|Dark Waters Trilogy|
I'm writing this having finished the third and final (at last, a trilogy that ends with three) book of the series, Dweller in the Deep.
These books are... difficult to describe. They have a 1920s sensibility with a more modern writing style, so they aren't difficult to read, or pumped full of purple prose, but they still have their hearts firmly in the era, which is good. However, there are still times where they remind you of just what era you're in:
The journey to Providence, a distance of around seventy miles or so, would normally have taken no more than a few hours, with a couple of stops to buy gas...No more than a few hours with multiple stops for gas. To go seventy miles. Love it.
The stories are about what you would expect from this kind of thing: creepy happenings in Arkham lead to dark and dangerous discoveries. It starts tame enough, just some ghouls loping around devouring coeds, so on and so forth. As we get to the second and third book, we're introduced to more and more monsters, beasties, deities, and all around horrible things.
Interwoven in these stories are side jaunts to the Dreamlands (the description of the Vale of Pnath and the associated escape via the Vaults of Zin were wonderfully written), especially in Bones of Yopasi, as well as a very welcome amount of character development. Which, honestly, is one thing missing from most of the original Mythos stories; character development is usually just sane → insane → dead. Here, there's actual development of the characters, and they move in different directions from each other; almost like they're real people dealing with horrible things.
And speaking of the characters, these novels are very much a Call of Cthulhu campaign. You have the academics (archeology, anthropology, ancient languages, etc), the journalists (writer, photographer), somebody's little brother who doesn't get the game world so he made a brawler, so on and so forth. Characters weave in and out of the different books like people making or missing sessions. Frankly, it makes the novels all the more enjoyable if you picture the characters as player characters.
Seeing them as characters in a table-top game also helps with accepting various plot conveniences and people showing up just in the nick of time. After all, that's something we expect from a campaign. And seeing as how the broader Arkham Horror series is (at least loosely) connected to the game of the same title, that's only to be expected.
Sadly, there are problems running throughout the series. While it's less of an issue in the first novel, it quickly grows in the second and is practically all consuming by the third. Specifically, it's the Kitchen Sink problem that is so very common with Mythos writers. I'd say it's a problem with modern writers, but it first reared its ugly head with the work of August Derleth, so it's hardly a new phenomenon.
The Kitchen Sink problem is where Mythos writers want to include everything in their stories, regardless of if it fits or not. It's not a simple fact of including multiple elements (The Festival included both Byakhee and Tulzscha; although Tulzscha is unnamed), but it's jam packing the elements, even when they add nothing. Having a sorcerer working with the Mi-Go and using ghouls as slave labor in his attempt to raise Cthulhu is fine. But when you start adding in the Hounds of Tindalos, the Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua, Gugs, Shoggoths, the White Ship, the Terrible Old Man, Nodens, Nightgaunts, Cthonians, and most every other beastie and monstrosity found in the US, it gets top-heavy.
And it's more than just cameo appearances of Lovecraft's Greatest Hits, it's the inclusion of buzzwords that add nothing to the story, but are wedged in regardless. So you have a fossilized shard of a Formless Spawn. Okay. That's kind of neat. But it can't just be in a jar or tube. It has to be in a vial made from Curwen glass. What the hell is Curwen glass? The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where Joseph Curwen makes his appearance, is about resurrection by reducing a body to "essential salts". Curwen was a merchant, slaver, and sorcerer; not a glazier. But Curwen glass isn't enough, no, because the fossil can't be suspended by spider silk or string or anything normal. No, it has to be suspended by Shathak's hair. Who's Shathak, you ask? I can't blame you for asking; I had to look it up myself. She's "wife of Tsathoggua and the mother of Zvilpogghua." Of course.
This habit of giving an orgy of references isn't limited to Mythos winks and nods. When flying cross country, they couldn't just have a pilot. No, they had to have a young Charles Lindbergh. Almost every minor character who offers an assist has to be somebody who would later be famous. It got to the point that I was doing Google searches on every name mentioned in case it was someone I just didn't recognize. Once or twice, it's cute. By the time it becomes habit, it's just annoying.
These past few paragraphs probably make it sound like I didn't like this series, but that's not true. The inclusion of the Hounds of Tindalos may have been excessive, but they were masterfully described, and truly menacing (I may be a touch biased). The first novel is, by far, the best (even though my kin don't appear until book three). The Kitchen Sink problems don't really appear much in the first book, and it isn't until the third when they become a problem. All that said, I still enjoyed this series and I'm quite glad I finished the tale. I also have to give Mr. McNeill credit for ending it properly. I won't spoil things, but suffice it to say, it's not all rainbows and puppies at the end.
And the writing is spot on at times. He manages to capture the horror without growing overly flowery:
"Perhaps," said Henry, doubtfully, "but one can never become inured to horror. I saw men in France wade knee-deep through blood at Belleau Wood without flinching, then watched as their sanity crumbled to ash at the sight of an injured dog. The human capacity for horror is a fickle thing, my friends, and hangs over an abyss by a frayed thread."Phrases like that are just perfect. They capture the feel and the spirit of Lovecraft without descending in purple prose. And, frankly, it's the passages like this that make it so frustrating. Had the series (and the third book especially) not been so overstuffed, I could have given a whole-hearted recommendation without hesitation. As it is, I have to temper my enthusiasm. That being said, it's worth it, at the very least, to read the first book, especially if you're a fan of weird fiction.