The works of H. P. Lovecraft are often imitated, but never reproduced and certainly never surpassed. It’s a rare sort of genius that can launch an entirely new genre of literature, and rarer still is the genius whose imitators so consistently fail to improve upon his works. In the decades since the great old one himself stopped writing hundreds of authors have attempted to pick up the baton and carry on his legacy. Nearly all have failed, most due a complete failure to understand the what’s, the how’s, and why’s of Lovecraft’s writing.
With Mystery Believer, Scott Waldrop demonstrates an understanding of all three. As with That Than Which There Can Be No More Terrible, an earlier tale in Swords of Steel II, the framing device used to present the Lovecraftian horror here leaves the ultimate truth of the story up to the reader.
The story kicks off when a nameless wanderer blunders into a campfire tales circle and transforms the proceedings from an innocent lark to a harrowing event.
The story proper is the old man’s auto-biographical tale of his life as a man conceived in, born into, and plagued by the secret evils that lurk in the shadowy recesses of a world in which the light of reason shines dim and faint. This rambling tour through life as a man cursed to live as a character in a Lovecraft universe sprawls from the Carolina swamps to the Midwest hills and woods and into the dark recesses of the industrial grit of an unnamed factory town, and in each step of the journey the visions painted by the narrator become more and more sprawling and enigmatic, even as they touch deeply upon some ill-defined thereat only half-remembered by the reader’s lizard-like hind-brain.
This is very much a bleaker and more nihilistic version of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Even the brief respite in his descent into madness – or acceptance of the true nature of the universe, if you prefer – serves to highlight the fragility of man and the inescapable triumph of the dark terrors.
Not even the powers of heaven will save you, child of man.
Unlike most examples of this oeuvre, Mystery Believer matches Lovecraft’s towering vocabulary and ability to string long and convoluted sentences together in a way that flows naturally and instills in the reader a dreaminess that forces a difficult choice. One can simply ride the current along, basking in the wash of imagery, or fight the flow, stopping to chew and consider and perhaps even research a few of the hundreds of references that litter the story. I tried both and found the former to be the far more enjoyable experience. The things you don’t know add to the mystery, and the historical touches lend credence to the old man’s tale.
Now, I don’t know from literary, but this is definitely a story written by a man with an encyclopedic background to draw on, and one that isn’t afraid to show off his deep and wide-ranging knowledge, and one that can shovel reference upon reference on you with a relentlessness that makes you want to get out of bed and turn on the lights because you’re starting to feel a little too dreamy and need to remind yourself of the concrete nature of the universe.
Mystery Believer might not be Lovecraft proper, but it’s one of the best examples of the next step in Lovecraftian fiction that you’re likely to find on the market today.