Tag Archives: arkham horror

Lair of the Crystal Fang

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lair of the Crystal Fang [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by S A Sidor, cover by Daniel Strange, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Lair of the Crystal Fang

Within the larger franchise of Arkham Horror fiction, S. A. Sidor’s novels have established their own serial continuity, starting with The Last Ritual and developing in Cult of the Spider Queen. Daniel Strange’s cover art of this third installment Lair of the Crystal Fang shows three characters from the second book: Maude Brion, Jake Williams, and Andy Van Nortwick. These three are reunited in this tale, but they are not its only heroes. Returning the setting to Arkham allows Sidor to bring in a surfeit of other “investigators” from the Arkham Horror games. Urchin Wendy Adams, mayor Charlie Kane, and psychologist Carolyn Fern are also central to the story, and reporter Rex Murphy and researcher Mandy Thompson have important roles. Sidor seems to have realized that each such character appearing is a selling point in a piece of literature like this one.

A more general concept that this novel seems to have carried over from the Arkham Horror card game is the basic emphasis on trauma. Jake’s physical trauma from the South American adventure of the previous book includes what would be a Weakness card in the game: Leg Injury. Maude is definitely suffering from mental trauma.

Stylistically, this volume was a bit inferior to its predecessors. “Unpindownable” (50) would be all right in contemporary 21st-century humor, but it’s a clinker in pulp era horror. I was similarly put off by “torpefy” (131) and several other word choices and phrasings in the course of the book. As before, Sidor managed to strike a mid-point between weird horror and pulp action that is consistent with the mood of the games (as contrasted with Yog-Sothothery more generally).

The Lair of the Crystal Fang plot centers on the Arkham sewers, and it features a serial killer, witches, and gangsters. It moves along at a brisk pace with short chapters and frequent changes of focus. I wasn’t blown away by anything here, but it was an adequate addition to this now-sprawling set of game-based horror books.

In the Coils of the Labyrinth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Coils of the Labyrinth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Annandale, cover art by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Annandale Coulthart In the Coils of the Labyrinth

In the Coils of the Labyrinth is David Annandale’s first full Arkham Horror novel, although he previously contributed “Professor Warren’s Investiture” to the collection The Devourer Below, and it was one of the better stories in that volume. He has a prior track record as an author of Warhammer 40,000 game milieu novels.

The circa 1925 transatlantic plot of this story features some elements of folk horror in the Scots village of Durtal and medical horror in Arkham, Massachusetts. The two are united by a gothic scheme of family degeneracy and menacing architecture, under the influence of some chthonic malevolence. Protagonist Miranda Ventham is a university English professor whose metier is 19th-century Romantic and Gothic fiction.

Professor Ventham is friends with parapsychologist Agatha Crane (one of the player-character investigators from the Arkham Files games), and the book’s lovely cover art by John Coulthart shows Agatha Crane exploring by herself in trench coat and hat. The two leading viewpoint characters are thus both women, and the novel passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. When Ventham is put in a sanatorium for her tuberculosis–where she remains for most of the novel–most of her interactions continue to be with women: the other patients and the nurses alike.

The god-monster and its minions in this novel are de novo, reflecting the spirit of Yog-Sothothery, but not indebted to HPL or the larger accumulated “mythos” for any details beyond the town of Arkham and Miskatonic University as settings and some use of the “elder sign.” Annandale in his acknowledgments more particularly credits the horror films of Dario Argento for some inspiration, and the character named “Daria” may have been a conscious tip in that direction as well.

The Deadly Grimoire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Deadly Grimoire [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Rosemary Jones, cover Daniel Strange, part of the Arkham Horror: Standalone Novels series.

Jones The Deadly Grimoire

Author Rosemary Jones claims to have written The Deadly Grimoire in response to reader demand for her to continue telling stories in the 1920s Arkham of H. P. Lovecraft and the 21st-century game designers inspired by him. Characters featured here and originating in the Arkham Files games include photo journalist Darrell Simmons and mail carrier Stella Clark.

The story is told by the actress Betsy Baxter (from Jones’ previous Arkham novel Mask of Silver), who forms a friendship with the aviatrix Winifred Habbamock, the latter making her first appearance in Arkham literature outside of the games, as far as I know. Both of these protagonists are lady entrepreneurs of a sort, and the war-of-the-sexes framing from Mask of Silver is, if anything, intensified here, with an emphasis on “what the women know and the men forget” (226). There are some sympathetic male characters, including bookseller Tom Sweets.

