Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror, ed. Lynne Jamneck

Front cover of Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror, ed. Lynne JamneckJamneck applies a broad rather than narrow criteria to both female voice and Lovecraftian horror, resulting in a diverse range of stories.

This anthology contains twenty short stories and novelettes that portray a female-perspective on an incomprehensible universe.

  • “Shadows of the Evening” by Joyce Carol Oates. Escaping the tedium of life as her ageing aunt’s companion for a short while, Magdalena Schön follows a haunting song to a collapsing church. Oates skilfully crafts a protagonist who is so used to hard work that she defines her worth by her effort, then exposes her to another entire level of commitment to a purpose; thus, while there are aspects that defy our accepted reality, there is equal horror in the challenging of the central pillar of Magdalena’s self-worth.

  • “The Genesis Mausoleum” by Colleen Douglas. Stricken by fever while following rumour of an ancient Incan site, Tefere remains in camp while his friend Arpad heads on; when Arpad returns with news of partial success, he seems subtly different but how much is just the remains of Tefere’s fever? The core of this story is the classic Lovecraftian arc of finding strange things in a hidden ruin, down to much of the action being told to the narrator rather than directly experienced; however, Douglas infuses both the characters and her eldritch threat with enough life that, while the reader might have a good idea what is about to happen, they will still wish the finer details of how it affects Tefere.

  • “The Woman in the Hill” by Tamsyn Muir. After the disappearance of a local woman under mysterious and fearing her own disappearance, Caroline strives to warn her friend about her dire supposition. Written in epistolary style, the story provides the reader with evidence of what has led to Caroline’s belief something is drawing women away, but only provides it after the event and does not show what happens in the end; thus, the narrative remains open to interpretation as either a narrator who has seen something obscure and horrific or one who has succumbed to hallucinations—or even that most Lovecraftian of states, a protagonist who has seen something Other and had their hold on reality disrupted.

  • “The Face of Jarry” by Cat Hellisen. When Mia first overhears mention of Jarry, she assumes it’s just two actors rehearsing for a play; however, as it starts to pop up again and again, her desire to find the truth starts to contest with her sense. Rather than the slow build and sudden revelation of cosmic dread, Mia experiences a growing vividness and almost joy in her pursuit; this gives the story a hallucinatory feel that echoes Chambers or Barker.

  • “Our Lady of Arsia Mons” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. When one worker viciously attacks another during an archeological dig on Mars, the corporation funding it mounts an investigation; however, the evidence proves not merely conflicting but potentially impossible. Blending a grimy corporate future with names from Lovecraft’s own works, Kiernan starts with the glimpse of the uncaring and inhuman universe that classic Lovecraftian tales build toward, then exposes the narrator (and thus reader) to the cosmic dread of having the answer but not being able to hold it.

  • “The Body Electric” by Lucy Brady. When Eugenia Clarke saw a god in her AI experiment, most thought she had succumbed to the illusion of soul she sought to prove. Brady’s story is written in the form of a popular science article, blending references to theological theories and computer science with biographical snippets of Clarke’s last experiment; skilfully shaped, this greater distancing from events and the feelings they inspire creates a space for the reader to speculate that makes the truth seem more uncertain rather than less.

  • “The Child and the Night Gaunts” by Marly Youmans. Each night, the child’s dreams are invaded by faceless night gaunts seeking to drag him forever from his life. Presented as a series of scenes that blend the symbols of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other classic texts with symbols of modern scientific civilisation, Yousmans creates the feeling of a myth spoken by a cosmicist cult.

  • “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” by Sonya Taaffe. His own Deep One heritage barely showing, Anson reluctantly agrees to babysit another mostly human hybrid. Taaffe inverts The Shadow of Innsmouth, portraying the descendants of Deep Ones who are aware of their heritage but have not inherited enough that they are likely to ever fully change. Like the one member of a family who isn’t sporty, musical, academic, or whatever defines the family, Taaffe’s characters display a complex blend of longing for and turning against their heritage, an emotional muddle that is only amplified by each other’s presence; however, unlike the odd child out, their Deep One heritage does still call to them to go down into the sea, preventing them from choosing simply to leave the situation behind.

