Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Review: The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

By Randy Stafford

Sammons, Brian M., ed. The Dark Rites of Cthulhu. April Moon Books, 2014. Paperback: USD $15.74; Kindle: USD $2.99. ISBN: 978-0-9937180-0-7.

April Moon Books’ first title doesn’t go off the editorial rails at any point. Each story fulfills the promise of the title. None is bad; a few are outstanding. Whatever your definition of “Lovecraftian” fiction is – cosmic horror and futility, soul crushing knowledge, monsters, or blasphemous books – I think you’ll find one to meet it.

I’d even call some of them outstanding, given that they stuck in my mind due to their novel concepts and skillful construction.

Lovecraft-meets-Clifford Simak’s City is not something I ever expected to see. Jeffrey Thomas’ “The Dogs” pulls off being sweet and touching, horrifying and enigmatic in a plot that has a man, looking at the future of his city through a magic window, seeing all humanity dead and descendants of dogs conducting strange rituals. And there’s a background of ghoul murders, too.

Robert M. Price’s Lovecraftian fiction has not impressed me that much, but I really liked his “The Grey Rite of Azathoth.” Combining Price’s interest in academic studies in Christianity with Lovecraft, the story has Joseph Curwen resurrecting a crucial historical figure and confronting a religious scholar with his reality.

If you’re a Mythos hero, there’s a fair chance you’re going to end up in the madhouse. But the problems of Christine Morgan’s heroine only start in “The Mindhouse.” A well-executed half-of-a-conversation narrative voice and novel concept made this memorable.

Maybe because I once knew an amateur magician, I particularly enjoyed the travails of the struggling professional magician of Brian M. Sammons’ “The Murder at the Motel.” Our hero is flattered when another, better magician takes an interest in him. Humor and real magic of the blackest kind ensue.

Of the remaining stories, most have contemporary or near-contemporary settings. Exceptions are some nice historical pieces. Charleston, South Carolina in the 1920s is the setting of Josh Reynolds’ “Dead Man Tongue.” We see a bit of what Harley Warren and Randolph Carter were up to before that fateful night in a Florida graveyard.

A twist on the faithful lover rescuing the object of his desire is at the heart of Sam Stone’s “The Vessel,” set in New Orleans just before Benjamin Butler’s troops occupy it during the American Civil War.

T.E. Grau’s “The Half Made Thing” is the most description-heavy story in the book. With little dialogue, and set in an England of coaches and country estates, its boy protagonist must deal with an unpleasant stepmother who exerts a strange control over his father.

Solving that old problem of book theft at Miskatonic U’s library is the setup for Pete Rawlik’s “Changing of the Guard,” set shortly after the events of “The Dunwich Horror.”

Closer in time is Glynn Owen Barrass’ “The Bride of the Beast” with an investigation into graveyard murders in 1970s London.

Several of the contemporary stories also use that old reliable device of detectives uncovering sanity-straining, mind-blowing horrors. A murder-suicide involving a stock broker starts “The Keeper of the Gate” from William Meikle. I admit that I found this a bit of a disappointment, especially in its treatment of the philosophical issues raised, from a writer I normally like.

The hero of C.J. Henderson’s “The Nest of Pain” is just a regular detective and not one of his usual occult ones. He’s made the mistake of opening his business in Arkham and is called in to investigate a seeming case of possession.

The narrator of Scott T. Goudsward’s “With Death Comes Life” has to do his own investigating to find out why his girlfriend slit her throat at the breakfast table. The story ends with a narrative conceit that I’m seeing more of, which I’m not sure entirely works. Still, Goudsward doesn’t let the tension slack after that stunning opener.

Tom Lynch’s “Of Circles and Rings” is not the first mashup of kung fu and Lovecraft, but it’s still fun. It also has the same problematic ending as the Goudsward story.

Edward M. Erdelac’s “Black Tallow” is not one of his Merkabah Rider stories (ably reviewed for IFP by J. Keith Haney) but The Infernalis from that series does show up. Its narrator is hired by a very rich friend to do some rush translation work on some occult tomes he owns. An enjoyable tale for its elaborations on the whole business of forbidden books.

There are no occult tomes in Don Webb’s thoroughly modern “Like Comment Share.” Its narrator gets an invitation to join the Green God Game. He finds a covert network of fellow game players at his job. Following odd, sometimes enriching, suggestions, they begin to wonder if it’s an alternate-reality game or something else.

There’s even a futuristic tale in John Goodrich’s “The Dark Horse.” On an Earth ruled by Cthulhu, and where fish-men guard women forced to gestate inhuman spawn, a wandering sorcerer claims his spell can change things. He teaches it to a young woman, a survivor who wanders the ruins of New York City, and she becomes a missionary to spread the words.

Finally, I have to applaud April Moon Books for doing something extra with this anthology. Each story opens with a minimalist, but evocative, black-and-white illustration. Coupled with the satisfying efforts of the writers and editor, that definitely makes this a recommended purchase.