Ellen Datlow is a significant presence in American and international horror and dark fiction. That’s about as bathetic an understatement as they come. Any new anthology owned by her is guaranteed its share of interest. Her “Also Edited” list at the start of this collection is vast. And her new volume Lovecraft’s Monsters, from Tachyon Publications, finds a new theme in the creatures and creations of H.P. Lovecraft, which have inspired everything from brilliant pastiches to plush toys. (Oh, and she gave an Honorable Mention to one of my pastiches, and why ever miss an opportunity for gratuitous self-promotion? 😉 )
For some, Lovecraft is about nothing but monsters – his facility in creating creatures helped populate entire genres of fantasy role-playing games, as well as the haunted imaginations of many gibbering teens. Arguably, that menagerie has been more materially influential than the cosmic dread which has won him so many intellectual admirers. But writers who do concentrate on his grotesques do sometimes manage to craft great prose as a result.
“I had three goals in choosing stories,” Datlow writes in her introduction. “The first, as usual, was to avoid pastiches; the second was to use stories that have not been overly reprinted in the many recent Mythos anthologies; third, I wanted to showcase Lovecraftian-influenced stories by at least some authors not known for that kind of story.”
Despite the editor’s intention to ferret out the less well-worn tales, the 18 stories and poems collected here include names that will be familiar to any dweller in the literary dark over the past 20 years: Caitlín R. Kiernan, Karl Edward Wagner, Elizabeth Bear, and Nick Mamatas. Even Neil Gaiman, though his “Only the End of the World Again” is not as memorable as some of his other Lovecraftian excursions, such as “A Study in Emerald.” Standout contributions include Laird Barron’s “Bulldozer,” a thing of hard-boiled beauty, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Bleeding Shadow,” which mines something of the same vein. “Red Goat, Black Goat,” by Nadia Bulkin, takes the Mythos outside its usual geographical and cultural footprint, to great effect, while Brian Hodge’s “The Same Deep Waters As You,” is simply quietly, cumulatively, terrifying. And so on through many other variations on Mythos monstrosities. The artwork that introduces each chapter, from World Fantasy Award–winning artist John Coulthart, is almost worth the cover price in itself.
Needless to say, even under Datlow’s baton, some of the stories are going to be stronger than others, and there are one or two that seem to verge on what Lovecraft dubbed Yog-sothothery – less inspired repetition of the tropes, rather than the spirit, of his work. But perhaps it’s the company they keep. These stories just have the good fortune (or misfortune) of being collected together with “The Sect of the Idiot,” by Thomas Ligotti – one of the most perfectly crafted tales by this genius of modern horror, as flawless as a Platonic solid compacted from human bone. Any other story, even by the most established writers, is going to have a hard time matching up to that. But some are close. And they don’t come much better than that.