Welcome to the first ever book review on this site which I am going to henceforth call by the clever title of The Sinister Reader! And this, friends, is why you come up with your better ideas *after* you’ve had your morning coffee. Despite the amazing title that was clearly thought up while I’m still waking up, this new segment is something I’ve had in the works for a while and I’ve decided that now is the perfect time to launch it. As we all know, February is part of the ass end of the winter season and it can be a little on the depressing side. This is the time of year to get together with those you’re closest to. Get comfy with a good old forgotten book. Maybe even take a trip to somewhere close to the water. And since it’s the month where pop culture turns every storefront and advertisement to happy thoughts and hearts and stuff, I thought I would start off The Sinister Reader right by covering tales that encompass all these lovely things that give me so much joy to think about. So grab your dusty old forbidden tome, get comfy with your cult-mates and let’s listen to the lapping waves of the harbor as we wait for the old ones to rise up and say hello because February is for Love(craft)!
I’m starting this a wee bit early to first introduce these new reviews but also to get some minor points out of the way first, both for the month and for what the future of The Sinister Reader is. To address the second part first, this is going to be a permanent installment on the site but after February, we’re going to restrict this to only once a month. I’m doing this both because it’s a bit overwhelming to get too many recommendations for books at once and, let’s be real, I already don’t sleep much as it is and I do need at least a few minutes to read here and there. That said, I have been itching to share my thoughts on some of my favorite books and I have always wanted to celebrate the month of February by honoring some of my favorite stories in this genre. And to be fair, there is never going to be a time that I won’t associate the month of hearts and gushy stuff with Lovecraft just for the pun potential alone so when the opportunity came up, there was no way I wasn’t going to indulge my own stupid sense of humor.
And speaking of Lovecraft, let’s not even bother pretending that elephant isn’t there and let’s tackle that first point from before right now because that is also going to affect what review for the next month. To put it in blunt, short language: Lovecraft was horribly racist. And let’s not be coy about it by hiding behind the old “he was a product of his time” argument because from his stories and his essays, we know that wasn’t the case. He was pretty viciously racist even for his time, supporting eugenics and writing essays that were more just screeds that sit on the far side of uncomfortably cruel in their depictions of people he didn’t like. There’s even some sources who claimed that his hatred of other races was part of why his wife divorced him. Even if that isn’t true, Lovecraft made it absolutely clear what he thought of anyone who wasn’t straight and white. This makes the debate about reading his works even more sticky because it’s laced into the stories he wrote, some of which he is quite famous for. In fact, one of his most popularly adapted tales, The Horror at Red Hook, is utterly vile in its depictions of what he thinks of other races are like. This was a man who truly saw people of color (or just anyone who didn’t fit his hetero, white paradigm) as being less than human and evil. This makes for a pretty bitter and ugly legacy for himself but that said, he does have a legacy in literature that is hard to deny. Without him, we wouldn’t have a lot of the horror tropes that we use today. We also wouldn’t have everyone’s favorite elder god and massive squid monster, Cthulhu. Lovecraft built and popularized those tales of creeping dread that some of our best horror movies still use today. That said, though he helped build the formula, that doesn’t mean he owns it or even that he did it best. However rotten the foundation for those tropes might be, we don’t require the racist attitude to make these ideas worthy of reading. What’s even better is that we have new authors to take those ideas and make them brilliant, scary and hauntingly tragic in ways that outshine Lovecraft’s originals. And that’s exactly what we’re celebrating for the month of February.
Over the next month, to celebrate the launch of The Sinister Reader, every week for the month of February I’m going to showcase some of my favorite adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories done by modern authors OR original stories that incorporated the elements that Lovecraft made famous. And as an added bonus and a middle finger to bigotry, I am going to feature stories that took those Lovecraftian elements and turned them on their heel and included LGBTQ characters (who are *not* stereotypes) and/or are from the perspective of a person of color. And because I’m one of those people who also writes, The Sinister Reader is only going to feature books that I can praise for what they are and things that I truly love about these tales because life is too short to read bad books and I’m not in a position to judge someone else’s writing and be a condescending bitch about it.
