The book takes place in 1984, when the narrator stumbles upon a bloody backpack belonging to someone named Jared Palmer at a strange site in a remote part of the desert. He hires a private investigator to help him find Palmer and unravel the mystery.
However, their investigations only lead to more questions: Palmer is apparently mixed-up with a strange cult that practices odd rituals, and which apparently attaches some significance to the protagonist, due to the fact he is related to a certain famous author. (Not named, but there’s no doubt who it is.)
Things get weirder and weirder. The activities of the cult prove to be far more widespread and sinister than initially imagined. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and double- and triple-crosses. Above all, there is the possibility, as always in your really top-flight Lovecraft tales, that our protagonist is an unreliable narrator.
Basically, the book is pure Lovecraftian horror. Even the writing style evokes HPL’s. At times, it out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, if that is in fact possible.
I won’t say too much more about the plot, except that I was a satisfied customer–I came in looking for some good old-fashioned cosmic horror, and I got what I wanted.
That’s pretty much my review. If you like Lovecraft, you’ll like this.
Now, there’s one other comment I have. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but I hope not too much. Feel free to skip it if you want to maximize your surprise when reading the book.
As some readers may recall, I recently reviewed the film Wonder Woman 1984. There’s a scene in it where one of the characters meets the President–never named in the film, but obviously resembling Reagan–who reveals the existence of a secret satellite network capable of broadcasting across the globe.
In this book, there’s a scene where a character meets the President–again, not named, but it’s obvious who he is, not only because it’s 1984, but because of his manner and his fondness for jelly beans. And a top-secret satellite broadcasting network is integral to the plot of this book, also!
Apart from these details, Wonder Woman 1984 and Book of the Elder Wisdom are nothing alike. (For the record: Book of the Elder Wisdom was published in August 2020, WW84 premiered in December 2020.) But these commonalities were interesting to me. Why? Well, I’m not sure. I feel like it says something about the zeitgeist, the millieu, the cultural moment, and any other pretentious five-dollar terms you can think of that mean “what was happening at the time.”
But I don’t know what it is. I can’t even begin to speculate about what it is.
This is a collection of short stories by Audrey Driscoll, author of the Herbert West series, a brilliant re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s brilliant but amoral scientist. The first seven stories in the collection all tie in with the series. It’s probably not necessary to have read all the books to enjoy them, but I’d say at least The Friendship of Mortals is required reading for sufficient grounding.
“The Nexus” is told in a classic Lovecraftian fashion, in that it is a document contained in a letter. The letter’s author is Professor Quarrington of Miskatonic University. Quarrington reveals his ties to the Starry Wisdom cult, which features in one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, “The Haunter of the Dark.” He goes on to explain how, through his own peculiar skill for predicting the future, he sees great potential for good or evil in his student, Herbert West.
“Fox and Glove” is a mystery story, wherein West’s friend, librarian Charles Milburn, seeks to locate a specific book in the home of a recently-deceased bibliophilic professor to win a bet. Milburn enlists West’s aid in helping him acquire some clues, as only West can, and then sets about uncovering the mystery using his own knowledge of cataloging. One of my favorites from this collection.
“From the Annexe” is an exploration of the homoerotic elements of West and Milburn’s relationship. This story is probably the one that adds the least new information for those who have already read the series, but it’s still a fine character sketch.
“A Visit to Luxor” is a prelude to Driscoll’s novel, She Who Comes Forth. West–now traveling under the name Francis Dexter–and his servant Andre encounter a mysterious man in Egypt.
“One of the Fourteen”–West, again as Dexter, is forced to confront someone from his past at a pub. This story has more outright fantasy elements than the others, and demonstrates how far the protagonist has moved from the ultra-rationalism he displayed in his earlier career.
“The Night Journey of Francis Dexter” is similar to the one before, as Dexter is once again confronting something from his past. He intends to atone, but finds altogether more than he bargained for, and is again caught up in fantastic supernatural horrors.
