Mask of the Other

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Mask of the Other is a modern Lovecraftian horror/military adventure novel by Greg Stolze. Here’s the sell text from the back cover:

In 1991, a squad of US soldiers in Iraq stumbled across the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s secret occult weapons program. Mask of the Other tells their story.

In 1974, something two armies couldn’t kill was buried under the wreckage of Varosha, during the invasion of Cyprus. Over the next three decades, teams of Turkish soldiers repeatedly attempted to poison it, burn it, or blow it to bits. They only succeeded in keeping it pent up, waiting.

In 2001, a skirmish in rural Afghanistan somehow escalated to the point that an entire village was wiped out, along with most of the personnel of a private military company. The only survivors were four Americans suspected of looting Iraqi antiquities a decade earlier.

In 2004, those same Americans were hired to provide security for a mining firm looking to restart operations on the abandoned island of Hashima. Both they, and the man who hired them, knew that the island’s abandonment in 1974 had left it as the home to far worse things than smugglers and squatters.

Mask of the Other takes modern ghost towns, low-intensity combat zones, international espionage and corporate intrigue, weaving them together with the ineffable horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It’s a war story, a survival tale, and an account of existential survival against incredible threats.

Now, bias alert. Here’s a list of reasons that you might decide my review of the book is biased:

  • Greg Stolze, along with John Tynes, bought a bunch of my writing back in the days of Unknown Armies.
  • I got to know Greg back in those days, and we’ve been friends ever since.
  • Greg sent me a .pdf of the book back when it was first released, for free.
  • I backed the Kickstarter for the audiobook version ((Some may view this as bias, some may view it as further endorsement. I leave it to you to decide which it is for you.)).
  • In general, I like Greg’s writing, both his fiction and his game material.

So, those factors may indicate that I am predisposed to like this book, and you’d be right, I guess. But I try to be honest in my reviews. I think the above points make it more likely that I’d read the book, certainly, and to write a review if I like it ((I don’t write reviews of things I don’t like. I’d rather celebrate and share stuff that I think is good than whine about or tear down stuff that I don’t. After all, opinions are very subjective, and there’s lots of good stuff out there, so why not focus on stuff I like?)).

This review is coming very late – the book was released over a year ago, and I started reading it then, but I got distracted and never got back to it. When the Kickstarter for the audio version of the book came along, I backed it at a high enough level to get the softcover version, as well. I just finished listening to the audiobook this afternoon, so it’s time and past time to write a review.

The sell text above hits the high points of the story. The book actually weaves a few different narrative tracks together, some of which come together later in the book, and some of which are more in the nature of vignettes, filling in some blanks from the story and illuminating the nature of the threats facing the characters ((Most of the illumination is some form of “See? This is why it’s very, very bad.”)). This does a good job of controlling the revelations of information for the reader to heighten suspense, because sometimes it’s scarier to be surprised and sometimes it’s scarier to see it coming.

I had a bit of a problem with this approach, though, especially in the earlier part of the novel. The chapters don’t progress chronologically; that is, they jump forward and backwards in time. Each chapter starts with a date/place heading, so it’s not that huge a deal – except with the audiobook. With a written text, you can flip back to the chapter’s beginning, and to other chapter beginnings, to help keep track of where you are in the story’s timeline. You can’t do that with the audiobook, though, and with all the jumping around in the start of the book, it’s not hard to lose track.

It’s not a huge problem, though; just something that caused me a little confusion. And, as the book proceeds, the narratives come together and begin to advance in a more conventional manner, the problem evaporates.

The story itself is a lot of fun, and really quite disturbing in many places ((Which is what one looks for in Lovecraftian story, after all.)). Greg uses a couple of very common monsters from the Lovecraft corpus, and uses them pretty much in their conventional roles, but throws a couple of awesome twists in to move them from standard tropes up to things of real horror again. The deep ones are nasty and terrifying in their breeding program and level of infiltration, and the shoggoth pulls some tricks that show why they were essentially an Old One doomsday weapon.

The main characters of the book – the squad of soldiers – are great. They make the same kinds of desperate, foolish, awesome decisions as player characters in an RPG ((And, incidentally, so completely unlike the rather sterile, cerebral characters of an actual Lovecraft story.)), and enjoy the same kinds of great victories and horrible defeats. The horror of Lovecraft’s stories is often so cosmic, that it is removed from personal horror, but this story does a good job of showing how the cosmic horror leads the characters into personal horror. Their choices, and the consequences of those choices, really drive the most disturbing parts of the novel.

Of course, some mention must be made of the narrator of the audiobook. His name is Trevor Dutton, and Greg described his voice as “gravy on gravel.” I can’t do any better than that; it’s a smooth voice, with a bit of a rumble in it. He doesn’t do a lot of voices, but reads clearly, and at a good pace. I believe he produced the book, as well as reading it, so he’s responsible for the sound effects interspersed throughout. The first time I heard one of the sound effects on the recording, I was startled, but they work really well, and I wound up enjoying them a lot ((Mostly. There were one or two little tinkly musical stings that struck me as kind of incongruous.)). All in all, a fine job of reading.

End result? I really enjoyed Mask of the Other. It hit all the right buttons for modern Lovecraft fiction, as far as I’m concerned, marrying his stark, horrific universe with the more personal, immediate horror of modern sensibility. It’s a tough balance to strike, and Greg Stolze hits it about perfect. If you like Lovecraft, Delta Green, or just modern horror, you should read this book.

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