Review: Lovecraft Unbound

By Orrin Grey

lovecraft_unboundDatlow, Ellen, ed. Lovecraft Unbound. Dark Horse, 2009. US $19.95. ISBN 978-1595821461.

I don’t think it’s news to anyone at this point that Ellen Datlow consistently puts together some of the best anthologies in the business. So, it should come as no surprise that Lovecraft Unbound doesn’t disappoint. But it also isn’t quite what you might expect from a Lovecraftian anthology.

Datlow’s stated intent with Lovecraft Unbound was to collect works that were inspired by Lovecraft but that avoided pastiche. “Subtley Lovecraftian” is the phrase she uses in her introduction, where she goes on to say that she consciously looked for stories that eschewed much of what is often thought of when we conjure up Lovecraft’s name. “In fact,” she says, “I’d prefer not to have any direct reference in the story to Lovecraft or his works. No use of the words ‘eldritch’ or ‘ichor,’ and no mentions of Cthulhu or his minions. And especially, no tentacles.”

She goes on to say that some of the stories in Lovecraft Unbound violate these rather rigorous standards, but, for the most part, she succeeds in her quest of creating an anthology of stories inspired by Lovecraft that is very different from what we might traditionally think of as Lovecraftian fare.

This is both the anthology’s strength and its weakness. Die-hard Lovecraft aficionados and those who’re looking for new Mythos tales may well be disappointed at the conspicuous absence of most typical Lovecraftian trappings, and there are a few stories where it’s difficult to detect Lovecraft’s influence at all. That said, almost all of the stories are uniformly good-to-excellent, and it’s interesting to see the various paths the authors (some of whom are well-known for their Lovecraftian fiction, others less so) take to reach Lovecraft’s themes of nihilism and cosmic horror.

All but four of the stories are original to Lovecraft Unbound, but all of them were new to me. Of the reprints, I probably most enjoyed Michael Chabon’s “In the Black Mill” (which owes at least as much to Stephen King as it does to the gentleman from Providence).

In any anthology of this sort, everyone is going to have different favourites. Some of the high points for this reviewer included William Browning Spencer’s predictably-excellent “Come Lurk with Me and Be My Love”, “The Recruiter” by Michael Shea, “The Crevasse” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud, and Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng” (which features a fascinating take on the titular plateau). I’d also be remiss in not including Laird Barron’s “Catch Hell” on the list. Barron is known for his tales of cosmic horror, but in “Catch Hell”, he trades up for a very different sort of occult creepiness, and produces what I would consider one of his finest stories to date.

But the biggest thrill of the anthology for me was “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, which gave me the opportunity to revisit the universe they created in their story “Boojum” (from last year’s Fast Ships, Black Sails). You don’t have to read “Boojum” to enjoy this new entry, but if you haven’t read it yet, then I’d strongly recommend tracking it down as well. The setting that the two stories occupy is, for my money, one of the most fascinating ones to come out of recent speculative fiction, and both stories are really top-notch. (Plus, I’d actually class “Boojum” as a little more Lovecraftian than “Mongoose”, in a pinch.)

I could discuss individual stories all day, but to wrap up, Lovecraft Unbound is a fine and fascinating anthology full of very good stories, and it’s well worth your time and attention, so long as you don’t go into it expecting to find too many of the usual trappings of Mythos tales.

You can purchase Lovecraft Unbound through Amazon.com

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