on 1 September 2006
Arkham Tales is perhaps the beginning of a new venture for Chaosium, all original fiction set in the world of their Role Playing Game, Call of Cthulhu. Back in the day, before the internet, I was unaware of the small and (semi) thriving of small press mythos magazines. The only access to modern Lovecraftian fiction I knew about was through the cycle books, trade paperbacks by Chaosium. The most recent example of these was The Tsathoggia Cycle. Generally, these books featured reprinted stories gleaned and selected, usually by Robert Price, from these various magazines (Cthulhu Codex, Crypt of Cthulhu, Midnight Shambler etc). These were a definite mixed bag, with the books often containing a few winners, much mediocrity and a fair number of dogs. Alas, this was all that was available, except for an occasional fine quality hardback like Cthulhu 2000 (and even that had reprints). Lately, with improved on line connections and facilitation of book production by small presses the amount of books containing almost all new published mythos fiction has sky rocketed. Also, maybe it's only my imagination but this new generation of authors (not that the last one has moved off the scene) (maybe the 4th or 5th Lovecraft Circle?) is immensely talented so most of these collections have highly superior fiction. I always say we are in a golden age of mythos fiction, and point to books like Dead But Dreaming, Hardboiled Cthulhu, Horrors Beyond and the Delta Green books. And there is so much more in the pipeline, it is almost an embarrassment of riches. GW Thomas is set to release Cthulhu Express soon, and Rainfall Books has some titles in the offing, while Pagan Publishing has a new trade paperback collection of DG chapbooks planned. Elder Signs Press has stayed very, very busy, while Kevin O'Brien and Lindisfarne Press are getting back on their feet. Edward Lipsett has opened our eyes to Japanese mythos fiction via Kurodahan Press, John Pelan plans to issue The Cthulhian Singularity and Charlie Stross' The Jennifer Morgue is coming from Golden Gryphon. This is the golden age! Even so, we must admit our debt to Chaosium and Robert Price for keeping the eldritch fires burning.
And we also owe a debt to Chaosium for their role playing game, Call of Cthulhu. Actually I never played it; back when I had time for such leisure pursuits I was a D&D fan (but you gotta love a game where no matter how good you are, you eventually go insane or get eaten...). So here is my bias for the review: I do not know the source materials other than the stories by HPL and his legion of followers. And here is my assessment: you do not need to know their source material! Just like you don't need to know any of the Delta Green sources to really enjoy their books. Frankly, it's a wonder it took so long for Chaosium to elicit fiction based on their game world. After all there are tons of D&D based books. Delta Green, a version of CoC set in the modern era rife with secret government agencies and conspiracies, has been generating GREAT fiction for years now. Maybe the idea was germinating for a while but Chaosium was too broke to act on it, I dunno. Although set in or about Arkham, authors had free rein about all other content and setting, so there is no sense of repetition at all.
Someone will have to fill me in on the authors' reimbursement but I think it was peanuts plus 2 copies of the book, so truly these stories are labors of love. What I really like is there was a solicitation of stories and a culling process by the highly respected William Jones, from Elder Signs Press. This means the stories are notches above the cycle books. US List price is $15.95 but it is discounted on Amazon to $10.37, and available for free shipping if you buy $25 worth of stuff (like Hardboiled Cthulhu!). The book itself is a good quality trade paperback, like all the cycle books. Page count is 288, not counting the editor's note, so very generous! The editor's note by William Jones is quite useful and details the setting for the anthology in Chaosium's world. Unfortunately there are no bios on the authors. Cover art is by Steven Gilberts. It shows a grizzled one eyed grounds keeper at Miskatonic University, shadowed by various critters. I am not sure about this, but I believe Mr. Gilberts did the artwork for some CoC game scenarios, so this is a very appropriate choice. This brings me to the biggest flaw in the book: there were at least a half dozen careless typos, mostly word substitutions. I did not jot them down as I was reading but, for example, p160 "fowl odors" (unless everything was supposed to smell like chickens). I think someone relied too much on a spell checker. Also in the story Burnt Tea by Michael Dziesinski busted was used as a descriptive adjective, "busted body." OK, I'll accept that a woman has a bust, or a narc conducts a bust, or you sculpt a bust. I'll buy that if you are writing colloquially in dialogue, or representing someone's thoughts, to say something was busted is appropriate slang, but in narrative detached from thoughts or dialogue it reads like the mistake of an ignoramus. Why not "broken body?" I saw this same mistaken usage twice in another story somewhere recently, maybe a chapbook, and I was equally put off by it. I won't say it killed the story, but goodness gracious it peeved me. I greatly enjoyed Eats, Shoots, & Leaves by Lynne Truss, so consider this my panda paw print.