“The Final Deadline of A.G. Halsey” is the most intriguing of all seven of these stories, because it is the prologue to an as-yet unwritten sequel to She Who Comes Forth. Even as she is dying, Alma Halsey is compiling information on the strange behavior of her grand-daughter since her return from Egypt.
In addition to these seven stories of the Herbert West series, the collection contains seven more standalone stories, and in my opinion, while the West stories are all good, this part is where it really starts to shine.
“Welcome to the Witch House” is a reimagining of Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. Just as she did for Herbert West, Driscoll reinvents Lovecraft’s setting, populating it with real, human characters instead of the paper-thin ones HPL wrote. Driscoll’s retelling only gets as far as setting the stage for the action that takes place in Lovecraft’s story. As she notes in the afterword, she felt she had nothing to add to the rest of it, and abandoned the effort. I beg to differ. Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s most fascinating works to me–not because it’s good, but because it’s so weirdly flawed and yet so inexplicably compelling. To me, it contains both the best and worst aspects of his writing all at once. Driscoll’s touch would be most welcome.
“The Ice Cream Truck From Hell” was originally posted in serial form on Driscoll’s blog. I read it when it was originally published, and I read it again when I bought this collection. It holds up beautifully on re-reading. The atmosphere is marvelous, and the characters–from young Will, the protagonist, to his troubled friend Harold “Doof” Duffy, to Will’s pompous father–are all expertly drawn. Both times I’ve read it, it’s made me think of Bradbury; specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes. The atmosphere of two kids wandering around in an October evening is wonderful, and the sinister ice cream truck and its crew aren’t even the most unsettling elements. Make no mistake; this collection is worth buying for this story alone.
“The Colour of Magic” is about a young man named Marc, who is forced to share his home with a peculiar tenant while his mother is away. The strange lodger does nothing overtly threatening, and seems to be just a dreamy lover of incense and yoga, until she asks Marc to help her paint her room, at which point it becomes clear she is acquainted with far more esoteric forms of mysticism. It reminded me a little of Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann–the mysterious older person who is clearly in touch with something far beyond the everyday. Beautifully written, of course, and leaves the reader with just enough information.
“A Howling in the Woods” is about a young boy abandoned in the woods by his father when he hears a mysterious noise. Eventually, he is found again, but not after some strange transformation has taken place. There’s a bit of an environmentalist message to it, although everything is left very ambiguous. But the atmosphere is once again first-rate.
“The Glamour” is about a middle-class teenaged girl who becomes convinced she was switched at birth with the daughter of a posh family. Her obsession with confirming this notion leads her to an even more surprising discovery. This was really well done–at first, it felt like it could just be a YA story about a girl whose imagination had run away with her. But, as is so often the way in Driscoll’s stories, there’s more to it than meets the eye…
“The Blue Rose” is set in a society that seems to have been created after some dimly-remembered cataclysm. Deon is an artist who wishes to create a blue rose for an important ceremony, and he ventures outside the protective city limits and into the dangerous “blasted lands” to do it. The world of this story is first rate, and I’d be delighted to read more set in this place. Like “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell,” I’d read this before in another collection, but happily re-read it. It struck me on second reading that it really is about art, and the risks artists must take to make it. Creating art involves a kind of danger, if not generally the physical kind depicted here. To make something great is to run a risk, and often involves sacrificing a bit of oneself.
“The Deliverer of Delusions” is not actually the last story in the collection. It comes between “Witch House” and “Ice Cream Truck.” I presented all the others in the order the author arranged, but I had to save this one for last, because it’s a sequel to “The Repairer of Reputations,” by Robert W. Chambers.
Longtime readers probably know that I consider “Repairer of Reputations” to be the greatest work of weird fiction I’ve ever read. It’s simply perfect–spare, yet layered with fascinating ambiguities. It doesn’t overwhelm you with weirdness, it doesn’t announce its weirdness ahead of time, nor does it play it out too long and let it become mundane or tiresome. It gradually sinks its claws into you, and by the time you even notice something strange is going on, you’re in too deep to get out. It’s just a masterpiece.
