Tim Pratt's Arkham Horror Novel 'The Ravening Deep' Is Rewarding Pulp Noir Thrill Ride

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The fictional worlds created by Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) have had an immeasurable influence on modern horror. An isolated, introverted, impoverished pulp writer, in death The Gentleman of Old Providence has achieved the success that constantly eluded him during life, and the cosmicism of his work has spread to become the ideological backbone to an entire subgenre of stories, novels, films, comics and games. Lovecraft’s conceptual output was a unique byproduct of the changing post-Victorian industrial-machine era he came of age in: his terrors were not the antiquated ghosts, vampires and werewolves of European folklore or the demonic shades of Judeo-Christian construction, but the stark conceit that humanity is an insignificant speck in a hostile universe, forever at the mercy of uncaring alien forces far beyond its comprehension.

One of the many media tie-ins utilizing Lovecraftian tropes to entertaining effect are the Arkham Horror role-playing and card games currently published by Fantasy Flight Games, an extended part of which is Aconyte Books’ line of occult adventure novels set in the titular fictional ocean-side Massachusetts town during the 1920’s. Twelve books have been released in the series thus far, and now author Tim Pratt joins the canon with his high-octane thrill ride, The Ravening Deep.

When down-on-his luck lifelong fisherman Abel Davenport washes up on a mysterious offshore temple following a thunderstorm that capsized his trawler, he falls prey to a powerful amulet belonging to the dormant Elder God, Asterias. A monstrous starfish-like demiurge with regenerative abilities, Asterias was driven into an eons-long hibernation by opposing cosmic deities and charges Abel with the task of its resurrection. Empowered by mystic visions and the curious ability to create physical duplicates of himself called ‘comets’, Abel becomes the prophet for an entire blasphemous sect of doppelgängers. When they learn a fragment of Asterias’s physical form has been unwittingly preserved in the headquarters of a clandestine Arkham social club, the Silver Twilight Lodge, one of Abel’s doubles usurps him, steals the amulet and embarks on a violent crusade to regain the relic at all costs.

Helping Abel stop the cult he inadvertently started are Diana Stanley, a low-level Lodge member who has been secretly opposing the magickal Machiavellian machinations of its leader, the enigmatic esoteric mastermind Carl Sanford, and mischievous thief-for-hire Ruby Standish, the only person who’s burgled Sandford’s sanctum sanctorum and lived to tell. Together the trio assemble the puzzle of the sea-spawned zealots, but can their collective wits avert the eldritch apocalypse in time, and can they do it without the aid of Carl Sanford?

The Ravening Deep is a masterful read. Tight, fast-paced prose, intrigue and pulse-pounding action cause pages to fly by; aside from the well-tended plot, each of the novel’s core characters are strong, distinctively drawn figures: Abel, the haunted, despondent seaman psychically connected to his duplicates; Diana, the plucky shopkeeper whose past involvement with the Lodge and its infernal rites has turned her against everything it stands for; headstrong Ruby, self-reliant and assured of her own abilities; the aloof-yet-dangerous Carl Sanford, a man so versed in unearthly lore he’s rarely found without a loophole to exploit. As a team they make for odd but likable bedfellow, and though Diana, Ruby and Sanford have appeared in other Arkham Horror novels, enough backstory is provided that one need not have read those—or played any of the related games—to enjoy the literary pleasure Pratt provides. The peril the motley heroes face is no pride of paper tigers, either; the Asterias cult are the caustic stuff of nightmares, slimy, aquatic body-snatchers who exhibit flawless memories and become increasingly inhuman the more replicates they beget.

If there’s a weakness to The Ravening Deep, it's that occasional chance coincidence seems to pop up at all-too-convenient moments; in role-playing, there are storytelling intersections where dice must be rolled to determine a character’s fate, and at certain times it feels luck, rather than individual guile, gets them through a scrape. This may be intentional, built-in to simulate a genuine gaming experience, but any negative effect is minimal; the flow of the book is instead one of exciting pulp noir aesthetics sorely needed in the current crop of uninspired horror fiction.

In the end, The Ravening Deep is a taut thriller filled with a richly detailed period setting, both historically and with liberally scattered Easter Eggs sure to make any Lovecraftian devotee smile in recognition, and it's for all of these reasons that I am compelled to bestow upon it a well-deserved 4.5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale. Mr. Pratt, you’ve done The Gentleman of Old Providence proud. I, for one, cannot wait for a return outing to Arkham Horror.

4.5 / 5.0