The Devourer Below (Arkham Horror) – Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells (ed.) – Review

The Devourer Below

Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells (ed.)

Aconyte Books

I’m a huge fan of Aconyte Books and the many board games and role-playing games that they are adapting into novels and anthologies, and I’ve been deeply impressed by the way in which they have slowly but surely expanded the range of properties to develop while still consistently retaining the high quality of prose, covers and authors shown in their earliest releases despite now having published dozens of titles. Of all of their product lines, I’ve most enjoyed their relaunching of the venerable Arkham Horror setting – the cover art has been absolutely stunning, the choice of authors inspired, and the stories themselves anything but cliched and boring. So I was delighted to see that an Arkham Horror anthology was due to be released entitled The Devourer Below, collecting together eight stories by a variety of authors – both those like Josh Reynolds who have previously written Arkham Horror titles, and those new to the corrupted, sea salt-tinged Jazz Age corruption of the New England town. I was particularly excited to see Thomas Parrott had a story in the Table of Contents – Parrott is a talented up-and-coming author able to write fantastic stories across a variety of genres, and I was curious to see what spin he would put on Arkham and its inhabitants. Taken together with that cover art by John Coulthart – simultaneously lavish and unsettling – it was a package I couldn’t wait to devour – or perhaps get devoured in turn!

The collection opens with Running the Night Whiskey by Evan Dicken, an author I was familiar with from reading his superb Warhammer: Age of Sigmar novella The Red Hours, one of the finest novellas to be recently published by Black Library. Leo De Luca is an independent producer of moonshine in Arkham, and was doing just swell until local hoodlum Johnny V paid off local law enforcement to smash up his stills and seize his goods. Now owing a large amount of money to the gangster, a scuffle with his enforcers one night leads Leo to a fortunate encounter with an old friend from his days in the trenches over in France. The friend  – Donny – gives Leo an offer that seems too good to be true – accompany him across the Canadian border to meet with a strange man brewing a potent new moonshine known as ‘night whiskey’ and smuggle it back into Arkham. A single trip would see Leo clear his debts and then some, so despite his concerns he agrees to join Donny on the trip. A strange Model T trailing the two men, a flooded town supposedly full of witches who kidnapped children, and the strange behaviour of the man selling the night whiskey all serve to put Leo on edge; and once they’ve picked up their illicit cargo, there’s a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat car chase between Leo’s supercharged car and his new opponents, crashing through fields and tearing along country roads. Evading pursuit is just the beginning, however, as Leo soon discovers that the night whiskey attracts a completely new – and disturbingly inhuman – kind of attention than he’s used to getting. Fast-paced and cinematic, with punchy prose and a chilling atmosphere as the true nature of the night whiskey is slowly revealed, Dicken provides a great start to the collection. It’s followed by Shadows Dawning by Georgina Kamsika, an author I wasn’t familiar with prior to starting the collection. Litany Chantler didn’t have the best relationship with her husband, a local butcher, but there were rare moments of happiness: cut short by his brutal murder. Now she works her way through the darkness of Arkham, following a chain of people, places and clues to hunt her husband’s murderers. Why doesn’t she call the police? Because his killers aren’t normal men – they’re cultists and ghouls, inhuman beings who gutted her husband for refusing to hand over his meat for their rituals. It’s an intriguing angle on the Arkham Horror setting, and Kamsika does a fantastic job of developing the concept: Lita isn’t a noirish detective or moonshine-runner with a fast car. She’s just an ordinary citizen of Arkham caught up in occult machinations, and trying to get revenge as best she can in a world where you can only trust yourself, and the authorities are either indifferent, or members of the cult themselves. Kamsika gives us an atmospheric, thought-provoking and original take on the Arkham Horror setting; it’s one of the best stories in the entire collection, and one I’d be keen to see expanded upon.

Josh Reynolds is not only one of my favourite authors generally,  in my opinion he’s also one of the best authors writing for Aconyte Books right now, able to deftly turn his hand to whichever property he’s writing about. His recent novel Wrath of N’Kai demonstrated his innate understanding of Arkham Horror as a setting and how to get the most out of it, and his story in this collection, The Hounds Below, is no different. Holsten is an amateur writer attempting to interview Phillip Drew, a man accused of cannibalism and a host of other horrific crimes, and now residing in Arkham Sanatorium. Begrudgingly granted an interview with Drew by the inmate’s clinicians, Holsten meets the strange man, who lurks naked in a deliberately darkened cell to avoid hurting eyes now sensitive to even the smallest amount of light, and hears the story behind his condition and subsequent incarceration. But it soon becomes clear as the narrative progresses that both inmate and interviewer have secrets that are not immediately apparent, and what starts as a simple interview soon escalates into something far more sinister – and with potentially fatal consequences. Drawing on one of Lovecraft’s most well-known stories to create some interesting parallels, and linking into the overarching narrative of the machinations of the mysterious Cult of Umôrdhoth as it spreads throughout Arkham, Reynolds deftly weaves a compelling and atmospheric story with a delightfully disquieting ending.

