Matthew Davenport & C.T. Phipps (eds.)
[Please note that a review copy was provided by one of the authors in return for a fair and honest review of this title]
I’m always up for a Cthulhu Mythos anthology that attempts to break new ground in an often stale genre, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a review copy of Macabre Ink’s latest collection, Tales of the Al-Aziz, which collects together seven new novellas from a host of talented Mythos authors. Their focus is no less than that mysterious figure that Lovecraft set at the heart of the Mythos, Abdul Al’Hazred – the so-called ‘Mad Arab’ who authored the Necronomicon, and was also responsible for discovering the Al-Azif – the ‘Book of Insects’ that Al’Hazred used as a basis for the Necronomicon. I’ve always felt that there was much more that could be done with Al’Hazred within the setting of the Mythos, especially as Lovecraft was so vague about the character, and so I was delighted to discover that the novellas in this collection would explore Al’Hazred and the nature of the Al-Azif. Even better, all of the stories would be inter-connected; some of my favourite Mythos authors, like David Hambling and Matthew Davenport, would link their tales together and pit their own characters against the power of the Al-Azif and the crawling chaos it contained.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
The collection starts with The Skull on the Desk by C T Phipps. Opening with conversation between Al’Hazred and his uncle as they journey through the desert in search of something, Phipps begins to give us as readers some insights into the personality of Al’Hazred his goals, the latter of which have made him an outcast from civilized society in the Middle East. Here is an intensely driven man who fervently believes that his people’s religion and culture is inherently wrong, and that he is the only man who has the power and knowledge to discover the truth behind reality. There’s some evocative and unnerving imagery as, dying in the desert, Al’Hazred communes with no less a deity than the Black Pharoah itself, beginning the journey that will shatter his sanity and lead to the creation of the Necronomicon and the power contained within the Al-Azif. Phipps doesn’t shy away from showing how confusing and incomprehensible the inner workings of the Mythos can be, and does a credible job in showing how Al’Hazred powers through the chaos to seize the Al-Azif and make use of its unholy power. That power comes with a price – to forever be linked to the Book of Insects, even after death, and also to gain insights into the far-flung future of humanity as various champions grapple with the Book’s followers.
Throughout the story, Phipps provides us with an engaging and well-developed Al’Hazred, one who becomes far more than the cliched ‘Mad Arab’ originally described by Lovecraft, which in turn makes his writing of the Necronomicon, and his desire for eternal life and ultimate power, much more understandable. You really get a notion of the hunger that drives the man forward, heedless of the damnation that he will suffer from seeking the Al-Azif, and it finally begins to make more sense just why the ‘Mad Arab’ is so central to the Mythos; without his lust for power and his arrogance, the Elder God’s hold on humanity would have been radically different, if not in some way diminished. And yet he does find the Al-Azif, and compose the Necronomicon; and the visions of the future that his deathless spirit gets glimpses of works as a useful framing device for the other tales in the collection
I’m an unabashed fan of David Hambling and his contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos genre, particularly his series of books chronicling the adventures of Harry Stubbs, Great War veteran and occasional private investigator for an agency interested in occult matters. I’ve found Stubbs to be one of the most engaging and *human* protagonists of Mythos fiction that I’ve ever encountered, and when time and stresses allow I’m determined to finish reviewing the entire series. For now I’ll have to settle for reviewing The Book of Insects, where an encounter with a mysterious ex-soldier leads to Stubbs encountering the titular tome.
With his novella, Hambling provides us with yet another fast-paced adventure that blends intense, brutal fight scenes with an innate understanding of the Mythos and the horrors it holds (and can inflict), as Stubbs tangles with gun-toting anarchists and an entomologist with an incredibly disturbing secret, amongst others, in a race to locate the Al-Aziz. The plot itself is engaging enough, but the star is the book itself, a tome that is both a physical book and something resembling an insect hive, constantly crawling and shifting and rewriting itself as a form of crawling chaos. It’s deeply unsettling and strikingly original, and demonstrates just why Hambling is a rising star in the Mythos genre. In addition, Harry Stubbs is a fascinating creation – a solidly working-class war veteran with upwardly-mobile pretensions, yet who comes across as both entirely sincere and lacking in that arrogance that seems to be a pre-requisite for Mythos protagonists in their myriad forms. There’s a sense of inner power within Stubbs, one waiting to be unlocked at a future time, and I cannot wait to see what Hambling does with him next.
If Harry Stubbs is a man who is only brought to anger with difficulty, and intensely reluctant to fight unless required, then Professor Andrew Doran is his opposite. A character that can only be described as Indiana Jones on steroids, Doran combines a deep academic knowledge of eldritch matters with a love of fist-fights and revolvers, and an intense hatred of Nazis and Nazi-adjacent cultists and monsters. He is unashamedly, unapologetically Hollywood in fashion, and Matthew Davenport has made him the star of a series that harks back to the action-packed pulp masterpieces produced by Spielberg and Lucas at the height of the 1980s. In Andrew Doran and the Crawling Caves, we find Professor Doran struggling to juggle duties as a University Dean with his latest attempts to thwart Nazi plots to end the world using eldritch artefacts. Davenport uses the clashing priorities to provide some sorely needed humour in the collection, particularly the notion that the Professor’s loyal administrator is, in fact, a flesh-eating Wendigo.
