The world of Lovecraftian literature is, admittedly, a bit hard to take seriously. With names and covers usually taken out of the worst 1970s horror magazines, even stellar pieces of Weird Fiction can be mistaken with b-rate fanboy schlock. This dismissal could easily be leveled to The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, even though its cartoonish cover of Cthulhu after a ship is charming in a nostalgic way. The book is a part of Running Press’ Mammoth series, which are basically just anthology books of some specified theme or sub-genre. An editor known from that genre comes in, curates a book, and they put it out under the title of Mammoth Book Of…
With the The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu you get a preface that many fans of New Lovecraftian will be familiar with: how to broadly interpret Lovecraft’s themes, no direct Cthulhu mythos, no pastiche. Though those goals are set up ahead of time, most books fail to live up to that entirely. Instead, the Mammoth Book of Cthulhu does an amicable job of hitting these points; actually creating a great cross-section of New Lovecraftian literature that broadly interprets some of the ideas and motifs in Lovecraft’s work.
The success of the book come largely from the vision of its editor, Paula Guarn, who is known for editing dozens of similar titles including many “year’s best” anthology. With Mammoth she has taken her keen eye and tried for some distinct variety, while also getting some of the larger names in the sub-genre who are known for doing pressing horror forward with unique approaches. There are interesting plays with structure, like “I Dress My Love in Yellow,” an incredible story that stands out as one of the collection’s best. “The Cthulhu Nave Wife” is another attempt at subverting expectations, and may come across as clever to Mythos readers while boring most everyone else. “I Believe That We Will Win” by Nadia Bulkin is another notable entry in the challenge to convention and pastiche as they play with the world of sports.
“It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge has been hailed by many as the best in the collection, and it is. It drives the ideas of “cosmic horror” into a sort of search into a country past, one that sends to brothers in different directions. “The Future Eats Everything” by Don Webb, “Outside the House, Watching for the Crows” by John Langan, and “I do not Count the Hours” by Michael Wehunt round out some of the best in the collection. I would also include “Alexandra’s Lost,” “Just Beyond the Trailer Park,” and “Umbilicus,” whose story of grief really hits on the eternal themes of loss and desperation in this corner of horror. “Caro in Carno” also stands out, though it is not exactly a horror story (As several in this collection are not.). While I was not partial to “Falcon-and-Sparrows,” this was clearly a well-written story that others should prioritize.
Unfortunately, one of the weakest stories in the collection is the first one, “In Syllables of Elder Seas,” which may set the wrong tone for someone jumping in from the start. Towards the end there is also an essay that is intended to address some of Lovecraft’s deep-seated racism and fascist politics, though it does a poor job of tying together these themes with a personal narrative and ends up just feeling out of place.
More than anything, this collection was committed to variety and really showed that New Lovecraftian fiction is a genre in its own right, not just as an adjunct or tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. Hopefully, we can see anthologies in the future following this trend, as well as a commitment to quality rather than retread.