Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War
Matthew Davenport; David Hambling; Byron Craft; John A. DeLaughter
I’m always on the look-out for something different and original to review in the Science-Fiction genre, especially as I’m in the mood to read something lighter than the Horror genre these days, so I was delighted to be contacted by author Matthew Davenport to see if I wanted to review the latest collection he had a story in. I’m a huge fan of Davenport and his writing, especially his delightfully and unashamedly pulpy Professor Doran series, which blends together the titular rough and ready archaeologist with a host of Lovecraftian monsters and deities, so I was interested to see what he had penned this time. That interest only grew when I saw who his co-authors were for the collection – not only was there Byron Craft, author of the excellent Arkham Detective series, but also the stellar David Hambling whose Lovecraftian fiction is a particular favourite of mine. Joining these veterans was author John A. De Laughter, and while I hadn’t come across him previously, I knew his writing would have had to have been impressive to join the other authors in contributing to the collection. An impressive array of contributors was matched by an eye-catching piece of cover art from publisher Crossroads Press, and an engaging back-cover blurb that promised four stories set within the same cosmos-spanning Time War setting.
I do appreciate it when collections open with an introduction that explains the background to the setting, as it helps to ground the reader and give an idea of what is going to be encountered within the contained stories. David Hambling does an excellent job here, not only introducing the collection as a whole, but also providing a concise and examination of the Time-Looping trope alongside some examples from recent film, TV and published fiction to further ground the concept in the reader’s mind. He ends with an ominous warning about the potential dangers of looping endlessly through time, which seamlessly leads into his contribution to the collection, Time’s Revenge. Hambling gives us the intriguing scenario of a man trapped in a time loop while he plans the many steps required to achieve the perfect murder, yet also suffering from the effects of constantly experiencing the same day over and over again. Names, dates, even specific memories are all washed away by the repetition of time, and only the clever idea of memorizing mnemonic phrases allows protagonist Craig to remember the key details he requires to further his murderous plans. Websites, phone numbers, combination codes become his only companions, leaving behind the memories of his old life before the loop, and his sanity slowly crumbles as he loses track of the number of cycles he’s gone through.
We follow Craig as he makes use of his endless cycles in memorizing small yet consequential details, which in turn allow him to do things like seamlessly steal high-powered guns from an arms dealer in central London, while in turn learning the exact moves required to avoid or incapacitate armed thugs who seem to know what he’s trying to do in the loops. Hambling gives us some brilliant insights into Craig’s strange, timeless world, where he can kill the same person dozens – if not hundreds – of times in order to practices removing them from the equation, yet also cherish the same, line-for-line phone conversation with his girlfriend despite knowing exactly what she will say, when, and the precise inflection. A mesmerising and labyrinthine time-travel mystery is expertly spooled out by Hambling, in a manner that inexorably pulls us along with Craig, and yet the more details the author reveals, the stranger and more unsettling the situation becomes. Who is Craig trying to murder, and why are these armed gangsters getting in his way? And why are certain, crucial memories inaccessible to him – why was it so important once to learn to speak Arabic, for example? Hambling has not only written a first-rate time-travel mystery, but has also deftly built in some fascinating ethical and moral conundrums as well for the reader to consider. It’s heady, complex stuff that could easily have become overwhelming, yet Hambling pulls it all together with remarkable ease and charm. Time’s Revenge concludes with a series of twists that unfurl with whiplash speed, one after another, introducing a wider universe that becomes the basis for the rest of the stories in the collection.
Hambling is followed by Byron Craft’s The Comatose Man which takes us to 1955 and Arkham Police Lieutenant Elijah Ward, who is presented with the titular comatose man, who appeared in an alley with no clue as to where he came from, except for several strange, futuristic devices on his person. Simultaneously interleaved with Ward’s story is that of modern-day university lecturer Ross MacIvor, striving to prove the concept of time-looping in the hope of achieving some secret mission involving his family. His career flat-lining, things change when a mysterious courier delivers a set of baffling blueprints and strange objects, with the apparent goal of creating a ‘Windlass’, an ancient device associated with the dreaded Necronomicon. As Ross begins tinkering with time and investigating the possibility of time-looping, Ward finds his attention divided between the objects left by the stranger, and the twisted, occult creatures that still lurk in Arkham’s shadows; only by using his personal knowledge of the creatures, and the resources of the department, can he fend them off. It’s an interesting concept, and one that ties into the picture of 1950s Arkham that Craft brings to life: a town that’s been caught up in the rising tide of the post-war economic boom, aided by the GI Bill that has accelerated house-building and the birth rate, but also one stuck awkwardly and perilously between modernity and ancient times.
