lovecraft

Peter Clines: 14

If I’ve learned anything from my lifelong obsession with horror, it’s that:14

  1. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you probably shouldn’t take it because it can only mean trouble. And,
  2. If someone introduces you to an opportunity too good, and too convenient, to be true, you definitely should take it because you are guaranteed adventure—most likely one shadowed with conspiracy and gore.

So it goes in 14, by Peter Clines, in which an apathetic data-entry temp (Nate) is referred to a cheap apartment, where rents are suspiciously low, utilities shockingly free and the neighbors… well, the ones who stick around are… interesting.

The setting for this quasi-Lovecraftian, quasi-apocalyptic story is the Kavach building, which seems odd even by L.A. standards. Early in his stay, Nate notices some curious features of the old building: all the units have different dimensions; the plumbing is an inefficient web of pipes; there are discolored lights; green, mutant cockroaches; and, best of all, certain apartments are padlocked shut.

Among them, apartment 14.

This is where Clines truly excels. He develops a chilling atmosphere and social dynamic within the walls of the Kavach, and I absolutely devoured the first half of the book. The dialogue is shallow in spots, but the characters are as mysterious as the building, and as more secrets unfold, we follow a resilient crew of tenants into the deep tunnels beneath the Kavach.

Of all that I loved about the first half of this book, the tunnels were by far my favorite. The subterranean setting is magnificently drawn, and it’s that sweet spot in the book where the characters are fully realized and revealed, and the reader is absorbed in their struggle.

The second half of 14 is very entertaining, particularly the third quarter, but lacks the literary muscle of what came before. The first half was tight, focused, suffocating. It narrows until we get to the bottom of the tunnels, but then we begin expanding and things get a bit turbulent. Clines does a solid job of planting intriguing clues to be sussed out later, but the ending suffers from too much revelation.

I’d like to illustrate this with an anecdote.

My first apartment was a crumbling duplex on Tamplin Street in Sharon, Pennsylvania. It was dumpy and narrow, but the perfect incubator for two eventual writers (me and my roommate, Todd).

Particularly inspiring was the basement.

There was a biohazard sign on the basement door, with the words “Fallout Shelter.” The house was old enough that the sign could have been legit, though we suspected it was decoration. The basement itself was a throwaway slab of concrete—functional, boring, filled with spiders. The only thing scary about it was the rickety set of stairs.

And the unexplained, nailed-shut door on the northern wall.

The mystery door was almost a square, shaped more like a large window than a door, and rather than starting at the floor, the bottom edge was two feet off the ground. The top edge was only a few feet higher. It was the size and shape of a cupboard or a crawlspace. But why was it nailed shut?

Horror fanatic that I am, I tried to pry it open at least enough to glimpse what was on the other side. Thankfully, I wasn’t able to. Most likely, it was just a collapsed storage space (this was a mining/steel town, and it was fairly common for back yards to become ravines). It contained probably nothing more than the earth-packed remnants of a sinkhole.

But because I never got a look behind the mystery door, it has never lost its magic. Instead of a sinkhole, in my mind that door seals off a series of tunnels that burrow beneath our town, perhaps an old Prohibition-era bootlegging route, or perhaps it connects with the old cemetery two blocks away. Instead of storage space, there is a cache of forbidden scrolls. Or, befitting my Poe-obsessed youth, this is the subterranean vault where our slumlord buries alive his tenants.

Who knows, maybe even a bomb shelter.

The point is, I’m still fascinated by that shuttered basement door.

And that’s why the first half of 14 is an absorbing read. This is literature for anyone who has searched every new apartment for secret passages, hiding spots or trapdoors. Crawled through cobwebbed eaves, the musky underbelly of mobile homes and believes, always, that every building has a secret history to tell.

But unlike that basement door on Tamplin Street, we do learn what’s inside those padlocked rooms at the Kavach building. What we find there is original, for sure, but it dispels the magic. Each new revelation takes us further away from believability until 14 enters camp territory. And I’ve got nothing against camp. Truly, this part of the book is fun.

But it doesn’t mesh with the earnestness of the setup.

The action-packed finale further untethers the reader. The sequences are rushed, and where dialogue and observations from the characters should anchor us, we get snarky quips and CGI visuals. There is a nice homage to Lovecraft throughout, but HPL’s great trick was that we seldom saw what his creatures did. Rather, he hinted at what they could do.

Clines is a hell of a writer and storyteller, but here, he opens one door too many.

But that’s not entirely a bad thing, and certainly not a deal breaker (I just have a preference for more existential horror). This is a book I highly recommend. It’s fun, engaging, and I only give it four stars instead of five because of the overload of revelation at the end.

