The Lovecraft Squad: Dreaming – Stephen Jones (ed.) – Review

The Lovecraft Squad: Dreaming

Stephen Jones (ed.)

Pegasus Books Ltd.

[Please note that the publisher sent me a copy of this title in return for a fair and honest review]

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’m a huge fan of Stephen Jones and his work, both as an author and particularly as an editor. I first encountered Mr Jones when I started to become more interested in Horror as a genre a few years ago, and began to collect various genre anthologies; I rapidly came to notice that many of the most entertaining (and horrifying) collections were edited by Mr Jones, and from then on spotting his name on the cover of an anthology was a sure sign that I’d be picking it up. Unfortunately, many of those worthy tomes didn’t survive my transition to parenthood, but a number of them did – in particular the Shadows Over Innsmouth and Zombie Apocalypse! collections. I love both of those anthologies, and in particular believe that the latter are some of the finest zombie horror titles in the entire genre, including the spin-off novels; although Zombie Apocalypse! Endgame remains, to me, incredibly controversial in the way it caps off the trilogy, and will be the subject of an in-depth review sometime in the future.

As such, when I saw that Pegasus Books were offering Advanced Review Copies of a new anthology edited by Mr Jones, I absolutely jumped at the chance of reviewing it. Admittedly I hadn’t heard of The Lovecraft Squad: Dreaming before now, or the rest of the series it belongs to, but I was intrigued by the idea of another series that featured a secret government agency fighting Lovecraftian forces. I can’t get enough of series like Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files, and it was only a bonus to see that the stories in this anthology were written by a fantastic collection of horror authors, including the always-awesome Kim Newman. As I’ve noted in previous reviews, the cover art for a title is always incredibly important – it needs to draw the reader’s attention and give some indication of the content to be found inside the book itself. It can be a difficult feat to pull off successfully, but The Lovecraft Squad: Dreaming has an incredibly good cover – two gun-wielding government agents are menaced by several non-euclidian beasties, including a rather menacing-looking elk monster with impressively sharp-looking horns and four blood-red eyes. It’s a lovely cover that almost looks like it was painted rather than put together on a computer, and is complemented by some very sharp fonts for the book title and author name. The interior editing is also of an excellent quality, and I was impressed by the general layout and text placement as well.

Moving onto the contents of the anthology itself, there’s certainly a great deal of content to enjoy in the book – ten separate stories, as well as an Epilogue that feeds into the next book in the series whenever it’s eventually published. I enjoyed the book as a whole, but as always my general rule of thumb is only to cover those stories that I particularly loved, or which stood out to me for some specific reason. The first story in a shared-world anthology like this is always crucial to setting the tone of the entire book, and fortunately the Prologue – The Black Ship by Reggie Oliver – readily succeeds. Although set out like one of the standard Lovecraftian tropes – hastily-written letters discovered after the fact by some unfortunate academic or observer – it’s well-written and highly imaginative. I particularly enjoyed the way that Oliver made use of John Dee at the beginning of the story, given how immensely interesting Dee was as a real-life occultist, intelligencer and general intriguer, but is still relatively unused in the cosmic horror genre. Like many of the early chapters in Jones’ Zombie Apocalypse! titles, The Black Ship develops the creepy, horror-laden backstory to the entire anthology, laying down threads that are subsequently developed upon in later stories, and it sets a positive tone for the rest of the book.

Then we’re moved onto the White House and the Camelot period with The Dreams in the White House by Lisa Morton, and it’s here that the anthology really came to life for me as a reader. The White House is a hotbed of intrigue, scandal and political back-stabbing during any administration, but the years when Kennedy occupied it is particularly ripe for interleaving with Lovecraftian fiction given all of the social, cultural and political changes taking place in the early 1960s. It was an inspired decision by Morton to bring in JFK as one of the main characters in the story, particularly as it adds a delicious element of ambiguity as you’re forced to guess whether the ‘pure-hearted’ JFK of American political mythology could possibly stand up to non-euclidian geometry and its inhabitants. Morton also deftly blends the real-life clashes between Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover with the clandestine activities of the Human Protection League, and there are some intriguing ideas brought forward, particularly Hoover’s racial hatred and the reluctant hiring of PoC agents brought in by RFK, and the notion of a political administration waging a war against its own national police force. Indeed, the idea of a political investigation against an agency hosting the only organisation capable of defending humanity against extradimensional horrors is a fascinating one, personally, and I would absolutely love to see Morton get the ability to spin this entire thread off into its own title in the series.

