Book Review: Three Neo-Lovecraftian novellas from Publishing

15 Nov

In the last two years, Tor.Com’s publishing division has been publishing novellas and novels engaging with elements of Lovecraft’s Mythos. With the body of Lovecraft’s work outside of copyright or at least in dispute, the Mythos has proven a fertile ground in recent years for authors who want to explore Lovecraft, react to it, make it their own.

In Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin Kiernan, the author ties together elements of Lovecraft along with her own creation of the mysterious Signalman, a government agent of rather unusual provenance. Add in a mysterious contact in the vicinity of Pluto, a distinctive narrative voice, and a narrative told out of sequence. It’s Lovecraft as seen through a strong literary bent, which is perhaps 180 degrees away from Lovecraft’s Pulp homeground. And amazingly, for being everything that Lovecraft is not, it is unquestionably in dialogue and an addition to the Mythos. Kieran manages to bring the Mythos to literary fiction. Kiernan’s skills bring a whole new look at Lovecraft’s work. The Signalman as a character is a real star whose development and direction by the author makes him leap off of the page. It’s perhaps the less accessible of the new crop of Neo-Lovecraftian fiction of what I have read from Tor, meaning that I would not recommend readers from a SFF and Lovecraft bent start here. The unique voice and style are singular and are not really indicative of the form. This is a novella, though, that I would hand someone who was deeply immersed in literary fiction, familiar with its forms, and wanted to try something with a fantastic bent.  In some ways, they are an even better audience than someone who has read Lovecraft and SFF.

The other two novellas are on far more solid SFF ground, although with their own twist.

In Hammers on Bone, the first of the Persons Non Grata novellas of Cassandra Khaw, we go for a more working-class perspective and universe for Lovecraft, as well as an alien one as well. John Persons is a Private Detective, taking jobs where and how he can in a rather hardscrabble sort of existence that hard-boiled detectives in fiction could realize. After all, when your client is a ten-year-old boy, it says something rather profound about your state. Of course, the additional wrinkle about John Persons is that he himself is a rather inhuman monster, inside. Hammers on Bone is a story about monsters fighting other monsters, and dealing with the monster inside, as well as dealing with the monster menacing your client. The third present present narrative voice that Khaw provides here gives a strong immediacy to John’s story as well, giving it a real noir feel to the brutal proceedings. That working class perspective on display in this novella is in many ways as far away from the literary, academic focus that a lot of Lovecraft protagonists have that you can get.  Khaw really shows that the tentacles of the Lovecraft universe can lurk and emerge in any sort of environment. 

In A Song for Quiet, the second of Khaw’s novellas, the focus changes once again to an itinerant musician, Deacon James, being drawn to Arkham. James’ pull toward Arkham is something that he himself does not quite understand. This draw brings in Persons from the first novella, but the story of a song in one’s head, a song that can change the world, and perhaps end it, belongs firmly to Deacon. Again, that narrative voice, this time focusing primarily on Deacon, brings the story front and center. If Hammers on Bone is a sharp jangle of irresistable discord, then A Song for Quiet is a slowly building dark melody that consumes a reader in the telling, drawing them inexorably toward the ending. Music and Lovecraft is not a new combination, and in some senses, A Song for Quiet reminded me of John Hornor Jacob’s Southern Gods. That book, like this novella, explored how the blues, and the mad heat of music and creativity can be an opening to the Mythos. It’s a powerful, heady song that is absolutely unstoppable once it gets going. I was delighted that this second Persona Non Grata novella feels distinct and different, and does not require the first novella to fully and completely enjoy.

With authors like Kiernan and Khaw, and a growing stable of others, has established itself as one of the central places to explore Lovecraft’s Mythos. From direct engagement with Lovecraftian stories, to allusions and reactions to them, to simply using the playground of his imagination, there is a lot to like in these novellas and books. For many readers, particularly women and persons of color, Lovecraft is an author who does not speak for or to them, save in very negative ways. Authors like Khaw and Kiernan, in these three novellas,  are reclaiming the Mythos for a wider audience. These novellas, too, are not heavily reliant on prior knowledge of the Mythos to work for readers. Certainly, a reader well versed in Lovecraft will enjoy those allusions, references and connections, but unlike some of the Neo-Lovecraftian fiction out lately, these three novellas provide a fresh entry point for those who have not wanted to touch Lovecraft before now. Lovecraftian Mythos has much to say, much to darkly reflect in the waters of Lake Hali for everyone, and these two authors help prove that and make that happen.

And with Charles Stross’ Neo-Lovecraftian Laundry Files novels also now coming out from Tor Dot Com Publishing, it is a good time to start exploring and engaging with the often problematic legacy of Lovecraft through these three works. I for one am most eager to see what next comes from these authors and this imprint.

Readers interested in even more Neo-Lovecraftian novellas by Tor might like my BN SCi FI review of Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe.


5 Responses to “Book Review: Three Neo-Lovecraftian novellas from Publishing”

  1. Jameswolanyk November 16, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    Just a quick, obscure question: Seeing as most Eldritch horrors were designed for rather glacially paced, slow-burning HP Lovecraft tales, do you feel that there’s any disconnect between the idea of the “human” protagonists and the invincible evil they’re dealing with? Our modern era seems like “kill the monster” as a de facto solution.

    • Paul Weimer November 16, 2017 at 1:48 pm #

      The thing about these stories is that none of them go for that “kill the monster” solution. A lot of the NeoLovecraft explores Monsters as people, and protagonists beyond human. That cosmic perspective is sometimes in these books (Agents of Dreamland, particularly) and sometimes its a much narrower story (like Hammers on Bone). There are many ways “To Lovecraft”

      • Jameswolanyk November 16, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

        Awesome. Just what I was looking for – looks like I’ll need to place some orders. Thanks, friend.

      • bossdrive525 November 17, 2017 at 3:34 pm #

        Forgive my credulity, but it seems to me that exploring monsters as people is antithetic to the Lovecraftian mythos. Unless, of course, you are dealing with archetypes like lycanthropes.

        However, Lovecraft tradition demands apocalyptic monsters of the supernatural sort, which do not possess human attributes.

      • Paul Weimer November 17, 2017 at 4:22 pm #


        There is plenty of Lovecraft fiction that nary a apocalyptic monster appears. Lovecraft is not ONLY about Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep. Those are always in the background, sure, but its not all about that. Heck, a lot of people who know the name Lovecraft haven’t even touched his prose poetry and the dark beauty that they possess. And then there lots of his stories that do deal with monstrous people. So I don’t see these novellas as antithetical to the Mythos at all.

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