There’s plenty of action as the plot progresses, with Ward and his partner forced to fight off increasing numbers of terrifying creatures appearing through Arkham, until a veritable horde of them begin assaulting the town, somehow connected to the mysterious stranger. Craft’s descriptions of these Lovecraftian monstrosities are dead on, really bringing you into the mood of the piece, and are all the more effective by being buttressed by the sections featuring MacIvor and his ever-growing obsession. The story also features a surprising and emotionally-laden discussion of society’s attitude towards those who are physically disabled, and how cruel jokes and barbs can affect both the disabled and their families. These elements affected me more than perhaps the average reader because of how much they reflected my own experiences; though I am not so affected, I have a son with a learning disability who is often judged just as harshly and critically by strangers and those around him. It’s a relatively brief part of the story, but it does Craft great credit as a writer, and adds depth and humanity to the tale. The way in which the two timelines intersect is clear from nearly the beginning, but Craft makes that a strength through gripping writing and a prodigious imagination. Watching as MacIvor and Ward intersect is genuinely thrilling, Craft ratcheting up the tension as the particulars of the men’s collision are revealed, and MacIvor’s attempts to avert a family tragedy has inadvertent yet terrifying results. It all leads to a thoroughly enjoyable ending; one that satisfies both in terms of the story itself, but which also ties into the wider mythology being developed across the five tales in the collection.
I was looking forward to Matthew Davenport’s contribution to the collection and Time Trapped certainly didn’t disappoint. Our protagonist is Irene, a librarian at Arkham Public Library who enjoys her work and her co-workers, despite being snowed under by bills that always require urgent attention. It’s a happy and fulfilling job without any particular excitement, despite the strange nature of some of Arkham’s residents when visiting the Library, until Irene finds herself examining a tattered, unmarked book that turns up on the returns cart. She feels a strange connection with the book, and begins to obsess over it to the extent that it affects her work, and after taking the book home one night, wakes up to discover that she has travelled through time somehow. Not only that, but she’s swapped bodies with someone, and that someone has his hands in a boy’s guts trying to stop him bleeding to death. It’s a shocking twist and one that Davenport pulls off with his customary flair and writing skill, and things only become more complex and dangerous for Irene from them on. It becomes clear that someone – or something – is using the ancient book to send her back and forth in time; and not just time, but alternate realities as well, as people, locations and even history begin to change for our hapless librarian. The new realities Irene is forced to visit become more and more disturbing, with the entire scenario developing into a sort of twisted, Lovecraftian version of Quantum Leap; everytime Irene leaps into another body, she’s forced into a deadly game of cat and mouse with unknown assailants and with an objective that’s opaque, confusing and routinely deadly for someone near her. It’s a brilliant storyline, and one that Davenport uses to brilliant effect to keep the reader off-guard, constantly guessing alongside Irene as to where she’s being sent and what she is supposed to achieve; or fail to achieve, as increasingly appears to be the point.
The story’s links to the rest of the collection soon come to the fore, featuring characters from those tales, and it becomes clear that Irene’s fate is part of a much wider war that spans the entire galaxy. This is the first time that the Time War mentioned in the collection’s title becomes clear to the reader, and it’s a genuinely stunning moment in both range and nature, as Davenport suddenly pulls the rug out from reader and protagonist. We are shown just how vast and incomprehensible the conflict is, in the best traditions of the Lovecraftian genre, and how small (and yet vital) Irene is in the war. It seems like this is a setting that Davenport was only able to scratch the surface with through this story, and I desperately want to see more written about it. The characters are just as engaging, particularly Irene – she has a huge amount of personality despite the small wordcount, and I enjoyed her musings about the strange people who visit the library looking for the weird and occult texts, complete with cheeky mention of Ramsay Campbell’s Gla’aki. Davenport makes it easy to sympathise with her unwilling and deeply traumatic journey, and the feeling of being a particle-sized cog in a conflict between forces that can control time itself. Rewarding readers of his previous series, there’s even a cameo from a future descendant of Davenport’s Nazi-fighting, Shoggoth-slaying Professor Doran, which is a nice touch; the third book in the Doran series will go to the summit of my review pile whenever it gets published.
