Posted on November 6, 2012 by Flames
Available at Amazon.com
Ghouls of the Miskatonic by Graham McNeil was published a little over a year ago and marked the first foray into fiction publishing for powerhouse board game publisher Fantasy Flight Games. Ghouls takes place in Fantasy Flight’s Lovecraftian setting, Arkham Horror, and is the first book in The Dark Waters Trilogy (the second book in the trilogy Bones of the Yopasi has also been published). The plot of the novel follows a menagerie of characters trying to solve the mystery behind the disappearance and murder of a number of girls from Miskatonic University, as well as the character’s attempt to keep a grip on their sanity when faced with giant flying mantis creatures who think dress formal means wearing their brains on the outside.
The novel definitely reads a bit like Modern Lovecraft 101: Introduction to Creepy Weird Things, and in my opinion, limits the scope of the audience that will truly enjoy Ghouls to die-hard fans of the Arkham Horror games or relative neophytes of Lovecraftian fiction. Personally, while I was reading Ghouls I felt like I SHOULD love it, but was never truly able to immerse myself in McNeil’s novel.
Ghouls of the Miskatonic does a number of things very well. In fact, one of the reasons that I felt like I should love the novel is it checks a number of boxes that I look for in a novel: good characters, rich setting, and memorable lines of writing. Ghouls does a wonderful job of bringing characters from the Arkham Horror games to life. Characters that were previously a collection of stats and a few lines of flavor text are on card are given life and depth in McNeil’s novel. Personal favorites like Kate Winthrop and Finn Edwards, as well as other game characters like Rita Young, Amanda Sharpe, and Rex Murphy, play significant roles as the plot unfolds. The development of these characters throughout Ghouls provides readers with insight into each character’s hidden inner strength that makes him or her a viable investigator. Plus, in future games when monsters are overrunning the board, it will be hard for me not to hear Finn Edwards’s Irish lilt in my head hollering, “We gotta get the sh@$#ing hell out of here.” (Thanks for that one Graham.)
Ghouls, as Fantasy Flight’s first Arkham Horror novel, does a good job of fleshing out the cracked masonry and peeling wallpaper of the setting. Much like his work with the characters, McNeil does a fine job of bringing the drawings of locations from the board game to life and gives them real depth. The various gothic to 1920s modern buildings on Miskatonic University’s campus are given weight and depth that the Various Arkham Horror games simply cannot provide. It is the loving development of the game’s characters and settings that I believe will make Ghouls of the Miskatonic an enjoyable read for die-hard fans of the various Arkham Horror games.
The plot of Ghouls is a bit of a mixed bag for me. The novel is very much an introduction to Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos on which the Arkham Horror games are based. McNeil skillfully checks all the boxes required by a Lovecraftian story: creepy setting, horrific monsters, a foray into another dimension, a handful of people driven to madness, and a frat house full of evil cultists. The presence of so many standard Lovecraftian elements is why I believe Ghouls would be a highly enjoyable read for someone not intimately familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction. However, I felt the somewhat standard nature of the novel’s plot might be too predictable for someone who has read Lovecraft and Lovecraft inspired fiction before. Admittedly, mythos stories can sometimes offer a new take on things and reboot a mythology, but Ghouls felt more like an ‘in case you missed it’ take on the Cthulu Mythos.
While I reading Ghouls, feeling like I should be in love with the book, there were a couple of aspects of the novel that I felt could have been done better. The first was the pacing of the book. McNeil attempts to juggle a full complement of characters, weave their various plotlines, and introduce new readers to the Cthulu Mythos. The result, I feel, is an unevenly paced book, with a handful of throw away scenes. I found I enjoyed Ghouls the most when McNeil ran with one plotline for a number of scenes. In these instances the plot picked up momentum and seemed to be heading in a focused direction.
The pacing was at its weakest when the novel jumped between all of the plotlines in back to back scenes, and any time an added scene was thrown in to emphasize the fact that there is something not quite right with the town of Arkham. In these cases it felt like McNeil was muddling along with only a vague idea of where the book was heading, either that or there had been some mandate from the publisher that certain scenes had to be included, and McNeil just dropped them into the novel he wanted to write as best he could.
The second area that I felt the book struggled with was building the horror and suspense that is traditionally associated with Lovecraftian literature. Somewhere between the words on the page and the emotions that were created I felt a disconnect. While McNeil describes many things that are horrible (e.g., a ghoul making a feast out of some poor sap), these rarely create a sense of horror. This might have been a result of McNeil’s well-written, descriptive prose leaving the reader little room to imagine that some terrible monster might be waiting for a character just around the bend. Another possibility is that, unlike the games where losing is a very real possibility, there is never any sense in Ghouls that the main characters were in any long-term danger of being killed or going mad. Whatever the specific reason, Ghouls felt like a story where horrible things happened without much horror.
Ultimately, I feel that Ghouls of the Miskatonic is a technically well-written novel that some audiences will absolutely enjoy. There is some wonderful development of Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror setting, and there are some memorable lines in the novel. I also think that there are certain audiences that will share my feelings about Ghouls; it’s a book they will want to like, and maybe even feel like they should like, but in the end feel it was just an okay read.
Review by Brian Hagen