  • “Every Hole in the Earth We Will Claim As Our Own” by Gemma Files. Troubled by the implications of a child’s miraculous recovery, a nurse spills her story to an anonymous telephone helpline. Files blends the modern scientific setting of a Western hospital with a Lovecraftian interpretation of Malaysian folklore, conjuring a powerful image of how thin the veneer of modernity and sanity is over the unconscious awareness of an inhuman universe. While delivered in the ‘reporting of past experiences’ style often used by Lovecraft, Files’ protagonist displays a slightly different and worryingly plausible reaction to the revelation, giving the tale an engaging balance of familiarity and freshness.

  • “But Only Because I Love You” by Molly Tanzer. Since witnessing an incomprehensible phenomena, Krishna has been mute and plagued by a sense of people’s impending death; however, he also speaks English so when two explorers arrive in his village seeking a guide onto the Plateau of Leng, he volunteers. Tanzer smoothly blends authentic images of the Himalayas, echoes of Lovecraft’s Asia, and her own take on the famous location; combined with avaricious explorers and a narrator who claims his perceptions are twisted, this creates both a classic Lovecraftian tale of doomed exploration from a perspective other than a white male and a sense that this new perspective is a much a product of humanity being unable to parse reality as that of the classic Lovecraftian protagonist.

  • “Cthulhu’s Mother” by Kelda Crich. The stars are right but Cthulhu still sleeps, leaving Cthulhu’s mother to answer when the head of the cult calls. As the precis suggests, this story is a humorous take on the most famous moment of the Mythos; indeed, Crich presents it in the form of a script for a classic comedy skit or sitcom scene. While Crich’s jokes are not simply an echoing of popular perceptions of Cthulhu and the format and characters do parody light entertainment, meaning the story is not mere shallow fluff, it is still humour rather than cosmic dread; thus readers who come to Lovecraftian works for the cosmicism might find this story flat.

  • “All Gods Great and Small” by Karen Heuler. To Bream the jungles of Ecuador are something to be burnt and scoured into a civilised shape; however, no matter how extreme his measures, the number of ants creeping into his home never seems to decrease. Heuler’s protagonist is more almost a caricature of the English colonialist, attempting to make a section of Ecuador tropical wetlands into a copy of a British garden (complete with perfect lawns) and blaming any failure on the laziness of natives; a lack of likability that Heuler does not seek to mitigate with flashbacks to a flawed childhood or other traumatic past, or by giving him positive traits to balance the arrogance. Thus, when the inhuman horror rises against him, any desire the reader has that he prevail comes not from a personal desire Bream triumph but from a sense that the otherness is something viscerally wrong.

  • “Dearest Daddy” by Lois H. Gresh. When Clarisse’s father flees the city to avoid conscription, he leaves her in a brothel so she won’t slow him down; when the brothel in turn dispatches her to serve those living in the tunnels beneath the city, she starts to feel the draw of something deeper still offering a strange kind of comfort. Featuring an abusive parent and forced addiction, this story—while not explicit—paints an image of a young girl trapped into prostitution horrific enough that Clarisse seeking rather than fleeing the oddness in the tunnels seems, if not the sensible course, a reasonable one in her circumstances.

  • “Eye of the Beholder” by Nancy Kilpatrick. Worn down by her friends and family constantly reminding her she is in her thirties and not yet married, Liz finally agrees to visit a cosmetic dermatologist; at first, Dr Tod’s own deviation from conventional handsomeness makes her question his skills but something about his treatments brings a sense of calm. While her protagonist is a woman succumbing to social pressure rather than an almost arrogant white man, Kilpatrick’s story follows the archetypal Lovecraftian arc of small hints of oddity that can be explained rationally followed by a sudden escalation at the end which reveals a terrifying truth behind the veneer of accepted reality. While Kilpatrick clearly intends the reader to note the parallel between human understanding being a comforting lie and plastic surgery, she does not force it to the front, avoiding the story becoming pure message fiction.

