Usually, I shy away from reviewing books whose name I can’t pronounce. Since this title is in the language of the Elder Gods, though, it’s probably better that I can’t pronounce it. Aklo, H.P. Lovecraft’s mystical language, was never meant for human voices to speak anyway, as editor Ross Lockhart explains in his introduction. Lockhart also informs us that the meaning of “Fhtagn” was given to him in a dream (presumably by the Old Ones) and it means “house.” Anyway, Cthuhlu Fhtagn! is the third Cthulhu-themed anthology Word Horde has done, and Lockhart is now getting mystical information while he sleeps… I’d keep an eye on him, if I were you.
Cthulhu Fhtagn! has 19 stories. Many, but not all, do involve buildings; all involve Lovecraftian horror. I’m not going to review all of them. I will list them all and give a brief description, then talk in more detail about the ones I enjoyed the most, or at least thought were the best. I liked nearly everything in this collection. If you are a Lovecraft fan or you like horror and weird fantasy, you will probably enjoy this.
- “The Lightning Splitter,” by Walter Greatshell. A family who moved into an old house that was frequently visited by H.P. Lovecraft discover the horrors of remodeling, and a portal to another plane.
- “Dead Canyons,” by Ann K. Schwader. This science fiction horror story combines a Mars probe, artificial intelligence and brain chemistry.
- “Delirium Sings at the Maelstrom’s Window,” by Michael Griffin. A man whose daughter disappeared eleven years ago, along with her mother, is reunited with her. He discovers that the cult her mother took her to was darker than he had realized.
- “Into Ye Smoke-Wreathed World of Dreams,” by W.H. Pugmire. Two young men in Providence, Rhode Island become fixated on an eerie piece of sculpture and the legend of an old church.
- “The Lurker in the Shadows,” by Nathan Carson. Carson explores a secret connection between two prominent northeastern horror writers, and the startling consequences of those connections.
- “The Insectivore,” by Orrin Grey. A man thinks back on his adolescence, and the “crazy man” who lived on his street. Maybe Mr. Petrie wasn’t as crazy as everyone thought.
- “The Body Shop,” by Richard Lee Byers. After the Elder Gods have risen, a man who helps humans with body-modifications so that they become more acceptable to the eldritch overlords is approached by two customers with a hidden agenda.
- “On a Kansas Plain,” by Michael J. Martinez. Steve has tracked down his old college roommate, James, at a request from James’s wife Jane. James seems to have slipped into madness, raving about the Church of the Returning King, but maybe he’s not exactly crazy either.
- “The King of Lyghes,” by Anya Martin. A passive wife gets drawn into her husband’s collection of very strange creatures.
- “The Curious Death of Sir Arthur Turnbridge,” by G.D. Falksen. This story brings Lovecraftian weirdness into the structure of an Agatha Christie country-home murder mystery.
- “Arkheim’s Horror,” by Christine Morgan. Settlers from Scandanavia on their way to Vinland discover more than they expect.
- “Return of the Prodigy,” by T.E. Grau. To celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, Gary and Gladys take a budget vacation on a tropical island. The island is far off the beaten path, and the couple soon discovers why.
- “The Curse of the Old Ones,” by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington. Movie-production weirdness and Lovecraft-weirdness blend in this story set in the 1960s.
- “Love Will Save You,” by Cameron Pierce. Glowing orbs in the hull of a derelict ship and cell phones join, and the world changes.
- “Assemblage Point,” by Scott R. Jones, deals with the rules of fiction and the laws of the jungle, as an occult hunter shares with an unknown adversary — who might be you.
- Gard Sellar contributes “The Return of Sarnath,” a classic epic fantasy tale of an expedition, a strange tower, and stranger worlds.
- “The Long Dark,” by Wendy N. Wager, once again blends science fiction with horror. Ylie and his father join with the Sisters to save their mining planet from eternal darkness.
- “Green Revolution,” by Cody Goodfellow follows a group of environment activists as they trek into the South American rainforest, searching for a legendary environmental visionary. Sometimes visionaries are better left alone.
- “Don’t Make Me Assume my Ultimate Form,” by Laird Barron. Dee Dee Gamma is part of a cadre of women called The Nest. She takes on a secret mission to save the world; one that involves Alaska, a doll and a diner.
I admired the variety here. The choices reflect many of the ways the horrors of the Elder Gods can be reflected. Whether it’s a mystery, a SF tale, conventional dark fantasy or splattery horror, in the hands of these writers the creepy horror bleeds through.
I’d never read a Laird Barron story before. Now I have, and I’m a convert. No, make that a fanatic. “Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form” was a jet-propelled thrill ride, with completely gonzo storytelling from its opening line — and 2nd person narrator — to its final image. The women of The Nest are mostly badass killers or generally criminals, but they battle daily to save the world. Dee Dee Gamma is sent on her first assignment, and every single plot point serves up a twist or a skewed perspective. The story is wonderful, and I still find the diner scene the most compelling and scary moment.
My favorite story after Barron’s — which probably should have its own special “favorite” category — is “The Curse of the Old Ones.” Anyone who loves Lovecraft probably loves Hammer Studios, and Tanzer and Bullington pay full homage to Hammer Films. It’s the 1960s and a film crew is making a movie of The Curse of the Old Ones. For Mary and Peter, the stars of the film, the production seems to be, well, cursed. Things break or go missing, make-up men disappear, and time seems to move strangely… or is that just regular movie making? The story is scary and funny, and filled with film cameos that will delight Hammer fans. I particularly liked the way these two writers played with our perceptions (Is this really happening, or just a scene?) and with our sense of time… much the way time might begin to melt and warp when the Old Ones arise.
“On a Kansas Plain” has a nice noir flavor, while “The Curious Death of Sir Arthur Turnbridge” mixes Christie-mystery with Old Ones strangeness and adds a dash of Conan Doyle. The ending was not a complete surprise but it was well done.
I appreciated the steampunk quality to the bleak mining colony in Wagner’s “The Long Dark.” The story has a moral ambiguity: is it acceptable to do some evil to ward off a greater evil? If so, how do you measure? I also liked the brooding, cinematic quality of the descriptions.
In “Dead Canyons,” Ann K. Schwader ably glides between a believable scientific setting, the team monitoring Clementime, the Mars rover fitted with an AI, and the increasingly terrifying visions Susan, who is somehow linked to Clem, is experiencing. The story never loses its footing and never misses a beat.
Christine Morgan’s Viking tale, “Arkheim’s Horror” adds a link in the historical chain of Cthulhu mythology, and gives one explanation for the failure of the Norse colonies in North America, all in the tone of a ballad presented by a skald.
At least half of Lovecraft’s impact is language, and two stories here use language in different ways, to good effect. “Insectivore,” by Orrin Grey, does not try to emulate H.P, but the language and imagery re-create a time and place in a concrete, believable way. At the other end of the continuum, “Delirium Sings at the Maelstrom Window” by Michael Griffin, captures the sense of a dream-drowned languor with no escape. “Into Ye Smoke-Wreath’d World of Dream” by W.H. Pugmire read the most like a Lovecraft pastiche. “Assemblage Point,” by Scott R. Jones, makes good use of post-modernism, especially in the final paragraph. This story is an homage to the master of shivery horror, Ramsey Campbell.
So, yeah, if R’lyeh isn’t rising fast enough for you, if clammy, webbed-handed fishbelly-white figures aren’t circling your house, and the stars aren’t winking out just yet, the Cthulhu Fhtagn! anthology will get you through until the madness begins. Enjoy!