I won’t say any more about it. If you like weird fiction–and you’re reading this blog, so you probably do–you should read it. Try not to read anything more about it before you read it, if you can. It’s important to go in with as few pre-conceived notions as possible.
So! That’s my take on “Repairer of Reputations.” Naturally, the idea of a sequel by a different author, even one as supremely gifted as Audrey Driscoll, filled me with trepidation. Can anyone write a sequel to another author’s work? A good story is like a distillation of a writer’s vision. Properly done, it conveys a whole mental image built up gradually in the synapses of an author’s brain. Can another author presume to match the resulting gestalt so perfectly? Should they?
I have to be very careful what I say here, because I’m trying not to spoil either story. So, I’ll just say that “Deliverer of Delusions” is a worthy sequel to “Repairer of Reputations.” In fact, it adds on another layer to the original tale that I had never considered. Is it as good of a story? In my opinion, not quite. (It’s much shorter, for one thing.) But it follows the ancient principle “first, do no harm,” and detracts in no way from its legendary predecessor, and will be an enjoyable treat for fans of Chambers’ original story. But do read the original before you read this one! I must insist upon this; to do otherwise is simply a disservice to both stories.
Those are my reviews of all the stories in this collection. And yet, I feel my work is not done here. I’ve spoken of the trees, but not the forest. A proper collection of stories is more than the sum of its parts. I have compared Driscoll to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Chambers–and she is certainly worthy of being mentioned alongside them.
But it is unfair to her to merely say she writes admirably “in the manner of…” Driscoll’s style is uniquely hers. Reading this collection made me appreciate this more than ever. As I said above, stories are distillations of a vision, and a collection of stories is a window into an author’s mind; the creative world they inhabit that enables them to turn the everyday–an overheard distortion of Brahms’ “Lullaby,” for instance–into a whole world, complete with people and stories and history and mystery.
It’s become a cliché to say that all of <some group of fictional works> take place in the same shared universe. But that’s true for authors. In some sense, all of an author’s works take place in a universe that exists within their head.
And the greats, like Driscoll, can take us to that universe and introduce us to the people, show us the color of the sky and let us smell the air. We come back again and again, and feel like we carry some part of the place around with us even when we leave. Tales from the Annexe transports you to a world of horror and mystery, magic and wonder. It’s a must-read.
I keep writing reviews that include a line to the effect that “it’s like Lovecraft, but it also explores aspects of human psychology that Lovecraft always ignored.” This has happened with The Ballad of Black Tom, Annihilation (the book and the movie), Prey, and The Friendship of Mortals. I’ve been writing this so much that I can’t call this an exception to the rule anymore. It has become a style of its own.
It feels wrong to call it “Lovecraftian” horror. Lovecraft deliberately minimized the role of human emotions and thoughts in all his stories. Lovecraft’s philosophy was that human beings were unimportant “incidents” in the grand cosmic scheme, and he wrote accordingly. That was part of the horror. (Hence “cosmic horror” as a synonym for “Lovecraftian”.)
The works I listed above certainly retain elements of cosmic horror, but flesh out their human characters, making them interesting and relatable. Whereas Lovecraft approached the horror of humanity’s place in the cosmos with a detached, dispassionate tone, subsequent writers have framed it by humanizing their characters first, then pitting them against the unimaginable outside forces.
This style is also different from the kind of horror that humanizes things too much to be called “cosmic”. Stephen King, for example, writes in a style more like that of noir detective thrillers that feels too immediate and gritty to be “cosmic”—even in stories that have what you might call Lovecraftian elements. (e.g. 11/22/63) The works I’ve described above are much closer to a 50/50 balance than King’s style of an “earthly” horror story with a few cosmic elements.