Labyrinth is the first of Thomas Parrot’s duology of stories in the collection, and concerns Joe Diamond, one of the city’s many private eyes; he receives an anonymous package with photographs and copies of police files. A stranger to Arkham, intensely paranoid, recently killed by something that made him rot from the heart outwards. A young woman harassed by strange whispers and shadowy figures. The strange tattoo linking them both together. Unable to sit back and let someone head towards a seemingly certain death, Diamond begins investigating the strange tattoo and the forces behind it. But what does it have to do with ancient mythology – and the strange story of Prince Theseus and the Cretian Labyrinth? And of the strange cult infesting the island? This is one of the few stories that seems to actually bring Arkham itself- its architecture, its atmosphere, its unique character –  into the reader’s head, portraying it in a manner I’ve not quite seen before; but then from my experience of his previous works, Parrot is a master of atmosphere and bringing settings to life. Exactly the same can be applied to ancient Crete when the story travels back in time – it’s another well-protected location, infested with some genuinely unsettling enemies and imbued with a dark atmosphere. Taken together with the clever retelling of a certain mythological tale, and you have a stand-out tale in an already stand-out collection.

Moving into the latter half of the collection, All My Friends Are Monsters

by Davide Mana is an unusual story, in which Ruth, a mortuary worker, finds forbidden love in the murky depths of a speakeasy, only to be blackmailed by Umôrdhoth cultists into letting them take corpses from the mortuary in exchange for their silence about her ‘immoral’ activities. Mana gives us an artful study of a normal resident of Arkham once again caught up in the insanity bubbling away just underneath the city’s surface, and the mental and physical damage that exposure to that insanity does to them. Ruth becomes more and more detached from her life, watching hideous ghouls take away abandoned corpses from the mortuary, and trying to balance an illicit relationship with the woman she loves. There are some unsettling allusions that Mana draws between these different groups and their need to stay under society’s radar, and it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing that greatly enhances the collection.

The Darkling Woods by Cath Lauria takes the intriguing idea to focus on Wendy and James, a pair of street-smart urchins making a living on the grim, shadowy streets of Arkham through thievery and other illicit activities, just trying to stay alive and ahead of the law – and other, far more dangerous groups. Wendy generally understands which people to rob and which to avoid, but on the run from a vicious gang leader, she and James arrive at a boarding house run by Mrs Duncan. Seemingly friendly at first, as the hours go by the landlady becomes more and more sinister in her intentions, especially when she strong-arms Wendy into going into the  war by forest; the deep, dark, creepy forest that the drunk bootlegger at the bar warns her against. Armed only with her wits and her mother’s special amulet, Wendy must save herself and her brother from the things in the woods. Great atmosphere, some subtle but engaging characterisation, and an intriguing object in the form of the amulet, make this a memorable story by Lauria.

The collection’s penultimate story, Professor Warren’s Investiture, is by Warhammer veteran David Annaldale, and an author I consider to be a deeply accomplished scifi and horror writer; his entries in the Warhammer Horror imprint have been some of the best fiction ever published by Black Library. Taking us to the Anthropology Department of Miskatonic University, Annandale focuses on Peter Warren, professor of Anthropology and a man who has been obsessively working on a book about the occult for several decades now. A book, so Warren hopes, will impose a system of order on the chaos that is occult lore; somehow categorise the uncategorisable. Approached by a new colleague, someone claiming to truly understand what it is he is trying to achieve, Warren soon finds himself immersed to far greater depths of occult knowledge – and far worse things – than he could ever have imagined. Annandale weaves a tale that is horrifying and unsettling in equal measures, as he demonstrates that knowledge is never neutral – and always has a price. Thomas Parrott finishes the collection with the second of his stories, Sins in the Blood, continuing the story of P.I. Joe Diamond and his investigation into the cult. Parrott has the difficult job of tying up the entire collection, pulling together those various strands that have been gathering together in the previous stories, and in the hands of a less talented and assured writer this might have been a stumbling block. Fortunately, however, the talented Parrott is more than up to the task, imbuing both his own story and these narrative threads with energy, imagination and a healthy dose of black humour. Demonstrating an innate understanding of the core concept that makes the Arkham Horror setting so engaging, Parrott gives us a story in which the dread forces are thrown back and thwarted, but only at horrifying cost – and only ever temporarily.

The Devourer Below is both a hugely impressive collection of Arkham Horror short stories, and also a fascinating success story in terms of creating a shared worldbuilding experience within that setting. Not only are each of the stories engaging, atmospheric and deeply compelling slices of Jazz Age horror fiction by themselves, but editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells has ensured that every tale progresses the overarching narrative of the horrifying activities and occult plots of the Cult of Umôrdhoth, developing a cohesive and chilling meta-narrative that comes to an action-packed and quietly unsettling conclusion. It’s another success story for Llewelyn-Wells and Aconyte Books, as well as each of the authors represented in the collection, and particularly so for several authors whose stories stood out to me as particularly compelling and engaged with the setting. Georgina Kamsika’s sobering and deftly-judged story of an average citizen trying to find some measure of vengeance against a cult enmeshed in an entire city was a stand-out tale for me that stuck with me for a while after finishing the collection. And Thomas Parrott’s duology of tales featuring a Private Investigator could easily have lapsed into bland clichés and generic genre tropes, but instead shone because of the energy and wit Parrott poured into his prose, and the imaginative, intricate plotting. Both authors feel like they would be ideal candidates for future novels in the series, and I eagerly await any future work from them in the Arkham Horror setting – or any other publications from Aconyte Books.

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