Novel * Jonathan L. Howard * Cosmic Horror Noir * 2015
Kids sure do love their H.P. Lovecraft these days, and that’s still an extremely strange development. I mean, have you ever read Lovecraft? He is not particularly good at writing. The prose is endless, overwritten, and muddy. Characters barely exist, and are mostly vessels for a lot of meandering speeches about being scared, but at like, a higher level than you’ve ever been scared, peasant. Most of the time, the stories don’t actually go anywhere. There’s a lot to be said about horror fiction that only hints at the terrifying thing instead of lovingly showing us monsters or whatever, but Lovecraft’s stories are on the extreme end of that scale. He deals in dread, but again you have to get acclimated to his leaden, messy prose to actually get anything out of it. Oh, and of course there’s the extreme, constant racism to deal with. And yo, miss me with that “well he was just a product of his time” bullshit, because Lovecraft racism is racism on a whole other level. Yes, of course, when Lovecraft was writing, base-level social racism was way higher than now. But Lovecraft was operating on Hitler levels of pure-race obsession. Bundle all that together, and I’m mystified that there is a whole subgenre of horror fiction that is just “Lovecraftian.”
And yet, well, there’s still something there, isn’t there? I’ve read most of his collected works, and not just as an exercise in masochism. You can get used to the writing style, even if it never really improves. Personally, I can’t get used to the glaring, obvious racism, but at least I can make myself feel better by remembering that Lovecraft died in poverty a virtual unknown. Eventually, what’s left are the core tenants of cosmic horror, which is a rad concept. The universe is massive beyond imagining, and if you really get in there and start thinking about it, all that vast empty space is terrifying to our sad little terrestrial brains. Lovecraft specialized in this kind of existential terror. There is a recognition that the world (and beyond) is vast and fundamentally unknowable. There is no benevolent God, overseeing human affairs. If there is a higher intelligence, and a lot of Lovecraft’s work is based on these intelligences, then they are perfectly alien. We are usually beneath their notice. Even perceiving these things drive most people mad. This is all fertile ground for the imagination, and if you can get past the actual H.P. Lovecraft, there’s a lot going for this kind of mythos.
This brings us to the book in question, Carter & Lovecraft, which is obviously playing in the Lovecraftian sandbox. Instead of aping Lovecraft’s style, however, Jonathan Howard opts to use many of Lovecraft’s ideas while writing a different kind of story. This isn’t a spooky story, not really. Specifically, Carter & Lovecraft hearkens to a more hard-boiled, noir-ish style. I don’t necessarily love it, and the flippant, referential nature of the prose elicits the occasional eye roll, but at least it’s a different take on the subject matter. I found myself engaged despite myself. Dan Carter is an ex-cop who gets sucked into a weird serial-killer case, which only gets weirder the more Carter tries to distance himself from what’s happening. Eventually, he meets Emily Lovecraft, who is H.P.’s last surviving descendant. Howard doesn’t shy away from Lovecraft’s racism, either, because he made the conscious choice of having Emily be a black woman. It works, mostly. In fact, that’s the overall sentiment of the entire novel. There’s a mystery afoot, and Carter and Lovecraft are on the case. Shit gets super weird, but then that’s to be expected. I enjoy the two principal characters and the overall conceit, which compensates for some of the labored writing and inconsistent tone.
I think the major issue that Carter & Lovecraft faces is that it starts poorly. The first couple of chapters serve as a showcase of Howard’s worst tendencies as a writer, so if you can make it through those and find yourself engaged with the story, then you’ll be fine. I won’t lie, I almost put it down at first. In retrospect, the first few pages are something of an anomaly. It seems to be written from Dan Carter’s point of view, but as this book (and the series) progresses, Carter mellows out. As a character, Carter is totally serviceable, if unremarkable. He’s essentially a clichéd private investigator who is aware that he is a cliché, which, eh. Still, he fulfills the expectation of the role even while being self-aware of it. Yet in this first chapter, his POV is scattershot and strange, and not at all like the character Carter grows into. It’s not a gradual evolution, either. Let me just show you. This is from the first chapter:
“It was going to be a great day. They just knew it. It was going to be one of those Hollywood cop days when the clues line up and they’d just follow them straight to the perp. And what a perp. What an arrest it would be.
The United States had a disproportionately high number of serial killings compared to other developed countries, a result of wide spaces, ease of procuring weapons, and – just maybe – it looking so damn cool on TV and in the movies. Want your fifteen minutes? Here’s how you do it, sport. Just be sure to score at least five victims. You’re not a real serial killer unless you’ve got at least five kills, just like a World War I fighter ace. Five’s the trick, sport.”
Ugh. And it goes on like that for a while, sport. Now that I look at it again, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be Carter’s thought process as he tracks this killer, or if it’s just the narrator popping in. If it’s the latter, it’s even stranger because the narrator doesn’t intrude anywhere else in either this book or the next one. Either way it’s an aberration, so if you can deal with another few pages of the above, then the rest of the story is a little more coherent. I’m not saying that tone ever totally goes away, there just aren’t huge blocks of it. Yeah, there’s some attempts at forced humor and some banter that doesn’t quite land. There’s an unfortunate attempted rape scene which is clunky at best and mostly left me wondering why the author thought it was in any way necessary. For the most part, though, Howard cleans up the tone and gets out of the way of his own story. Which is good, because the overall narrative is a fun romp in Lovecraft’s weird fiction universe. Not everything needs to be five-star writing, you know?
The narrative takes quite the turn at the end of the book, one which sets up Carter & Lovecraft to be an ongoing series. How long? No idea, because there’s only one other book, which I’ve read, and I can’t say we’re all that much closer to any kind of closure. It does seem clear, however, that this fist book is the only one mostly set in a world we recognize. The finale of the first book also suffers from metaphysical vagueness, but that’s not really the book’s fault. Suffice to say, the cosmic nature of Lovecraft finally comes around to full effect and the veil is lifted on reality. By the end, the fundamental reality of our principal characters has changed, which promises that the ongoing adventures of Dan Carter and Emily Lovecraft will be fundamentally different than this first book. As for this first book? Well, it works. Mostly.