My point isn’t that any one of these styles is better or worse than the others; but just to point out that they are distinct, and that I don’t know of any term that fits stories like those I’ve listed here. Calling them “semi-Lovecraftian” or “semi-cosmic” feels too weak. “Weird fiction” or “New Weird fiction” is too broad. The best I can come up with is “humanized cosmicism”, but that sounds awkward.
[I recently read The Friendship of Mortalsby Audrey Driscoll, the first installment in her Herbert West series. I absolutely loved it, and sent Ms. Driscoll a few questions about the book, her other works, and her thoughts on writing in general, which she kindly and thoughtfully answered. One note: there are a few minor spoilers for the first book below. Enjoy!]
BG: What was it about Lovecraft’s original Herbert West story that first inspired you to write this series?
AD: I was aware of the story for years before I was able to track down a copy. Its reputation as HPL’s worst story intrigued me. How bad could it be? After I read it, I found myself wondering why Herbert West is so interested in reanimating corpses, especially considering how badly his attempts turn out. HPL calls him a totally rational type, but some of his activities, especially in the later chapters, seem pretty irrational. In other words, I thought Herbert was interesting enough to need a backstory, so I wrote one, incorporating other elements from Lovecraft – the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Kingsport, and a few others. Not Cthulhu, though.
BG: How did you manage to write the romance scenes and still keep in the Lovecraftian style? Were there any other sources that you looked to for inspiration on that, or to help with writing the early 20th-century setting in general?
AD: As you know, since you’ve read both HPL’s original story and my book, both are narrated by Herbert West’s friend and accomplice. Lovecraft doesn’t give him a name, but I called him Charles Milburn. I pictured him as a lonely, middle-aged librarian (and I’ll just add here that I worked as a librarian for 35 years), telling the story many years later. His somewhat obsessive, confessional style was perfect for the tale, as though the time has come to tell his long-kept secrets, and he can’t wait to pour them out. The romance element lent itself well to this, because Charles’s affair with Alma must be kept secret from their colleagues, and Charles’s romantic impulses toward Herbert are pretty much unacknowledged by him. Once I discovered/decided that Herbert was gay, I read quite a few works by and about gay writers, which helped me to shape the characters.
BG: There are lots of themes in The Friendship of Mortals, but the main one seems to be the narrator’s romanticism vs. West’s materialism. Did you consciously want to explore this conflict, or did it arise organically in telling the story? And do you think the reader should come away favoring one viewpoint or the other, or is it more of a “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing?
AD: West’s materialism was emphasized by Lovecraft in his original story, so I must have organically decided to make my narrator, Charles Milburn, a Romantic. A certain amount of conflict developed naturally after that, which was a good thing. And since Herbert undergoes a transformation analogous to the process of alchemy, I suppose I expect the reader to follow along and experience that along with him.
BG: There are a few passages in the book that have to do with music. Can you talk a little about how music influences your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
AD: Yes, definitely! I actually worked some pieces of music I listened to at the time, such as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Allegri Miserere, into the plot of The Friendship of Mortals. Another CD I listened to during that writing was The Mask and the Mirror by Loreena McKennitt. Her setting of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross had a profound influence on the novel, sending it in a direction I certainly never intended.
The most musically-influenced of my works is a literary novel entitled Winter Journeys, about Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. It’s not historical; the action takes place in the years of its writing, the winter of 2007-2008. I haven’t published it myself as yet, because I still have an idea I might try to get it traditionally published. But I’ve been so taken up with publishing the Herbert West books and writing my current work in progress that I no longer have the mindset necessary for submitting to publishers.
BG: What other authors, besides Lovecraft, have influenced or inspired you?
