Kaiju Terror v. Intertextual Reality: James Chambers’ ‘The Engines of Sacrifice’ [review]
James Chambers’ The Engines of Sacrifice is a collection of four short novellas linked through time, place, and Lovecraft. The stories (Investigation 37, The Ugly Birds, The Hidden Room and the titular Engines) move through the decades gathering nightmare fuel, from Vietnam-era dark psychedelia through to the nuclear hysteria of the 1980s and into a not-too-distant moment in the future when the stars are almost right, and mankind is bowed and broken even before the imminent return of the Great Old Ones.
This is a good collection, with many fun kicks to make the reading experience enjoyable: historical references to the Love Generation New York-based occult scene are bang-on (Investigation 37), and the shout outs to Warren Publishing era weird comics illustrators (The Ugly Birds) help ground the fictions in pop cultural bedrock. With the latter, I kept seeing, in my mind’s eye, the evocative colours of Tatjana Woods during her run on DC’s Swamp Thing.
And, like the best stories of that series, Engines is overtly Lovecraftian in tone and subject matter; Chambers has here assembled a greatest hits package of Mythos references. All the big players make appearances: Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin in Investigation 37; Shub-Niggurath in The Ugly Birds; Nyarlathotep makes an effective and utterly chilling cameo in The Hidden Room, and Cthulhu itself festers and seethes inside of and between nearly every sentence in the final novella. The book is so Lovecraftian, in fact, that it could read as pastiche, were it not for the subtle meta-critical stance Chambers takes with the narrative, particularly towards the final moments.
It’s this aspect of Engines that I really enjoyed, the way Chambers directly addresses the erroneous “kaiju terror” interpretation of the Mythos that lesser writers seem to be fond of running with: the idea that Cthulhu et al. are, at base, giant scary monsters escaping their submarine, subterranean, or dimensional prisons to engage in a stomp-fest across the planet. Monsters that are, somehow, physically limited to their singular manifestations. In stories of this ilk, Cthulhu is comparable to Godzilla, and therefore reduced in potency, made manageable… and that way lies Plush Cthulhu, friends. Chambers is aware of this Delta Green-washing of the Mythos and doesn’t allow it to happen in Engines, thankfully…
I sensed an ancient horror dwelling deep within the ruined metropolis, its unstoppable corruption edging outward and remaking the city in a new image. R’lyeh was already rising, but it was rising here and in cities all around the world. Whether or not the dream-city emerged from the Pacific didn’t matter. When Cthulhu awoke, every city would become R’lyeh, and Cthulhu would rule them all. The Old One wouldn’t walk out of the sea to crush humanity … he would exist everywhere and nowhere, a nightmare from which there could never be any escape, one that would show no mercy to whatever remained of humanity.
Here, Cthulhu is Madness: a Platonic, universal ideal smeared greasily across all levels of reality, high and low, beneath the waves and down the street and between the stars, and therefore inescapable, inevitable.
A bleak, and therefore genuinely Lovecraftian world-view, and one that informs and feeds the dread hopelessness that characters in the first three tales experience… before taking an inexplicable Lumley-esque turn towards the stalwart hero-narrator in the final story! And it’s this note, coming as it does at the end of the book and sitting cheek-by-jowl with an innovative interpretation of Cthulhu, that sounds a little false for me.
Without giving anything away as far as the plot of Engines is concerned: in an otherwise harrowing climax, the narrator, in the face of actual personal interest from the manifesting Cthulhu (itself a problem, given the narratives previously mentioned conceits vis a vis the Big C’s trans-cosmic Platonic nature), somehow finds the stones to alter what is largely a text-based reality, and, perhaps not surprisingly, opts for a happily-ever-after.
An opting-out that works, in context (a little) and which, I suppose, is entirely up for interpretation: “or does he?” one could reasonably ask. As humans (and specifically as humans with that strain of the language-virus whose side-effects include writing) who of us has not been tempted to leave a light on at the end of the tunnel for our characters/victims? I get it. But as far as my interaction with the text goes, this sudden philosophical U-turn made my neck hurt and caused me to wonder if it didn’t invalidate everything that came before.
There were some other less-than-sweet notes in this book, most of which happened in The Hidden Room: the replacement of Standard Lovecraftian Invocation Boilerplate with common English words strung together (say them quick to break the code!) was fun the first couple of times, but quickly felt forced; and the dropping of one of the Million Names of Nyarlathotep into the regular boilerplate (when it happened) came off as clunky. Random Aklo or what-have-you sprinkled with English will always feel weird to me. But it’s a complaint I have with The Whisperer In Darkness, too, so take that for what it’s worth. References to Azathoth as ‘the Chaos King’, although I suppose technically correct, made It sound like a pro-wrestler or animé character to me. Again, that’s my pop-cultural bias kicking in and really, Lovecraft’s ‘daemon-sultan’ is no worse. Ignore my unfortunate spasm of geek-pride at your leisure.
It should be noted, too, that Chambers removes his characters from the usual Lovecraftian locales, basing most of the action in the fictional Long Island town of Knicksport. I don’t know that this was an effective move: aside from some interesting set pieces (a desolate factory, weird topography), I saw no point in using a fictional town that seemed no different from any number of actual towns. For this reason, I would class Engines with more traditional Lovecraftian fiction, and less with the New Weird school, which prefers settings that utilize complex, real-world environments. Arkham is fine, and Knicksport is okay, but I could have done with more happenings in New York proper.
All this aside, though, I enjoyed The Engines of Sacrifice quite a lot; any negatives here listed were minor indeed, and did nothing to lessen my enjoyment of the book. James Chambers has been extensively anthologized everywhere from Hardboiled Cthulhu to Bad-Ass Faeries and his writing style is polished with just the right amount of grit added (in language and mood) to make the reading fast-paced and pleasantly bumpy, like barreling down a bad road at three in the morning, slightly drunk, with a head full of philosophy. When his shocks come, they arrive at speed from out of the dark with an intention to spin you into the ditch, and that’s just how I like them.
(this review appeared originally in the Lovecraft eZine on August 14 2012)