Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Autumn Cthulhu, Edited by Mike Davis

Searching through a sea of Lovecraft anthologies for gems.

Autumn Cthulhu

Lovecraft Ezine Press, 2016, 408 pages

H.P. Lovecraft, the American master of horror, understood with horrible clarity that all things must die. After summer is winter, and life inevitably gives way to frozen sterility. In our modern world, we live cushioned existences, and congratulate ourselves on our supposed escape from the old dangers. We think ourselves caught out of nature's reach by our technological wizardry. Safely cocooned. This foolishness blinds us to the truth that our elder forebears could not avoid. Engulfed by the rhythms of the world, they understood... Autumn means death.

There are far worse fates than mere death, of course. As blight spreads, the leaves wither and fall - as do the most important foundations of life. There is nothing more horrible than watching the sources of meaning in your world unravel before you. But these things we cherish are just pretty lies. In autumn's cold grasp, the bright petals of our reality shrivel and die. Beneath them, there is nothing but the insanity of the howling void. Faced with inevitable, agonizing corruption, death is a gentle blessing.

The stories collected in Autumn Cthulhu reflect the darkest, most ancient truths of the season. Inside, you'll find nineteen beautiful, terrifying glimpses of decay and loss inspired by Lovecraft's work. Be sure that you want the burden of understanding before venturing further, though. The dissolving strands of mind, of love, of legacy within leave no room for merciful doubt.

The true meaning of life is that there is no meaning.

And in the autumn of the year, when the winds from the north curse and whine, and the red-leaved trees of the swamp mutter things to one another in the small hours of the morning under the horned waning moon, I sit by the casement and watch that star.

— H.P. Lovecraft, Polaris

Lovecraft anthologies are almost as ubiquitous nowadays as Lovecraft-themed boardgames — with a readily-identifiable iconic IP that is in the public domain, poor old Howie and his tentacular horrors is much more marketable now than he was in life.

Autumn Cthulhu

The Kickstarter-backer exclusive cover.

Autumn Cthulhu is an anthology I backed on Kickstarter a couple of years ago, largely because Laird Barron was one of the contributors. This is the model for a lot of small press books nowadays; like boardgames, Kickstarter has opened up a funding source for indie publishers that would not have been available in the past, but it seems so easy that a lot of creators jump into it unprepared. On the other hand, Lovecraft Ezine Press has been around for a while, and with the names attached to the project, I didn't have much fear that it wouldn't be delivered.

The strength of an anthology is in the strength of its stories, so how well did editor Mike Davis rassle these writers? The premise of Autumn Cthulhu is basically fall horror. All the stories are set in the autumn, and the majority do an excellent job of evoking cooling temperatures, falling leaves, and death and decay coming with shortened days. Despite the title, however, Great Old Tentacle-face himself doesn't make an appearance, and in fact, very few of the stories explicitly reference any of Lovecraft's creations. While many of the stories have a Lovecraftian feel to them, this is not really a Mythos collection — you will not meet Cthulhu or the King in Yellow or Yog-Sothoth (well, there is one story in which arguably you could say Cthulhu makes a cameo), nor are there tales of spunky investigators battling evil cultists, trying to save the world from the Great Old Ones before they lose their sanity. The sole Mythos appearance is Nyarlathotep, making an appearance in Joseph F. Pulver Sr.'s Trick...Or the Other Thing.

Here is a list of all the contributors and their stories; those in boldface are the ones that stood out to me.

