I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a salivating fan of Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer, two writers whose work consistently sets high standards for weird fiction. Both incorporate humour, action, terror and suspense into their work in the most wonderful and original ways. Their characters are so real and honest, burdened with fallibility, and the worlds they build thrive inside you long after you’ve scraped every last delicious word from whatever work of theirs you’ve consumed.
A kind of pleasant indigestion, maybe?
But I digress.
The short version of my praise-singing is this: the fact that I’d enjoy a Lovecraft-themed anthology edited by both of these genius writers is an absolute no-brainer. That anthology is Swords v Cthulhu, which the cover’s tagline describes as “swift bladed action in the horrific world of H.P. Lovecraft.” The parameters this criteria sets are quite broad, and have bred an incredible variety of work, from more sombre, gritty historical pieces to the soaring pulp that leans towards the sword and sorcery subgenre.
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy of the book, which comes out today from Stone Skin Press, and which you can and should and will buy it from this link right here.
This is the kind of collection that makes you lie to yourself as you promise to read just one more story, just one more before you surrender to a nightmare-riddled sleep, but you’re not to be trusted and so the promises keep falling and breaking until dawn bullies the night away and reveals you, eyes dry and heart stammering and this beautiful big volume of short story-shaped terrors clutched in your trembling hands.
But gratuitous metaphors aside, this is a superb anthology that mates pulp madness with a seriously sharp sense of character and world-building and blind, sweat-soaked terror, giving us a unique creature far removed from the herd of pallid pastiche that can be a danger for any anthology with Cthulhu (or other related Mythos terms) in its title.
So, the stories themselves. It’s a hefty body of work, and I won’t talk about all twenty-two of the entries collected here, or you’ll be reading forever. They’re all great, really, and I didn’t find a single note out of tune among them. Here, then, are those stories that really stood out for me, that left a bloody, slimy impact and burrowed into my head to lay their vile eggs.
John Langan never disappoints, and his “The Savage Angela in: The Beast in the Tunnels” cuts this anthology’s ribbon with originality and flare. His mature, butter-smooth prose works well with the more swashbuckling theme here, and is juxtaposed beautifully with the characters’ crisp dialogue. Langan’s story is veined with melancholy, something he excels at in all his work, and which adds a delightful flavour to the narrative’s already complex palate. His monsters, too, are always a surprise and a pleasure, and Angela’s primary foe is no exception; a decidedly un-Lovecraftian beast that nicely offsets the story’s other more cosmic elements.
Michael Cisco’s entry, “Non Omnis Moriar (Not All of Me Will Die),” is actually a sequel to Lovecraft’s own short work, “The Very Old Folk.” The latter takes the rather clunky form of a letter recounting a dream of a Roman legion encountering the usual malignant Lovecraftian force and coming out on the losing side. The meat of the story is rather good though, giving the reader a setting and time period that’s a nice departure from H.P.’s usual fair.
Cisco abandons Lovecraft’s modern-day framing device and instead throws us right into the ancient Roman world. This is an excellent choice, and gives the narrative a sense of gritty immediacy that Lovecraft’s original lacked. We follow a small group of men sent into the mountains to discover what they can about the previous expedition’s killers, “those nameless, monstrous gods of the mountain people.” The character interactions here are superb and tightly drawn, as is every moment of the narrative. It reminded me a little of Neil Marshall’s chase film Centurion, with extra helpings of horror and weirdness. I really felt my sanity crumbling along with the characters’ as they descend into a wilderness of horrors.
This piece also contains one of its genre’s more unsettling dwarves, trumping Donald Sutherland’s tormentor in Don’t Look Now and closely rivalling Laird Barron’s skin-crawling Rumpelstiltskin from his novel, The Croning. Some of the stories in this anthology are much more colourful and frivolous, erring on the side of adventure, but Cisco’s is one of the most disturbing entries, inflicting a real sense of madness onto the reader with its monsters and shifting reality. There’s a terror here you can really taste. I’m not as familiar with Cisco’s much-lauded work as I should be, but if this is any indication of his output, I’d better get onto it ASAP.
“The Lady of Shallot” by Carrie Vaughn is a short, sharp morsel, cleverly deconstructing fairy tale tropes and throwing in some tentacles for good measure. There’s also a cutting sense of humour underlying the horror and ribaldry that elevates Vaughn’s tale to memorable heights.
A. Scott Glancy’s “Trespassers” is another tale which, like Cisco’s, falls more under the squirming paper-cut sort of horror than it does the gleeful sword-and-sorcery pedigree that makes up the grist of this anthology. Which is not to say that it doesn’t entertain. It does, and enormously so, but more in the way of filling my sleep with nightmares than with dreams of gallivanting sword-fights and faraway lands. A harrowing tale set some time during the nineteenth century about an expedition travelling through an inhospitable mountain range in Asia, “Trespassers” is one of my favourite short stories, period. The prose here is deceptively understated, the language crisp and restrained. The grimy dread is palpable from the start, evoked by the terrain through which the characters travel and the inhuman enemies that stalk them (unpleasant dwarves feature in this story too, this time in much greater and more terrifying numbers). The primal terror Glancy evokes here is genius. The aesthetic is a really vile shamanistic one, which is a nice alternative to the Westernised fair more common to Lovecraftian fiction. Like Cisco’s story, “Trespassers” depicts another descent into certain death and/or worse, a toe-curling uphill slog that culminates in a relentless, breathless swell of carnage and horror.
