Tales of Cthulhu Invictus: Nine Stories of Battling The Cthulhu Mythos In Ancient Rome edited by Brian M. Sammons
She shivers. She is cold, and she shivers, despite the blanket that wraps her, despite her mother’s enfolding arms.
It is not the fever, but the place.
A place that feels… old.
Old when Rome was young. Old when the she-wolf gave suckle to Romulus and Remus. Old… beyond old. Ancient, and wrong.
~from “Fecunditati Augustae,” by Christine Morgan
Tales of Cthulhu Invictus adds nine new stories to the large anthology subgenre of the Cthulhu mythos built upon the cosmic horror foundations laid by H.P. Lovecraft. This collection, edited by the accomplished Brian M. Sammons, has several very good stories by a collection of experienced writers. All fit well within the Cthulhu and Lovecraftian themes, though only a few effectively utilize the Roman place-and-time as an embedded enhancement rather than mere historical window dressing.
Below you’ll find very brief summaries and quotes from each of the stories. These aren’t in their exact order from the anthology, but are loosely ranked in order of my favorites.
“Fecunditati Augustae” by Christine Morgan
Empress Faustina is tormented by her inability to give Emperor Marcus Aurelias male heirs. She turns to dark magic to ensure her fertility, though not her children’s health. Morgan has a beautiful turn of phrase and does the best job of building Lovecraftian tension while providing effective hints of the otherworldly horrors. The characters have depth and dimension and, at only 15 pages long, the plot thoroughly embeds itself in its Roman historical connections. I really love Morgan’s language and look forward to reading more from her.
Seized and held. Roughly turned. Upended over a bony, knobby knee. The world tips as if it will spill out, sloshing like a rocked jar or amphora. The tough, callused heel of a hard hand strikes her a firm blow to the back. She utters a bleat of her own, a hideous glottal expulsion. Her throat opens and now she is the sloshing jar, the rocked amphora, contents emptying in a liquid splatter.
“Vulcan’s Forge” by William Meikle
This story explores the idea that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. may have been more than a simple issue of geophysical forces, but perhaps purposefully triggered to protect the world from a long ancient evil, primed to unleash its fury on the human race. Ancient explorers discover a mechanism deep within the volcano and find clues to its history.
One thing is certain — it was designed and built by a race long since lost to man — a race of giant intellect so far above ours that we would be mere insects under their boots should they return.
“Plague of Wounds” by Konstantine Paradias
I sleep in a corner in one of the back rooms of the Synagogue, miraculously left unscathed by the fire. The wound itches and breaks out into a stream of words, its lips flapping together like gums, its tongue lolling. In Greek and Aramaic and Latin and its own nonsense language, it foretells of the terrible doom that will befall the world.
This terrific story is of rabbi wrought by an unholy plague that manifests itself within his own body. He sells out his fellow man to protect his family, but when faced with selling out humanity, he has his soul’s redemption at stake.
“Lines in the Sand” by Tom Lynch
An attempted murder and a cursed dagger drags former Legionary Caius out of his comfortable retirement and into battle with The King in Yellow — a character upon whom Lovecraft built components of his stories.
As a Roman cohort stood against an army of unidentifiable creates, they saw:
Towers taller than the grandest in Rome floated into view behind the opposing army. Through a haze, over a distant lake, lofty towers pulled the entire cohort’s focus. Everyone watched as the ethereal edifices board towards the sky, until something… changed. Faces feel as the beauty began to fade. Columns cracked, facades crumbled, and friezes fell.
“The Temple of Iald-T’quthoth” by Lee Clark Zumpe
Another strong story that’s much more lurid and sanguine than the others, and effectively blends the historical place and time with the Lovecraftian themes.
A killer, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, dies horribly as the cross settles into its base:
… the crown of Jaddus’ skull burst wide open, its gory content spurting through the air. The think, viscid substance — a repugnant mix of brain, blood and gore — rained down on those soldiers ill-starred enough to be in close proximity. From the oozing, shattered husk of Jaddus’ head, a black swarm of small winged things, unseated from their next, took flight with much commotion, congregating briefly in burgeoning shadowy cloud that resembled and impossibly gargantuan monster.
Over the next decade, each infected Legionary dies. Quintus knows he’s the last and leads the investigators to a cult leader… who’s a surprise to the characters, though much less so to the readers.
“The Seven Thunders” by Robert M. Price
Driven by the final words of a possessed man, “The coming of Leviathan who sleeps in his house at R’lyeh.” Cult investigators (one of whom is actually part of “The Unrepeatables”), seeks for the meaning and root of the comment. R’lyeh taps into a concept that Lovecraft initiated in his original The Call of the Cthulhu. This story contains a terrific little twist at the end that would’ve made for a very strong longer form story.
“Time Devours All” by Pete Rawlik
A seer is brought before the council of The Decemviri, an ancient cult responsible for protecting some of the greatest secrets of Rome. But who’s protecting the council from those within?
“The Unrepeatables” by Edward M. Erdelac
This weakest of the anthology starts out as an attempt to blackmail the best racing Charioteer in Rome, and ends in a blood-filled horror fest. It lacks the subtlety of the better stories.
“Magnum Innominandum” by Penelope Love
This starts as a murder mystery in Rome, with the widowed Helvia serving the role of Agatha Christie, who ultimately uncovers an ancient Hispanic cult at the root of strange goings-on. This story ends well, but Love crams too much plot into too small of a space.
Tales of Cthulhu Invictus is published by Golden Goblin Press, producers of supplements for a series of Cthulhu-themed role playing games — an interesting subculture, to be sure. I don’t play the games, but the Cthulhu/Rome combo was simply too awesome of a concept for me to resist. It’s an enjoyable, short, and inexpensive anthology — whether sleeping in your house at R’lyeh or cozying up against a fire during a smoke-infused October evening.
[Waves to the King in Yellow] It sounds like a fun, gory anthology. I’ll have to put it on my list. I like the variety here.
I didn’t even know this sub-genre existed, which is embarrassing for me. A Roman-Era/Cthulhu mashup sounds fun!
I think it’s a small, tiny, exclusive, elite, particular sub-genre.