Ghouls of the Miskatonic by Graham McNeill – Book Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes the time to look into another Black Library author’s attempts to expand beyond the worlds of Warhammer.
“A reasonable opening for new fans, with plenty of shout outs and references to keep old hands happy.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
No matter what you think of his works, McNeill is one of those authors who will always stick to his guns. He’ll certainly experiment, reinvent and reconsider certain ideas, but for the most part the man will stick to certain character archetypes over others, and the same factions. As such, even counting his work in Starcraft, it’s more than a little surprising to see his name attached to a Call of Cthulhu trilogy.
The story here focuses upon an increasingly cryptic string of murders throughout Arkham, Massachusetts. Even among the increasingly macabre and horrifying turns of the late 1920s, the discovery of a badly mauled student on grounds of Miskatonic University leaves the authorities horrified and baffled. Only one thing is clear – Whatever inflicted the wounds on her body was not human.
Lacking the more overt explosions, massed armies and gods found in the Warhammer universes, this is about as far from M41 and the Old World as you can get. The horror is hidden behind everyday life and old values, and the closest you really come to Chaos is the presence of secret societies associating themselves with alien beings of unimaginable power. Naturally, this is the aspect McNeill focuses on the most, but what needs to be commented upon is how well he paces himself. Rather than turning Arkham into a freak-show war zone which would make Yharnam look tame by comparison, the actual horror is subdued at first. It’s kept to brief flashes, moments of violence and half-hidden suggestions of ancient forces which run throughout much of the book.
While the opening passages grip the reader’s attention with an extremely vivid and truly horrifying vision of Cthulhu’s impending resurgence, many of the following chapters largely stick to everyday life. It builds up enough of an image that life is relatively normal here still and that, even with the high strung roaring twenties going on, normality is still largely dominant. It’s only just starting to wane at long last, and the real horrors are starting to truly creep in, with mentions thrown about here and there of bizarre scientific discoveries and unnatural events in the night. While it certainly drags out chapters, the way in which it builds up the world and its atmosphere before it’s gradually stripped away, nailing the feeling of impending dread Lovecraft so valued.
The characters themselves fit together in a manner akin to an RPG group, with each fitting into a specific class. You have the Pinkerton agent, the journalists, the professor, the students and the criminal among others, which can certainly be hit an miss. On the one hand it means that, if you have any basic preconceptions about their personality and role you’re going to largely be right, leading to some unfortunately predictable moments. On the other however, this helps to create the trappings of a more traditional horror story while still leaving it open enough to emphasise the surprise of something truly otherworldly. When you hear about a group of bootleggers working in an abandoned facility, spewing off more than a few cliches, you know they’re dead meat. However, it’s just traditional enough to excuse some of the more tired stereotypes, and well worth enduring once they bump into the abominations which are the titular ghouls.
This is definitely a book aiming to be a very accessible version of Lovecraft’s works, and on that front it does succeed. While it lacks the purple prose of the original writer himself, few have been able to truly mimic his style and prior attempts have been mixed indeed, as Hive proved. Instead Ghouls of the Miskatonic makes for a much more general read on the whole, sticking largely to the standard prose and style you would expect and only breaking out the overt descriptions in brief moments. While this can certainly be seen as a strength by some, it’s unfortunately one of the book’s greatest flaws. Yes, its more modern take on a prose style and character types is certainly easier to read and can still be fun, but those drawn in with promises of deep, dark descriptions will be sadly disappointed. McNeill attempts to make up for this with a variety of shout-outs to bigger stories, but this honestly reads more like desperate pandering than truly working the story into the universe. Yes, it offers shout outs to new readers hinting at the bigger stories, but it can just leave you wanting to read those bigger tales.
As much of the book is a massive build-up to impending doom there naturally needed to be some definite payoff, though this came with an unfortunate side effect. At a certain point, the novel stops being a slow burning murder mystery with occult elements and rapidly starts turning into a full blown war. Okay, no one starts summoning legions of Star Spawn and we don’t see someone pulling a full Old Man Henderson, but the action and violence definitely goes up notch after notch. This might have even worked were it not for the fact the story abruptly shifts gears and seems to become another tale entirely. It’s not like McNeill hasn’t pulled off stories of this like before with smoother transitions, the Ambassador duology alone proves that, and the failure here is just perplexing.
When all is said and done, this is one which can be marked down as just okay. Nothing special to be sure and lacking in a few areas, but it retains a few interesting ideas which will keep you going to the last page. A lot of it is definitely step-up and with so much groundwork laid down for later books, it should probably be best regarded as the first part of a greater tale. Give it a look if you’re after a more modern take on Lovecraft literature with a nice, classic feel, but don’t expect another At the Mountains of Madness.