Tag Archives: Media Tie-In – General

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.

Secrets in Scarlet

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Anthology [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] ed Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells, with David Annandale, Davide Mana, Jason Fischer, Carrie Harris, Steven Philip Jones, Lisa Smedman, James Fadeley, M J Newman, and Josh Reynolds, cover by Daniel Strange.

Llewelyn-Wells Secrets in Scarlet

Secrets in Scarlet is the second volume of new short stories edited by Charlotte Llewelleyn-Wells and set in the Arkham Horror game milieu. Just as the previous book was oriented around the “Night of the Zealot” campaign in the core set of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, this one consists of background tales that flesh out the setting and antecedent plots of the recently-released Scarlet Keys Campaign Expansion. The campaign is built upon a cosmopolitan cast of conspirators whose lore goes back to Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game or even earlier. Known collectively as the Congress of the Keys, or the Red Coterie, these include the Red-Gloved Man, the Claret Knight, Amaranth, The Sanguine Watcher, and others. At least one of these characters features in each of the stories. There are also other incidental characters from the game, such as Li Flint and Ece Sahin.

Arkham Horror player-character investigators only appear in a few of the tales. Reporter Rex Murphy has a nautical fright in Lisa Smedman’s “Strange Things Done.” Stephen Philip Jones has written about security consultant Kymani Jones investigating a theft in “A Forty Grain Weight of Nephrite.” “The Red and the Black” by Josh Reynolds concerns the spy Trish Scarborough. The immediate events of the narratives all take place in the 1920s interwar period in which the games are set.

Seven of the nine stories are the elaborated forms of seven of the nine rumors in the bulleted list on page 10 of the Campaign Guide from The Scarlet Keys, with settings of Shanghai, Havana, Buenos Aires, Anchorage, Istanbul, and Marrakesh. There are no stories for the Nairobi and Kathmandu entries on that list, however. Instead, the first tale in the book is set in Manhattan, and the the final one is in Venice. These highlight the campaign’s explicit (though optional) inclusion of separately-distributed scenario packs, alluding to The War of the Outer Gods and Carnevale of Horrors respectively.

The literary quality of the stories is variable. Of special note is the contribution by M. J. Newman, who had a long tenure as the lead designer on the card game. As far as I know, the story “Crossing Stars” is Newman’s first published Arkham Horror fiction that is not embedded in game rules. I wasn’t impressed with the often affected diction here, e.g. “a sorcerer, able to manipulate the very winds of change with but a thought and the implementation of various esoteric componentry” (287). But the story made up for it with an interesting plot well connected to the central theme of the collection. I thought the best writing of the book was in the pieces by Smedman and Reynolds, but they all held my interest.

I am currently playing through The Scarlet Keys campaign in the card game, and I would definitely recommend this book of related stories to anyone in a similar position. Even for those with no involvement in Cthulhvian gaming, the suite of stories set against the background of a global conspiracy of alien sorcery and lost technology is enjoyable. At its best moments, it reminded me a little of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier 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.

Logan’s Run

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Logan’s Run [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.

Nolan Logan's Run

This short novel was the basis for the 1976 film, subsequent television show, and sequel novels: a dystopian action-adventure in the twenty-second century very much along lines laid down by Huxley’s Brave New World. The principal addition to the scenario is the idea of dealing with population pressure by using the global technocratic state to impose a maximum lifespan of twenty-one years. The protagonist Logan is a “Sandman”: a policeman/executioner assigned to eliminate “Runners” who fail to report for their scheduled euthanasia. Contrary to the jacket copy and many synopses, Logan is not a desperate Runner himself, but is in fact a thoroughly ambivalent character, attracted to a Runner whom he accompanies in order to infiltrate the Runner network and reach the rumored Runner destination of Sanctuary and its architect Ballard. 

A sense of impending climax is structured into the novel with chapter numbers that count down from ten. There are two plot twists at the end of the book, neither of which was ever translated into the screen adaptations. One concerns the location of Sanctuary, and the other is about the identity of Ballard. The first works fine, but the second I did not find compelling after the contrary setup. 

