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Arkham Horror – Reviews

‘Litany of Dreams’ by Ari Marmell

The Devourer Below’ by Josh Reynolds; Evan Dicken; Davide Mana; Georgina Kamsika; Thomas Parrott; David Annandale; Cath Lauria

‘Cult of the Spider Queen‘ by SA Sidor

‘The Deadly Grimoire‘ by Rosemary Jones

I’ve spoken of my enjoyment with Aconyte Books’ Lovecraftian offerings previously, but as they’re now coming in thick and fast, I thought a joint review was in order!

First, ‘Litany of Dreams’. While the early Arkham books stayed firmly in that sinister town, Ari Marmell heads further afield, to explore how the insidious darkness of the Great Old Ones spreads far deeper into the lands around Massachusetts.

We follow Elliot Raslo with what might otherwise be a simple missing persons case: his roommate has vanished. After reading some mysterious writings. And becoming obsessed with a particular chant in an uncomfortably weird language.Yes, this is Arkham after all!

The story unfurls like a true yarn, leading from libraries and museums to the swamps of Hockomock outside the town, with a nod to the ancient lore of the Inuit peoples far to the North.

The tone shifts and changes – fortunately far more comfortably for the reader than for the characters! – so that we see Elliot’s confusion, his new friend Billy’s increasing worry, and the curiosity of librarian Daisy Walker, all combining beautifully as the quest unfolds.

I was reminded of many Lovecraftian movies (notably ‘Reanimator’, with the emphasis on Miskatonic University), but also ‘Evil Dead’ and even ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ The escalating fear of the protagonists is tangible, and there were several points where it genuinely seemed like there was no way out for them. I don’t want to say any more for fear of spoilers, but this evil is its own kind of spreading disease, with no way of knowing if there’s any cure. Sound relevant?

‘The Devourer Below’ is the first Arkham anthology from Aconyte, with each story held together by the shared tales of one particular Great Old One, who hasn’t previously experienced a lot of attention in books or movies. As the stories unfolded, I learned more about this particular unpleasant fellow, and how his fearsome reach draws many into his own unique and hungry darkness.

We have sneaky occultists, of course, but also bootleggers, historians, regular people caught up in something far beyond their experience, and so much more. For anyone wishing to play the Arkham Horror roleplaying games, there’s heaps of inspiration for characters here!

Particular standouts for me were Josh Reynolds’ ‘The Hounds Below’, which combined the very real horrors of The Great War with deeper human fears of madness, starvation… and what those may mean when combined together. Also ‘The Darkling Woods’ by Cath Lauria was its own kind of fairytale. I’ve never seen a Lovecraftian story with children as the protagonists, but does this mean they’re able to deal with dark fairytale dangers more effectively than the adults around them?

‘Cult of the Spider Queen’ was always going to be difficult for me, and it took quite a lot to open this one. I’m not a huge fan of spiders, let’s say, and from the start, the creepiness of the story felt like those little (and not so little) legs starting to work their way insidiously down my spine.

This book is absolutely the stuff of Saturday afternoon matinee movies. Leaving civilization behind, the characters travel far into the jungle, looking for a lost group of film-makers who apparently found the fabled Spider Queen. Did they survive? Is the Queen real? What about rival groups of treasure-seekers hot on our heroes’ trail? Will they make it back alive?

Imagine a cub reporter, a beautiful (and apparently wealthy) heroine, a brave tracker and her crew… and then the flickering lights of a black and white silent movie, with not-quite-visible shapes moving in the shadows around an ancient shrines and jungle leaves. This was uncomfortable because of the spiders and the legends, but absolutely gripping in its action-and-excitement atmosphere!

We stay in action movies with ‘The Deadly Grimoire’, a follow-up to ‘Mask of Silver’ (which I’ve previously enjoyed and reviewed). This stands alone if you’ve not read that, though, being its own tale as well as a continuation of those events.

Betsy Baxter is the Flapper Detective, daring stunt-performer and actress, who’s found great success after surviving the previous events in Arkham. However, there’s still loose ends to be tied – so with the help of a female pilot known as ‘The Woman without Fear’ and an antiquarian bookseller seeking the titular Grimoire, Betsy charges straight into an adventure that far surpasses any movie!

Again, this has the vibe of a matinee movie, but also a strong detective story. Where (and what) is the mysterious Grimoire? What do bootleggers and a local crime syndicate have to do with anything, and what are the innovative seaweed-based treatments at the local sanatorium?

Every aspect of Lovecraft is here, bound up with a fun heroine whose thinking is definitely ahead of her time.

I’m glad to say that every single one of these books branches further into the Real World than Lovecraft would ever have been comfortable with – in terms of strong women, native Americans and Inuit, homosexuality and much more. The Ancient Old Ones don’t care about such things, and their tentacles affect everyone, so there’s (happily) no discrimination to be found in any of these pages.

As always, at the end of these books those who survive are forever changed by their encounters with the Great Unknown – as are we, the reader. Part of me wonders what happens next for them, but I know it won’t be necessarily good. It’s just that feeling of wanting to see more of a traditional adventure serial, feeling the jumps and gasps as skilled hands lead us further into the dark.

Hugely enjoyable and absolutely recommended.

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‘The Last Ritual’, by S.A. Sidor

Disclaimer: I was so excited to receive this book for review! I’d seen the new Arkham Horror series as Coming Soon for most of the year, and given the popularity of Lovecraft-inspired fiction happening right now (almost as if the world’s gone mad), I was hopeful that such a dedicated selection of books from proven writers would be both true to the Mythos and also original for the 21st Century.

I’m glad to report that this book hits it out of the park on both fronts.

The story is narrated by famed artist Alden Oakes, and while we are told he is revealing horrific events from his youth, he seems at first to be more of a rich old man simply reminiscing. But soon you’re (appropriately) sucked into the tale and the momentum begins to rise…

We travel from the Old Ways of Europe to the newer – and stranger – happenings in Arkham itself. The town is as much a character as any of the humans, and it’s fascinating to see that while it’s comparatively forward-thinking (particularly with regard to women and people of colour), it’s built on a truly ancient foundation.

It’s difficult to speak about the plot without giving anything away, but suffice to say that the tale is the best sort of rollercoaster matinee adventure. By spending time with the protagonists, we become invested and genuinely caring for their wellbeing in a way that Lovecraft never really had time for. I was also relieved that the author has far more liberal views than HP himself – no racism, sexism or xenophobia here.

Initially, I felt that the book could be shorter, but I quickly realized that it’s precisely as long as it needs to be. While Alden can seem a little Wooster-like with his rank and privilege, he realizes it and tries to use it to help those other than himself. He’s a silly young man, who is forced to grow up and face the very real dangers of his home town (hopefully without pranging Father’s Rolls).

The 1920s setting is both well-researched and appropriate. Prohibition is something that everyone kind of works around; the recent war was its own kind of madness. Arkham is almost an island, tangentially affected by the wider movements of America at large but also looking far beyond, to the stars and the deepest seas, where the mysteries are strangely hypnotic, even attractive.

The characters are so well-drawn that I was casting them in my head (and missing Christopher Lee for one crucial baddie!). This would make a wonderful TV serial, akin to the recent ‘Lovecraft Country’.

I enjoyed my time in this strange land immensely, and am looking forward very much to the next titles in the series. Absolutely recommended.

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