As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the new anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.
Without Within by Jonathan L. Howard
One of the great joys of the anthology under discussion is that Tanzer and Bullington appeared to have transferred their shameless enjoyment of literary pastiche to their contributors, so that most of the 22 tales crackle with the lively literary fetishes being fulfilled.
This has resulted in some funny, pulpy entries that will go down a treat with readers endowed with corresponding interests. Howard’s story, however, is remarkable and enjoyable for taking something of an opposite tack.
Being a story of Lovecraftian happenings in a suspicious tunnel inspected by a military regiment during the English Civil War, the itch that this would have scratched for me would be something like Ben Wheatley’s mad masterpiece A Field in England — set in the same era and featuring what appear to be drug-addled protagonists trapped in the titular field by some mysterious, cthonic force.
Instead, Howard’s tone is sober and disciplined, which ultimately results in a fine work of weird fiction whose strangeness is embedded, and eventually serves to undermine, the sober, stiff-upper-lip attitude embodied by our main character, Major Bell.
What starts off as little more than a logistical headache for Bell — who has to repair a broken wall while his men mutter about a mysterious ‘tunnel’ nearby — turns out to be a descent into a nightmare world occupied by ancient and seemingly unstoppable horrors.
So far, so Lovecraft — and the excavation aspect of the story reminded me of the Lovecraft original The Rats in the Walls in particular. The overall structure of the tale doesn’t venture too far off from the Lovecraft schema of Curious Discovery –> Madness, but Howard’s sensitive and haunting prose style lends its own weave to the cosmic horror tradition.
“It was manlike, but whether it had ever been a man he sorely doubted. It was more in the nature of a device in the form of a man, as though some ancient corpse had been the pencil sketch and the final shape the inking of an artist who had never seen a man and allowed new fancies into the design.”
See what I mean?