The Private Life of Elder Things – book review

There is a discomfort to Lovecraftian fiction that continues to fascinate readers and writers alike, a century after H.P. Lovecraft published his first story. The sense of cosmic horror he engendered through his writing brought him fame, but it’s the Mythos formed from his dread *pantheon that embodies his literary legacy. It has proven to be an incredibly rich seam for authors to dig through and, as societal tectonics shift, it’s this open-source aspect that freed his tentacular horrors from the confines of his racism and misogyny to take in (and take over) the wider world.

The resonant gems of Innsmouth, Yuggoth, The Dreamlands, The Mountains of Madness (and beyond) are mined and polished to superb effect by the three authors of The Private Life of Elder Things – an enchanting collection from The Alchemy Press, published in 2016. Here’s how they describe it:

“From the wastes of the sea to the shadows of our own cities, we are not alone. But what happens when the human world touches the domain of races ancient and alien? Museum curators, surveyors, police officers, archaeologists, mathematicians; from derelict buildings to country houses to the London Underground, another world is just a breath away, around the corner, watching and waiting for you to step into its power.”

There are 11 stories in total, spread evenly to ensure no style, voice or tone outstays its welcome. The 5 stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky provide a strong spine to the collection, both in terms of his well-earned reputation, and in the touchstone tales he chooses to draw upon. These are not rehashes, you understand, but extrapolations and evolutions that feel quite natural.

Whilst there is a terror and power in unknowability, Tchaikovsky specialises in finding aspects that connect us to minds that are alien. There is a sensitivity to (and for) the other in his stories, that grant the reader a sense of privileged insight – from Donald’s ecological activism to Cieven’s ritualistic sacrifice and resurrection. The delicacy of the friendships each form with the narrators of their stories is quite beautiful in its own way—and all the more so by their intrinsic defiance of humanity’s vision of pre-eminence.

Irrational Numbers delves into the more esoteric aspects of Lovecraft’s oevre: mathematics and non-euclidean geometry. There’s a real sense of scientific wonder evoked here without bogging us down with tedious detail – quite the trick – and the manner with which our heroine pursues her intellectual passion has us cheering her on to the end.

Cosmic horror is more firmly impressed upon us by The Branch Line Repairman and Moving Targets. Each show how insignificant our mayfly lives are to those entities whose existence and plans stretch across aeons. They rarely see us, let alone comprehend our value, and this forms a neat social parallel for those with the eyes to see. The latter story is particularly savage in that regard and should have – in my opinion – been the last story the collection, based purely on how it ends. Chilling stuff.

Keris McDonald and Adam Gauntlett are both new authors to me, but each displays a glittering breadth of imagination and a facility for storytelling that help make the collection shine. Their stories draw less specifically from Lovecraft himself and more from the milieu of stories and roleplaying games that came along after.

Gauntlett’s tales are a little more ragged in structure than those of his co-authors, but they have sharper edges. Of the three authors I probably connected with his stories the least in terms of character and setting, yet the fear and horror he evokes are perhaps the most visceral as his protagonists face their own, very personal demons.

Pitter Patter sees a new recruit heading into old Territorial Army base, all-but abandoned, to join the night watchmen. As he settles into his dull routine, and starts to fit in with his colleagues, he starts to get the sense that something somewhere just isn’t right. It’s an exercise in mind-fuckery and paranoia that blend vibes from Hill House with The Thing.

New Build comes closest to the Mythos, bringing in (though never naming) The Hound of Tindalos in an interesting and innovative way. I really liked the way in which urban renewal was handled – that blend of destruction and recreation intended to improve, yet so often done with cynical self-interest. I saw the end coming, but it still creeped me out and left me feeling nauseous. Good stuff.

Hi final piece – Prospero and Caliban – was my least favourite read, sad to say (though I’m told people familiar with Trail of Cthulhu will appreciate it). It features a landscape that is not quite land, nor yet quite sea: a great tangle of weeds from which no ship nor half-sane survivor can ever seem to escape. In some ways this comes closest to the Lovecraftian tone of hopelessness in the face of cosmic horror, but the illucidity of the characters, the Shakespearean dialogue, and the relentlessness of the situation made me itch to be free of it.

A purely personal response.

McDonald’s work is rich, painful, and horrifying by turns. Special Needs Child sees a new-born adopted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (or a near equivalent). The tenderness and difficulty of the familial situation is brought into sharp relief by the proclivities of this special child as it grows up, fascinated by and attracted to the scent of death. It’s a masterclass in the slow reveal with an ending that is sickening on multiple levels.

Devo Nodenti introduces us to an aged archaeologist and a creature who is something between a living nightmare and a comforting pet. Her tale is one of love and regret, deep bitterness and vengeance. Once again, the unfolding is done with care, drawing us into her inner world before tearing out hearts. By the time I’d finished this one I’d already decided to devour as much of McDonald’s work as I could find.

Her final tale – The Play’s the Thing – is a peculiar piece. The setting barely scrapes into the 20th century, and the horror tropes sprawl out in every direction with each room in the crazy country house. Where the other stories have brought real, vulnerable, recognisable people into contact with the Mythos, this one is dreamlike: an oddly confected bauble, a multiverse of literary horror. It is fascinating and fun, swirled through with a streak of lunacy. I loved it intensely but, like a marble in a jewel box, it just feels out of place.

Taken as a whole though, I thought the collection was excellent, showcasing some incredible talent and a delightful range of experiences. I averaged two stories per day around the edges of my life with relative ease. For me, the blend of familiar elements with novel perspectives and a modern setting kept things vibrant and interesting. Would a non-Lovecraftian get the same sense of enjoyment from the book? There are aspects of the lore that would feel obscure to them, I’m sure – context they can seek in other volumes – but each story satisfies in terms of character and plot, standing comfortably alone.

There is a danger when it comes to cosmic horror: if the enemies mankind faces are truly so powerful, so widespread, so invulnerable as to render us helpless before them, how long can this tension possibly last? Perhaps this is why the authors of The Private Life eschewed the titanic horrors of Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu, and Azathoth. By keeping the menaces small and personal, or – in the tales where things feel more epic in scope – at least providing us with resting points, they allow the pressure to build without ever bursting it.

I highly recommend this book.

Go spend some money. Your work, elevated.

* Taken up and expanded by such luminaries as Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Frank Belknap Long and the Roberts Bloch, E. Howard, and W. Chambers.

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