Daniel Strange’s cover art accurately suggests that this tale will lean into the “pulp adventure” flavor more than cosmic horror, and the narrative tone is often more comedic than horrific. I thought that Jones had cultivated a good sense of sustained menace in Mask of Silver, albeit perhaps more effectively for readers familiar with the jauniste horror of Robert W. Chambers. But that angle is pretty much dropped in this sequel, which instead orients to a feud between two Innsmouth families with some supernatural backstory. The more fortunate and less introspective narrator Betsy certainly gives this book a lighter tone than its predecessor.

In the appended acknowledgments Jones gives a shout out to Mildred Benson, and indeed, this book reads more like a Nancy Drew mystery adventure than it does pulp era weird horror, Lovecraftian trappings notwithstanding.

The Devourer Below

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devourer Below [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] edited by Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, cover by John Coulthart, book 5 of the Arkham Horror series.

Llewelyn-Wells The Devourer Below

The Devourer Below is the fifth volume of Arkham Horror fiction to be issued under the Aconyte imprint. While the previous four have been novels, this one is a collection of short stories by various authors. I was thus expecting a wide assortment of tales, joined only by their early 20th-century Arkham, Massachusetts setting and the involvement of assorted investigator characters from the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games. I was in fact pleasantly surprised to find that these stories are far more interrelated than that.

Players of Arkham Horror: The Card Game may recognize “The Devourer Below” as the title of the third and final scenario of “The Night of the Zealot,” the campaign included with that game’s core set. All of the stories in this book relate to that starter campaign, featuring the servitors of the Great Old One Umôrdhoth. (Umôrdhoth is based on Mordiggian, from Clark Ashton Smith’s story “The Charnel God.”) Such servitors are largely a mix of ghouls and human cultists.

Specific enemy characters from the card game campaign figure in the stories, as do the important investigator allies Leo De Luca and Lita Chantler. Investigator protagonists include Tony Morgan, Carolyn Fern, Joe Diamond, Daisy Walker, Agnes Baker, Wendy Adams, and Finn Edwards. On the whole, I found the enemy-focused stories more satisfying than the investigator-centric ones, but I liked both and appreciated the variety.

As a suite of connected tales of yog-sothothery, The Devourer Below is just fine. As a supplement to the Arkham Horror games, it is good. As an amplification of the core set adventure cycle in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, it is very good.

This book appends a “tease” reprint of the opening chapter of Ari Marmell’s Arkham Horror novel Litany of Dreams, oddly included in the table of contents as if it were one of the stories written for this volume. It also sports the third Arkham Horror fiction cover art by John Coulthart. I like these highly detailed multi-panel covers a lot.

Litany of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Litany of Dreams [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Ari Marmell, cover by John Coulthart, book 4 of the Arkham Horror series.

Marmell Coulthart Litany of Dreams

Among the recent run of Arkham Horror novels, Ari Marmell’s Litany of Dreams is in some respects the most conventionally Lovecraftian. It features protagonists based out of Miskatonic University who encounter a preternatural horror that has taken over an insular community in the Massachusetts back country of the Hockomock Swamp. So far, so Cthulhu.

On the other hand, the principal protagonist is gay, the chief secondary protagonist is a formidable indigene of arctic Greenland (an “Inuit” according to the character’s insistence), and other secondary protagonists are women, so in that respect the story tracks better with the 21st-century diversity of hero-investigators in the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games than it does with the old pulp Yog-Sothothery. I don’t think it quite passes the Bechdel Test, however.

The only Arkham Files game character who features in a significant way in this book is Daisy Walker, librarian at the Orne Library of Miskatonic University, and many aspects of the story are pleasantly bookish. The plot centers around the transliteration of an ancient inscription, and there are occasional references to the pleasure reading of various characters, noting such authors as Bram Stoker and Agatha Christie.

Unsurprisingly for a book written during the novel coronavirus pandemic, it features fears about a recurrence of epidemic influenza in 1923 Arkham. There is also more than a little “zombie apocalypse” flavor to the story. The references to the Silver Twilight Lodge in Arkham are minimal, and instead there is an even higher order of occult conspiracy invoked.

An elaborate epilogue introduced various possible sequel opportunities, making me wonder if Marmell, an author of several series, was deliberately angling in that direction.