The Night is a Sea, by Scott Thomas.
In the Spaces Where You Once Lived, by Damien Angelica Walters.
Memories of the Fall, by Pete Ravlik.
Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees, by Laird Barron.
There is a Bear in the Woods, by Nadia Bulkin.
The Smoke Lounge, by Michael Griffin.
Cul-De-Sac Virus, by Evan Dicken.
DST (Full Black), by Robert Levy.
The Black Azalea, by Wendy N. Wagner.
After the Fall, by Jeffrey Thomas.
Anchor, by John Langan.
End of the Season, by Trent Kollodg.
Water Main, by S.P. Miskowski.
The Stiles of Palemarsh, by Richard Gavin.
Grave Goods, by Gemma Files.
The Well and the Wheel, by Orrin Grey.
Trick...Or the Other Thing, by Joseph F. Pulver, Sr.
A Shadow Passing, by Daniel Mills.
Lavinia in Autumn (poem), by Ann K. Schwader.

About half the stories were memorable, and none were really bad. Even the less notable ones all had something to recommend them.

For example, I did not like Joseph F. Pulver's writing style at all, but the story, Trick...Or the Other Thing, in which Nyarlathotep pays a visit to a has-been rock star, was an amusing look at how Nyarlathotep of the Thousand Forms, Herald of the Outer Gods, might condescend to mess with mortals. Although it's basically just a story about some chick wanting revenge on her ex, the presence of Nyarlathotep escalates this petty human drama into something... Lovecraftian.

Scott Thomas's The Night is a Sea was just... strange, but did capture some memorable imagery, and while I thought The Well and the Wheel by Orrin Grey was really too short, the chilling idea behind it was something that really could have supported a longer story.

The Night is a Sea

Which ones were my favorites? I would have to say Grave Goods, by Gemma Files, was the outright scariest; a group of anthropologists deep in the Canadian backwoods, digging up an old "First People's" burial mound, discover something horrible. (Digging up old Indian burial mounds has to rate even higher than investigating a haunted house on the "Things not to do in a horror story" list.) It's the most traditional horror story of the bunch — the twist is hardly a twist for anyone familiar with Lovecraft or the horror genre, but it's still executed in a manner that would make this short story perfect fodder for a creeper-feature movie. Gemma Files becomes the writer I most want to look up after reading this.

Laird Barron never disappoints, and Andy Kaufman Creeping through the Trees is strange and creepy and somehow manages to make Andy Kaufman, creeping through the trees, work as a horror story.

End of the Season by Trent Kollodg took what's almost a Lovecraft cliche — an outsider intrudes on a bunch of creepy, insular seaside villagers (in this case, technically lakeside since it takes place on an island in the Great Lakes) and their arcane rituals, and learns their sinister secret to his sorrow. Yet he put an interesting spin on it and delivered a bleak, nihilistic story in the perfect length.

Speaking of nihilism, Evan Dicken made suburbia the Lovecraftian metaphor in Cul-De-Sac Virus, and I liked the way this story delivered existential gloom and despair with hardly any violence.

Water Main, by S.P. Miskowski, was one of the few stories that didn't stick to the East Coast — instead, we get a creepy, creepy apartment in Seattle, a bit of old-school Lovecraftian horror in the middle of the tech boom.

The Stiles of Palemarsh, on the other hand, took us to Scotland, and like the preceding story, featured someone in the aftermath of an imploding relationship taking a little stroll that goes places he wished he hadn't. Add "Accepting invitations to dinner from creepy old farmers" to that "Things not to do..." list.

DST (Full Black) by Robert Levy features gruesome botanical horror and should probably contain a trigger warning for cat lovers.

Anchor, by John Langan, which was practically a novella, was almost my favorite story, but while it delivered horror and ancient evil and some creepiness, it also seemed not quite sure whether it wanted to be an epic fantasy quest or a Lovecraftian horror tale. It was a good story, certainly, but I just felt the tone was a teeny bit askew.

Overall, this collections was quite good; a few of these stories were excellent and I'd rate none of them a waste of time. Mike Davis collected some great talent here, including a few names (like Laird Barron and Gemma Files and John Langan) that I definitely want to read more of. However, I will repeat that the title is somewhat misleading: this anthology is much more "Autumn" than "Cthulhu."

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, horror, laird barron, reviews

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