Here are the contents (not otherwise listed elsewhere that I could find, so I typed the dang thing myself):
Mysterious Dan's Legacy - Matthew Baugh
Vaughn's Diary - Robert Vaughn
The Orb - Tony Campbell
The Nether Collection - Cody Goodfellow
Worms - Pat Harrigan
They Thrive in Darkness - Ron Shiflet
What Sorrows May Come - Lee Clark Zumpe
Arkham Pets - James Ambuehl
Small Ghost - Michael Minnis
Burnt Tea - Michael Dziesinski
Arkham Rain - John Goodrich
Regrowth - David Conyers
The Idea of Fear - CJ Henderson
Disconnected - Brian Sammons
The Lady in the Grove - Scott Lette
On Leave in Arkham - Bill Bilstad
Geometry of the Soul - Jason Andrew
Spoilers may follow so stop now if that bothers you *********
Mysterious Dan's Legacy - Matthew Baugh - This is a new author to me. In 1873 a Kansas cowboy (that was frontier territory right after the Civil War) comes to Arkham to collect an inheritance, which brings unwelcome knowledge, responsibilities and enemies. This was a very likeable story; I wonder if the protagonist, Daniel Hawkins, will become a regular character in Mr. Baugh's stories.
Vaughn's Diary - Robert Vaughn - Here is one story where my knowledge of the source material wasn't up to scratch and I couldn't remember if there was an antecedent story but HPL or someone else, so I don't recognize the name Timothy Erasmus Vaughn. Regarding this tale, never ever read the diary of a deceased relative who was an occultist in Arkham. Never! I hadn't read anything by Mr. Vaughn before, but this was a good read and I hope he is writing more mythos fiction.
The Orb - Tony Campbell - Tony Campbell wrote After the War which appeared in Horrors Beyond. I liked that story well enough but it didn't knock my socks off. That impression is confirmed in The Orb, which is also OK but doesn't stand up to the best in this anthology. A Miskatonic Unversity librarian's father has to match wits with the Hounds of Tindalos and Nyalathotep.
The Nether Collection - Cody Goodfellow - After the absorbing Cahokia in Horrors Beyond and the unreasonably entertaining To Skin a Dead Man in Hardboiled Cthulhu, and his sensational novels Radiant Dawn and Ravenous Dusk, Mr. Goodfellow can basically do no wrong. This was a change of pace, being a story of Harry Houdini and Lovecraftian ghouls. What can I say, I really liked it.
Worms - Pat Harrigan - This was a fascinating story by an author I never encountered before. It chronicles the rise of a man from office drone to fanatical rabble rouser, with terrific Lovecraftian touches scattered throughout. I loved that more subtle touches were used as opposed to the usual rub your face in the fact that there's a mythos out there.
They Thrive in Darkness - Ron Shiflet - With Unfinished Business in Hardboiled Cthulhu Mr. Shiflet now has two tales of Pickman and his ghouls in print. While I enjoyed the story, I confess to liking Unfinished Business better.
What Sorrows May Come - Lee Clark Zumpe - Mr. Zumpe wrote The Breach, a terrific story in Horrors Beyond, and has a few stories in mythos magazines. This effort was OK, sort of a reanimation tale with a protective ghost thrown in. I liked the prose but the story left me flat; I didn't dislike it, there was just better stuff here.
Arkham Pets - James Ambuehl - This very brief story by the ubiquitous Mr. Ambuehl concerned a boy who finds some crawly things in an Arkham swamp and decides to bring them home. Complications ensue. I found this amusing and diverting.
