Tag Archives: Mystery & Detective – Historical

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 Ape Who Guards the Balance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ape Who Guards the Balance [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Elizabeth Peters, book 10 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters The Ape Who Guards the Balance

In this volume of the fearsomely-long Amelia Peabody series, the second-generation Peabody-Emersons are no longer children. They are even given their own voices as narrators in the interspersed documents designated “Manuscript H” (Ramses, evidently, though he writes of himself in the third person), and “Letter Collection B” (Nefret). The majority of the text remains Amelia’s journal, although given the growing centrality of the younger characters, she is increasingly “Aunt Amelia.” More than many of the other books in the series, this one is anchored in previously-developed characters and plot strands. I don’t know if I have much confidence that it would read well as a stand-alone novel. 

After a fairly lively start involving a theft in England and the attempted abduction of Amelia herself, the bulk of the book takes place in Egypt. The archaeological focus is in the Valley of the Kings, with the Emersons somewhat sidelined by the antiquities establishment. There are kidnappings and murders, and the perpetrators and motives remain obscure for much of the book, with some perplexity resulting from the numerous past villains at loose ends in the Emersons’ world.

There’s a little more action and violence here than the average Peabody book, and plenty of humor — also, some heartache and sorrow. It’s definitely worth the read for someone who has enjoyed earlier volumes in the series.

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.

Seeing a Large Cat

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seeing a Large Cat [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Elizabeth Peters, book 9 of the Amelia Peabody series.

Peters Seeing a Large Cat

This ninth Amelia Peabody mystery is the first that I have shared from cover to cover with my Other Reader. We both enjoyed it quite well. It continues the formula established by Peters in the earlier books, this time covering (to my irrelevant excitement) the 1903-1904 excavation season in Egypt. 

The “large cat” of the title is perhaps Ramses Emerson, who sports whiskers as a surprise at the outset of the novel, and whose relations with the feline members of the household constitute an ongoing subplot. This volume of the series is one in which the younger generation of Emersons gain a significant degree of independence. Their separate perspective is supplied through the device of excerpts from a “Manuscript H,” supposedly written by Ramses and containing events he would best know, although referring to him in the third person.

On the other hand, the Cat could equally be Katherine Jones, a new character who seems likely to recur in future stories, and whose cat-like qualities are emphasized in descriptions. The gerundial phrasing of the title alludes to the ancient Egyptian dream-interpretation papyrus that is Peabody’s translation project for the season. What indeed is the significance of “seeing a large cat” in one’s dream? This book combines entertaining adventure with ominous portents for its protagonists.

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.

The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Snake the Crocodile and the Dog

This seventh volume of the adventures of Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson is very much a serial installment. It is hard to imagine enjoying it much without having read several of the earlier books, especially The Crocodile on the SandbankLion in the Valley, and The Last Camel Died at Noon. In fact, this text frequently deploys the advertising footnote: dropping the title of a previous novel into the bottom margin of the page in order to explicate an allusion to earlier adventures. The feature reminds me of nothing so much as 1960s and 70s Marvel comic books, with the continuity cross-references jammed into the corners of panels. The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog also continues author Peters’ metafictional jockeying of material from H. Rider Haggard. This time, she introduces Leo Vincey–a character whose name is lifted from the protagonist of Haggard’s She

The occasional line drawings introduced in The Last Camel Died at Noon do not persist in The Snake, but there are still several maps to help the reader understand the path of the expedition. The maps are clear, but it’s hard to refer to them, because they are inserted individually in the course of the text, and there is no table or index to note their locations. On a related issue, the “Editor’s Note” at the beginning refers quite inaccurately to a glossary appendix on “page 339,” evidently failing to account for the revised pagination of the paperback edition I read. 

I was a little worried by the addition of yet another dependent to the Emerson household at the end of the previous book, and I wondered how an exciting pace could be maintained in the face of such elaborate parental concerns. Peters thankfully managed to have the Emersons leave the children in England for the 1898 archaeological expedition to Egypt in The Snake, and the occasional letters from young Ramses provide excellent comic relief, as well as a clever supplementary plot-line. The relief is necessary, in my view, because of the circumstance of Radcliffe Emerson’s traumatic amnesia, which gives this story more tension and sadness than were typical of the earlier volumes. The resolution of the plot involves multiple “reveals,” the later of which certainly caught me off-guard. But there’s also an intimation of a significant plot point undetected by the narrating sleuth Amelia herself. I’m sure it will be fulfilled in later stories.