So this brings us to today’s review. I consider this more of an honorable mention than part of my February is for Love(craft) list but make no mistake, this is one of my absolute favorite stories from one of my absolute favorite authors. The reason it’s not going on the list proper is because it didn’t include the twist element of characters that Lovecraft never would have written about. That said, as an honorable mention, it’s still a must read if you are fan of creeping horror and British snark at its finest.
For this first review, it is my pleasure to introduce you to one of my favorite series with one of the most polarizing books in it. That book is The Fear Institute by Jonathan L. Howard. To give you a bit of background, the series follows Johannes Cabal, a snarky German/British (it makes sense in the series) necromancer “of some little infamy” with a single, unwavering goal: to defeat death by any means necessary. Cabal is the epitome of an anti-hero, his actions ever teetering on the cusp of being outrightly villainous at times and heartbreakingly difficult to swallow at others. That said, he never does anything without a purpose and the intelligence that his character is created with is part of his charm. That and he’s beyond sarcastic to the point of making it an art form and he’s so serious that he’s often baffled by the idea of doing anything for the sake of amusement. This is one of the funniest book series I’ve ever read and I highly recommend starting with the first book, Johannes Cabal: Necromancer, and working your way through the series. This is the third book in the series and it does incorporate a lot of elements from the previous books, as well as the short stories that Howard has written with the character, but this said, it can still stand alone. For what little you might miss, you’re going to get a lot out of what’s there and you’re not going to be too lost, save for a few minor details. And this holds true also if you’re not the biggest Lovecraft fan as well. If you’re even a casual fan of the genre, you’re going to get a lot of the references still but even if you don’t, it’s not going to make you feel like you’re missing the story. That said, if you are familiar with Lovecraft’s work, you’re probably going to very much enjoy the Easter eggs and the little references because this book is absolutely full of them. Jonathan L. Howard is an excellent writer and when it comes to unknowable cosmic horrors that threaten your sanity, he definitely knows his shit. That said, what lands him on the honorable mentions for me is what he does with the material.
The plot follows Johannes Cabal into the Dreamlands, hired by the titular Fear Institute to help track down the embodiment of fear to destroy it. That would be the goal of the Institute, not so much Cabal. You see, our necromancer has this overarching goal that runs through the series, that being to defeat death at any cost. During his previous adventures, Cabal has gone to great lengths to secure materials, both for research and his experimental components, to attain said goal. Our intrepid necromancer has quite sticky fingers as a result and is less interested in helping the three members of the Institute than he is in getting some coveted materials for his own research. Though he is not of the type that would typically be able to cross over beyond the wall of sleep into the Dreamlands, the Institute has attained Lovecraft’s Silver Key that allows them to gain entry and from here, everything begins gets muddy and dangerous. Upon getting into the Dreamlands (by an incredibly disturbing means which could have been a story unto itself), it becomes obvious to Cabal very quickly that his companions are not only woefully unprepared for this journey, but also not very bright. Or so it seems. Actually, if we are to be more precise, nothing is as it seems here where the world is established by dreaming minds, creating both characters and a landscape that is mercurial at best. If being in a landscape prone to whimsy that often has a complete disregard for scientific accuracy and an allergy to progress wasn’t enough to give our necromancer of some little infamy hives, the fact that he’s more or less been put into a leadership position where he’s forced to act heroic at times should do the trick. All of this would be just an amusing romp with a very serious anti-fun main character if this were not a book inspired by Lovecraft. While the setting is extremely fun and Cabal’s dialogue is a riot whenever he’s forced to speak to anyone against his will (which is pretty much everyone), our little group discovers that not only are people’s whimsical dreams real here, their horrifying nightmares are too. And Cabal discovers early in their journey that when you call the name of an elder god, they listen and if you’re terribly unlucky, they take note.
