The enterprising small press Mythos Books has finally been releasing some titles that we have all been waiting on for some time (And some we had no idea were pending release; their website is extremely user unfriendly compared to Elder Signs Press, Hippocampus Press or Golden Gryphon Press. On the other hand Wildside Press and Pagan Publishing won't win any prizes for keeping up to date either...), like The Taint of Lovecraft and The Tales of Inspector LeGrasse. Coming soon is a highly anticipated collection by Walter deBill, The Black Sutra. I feel like I was waiting on Unholy Dimensions for more than a year.
Jeffrey Thomas is a highly respected horror and science fiction author who certainly needs no introduction from me (all us reviewers write this before we introduce someone who needs no introduction...). He is the creator of Punktown, a wild, weird and wonderful city on the alien planet of Oasis. Originally named Paxton, it has been renamed Punktown by its inhabitants, a mixture of humans living side by side with other almost human races, and other completely inhuman species. Full of crime, drugs, desperation, poverty and intrigue, Punktown is a violent place. So far the Punktown saga may be read in Thomas's collection Punktown, the collection he edited Punktown:Third Eye (guest authors set stories in Thomas' world), Thomas' novel Monstrocity (which is an entirely mythosian outing; Punktown's human-like races have their own traditions of grimoires, and names for the mythos entities and the Elder Gods), and new collection by Jeffrey Thomas and his brother Scott, Punktown: Shades of Grey. This last is the best and edgiest Punktown collection so far!
Although Thomas is best known for the Punktown series, HPL's mythos was influential for him and he has often applied his highly polished gifts to mythos stories. The bulk of these are now assembled in this trade paperback from Mythos Books. All of these titles have seen the light of print before, except The Young of the Old Ones and What Washes Ashore, newly written for this book. However, most of these were in periodicals like Deathrealms, Cthulhu Codex and Midnight Shambler, so only an assiduous mythos collector like James Ambuehl would already have them. In fact, as I mostly collect books, I only had The Cellar Gods from 1999's New Mythos Legends.
Here are the contents, although not in the order they appear in the book:
THE BONES OF THE OLD ONES
THE AVATARS OF THE OLD ONES
THE YOUNG OF THE OLD ONES
ASCENDING TO HELL
THE ICE SHIP
THROUGH OBSCURE GLASS
THE HOUSE ON THE PLAIN
THE BOARDED WINDOW
I MARRIED A SHOGGOTH
THE THIRD EYE
THE DOOM IN THE ROOM
THE FACE OF BAPHOMET
THE CELLAR GODS
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
WHAT WASHES ASHORE
OUT OF THE BELLY OF SHEOL
THE FOURTH UTTERANCE
Some housekeeping: This is a Trade Paperback with 267 pages. It's all fiction; no author's notes or introductions. The cover is by Jamie Oberschlake, and it is highly effective, showing a Cthulhu-like entity crouched over an ancient tome. There is more interior art by Peter Worthy that didn't do too much for me. The price is $20 list but it is heavily discounted to $13.60 by Amazon, and available for free supersaver shipping although at a downgraded rate. Thomas continues the Lovecraft Circle tradition of mentioning other mythos authors he likes in some of his stories. For example, one of the cultist victims in The Bones of the Old Ones is Willy Pugmire, some action in The Avatars of the Old Ones takes place in the Ambuehl Building and a note from S. Sargent appears in Corpse Candles. Thomas also pays homage directly to W. Pugmire by setting a story Through Obscure Glass in Pugmire's Sesqua Valley. This was a daring story, I think, because no one can really write with Pugmire's sensuous prose or make the visceral Sesqua Valley come alive like he can. The trilogy of stories that opens the books is set in the Punktown universe; The Bones of the Old Ones actually takes place in Punktown. HPL names like Ward and Poe names like Pym appear in some stories. Much of Thomas' approach to the mythos (or Yog Sothothery if you prefer) is very conventional, the Great Old Ones were cast into imprisonment by the Elder Gods. The Elder Sign has unusual potency against them and their servitors. The grimoires are the usual suspects, except for Thomas' own The Book of Awe and The Metal Book.
My summary is that I highly recommend this collection. I think, however, that the stories written later, like What Washes Ashore are more deftly written than the earlier ones (well, our favorite authors are always honing their craft, aren't they?). Also I tended to like those stores more tangentially mythos, like What Washes Ashore, more than the more conventional Old Ones trilogy. The poetry, The Ice Ship and Ascending to Hell, and the comic relief, the poem YooHoo, Cthulhu and the story The Doom in the Room, were all low points for me. Others might like them more. Unfairly perhaps, in GW Thomas' Book of the Black Sun, I thought the sum was more than the parts. I was engaged all the while in that book but saw no flashes of brilliance. The best mythos stories sparkle, like the dazzling Annandale's Final Draft in Dead But Dreaming; they match the best that horror, fantasy or science fiction of any stripe has to offer. For what it's worth, while I think the bulk of these stories are well crafted at a high level, none of them really stopped me in my tracks. When I read One Way Conversation by Sammons in Horrors Beyond I had to pause to catch my breath and immediately reread it. Not so with Unholy Dimensions, although mostly the stories are very good reads and a few were quite fine.