There’s always been something of a gap in Doran’s background as a character, with Davenport only providing tantalising hints in previous books that something horrifying and tragic had occurred when the Professor was a young man, and now we start to get a further glimpse into that, as well as see Doran’s family situation. It turns out his sister has been kidnapped while trying to find out why children have gone missing in a remote mountain region, and it’s up to the good Professor (and the Al-Aziz) to rescue her and find out what kind of insect-related madness is going on. That focus on family, and the close bonds that can spring up between people, is threaded through the story even as Doran gets into his usual rough-and-tumble fighting cultists, alongside an unlikely ally from another story in the collection. The story is a blast to read, never really slowing down once the action gets started, with Doran acting as a urgently-needed antithesis of the usual feeble Mythos protagonist; and in addition, we get some more intriguing detail about how the ‘other side’ of reality works, and how Doran is able manipulate eldritch ‘magic’ to aid in his fight, at a dangerous cost.
Gun-blazing and fist-swinging action is then followed by Cockroach Suckers by David Niall Wilson, which is a much quieter and contemplative story that takes a hard, often disquieting look at the effects the Al-Azif can have on ordinary mortals. Wilson has real knack for vivid descriptive language, with the opening pages giving a memorable depiction of a verdant, backwoods area populated by a pair of middle-aged yokels who aren’t too wise in worldly matters. That’s shown by their possession of a gigantic wooden cockroach which, given the theme of this collection is insects, doesn’t turn out too well for them. It starts off innocently enough, Jasper and Bobby Lee planning to bring in ‘Cockroach Sucker’ tourists who want to see the ‘World’s Largest Cockroach’, but Wilson soon spins out his own unique take on ‘Looking a gift horse in the mouth’, as Bobby Lee becomes more and more obsessed with the cockroach, conjuring up buildings and tourism traps in time that would be miraculous even for a team of men.
There’s some creepy as hell insect-related imagery that Wilson deftly deploys, especially in regards to the interior of the shed that tourists enter to see the cockroach, and I’ll readily admit that I let out a shudder or two as the tale scuttled to its climax. Insects can be repulsive even at the best of times, and Wilson seems to have some inherent understanding of that, and how to use it to generate feelings of revulsion and outright horror. Layered on top of that is the fraying and disintegration of a long-standing friendship, as two men who barely understand their own place in life are faced with an alien presence that twists reality and their sanity.
We end the collection with another tale from C.T. Phipps, this time set in his popular Cthulhu Armageddon series. In The Last Page, Phipps provides another grim-dark adventure for protagonist John Henry Booth, small-town sheriff in a world where the Old Ones rose up and destroyed civilization in the early 21st Century, the remnants of humanity struggling even to survive in their new twisted and sanity-destroying reality. It’s a fascinating setting that I wish I’d come across before, and I particularly enjoyed the Wild West-style post-apocalypse that Phipps has developed, one where the few comforts left to humanity have to be defended with revolver and occult spells, against monsters and the worst humanity has left to offer. But it’s also a place where the town of New Ulthar, where Booth lives, can become a sort of weird haven, welcoming anyone and anything, from humans to Deep Ones to cannibalistic monsters, as long as they live relatively peacefully.
That peace looks to be shattered by the arrival of an old man and his slave into New Ulthar, the man claiming to possess the Al-Aziz and spinning various tall tales about the cursed tome as he plays poker with Booth. Things rapidly get out of hand, as always when the Al-Aziz is involved, and before long Booth finds himself in possession of the book and on a desperate journey to try and destroy it once and for all. It’s an action-packed ride through the New England wastelands, with Phipps hurling some incredibly twisted monsters against Booth and his companions, including an awesome continent-spanning tunnelling creature. The pace of the story is fast and enjoyable, and it’s leavened with a healthy dose of dark and wry humour that really helps bring you into the reality Phipps has written. Booth is a sympathetic protagonist, as well as a mysterious one, and the story convinced me to purchase the first book in the Cthulhu Armageddon series to read as soon as possible.
After finishing Tales of the Al-Azif, it came to me that this is an extraordinarily accomplished collection. In the first place, Davenport and Phipps have done a fantastic job in collating together some incredibly enjoyable Mythos tales by a group of accomplished authors that really bring Al’Hazred and the Al-Aziz to life, fleshing out the ‘Mad Arab’ and turning him into something other than the clichéd background character that Lovecraft created. But they’re not just isolated tales, with the editors ensuring that they interlink and weave together characters and plot points to build something greater than the sum of its parts. Phipps’ gives insight into Al’Hazred’s motivations, and Hambling into the grotesque manner in which the book works; Davenport then looks at the nature of the cults that worship it and attempt to use its infernal powers; and Wilson and Phipps again show just how immensely powerful and influential over humanity the book can be. Hugely accomplished and demonstrating a fresh angle on the genre, Tales of the Al-Aziz is a crucial Cthulhu Mythos anthology for those with even a passing interest in Lovecraft’s creations, and the genre as a whole.