Ellen Datlow, ed. | Lovecraft Unbound: Twenty Stories

The 20 stories in the collection concentrate on capturing that familiar feeling of dread and the sense that there’s more to the world than you ever imagined, and most of what’s out there is not in the least concerned with your welfare.



422 pages. Dark Horse Books, 2009. $19.95 (paperback)
I’ve never been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing style (nor of his racist and anti-Semitic attitudes) and the tentacles and whatnot can get to be a bit much but I love the themes of his work. Forbidden books of knowledge, mysterious laboratories and the barely-hidden presence of malevolent beings? I’m there with bells on. Let me put it another way: the planes flying into the World Trade Center did not fundamentally alter my view of the world (terrible tragedy though it was for the people affected) because I’ve never felt that the world was a particularly safe place to begin with. So it’s very pleasant to read about the evil done by imagined beings from the comfort of my home as opposed to contemplating real evil done by real people in the world.
Anyway, my affection for the universe but not the literary style of Lovecraft makes me the ideal candidate for Lovecraft Unbound, an anthology of modern stories “inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft” and edited by the one and only Ellen Datlow. There are 20 stories in the collection (with 16 being new to print) and most steer clear of any overt references to Lovecraft’s works. Instead, they concentrate on capturing that familiar feeling of dread and the sense that there’s more to the world than you ever imagined, and most of what’s out there is not in the least concerned with your welfare. At least not in a positive way.
Each story has an afterword which introduces the author and explains what the Lovecraftian connection is. This can get pretty tenuous—a few of these stories seem more like episodes of The Twilight Zone than works inspired by Lovecraft. But on the whole it’s a good collection with enough variety that if you like this kind of fiction you’ll probably find several, at least, which really speak to you. And since there is some overlap of themes (explorers in Antarctica go down a crevasse and find something they were not expecting…) it’s particularly good for people interested in doing this type of writing because you can see how several authors handle similar subject matter.
I’m not going to try to review all 20 stories: you can see the cover and a table of contents by clicking here. Instead, I’ll discuss a few which I liked, but please bear in mind that this selection says as much about me and my personal history as it does about the stories themselves. In other words, I’m not handing out gold stars and there are lots of other good stories in this collection as well so lack of mention does not mean lack of regard on my part.
Michael Chabon’s “In the Black Mill” is narrated by a young and ambitious archaeologist arriving in a small Pennsylvania town to do his PhD fieldwork. His subject: the Miskahannock Indians, a long-vanished tribe of Mound Builders who had an elaborate culture but no known religious practices. Our hero also does a little informal investigation of the local mill, which turns out to be dark and Satanic in a way Blake never imagined. Chabon has fun (not a word I ordinarily associate with Lovecraft) with the processes and pretenses of academia as well as the conventions of the mythos.
“The Office of Doom” by Richard Bowes is also a first-person tale with an academic angle. In this case the narrator is a low-level library employee in a large university with more than a few resemblances to NYU. Bowes’ portrayal of academic people and politics is dryly satirical (remember what I said about personal history influencing which stories you respond to?) and perhaps overshadows the story’s Lovecraftian influence, but it’s well-written and the Necromicron does figure pivotally in the plot. Finally, I love stories which have one extra twist to deliver in the very last paragraph and Bowes does that in spades.
Nick Mamatas gets it done in seven pages then adds a really long title as if to compensate in “That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable.” He likes to mix genres, and this story has three characters from Raymond Carver land drinking bourbon in a cave while they await the end of the world or, more precisely, the end of themselves once the shoggoths arrive. What can I say, you’ve just got to love an author who is good at his craft but also willing to confide that his ambition is to become “a former writer, sort of like Harper Lee” with “a book that will be a perennial backlist seller.”
H.P. Lovecraft was fairly unknown and rather impoverished during his lifetime, but his works have influenced many contemporary horror and science fiction writers including Clive Barker, Stephen King and H.R. Giger (the guy who designed the creature for the Alien movies). Who knows, maybe the next horror genius is included in Lovecraft Unbound and you can say you read them there first. | Sarah Boslaugh
Click here for a 4-page excerpt from “The Crevasse,” Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud’s contribution to Lovecraft Unbound, courtesy of Dark Horse Books.

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