“The Dan no Uchi Horror,’ by Remy Nakamura is a brutal, bloody tale of familial horror set in feudal Japan, which makes for a rich and brilliantly realised setting. Nakamura pits a strong female samurai against a variety of tentacled monstrosities, all backlit with bright hot language that burns as much as it beguiles.
“St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls” by L. Lark has a fleeing poetry to it, a mixture of myth and fable evocative of a tale told by firelight, beneath a crowd of bright, listening stars. It’s a story kind of like steam, curling and intangible, but capable of blistering you the longer you hold your hand over it. The imagery here is magical, from a saint made of flies to a towering but surprisingly polite monster. A sense of tragedy pervades Lark’s story, too, and it reminded me a little of that wonderful video game, Shadow of the Colossus.
John Hornor Jacobs’ “The Children of Yig” features another snarling, awesome female protagonist, this one holding her own as the newest member of a Viking raiding party that of course runs into some unexpectedly eldritch forces, which are drawn from a combination of Norse mythology and Lovecraft’s mythos. Jacobs’ language and dialogue is muscular and well-paced; there’s a sense of physicality to this world and its occupants that makes you recoil with every arrow wound and sword-thrust.
In “A Circle That Ever Returneth In,” Orrin Grey crafts an enormously entertaining work that skilfully mates the goofy fun of a choose-your-own-adventure story with monsters and dark magic, and the ultimate bleakness of the Lovecraftian philosophy. As its title suggests, there’s a circularity to the story here too, a sense of the inevitable that seems to tickle at the armpit of metafiction and self-awareness. Grey’s work is always a fresh and original pleasure to indulge in, and this story only adds to his already daunting résumé.
“Red Sails, Dark Moon” by Andrew S. Fuller is a vibrant, outrageous story set in the Dreamlands that bludgeons you with the kitchen sink – in the nicest possible way. It starts out big and bright and weird, and continues that way for most of the word count. The author dances across the years of the protagonist’s life with evocative and well-paced scenes. I know I probably should have, but I wasn’t expecting the climax; it was an emotional sucker-punch and a fantastic payoff. I think the last few lines might have been chopped, but it still works well as it is.
“Without Within” by Jonathan L. Howard is an excellent study in claustrophobia and paranoia, and ends with a nice little “WTF” twist that kept me thinking about it long after it was over.
Jason Heller’s “Daughter of the Drifting” opens with powerful, gag-inducing prose that never lets up, splattering the reader with a story of post-apocalyptic insanity and utter cosmic weirdness. Swords play a much larger role in Heller’s narrative than expected, and there’s a fantastic line where the narrator extrapolates on this: “Like lovers, blades were neutral, utilitarian, to be wielded however one’s will might bend them. They could be friends or foes, stolen or won, relations or strangers.” There’s a kind of utilitarian quality to the protagonist, too. Definitely one of the most original – and wonderfully textural – stories I’ve read, in this anthology or anywhere else.
“Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski is a tale of visceral gladiatorial combat in the Roman arena that quickly turns to hallucinatory madness and confusion. Just as the protagonist walks through the world as if in a dream, so the story feels like a waking haze. Dreams ooze into reality and back again with sickening ease. At one point the narrator proclaims that “every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick,” and I certainly felt that way, vicariously experiencing the horror myself. There’s a pleasing kind of bloody circularity to the story that gives it that little bit of extra weight, too. Also, add another point in the “malignant dwarves” column.
We finish off with Caleb Wilson’s hilarious and horrific “Bow Down Before the Snail King!”, and what a fantastic end to a fantastic anthology, in all senses of the word. Wilson fully embraces the sword and sorcery style of fantasy with his story of a treasure hunt that turns, as we expect from the start, to treachery and, for some, death. The heroes encounter a monster that would “crush the world just to satisfy the itch of curiosity.” It’s a vibrant story full of dark humour, madness and monsters, and an exploration of the monstrous in all it’s forms.
It’s also one that I found myself quoting every few lines, relishing Wilson’s clever and delicious prose, the poetry of his word play. The heroes’ realisation, for example, that “there was never any treasure to be found in the hall. No kind of treasure, except that coveted by a glacial alien mind. Fear, flesh, souls; all three, churned into a piquant slurry.” Or when the protagonist feels like “she was tracking something in a bad dream it would have been wiser to wake from.”
Alas, I had to wake from this particular dream, bristling with blades and unspeakable appendages, but what a varied and unique dream it was. There’s as much diversity of race, gender and sexuality here as there is of setting, time period and tone. Every entry in this anthology is as varied as the next, but what they all have in common is a kind of magical quality, a depth and a colour that makes every single piece of work here a necessity. Not just for the collection, but for the reader to consume.
The truth is, there are a lot of Lovecraft-inspired anthologies oozing out of the woodwork every year, and it’s just a matter of statistics that not all of them are going to be as original or scary or fun as they could be. Some of them, though, exceed all expectations, and Swords v Cthulhu is one of them. Bullington and Tanzer have done a wonderful job compiling these stories, and I cannot recommend it enough. Buy this book for the credibility of its editors, and love it for the exquisite writers and works they’ve so lovingly filled it with.