From the White House to the white snow of Austria, Brian Hodge’s Weird Shadows Over Innsbruck was another strong entry in the anthology. I enjoyed the change in location and the difficulties that HPL agents would have in operating on foreign soil – and even moreso when certain other foreign intelligence agencies and their operatives are introduced in the latter half of the story. Hodge has an eye for the shadowy world of intelligence operatives, particularly during the formative years of the Cold War, and I enjoyed the natural progression of the story that combined Cold War paranoia and disturbing remnants of the last years of the Reich into an often subtly disturbing story. The weapon that the HPL agents are sent to Austria to either capture or destroy is suitably disturbing in its operation, with a uniquely horrific fate for its victims, and there’s plenty of potential for a follow-up story in a future title in the series. In addition, I liked the way that Hodge managed the issues of institutional racism and sexism in the FBI, continuing the thread from Morton’s preceding story while simultaneously managing to bring in an original take on the issues.

One of the strongest elements of any of Stephen Jones’ themed anthologies like this – such as, once again, the Zombie Apocalypse! series – is the deft way in which Jones navigates the themes he’s decided upon for the title, and the way he organises the directions and tangents the stories will take. They’re often a disorientating but pleasant surprise, and Jones’ has once again achieved this by following up two political-heavy stories with Michael Marshall Smith’s ethereal and slow-paced The Window of Eric Zann. Set in San Francisco at the height of the 1960s and the cultural revolution. It’s hippies and longhairs all the way down, following several young, naïve women who travel to the city to try and find a new life and new experiences. Smith does a great job of quickly and concisely setting out the bitter disillusionment that came with discovering how shallow and all-consuming such a lifestyle quickly becomes, which in turn leads the protagonist to a mysterious stranger and the room he lives in and the strange window with the shifting view.  Although The Window of Eric Zann is a completely different style and pace to previous entries in the collection, it works incredibly well, recreating the layers of friendship between this small group of women who arrived in San Francisco together, a city which itself seems to be on the verge of a violent revolution. It’s a situation ripe for exploitation by certain eldritch beings, but the story also has a surprisingly upbeat ending which found me smiling for the first time.

The Shadow Over The Moon is another fantastic story, and easily the second-best in the entire collection. Author Stephen Baxter delivers an incredibly fast-paced and action-packed story that also retains a broad edge of black humour that helps to enliven the use of an old trope – the Faked Moon Landing conspiracy theory. The opening is pure pulp – a faked moon landing, mysterious landmarks on Earth, and a female astronaut who assassinated a possessed cosmonaut, and really drew me into the story. There are some fantastically amusing elements in the story, including a use of Gerry Anderson that is both inspired and hilarious – to the extent that I put the book down and went and told my wife because I was chuckling so much at the absurdity of it. I absolutely adore stories like this, where authors can confidently mess with established history while also bringing their own unique angle to bear, and there’s some real imagination in play, as we travel to the moon and witness a flawless merging of conspiracy theory, Cold War politicking and cold-blooded realpolitik into a fantastically Lovecraftian tale. There are some real gut-punches that Baxter doles out as the story progresses, and it’s to his eternal credit that they’re never cheapened despite the wry sense of humour that is often on display. Wonderfully imaginative and often quietly horrifying in some of its implications, The Shadow Over The Moon can only be seen as an exemplar of how to write an HPL adventure.

Though it may be nearly heretical for someone so deep into the genre, I’ve never been particularly fond of Randolph Carter, either as a character or as a plot device. I never really connected with the original Lovecraft stories, and even later pastiches or reimaginings left me cold, so I wasn’t expecting a huge amount when I started Into The Dreamlands by Angela Slatter. By the end of the story, however, Slatter had managed what I had thought was almost impossible – depicting Carter in such a sympathetic and empathetic way that I genuinely felt sorry for the dimension-traveller. Slatter provides a subtle, sympathetic and deeply insightful portrayal of a Carter who has been conscripted to the Human Protection League, and who works for the HPL despite it often going against his wishes and desires. Her descriptions of Carter’s physical condition and infirmities that have been brought on by travelling into the Dreamlands, to conduct espionage and intelligence-gathering for the HPL, are hard to read at times especially when combined with the quiet desperation that she invokes in her version of Carter. In all, it’s a powerful piece of fiction, and I would readily say that Slatter has really mastered the HPL version of Carter, and I’d like to see further work from her in this vein.

