Harvest Nights: A Lovecraftian Horror Novella Inspired by Native American Myths and Colonial Times
I’ve often noted in my previous reviews of Lovecraftian Horror titles – and more generally the horror genre as a whole – that there are nowhere near enough titles that make use of pre-19th Century historical periods as would be warranted by the huge amount of unexplored potential to be found in those decades, centuries and even millennia. The contemporary horror genre does have an tendency to set the vast majority of its stories at some point in the late 20th Century or early 21st Century, which while often making those stories more relevant to a modern audience, also has the unfortunate side-effect of greatly restricting its ability to explore time periods with themes and issues that may also be just as relevant as they are today. Aconyte Book’s revived Arkham Horror imprint has done an excellent job of setting stories in the Jazz-Era age of the early 20th Century, but it’s always good to see authors write stories that are set even further in the past. As such, I was delighted to be contacted by author Ahmed Ameen to review his debut title, the Lovecraftian Horror novella Harvest Nights, which is set in the early 1800s in the Colonial-era United States of America. The eerie monochrome cover art instantly caught my attention and made me want to know more about the novella, and the back-cover blurb that Ameen provided only further whetted my appetite. The novella focuses on a young boy known as Chua, who is forced to try and survive the horrifying events that occur when the Great Comet of 1811 streaks across the night sky; days are replaced by endless nights, and terrifying, inhuman creatures emerge into the newly-forged darkness with an insatiable urge to feed. It sounded utterly bizarre and utterly delightful, and I was deeply intrigued by the concept as a whole and couldn’t wait to get started.
It becomes clear from the very start of the novella that Ameen is a horror author of rare talent, as we’re thrown into a disturbingly visceral scenario in which protagonist Chua struggles with his own body rebelling against him, limbs twisting and flesh shifting into inhuman proportions as someone – or something – attempts to either twist his body into some new, impossible shape or break out of it all together. Suddenly awaking from what was apparently a horrific nightmare, Chua discovers himself to be one of the few survivors of an attack by terrifying, monstrous creatures on the group he was traveling with. A sudden attempt at rescue by two other tribesmen in a canoe is cut short as they’re butchered by monsters lurking beneath the surface of the lake, the creatures possessing human-like appendages that they use to lure the unsuspecting men to their deaths. Shaken by the sudden brutality, but knowing he has no choice but to flee, Chua risks taking the now-abandoned canoe. He manages to escape, but safety proves to be merely an illusion even when he joins up two more survivors – a Native American woman and an American colonist. Encounters with deer-headed cultists lead to horrifying revelations both about the nature of the cultists, as well as secrets kept by some of the survivors, and culminates in impossible choices, betrayal and sacrifices as the spirits and monsters unleashed by the comet’s passing continue to infest the land. Not to mention a twist about two-thirds of the way through the novella that completely caught me by surprise and even managed to shock me, someone who considers himself a fairly jaded and cynical reader and reviewer of horror fiction. I genuinely didn’t see it coming, and it completely changes how the story is perceived by the reader, with additional read-throughs further rewarding the reader.
Rarely have I seen a new horror author demonstrate such a deft and imaginative handling of atmosphere as Ameen showcases as the novella’s narrative progresses. There’s a superb sense of confusion, terror and incoherence that slowly but surely increases as Chua flees from the monsters that have slaughtered his comrades and pursue him through the heavily-forested areas; even when the unfortunate teenager manages to link up with the other survivors, there’s no sense of safety or even a general improvement in his situation. The eldritch abominations are still behind every tree and under every rock, or lurking just beneath the eerily-calm waters, and Chua cannot even trust that those who look human are in fact corporeal and mortal. Ameen never gives Chua and his companions any time to rest or to reflect on their situation, and there’s a real sense of agonizing anxiety that threads its way through the narrative, developed with such panache and subtlety that it even begins to affect the reader. You find yourself on edge along with Chua and his companions, lurching from one hostile encounter to another and never able to rest – until that twist brings the anxiety to a fever pitch and utterly turns your viewpoint upside down and inside out.
The Lovecraftian atmosphere of the novella is deftly merged with some fascinating – and genuinely horrifying – entities and spirits from indigenous folklore that Ameen makes excellent use of, with all of them feeling much fresher and imaginative than the over-used creatures usually deployed any anyone claiming to write Lovecraftian horror; Shoggoths have absolutely nothing on something like the Dagwanoeient. The high quality of the atmosphere, prose and creatures are matched by the characterization – although only a relatively short work, each of the main characters is suitably well-developed and even begin to form inter-personal relationships, with their shared and individual traumas propelling them forward and also defining their unique reactions to the creatures hunting them; each has to come to terms with the terrifying ways the comet has changed the very fabric of nature.
Harvest Nights is one of the best horror novellas I have reviewed in a very long time, easily ranking up there with recent classics I’ve reviewed like J.D. Allen’s Silver Sky and Zachary Ashford’s When the Cicadas Stop Singing, and it has deeply impressed me in a way that very few works manage. Indeed, to merely label Harvest Nights as Lovecraftian Horror is to do both the novella and Ameen himself a great disservice, as it effortlessly merges together elements of Lovecraftian horror, body horror and occult horror with the all-too real horrors of American colonialism, slavery, and the genocidal treatment of the indigenous population by the American settlers as they relentlessly butchered their way into the continent’s interior. Shocking, horrifying and genuinely surprising by turns, with a deeply unsettling atmosphere that Ameen carefully attunes to both characters and readers as the story progresses, Harvest Nights is a superb piece of horror fiction, and I feel honored to have been one of the first to read and review it. I feel like Ahmed Ameen is going to go extremely far in the Horror genre, and I cannot wait to see where he goes – he’s firmly on my radar, and I believe before too long he’ll be on the radars of a lot more people – both readers and publishers.