Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow / ****

51kfko8wqol-_sx326_bo1204203200_Any serious fan of horror probably has some connection to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe more than any horror writer other than Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft has influenced just about every major horror author alive. With his weird mythos, his alien worlds, his unutterable horrors just beyond the realms of sanity, Lovecraft wrote horror like no one else, for better or for worse. And you’d be hard pressed to find a serious craftsman in the genre today who hasn’t tried their hand at an homage to Lovecraft’s work. And by and large, while there are some good ones out there (Laird Barron has done some remarkable ones, for instance, and the remarkable and hilarious Freaksome Tales by William Rosencrans does a fantastic, clever pastiche with tongue firmly in cheek), many just feel like pale retreads or weak imitations.

All of which gets to why Lovecraft’s Monsters is such a solid collection. Rather than filling a collection with writers imitating Lovecraft’s (often overwrought) prose, editor Ellen Datlow chooses selections that play off of Lovecraft’s mythos and works, finding something new to do with the material while still staying true to the spirit of it all. For instance, Neil Gaiman’s “Only the End of the World Again” drops a werewolf in the middle of Lovecraft’s isolated Innsmouth, and lets him get caught up by the machinations of a local Elder God cult. “The Same Deep Waters as You, by Brian Hodge, takes on Innsmouth as well, but does so through the eyes of a government agency that’s been monitoring the town’s inhabitants for a long time. (And man, does this one take an appropriately nasty turn right at the end.) The aforementioned Laird Barron, meanwhile, brings Lovecraft to the Pinkerton era, turning in a nasty little yarn in “Bulldozer.” And Joe Lansdale brings his usual style and drawling slang to bear in the nightmarish tale of a blues musician who’s struck one seriously Faustian bargain in “The Bleeding Shadow.”

Not every story works, of course. Kim Newman’s “A Quarter to Three” basically uses a Lovecraft setting as a shaggy-dog joke with a groaner of a punchline. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl” feels like the first act of something larger, and leaves you feeling like you’re missing something; the same, honestly, could be said about Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Waiting at the Crossroads Motel.” Fred Chappell’s ambitious post-apocalyptic “Remnants” has some neat ideas, but ultimately suffers from weak writing and worse dialogue. And the poetry selections all feel pretty thrown in – not bad, per se, but pretty forgettable.

And, of course, there are the outliers, which are pretty good stories, even if they don’t quite feel like they fit into the anthology. Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s “Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole” is equal parts sequel to Frankenstein, Jules Verne tribute, literary alternate history, and adventure story, and while I’m not sure that it quite fits the theme, it’s certainly a wild ride. John Langan’s “Children of the Fang,” meanwhile, is a fantastic story of family ties, guilt, and shadowy evil, and while there’s a bit more Lovecraft to it, it still feels more like its own thing. And William Browning Spencer’s “The Dappled Thing” presents a steampunk jungle adventure that turns into horror only towards the end. None of them are bad – indeed, all three are among the most interesting, engaging stories – b they all feel a bit “off-topic,” for lack of a better term.

All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun anthology, and one that’s more varied and wide-ranging than you might expect given the Lovecraft theme. Sure, there are some hits and misses, but that’s the name of the game when you read anthologies. And while few of these quite manage to be all out great, there are none that are truly bad on the whole, and a lot that are pretty fun and enjoyable. And as a fan of horror, creativity, and Lovecraft, I found a whole lot to enjoy here.

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