Review: Jazz Age Cthulhu

Please be aware that you may encounter spoilers in these reviews.
Also note that the film and book reviews posted between 11/13 and 11/30 appeared previously (in shorter, often unedited forms) on Goodreads and Whippoorwill Hollow.  I have updated links within reviews whenever necessary. New reviews begin on 12/10/15. Thanks for reading!

Jazz Age Cthulhu is a collection of short fiction—three novelettes, actually—published by Innsmouth Free Press in 2014.  It offers some excellent examples of new Mythos fiction and avoids the dreaded sin of “pastiche.” I’ve found myself suggesting it when I get those “Hey, where do I start with this newer stuff?” asks on the other blog. The options for readers can be a little overwhelming (in a good way), so I like being able to comfortably point folks to specific publishers, authors, and works that seem to foster a love for this type of Weird while sustaining and expanding the Mythos into all sorts of new (and hopefully more dynamic/inclusive) directions.

I. Dreams of a Thousand Young

The first story in the collection, “Dreams of a Thousand Young,” is by Jennifer Brozek. Reading it brought to mind watching old movies with my mother when I was a kid—The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, those sorts of films. I wouldn’t label it Noir, obviously, but it benefits quite a bit from flirting with its aesthetics. And while “action” is not really what comes to mind when one thinks about traditional Lovecraftian Horror (it’s more about the atmosphere, you know, and those reticent, bookish protagonists…and…fainting), the story mingles “identity intrigue” with cult conspiracy to meet the contemporary expectation that a story move along at a certain clip.

It also features a few moments of tension rooted in post-colonialism that demonstrate the sort of self-awareness that I hope to see in most new Mythos works of this sort (generally speaking). I was a little concerned when it took what I thought—at first—to be a ‘typical’ (i.e., “old guard”) turn when the villains were revealed, but I was more than happy with all of the twists by the end. Helen is a fun protagonist and, for me at least, demonstrates something a bit closer to what I mean when I say I’d like to see “strong women” characters in my Horror. She’s not quite as developed as she could be, but she could easily shoulder an entire collection of stories or a novel.

Finally, I’m a sucker for anything that features Shubby and/or the Dark Young. I love that hungry mother-god and her offspring and hope to see much more fiction dedicated to them in the coming years.

II. The Lesser Keys

Orrin Grey’s “The Lesser Keys” was my favorite of the three works, and I’ll try not to give too much of it away here since I find it difficult to summarize without doing so. Grey’s an excellent storyteller and definitely has a cinematic eye for detail that many authors don’t. His stories tend to be deceptively simple yet layered and infinitely “un-packable,” analytically speaking. I left this story wanting more of its characters, as well; Jasper and Caroline are interesting and full of potential. And the plantonic nature of the start of their relationship is a breath of fresh air. I’m a big fan of dethroning romance as the go-to plot crutch across the board.

Finally, I enjoyed the use of the Seals of Solomon and the “magic circle” (see Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet for an excellent theoretical exploration of that trope) as part of the Occult background in this world of zombie musicians and demon aided racketeers Grey’s created. Sometimes Hoodoo seems to be tossed into the mix in Horror films and fiction, often as a last minute bit of twangy ornament or, more insidiously, to hook into  cheap-n-easy prejudices/fears of  poor, rural communities and cultures among readers and viewers. Grey did a nice job of avoiding that while respectfully interweaving the use of the Seals and resisting too much explanation of the machinations behind the magick. That’s usually my biggest pet peeve with works that attempt to incorporate folk practices. The story’s a nice example the good things that can happen when the “veil” is left (for the most part) in place.

Here’s a link to Carolina Conjure‘s article on the Seals.

III. Pomptinia Sum

The third novellette, “Pomptinia Sum” by A.D. Cahill, draws heavily upon atmosphere and voice for its nicely Weird effect. I found reading it less enjoyable than the other two pieces, though I acknowledge that response is highly subjective; I have a pet peeve about shifting points of view in short works. It’s not as much of an issue in novels, but when point of view shifts a few times in relatively quick succession, I catch myself skimming the surface of a world rather than seeing or feeling it. I re-started the story a couple of times just in case it was my mood at work but had the same reaction.

I will say, however, that the piece features a couple of truly creepy and unsettling scenes. Had I been more invested in the characters, they would have left an even stronger, even more chilling impression since it succeeds in evoking feelings of both familiarity and strangeness simultaneously—the definition of the Uncanny. It’s a strong piece of short fiction, overall, and I have no doubt that most readers (i.e., folks without my oddball, readerly quirks) will really enjoy it.

I think that I should mention, at least in passing, that this is not the Cosmic Horror of Ligotti; it’s not the brutal Nature Mythos you’ll find in some of Laird Barron’s work. Even so, it’s solid Weird Fiction, and I believe there’s room enough in the genre for those soul-crushing treatises on the futility of human existence and lighter, playfully mysterious tales like those featured in this collection. The movement towards a greater diversity of style, tone, and voice will only add greater depth to this fictional realm in the long run.

Obviously, I recommend Jazz Age Cthulhu to fans of the Cthulhu Mythos and genre fiction—particularly those looking for a spot to begin their exploration of newer Mythos works.