Friday, July 16, 2004

Novel: Cthulhu At War

Delta Green: Denied to the Enemy A Cthuhu Mythos Novel of World War II; Dennis Detwiller; Armitage House 2004.

Delving into the Lovecraftian mythos has always been a small-press thing, even from its outset. The original Weird Tales printed on cheap pulp, the mythos additions coming out of Arkham House in Sauk City WI, the role-playing game material, none of it has made been major publishing houses (Del Rey on occasion pulls out the original stories for a reprint book). In many ways, Cthulhu fiction puts its readers in the same situation as many of its protagonists - forcing them out of the mainstream and into small, arcane bookstores, stalking long-ignored shelves for rarely-seen texts. The advantage for the reader over the protagonist is that search is often rewarding and usually less perilous. Armitage House (and its RPG compatriot, Pagan Publishing) continues the tradition of producing excellent material that hits a relatively limited audience.

Armitage and Pagan are both masters of the creative head-fake, particularly in its graphic design and promotion. For most novels (and in particular game products), you can all-too-often judge a book by its cover. Squiggly horror on the cover indicates squiggly horror inside. Armitage/Pagan, benefiting from a small house where the authors are part of the publishing process, instead sees can disguise the point, creating visually intriguing covers which hint at what's going on within without giving the game away, and promote the book without revealing the horrors within.

I will try to refrain from undue revelation as well. As the book declares that it is set in WWII, you expect occult-welding Nazis. And they are here, but the story soon spins into odd dimensions and strange aeons. What makes this very, very cool is the fact that this underscores a "core ethos" of the Mythos - that the achievements of mortal men (including their wars) matter little against the larger tapestry of an uncaring universe populated by more powerful beings. This is not Hitler with the Spear of Destiny. Its much, much worse.

Detwiller pulls off this revelation by concentrating tightly on his main characters. Its Cthulhu, so you emotionally know you don't want to get too attached poking around the edges of the unkown, but Detwiller presents them as fully rounded, empathic figures. The entire story nests within the "Delta Green" continuity that Armitage/Pagan has carved out, but Detwiller takes it further, adding more than just flesh to the outline but muscle and heart as well. The author grapples with dual tasks of personal conflicts and cosmic horrors, and delivers on both. He also takes great leaps in geography (it is a global novel) and in time (Chapters presented out of temporal order, so you will have a reference to the Australian expedition before you explain what happened to them). This last bit actually nicely covers one of the limitations of the pre-Internet universe - information takes time to percolate through.

There are quibbles, but only a few - a character in the prologue, set in 1961, bemoans detente, which was a 70s meme. What is very impressive is how Detwiller embraces a universe that both has the lumbering weight of predestination and the potential for free will, yet darkly sides with the former against the latter. In effect, you have free will - but it doesn't matter in an uncaring universe. And its thoughts like this that are more frightening in their own way than any rugtose horror in the crawlspace.

This is out of the ordinary, stuff that you have to go look for, down darkened aisles and odd corners of the 'net. So go look for it.

More later,