13 August 2007

Terror in Old Ægypt: "Nyarlatophis"

I have to admit I'm actually a bit torn about reviewing "Nyarlathopis," for two reasons.

  1. Sargent has an obvious affection for the source material.
  2. Whatever else I can accuse "Nyarlathopis" of, it definitely was not lazily written.

The concept for the story certainly has a lot of promise: Nyarlathotep (Nyarlathopis being the more accurately Egyptian version of his name) tries to conquer Egypt in the 13th century BC but does not succeed. The story is based on the first-hand account of the Pharaoh's lead adviser at the time. Considering that Nyarlathotep is a vaguely Egyptian figure, putting him into an Egyptian milieu should generate some interesting results. And Sargent provides a lot of historical detail, covering everything from Egyptian mythology to its governance structure.

Despite all this potential, the story never really transcends the level of mere pastiche at which most Cthulhu mythos fiction seems to aim.The story is beset by anachronisms which serve to undermine whatever sense of suspense or weirdness the plot should generate. Sargent writes in a straightforward descriptive style which whatever its merits is completely wrong for this story, for it fails to capture the feel of an ancient text documenting an epic struggle against an unimaginable evil. Certainly a style more in keeping with that associated with ancient texts (the Bible, Hammurabi legend, Beowulf, etc.) would have been more appropriate. It would not even have had to be particularly authentic to provide the requisite atmosphere of weirdness. (And being a weird tale, however derivative, a sense of the weird is always a plus.)

The stylistic problems are compounded when more outlandish concepts are introduced. (And this being a Cthulhu mythos tale, outlandish concepts are kind of a prerequisite.) Concepts such as "the other side of the universe" or the primal chaos at the center of creation are handled as if they were fairly straightforward concepts, despite the fact that they are being presented by a narrator who thought the sun was a chariot and had never seen a body of water larger than the Nile. (Or perhaps the Mediterranean.)

A few other factors serve to dull the atmosphere, among them the muddling of the mythos and the author's info dumping. Sargent sets up a religious war between the Egyptian gods and the Cthulhu Mythos, a somewhat Derlethian approach which reduces Nyarlathotep to a cartoon villain. As for the info dumping, because the author has placed the story in a setting with which his audience is likely unfamiliar, he has to provide quite a bit of background information. At first, this is provided by the framing story of the translated papyrus, but a lot of information is still provided by the narrative itself which leads to inauthentic digressions while the narrator explains things that his expected audience should be familiar with. While some people may consider the use of footnotes in fiction distracting or (even worse!) postmodern, when you're tale is framed as a historical document it is an effective way to bridge the gap between the fictional audience and the real audience. After all, what is the point of all those details to add veracity to the tale if they are introduced in a way which completely undermines that veracity.

I am perhaps being a bit harsh; as I said before, most of this kind of writing is written at the level of pastiche. The story certainly ranks above average in comparison with the majority of mythos fiction, lifted a bit by the detailed historical setting. If you're a fan of Lumley's Titus Crow or August Derleth's various works, you would probably enjoy this story. If you're, like me, a bit jaded regarding Cthulhu Mythos fiction, you'll probably find it sadly lackluster.

Next up is my final entry regarding "The Taint of Lovecraft"

09 August 2007

Mythos Inversion: "Live Bait" and "The Black Brat of Dunwich"

Though each of these two stories is substantial enough to merit its own review, they share enough similarities that I should comment on them together. Both stories take place in a world where Lovecraft was a sort of reclusive Truman Capote, writing non-fiction using the tools of fiction. Both stories also attempt an inversion of the good/evil spectrum present in the original Lovecraft stories to which they refer.

To expand a bit on the first point, "Live Bait" features a businessman making a visit to the town at the center of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," a story based largely on the nameless narrator's first hand narration to HPL. "The Black Brat of Dunwich" is the story of two researchers who meet someone with a rather different account of the events that took place in "The Dunwich Horror," which was based on a combination of newspaper coverage and HPL's interviews with Henry Armitage.

