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By Barbara Cottrell

IR Rating:
DARKNESS BELOW by Barbara Cottrell is a compelling and unnerving exploration of Lovecraftian horror set in the grounds of Miskatonic University.
IR Approved
At Miskatonic University, students and academic study the occult. Ellen Logan discovers a mysterious book and teams up with Professor Carter to tame its power.

H. P. Lovecraft’s influence has been out of all proportion to the attention he received in the 20 or so years before his death in 1937. His weird fiction seldom left the pages of the pulp magazines of the period, but the universe he created – since referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos – was as rich and as varied as any created by his emulators. Following his death, author after author sought to expand on it, and Barbara Cottrell’s DARKNESS BELOW belongs to this tradition, even if the author approaches the mythos in a sidelong fashion. For the novel concentrates on Lovecraft’s proxy for an Ivy League college, Miskatonic University, and the adventures of one student in particular, Ellen Logan.

Miskatonic’s grounds have the moneyed, old-world feel of the Harvard Yard, and a sinisterness appropriate to the institution’s position as the home of occult studies. It is the sort of place where students look to rob graves in pursuit of good grades, the sort of place surrounded by stores that sell textbooks and spells, and where premeds worry they are suffering from lycanthropy. Studying there involves risk, not from flunking due to the courseload, but from mortal supernatural dangers; “Go in peace, and may God be with you on the dangerous path you tread” is the university’s motto. Cottrell combines Lovecraftian characters, such as professor Andrew Carter (a descendant, it is speculated, of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter), with a great deal of well-judged characterization of Ellen. So many of Lovecraft’s characters are drawn somewhat sketchily, their ancillary nature obvious to the eye; they are often present primarily to drive the plot rather than as points of interest in themselves. Cottrell, on the other hand, is adamant that DARKNESS BELOW should be character-driven. It is a good decision that pays off in the form of a rounded and believable protagonist whose backstory, murky and unknowable as it is, creates depth and interest.

Ellen is psychic, an orphan – Cottrell is aware of the parallels with Dickens, or Harry Potter for that matter, and lampshades them effectively – and strikes up a partnership with Professor Carter as a series of otherworldly goings-on, such as an earthquake caused by psychic forces and the destruction of a fraternity house by a fiery creature, take place on campus. Carter is Miskatonic’s star professor, by turns conceited, irascible, and impatient. But when Ellen gains access to a secret book exuding incredible power, she, Carter, and a linguistics professor, Connie Blake, seek to protect themselves from the forces within – and from the malevolent attentions of Professor Pierce.

Though the plot is familiar, it is never contrived, and Cottrell’s excellent grasp of pacing means that the novel never drags. The naturalistic dialog is complemented by subtle intimations of prejudice experienced by psychics – an offhand reference to the suspicion that fell on the younger Ellen that she was a witch; passing references to the burning of witches – that enhance believability, as does Ellen’s stormy relations with her overbearing professor. The allusions to an unnatural, hellish episode taking in place during the Second World War culminate in a horrific mining accident that Cottrell expertly intertwines into Ellen’s unraveling narrative. The result is an effective, exciting story that is as surprising as it is enthralling.

DARKNESS BELOW by Barbara Cottrell is a compelling and unnerving exploration of Lovecraftian horror set in the grounds of Miskatonic University.

~Craig Jones for IndieReader

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