Mask of Silver

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mask of Silver: An Arkham Horror Novel [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Rosemary Jones, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Jones Mask of Silver

Mask of Silver is the first properly jauniste “Arkham Horror novel,” which is to say: Of the now ten full novels (not counting the separate run of novellas) based on the Arkham Horror games, it is the first to center itself on the lore stemming from Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow. According to Chambers’ stories collected under the same title, The King in Yellow was a play which inculcated madness in its readers, and so it served as a model for Lovecraft’s equally fictitious grimoire the Necronomicon.

There is none of Grandpa Cthulhu’s Yog-Sothothery in this story, aside from the town of Arkham itself. The Necronomicon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Mi-Go and the rest are entirely absent. There is one mere unconvinced mention “that alien entities colonized the South Pole” (286) from an unreliable secondhand source, alluding thus to “At the Mountains of Madness.” The title of The King in Yellow is never mentioned, but the book brims with its tropes and characters: the sisters Camilla and Cassilda, the mask, the king, the cursed play. In this story, the play is serving as the basis for a silent film in the Hollywood studio system of 1923, with the cast and crew undertaking a location shoot in Arkham at the family manse of the auteur Sidney Fitzmaurice.

As with other Arkham Horror novels published in recent months by Aconyte, the player-character investigators of the games appear only in peripheral, supporting capacities–this time these include photo journalist Darrell Simmons, Ashcan Pete the drifter, and Pete’s dog Duke. Agnes Baker’s predecessor at Velma’s Diner, the waitress Florie Wilson, plays an important role. The narrator of Mask of Silver is costume designer Jeany Lin, and there are a number of other vivid new characters introduced as members of the film company. Author Rosemary Jones has clearly done worthwhile research into the work of silent film production and the experience of Chinese-Americans in the early twentieth century.

Jones portrays Arkham as the site of a multigenerational struggle between male occultists (including Miskatonic scholars) with their alien sorceries and a network of women defenders of the quotidian community. The Californian “movie folk” are assimilated to both sides of this combat. As a costumier, Jeany is tasked with providing the important mask, and she only gradually becomes aware–in ways that most of the cast is not–that there is a menacing ceremony providing the narrative infrastructure of the “terror film.”

With its theme of artistic creation and its slow and ominous build to a final catastrophe, this novel has more in common with The Last Ritual than it does with The Wrath of N’kai, to compare the other recent volumes in its series. (It is also close kin in flavor to the recent novella Dark Revelations.) But there is no direct continuity of plot or character with either, and except for its epilogue, this one is set earlier. It is a capable addition to the Arkham Horror franchise, but my main enjoyment of it related to its hypostasization of the mythos around The King in Yellow, which was quite effective.

The Last Ritual

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Ritual [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by S A Sidor, cover by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Coulthart The Last Ritual

The Last Ritual is the second of a series of novels set in the Arkham Horror game milieu and published by Aconyte Books. Like the first, it features a protagonist who is not one of the stable of player character investigators from the games, along with important cameo appearances from established investigators–in this case, Preston Fairmont, Calvin Wright, and Norman Withers. The principal character of The Last Ritual is artist painter Alden Oakes, a scion of the French Hill Arkham elite.

This tale is set in the 1920s, and the prose offers no howling anachronisms, but the telling shows influences of more recent horror fiction. At the same time, the imposition of a frame story in which Oakes narrates his horrific experiences to a cub journalist put me in mind of 19th-century horror greats Poe and Bierce. Although Oakes starts his tale in France, the bulk of it revolves around a modest number of locations in Arkham, Massachusetts. The charismatic Surrealist Juan Hugo Balthazarr serves as a focus for enigmatic menace.

The mood and pacing of this novel is very different from its predecessor The Wrath of N’Kai. Where the earlier book had a real pulp adventure feel, despite its supernatural elements and shady settings, The Last Ritual is definitely weird horror through and through. Oakes is no hardened he-man, and his epistemological inadequacies lead to vacillating personal loyalties as well as profound fear and confusion. Author Sidor resists clarifying for the reader any number of the painter’s strange experiences, and the outcome of the story is not at all like the one in the other book.

Incidentally, you might think from seeing online images of the excellent cover art by John Coulthart that the cover is a shiny foil affair, but it is in fact a flat matte cover with clever art deco styling in suggestive hues. The building that dominates the cover is the Silver Gate Hotel, around which much of the story revolves.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and found it to be one of the best in the various Arkham Horror fiction series.

Dark Revelations

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark Revelations [Amazon, Publisher] by Amanda Downum, part of the Arkham Horror Files universe, and “includes four promo cards for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, featuring a new investigator—the writer, Gloria Goldberg.”

