Tag Archives: Fantasy – Dark Fantasy

The Tindalos Asset

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Tindalos Asset [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Caitlín R Kiernan, book 3 of the Tinfoil Dossier series.

Kiernan The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset is the third and likely final slender novel in Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier series. It introduces a new central character, while pulling along several from the earlier books. This character Ellison Nicodemo is the “asset” of the title, a subordinate agent of the deep black intelligence directorate referred to as “Albany” in this series. Usage in this book shows that the “Dreamland” of the previous volume’s title does also denominate this same outfit. (I had noted its ambiguity there.)

I was startled that the title of the first chapter was a quote from Leah Hirsig–but Kiernan seems to have received it via its use as a song title by Coil: “Paint me as a dead soul.” In the appended author’s note, they list all the music that was integral to the composition of the story (168). It’s no secret that these books are built around neo-Lovecraftian yog-sothothery, and this one is as much as anything an updated and re-imagined “Call of Cthulhu,” with generous bits of “Dagon” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” is of course a significant source as well, and Kiernan ties its notions to the Manhattan Project, among other space-time problems.

Following the precedent in Black Helicopters, this book’s chapters are episodes presented under dates that are not in linear sequence, ranging from 1956 to 2151. The chronological core of the story is in January 2018, around the time it was written. This sort of time-loose montage effect has a self-similar relationship to the entire Tinfoil Dossier series, and I think the books could be read with enjoyment in any order. Indeed there seems to be some confusion among readers about the sequence of the first two books, since Black Helicopters, the one Kiernan calls “first,” was expanded and re-published as a series element after Agents of Dreamland.

Looking back on the series as a whole, its mixture of the weird horror Lovecraft canon with espionage and a certain measure of sympathy for the “monsters” is a common ground with other recent/current series: the Laundry Files of Charles Stross and the Innsmouth Legacy of Ruthanna Emrys. Kiernan’s more experimental style definitely makes these books distinctive, though. There really aren’t any of the comedic elements that Stross uses, and there’s more of a high-tragic sensibility despite the fact that the Tinfoil Dossier books are much shorter than their comparanda.

This work is rife with extra-textual and inter-textual allusions, which supply a lot of the enjoyment. Given its manageable size and convoluted presentation, I think there is a good chance I could return to it in the future for a profitable re-read.

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.

Dead Lies Dreaming

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dead Lies Dreaming [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Stross, book 10 of the Laundry Files series.

Stross Dead Lies Dreaming

The title should tip off readers of the earlier Laundry Files books by Charles Stross that this newest installment is something different. Unlike the nine volumes to precede it, Dead Lies Dreaming does not seem to be named after a document. [ . . . . . . . . . Spoiler (Hover over to see) . . . . . . . . . . ] The story transpires in just the setting established in the last couple of Laundry novels The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index. This twenty-first-century England ruled by the New Management (i.e. the Black Pharaoh and his minions) is only a little different from our “real” world. They have sorcery and superpowers while we have novel coronavirus, but the economics and politics of the thing look familiar enough. Given the theories of time travel and onieromancy set forth in the book, the Laundry universe may simply be a dream of ours, or ours a dream of theirs.

Dead Lies Dreaming is not narrated by a character identified with the UK occult intelligence bureau the Laundry; in fact, Stross drops the first-person approach altogether, in favor of a conventional third-person omniscient voice. This choice allows him to jump around among several principal focus characters, and readers might be forgiven for wondering which if any of them is the protagonist. He picks up and develops a couple of themes that he had first established in The Annihilation Score. The philosophy of public policing is a concern for the ex-cop and newly-minted magical “thief taker” Wendy Deere. And the emergence of vernacular superpowers is explored in the capers of Imp and his gang.

There are many allusions to the earlier Laundry series, of course, and to the ritual literature of H.P. Lovecraft, but also significantly to Peter Pan and to A Christmas Carol. Like previous Laundry books, this one was released on Hallowe’en, and the bulk of initial readers are thus digging into our copies during the winter holiday season. Stross cleverly capitalizes on this fact in the book’s opening sentences:

Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop. “Now that’s not something you see every day,” Doc drawled shakily. His fake bravado didn’t fool anyone.

Readers of previous Laundry books will quickly understand the genuine plot points established here in what a novice reader might take for mere sadistic surrealism. The engagement of the later parts of the novel with Victoriana in “some eldritch continuum of crapsack dipshittery stalked by the ghosts of maniacal serial killers and adorable Dickensian street urchins” (321) solidifies the black cheer of Xmas in the shadow of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

In my review of The Delirium Brief, I remarked, “I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.” Right on schedule, the series has pivoted from a diachronic advancement of Lovecraftian Armageddon to a more synchronic recounting of episodes and adventures in a given period of peak weird. I do miss the Laundry operatives, but I still enjoyed this “Tale of the New Management,” and I will continue to follow the series.

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.

Wrath of N’kai

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Wrath of N’kai: An Arkham Horror Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Josh Reynolds, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Reynolds Wrath of N'kai Arkham Horror

Wrath of N’kai is the first of a new series of licensed novels from publisher Aconyte Books set in the Arkham Horror game milieu. Unlike the recent investigator novellas from the game publisher Fantasy Flight, this one is at full novel length. It also lacks an established player character from the game for its protagonist. Instead, it has international adventuress and “gentlewoman thief” Countess Alessandra Zorzi as the principal investigator of the story. She is assisted by plucky trans-man cabbie Pepper Kelly. Neither of these have appeared in the games as far as I know. But the setting is unmistakably the Arkham of the games: various player characters do appear, such as Harvey Walters, Preston Fairmont, Tommy Muldoon, and Daisy Walker. Organizations like the O’Bannion gang and the Silver Twilight Lodge are also important to the story, which takes place entirely within the city limits of Arkham, starting with Alessandra’s arrival by train.

Despite ample stigmata of the Arkham Files universe, the narrative continuity of this story has in one case been better conformed to the original pulp-era literature. The underearth kingdom of K’n-yan is here given as lying beneath Oklahoma as it does in “The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop and H.P. Lovecraft. The game designers had transferred K’n-yan to Mexico in the adventure “Heart of the Elders” for the Forgotten Age cycle of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. The plot of Wrath of N’kai centers on a scrimmage for a mummy recovered from K’nyan by a Miskatonic University archaeological expedition.

Author Josh Reynolds is a veteran at writing fiction for game universes such as the various Warhammer worlds, and he has also written some occult adventure in his “Tales of the Royal Occultist” novels. His reading in the relevant literature is signaled by clever allusions like Alessandra’s mentor Nuth (lifted from a story by Lord Dunsany). Wrath of N’kai has a lively pace, and I often read multiple short chapters at a single sitting. It is definitely more pulp adventure than weird horror, despite the Lovecraftian praeternatural elements. The prose isn’t highly polished, but it is engaging. I enjoyed it, and I would be willing to read a sequel about Alessandra’s adventures beyond Arkham.