H.P. Lovecraft is an author that most horror fans stumble upon of their own accord. He’s the type of author who has you instantly hooked after just one story. His works are immersing, and once you dare to enter his strange world, it’s hard to ever pull yourself out. The problem with Lovecraft is that once you’ve read his canon, it’s hard to find anyone who compares. There are many authors who name him as an influence, but that does not mean they even fall within the same genre.
I was fortunate enough to come across Torn Realities, a short story anthology of modern Lovecraftian tales, published by Post Mortem Press, that explore twisting reality, the fear of the unknown, and bending human perceptions. Of the 19 stories, there are some real gems to behold, with very few that do not fit the bill. Torn Realities offers a satisfying answer to the question, “what comes after Lovecraft?”
Editor, Paul Anderson, states that his goal with Torn Realities is to assemble a collection of stories dealing with Lovecraftian themes aside from the elder gods. Anderson rightfully states that the Cthulhu mythos has been plagued by recent popular culture, becoming a played out cliche over the past years. It’s about time somebody began exploring Lovecraft’s other themes, which are, as the anthology proves, just as potent.
What initially attracted me to Torn Realities was quite simply that it featured a short story by Clive Barker. Any anthology that is good enough for Barker is good enough for me. However, I quickly found that Barker’s story, albeit good, is not the most stimulating of the bunch. Far from it in fact. This anthology is packed with talented up and coming writers, who pay their dues to Lovecraft while keeping things appropriate for a contemporary readership.
The opening story, Opt-In by J.W. Schnarr, is a stellar success and a perfect introduction to the anthology for two reasons. First, it sets a great, haunting tone for the rest of the anthology. Second, it offers a futuristic, anxiety-ridden tale that nods at Lovecraft, while making sure to keep its distance. Opt-In combines feelings of angst with social media and consumer culture. Advertisements on site like Facebook have become personalized to the point that they verge on privacy violations, and J.W. Schnarr takes this idea one step further. A cyber-recreation of a loved one calls you incessantly to advertise various consumer products, but you don’t hang up because you need to hear their voice. I usually don’t care for stories that overtly reference social media websites, but Opt-In does so tastefully, without shoving it down your throat.
Clive Barker’s Rawhead Rex is in typical Clive Barker fashion, full of crude description, intelligent dialogue, and a pleasing conclusion. A horrible Lovecraftian demon is unleashed upon the world, looking to feed on the young (and their gentiles) to gain back his unearthly power. If Lovecraft existed now, this may be the type of stuff he wrote. It’s quite gory, but if you get offended easily, Barker is probably not your man. Rawhead Rex showcases Barker’s veteran writing skills by melding together several different plotlines, leading to a collision course conclusion. Although it’s not the best story in the anthology, it is a polished piece of work, and it’s obvious why it fits in Torn Realities. I would suggest not reading the stories in the order they appear, but rather choosing them at random, saving Barker’s for last.
Delta Pi takes the cake for me as far as exploring Lovecraft’s “other” themes. It takes an entirely different approach to Lovecraft’s vision, and I love it for that. The concept is simple, but it works as a piece of writing by not tippy-toeing around the essentials. What happens when Pi is no longer a constant in mathematics? It delves into the scholarly world, using mathematics as a vessel for terror. It follows a brilliant math teacher who is forced to teach high-schoolers because he has some fairly insane beliefs. It builds steadily, keeping the action to a minimum and then climaxes with a well delivered, reality bending, finale.
The Calm is particularly intriguing because I can see it playing out as a movie or graphic novel, despite how short it is. It’s a war story that shows the horrors of war by way of showing the horrors of another world. War brings out the worst in the world, and apparently, the worst from other worlds as well. A haunting image of a lone, isolated, town is painted that carries all the way through to the end. I would love to see this with a bit more action adapted into graphic novel form.
There are two hard sci-fi stories in the book, and they rank at the top of Torn Realities. Visions of Parin paints a particularly haunting image of cabin fever in outer space. What happens when you see the face of evil and you’re stuck on a ship with nowhere to run? It gives off a bit of a Dead Space vibe, and fits well with the rest of the stories despite not being strictly horror.
The other sci-fi story that stands out is Jamie Lackey’s What Waits Out There. The fear of the unknown for Lovecraft may have been what lies in the ocean, but the black abyss of space is the subject of this story. The notion of what waits in deep space has always been terrifying to humanity, and it is Lackey captures it perfectly. It’s about a one way, solo, space mission and it’s filled with great characterization, and a real sense of foreboding. This is an author who takes an idea and bends it into a twistedly beautifully, oddly empathic, and downright scary story.
The Seventh Plague is a very short poetic prose piece that closes out the anthology and it’s as elegant as it is melancholy. It reads almost like a God Speed You Black Emperor song, and I wish there was more poetic prose like this showcased in anthologies. After reading it, it’s evident that it fits perfectly with the goals of the editor.
There were few issues I had with the anthology. Mainly, the placement of Clive Barker’s story, which I imagine will get heat from other reviewers as well. He’s one of the biggest names in horror, why put him near the start of the anthology? Placing Barker’s story this early on makes the story that follows immediately after look pale in comparison. Furthermore, it quashes the allure of Barker by not leaving his tale to close out the book. My other gripes were with a few of the actual stories, which did not live up to the goals of the anthology. Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad. Some stories were a bit too predictable, and some of them did not seem to fit into Lovecraft’s “other” themes.
The Troll That Jack Built by Kathryn Board is one story I did not take a liking to. Board explores the act of online trolling in a literal sense. A man who likes to troll on online help forums, finds that a real troll that manifests from his actions, which comes to bite him in the ass. The story is not poorly written, but it feels too obvious through and through. It’s a short piece that achieves what it tries to do, but the concept doesn’t fit in a Lovecraft inspired anthology.
The story I was most disappointed with was A Ride in the Dream Machine. The reason I was so disappointed is because the story one starts off very strong, and grabs your attention from the get go. However, it eventually swerves in a different direction. Freudian themes have been explored to death over the last few decades, and if you are going to use his psychoanalysis and dream interpretation as the focal point of your story, it better be inventive. Unfortunately, the themes that come across in the story offer nothing new.
Torn Realities has far more hits than misses, and the editor achieves his goal of creating an anthology filled with Lovecraftian goodness. None of stories feel as though the writer is simply trying to emulate Lovecraft, rather these stories are tributes to one of the greatest horror writers of all time. Torn Realities is a book that belongs in any horror fan’s collection. Sure, Clive Barker’s in there, but there are other stories in this collection that are worthy of far more praise. At under $16 paperback, and $5 for a kindle edition, it’s well worth the money. Torn Realities is a great homage, a book Lovecraft would be proud of.