[I've always found Lovecraftian stories featuring Lovecraft as non-fiction author to be something of a cheat, though "Black Brat" manages to use this tired concept in an interesting way.]

And just to cut to the chase, since it will become obvious soon enough, of the two stories "Black Brat" was certainly the strongest. "Live Bait" starts strong and has moments of suspense and a few good ideas, but its attempt to cast the Deep Ones as victims fails to "humanize" them to the extent that the author may have intended. (It doesn't help that Lovecraft's original story ends with the human/monster dichotomy already shredded. Had "Shadow" ended right after the narrator's escape, the inversion would seem much fresher.) The Innsmouth locals are little better than caricatures, more like copies of Deliverance hillbillies than truly sinister individuals. (Though Sargent does a fairly good job of copying Lovecraft's odd Innsmouth dialect.)

By way of contrast, "Black Brat" is a pretty successful "humanization" of Wilbur Whateley. It falters a bit at the end; Sargent seems to be straining to wrap everything up a little too neatly. By contrast, the middle section dealing with Wilbur and the inconsistencies in Lovecraft's tale is fairly thought provoking. There is an interesting tone of homoeroticism brought to the material which surprised me on my first reading, but on a second reading it seemed very appropriate, resonating with Lovecraft's theme of alienation and body horror. Sargent handles the theme well, pushing it enough to get you thinking without letting it become heavy-handed.

Next: "Nyarlatophis"

08 August 2007

Sargent's Taint: "Their Love of Craft"

Stanley Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft kicks off with the science fiction/horror hybrid "Their Love of Craft." Having read a fair share of Lovecraft-inspired short fiction, I've developed something of a loose hierarchy or classification scheme. At the top are stories which manage to echo Lovecraft's work yet bring an author's individual approach to it. (i.e. Ligotti, T.E.D. Klein, Karl Wagner) At the bottom are works which attempt to slavishly copy Lovecraft without managing a whit of suspense or mystery. (Authors to remain nameless.) And while "Their Love of Craft" doesn't quite rise to the heights of the former, it certainly doesn't sink to the depths of the latter.

The story is a cross between At the Mountains of Madness and The Forbidden Planet. Though somewhat derivative, the unlikelihood of the pairing (and the unexpected resonances between the two sources) make for an entertaining story. Sargent does pile on a bit with Lovecraftian in-jokes, which almost border on being too clever, yet he still gives the story an atmosphere of subtle dread or mystery as one would expect from the Old Gent himself. Well, somewhat more subtle than HPL, but its presence is always welcome even in a story with it's tongue halfway in its cheek. (Somewhat reminiscent of Kim Newman's "Big Fish" in this department.) The ending, italicized in the style of HPLs older stories, is darkly (or grossly) funny in a way that felt a bit anticlimactic, but the story otherwise balances its horror and humor elements pretty well.

Next up is Mythos Inversion: "Live Bait" and "The Black Brat of Dunwich"

07 August 2007

Reviewing Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft - Preamble

I find it tricky to review collections of short stories. Even when they come from the same author, there tends to be a certain degree of variety in the stories even if all from the same author. (Sargent's book being no exception.) I'm not fond of oversimplification, so attempting to sum up a collection of stories feels somewhat wrong or at least beyond my current ability to achieve successfully. My tendency would be to review each story individually, but I imagine this would make for an unnecessarily long-winded review, one perhaps itself lacking in cohesion.

So, in approaching Stanley Sargent's The Taint of Lovecraft I've decided that the most reasonable thing to do might be to split the difference. I will review several stories individually, followed by a review of several of the lesser stories, then I will attempt to conclude with a summary of some sort. In all likelihood, I will skip over the poetry (for which I have no ear), though I may comment on the essays.

My first entry: "Their Love of Craft"