Elder Sign End Times Trilogy Book 1: Arkham by Jennifer Stanfield is a young adult fantasy/horror story. The book is 268 pages and was self-published with Smashwords in December, 2014. Three 19-year old survivors cope with life in a post-apocalyptic world. The fabled beast, dread Cthulhu, has risen and the world as we know has ended. A young adult novel set in a Lovecraftian universe is an unusual combination, but the author makes it work. The story was very readable, and I enjoyed it from start to finish.
I’m guessing the intended audience for this book is teenagers who have never read anything by weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft. I wanted to read this book because I am a fan of HPL. I am not sure what someone who has never read Lovecraft would think of it. Also, I am an adult who loves young-adult fiction series like Harry Potter and The Golden Compass. I can’t speak to what an actual young adult would think of this book.
The author excels in character dialogue. The three main characters, Saeko, Kelsea, and Dell, were all very opinionated and I liked seeing how they each responded to different situations. Saeko was my favorite. I like strong female characters, often a rarity in horror and weird fiction. I hated Kelsea at first but grew to like her. The characters started off with a one-dimensional feel. However, the two female characters progressed and grew over the course of the book. I enjoyed reading about their relationship. Dell was a bit of a bull-headed butt-head from start to finish. Sometime I was incredulous at the choices the characters made, but then I thought, well they are 19, so it makes sense!
I loved the descriptions of the various groups of survivors and some of the technology being used by certain groups. The details of how the world ended were interesting, but the retelling of it was a bit dry. I enjoyed the descriptions of the various creatures that populate the world. I liked the premise; this is the first story I have ever read about what happens after Cthulhu rises.
The Lovecraftian elements of this book are quite pastiche. I did not mind; I have a special place in my heart for Lovecraftian pastiche. However, the story could have benefited from Lovecraft’s techniques of subtly and not-quite-explaining everything. While the overall storyline was good and had some surprises, the Lovecraftian plot elements were obvious, and at times over-explained. Anyone who has read Lovecraft would know what was coming. I did enjoy revisiting some of the Lovecraft stories the author pulled from: The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Lurking Fear, Nyarlathotep, Call of Cthulhu, and The Unnameable. Some aspects are a flat-out retelling of the original stories. I found the author’s own ideas interesting enough to stand on their own without retelling certain Lovecraftian plot points, but I enjoyed the winks to HPL nonetheless.
The writing was uneven at times. The combat scenes felt rushed, some felt like more of a bland report of the events. Some of the scenes could have evoked feelings of horror, as the events were terrible, but they did not. Perhaps the author wanted to tone down the horror for a younger audience. I think there could be some improvement in this area.
The main characters frequently had their beliefs challenged and their prejudices exposed; we see the main characters analyze their falsely held ideas in light of events they have to face. Growing up, taking on responsibility, and adjusting to change are also themes approached in this tale. Post-apocalyptic settings are great for exploring the best and the worst of human nature.
I couldn’t tell which way the author’s viewpoints leaned; often the situations in the book had no obvious right or wrong choices. Overall, I would say a message of the book would be that assumptions and prejudice can blind us to the big picture.
The characters have to deal with life or death situations and wrestle with the moral complications. Not ever having had to face a life and death situation myself; it reminded me of a time when my kids and I read a choose-your-own-adventure book about surviving the Titanic. My son incredulously pointed out that any time you chose to help someone else, you died and the only way to survive was by being selfish. This goes against what we are taught about being kind and helping others at all costs. Most stories show the hero risking their life against unbeatable odds to save others and succeeding. But how realistic is that? In a world where everything comes crashing around you, sometimes you need to make tough choices. Is it OK to do something you don’t agree with if it will benefit your community? Is it OK to leave others to die if it means you survive?
I found this Lovecraftian YA fiction strangely appealing; this is a good effort for a first novel. While the writing is uneven in places, the overall story is solid, and the style is engaging. Sometimes, I get bored with a story and start skimming. I did not do that at all in this book. The ending wrapped up the main event but still left me very curious as to what happens next. I am looking forward to reading book two: The Dreamlands. I’m not sure if this would appeal to every Lovecraft fan. This book is light on cosmic dread and heavy on character relations. Overall I think it is well worth reading.