Downum Dark Revelations

Other than the 1920s Arkham setting and the conceit of a forbidden tome, Dark Revelations is relatively free of the tropes of Yog-Sothothery. It is an altogether more traditional sort of supernatural horror story. As well as disdaining Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, this tale is mostly at a remove from the the sort of pulp action tone that sometimes informs the literature for the Arkham Horror games. There are a number of features that brought this novella closer to the jauniste vein of The King in Yellow than to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. The main characters are creatives rather than academics or researchers, and there is a connection to medieval France.

The protagonist is author Gloria Goldberg, one of the investigator characters from the games this book was written to support. Gloria is a widow from New York who ventures to Arkham when called on to help with the literary estate of a recently deceased colleague. There are italicized passages throughout the book, and it can be difficult to tell from context whether these are passages that Gloria is reading, ones she is writing, or some other sorts of dreams or visions. As the story proceeds, it invites the reader to discard distinctions among these categories.

The book includes a set of about a dozen glossy color pages at the end, featuring news clippings, fragments of manuscripts, and pages from reference books relevant to the novella. This appendix section is a standard feature of this book series, and the contents in this case are entertaining enough, without any of the clinkers I’ve seen in the other novellas.

Dark Revelations comes with a set of cards debuting the Gloria Goldberg character for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. She is a flexible mystic-class investigator with a special ability that helps her to manipulate the encounter deck. Her alternate signature cards unique to this release are the ally Ruth Westmacott, a book illustrator whom Gloria befriends, and the treachery weakness Liber Omnium Finium.

Dance of the Damned

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Arkham Horror: Dance of the Damned by Alan Bligh.

Alan Bligh Dance of the Damned

Here’s another novel rooted in the Arkham Horror gaming milieu of pulp-era Yog-Sothothery. The prose is not always good. In fact, it can be pretty awful: “He hefted the heavy shotgun onto his shoulder. Pausing to turn the light off, he cursed once and left it. Better to light a candle, as they say” (301). The book is littered with eggcorns and misplaced apostrophes. But author Alan Bligh cultivates some fine moral ambivalence in his characters, and his story is genuinely intriguing and scary. I read the closing arc of the book with real excitement, and found the ending satisfying.

Like fellow Arkham Horror novelist Graham McNeill, Bligh divides his action among locations in Arkham, New York City, and Kingsport, and both authors deploy the terrible old man of H.P. Lovecraft’s eponymous tale as a character in the last location. Of the two, I found Bligh’s old man to be more engaging and better woven into the fabric of the story.

Although there seemed to be a lot of different plots at the outset (partly resulting from a demand of the gaming novel genre, to involve multiple identifiable protagonists from the games), Bligh succeeded in pulling them together for a single coherent crisis with its resolution shrouded in mystery. Although it’s by a different author, I’ve already started reading its sequel in “The Lord of Nightmares Trilogy”: The Lies of Solace [via]

Feeders from Within

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Feeders from Within by Peter J Evans, set in the Lovecraftian world of Arkham Horror.

Peter J Evans Feeders from Within from Fantasy Flight Games

Fantasy Flight Games has published two trilogies set in the Arkham Horror gaming milieu of 1930s Yog-Sothothery, but Feeders from Within is a standalone novel in the same setting, also using characters from the games. The principal protagonists here are drifting veteran Mark Harrigan, psychologist Carolyn Fern, and whistleblower cultist Diana Stanley. A few of Lovecraft’s own characters appear or enjoy mentions, most notably Dr. Henry Armitage, Miskatonic University librarian. With respect to the outré horrors they face, the book uses a synthesis of Lovecraft, Chambers, and Smith that has been established as canonical “mythos” in the game context.

The redoubtable fungus from Yuggoth is a prime culprit in this novel, and the story does indeed take on much of the paranoid mood of its Lovecraftian progenitor “The Whisperer in Darkness.” It is a fast read, with the ERB-cum-Hollywood sort of action story arc that builds to a final confrontation with … (that would be telling). Author Evans accomplishes the—in my opinion, most important—task of making the game characters interesting.

While not a high literary accomplishment, I found Feeders from Within to be compellingly savory textual junk food at the very least. The only real disappointment for me was Stephen Somers’ cover art, which, although it still accurately reflects the book’s contents (a scene from the prologue), didn’t seem up to the standard set by Anders Finér with the other Arkham Horror novels. [via]