Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: Steampunk Cthulhu

Steampunk Cthulhu is the latest anthology from Chaosium, mashing up, well, steampunk and Cthulhu.   It's not complicated.

The anthology tends more towards the Lovecraftian then the Cthulhu Mythos - that is, the stories use the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, but many don't really include actual Mythos references.   But there are enough to find it a place on my "Cthulhu Mythos" shelf.   It's not bad, but I expect better from Chaosium.   Fundamentally, most of the stories in this book suffer from two problems: a lack of writing polish, and a conflict between Lovecraftian atmosphere and steampunk pulp that robs both of their better qualities.

By polish, I mean that many of the stories feel amateurish.   There are obvious plot holes, or unnecessary sequences, or overly abrupt scene changes.   I don't want to overstate this - again, the book is not bad - but I just expect better from a long-established publisher like Chaosium.

As for the second problem, it's undeniable that the atmosphere and feel of Lovecraftian horror conflicts with the zip and zest of neo-pulp.   Most of the stories in this book sacrifice the former at the altar of the latter, but end up with a mix that that just doesn't work.

That said, there are a few real gems in here, and after spending three paragraphs complaining, I want to point them out:

Pain Wears No Mask, by John Goodrich shows us a group of aero-pirates hunting for the Crown Jewels of Britain, which have been missing since the marriage of Queen Victoria to the playwright of the King in Yellow many years before.   The steampunk element is fairly minimal, but the atmosphere - especially in the latter half - is top-notch.   Goodrich manages a real sense of eerieness in the final confrontation between protagonist and antagonist.

Before the Least of These Stars, by Lee Clark Zumpe, suffers from a fairly routine plot, but makes up for it in spades with its deliciously atmospheric setting, an alternate America, still under the British flag, and now under siege by the Deep Ones after they have already destroyed Europe.   Zumpe creates a real sense of doom hanging over our heroes heads, of a world where everyone knows they're living on borrowed time - and it works fabulously.   Probably my favorite story in here.

Fall of an Empire, by Glynn Owen Barrass and Brian M. Sammons, is not really a horror story, but that's fine because it's an excellent thriller, which kept me glued to the page almost to the end.   In brief, the British Empire has given its allegiance to a new and terrible God, one that demands sacrifice in exchange for its favors, and Our Heroes intend to assassinate the deity.   One of the advantages of an anthology like this is that a tragic ending really is a possibility, which just adds to the tension.   A slightly weak ending and a significant plot hole are only minor detractions.

The Source, by D. L. Snell, is another excellently atmospheric story.   I honestly have no idea what was happening in places, but that's fine; it's got atmosphere, and that's the most important thing.

All in all, I give this anthology 3/5 stars.

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