Water Gate, one of the last stories in the anthology, returns us to the political manoeuvrings and conspiracy theories found at the start of the book, although in this case Sean Hogan and Lynda E. Rucker have progressed the story into the middle of the Nixon period. J. Edgar Hoover is an old man, with little time left in the world, and the man in the White House is a paranoid power-grabber who is, if anything, actually the superior to Hoover in terms of sheer political power and fervency. It’s the perfect background for a merging of real-life political conspiracies and scandals, and eldritch creatures, and Hogan and Rucker play both up to the hilt, producing an intriguing and highly successful story that comes across as True Detective crossed with House of Cards. The sinister aspects of the Nixon administration, including the already-disturbing Plumbers, are deftly snatched up and made even more unsettling, and are tackled by two mismatched but oddly well-paired HPL agents, including a bad-ass female agent who has a (literal) skin-deep secret. The story twists and turns, exactly like a real-life political conspiracy, and there some great cameos by those who brought Nixon down in reality, including a rather surprising reinterpretation of Deep Throat itself. The ending to the story is particularly memorable, primarily because of the inspired way that it merges some little-known Washington D.C. mythology with more familiar Lovecraftian tropes. It’s a downbeat and ambiguous ending, and frankly all the better for it, highlighting the immense difficulties and personal costs in trying to confront powerful beings – whether they’re in another reality or in the White House.

And then we come to Voodoo vs Cthulhu. It’s a Lovecraftian tale by Kim Newman. I mean, in a way that’s all you need to know – in fact, you don’t even need anything other than the last two words. Kim Newman is one of the most talented and imaginative authors I’ve ever come across, regardless of the exact genre or subgenre he’s writing in at any particular time. I’ve been a fan of his ever since I picked up Anno Dracula more than a decade ago, and I’ve enjoyed so many of his other works, especially his peerless Moriarty stories. Any story that Mr Newman produces is going to me memorable and entertaining, but Voodoo vs Cthulhu may actually be one of the best stories he’s ever produced. Honestly I don’t even know where to begin describing this story; it’s so beautifully over-the-top while also demonstrating an inherent understanding and love for Lovecraftian lore. There’s a sort of post-apocalyptic feel to the tale, as the Five Families of New York launch a coup and effectively take over the entire city in a matter of minutes. Only rather than Mafioso, these families are horrific abominations, each crawling with a distinctly different type of Lovecraftian monster, all led by the mysterious and all-powerful Curwen. There’s a period when it seems like the Five Families have triumphed, eliminating all of their occult competitors (in some fantastically sumptuous and vividly imagined action) and have triumphed, spreading crawling chaos and occult horrors across the city.

But there was one person the Five Families hadn’t reckoned with during their coup – Nefertiti Bronze, badass occultist, head of the voodoo cult that the Five Families just tried to exterminate, and also the daughter of Bronze-Era superhero ‘Doc’ John Bronze. She’s the sort of woman who you don’t piss off lightly – or at all – and the rest of Voodoo vs Cthulhu is an extremely fast-paced, Blaxploitation-infused action romp that follows Nefertiti as she effortlessly demolishes each of the Five Families in turn, and then heads for the big man – Curwen himself. It’s brilliantly and effortlessly written, the imagination displayed by the author in developing and characterising the Five Families and their henchmen is second-to-none, and Bronze herself is an old-fashioned, arse-kicking heroine that can’t be stopped no matter what is thrown at her. There’s also a subtle but ever-present sense of humour laced throughout the story; in particular, I’d never heard of a Lovecraftian conspiracy theory around Monopoly, but I had by the time I’d finished Voodoo vs Cthulhu! It’s a glorious ending to the anthology, and Mr Newman has really outdone himself this time – the anthology is worth purchasing for this story alone.

The Lovecraft Squad: Dreaming is a hugely enjoyable anthology, and Stephen Jones has once again worked his magic as editor to pull together some of the best and most imaginative writers in the horror and cosmic horror genres to deliver original, engaging and chilling tales based around the Human Protection League shared universe. Although some of the stories work better than others, they all fully engage with the material on offer, and deliver some surprising angles, most notably Kim Newman’s epic novella. The anthology works because the writers poke their heads behind the curtains of intra-government infighting and political conspiracies, which occurred in real-life, and then integrate those fascinating subjects with the heady, cosmic horrors of the Lovecraftian universe; the conflict between an agency trying to fend off eldritch horrors while simultaneously trying to justify its existence is begging for more meat to be put on the bone, and I’d love to see more in this direction in the future of the series.

 

 

 

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