Lovecraft eZine Press
Sometimes I pick up a book only after a long and considered period of reflection – do I like the cover art? Do I know the publisher, or the author? Has the back-cover blurb sufficiently caught my attention to warrant me spending my tiny budget for reviewing titles? Do I have time to review it? Those questions – and many more as well – all carefully weighed up before I dare to tap the button on the Kindle and pay to download it into my ever-expanding library of ebooks. And then sometimes there are books like The Dog by Raven Daegmorgan, where I’ve hit that ‘Buy Book’ button as fast as humanly possible and started reading at a near-feverish pace. It’s not a rational decision or something I can account for – it’s a lizard hindbrain thing, where a dozen different factors come together all at once.
With The Dog, the first factor was the pedigree of the publisher: Mike Davis’ Lovecraft eZine Press; while I haven’t read many of the titles he’s published, the ones I have read have deeply impressed me in terms of their writing, editing and an overall incredibly high level of professionalism all around. If an author is being published by Mr Davis, then I know it’s well worth my attention. The second factor was the promotional post Mr Davis put up – advertising something as Weird Horror will always grab my attention, as it’s my favourite subgenre, and the ridiculously low introductory price of 99c/99p put the novella right in my budget. Then thirdly, there’s that cover by Dave Felton – that rare sort of cover art that grabs your attention and refuses to let go. Stark, monochrome etching that looks like chalk on a pitch-black slate; a terrifying hound at the top, lips curled back in a snarl; the corpses curled up, embryonic, below it; the font for the title and author, which faintly evokes the sort used for drive-in horror movies from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s fair to say that the cover near-hypnotised me, and proves my constant adage in these reviews that spending money on a good cover will always pay off in spades by catching the eye of potential readers. It’s bolstered by the fontwork and formatting by Kenneth W. Cain which bookends each section of the book, deftly underpinning the weird, unsettling atmosphere of the novella. The back-cover blurb was just the cherry on the top – a quiet, decrepit neighbourhood, a strange Master in a house, and a dog that draws attention that it really, really shouldn’t be given. I purchased it late at night, and didn’t stop reading until I’d finished it, even though I had work the next day.
The first thing that catches your attention with The Dog is that Raven Daegmorgan is an extraordinarily talented writer – within just a few sentences of the novella’s first page, he’d hooked me completely with an eerie, weird atmosphere and an unsettling narrative that reeled me in almost subconsciously as I kept reading. His descriptive language is absolutely brilliant, evoking the exact sort of weird, disquieting atmosphere that defines the Weird Horror genre, all without coming across as derivative or akin to a pastiche. It draws you in mercilessly, relentlessly, scooping you up into this deliberately vague and ill-defined world and then dropping you in to soak up the ethereal, detached and utterly unnerving aura that runs through the novella. The narrative of the novella is deceptively simple, albeit something that becomes multi-faceted and somehow diaphanous the more the reader considers it: The Master lives in his ramshackle house, with The Dog chained up outside. It’s a terrifying, brutish creature that The Master only vaguely understands and controls, and which resides in its doghouse, doing unknowable things between mealtimes. Interrupting The Dog or disrupting its routine is unwise, as at least one young child has discovered to its cost, and The Master fears what might happen if it is disturbed for a second time. When poor timing and institutional arrogance combine to unleash The Dog, The Master is forced to pursue it and then deal with the consequences of its freedom, as well as the unwanted attention of his fellow residents in the neighbourhood. It all culminates in a blood-soaked and strangely Oedipal ending that perfectly suits the surreal nature of the novella, and the atmosphere that Daegmorgan develops throughout.
The novella’s narrative of anger, resentment, vengeance and its unwanted and unintended consequences is powerful and utterly gripping, all the more so for that vague, ill-defined atmosphere that Daemorgan sets the story in, at once familiar and yet somehow, indescribably alien and uncertain. Those two elements – narrative and atmosphere – are cemented by the novella’s small but potent roster of characters. They’re incredibly distinctive and highly memorable, indelibly marking themselves in the readers mind; an impressive achievement, particularly given how deliberately insubstantial Daegmorgan has made them, mirroring the world they inhabit. The Master is us – the reader, the editor, the publisher, our partners, spouses, friends, family, even the stranger we walk past on the way to work. He is an everyman, absorbing the shitty, inherently unfair nature of the world, the abuse and hatred and sickness to be found on the radio, in the newspaper, in the comments and actions of coworkers and friends and neighbours. He takes that pent-up, barely-concealed rage and hatred and turns it into something real, something that he can only chain up and pray it does not get lose. It is The Dog – and The Dog is a terrifying character that gets developed throughout the novella, less an animal and more of a creation, something hideous created from the worst thoughts and feelings and aspects of The Master. It is emotion incarnate and yet also a force of nature, one made into an animate and strangely substantial form, a metaphor made flesh that cannot be controlled once it has assumed its chosen form. It’s a frankly brilliant creation by Daegmorgan, utterly terrifying and insidious in nature and action, and its very existence keeps it in my mind even after I’ve finished reading the novella. It is haunting in every sense and meaning of the word, and utterly essential to the nature of the novella. Around The Master and The Dog orbit a number of lesser characters – lesser not because they are poorly written, but because of the very opposite reason: Daegmorgan cleverly provides us a roster of ephemeral characters who come and go, influencing The Master in some way, or falling foul of The Dog, as insubstantial and inconsequential as the rage that fills The Master and which The Dog embodies.
I’ve never quite written a review like this before, but then until now I’ve never read a book quite like The Dog. I usually pride myself on structured, carefully considered reviews that move from point to point; but Raven Daegmorgan’s novella has caught me completely off guard and deeply unsettled me, albeit in the best possible way. I read The Dog in a single night and wrote this review at the same time, only pausing to sleep fitfully and briefly edit it this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Weird Horror title like this before, and perhaps not even a title in the entire Horror genre. I’m rambling slightly, but only because I’m still processing the sublime writing, the deeply evocative atmosphere and setting, and the frankly haunting characterisation to be found in this novella. This is nothing less than a work of art by Raven Daegmorgan, one that perfectly encompasses the core concepts of the Weird Horror genre, and Mike Davis and Lovecraft eZine Press have done us a great service by publishing it for us to read. It is utterly incredible to discover that this is Daegmorgan’s first long-form published work, given how slick and polished the novella is; and I have an absolute certainty that this is an author who will rapidly become synonymous with the Weird Horror genre – soon to be spoken of in the same breath as Raab, Bartlett, Padgett and other greats of the genre. I cannot recommend this novella strongly enough, and cannot wait to see what Daegmorgan comes up with next.