As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming 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.
Bow Down Before the Snail King! by Caleb Wilson
The King of Lapland’s Daughter by Nathan Carson
A Circle That Ever Returneth In by Orrin Grey
One of the fundamental elements of an anthology like this one is that all the selected writers are drawn to the subject in question by a desire to approach it from their own preferred angle; be it a more earnest evocation of the springboard-material or an adventure in fiction that seeks to subvert rather than reinforce the trappings of what is being pastiche’d.
But I think that the common element in all of the stories selected here is that the authors appear to be after having some good fun. Having read some of Molly Tanzer’s own fiction, I can attest to its infectious ability to get you hooked on whatever the author is hooked on throughout the duration of the given story — you enjoy the way she channels the literary touchstones that she clearly enjoys herself.
And the triad of stories I’ve chosen here may not be the ultimate illustration of this feeling throughout the anthology — remember that this is something of a ‘live’ review session — but they certainly appear to make no bones about simply having fun while cribbing on their favourite aesthetic choices. Whereas other stories in the collection prioritize mood and atmosphere, these three, I think, are more about the schematic enjoyment of moving narrative chess-pieces around.
I’ve mentioned Dungeons and Dragons in relation to the anthology before, but I think that reference comes to full fruition in at least two of the stories under discussion here. The clearest one in this case would be Orrin Grey’s A Circle That Ever Returneth In: a choose-your-own-adventure story, and so the closest we’re likely to get to an actual role-playing game in the anthology.
Attempting this format in a short fiction piece is something of a bold move on Grey’s part, to say nothing of how what was previously a novelty — and very much got traction based on that fact alone — has now become entirely antiquated thanks to the internet. But Grey clearly doesn’t care about being relevant, at least not with this story.
The reader is given a choice as to whether to pursue a Sell-Sword, a Cut-Purse or a Doll Mage for this adventure, which gets going on a familiar trope: the party gathered at an inn and activated into action by the promise of exotic treasure.
Only this time, the treasure is ‘The Shining Trapezohedron’ from Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark, and the adventure’s trajectory is less optimistic (or even certain) than most. Actually, I’ve always found it quite curious how Lovecraft’s fiction has turned out be pretty amenable to gamification — not just by dint of literary experiments like this one, but also, and perhaps more notably, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games. In a similar way that films based on Lovecraft’s stories have to changed quite a bit to fit into accepted screenwriting story beats, so I imagine these games have to mangle the otherwise terminally linear and largely twist-free forays into existential darkness that buttress most of Lovecraft’s fiction.
But again — Grey’s aim is to have fun and to transfer that fun to the reader, but not without being at least nominally faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft’s work. And what clinches the appeal of the piece is that there’s something intrinsically funny about juxtaposing the plucky choose-your-own-adventure genre against the pessimistic core of Lovecraft.
Caleb Wilson’s Bow Down Before the Snail King! on the other hand, takes a more subtle tack to the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ set up. The treasure hunt is once again the inciting incident of choice, and Wilson’s characters are almost deliberately flattened into types, all the better for the author to indulge in a breezily experimental take on storytelling structure.
The way Wilson approaches the landscape in particular reminded me of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Largely due to the meta-fictional tone of the piece, it is almost as if the characters themselves are receiving prompts about their surroundings from a ‘higher power’, rather than the atmosphere being carefully curated for the reader’s immersive experience. In this otherwise richly zany story, this uncanny effect is what stands out the most.
On the other hand, Nathan Carson’s The King of Lapland’s Daughter takes a far more earnest approach to the task at hand. Though the title appears to cue in Lord Dunsany’s wistful fantasy classic, the overall thrust of this particular piece in far more aggressive in tone. Tanzer herself has referred to the story as “metal-as-fuck” in a promotional Facebook post, and this is certainly borne out in the storytelling beats. Once again taking a Nordic vibe as its primary inspiration, the story leads us to cheer on its tough-as-nails protagonists as they face eldritch horrors.
Their morale-boosting battle cries, towards which Carson builds to maximum effect, are the true climaxes of the story. But though different to them in tone and intention, what Carson’s story shares with Wilson and Grey’s contribution is the total surrender to pastiche.
A reminder of what a fun playground these anthologies can be.
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