A Cosmology of Monsters

A Cosmology of MonstersWhile I love the film version of The World According to Garp, I’ve never read a John Irving novel. I should rectify that at some point, but I mention it here to illustrate that I’m missing what Stephen King cites as a significant influence on Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters. That being the case, I still loved Hamill’s book. A Cosmology of Monsters strikes a perfect balance between a literary and genre horror novel. Fans of works at either end of the spooky spectrum should appreciate this tale.

Before I talk about the story, I need to laud this book’s gorgeous exterior (pictured to the left). The cover stopped me dead in the store the first time I saw it. I loved the evocative illustration combined with the bright orange and blue hues. A special shoutout is owed to Na Kim and Kelly Blair, who are listed as being responsible for the jacket illustration and design, respectively. They, and Pantheon Books, did a terrific job on the eye candy. That said, I will now jump into the actual narrative.

Spoilers Below (although I try to keep things vague)

The idea of a horror novel based around a haunted house attraction is brilliant, and that alone might’ve been enough for me to enjoy this work. Yet, by the end of the story, that aspect feels like a minuscule part of the book. The opening pages follow the protagonist’s mother and father, a huge Lovecraft fan, as they start their relationship and marriage. Unfortunately, things take a tragic turn for the father, who dies of cancer. From there, the story focuses on Noah, the youngest son of the couple, as he grows up. His childhood is complicated by the appearance of a monster, who he befriends, and the disappearance of his sister. Eventually, after many twists and turns, Noah discovers a hidden world in which monsters are made, and he must make some horrible choices to save the people he loves. There are a lot of details I’m leaving out, but that was just a quick summary. You’ll need to pick up a copy of the book for the full yarn.

I enjoyed this entire novel, and I read it in only three sittings. There were two standout moments for me. The first was a sexual scene between the monster and Noah. This scene surprised and confused me, and I’m impressed anytime a writer does that to me. Eventually, the scene makes sense as it’s foreshadowing a later revelation, but in the moment, I was befuddled and couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and I just loved that feeling. The second standout moment of the book was the ending. It’s a gut-wrenching ordeal where the protagonist makes a Faustian bargain. I’ll let you discover the choice Noah makes for yourself, but I was impressed by how dark the story got in the end. Conclusions are where many tales fall flat, and I was happy to discover that A Cosmology of Monsters did not. I was left wanting more stories set in the universe of this book. Hopefully, one day Shaun Hamill will continue Noah’s dark journey or give us a new protagonist’s insight on the dark city at the heart of this narrative. That said, based on reading this novel, I’ll be happy to check out whatever Hamill does next. If I still haven’t sold you on A Cosmology of Monsters, you should give a listen to Shaun Hamill’s interview with the Lovecraft ezine for further enticement.

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The Ancestor

The AncestorIf someone were to ask me to direct them to a modern gothic novel, I’d point them straight to The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni. While I was drawn to the story by the premise of discovering a monstrous ancestry, I just did Ancestary.com last month, the sense of the gothic is what truly fascinated me about this read. Of course, cryptozoology also plays a significant role in the plot, and, since I previously won a contest concerning cryptid monsters for my flash fiction, Feeding Time, those elements of the story appealed to me too. Overall, Trussoni brought all the eclectic elements together into a perfect mix.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Alberta, finding out she’s the heir to the prestigious Montebianco family in Italy. I absolutely loved this setup because I had no second thoughts about why Alberta would be willing to go off and visit her family’s ancestral castle in exchange for a fortune. If someone told me I was royalty and had a castle, and I could pay off my student loans, I’d be on the first plane to Italy too. In horror stories, even exceptionally good ones, I often struggle to rationalize why the protagonist investigates a strange noise, heads into a spooky basement, etc. Trussoni deftly dodges that pitfall, and you totally buy Alberta’s willingness to travel to an isolated castle in the Alps. Before I get into some spoilers, I should also add that I listened to this story on Audible, and the reader, Heather Masters, did an incredible job bringing the narrative to life.

Spoilers Below (although I try to keep things vague)

Most of the story takes place in the Montebianco Castle, and you get the strongest gothic horror vibes from this section. Alberta becomes more and more aware of her own isolation as the helicopter that dropped her off doesn’t come back, and the harsh winter weather makes any other escape from the Alps impossible. She also gets better acquainted with the family’s dark secrets while exploring the castle and getting to know the residents. Throughout this part of the book, I kept assuming her ex-husband, Luca, would eventually show up and save her. I was conflicted on this point because, while I liked Alberta and wanted her to be okay, I didn’t want to see her turned into a damsel in distress rescued by her ex. Thankfully, Trussoni made a shocking decision regarding the character of Luca and his super nice father. This was the highlight of the book for me because it took me by complete surprise. Everything after that moment felt like icing on an already delicious cake because my assumptions on where the narrative was heading vanished.

The horror in this story comes from a lot of different places too. First, there’s the horror of isolation, Alberta being trapped in Montebianco Castle reminded me of The Shining at many times, except, in The Ancestor, the protagonist isn’t confined with family. Instead, she’s trapped with strangers, like the dangerous groundskeeper. Next, there’s the horror of Alberta’s monstrous ancestry. This plays out in two ways. One, she inherits a high risk of miscarriage. Two, there’s the horror of the actual identity of some of her relations, who are, let’s say, unique beings. All these ingredients culminate in a terrific book-stew. And I didn’t even mention the fast pace, which keeps you moving through the story quickly.

