Monday, 31 October 2022

Secrets in Scarlet: An Arkham Horror Anthology - Book Review


'A secret organisation ruthlessly seeks power over supernatural terrors in this globe-trotting anthology of arcane mystery and adventure, from the bestselling world of Arkham Horror

'Beyond our world lies another, one full of paranormal forces and eldritch horrors, and once that membrane has been pierced, life can never be the same again. In every corner of the globe, persons unknown are seizing objects of extreme supernatural power. They declare themselves defenders of humanity, fighting off the darkness which presses against the veil shrouding our reality from the unknowable. But do their claims of altruism ring true? And should they be permitted to wield such power? From the world of Arkham Horror comes an exciting new anthology that delves into new mysteries.'

The Akham Horror series is full of mystery, whether it's unknowable things from being our reality, secretive cults hidden beneath the surface, or artefacts of civilisations long forgotten, the series loves to blend mystery with the frightening. The latest book from Aconyte moves away from the rain-soaked streets of Arkham and heads out into the wider world as we learn about organisations, and one in particular shrouded in both secrecy, and scarlet.

The first story in the collection is 'The Man in The Bubble' by David Annandale, who introduces us to one of the key organisations in the book, The Foundation, a group of shady government agents led by the no-nonsense Commissioner Qiana Taylor investigate an explosion in the hear of New York City. Giving out the cover story that the explosion was caused by a gas mains, they actually go deep beneath the city's surface, where they find an ancient pyramid. They discover that a potentially deadly artefact, the Coronal Prism has been taken and delivered to one of the richest businessmen in the city. Knowing that the artefact could spread death and destruction if left unchecked, Taylor sets out to acquire it.

This is one of the shorter stories in the book, but is a nice introduction to this world. It only gives us one of the main groups, and The Foundation seems to be the one most likely to be doing good in the world, and working for the betterment of humanity. As such, it feels right to start with them. They're set up as guards against the darkness, as people who make it their mission to keep the world safe. Beginning here, with the 'heroes' makes it easier to start to understand that there are various groups operating for their own ends, looking to gain power through these artefacts and rituals. I also really enjoyed that Taylor is a strong, powerful Black woman in a time where both of those factors would exclude her from being in a position like the one she's in. She has authority, knowledge, and power that most people would kill for, and she uses it to help people who would look down on her for the colour of her skin and her gender. I wish we could have had more with her, because she felt like a fascinating character who could easily carry her own novel.

'City of Waking Dreams' by Davide Mana tells the story of inspector Li Flint of the International Criminal Police Commission, who has travelled to Shanghai to search for a mysterious woman. Over the course of his investigation he manages to track down the woman, identified by her red parasol, but soon begins to have strange experiences whenever she's around. With ghostly figures coming after him, criminals out for his blood, and his ally taken prisoner, Flint has to put on a daring rescue mission with multiple lives on the line.

This story definitely feels like a detective noir type tale, with an out of town detective trying to make headway into a city that he doesn't know, unsure of who to trust. One of the things that works well for this story is that Flint doesn't know about the otherworldly monsters and artefacts when the story starts, doesn't know that the person he's tracking down is more than she appears, and as such it takes a while for anything spooky and weird to even happen. You kind of forget that it's an Arkham story, and so when the horror kicks in it takes you by surprise.

'Brother Bound' by Jason Fischer introduces us to Desi, and his older brother, Javier, who end up getting involved in something that will forever change Desi's life. Living with their uncle on a sugar cane plantation, Desi watches as his uncle makes money whilst his workers break their backs for  pittance, and his older brother goes out and drinks and gambles his life away. One day, when Javier's friend gets arrested by the local police, but is released by a mysterious group of Americans, Javier tells his brother that they will need to go on the run. When his friend turns up dead Desi realises that Javier, and the entire family, are in danger.

This story is one of the more interesting early entries, as it starts to throw a wrench into the works. Up to now the book has seemed to make a pretty clear distinction as to what the two factions we've been introduced to are like. The Foundation are trying to do good things, whilst the people in red, the Red Coterie, are the villains. But this story flips that around as the Red Coterie come across as almost heroic in the final acts of the story. The best villains are those that see themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and that seems to be true here too. This story also gives us another staple of Lovecraftian horror, as we get ancient, underground civilisations, and a magical knife. The Mirroring Blade itself if a hell of a thing, a weapon that seems to kill whoever it strikes not only in this world, but every possible reality. This was a great story that took some unexpected and dark turns that I really loved.

Carrie Harris' 'Honor Among Thieves' tells the story about the Varela sisters, Rosa and Milagros, professional thieves who've been hired to steal a crimson hat and coat that will be displayed at an upcoming party. Planning out the heist, complete with tear away clothing and costumes that will allow them to sneak the items out, the two sisters believe that they'll make some easy cash. However, when the plan goes wrong and one of the sisters if forced to put the coat on, she discovers that it allows the wearer to move through dimensions.

I love a good heist story. Something about watching professional criminals plan out a perfect crime, and then watching as something invariably goes a little wrong and they need to think on their feet in order to get out of it just does it for me. And the Varela sisters are a really interesting pair of characters to follow. This story also once again shows the Red Coterie in a more benign light, and even seems to indicate that there are good people amongst its ranks. I really like that each new story here seems to change the way you think about this group, and that it's not an easy good vs bad scenario.

'A Forty Grain Weight of Nephrite' by Stephen Philip Jones brings the readers back to the US, where Kymani Jones, an individual researching special artefacts called 'keys', which contain mystical properties. After issuing a warning to the owner of one of these artefacts that it may soon be stolen, they're called in to consult when it is. After proving how the object was stolen from within a secure vault, Kymani finds them self caught up in a plot to secure the object, with the Coterie on one side, and the Foundation on the other.

