Thursday, 24 August 2017

Frontier Cthulhu - a review

Frontier Cthulhu is a collection of short stories published by Chaosium as part of its Cthulhu fiction line in 2007. At the time Chaosium was pumping out short story anthologies on an almost monthly basis, having already run out collections of the classic Cthulhu Mythos stories oriented around particular themes or writers (e.g. The Hastur Cycle). Frontier Cthulhu sets out an interesting premise, namely a collection of Mythos tales about the American frontier. Sadly, I've given up reading it because it is rubbish.

I may be doing a disservice to some of the later stories, but I've read enough of them now to conclude that the overall level of writing here is desperate. I got as far as William Jones' 'They Who Dwell Below' before hurling the book down in utter frustration. I apologise then to Scott Lette et al, who may have produced something superior in the second half, and perhaps their work may see the light of day in future collections that are not burdened with the dross that begins Frontier Cthulhu, but even if some of them are brilliant, they will not be able to support the cover price of this travesty.

Some of these stories have been published before, and none of these writers are debut writers, but the quality of the fiction is poor. One starts to realise why H. P. Lovecraft was such a master of his craft as he is obviously hard to emulate.

Frontier Cthulhu presents its tales in chronological order. It kicks off with 'The Long Road Home' by Paul Melniczek, which uses the topic of the first Viking explorers in the New World. Fair enough - good idea. But from the off Melniczek's Vikings don't feel like vikings, but more some genetic medieval personalities you might expect to come across in Skyrim. Next, they quickly blunder through an inter-dimensional rift, and spend most of the story wandering around, being picked off by an enormous Great Old One, which then gets eaten by an even bigger Great Old One. Then, more by luck than judgement, the survivors escape. That's it, really. This could have been written so much better, as the actual subject of vikings in North America is extremely interesting, and I'd readily refer readers to Tom Holt's Meadowland, which does a vastly superior job than Melniczek does.

Angeline Hawkes gets the topic of the mysterious disappearance of the English colony at Roanoke as her subject, but again, 'In Waters Lost The Black Ones Sleep' leaves much to be desired. It starts well enough, and is disturbing in parts, but the reasons for the colonists' disappearance are a little prosaic, and the ending, well the ending is just desperate. So much more could have been achieved with this subject matter, but no, squandered. A big sea monster ate them. Yup.

Lee Clark Zumpe writes on the French & Indian War, but his tale of the early frontier war features two monster hunters, one of whom is a professional hunter, over 100 years old, on the trail of a sorceror who has set up his own cult just beyond the edge of civilization. Imagine the film The Last of the Mohicans directed in the spirit of Aliens, and you get a good idea of the travesty that is 'Where Men Had Seldom Trod'. Just get a load of this:

"We are perhaps hours away from a confrontation that will certainly end in chaos and indiscriminate killing." Greenheath patted his Kaintuck rifle, acknowledging its willingness to serve. He treated his weapon with reverence and fidelity. He preferred its accuracy to the outmoded precision of his partner's Brown Bess. Its sleek custom design - from its long octagonal barrel and small bore, to its stock made from tiger maple - lent it a quality of audaciousness.

Give me strength.

I could go on, but I won't, other than to mention 'Something To Hold The Door Closed' by Lon Prater. While not an outstanding tale, this is what I would expect of the bulk of the stories in Frontier Cthulhu in terms of  an original plot, setting, and insight into life on the frontier. Prater takes actual events from the North Carolina Gold Rush of 1795 and then injects an element of the Mythos into them. Perhaps this is why his characters, ordinary farmers trying to make a Christian living on the frontier, come across as more realistic. Their daily lives are invaded by the Mythos in a subtle and deadly way - no 200 hundred foot tall Great Old Ones stomping around here, or professional monster killers hacking their way through an army of cultists. This is what a Mythos tale ought to be. But Prater's effort is the exception that proves the rule in this collection - I persevered because of this story, but I finally gave up at 'They Who Dwell Below' by William Jones.

Oh. My. God. Jones writes about two notorious gunfighters from Cheyenne, both American Civil War veterans who - you guessed it - fought on opposite sides. They are hired by an enigmatic occultist to explore a huge maze of tunnels under Oklahoma. The entire story is set in the tunnels. All of it. Take a couple of cowboys, dump them into the plot of Descent, and you're not far off it. But why, why? The American West was so full of its own brand of drama and colour, deeply ingrained with betrayal, blood and horror. Surely you don't need to locate your entire tale in some tunnels under the ground, which have nothing to do with the Old West?

The looming darkness reminded Kane of the nights he'd spent in Georgia during the war. It was called Sherman's March, but it was plain butchery. He'd been young then, and did things a man ought not to. Things that haunted him every day of his life. Now it felt as though all those years of nightmares had come together and were prowling in the darkness.

Do yourself a favour. You've got the one life. Go read something with literary merit. Don't bother with this one. I've got some other Chaosium collections to read still on the shelf, and sincerely, I'm praying they're better than this.


  1. 7/9 surely? The/9 scale is vastly superior to the /10 scale!

    Thanks for the warning with that anthology. I own it too!