I highly recommend giving The Ancestor a read or listen. I first heard about it by watching The Lovecraft eZine, and if you’re on the fence about picking up the book, I suggest giving that interview a watch (it’s linked here). Trussoni also wrote Crypto-Z, a narrative podcast, that ties into The Ancestor, and I’ve listened to the first episode, which was excellent. Lastly, I had the pleasure of attending Trussoni’s first Writing Hang-Out Session via Zoom, and I enjoyed getting to listen to the attending writers and Trussoni discuss their work. I believe it’s open to any interested writers, and you can find the details about attending here.

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The Color Out of Time

The Color Out of TimeWhen I first read H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, I was immediately excited at the thought of writing a sequel. The ending makes continuing the story an enticing proposition. When I investigated the subject, I found Michael Shea had already written a second installment, The Color Out of Time. This didn’t stop me from writing my own follow-up, A Night at the Arkham Reservoir, but I desperately wanted to read Shea’s work to see what he did with the same idea. I couldn’t procure the book until Ramsey Campbell, a Weird Fiction Legend, provided a link to an affordable copy on the Horror Writers Association Facebook page.

Aside from the perfectly chosen title, I immediately fell in love with The Color Out of Time’s cover, in all its skeletal glory. The artwork is gruesome and perfectly conveys the fact that this book is a work of horror. This is something that modern horror novels aren’t doing as much of. My attention was drawn to this subject by an excellent video called Horror Books Have Lost Their Identity by In Praise of Shadows, and I highly suggest giving it a watch if you’re interested in the subject.

As to the writing quality, I was already a fan of Shea’s Weird Fiction because I read his story, Tsathoggua, in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran. The Color Out of Time is written in a no-nonsense style that reminded me a bit of Roger Zelazny’s work. The story is effectively told, but I occasionally found myself wanting a little more from the descriptions. The Colour Out of Space is a rare story where, I feel, Lovecraft’s purple prose serves as an asset instead of a detriment, and I would’ve enjoyed reading a little more about the color in lush detail. I also felt that, while I loved the protagonists in Tsathoggua, I didn’t have an excellent sense of them in The Color Out of Time. There is a fantastic character introduced halfway through the story, but I need to delve into spoilers to discuss her.

Spoilers Below

While The Colour Out of Space’s Wikipedia page currently lists The Color Out of Time as a direct sequel, it’s actually not. The story posits that H.P. Lovecraft was inspired to write The Colour Out of Space by a real-life event that occurred in the 1930s. The Color Out of Time deals with the ramifications of a reservoir being built over the spot where those events occurred and where, like in Lovecraft’s story, a lingering piece of the monstrous color remains under the lake. That sets this story outside the universe of The Colour Out of Space. It’s an especially odd turn of events for the story because The Color Out of Time is written in such a way as to make the reader think it’s a direct sequel to The Colour Out of Space until about halfway through. When I got to the reveal, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be visiting Arkham or getting details on the surviving characters from The Colour Out of Space. I’m not sure why Shea decided to go this direction with the narrative. It could be that whoever held the rights to The Colour Out of Space didn’t allow Shea to continue the story. Sadly, since Shea passed in 2014, I’m unable to ask him why he made this choice, but once I got past that twist, I still enjoyed the tale.

To summarize the story briefly, two older gentlemen are enjoying a trip to a lake when they discover strange mutations and a negative psychic influence surrounding the area. They soon realize a mysterious, indescribable color in the lake is at fault, and when a park ranger dies, they team up with his surviving sister, Sharon Harms, to confront the color. Harms was the character I mentioned earlier. She’s motivated to kill the color as revenge for what it did to her childhood friend, who lived on the farm the color plagued, and for what it did to her brother. Harms gets my two favorite moments of the story. First, she relays how she met and befriended H.P. Lovecraft in her youth, and second, she faces off with the color using an Elder Sign. I’ll leave the ending for you to discover, but I thought it fit the story well.

Of course, having characters fight the color makes it much less frightening. Shea even has the color assume a more physical, spider-like form. The climax of the novel, where the three human protagonists battle the color, reminded me more of an adventurous Call of Cthulhu role-playing session then the end to a Lovecraft-inspired story. The real horror of the novel came from the primary human antagonist. He’s a vacationer who’s so committed to making money, off card games with the other visitors at the lake, that he won’t heed the protagonist’s warnings that everyone is in danger. He actively undermines their efforts to save lives. I couldn’t help thinking of businesses that fought to stay open during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, and the mayor in Jaws.

Well, this review sprawled a bit, but I appreciate you reading to the end. If you’re interested in this subject, you might also enjoy my review of Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space. I’d suggest you check out this book if you liked the Colour Out of Space, or if you want a quick summer read. The pace is fast, and the page count is small. If you’re extra committed to immersing yourself into your fiction, you can do what I did and visit a local lake while you read Shea’s book (pictured below). As long as you don’t start The Color Out of Time expecting it to continue the story of The Colour Out of Space, you won’t be disappointed.

Reading at Laurel Lake

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