Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard
Detectives Dan Carter and Charlie Hammond have finally tracked down and cornered the perverse serial killer known as The Child-Catcher. Found in his own home, the detectives move in, focused on a speedy capture, before the Child-Catcher performs his bizarre version of open-brain surgery. Charlie takes the lead, turns up a flight of stairs and Carter hears a shot ring out. He follows, and sees the Child-Catcher sitting against a wall, a pool of blood in his lap, and a seemingly serene smile on his lips. “Suicide by cop.” On the wall: a string-connected ‘psycho wall.’
Further down the hall, Carter’s partner is:
crying and laughing, Charlie put his S&W Model 5946 between his teeth, squeezed the trigger, and excused himself from life.
Jonathan L. Howard is no stranger to the authorial weird. His resume, after all, includes the JOHANNES CABAL series — some genetic hybrid of horror, humor, gothic and, well, weird. Carter & Lovecraft contains elements of all of those, but is decidedly dark and heavy. And he writes a powerful opening. The child killer is seemingly caught by Hammond and Carter. He’s shot and while dying, the senior officer places a pistol in his own mouth and pulls the trigger. No reason why.
Carter leaves the police and ventures off into the world of private investigation. While chasing cheating husbands, a lawyer appears in his office (rather mysteriously and… quietly), informing him that he’s been named the sole in inheritor of a home in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s never heard of his benefactor, one Alfred Hill, gone missing seven years ago.
Howard writes wonderful prose. He’s noir without being clichéd or overdone. The narrative flows without seeming wordy, and is imbued with a subtle sense of humor:
“I’m sorry,” said Carter. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I came in,” said the man, as if to reassure him.
Carter didn’t need the reassurance on that point, but it was kind of the man to offer it, all the same.
Hill’s ‘home’ is actually a bookstore: “Hill’s Books — Antiquarian & Secondhand.” Emily Lovecraft is Hill’s niece and has been managing the store since Hill’s disappearance. It will surprise no one that Emily is related to the Lovecraft of Providence fame, ol’ H.P. And yes, she’s the last in the Lovecraft lineage.
More weird happenings orbit Carter and Lovecraft, and they find themselves pulled by the gravity of a series of deadly events. A mathematician magician has an uncanny ability to ‘influence chance,’ and while taking advantage of casinos, also seems to defy physics in several apparent murders.
It’s clear that the events in and around Providence are not merely magic, nor are they of the natural world. This is, after all, the home turf of H.P. Lovecraft and his dramatically interwoven tales of cosmic horror. Emily is a reluctant expert of her ancestor’s writings and history and is able to tease out from the clues of the recent murders to connect the dots with her own family history. Providence isn’t normal… nor has it ever been.
Everything… is kind of fucked up. And by ‘everything,’ I mean everything. Nothing is right, nothing is as it appears. I don’t just mean in some nihilistic, conspiratorial, paranoid kind of way. I mean fundamentally. And the joke is, it used to be worse. Then, back in the twenties, a group of guys figured out what was wrong, and how they could fix it.
The world seems to becoming UN-fixed. And it’s no accident that former Det. Carter is involved.
I’ll stay away from any further plot description/spoilers, but suffice it to say, there’s a whole lot of Lovecraftian weirdness, including disjointed cities, immortal creatures of the sea, and horrors that cause insanity with just a mere glimpse.
My biggest frustration with the pantheon of Lovecraftian writing is the lack of high quality long-form fiction. The space is awash with short stories, novellas and anthologies (I recently reviewed a Cthulhu-Roman Empire mash up anthology). Howard’s entrant is a terrific mystery, wrapped up in a detective tale, enveloped in the cosmic weird of Lovecraft. And it succeeds.
Carter & Lovecraft concludes with a terrific plot twist. And while Howard has written a solid and definitive ending in its own right, there’s a plethora of potential for a sequel. Additionally, Warner Brothers has acquired the television rights for the series.
Daniel Carter is a NYPD Homicide detective. He and his partner track down child serial killer Robert Suydam in the Red Hook neighborhood of New York. Suydam is killed in the encounter, his latest victim recovered unharmed. Things go strangely, horrifyingly wrong, though, and in the aftermath, Carter leaves the force and becomes a private investigator. Some time later, an eccentric lawyer visits him with a startling bequest, in the city of Providence, Rhode Island.
Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter and Lovecraft is a fine Lovecraftian pastiche. It’s got a prevailing sense of weirdness, otherworldliness, and creepy not-exactly-human people living on the outskirts of town. The story blends horrifying alternate universes with a generous dose of Weird Physics. You’ve got your eerie dreams, inexplicable experiences and a soupçon of the downright gross. Suydam, Red Hook, and Carter will all be familiar names to H.P. Lovecraft fans, but Howard treats us to a pleasant twist. He gives us a descendant of Lovecraft who works in the book store Carter inherits. Emily Lovecraft is a trained librarian, she’s female, obviously, and she’s African American.
Emily is quite aware of her notorious ancestor’s racism and xenophobia, and she burlesques it for Carter in an early conversation the two of them have.