Small Ghost - Michael Minnis - Mr. Minnis is very productive. Recently we've had A Little Color in Your Cheeks in Horrors Beyond (mostly good) The Prodigies of Monkfield Cabot in Eldritch Blue (OK), Salt Air (superb) in Dead But Dreaming and The Butcher of Vyones (great) Lost Worlds of Space and Time #1. Small Ghost was terrific, maybe the highlight of Arkham Tales. It was about Brown Jenkin, the rat-like witch's familiar and someone with the health department.
Burnt Tea - Michael Dziesinski- I already mentioned my problem with the typos. Otherwise this was a very nifty work by an author I never encountered before, about the Hounds of Tindalos and Japanese tea ceremonies in the 1920s.
Arkham Rain - John Goodrich - Mr. Goodrich is active on the mythos scene but I don't recall seeing his work before. I'll have to remedy that! Arkham Rain was a terrific story about the Innsmouth taint visiting an unwitting family. An old mythos trope? You bet! But this was a wonderfully original take.
Regrowth - David Conyers - I'm a big David Conyers fan. He is becoming well published in almost all the newer mythos anthologies. This story has some thematic similarity to False Containment in Horrors Beyond, and deals with unnatural melding of disparate species. Being a Conyers yarn it was a darn good read, although I've liked other stories by him better.
The Idea of Fear - CJ Henderson - We, of course, did need a hard boiled PI story in this book! Who better to do it than the masterful CJ Henderson? But this story was refreshingly different; the ending will catch you by surprise, as a PI and a medium try to find a ghost.
Disconnected - Brian Sammons - Mr. Sammons can also do no wrong, especially after One Way Conversation in Horrors Beyond. This is another winner. It is about the Mi-Go and Yuggoth, and a PI tracking down a missing relative. But like everything else by Brian Sammons, do not expect the usual mythos conventions or story format.
The Lady in the Grove - Scott Lette - Yet another new author to me and yet another auspicious introduction! An Irish enforcer is sent to Arkham to provide a little muscle for an MU professor.
On Leave in Arkham - Bill Bilstad - Ditto the above. This story has a complex construction with rapidly switching time frames and viewpoints, about WWI veteran/murderer. Very worthwhile read.
Geometry of the Soul - Jason Andrew - Also a new author to me, Mr. Andrew's story was only OK, about a MU expedition that goes horribly awry. The initial few pages in the Arkham sanitarium were much better for me than the last few pages.
So in summary, this is a terrific book of all brand new fiction. Even the stories that aren't the best are pretty good, and the best stories are first rate. The price is low and the page count is generous. Many of these authors are new on the scene and the rest are among the hot new mythos talents. Don't try to choose between it and Hard Boiled Cthulhu; order both of them discounted from Amazon! Together they are still less than Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth. Mythos fans should not hesitate.
As a hardcore fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and a player of the Call of Cthulhu game since it was first created (some 20 years now), I welcomed a collection of stories inspired by the Mythos, set in haunted Arkham, and published by Chaosium. I was saddened to find (in spite of previous glowing reviews) that this was nowhere near up to the quality of work I expect from this publisher. Some of the tales are good, original and thought-provoking; some are sufficiently steeped in the classic Mythos to be entertaining; and some are just plain badly written, amateurish tosh. The typos mentioned by another reviewer are there, and glaring, but I found the worst problem was simply that some of the writers are not good at the craft - and that is something HP Lovecraft himself would have taken exception to. There is nothing wrong in being new to writing, and HPL was famous for his kind mentoring of new authors, but the editors should have taken a tip from him, and suggested a lot of revisions. By just shoving any old tentacled trash in, they have let down the few really good writers whose work is featured. Generally the only reason for publishing bad work is to pump out another money-spinner as fast as possible, and Chaosium have found the Mythos a real cash-cow. But it will cease to be so if they continue to be so slapdash in both their choice of works to publish and their proof-reading. I for one won't be buying another of their anthologies until I have either had the chance to borrow it from a library to check the quality, or it features trusted authors.