The book is very fast-moving, with plenty of sex and violence — though not quite so much that it seems like a mere pretext for them — and seems to have been written with the intention of inspiring screen adaptations. The film and television show actually made from it were toned down by setting it another century further into the future, and raising the age of “Lastday” from twenty-one to thirty. They also added the spectacular euthanasia ceremony of Carousel, to replace the simpler “Sleepshops” of the novel. Another film version is apparently in the works with a projected release date of 2014, and rumor has it that they’ve brought several points of the scenario (most notably the maximum personal age) back in line with that of the book. 

This is not a philosophical work by any stretch of the imagination, and yet it includes interesting material for meditation. The idea of engineered neoteny as a response to socio-economic and political stresses is not so very far-fetched. Certainly, in the 1970s wake of the youth counterculture it must have seemed very credible. It is doubtless one of several such programs available to the Crowned and Conquering Child.

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.

Cult of the Spider Queen

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cult of the Spider Queen [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by S A Sidor, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Cult of the Spider Queen

This Arkham Horror novel is a direct sequel to the the same author’s The Last Ritual. Cub journalist Andy van Nortwick is the viewpoint character who bridges the two books. In this one, he ends up on an expedition to the Amazon to rescue missing film actress and director Maude Brion. Explorer Ursula Downs signs on to lead the expedition, and they also bring along Iris Bennett Reed, an anthropologist whose husband colleague had died five years earlier in the same wilderness area to which they are adventuring.

The elements of Yog-Sothothery in this book are closely related to those explored in Arkham Horror: The Card Game – The Dream-Eaters expansion, even though the principal setting is in the Brazilian jungle rather than Arkham. The synthesis of Clark Ashton Smith’s Atlach-Nacha with the Lovecraftian Dreamlands is central to the tale. More than the previous Sidor contribution to the series, I found that this one hit the same thematic mix of weird horror and pulp adventure that is featured in the Arkham Horror games. (I think I liked The Last Ritual a little better, but it was not so squarely on target with the games’ mood.)

There are sixty-six short chapters, and the book reads very quickly. I most enjoyed the introspective elements of the story constructed around Iris.

The Doom of Fallowhearth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Doom of Fallowhearth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Robbie MacNiven, part of the Descent: Journeys in the Dark series.

MacNiven The Doom of Fallowhearth

This book is — as far as I know — the first novel-length fiction to be set in the proprietary fantasy world of Terrinoth, identified with a considerable number of games under the Fantasy Flight imprint: Runewars, Descent, Runebound, Rune Age, BattleLore Second Edition, Heroes of Terrinoth, and probably some others as well. Its topic is the reunion of the “Borderlands Four,” a party of adventurers who have been enlisted to find a missing noblewoman in the outlying northern reaches of Terrinoth.

By and large, the games present Terrinoth as a bog-standard heroic fantasy world, with elves and orcs, dwarves and undead, dragons and giant spiders. This book seems careful to preserve its canon while highlighting a few elements that might seem different from the usual post-D&D synthesis of pulp sword-and-sorcery with Tolkien-style epic fare. There is at least one major pivot in the novel, amply foreshadowed, and not profoundly surprising, but the ending is a bit unconventional. It reads quickly, and does offer the sort of fleshing-out for its setting that this sort of story is concocted to achieve.

The main viewpoint characters here are the orc Pathfinder Durik and the rogue Logan Lashley. The former is the most upstanding and ethical character in the whole book, as far as I could tell, which thus comes a long way from Tolkien, but is consistent with the Terrinoth source material, I think. The aging and self-conscious Logan is something of a buffoon. In other non-standard fantasy characterizations, the whole story mentions only two amorous relationships, and they are both same-sex arrangements, neither of them stigmatized for that reason. The main one is stigmatized, but for necromancy, and that is central to the larger plot — a fact introduced in the prologue.

Ironically, the book’s branding is for “Descent: Journeys in the Dark,” a longstanding dungeon-crawler tabletop game that appears to have had its publication suspended in favor of “Descent: Legends of the Dark,” a sequel game driven by a digital app. A second “Descent” novel by a different author was issued just four months after this one, and I find it somewhat tempting, as it involves the Uthuk Y’llan, savage demonolaters who do not appear in The Doom of Fallowhearth.

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.