. There are a lot of twists and turns and surprises unleashed by McCoy, and it’s obvious how much he enjoyed writing this particular story. He repeatedly subverts genre tropes and stereotypes, often with an air of barely-restrained glee; to take just one example, it’s certainly the first time that I’ve seen the followers of the King in Yellow depicted as anything other than hostile towards humanity, here instead trying to prevent another eldritch power from eradicating humanity and the plane it resides in.
But McCoy also leavens the story with some deft social commentary, which again helps with the deconstruction some of those beloved Noir and Lovecraftian cliches. There are some grim looks into the xenophobia and bigotry ingrained into humanity that even eldritch cults can’t escape from, as well as the depressing lengths LGBT+ individuals had to take in the US to avoid detection and persecution. In the hands of a less skilled writer this might be a recipe for disaster, but McCoy handles it exceptionally well, creating an engaging and thought-provoking story bolstered with some memorable characters and an imaginative narrative that seamlessly merges Noir and Lovecraft.
I have no hesitation whatsoever in calling Noirlathotep 2: More Tales of Lovecraftian Crime an entirely worthy successor to the original anthology released by Psycho Drive-In Press, and once again demonstrating why PDI are a hot new publisher on the Horror scene. Editors King and McCoy have again done a magnificent job in bringing together a clutch of stories that create an impressive fusion of Noir tradition and Lovecraftian horror, exploring and recontextualising the stereotypes and tropes of both genres to create memorable, engaging and often outright horrifying stories. I can only hope that before too long we see a Noirlathotep 3, perhaps with some of the humour of the original anthology returning to balance out the cosmic horror inherent in the blending of genres.