Paperback Punk

One of my favorite past times is haunting used bookstores, looking for out-of-print and forgotten classics. My taste in literature tends to run toward fantasy, science-fiction, and horror, and I find modern novels too often weighed down by bloat and too much world-building. As a consequence, I tend to seek out older books that tend to focus more on ideas and action and move along more quickly. I always liked the “Box of Paperbacks” series at the A.V.Club, so I thought I’d take a stab at something in the same vein.

Made in Goatswood

by Various Authors

made in goatswood

While August Derleth kept H. P. Lovecraft’s stories in print, long after Lovecraft’s contemporaries and influences were lost to public consciousness, it really wasn’t until the 1980s and the production of The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game that Lovecraft really achieved maximum exposure. An all new generation of young, impressionable horror nerds became exposed to the Miskatonic Valley and its horrors thanks to Sandy Peterson, author of the game, and Chaosium, Inc., publisher. Before too long, Chaosium branched out beyond games and began to publish anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction, focusing each volume around a particular elder god or monster from the Mythos. In 1995, they produced Made in Goatswood, a collection of short stories dedicated to the Mythos work of Ramsey Campbell, another popular and influential horror writer who had dabbled in the Mythos early in his career.

It’s almost a rule that every horror writer has to play in Lovecraft’s sandbox at one time or another. Most of them only absorb the surface details of Lovecraft’s fiction – the moldy tomes, the purple prose, the fictional locations, the unspeakable horrors – without really being able to duplicate the tone or understand the approach to cosmic horror. Stephen King’s “Jerusalem’s Lot” is one of the towering examples of authors who pulled off a Lovecraft pastiche the way it should be done. Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” is another example of a Mythos story that gets under the skin and affects you with its weird malevolence.

But we’re not here to talk about the good post-Lovecraft Mythos stories, we’re here to talk about Made in Goatswood. That may not be an entirely fair assessment; there are some very good ideas in this volume. But few of the stories rise to the level of their own premises. I’m not sure if there was an issue with the page count or whether in the mid-90s the idea of stopping a horror story rather than ending it was a thing, but most of the stories in this volume never reach any kind of conclusion. They just abruptly stop, in what is probably meant to be a way to unsettle the reader, but in fact merely frustrates, particularly with how commonly the effect is used throughout this particular volume. Maybe the effect is meant as an homage to Campbell, as all the stories are dedicated to him, but I haven’t read enough of his stuff to be able to make that call.

The Severn River Valley is the setting of all the tales in this volume, an imaginary location in England where Campbell set most of his Mythos stories, in the manner of Lovecraft’s Arkham, Innsmouth, and other parts of the Miskatonic River Valley. The Severn River Valley boasts a university, some industry, a number of small communities, and all the sorts of things a good Lovecraftian setting needs: crumbling ruins, tales of elder evils, atavistic populations. There are rumors of pagan practices and resurgence of an ancient Roman cult tied to Byatis, one of Campbell’s contributions to the Cthulhu pantheon, a human figure with a beard of tentacles. And there are good writers in the anthology; A.A. Attanasio, Richard A. Lupoff, Peter Cannon, and Robert M. Price all contribute tales, to name a few. And though I’ve never heard of her before, Diane Sammarco’s “The Queen” is one of the really good stories in the collection. There’s even a brand new (for 1995) tale from Campbell himself, but I got the sense from it that Campbell’s heart wasn’t really in it.

Or maybe my sensibilities have just changed over the past few decades. There’s nothing particularly horrifying about pagan practices these days, even if one dresses it up with references to Glaaki or Byatis. And the subhuman inhabitants of Campbell’s story, “The Horror Under Warrendown” just put me in mind of Lovecraft’s racism and English classicism and threw me out of the story. Then there are the bizarre errors that a writer or editor should have caught, as when the British couple from “The Awakening” think their dog has found a skunk in their backyard. Perhaps the skunk escaped from a zoo or something?

So I cannot in good conscience recommend this particular collection. Chaosium has published plenty of others, however. I have a Hastur collection and an Innsmouth collection that may see coverage in this column at some point, with more favorable impressions. And I still want to find some of Campbell’s earlier work, which if “Cold Print” is representative, is bound it be pretty good.

As an aside, I think my overall impression was also affected by the cover of the volume, which on first glance looks unsettling and weird, until one realizes that the central monster was fashioned using a frozen chicken.