Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dark Gods is a collection of novellas that bring to mind something that I could imagine HP Lovecraft writing if he was a baby boomer. Or maybe that isn't quite right. Because I think T.E.D. Klein has a subtle, grounded approach that distances him from Lovecraft's style in a crucial way for this reader. Klein seems to eschew melodrama, and Lovecraft embodies it in his writing. The similiarities to Lovecraft lie more in his overall fatalistic viewpoint and his character choices. I had to say I wasn't quite comfortable with the way race is handled in these stories. Characters are labeled far too quickly by race and ethnicity, also by social status. That definitely made me think of how Lovecraft would view the melting pot of NYC in the modern age. I want to say that this was done on purpose. That these characters in the stories are people who don't see the world in a rosy way. They don't look past skin color, ethnicity, or social status. They are way too disenchanted, too immersed in the world's darkness to see things in a higher way. The worldview also brings to mind Lovecraft. His fatalistic view of the world, in which doom is certain, in which goodness cannot prevail, and mankind is merely going through the motions. And then there are the references to those in the know when it comes to the occult and the arcane, those who have pierced the veil. The doomed fate of those who seek to know more than they should. That's here as well.
How is this different from Lovecraft? Well, I touched on that in the writing style. Mr. Klein has a smooth writing style, a modern (well at that time, which is like the late 70s/early 80s or so?) feel to his work. His ideas might bring to mind some of the pulp notions, but they are entirely his own. I'm not much for the dark, sure doom approach when it comes to horror, but for that type of story, he writes it well. Mr. Klein has a way of building atmosphere in a very subtle manner. Before I know it, I feel my stomach tighten with unease, just by a mere sentence. Things seemed normal and 'okay', and suddenly there is that suggestion of dread where I didn't see it before. And before I knew it, the point of no return had passed for the character in the story. Maybe he didn't intend for some aspects to be funny, but they were. I guess it's my weirdo sense of humor at work, because I laughed out loud at some parts, and then I almost shuddered at some other part.
What I thought about each story
"Children of the Kingdom"
This story was just kind of twisted. Some aspects were pretty sick, but kind of absurd, in that way that has you wanting to laugh until the idea that this is not played for laughs hits you. It's not so funny if you're actually in this story, and this utter weirdness is playing out around you and involves you in ways you really don't want to be involved. This story makes me think that Klein writes in a subversive way to bring race relations to the reader's mind and to make one consider how absurd racism (largely due to unfounded fears behind it) is. In this case, the main characters fear the blacks and what they seem to represent (seen as the arbiters and cause of social decay) in the neighborhood. What they should fear is lurking in the sewers, and they aren't black, and hardly even human. They are a primitive version of humanity that could care less about race, other than furthering their own once great civilization. This was an eerie and disturbing, like a stomach ache, story.
"Petey" seems to be a look at the Yuppie drive to 'have' and to 'flaunt' what one has. In this case, George and Phyllis have gotten a huge mansion way out in the boondocks for a song, and they throw a party to show it off. Actually they got the mansion for a 'steal', and they will find it's going to cost a lot more than they bargained for. Klein shows just how different his writing is from Lovecraft, even with a story that could have come out of the master of horror's imagination. In this case, this story is so subtle, it takes some careful reading to look for the threads of threat and horror. (My personal opinion is that Lovecraft is not a subtle writer) They are there, but the social commentary seems to be more of a focus in this story. However, careful reading assures the reader that they are not mistaken about the wrongness of it all. This is definitely a horror story. I felt the ending was too abrupt, and that disappointed me. But it was a good story overall.
"Black Man with a Horn"
Definitely a story that could have come out of the pulps with the fears of the Yellow invasion and the antiquated views towards black people (bestial, subhuman, you name it), also that fear of native/tribal cultures. This story felt the most like Lovecraft to me, and probably in the ways that make his stories hardest to read as far as racist elements. What I liked about this story is that the narrator is a contemporary of Lovecraft, who was seen as a protege of Lovecraft instead of a respected colleague. That smarts, and you find out more than once as you read the story. He views the world through an aging lens. One gets the impression that his views on race are expected for a man of his age, even if they made me uncomfortable. This one is a double-edged sword for me, as I liked the pulpy feel, although not the undesirable aspects (see above sentences) of pulp literature. You have an idea of what's going on here, but there's still an ambiguity to the threat. And when the story ends, that is a huge component of the unease that is left behind. It's as though you can only see what you have seen, and no more, without losing your grip on sanity. That's very Lovecraft right there.
This story was the most interesting, and the most disturbing one in the collection. Heavy shades of black magic here. It makes one afraid of what lurks in your imagination. Could I create something with this malevolent force behind it? On one level, I could wonder if it's Nadelman's very lack of positive belief and optimism that created the spark that brought this creature to life. If religion is seen as an opiate, could it not also serve as a protective force against something much darker, much more detrimental to mankind? Instead of belief hurting, maybe belief could protect. And its absence opens a doorway to a dark force that hates all good in the world. When this story concluded, I felt that fear like a weight on my back that it left behind.
Dark Gods is a good book to read around Halloween. It will have you reaching for lighter fare afterwards, though.
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