Andrew Doran and the Scroll of Nightmares
Matthew Davenport was one of the first Cthulhu Mythos authors I reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, and his series of novels and short stories featuring Andrew Doran – a fist-fighting, gun-toting Arkham University professor who goes toe to toe with Nazi agents, cultists and beings from outside our fragile reality – remain some of my favourite Mythos stories. Davenport has a wit, imagination and writing style that brings Doran and his universe to life in a way I’ve rarely seen in other titles in the genre, and there’s also some immense satisfaction to be gained in the way that Davenport inverts one of the key tropes of the Lovecraftian genre: that rather than being a book-bound, feeble academic overwhelmed and destroyed by the merest hint of the truth to be found in the Mythos, Andrew Doran instead is a character strong enough to fight back against the non-euclidian monstrosities and their human puppets. It all makes for absolutely delightful and immensely entertaining, unashamedly pulpy globe-trotting stories set against the chaos and conflict of the 1930s, and when the author offered me a review copy of the latest Andrew Doran adventure – Andrew Doran and the Scroll of Nightmares – I couldn’t wait to get reading and see what the good professor and his allies would be up against this time.
Opening in Namibia in southern Africa, we find Professor Doran once again searching for the fabled and powerful Book of Eibon, in the hope of securing the immensely powerful – and corrupting – tome before any of the numerous cultists and occult powers in the world can get their hands on it instead. After passing through some delightfully inventive and devilish traps – including one that summons some fascinating alternate versions of Doran from parallel realities – Doran and companion Nancy are able to secure a piece of mysterious, rune-scrawled parchment, only to be confronted by Nazi soldiers under the command of a general of the Ahnenerbe – Heinrich Himmler’s elite cadre of occult archaeologists searching for alien artifacts to help the Third Reich conquer the world. Before Doran and Nancy can react, however, the Ahnenerbe troops are ambushed by crazed cultists; who are then in turn attacked by heavily-armed soldiers from the US Army.
Escaping with the soldiers, who at least appear to be on their side, Doran and Nancy find themselves in the company of the United States Esoteric Cavalry, a secretive branch of the US armed forces who are waging a war against both the Ahnenerbe and various other occult forces. The USEC want to know everything Doran knows about the Lovecraftian forces arrayed against him, and being sought by Nazis and cultists alike; and they’ll get it whether Doran wants to cooperate or not. And that’s not even mentioning their own dark secrets that Doran rapidly encounters. Reluctantly rallying with the USEC, Doran and Nancy return to Arkham and Miskatonic University, only to find themselves under siege within the confines of the University campus, as a horde of undead and demonic monsters are summoned by unknown enemies in order to secure access to the mysterious Book of Eibon. Faced with an impossible situation, where allies are turned into ravenous monsters and the lives and very souls of his small cadre of friends and remaining allies seem at risk of destruction and damnation, Doran is forced to make a drastic deal with an very old and very ancient enemy in order to triumph; but in doing so, changes both himself and his fate forever.
Andrew Doran and the Scroll of Nightmares is a short piece of fiction, slightly longer than a novella, but such is Davenport’s skill as a writer, and his growing confidence in writing Doran and the universe that the character inhabits, that he manages to pack a huge amount of content into such a small wordcount. Davenport continues to deftly integrate existing elements of the extended Lovecraftian Mythos into the Andrew Doran continuity, ensuring that it has a familiar background for occult and Lovecraftian fans, while simultaneously introducing his own unique and original elements; he flawlessly integrates both old and new concepts in order to create something fresh, engaging and even innovative within the Lovecraftian genre. With his vivid, energetic and seemingly unlimited imagination, Davenport further expands on the dark, esoteric and distinctly bloodstained history and academic reputation of Miskatonic University, as well as creating something entirely new in the mysterious and heavily-armed USEC. In fact, the latter is such a brilliant idea, and so well integrated into the Mythos, that I would go so far as to say that it could well be Davenport’s defining contribution to the on-going and ever-evolving Mythos metanarrative; he leaves more than enough subtle hints and indications that the USEC has a history spanning back much further than the onset of the Second World War, and I was delighted to be informed by the author via social media that he’s begun work on a spin-off series focusing solely on the USEC and its chequered history.
Of course, the narrative alone wouldn’t hold the book together if the other elements failed to coalesce, so I’m glad to report that Davenport’s writing, atmosphere and characters are as good as they’ve ever been. The narrative is fast-paced, action-packed and nuanced enough to avoid becoming trite or predictable, with Davenport throwing in a few red herrings to keep us guessing as to where the plot is exactly leading, and he also maintains the overarching atmosphere that has suited the Andrew Doran series so well: that idea that, while the sanity-shattering reality of the Outer Gods is inevitable, there are other options to resist and delay their schemes than simply curling up and waiting to die, or outright worship of them. We see that in the fiery, stubborn determination shown by Professor Doran, as well as Nancy’s desire to do what is right despite her limited (but growing) powers. And it’s also demonstrated in the appearance of the USEC – both in the form of Sergeant Harvey Neil, veteran USEC operative, and Jack – the strange, secretive soldier with a terrifying secret that demonstrates the lengths the USEC will go to protect American interests.
Andrew Doran and the Scroll of Nightmares is not only the best book in the Doran series, I firmly believe that it is the best book that Matthew Davenport has written so far. As I’ve followed his career with keen interest, I’ve witnessed an author who has demonstrated an intuitive understanding of the core concepts of the Cthulhu/Lovecraftian Mythos to an extent that few of his peers have managed to achieve, as well as a writer who is continually improving his craft. There’s a confidence in the novel that I haven’t seen before, both in its writing and in its overarching narrative and atmosphere, blending together the existing Mythos with Davenport’s own creations to create something fresh and potent, with highly potent worldbuilding bursting with fresh ideas and concepts. Andrew Doran and the Scroll of Nightmares is one of the best Mythos novels I have read in quite some time, written by an author at the top of his game, and I cannot wait to see what he is brewing up next; whatever it is, you can guarantee that I’ll be at the forefront of its readers.