The Long Arm of Lovecraft: 8 Books That Probe the Mythos

litanyThe Wikipedia log-line on the life Howard Phillips Lovecraft is stark and unapologetic: “Virtually unknown and only published in pulp magazines before he died in poverty.” And yet today, his work is part of the canon, to the extent that his name has become a descriptor for literature that incorporates elements of slow-creeping madness and cosmic horror, never mind the general insanity resulting from contact with Elder Gods. Though we’re all familiar with his name, his legacy remains clouded, not only due to a specific tone and writing style that means he is more talked about than read, but also due to the often virulent racism that seeps through his stories like an infection.

And yet: Lovecraft’s influence is undeniable. Through tireless correspondence, he mentored and inspired a generation of writers, and to this day, modern authors are wrestling with his mythos, it’s beauty and it’s ugliness. Each year seems to bring its crop of Lovecraft-inspired novels, and 2016 is no exception—this year will see the publication of at least four new novels in direct conversation with old Howard. They are collected here alongside a few more of our recent favorites, for those of you looking to expand your understanding of the darkest corners of the universe…and beyond.

I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas
Mamatas has delved into Lovecraft and the Cthulu Mythos before, and in this forthcoming novel, he combines it with his experiences with “con culture” to craft a surprising and dread-infused mystery. Horror writer Colleen Danzig attends a Lovecraft convention, the Summer Tentacular, where the weird vibe turns deadly when her temporary (and irritating) roommate turns up murdered, his face removed. With no one else at all concerned and the convention proceeding as scheduled, she takes it upon herself to investigate—and discovers that author’s dark imaginings aren’t just an effective literary trick, but are very, very real, and waiting for her. With sharp writing, Mamatas brings Lovecraft into a uber-modern setting while keeping the old-fashioned dread intact.

Red Right Hand, by Levi Black
Black’s forthcoming novel swims in familiar black waters, telling the story of a young woman, Charlie, who survives an attack by a trio of monstrous skinhounds thanks to the intervention of the Man in Black, whose long coats swirls with a mind of its own and whose grisly red right hand clutches a black blade. The Man in Black is in fact an Elder God, and he enlists Charlie’s help in destroying his peers, claiming to be trying to save mankind. Charlie dives into the fray, unsure if there’s such a thing as the “lesser of two evils” when it comes to Lovecraftian creatures. Readers will be sucked in by the bravado writing.

The Croning, by Laird Barron
Barron’s work is often described as Lovecraftian, and that’s not inaccurate; but his vision of the Elder Gods comes with one crucial difference: whereas Lovecraft’s terrors were often unaware of humanity in a way that implied our insignificance, Barron’s monsters are very, very aware of us—as the genial academic couple Don and Michelle learn, to their misfortune. A powerful alien presence has been with humanity throughout history, the truth of its existence leaking into our culture and history in hidden forms, but they are there, and they love us—which might be one of the few times that phrase is horrifying instead of comforting. Barron’s prose is direct and muscular, making this one of those novels that seems to physically hit you as you read.

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
Did you know that there were once driving guidebooks called “The Negro Motorist Green Book” that advised black drivers where it was safe to travel, spend the night, grab a bite to eat? They were very real, and give you an idea of the world inhabited by the African-American characters that populate Matt Ruff’s latest twisted exploration of American culture as it follows a black man named Atticus Turner and his companions on a road trip from Chicago to Massachusetts. Ruff chooses to center-stage the racism in much of Lovecraft’s work, linking mid-century Jim Crow with ancient societies devoted to the Elder Gods—the members of which once owned Turner’s ancestors, and involved his family in their dreadful activities. Linked stories see Turner narrowly escaping lynchings by local racists and sacrificial rituals by the Order of the Ancient Dawn as it seeks to summon eldritch abominations; the genius is in how the horrors dovetail so brilliantly.

Crooked

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Crooked, by Austin Grossman
Grossman’s take on American politics in the 20th century is a brilliant pivot from the Lovecraftian vision of hidden horrors and incomprehensible leviathan powers. Telling an alternative story of Richard Nixon that somehow maintains his persona as the intelligent, charmless, and embittered icon we all know, Grossman imagines America’s rise to superpower status as linked to our presidents’ arcane knowledge of dark magic and ancient rituals—knowledge almost lost forever when Dwight D. Eisenhower has a stroke before he can pass his teachings to Nixon. After years in the political wilderness, Nixon makes a dark deal with ancient sorcerer Henry Kissinger to gain the highest office in the land—and then must sacrifice his most precious possession, his legacy, in order to save the country and the world from a horrifying fate. Written in a pitch-perfect voice that is 100 percentNixon, Crooked is one of the most entertaining Lovecraft pastiches ever.

The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker
In her new novel, Baker makes the bold move of including Lovecraft as a character. A man named Arthor Crandle, in desperate need of work, takes a position as an assistant to a shut-in living in Providence Rhode Island: a writer of strange, dark fictions. Life in the old house is creepy—the writer never leaves his room and communicates with Crandle only via written notes left on a table, Crandle suffers visions of a young woman in a white nightgown wandering the grounds, and the house itself exhibits several physical impossibilities. Baker’s story pivots on one of Lovecraft’s more subtle themes: human’s irresistible attraction to the horrific, our strange desire to seek out the dread. The result is a horror story that is both explicitly Lovecraftian, and of its own disturbing breed.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
LaValle offers a brilliant retelling of Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook, providing a fresh perspective on one of Lovecraft’s best-known, yet most problematic, stories. Charles Thomas Tester is young black man, a con artist and questionably talented musician, living in Harlem in 1924. Aware of his lack of musical ability, he’s intrigued when he’s asked to play guitar at an opulent party by a stranger on the street—where he soon also encounters the original protagonist of Lovecraft’s story, the investigator Malone. An ingenious setup allows LaValle to maintain the cold horror of the original while exploring a deep mine of racial and social issues that not only ramp up the horror, but make his modern version a more complex and intricate tale.

The Litany of Earth, by Ruthanna Emrys
Sometimes an established universe needs more than just an update or a reboot—it needs a breath of fresh air. That is exactly what Emrys has achieved in this remarkable story, which starts with a simple notion: the Deep Ones are real, and the U.S. Government, never known for its subtlety, noticed. In short order, Innsmouth was destroyed, the university closed, and the true believers rounded up and sent to camps for reeducation. Aphra is a survivor of those camps, trying to rebuild her life in San Francisco. When a federal agent asks her for help investigating people who are illegally practicing the old ways, Aphra has to choose her destiny for once and for all. Written in beautiful, tragic language, The Litany of Earth is true to Lovecraft while coming at the mythos sideways—and scoring big as it does so. If you love this one as much as we do, you’ll be thrilled to learn the story will continue next year in a full-length novel, Winter Tide, available in April 2017 from Tor.com Publishing.

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