Mass Market Paperback, 336 Pages
H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential 20th Century writers in any genre with his most prominent stamp emblazoned on the horror genre in the form of the Cthulhu Mythos. In the 1980s, Chaosium published Arkham Horror, a board game set in 1926 at Miskatonic University, the fictional college where many of Lovecraft’s stories take place. Fast forward about a decade or so and pre-eminent games publisher Fantasy Flight Games took over the license to great success. Following in the footsteps of other great genre games (Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf’s various games, and Shadowrun), novels tying into the games are being published. In order to kick-start this line of fiction, Fantasy Flight enlisted some of the top writers in tie-in fiction. In the case of the Arkham Horror game, Graham McNeill who is best known for many of the better selling and widely praised novels set in the various Warhammer/Warhammer 40K settings, was chosen to lead the charge with Ghouls of the Miskatonic, the first entry in The Dark Waters Trilogy.
That’s all pre-amble to the story between the pages, which in reality, doesn’t require any knowledge or experience with the Arkham Horror game itself, which is good since I’ve yet to play the game. The nugget that gets the plot rolling is the death of a young college student at Miskatonic University discovered by Amanda Sharpe and Rita Murphy. The body of the girl looks to be eaten and this, combined with Amanda’s disturbing dreams of a creepy underwater city has her unsettled through much of the early part of the novel. Mysterious death and missing persons in Arkham is not something new, but when Amanda goes missing shortly after finding the body, her mentor Anthropology Professor Oliver Grayson becomes more interested in the disappearances, the plot gets rolling. Events are spurred on further since this dead girl’s father is a Pinkerton Detective, who helps to move things at a greater pace when he and Arkham Advertiser reporter Rex Murphy and photographer Minnie Kline spot him looking over the scene where his daughter was murdered. What follows is a briskly paced story mixing elements of horror/dark fantasy (duh), noir/mystery, and thriller. Along the way, deeper secrets about the dark cult of Cthulhu, strange and grotesque creatures, and smoky speakeasies enhance the plot.
I’ll qualify my credentials here – I’m not the most well-read in the Cthulhu Mythos or H.P. Lovecraft. I grew up reading Stephen King so I’ve seen Lovecraft’s influence early without realizing it. I’ve read an anthology of Lovecraft stories, an anthology of Lovecraft/Cthulhu Mythos descendants, as well as assorted short fiction here and there. That’s where I come from when I say I liked this book quite a bit. It was an entertaining, swift read. The characters come across as believable on most counts and Grayson in particular fits the Lovecraftian protagonist out-of-his sorts quite well. Some of the dialogue and banter between Rex Murphy and Minnie Kline seemed a bit hokey, for lack of a better word, what with the colloquialisms of the roaring twenties in full swing. There was obvious (if not to the characters themselves) romantic tension between Rex and Minnie that looks to be developing as an undercurrent to the greater theme of humanity as a speck of dust in the cosmos.
With the popularity of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos, the quality of Fantasy Flight’s games and their built-in audience, Ghouls of the Miskatonic should be a welcome addition to devoted fans of either Lovecraft and his Mythos or the Arkham Horror game, and perhaps fans of both. Reading this (and perhaps because I read it in October the month of All Hallows Eve), I was inspired to hunt down my old Science Fiction Book Club Lovecraft anthology edited by Andrew Wheeler. After reading through a couple of the stories, I’d say McNeill (who has said he’s a big fan of Lovecraft) has picked up a good few bits from the master. Not having played the game, I can’t tell how well of a interpretation of the game the book is – whether it is simply a novelization of a possible gaming session or a story that stands apart as its own entity. Though, snarkily I admit, I may have heard a dice roll or two in my head. For myself, I’m definitely hooked, I enjoyed the book and I want to know where McNeill is taking the story in the next volume. I would recommend it to folks looking for a quick, creepy read during Hallowe’en.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford