Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Antarktos Cycle

The Antarktos CycleThe Antarktos Cycle by Robert M. Price
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Embellishments are, at times, welcome, as in the addition of Chipotle chili to dark chocolate (try a dash of Chipotle in your next hot chocolate). At other times, additions to existing works can be kitsch, even gauche. Such is the case here.

I love my Lovecraft, and At The Mountains of Madness is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. So when I saw that Chaosium was re-releasing The Antarktos Cycle (which was way out of my budget as a used paperback), I, for the first time ever, paid more than $10 for an E-book. I gladly paid, hoping to recapture and even elaborate on the magic I felt reading ATMOM the first several times through.

The book starts of promising, with Robert M. Price's excellent introduction: "Lovecraft's Cosmic History," which lays out in great detail the timelines of the cosmos, as envisioned by Lovecraft and influenced by the shared world-building he participated in with others, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, et al. If you have any question as to where Lovecraft's stories, creatures, or the events he outlined fall, this is the essay to consult. Granted, it is rife with contradiction, as Lovecraft only had a tenuous grasp on the vastness of the Mythos he spawned, but Price does a good job of explaining the different possibility spaces that Lovecraft explored, without making excuses for the contradictions. This is an excellent essay for the Lovecraft scholar.

"Antarktos," an early poem by Lovecraft, starts the fiction ball rolling. It is a short piece, almost trite, but does set up an atmosphere that can't be called anything else but "Lovecraftian".

Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is the first piece of prose fiction in the volume. To be honest, this is Poe at his most tedious. This novel is sometimes cited as an inspiration for Melville's utterly amazing Moby Dick, and it is apparent that this is true. Pym is to cargo shipping what Moby Dick is to whaling - everything you didn't want to know about how to pack a cargo hold and then some. Still, Poe presents a fairly solid piece of fiction here, with every deprivation and horror one would expect from a long journey at sea. And, as is always the case, Poe proves himself the master of making the reader feel claustrophobic. I may never stay under the waterline of a ship again.

John Taine's "The Greatest Adventure" is anything but. It is trite and hackneyed in all the worst ways. Take the low-points of pulp, all the warts and scars, compile them into one body, including failed attempts at forced humor and the worst mansplaining I've seen outside of Triplanetary and you've got this story. It was about a quarter of the way through this story that I began to question the wisdom of reading the rest of the volume, but this story is an obvious influence on ATMOM, so I suffered (and I mean SUFFERED) through it.

At the Mountains of Madness was next. You already know my feelings about this novella. Yes, it has its many weaknesses, but I love it.

"The Tomb of the Old Ones" was the absolute nadir of this volume. I have nothing good to say about it, so, for once, I'm going to take my mother's advice and say nothing more about it.

. . . No, I just can't help myself. This story sucked so badly it makes a black hole's pull seem weak in comparison. I kept waiting for the part when it was revealed that the narrator was insane or that the superhero-psychic crap was all a lark. Unfortunately, that moment never came. Thankfully, the ending of the story, after a looooong, painful slog, did.

At least Arthur C. Clarke's "At the Mountains of Murkiness" was supposed to be a joke. It made me chuckle a bit, but it wasn't laugh out loud funny. If you want Lovecraft pastiche, try Selections from H.P. Lovecraft's Brief Tenure as a Whitman's Sampler Copywriter. Now *that* is funny!

"The Thing From Another World" might have worked as a great Twilight Zone episode *if* the Thing had actually been a macguffin. But, no, it was a real . . . thing. Further hurting the story was the fact that John W. Campbell, Jr. is enamored of adverbs and poor sentence structure. Reading this sometimes felt like listening to a toothless Welshman with a speech impediment (apologies to my toothless Welshmen with speech impediment friends out there. I know there's at least one of you. Well, at least the Welshman part).

John Glasby's "The Brooding City" was pretty much a photocopy job of every trope and adjective that Lovecraft ever used. It was uninspiring and unoriginal. Glasby tried to evoke Lovecraft, but failed to summon him.

"The Dreaming City," by Roger Johnson was really what I was hoping for from this anthology - a "Lovecraftian" story that was not lifted directly from the pages of Lovecraft and his kin, something with some originality of subject matter, but with the same feel of dread and foreboding that Lovecraft was so good at bringing out from the shadows.

Alas, it was too little, too late. I might purchase another of the Chaosium books, I might not. We'll see what happens when the mood strikes me. Then again, if the mood really strikes me, I'm most likely to just crack open a Lovecraft story and read it. Or, possibly, something by Mark Samuels or Thomas Ligotti, who also seem to "scratch that itch" when I need it.

Then again, there's nothing quite like the original, is there?

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