  • “Down at the Bottom of Everything” by E.R. Knightsbridge. After almost dying at sea, an environmental scientist forces themselves to face water over and over to prove they can defeat it. Knightsbridge uses fluid, almost lyrical, language to relay out-of-order fragments of events; this makes the reader work to untangle the truth and echoes the sudden shifts of dream logic, both strengthening the image of struggling to avoid drowning and undermining the reader’s ability to tell where real events might end and panicked, oxygen-deprived hallucinations begin.

  • “Spore” by Amanda Downum. When Beth’s girlfriend cut off all contact, Beth assumed that was it; however, when she receives an email from her about people who claim to have communal hallucinations from a mushroom, sociologist and broken-hearted lover combine to draw her in. Beth is a skilfully crafted protagonist, her scientific training making her skeptical in the face of poorly evidenced conspiracy and her emotional trauma making it reasonable that she does not simply walk away. This is combined with a slow reveal that, even though the reader knows the otherness is going to be true, leaves the curious how much of what those infected claim is misperception on their part.

  • “Pippa’s Crayons” by Christine Morgan. Like most young children, Pippa likes to draw; however, the pictures she draws contain things she cannot have seen. Morgan’s story is written solely in dialogue between Pippa and an unidentified adult; this absence of any description other than that given by a character denies the reader an objective sight of the truth, evoking the incomprehensibility at the heart of cosmicism. Those familiar with the classics of Lovecraftian fiction are likely to realise swiftly that Morgan’s story is a child’s perspective on the events of one of them; depending on reader preference for call-backs, this will enhance or diffuse the tension.

  • “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette. Cast out from her crew for alleged gross misconduct, a doctor joins a deep-space expedition to salvage a hospital ship. Bear and Monette fuse Lovecraft, Carroll, and space opera, skillfully creating a plot and universe where dramatic action and absurdity are a thin veneer over horrific gulfs of otherness, amplifying the dread that evokes. Thus while, as the title indicates, the story is filled with name-checks and insider references, it is very definitely a continuation of Lovecraft’s vision rather than pastiche.

  • “From the Cold Dark Sea” by Storm Constantine. Commissioned to restore an ancient book, Cara starts to see strange similarities between the contents and the behaviour of the insular inhabitants of the nearby village. Constantine blends several of Lovecraft’s favoured tropes with complex portrayals of female characters, creating a tale of a coastal town with secrets that is both fresh and (dis)comfortingly familiar.

  • “Mnemeros” by R.A. Kaelin. A young Texan with enough curiosity to follow gossip of strange stones on a riverbank outside town but enough sense not to touch them reluctantly agrees to guide a visiting professor to their location. Kaelin’s overall arc is classic Lovecraft from the slow seeping of hints that can easily be explained in mundane terms to the sanity-defying jolt of the final, unreliable, revelation. However, the details of the world and character are new and engaging rather than simply rehashing of Lovecraft’s work, creating a story that is likely to create the sense of an uncertain and hostile universe.

As Jamneck’s own introduction opens with, the question of what is or is not Lovecraftian is a tricky one. Rather than adopt a narrow answer and select only stories that utterly conform, Jamneck takes a broader approach of selecting stories that combine a female perspective with Lovecraft’s cosmicism or the wider popular phenomena of Lovecraft; thus, stories featuring women encountering the same incomprehensible situations as Lovecraft’s protagonists that are written as straight cosmic horror sit beside comedic pieces satirising the absence of female voices in Lovecraft’s own work. While none of the works is weak measured purely for what it seeks to be, depending on reader preference, this range will produce either a pleasing variety or an annoying sense of deviation from “true” Lovecraftian horror.

After the stories, Jamneck includes a statement from each of the authors about their story. As with the stories themselves, some of these display a more overt connection to Lovecraft’s own work and themes than others. While short, these may be of interest to readers who enjoy hearing an author’s intent with a work.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a mix of classically Lovecraftian tales and wider riffs on cosmicism.

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