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Book Review: Red Right Hand

By (September 5, 2016) No Comment

Red Right Handred right hand

by Levi Black

Tor, 2016

Levi Black’s new fantasy novel, with its stunning cover by Cliff Nielsen, starts out with an inimitable title and a vivid encounter: Charlotte Tristan Moore – Charlie to her friends – is stumbling home drunk one night when, just inside her front door, she encounters a horrifying sight: three gigantic growling skinless dogs simply dripping in dark magic. At which point Black, an over-caffeinated hack of the old school, uncorks a veritable champagne-eruption of purple prose:

Adrenaline slammed through my bloodstream, driven in a stampede by my heart suddenly trying to pound its way out of my chest. It burned away the fog of alcohol, shocking me sober. The jug of cheap vodka slipped from my fingers, tumbling to the floor. It bounced, spun, and lay on its side, spilling astringent alcohol over my shoes in a splash.

Just when she’s sure she’s going to die, Charlie is saved by a man dressed in black, a man with a voluminous black cloak and a right hand of pulsing, hideous red magic. The Man in Black saves her life, but he’s got an ulterior motive: it turns out he, too, is a supernatural being – and more to the point, so is she. The stranger informs her that as the great, great grand-niece of HP Lovecraft, she has the latent occult powers of his bloodline. Readers who might know a thing or two about Lovecraft will be surprised to learn that those occult powers are not churning out wretchedly overheated prose on deadline for $25, nor do they include borrowing money from near-total strangers on the flimsiest of promises to pay it back. No, instead Charlie’s inheritance is a kind of mystical supervision that allows her to “see through the veil between worlds.”

This is the reason the Man in Black went to the trouble of saving her: he fancies taking her on as his Acolyte, and I guess Acolytes who aren’t able to gawk between worlds are constantly getting underfoot. And the stranger ought to know his Acolytes from his wannabes, since his own Lovecraftian credentials are beyond reproach:

“I am Nyarlathotep. I am the Crawling Chaos. It matters not if you call me the Thing in the Dark or the Nightmare Man. I am that which you fear. I have been named Shaitan, Loki, and the Spider God. Know this.”

He’s fond of humanity, you see, and he’s worried about all the shambling, nasty Old Gods (those familiar catch-all bad guys from Lovecraft’s wretchedly gawd-awful pulp fiction) who are infiltrating the sunlit world again. Having an Acolyte will help him to turn this tide, and besides, it’s always fun to have somebody nearby calling you “Master,” isn’t it? So he brands her and sneers at her and slowly, grudgingly (wasn’t all of this his idea?) begins teaching her about the supernatural world that is, he says, her genetic birthright.

And if all of that sounds as tedious to you as an AM radio farm report, well, you’re not wrong. A great deal of Red Right Hand could have benefited by one last very stern editorial read-through, either in the Tor offices or in the author’s living room. Such a read-through might have pruned some of the narrative’s excesses (the pulps are fun to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there, after all; there’s a good reason why George Kirk once stared at a Lovecraft draft and said, “Could you tone it down a bit, for God’s sake?”), and it might have come up with a twist or two to make both Charlie and the Man in Black in any way likable, instead of her being a dimwitted exposition-magnet and him being a boring egomaniac with a bad pedicure.

Considering the degree of homaging going on in these pages, it’s probably no surprise that book’s strong suits are clear echoes of Lovecraft’s strong suits: the action is unfailingly fast-paced and breathless, the revelations are perfectly timed, and Black has mastered a pitch-perfect adaptation of Lovecraft’s manner of describing supernatural scenes:

The Man in Black stood in the same place, his arms were wide, red right hand gleaming in the incandescent light of the entranceway. The fingers twisted, wrapping around each other as if they had too many knuckles or no knuckles at all. Watching them move made my head buzz. The tail of his coat shifted, stretching and rolling, becoming longer, long enough to curl and rise in inky tendrils of utter darkness. Its shape changed, transmuting into something with jagged curves and spiky points. A tendril rose in a corkscrew, turning as it lengthened to a needle-thin point in front of Nyarlathotep’s face. He nodded once, a sharp up and down, and the needle tendril turned. It hung for a moment, a long moment, before driving itself against the discolored air.

Lovecraft fans of course can’t miss Red Right Hand. Lovecraft newcomers should start with Lovecraft, preferably in Liveright’s simply magnificent 2014 volume The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. People who don’t give two hoots about Lovecraft at all … well, the Crawling Chaos waits for them anyway, so …

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