Tag Archives: Mystery & Detective – Historical

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.

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.