“Hi, Great-great-great Uncah Howard, I’m Emily. We’re family. Yaay!” “Oh magawd! A mulatto! A mongrel! My precious genes! Noooo!”
Clearly, Emily is smart and has a sense of humor, and her banter with Carter in the early parts of the book was one of the joys of reading it. (To avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to her as Emily and the historical person as Lovecraft.) All too soon, though, Carter is caught up in two bizarre murders involving an eldritch artifact, and confronts an arrogant and deadly adversary. The adversary believes he is a supervillain, but both he and Carter are being manipulated, and possibly even the manipulators aren’t in complete control here.
The plot of Carter and Lovecraft is good. It’s mysterious and twisty, with a good pace and lots of juicy hints about Carter’s own heritage, and what Lovecraft and his strange circle of friends might have really been up to, back in the 1920s. The Waites, who live on the tract of land outside the city limits are creepy, strange and scary. The topsy-turvy ending, clearly setting up for a second book in a series, was well-done, completely convincing.
I still had a few problems with the book. My biggest problem was Emily, who was like an object in the frame of a broken auto-focus camera. She would slip into focus for a few pages, then blur out again. At first, the fact that she is African American seemed important to the story, as if it were going to have some weight, but it is rarely mentioned again. Emily apparently has no family or friends in Providence, but I don’t know why that would be. Despite Lovecraft’s racism, Emily talks about her ancestor with affection, never, after that first humorous role-play, expressing any mixed feelings or emotional conflict about him. No, her irritation with being related to Lovecraft is all the fanboys who want to talk about Cthulhu.
When the book needs exposition on Lovecraft, Emily is “Lovecraft R Us.” When the story needs weird history about the town of Providence, she’s the go-to local historian. When Carter and the local cop decide to take the fight to the bad-guys and need a gun-totin’ librarian, she breaks out her Mossberg shotgun from under the bookstore counter. (And yes, I enjoyed writing “gun-totin’ librarian” just as much as you think I did.) In short, Emily just becomes whatever the book needs when the book needs it.
Even weirder is Emily’s love life, since she is dating Ken, a Republican senatorial candidate from Providence, who is a spoiled white mama’s-boy. Because we meet Ken through Dan Carter’s eyes and see him as a rival for Emily, we totally understand why Ken might be dating her: 1) she’s hot; and 2) she’s forbidden fruit. I am completely at a loss as to what she sees in him. In the relationship, Emily is surprisingly passive, waiting for him to break up with her (she even makes a little bet with herself about what he’ll say), instead of taking the initiative and ending what is obviously an unsatisfactory pairing. Again, the issue of race is not mentioned, except for one conversation Emily has with Ken’s unpleasant mother. It just seems… unlikely.
I also had some mild confusion about time and place, specifically time, and this confusion started before the Lovecraftian weirdness kicks in. In an early chapter, Howard mentions that the aftermath of the Suydam shooting is knocked out of the news cycle by a “wardrobe malfunction” at a sporting event. That’s the 2007 Superbowl half-time show; Howard is specific. Later, though, Ken shows up in a Buick Verano Turbo, which didn’t come out until 2012, but I’m very sure Carter did not spend five years in New York as a PI. Well, I’m pretty sure, or kind of sure. Later, when Emily is introduced to the local cop Harrelson and he learns her last name, it goes like this:
Harrelson frowned. “What? Like the writer guy?”
Lovecraft nodded. “Just like the writer guy. You didn’t get me mixed up with Linda Lovelace, so kudos to you, Detective.”
I… Linda Lovelace? Does anybody under the age of forty know who that is? She’s been dead since 2002. How does Emily know who Linda Lovelace is? Why would she think that a Providence police officer confuse a black bookstore owner with a white porn star? And why on earth would Emily equate herself with a drug-addicted actor who is practically the emblem of female exploitation? Did she mean Ada Lovelace? I just don’t get it.
And one other nit-pick, while I’m on it… the book contains a few too many British-isms, which also threw me out of the story at times. Howard is British. For those of you who haven’t read it, I hope this will help, since now you will understand why Carter, who is standing on the street level floor of a house, takes the stairs to the “first floor,” for example. (In Britain, the street level floor is not called the “first” floor but the “ground” floor, and the first floor up a flight of stairs is obviously the “first floor.”) The nationality of the author might explain the car thing and the “Linda Lovelace” comment too, but I read an American edition of this book, and a final pass by an editor would have helped.
Carter and Lovecraft is clearly Book One of a series. I am optimistic that Howard will develop and deepen Emily’s character. The time-period issue may have resolved itself and I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers. Howard excels at the weird and the action sequence, and most of this book is made up of weirdness and action; it’s a good match.
Finally, this book cover employs an excellent use of tentacles! This is an enjoyable Lovecraft adventure and I look forward to more of them in this series.
Is this Book One of a series? That seems to be the set-up.
I didn’t realize he wrote the CABAL books — I nearly bought one yesterday in my book-frenzy.
I believe it is, but I’ll confirm. The ‘internet’ seems conflicted as to whether this is the first in a series.
It’s a pretty interesting read and does a really good job of making HP a background character himself.
Confirmed – this is just the first in the series.
This is definitely going on my must-read list. Thanks, Jason!