This is a really neat story that starts as an interesting locked room style mystery, and soon turns into a larger plot that involves hidden societies, fights to the death, and secrets beneath the city. The story has a sense of history to it, as we get insight into where some of these objects come from and the effect they have as they pass down through the years, it has danger and action, with some great fight scenes, and it has a lead with they/them pronouns, something that I wasn't expecting for a story set in this era; but thoroughly loved.

Lisa Smedman's 'Strange Thing's Done' is one of the most interesting and creepy stories in this set, and one that I'd love to see made into a short film or an episode of television. The story centres on Rex Murphy, a journalist from Arkham who's been sent on a trip up to Alaska on a story. Journeying on the SS Martha, an old steamship, Rex finds himself in the company of several interesting characters, and decides to interview several of them in order to pass the time. However, Rex soon begins to notice some odd events, as passengers he's sure were on the ship suddenly vanish, with no one having any memory of them. As even Rex's memories begin to change a man with a red cravat tells him that reality is being changed by something on the ship, something that he's hunting, and that Rex needs to help him.

The changes to reality, the alteration of events, and the way the story changes around Rex are one of the more interesting parts of this story; and it's amazing every time it happens and we get to see the new, altered reality settling into place. It also feels like the closest this collection gets to a monster story, as this creature stalks people through this small, confined space in the middle of a dangerous location. People can't just run away, they're stuck on a ship in the frozen wilderness, tapped with a creature they don't even know is hunting them, because they can't remember the other victims. It's terrifying, and I loved it.

'In Art, Truth' by James Fadeley tells the story of Ece Sahin, an academic and member of the Coterie, who wears a red hijab. The curator of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Ece is researching into artwork from the post-Byzantine era in public, whilst secretly searching for information that could lead to the locations of more artefacts. When she discovers that someone is stalking her work, checking out the same books she does using secret names, she finds herself uncovering ancient secrets, coming face to face with another dangerous society, the Readers of the Elder Word, and sees her having to fight for her life.

This story is filled with history and culture, and Fadeley seems to put a lot of passion into bringing the world of art history to life as we learn about ancient civilisations, changes in regimes, fights for equality, and academic research. The story is packed with small details that make it all the more interesting. We don't skip over things as Ece does her research, but are with her each step of the way, making the discoveries at the same time that she does. It's also interesting to see a member of the Coterie on the back-foot, as she is for much of this story. So far the members of this group have been portrayed as confident, powerful, and some even cruel, but she feels the complete opposite for much of this story. It makes a surprising change that shows that there are all kinds of people on all sides of this conflict

'Crossing Stars' by MJ Newman is a story split across centuries, telling two narratives that slowly feed into each other. In one, we find ourselves in the ancient world, watching as a group investigate ruins said to hold relics of 'those who came before'. Our chief protagonist for these segments are Haresha Izem, a woman married to the group's leader, Razin. Along with the two of them are Razin's adviser, Haresha's warrior friend, her pet lion, and several guards. Despite being well trained and well prepared, nothing could prepare them for what they find waiting for them in the ruins. The other story brings us to the present day (for the stories in this book at least), where we discover that an academic, Luciana Diallo, is being told these stories by her patron, Amaranth. As the stories unfold it becomes clear that there's more to this than just someone regaling another with a simple story; and that something more sinister lies at the heart of it.

This story works really well thanks to the two different narratives, and the way that they weave in and out of each other. I think that it becomes clear what's happening pretty early on, with the audience figuring it out before Luciana does, but because the why and how is still a mystery it still works well, with the reader wanting more information as soon as possible to try and figure out the mystery. The segments set in the past are wonderfully told too, and it's great to see an Arkham story set so far in the past, with different types of people involved than we normally get. Instead of having detectives or academics facing eldritch horrors with guns, you've got warriors with swords and bows; it's fantastic. I'd love to see more stories in this universe embrace these kinds of settings.

The final story in the book, 'The Red And The Black' by Josh Reynolds, introduces readers to Trish Scarborough, an agent of the Cipher Bureau (also known as the Black Chamber), a secretive branch of the US government. Having been assigned to a case that led to her discovering about the existence of the 'keys', her journey has led her to Venice, where she finds herself being pursued by a figure in a red carnival mask. As Trish desperately tries to get her hands on a book that contains secret histories of the Red Coterie, she finds herself in the sights of deadly assassins.

After a few stories that have shown the Red Coterie in a more flattering light, this final story reminds readers that this group has a lot of blood on their hands, and that they're not afraid to do terrible things in order to achieve their goals. The way they stalk Trish, the way she's constantly looking over her shoulder and searching for people wearing red really reinforces how sinister they are; and it makes them into some great antagonists. The setting works wonderfully for this too, and the narrow, twisting streets of Venice makes for the perfect playground for a sinister game of cat and mouse.

Secrets in Scarlet is a wonderfully fun and interesting anthology collection. The stories are incredibly varied in style and setting, with a wide range of interesting protagonists to get your teeth stuck into. The book doesn't make clear distinctions between good and evil, and allows readers to see the grey that makes up this world instead, letting you make up your own mind. Fans of the franchise will find a lot here to entertain them, and the only real thing that you can say about the book that's bad is that it doesn't seem to last nearly long enough; and that you'll come away wanting more.

Make sure to keep an eye on out this week, as I sit down and chat with several of the authors in this collection!

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