I’d prefer to leave a door or two shut. I want to imagine what’s behind it. A body? A tunnel? Treasure? Or nothing?

The best part is that I’ll never know.

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Unsettling Chapters: A Study in Emerald

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series, has to be one of the most adapted pieces of modern literature. Nearly every Holmes’ reboot begins with an updated take on this classic tale, which speaks to the brilliance of Doyle’s writing.

It’s a timeless tale of murder, deceit and the prototypical damaged investigators: the PTSD-stricken Watson and the mentally disquieted Holmes (pick your diagnoses: autism, OCD, bipolar, etc.).

For my money, the greatest adaptation of this story is “A Study in Emerald,” which appears in Shadows Over Baker Street, a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft.

Penned by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald” imagines the tale in a post-Lovecraftian landscape, 700 years following the epic struggle between humans and the Great Old Ones.

It shouldn’t come as a shock as to who won that inter-dimensional war, but the nature of the post-war dystopia might. As will the unexpected deviations from the original.

Is it truly unsettling? Not in the same way as most of the books we’ve previously discussed. But it is a bold venture by a gifted author, and the greatest mingling of two of my favorite mythos.

This story also appears in Gaiman’s Fragile Things, along with other favorites like “October in the Chair,” “Bitter Grounds” and “Strange Little Girls.”

For Halloween, Gaiman is offering a free audio book through All Hallows Read. It’s a program that promotes literacy by encouraging people to give someone a book for Halloween. Now through Oct. 31, in partnership with Audible.com, Gaiman is offering a free audio story of his, “Click-Clack the Rattle Bag.” Get yours at www.audible.com/ScareUs.

Unsettling Chapters: H.P. Lovecraft

Now, to one of my all-time favorites, H.P. Lovecraft.

The Wizard of Weird is one of the most puzzling figures in literature (no small feat) and a most peculiar phenomenon. Hardly read in his lifetime, his stories have since inspired movies, music, video and board games and countless writers.

The reclusive author of the Cthulhu Mythos is often overshadowed by the larger-than-life Lovecraft Mythos distilled from his letters, essays and fan speculation.

From this end of the millennium, he appears as a man out of time, which perhaps accounts for the skilled depictions of isolation and despair in his work. A troubled life, an early death—these are the makings of a horror legend.

For the HPL initiate, the place to start is The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. This collection of 16 of his best-known stories proves his staying power. My favorite is “The Outsider,” a dark epic of self-discovery. This story speaks to me as few stories can, and I believe this is Lovecraft at his most earnest.

“Pickman’s Model” and “The Picture in the House” explore the intersection of art and madness. For HPL, this crossroad manifests in the form of weird fiction, but I can’t help but wonder at his deeper intentions in these stories.

Likewise, “The Music of Erich Zann,” one of the finest pieces of horror fiction I’ve ever read. In a forgotten section of, presumably, Paris, a young student rents a room beneath a master violist. The man performs strange melodies at all hours of the night, and when the narrator learns of their origin… well, the story takes a classic Lovecraftian turn, but with more subtlety and greater effect. From a craft perspective, this is one of his best works.

From a reader’s perspective as well.

And I’ve got to touch on “The Rats in the Walls,” as great a depiction of psychosis and inherited guilt ever written. Be warned: It’s usually easy enough to overlook some of Lovecraft’s subtle racism, but it sits front and center in this story, which makes it tougher to swallow. If you can stomach that, you’ll enjoy this thoroughly gut-churning tale.

Then, of course, there are the mega-hits: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” There’s not much I can really add to the discussion of these classics, other than to chuckle (and sometimes cringe) at Lovecraft’s story titles. He had a penchant for the noun-prepositional phrase structure favored by the pulps (“The Colour Out of Space,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Thing on the Doorstep”) or a variation thereof (“At the Mountains of Madness,” “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”).

The greatest thing to happen to Lovecraft fans in recent years is the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, a thoughtful and well-produced audio chronology of his work. They started in 2009, discussing one story at a time (one episode for shorter works, multiple episodes for longer ones), and came to the end of his oeuvre earlier this year. They offer all kinds of goodies for Miskatonic alumni, including professional readings, old episodes and original works.

Best of all, though Lovecraft has been gone 75 years, his mythos live on. There are numerous collections of Lovecraft-inspired fiction, such as Future Lovecraft and Shadows Over Baker Street (an HPL/Sherlock Holmes mash-up). Writers such as Michael Chabon, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have all contributed to the ongoing mythos.

