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My dear unknown friend,
I have been a fan of Peter Levenda’s works for a number of years. Starting with Unholy Alliance: A History of Nazi Involvement With the Occult I’ve continually been excited when he announces another book is nearing publication. Unlike a number of contemporaries Levenda cross-references his sources, provides a detailed biography and backs everything with feet on the ground, hands-on research. In 2013 when he released The Dark Lord: H. P. Lovecraft, Kenneth Grant, and the Typhonian Tradition in Magic I was particularly excited. In case you have yet to stumble across Kenneth Grant’s particular brand of fancy he took Aleister Crowley’s system of magick, combined it with Lovecraft’s Mythos, Tantra, diaspora religions and sprinkled all the above with a heavy helping of Qabala, only Qabala as if practiced by Surrealists. Until the 2013 publication of Levenda’s The Dark Lord one of the few ways to attempt a handle on this ball of confusion was to read Grant’s own Typhonian Trilogies, a nine volume set that until recently was out of print and commanded prices upwards of $500 per volume. Even then it was a notoriously difficult endeavor. That Levenda was able to introduce, trace the history of, and bring to the subject a level of coherence that would allow any interested party to understand Grant’s creation was a stunning achievement. So when it was announced that his first work of fiction was forthcoming you can be sure I took notice and when it was released that the work in question was to be an occult thriller, a continuation of Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” I proceeded to do the happy dance all over my Crown Heights apartment.
The Lovecraft Code starts in the year 2003 in Northern Iraq. Saddam’s forces are looking for a manuscript called the Kitab al-Azif, an infamous tome that has been safely ensconced at the Baghdad Museum yet with the approaching invasion plans are set in place to smuggle it to the Yezidi, the only people who can be trusted with the power the book is said to contain. Sadly the book was not moved in time.
In 2014 we are introduced to Gregory Angell, professor of religious studies, grandson of George Angell. Gregory Angell speaks several Middle Eastern languages and this skill has led to his previous recruitment by American intelligence agencies. Gregory Angell is called upon for one more trip to the Middle East, summoned by the one thing that could ensure his return to an area of the world that stripped him of his faith and left him with nightmares so terrifying he sleeps with an illegal firearm beneath his pillow.
Part of this reason is tied to Lovecraft himself, whom we first encounter in 1915 when he is introduced to Gregory’s grandfather, George Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic languages. (Hint: Take another quick read of “The Call of Cthulhu” to reinforce George Angell’s importance. Or consult a fan wiki.) During the course of this meeting Lovecraft’s actions set in motion events that will ripple throughout history. Lovecraft, searching for clues, takes advantage of a trip to Florida to meet a German doctor named Carl Tanzler, resident of Key West, very interested in discussing Lovecraft’s story, “Herbert West – Reanimator”.
This seamless interweaving of fact and fiction is one of the many joys of The Lovecraft Code. In my last review of Mark Fisher’s The Weird and The Eerie I discussed the interdisciplinary collective CCRU from the University of Warwick’s philosophy department and their concept of the hyperstition. “Superstitions are merely false beliefs, but hyperstitions – by their very existence as ideas – function causally to bring about their own reality.” There was a reason CCRU used Lovecraft and his works as a launching point for their own endeavors and Levenda is very comfortable within this terrain. His background allows him to write authoritatively about a myriad of esoteric subjects without appearing forced or contrived. I am reminded of Stephen King’s maxim from On Writing, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of Collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.” Levenda never loses sight of this yet is still able to deliver captivating information alongside the story’s lively action. The Lovecraft Code is filled to the brim with activity on a truly global scale. If you run a Delta Green campaign or any other modern tradecraft oriented CoC RPG you will find a treasure trove of inspiration within this volume’s 449 pages. When I said this book was an occult thriller I was not slighting either of those terms in favor of the other. In screenwriting there is a device referred to as “meanwhile back at the ranch…”. Levenda employs this device with a devilishly skilled hand. I do not wish to confess the number of nights that I was up into the early hours of the morning, led on by the will o’ wisp of Levenda’s cliffhanger plotting.
At the same time Levenda never loses sight of the very root of Lovecraft’s true power and the foundation of The Lovecraft Code. I count “The Call of Cthulhu” as my favorite Lovecraft story and Levenda holds fast to the central conceit of this canonical story while using it as a springboard to launch his own creation. Seeing how he unravels the elements of the original story and then weaves them into a new tapestry to suit his own creation is a pleasure unto itself. Another thrill was watching the payoff as all of the elements built to a climax. Levenda handles this balancing act with aplomb, the type of skilled display that makes the casual observer say, “Oh, that’s easy. Watch me work.”
I had high hopes for The Lovecraft Code and those hopes were paid in full. It is a fun, interesting and enthralling read that pays homage to Lovecraft’s original vision while encompassing Levenda’s fascinating oeuvre. I fervently hope that not only Levenda continues with further works in this universe but other writers that chose to mine similar territory study his approach and realize the payoff that a wide breadth of research and experience brings to even the most fantastic of subject matters. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not so fantastic after all.
Soundtrack for this review:
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