This review copy came to me as a result of the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter’s Contributors Do Your Bidding effort: a nonfiction piece on the topic of the donor’s choosing was one of the possible rewards, and they chose me and a review of this debut novel. I was a little curious about being chosen to review a crossover Lovecraftian love story, since I am not the natural audience for either of those. Frankly I hate the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But as a reviewer I’m able to go into a work looking for what other people value in it.
It looks to me like that’s what J.C. Rudkin (a writing team of two) did with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, too. They’re part of the new generation of writers, along with Ruthanna Emrys, Victor LaValle, Premee Mohamed, and more, who are fascinated with the squamous and rugose but actively reject the racism and xenophobia that ol’ Howie brought to the table. Very early in the book, Rudkin’s narrator tells us, “It felt like the whole world had gone mad in the last few years. Chaotic weather, chaotic governments, violence, and fear across the globe. Admittedly, this had been great for my book sales,” and I felt like I had a handle on why they might have chosen Cthulhu as the focus of their love story.
And then we got to the romantic lead.
“I met Cthulhu when I was in college. I was young, naïve, and excited to be away from home, the place I’d considered a prison for most of my life.
He was one of those things.”
Yeah. If you think you made some unfortunate dating choices in college, consider horror writer Amanda, who finds out that her college boyfriend Ryley actually meant to tell her that he was from R’lyeh. Because it turns out Amanda dated Cthulhu, trapped in human form by evil cultists bent on controlling his power. They were mostly successful–mostly–so that a lot of the worst of his power is endowed in a twisted nautilus (later bestowed upon young Amanda). What’s left is a sexy demigod with improbably sea-blue eyes, bending passers-by and waitstaff to his will and giving young Amanda a very decadent introduction to the world.
Very decadent. As in, full of decay, chaos, and despair, ia ia.
There were several points at which I said, “oh my GOD! The REAL villain here is–” Trust me, this actually is a horror novel, there is no shortage of “real villains here.” Let’s start with Amanda’s mother Caroline, a controlling, petulant horror show on a very human level–although the way that unfolds comes with a tinge of pathos for the person Caroline might have been.
There are two separate sets of Cthulhu cultists, definitely villainous enough all on their own. And Cthulhu himself? Well, this may be labeled a love story. But he is definitely not “a nice guy once you get to know him, deep down”–or even down in the deeps. Is Cthulhu a real villain here? Definitely yes. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the way that the narrative played with romance tropes of the domineering alpha male and showed that they are frankly horrifying. “THE ALL-POWERFUL ROMANTIC ALPHA MALE TROPE AND HOW IT TWISTS THE PEOPLE AROUND IT IS THE REAL VILLAIN HERE!” I crowed.
Which is not to say that all romance novels do this–most of them do not, any more than most fantasy novels reinforce blood-based racism–but every genre has to own its share of gross tropes and figure out what to do about them. Watching how different the lush banquet and picking out special jewelry look when the hero involved is Cthulhu and he is destroying bystanders’ minds was a warping I didn’t expect coming in, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to. Because this is a debut and I don’t know the authors personally, I wasn’t entirely sure which direction the ending was going to take Amanda, and I was genuinely worried for her mind and her soul at several points–which genre would win? Would the Elder God in the form of a sexy man with eyes of Caribbean blue break the strong-minded girl who fought her way from working-class Florida to publishing glory despite a staggering lack of family support? Would extremely well-organized cultists thwart them both? Where was the FBI in all this, and would they come in at the right–or dreadfully wrong–moment?
And when Amanda said she didn’t expect to live out her plans, was she right?
A lot of smaller press publications have pacing problems, but this one flew right by, even though I was deliberately slowing my reading speed for review purposes. You can still see some of the first-novel scaffolding in some of the sentence construction, but if the idea of a successful horror writer having to deal with her past as Cthulhu’s college girlfriend–for the sake of the universe and its sanity–tickles your fancy, Cthulhu: A Love Story executes on that premise with some charming grace notes along the way.