AD: Stephen King, of course. Both his novels and On Writing, which inspired me to start actually writing, instead of thinking I couldn’t possibly. Peter Straub as well; his approach to horror is more subtle than King’s. The most elegant horror story I’ve ever read, though, is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” Nothing I’ve written even comes close. Otherwise, among the authors whose works I hold dear are Mary Renault, Elizabeth Goudge, Mervyn Peake and J.R.R. Tolkien. And Leo Tolstoy. And the garden writer Henry Mitchell, whose style I found most appealing.
BG: Besides your literary work, you also blog about gardening. Are there similarities between the two activities? Any gardening wisdom that helps you in writing?
AD: Well, there’s nothing fictional about gardening. It’s as real as can be. That helps to reset my perspective. It’s done outdoors, which means I spend time away from the desk and computer, and it’s physical. Digging up tree roots is extremely physical. So is pruning, especially huge old climbing roses and prickly hollies. I have the scars to prove it. Noticing, observing, and visualizing are necessary in gardening, and are helpful habits for writers to cultivate as well.
BG: Would you be willing to discuss any new literary project(s) that you have in the works?
AD: I have just finished the first draft of a novel which is a sort of sequel to the Herbert West Series. It features a descendant of Herbert’s (and you have to read the entire series to see how that comes about!) The title is She Who Comes Forth. It’s set in Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis in the autumn of 1962. It will come forth, I hope, later this year.
BG: What has surprised you most about writing/publishing? Was it easier or harder than you expected when you first started?
AD: When I started writing The Friendship of Mortals in November 2000, I was blown away by the experience. That book pretty much wrote itself. I was obsessed with it. The obsession lasted through 2005 and three more books, although each one took longer to finish than its predecessor. Of course, I was trying to get traditionally published during those years, which introduced an element of harsh reality. Maybe that slowed me down. In 2010, I discovered self-publishing via Smashwords and eventually Amazon, and began my blog. I was taken up with those activities for the next seven years, so didn’t start writing another novel until 2017. A year later, I’m still at the raw first draft stage. Of course, I do my own editing and my own formatting — even for print, which is more challenging than ebook formatting. Altogether, though, I like the degree of control I have over the look and feel of my finished books. And as an indie, I can take whatever approach I like to marketing, as long as I adjust my expectations accordingly.
BG: Any advice that you would like to pass on to other aspiring authors?
AD: Writing and publishing are two completely different, although related, operations. Writers should ask themselves why they write, and what they expect from that process. Same for publishing. What constitutes success in each area? Each author has their own answers to these questions.
How much time, effort and money are they prepared to spend in writing and bringing their works to the world’s attention? It is possible to publish well with relatively little monetary expenditure, but that means doing a lot of it oneself. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go into debt as a first-time self-publisher. Indie authors are a huge market for products and services; there are many hands ready to take one’s money, and not all of them are helping hands. Like so many other endeavours, self-publishing might be summed up this way: good, fast, cheap; pick two.
Writing is a solitary activity, even when done in coffee shops, but it’s immensely helpful to be part of a writing community. The internet is a good place to meet and communicate with other writers, both trad- and self-pubbed. I recommend finding a niche there. WordPress has dozens, if not hundreds, of writers’ blogs. Not every piece of writing/publishing advice you see is relevant or useful, so it helps to exercise one’s critical thinking abilities, and to keep asking the questions I mentioned earlier.
Thank you very much for the thought-provoking questions, Berthold. And for giving me space on your blog.
BG: It was my pleasure! Thank you for your thoughtful answers, and for writing such wonderful books.
As long-time readers know, I love the story The Repairer of Reputations, by Robert W. Chambers. I wanted to write an analysis of it, but it’s such a carefully-constructed story that I didn’t know how to do it without quoting huge sections at length.
Then I had an idea. The story is in the public domain. (It was published in 1895.) So, I thought, why not post the story with my comments included? That will be an easy way for people to read the story and for me to comment on specific things that I think make it work so well.
So that’s what I did. It’s so long that I put it on its own page rather than do it as a blog post. You can read it here. I hope it’s useful to anyone who wants to write weird fiction.