I had mentioned up top that this is a polarizing book in the series. That’s not to say that people outrightly hated it for the most part but from the other reviews that I read, they were either singing its praises or they did not like the development of the main character at all. I think this boils down to two major elements of the book that vastly differ from the rest of the series. For one, this is indeed the darkest book in the series that, while still really funny in parts, was the least funny over all. In some ways, for someone who likes this genre of fiction, this isn’t really that surprising. This one takes a swing for Lovecraft’s sense of dread and nihilism fences and if we’re being honest, it lands where it’s supposed to. I’m not going into any kind of spoiler material at all here but I will say that if you are looking to hit that Lovecraftian target in your writing, it’s not enough to simply put homages everywhere, which Howard does. The true nature of a Lovecraftian tale is that delicious sense of dread, fear and the overwhelming sense of being helplessly little in the face of something much bigger and more powerful than yourself. This is an issue if you were hoping for the funny fish out of water story that the book kind of sets up for but if you’re at all familiar with the genre, you already know that Lovecraft’s tales of travellers out of their element end in usually tragic and horrifying ways, especially when they come up against these elder gods. There is a gaping cruelty to what they reveal in both human nature and even in cosmic nature that when done well, is devastating and adds a whole new dimension of horror that goes beyond what any slasher or anything can really inspire. And that’s exactly what I mean when I say that this lands exactly where it was supposed to. This wasn’t a full on horror novel but it had those elements and there were moments that could actually leave you raw, which is precisely what Lovecraftian fiction should do if it hits the right spot.
And speaking of cruelty and nihilism, there were a fair number of reviews that took issue with the main character and how he was portrayed in The Fear Institute. One of the major complaints that I came across was that he was less the “charming bastard” type of asshole and showed off more sociopathic tendencies throughout the narrative. The people who say this aren’t wrong but the thing is that this book really reveals the absolute best example of what an anti-hero actually is. When most people hear that title, they think of characters like Deadpool (specifically in the films, not necessarily the comics) but, in truth, even he is likeable and he’s working against a primary antagonist with very clear senses of good and bad drawn up in his stories. A true anti-hero is a main character his is either unlikely to be a hero, unlikeable as a hero or both at the same time. They aren’t drawn to act out of justice or a sense of right and wrong so much as self interest and what is likely to be the best course of action to get what they want. This is exactly what Cabal does here and this is why he’s able to carry a Lovecraftian story. I think that there are a lot of people who did not want to see this character this way, owing largely to the fact that he’s a funny character. If you are new to the series, it might even be a bit of a bite that might leave a mark because Howard really doesn’t hold back how cruel Cabal can be. That’s saying something considering that in the first book the first thing he does upon returning from Hell is shoot a couple of people who tried to rob him. That said, there is a reason for his turn as a borderline unlikeable bastard in this and it all ties into the major twists of the story. And while he can be horrible in some instances, for me, this was not a bridge too far because he’d shown these tendencies in other books and I don’t think the ending would have the same emotional punch without it.
As I said before, I’m only going to be covering books that I give a high recommendation for in this section of the site and this one is very much one of those. It’s dark and it captures that sense of powerless horror that hits you in the core of your being but it’s also a lot of fun with some of the wittiest lines of dialogue you’ll ever read. As I said, Jonathan L. Howard deserves all the cookies for all that he has included here for the Lovecraft fans but the book never reads as an in-joke for those people only. In fact, there are some very cute and funny interludes in the novel that are supposed to be snippets of a child reader of elder gods. They’re strange, funny and disturbing in all the right ways. As I said, this is a great series but if you’re a horror fan, especially a Lovecraft fan, and you only want to read one of these books, this one sits on top of the pile for me.
And with that, I’m introducing The Sinister Reader! For the month of February, we are going to get new installments every Wednesday! By March these reviews will come up once a month, unless I want to do another theme month but I will keep you posted on that. If reading scary stories is your thing and you want more, updates for Hello Dolly will resume on Monday February 3rd and Friday Nightmare Reviews will be coming back on Friday the 7th as well. Starting now, by subscribing and donating to my Patreon, you can start getting updates early and for different tiers, you can even get a sneak peek at some of the major announcements on the way this year.
Thank you for coming back to join me here in 2020 and here’s to some amazing scary reads to come!