The fourth tale is The Terror Out of Time by John A. DeLaughter, the one author that I hadn’t previously encountered before starting the collection. His story concerns one Dimitri-Laurent de Marigny, a billionaire who pursues the goal of eternal life, and believes the key is in the secrets of the Dyer Expedition that returned from Antarctica in the 1920s, the few survivors raving about inhuman frescoes, strange unearthly fossils, and creatures that killed most of their colleagues. De Marigny arranges for veteran Henry Armitage to lead a new expedition to Antactica, retracing the Dyer Expedition’s steps and then finishing the archaeological job they started nine decades ago. De Marigny is a driven, ruthless individual who wields unimaginable power in the world and uses it to his advantage constantly. DeLaughter gives him an interesting, occult background that shows why he’s so obsessive and driven, which in turn makes him rather unique as both protagonist and antagonist. Visited and harassed by Lovecraftian creatures from a very young age, de Marigny vowed to reassert control over his mind, psyche and destiny, and crush the alien minds trying to control him. That, in turn, means becoming immersed in occult and Lovecraftian affairs to a frankly insane degree, filtering through information never intended for human viewing or consumption.
Switching from de Marigny to Colonel Armitage, we follow the new expedition into the Antarctic in search of the occult wonders discovered by Dyer, these new explorers armed to the teeth and ready for anything. Soon they encounter freakish natural phenomena, and enter an area of Antarctica that man was not supposed to tread in, to their cost. As the story progresses, DeLaughter’s storytelling manner gives it the air of an epic, with an underlying tension that seems to include not just Antarctica, but the world as a whole. It’s a deeply impressive achievement, and helps to give the collection a sort of cosmic scale that the other stories had only hinted at previously. Once the soldiers and scientists encounter the native residents of the area, things devolve quickly into running firefights and panicked flight that echo the most frantic parts of John Carpenter’s The Thing. When samples are recovered – at great cost – and taken to de Marigny, he soon discovers the price for deliberately tangling with the Elder Gods and their creations, becoming enmeshed in a terrifying, incomprehensible landscape of Shoggoths, Elder Things and creatures even more terrifying in their inhuman nature.
Closing the collection is the Epilogue, A Stitch in Time, apparently written by all four contributors and focusing on time-travelling agent Art, who appeared in several previous tales. Forced to travel through time and space infinitely, jumping from body to body, Art finds himself at his latest mission in Antarctica alongside a fellow time-jumping agent, tasked with tidying up some multi-tentacled loose ends from a previous story in the collection. We get some intriguing insights into how Art travels between assignments, his previous achievements (including a darkly humorous moment defusing a nuclear bomb while inhabiting a five-year old) and the ways to adapt to new bodies and their unique skills. But just as he thinks the mission is going successfully, betrayal and enemy action combine to leave him in a perilous position, with a horrific truth about the time war revealed to him and a cosmos-spanning decision to take. It’s a short but sweet tale, and a fantastic way to cap off the collection as a whole.
Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War is so many things at once: immersive, complex, deftly written and imbued with a tremendous amount of imagination that effortlessly blends the Lovecraftian and time-travel genres together to create something fresh and original. Each author has contributed something unique to the collection, stories that act both as stand-alone tales, yet also mesh themselves together to form a multi-faceted and endlessly fascinating setting that simply begs to be explored in more detail. While all four authors have written superb stories, the contributions by Hambling and Davenport stand out as the stars of the collection, demonstrating their innate understanding of the concepts involved in general, and in particular their mastery of the Lovecraftian genre. Time Loopers: Four Tales from a Time War is a triumph for authors and publisher alike, delivering a fresh take on the time-travelling concept, and I’m eager to see what the quartet can deliver when they return to the setting in the future (or would that be the past?)