Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Review: Eldritch Chrome: Unquiet Tales of a Mythos-Haunted Future

Sammons, Brian M. and Barrass, Glynn Owen, eds. Eldritch Chrome: Unquiet Tales of a Mythos-Haunted Future. Chaosium, 2013. $17.95. ISBN: 978-1568823898.

Past, present, or future, you’re always screwed in a Lovecraftian universe. Even victories are only temporary and sanity precarious. Computers, capitalism and corporations only add to the problem.

The literary genes of the Man from Providence have proven quite good at splicing themselves into other genre genomes. Out in the disrupted publishing ecosystem we have now, they’ve swapped their memes with all kinds of other stories. Thus we have western Mythos, Sword and Mythos, private-eye Mythos, and historical Mythos. Innsmouth Free Press’s own Future Lovecraft even had some cyberpunk stories. Eldritch Chrome advertises itself as being all “Cyberpunk-Cthulhu tales.”

If you insist all the stories in a theme anthology actually use that theme, you are going to be disappointed in this book. My definition of cyberpunk is a near-future science fiction story of high-tech and low-life. The editors see cyberpunk as gritty film noir-type stories of people living at the bottom rung of an “electronic society gone awry.” My fellow old timers may even expect mutations on the sort of story appearing in William Gibson’s Burning Chrome. The book’s introduction even makes a broken promise to have a story by cyberpunk pioneer John Shirley, who co-authored a story in that collection. Some of these stories fail to conform to any of those three expectations.

That’s the downside. Abandon those expectations, though, and you’ll have a pretty good time with this book. Tastes for literary games, satire, horror, humor, and wonder are all satisfied here.
David Conyers’ “The Playgrounds of Angolaland” met all my specs. Set in the future of his excellent Harrison Peel series (Peel’s uploaded mind shows up), this has a merc caught up in corporate intrigue to use information stolen from an Elder Thing library. A fast moving story in a hellish world of slow human degradation, it was the highlight of the book.

The prose of Tim Curran’s “The Blowfly Solution” is full of Gibsonian metaphors drawn from science and technology, maybe a little too full at times. But what its detective hero – in the employ of Mother, the computer that runs the world – learns in his pursuit of a serial killer known as the Crawling Face is horrifying and riveting. As with so many stories in the book, there’s a nod to a specific Lovecraft story.

The third highlight was C.J. Henderson’s “Indifference.” No allusion to any Lovecraft work here. Its ex-FBI agent investigates an outbreak of puzzling mental breakdowns on a college campus and finds something new birthing behind the computer screens we all spend so much time looking at.

Cyberpunk notions of one sort or another show up in several other enjoyable, if second-tier, stories. Nickolas Cook’s “The Wurms in the Grid” has a clever cybersphere variation on Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Its hacker heroes find themselves working for a dodgy tech billionaire who wants a virus removed that is infecting his digital library.

The hero of William Meikle’s “SymbiOS” gets more than he expected after he buys a brain implant in order to find his way back to gainful employment. What do you expect when you use something that’s a combination of flatworm and some tar-like substance found in the Antarctic?

The ex-merc-turned-private eye, complete with brain augmentation, of Michael Tice’s “Inlibration” is set on another of those missions to get the Necronomicon. Tice wrings a satisfying conclusion out of this old idea.

A sort of YouTube for dreams shows up in David Dunwoody’s “Real Gone.” The anonymously posted nightmares of its heroine draw the attention of a sinister corporate entity.

Carrie Quinn’s “CL3ANS3” has, to me, a new notion: that the future mass of digital data will require human intelligence to categorize and index it in useful ways. But when the records of one Massachusetts university are examined ….

Biology and alien infections are at the center of Lois Gersh’s “Dreams of Death,” but they are described in terms of information systems. Its young protagonist, living in hiding around a future Innsmouth, desperately clings to his ever-decreasing amount of human DNA.

The tech of Tom Lynch’s “Hope Abandoned” is nothing beyond Google Glass, but there is a serviceable backstory of corporate R&D-gone-bad.

The editors’ collaboration, “The Gauntlet,” mixes a massive cult outbreak with a mecha operator downed behind enemy lines to complete a tale both horrifying and action-filled.

Jeffrey Thomas’ “Open Minded” is the first Punktown story I’ve read and I found its alien world humming with subliminal danger, danger studiously ignored by corporate pursuits. Its hero is tasked with managing a project to build travel machines for the sinister Ogim from Yuggoth. I appreciated the sinister humor at the end.

Sam Stone’s “Sonar City” seems the perverse outlier that so many theme anthologies have. It’s yet another enjoyable tale of a private eye-type character on the trail of a mystery. But it’s a world of steampunk fashions and a story of more magic than microchips.

Inverting expectations, shuffling the races of villains and victims, winking allusions, and humor all show up to one extent or another in the above stories. And they show up in stories that, probably because that’s all they had, ultimately didn’t work as well for me.

Robert M. Price’s “Obsolete, Absolute” is built on a plot of whispered notions about an underground race that created its narrator’s race. It’s kind of an arid exercise in textual interpretation of Lovecraft.

“The Battle of Arkham” from Peter Rawlik is an exercise in translating Mythos races into a military context.

Merging a mob story with the Mythos can be done satisfactorily, as witness Tim Curran’s “Eldritch-Fellas” in Hardbroiled Cthulhu.

But Ran Cartwright’s “Fish & Scales” didn’t have a plot or dialogue to interest me. However, I admit the cannibalism bits and human prostitutes servicing inhuman clients was good for a black-humored smirk or two.

Terrie Leigh Relf’s “Immune” is a post-holocaust tale of survivors rebuilding civilization at the University of California, San Diego in the wake of plague of suicides and mutations.

Finally, I confess to not being able to unravel the enigmas of D.L. Snell’s “The Place That Cannot Be.” A protagonist pained by intimate touches, sexual competition, and shadowy monsters beyond the glass enclosing an underwater city failed to come together for me.

In the end, I thought this was, on the whole, a viable batch of genre hybrids. At least a few of these stories will become opportunistic infections in your brain.