I'll briefly comment on some of the stories; mild to moderate spoilers may follow, so don't read further if that bothers you.
THE BONES OF THE OLD ONES
THE AVATARS OF THE OLD ONES
THE YOUNG OF THE OLD ONES - These 3 stories, set in the Punktown universe, are the most Derlethian tales. Similar Derleth's heroes, an unwilling detective John Bell is forced to accept that mythosian entities lurk beyond the veil and he has to sacrifice himself to oppose them. These were good straight up mythos stories.
BOOK WORM - I highly enjoyed this story, where a lover of antiquarian books and arcane mysteries sneaks into his grandmother's house to peruse an ancient volume she intends to sell as part of his late grandfather's estate. Sometimes you can really lose yourself in a book... LOST SOUL, even though a very different sort of story, also dealt with using a book as a portal into another dimension or reality. LOST SOUL was also a very good read.
THE HOUSE ON THE PLAIN - Space travelers find an old Victorian house on the plains of an inhospitable planet. Some dabbler in ancient lore managed to get himself transported here many years ago...
In both THE BOARDED WINDOW and RED GLASS, for some reason it is possible to get a glimpse of another dimension through the mundane surfaces of our own. Both were extremely well written.
THE SERVITORS - Another excellent story! As a strange alien tries to escape its mundane and eternal existence, the human protagonist, living an isolated and alienated existence, gradually loses all touch with her humanity. The parallel tales converge very neatly.
SERVILE - The protagonist is hired as a servant for a respected archaeologist who is now disabled. It turns out the archaeologist herself is just a servant of a darker reality...This was OK, not my favorite but still good.
I MARRIED A SHOGGOTH - What would you do if you could summon a shoggoth and it would obey your telepathic commands, assuming any shape and performing any action you chose? And the shoggoths did evolve intelligence of a sort...
THE THIRD EYE - An Arkham detective, ruined by years of drinking too much and seeing too much, bequeaths his son with a strangely shaped amulet. Good enough read, not my favorite.
CELLS - Looking beyond the veil of existence, can you call back a recently departed soul if you have a vessel waiting for it? OK, again not one of my favorites.
CONGLOMERATE - Suppose you find out the modern art in your company's foyer actually has a specific purpose, and the chief executive is really not who he says to be but has much darker, more cosmic aims?
THE FACE OF BAPHOMET - What were the real secrets of the Knights Templar? Has their order really been expunged? Interesting little tale!
PAZUZU'S CHILDREN - This was one of the best stories in the book!! It has a different take on what really happened during the first Gulf War.
THE CELLAR GODS - Another well crafted story of a man who befriends and falls in love with a lady from Leng, keeping her concealed in his cellar for many ears while she manifests her true heritage.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL - Likeable and too brief, this is the story of an archaeologist who discovers some mysterious glyphs. It sort of reminded me of a story, I think by Lin Carter, of an Egyptologist who discovers some hieroglyphics that show the entire history of the world as well as the future.
CORPSE CANDLES - A detective investigates two brothers who just might be wizards and have an age old enmity.
WHAT WASHES ASHORE - My absolute favorite in the collection, here I saw the full power of Thomas's writing skills. For my money, it edged out PAZUZU'S CHILDREN by the barest margin, I don't know why, maybe because the imagery and prose were just spot on for the mood Thomas sought to create. You never know what you can find in an old seashell shop.
OUT OF THE BELLY OF SHEOL - Well, now you know what really swallowed Jonah...
THE FOURTH UTTERANCE - In a very inventive slant for a mythos story, a woman keeps getting messages on her answering machine from some poor sod who has pierced the veil of reality. The thing is, they are all wrong numbers and she's not sure what to do...
THROUGH OBSCURE GLASS - If you are ever in Washington state, pay a visit to the Sesqua Valley. Plan to stay a spell...
Really, all mythos fans must get this volume. The best stories are top notch, and the overall level of creativity and polish in the prose puts most mythos collections in the shade. Best of all, most of these have not been reproduced ad infinitum in other books. Also best is that Jeffrey Thomas is still busily creating worlds for us to explore. I'm sure this is not all his mythos output. I could swear I read a Yellow Sign story set in Punktown by him some years ago that absolutely knocked my socks off. Perhaps if this title is a big enough success for Mythos Books they could be persuaded to give us another volume!