And there is a new crop of writers adding to the legacy all the time. I highly recommend checking out the Lovecraft eZine, which publishes great artwork, weird fiction and weekly Web updates and video chats.

As a wise man once said, “That is not dead which can eternal lie.”

July Book Preview

July is a great month to catch up on all the great books you’ve had sitting on the shelf. And while we certainly encourage you to dig deeply into that backlog, our motto is that a good life is one long in years and longer on books—that way you never run out of books to read.

Or perhaps a more T-shirt friendly slogan would be (to paraphrase Bradbury): May my heart expire before my library card.

For that reason, it’s always good to bring some fresh blood to the bookshelf—and in the case of these new releases, we’re talking about blood in the literal sense.

July 2

We’re not entirely sure what to make of this, but it seems that Rob Zombie has a book coming out, a preview for his much-anticipated film, Lords of Salem. Zombie fans have been waiting for a new original work for some time, following the disappointment of two money-grab *Halloween remakes. Lords of Salem the film should be sweet, and a pre-release book of the same name would be icing on the cake.

Other notable releases this week include The Nightmare by Swedish thriller writer Lars Kepler. The Nightmare is the sequel to his international bestseller The Hypnotist, and it has already garnered raves in his native land. Keeping with the international theme, prolific Japanese author Kenzo Kitakata returns with his latest hardboiled thriller, City of Refuge.

Anthology fans receive an Independence Day treat with the July 4 release of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2012, featuring more than 500 pages of frights.

July 9

Upon its hardcover release, I was skeptical of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One—a literary take on the zombie apocalypse. Having learned more about the author, however, I’ve added it to my “to-read” list. This isn’t a literary snob taking a cheap shot at genre. Whitehead has had a lifelong love affair with all things geek. His essay, “A Psychotronic Childhood,” should be required reading for all college English majors, and the paperback release of Zone One should be an excellent summer read.

Shadow Show is a collection of stories inspired by and in tribute to Ray Bradbury, featuring work by Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill and others. Speaking of Joe Hill, he has produced, along with artist Gabriel Rodriguez, the graphic series Locke & Key. The first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, is being released as a special edition hardcover on July 10.

I am a huge fan of Russian novelists, and on July 15, renowned anthologist Otto Penzler presents the paperback edition of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. This compendium features such heavyweights as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorky, Pushkin and Nabakov. Some of the all-time greatest writers at their all-time grittiest. Sign me up.

7/16

The great James Lee Burke, master of scene description, continues his Dave Robicheaux mystery series with Creole Belle. In this installment, our complicated hero is fighting morphine addiction, personal demons and the ever-present Bayou bad guys. What makes Burke’s novels so engaging is that his protagonists are vulnerable, troubled—more haunted than hunted. For Robicheaux, the past is as great an adversary as any criminal, and this makes him the most well-rounded literary figure in the mystery genre. I can’t wait to see what Burke is cooking up for us this time.

Essayist Jim Holt reframes the big question of how we got here in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. This philosophical work of nonfiction noir calls a lineup as colorful as The Usual Suspects in this historic whodunit.

7/23

This week sees the paperback release of Stephen King’s magnificent counterfactual tome, 11/22/63. Concerning the JFK assassination, I was at first skeptical about this work of alternate reality. But King delivers one of his best-ever books—this one about a small-town teacher discovers a time portal in the back of a burger joint. This book takes on issues of history and politics, but it is the human narrative that drives it. The result is an epic work as heartbreaking as it is harrowing.

In the academic arena, Spider Monkeys: The Biology, Behavior and Ecology of the Genus Ateles hits the shelves on July 26. This collection of published and previously unpublished research explores the secret lives of these adorable primates. Hey, it’s a book about spider monkeys. How can that miss?

7/30

July finishes strong with Future Lovecraft, a sci-fi take on the Cthulhu Mythos. The paperback edition comes out on Aug. 1, but Nookies can download their copy now for a mere $3.99. Featuring a collection of up-and-coming horror and sci-fi authors, this anthology lends a fresh voice to familiar friends, such as Nyarlathotep (whom friends simply refer to as the Crawling Chaos).

Professor of religion Richard T. Hughes challenges popular misconceptions in his book Christian America and the Kingdom of God, which comes out in paperback on July 30.

Finally, Boulder author Carrie Vaughn closes out the month with the latest installment of her Kitty series, Kitty Steals the Show. This time our hero is the keynote speaker at a paranatural conference in London. When a conference of vampires schedules for the same time, however, the ongoing struggle between the undead ramps up.

Ensuing Chapters appears monthly in Transgress digital magazine. Regular updates appear weekly at the Ensuing Chapters blog.