Dark Gods is a collection of four novellas all written by Klein between 1979 and 1985, though only the final story, "Nadelman's God", makes its first appearance in print here. The other three are reprints -- "Children of the Kingdom" first appeared in Kirby McCauley's phenomenal Dark Forces anthology in 1980; "Petey" was the final story in Charles L. Grant's Shadows 2 anthology from 1979; and "Black Man with a Horn" comes from Ramsey Campbell's 1980 New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos collection. While only one of them appeared in a Lovecraft-themed collection, Klein's stories feel very much at home in tackling that nagging sense of subtle doubt which plagues much of Lovecraft's writing. That, as it turns out, is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Klein's style is eminently more readable than Lovecraft's. That shouldn't be surprising, since he's writing in the more contemporary setting of the late 20th century. On the other, there's a cloud of unsubtle racism which tints much of Lovecraft's writings, and this element is unfortunately emulated in Klein's stories, which makes these novellas occasionally uncomfortable reading two decades into the 21st century.
I don't mean to imply Klein is, himself, racist, because I truly don't think that's the case. Rather, the lens through which Klein's horrors filter into the perceptions of their protagonists is tinted in a Lovecraftian fashion which pulls some of the not-so-good in along with the great. Characters in his stories, especially "Children of the Kingdom" and "Black Man with a Horn", are often defined almost entirely by their skin color or genetic heritage as opposed to other traits, but whether this is a conscious decision by Klein or this is simply meant to be the prism through which his primary characters view their slightly askew world isn't clear. Dark Gods contains some exceptionally powerful writing, but readers deserve some warning before committing themselves, especially if they're going to plunk down the money this long-out-of-print collection now commands on the second-hand market.
Let's tackle the stories one at a time, shall we?
"Children of the Kingdom" is set in the time leading up to the famous New York City blackout of 1977, and follows the protagonist as he attempts to secure a new residence for his aging grandfather in a senior living community. The narrator is naturally concerned for his grandfather's well-being, especially since the neighborhood he's moved to is on the rougher side, but as it turns out, the true danger doesn't lurk out on the streets, but just below it. And they're waiting for just the right time to make their presence known.
This story does a fine job of establishing the mood and tone of the whole collection. The concerns of the protagonist here will be shared by many other characters in the coming stories, and as becomes obvious the more you read of Klein, there's someone who appears to know an awful lot more than they are letting on about stuff man wasn't meant to know. "Children of the Kingdom", especially the ending, reminded me greatly of [REC.], the phenomenal found footage film which was remade in the US as Quarantine. Not because the events of the two have anything in common, but because the ending of [REC.] throws a wrench into the works of everything we've been led to believe up to that point, and the same can be said for "Children of the Kingdom". Klein writes of the blackout as someone who experienced it personally, and while lightning strikes were ultimately to blame for it, his is the kind of explanation you'd expect a terrified eye witness to come up with, especially with the outbreak of crime and violence which unfolded in its wake.
"Petey" is the shortest story of the group and, for me, the least interesting. It's the tale of Phyllis and George, a pair of young, upwardly-mobile professionals who have just acquired an incredible piece of real estate at a literal steal of a deal (as in, George partook of some insider information and back-room dealings to secure the purchase of the property for a song). While having a gaggle of friends over for a housewarming party, the revelers soon learn the estate came with more than just the fully-furnished rooms and well-stocked library. This has the beginnings of an interesting story, as George spills more about the manor's acquisition as the evening gets longer and tongues are loosened by liquor, but his cast of main characters is too large by half
The ideas Klein plays around with here, especially the underhanded way George and Phyllis acquired their new property, are ripe for exploration, but just when it seems everything's coming to a head, the story stops abruptly, leaving the impression Klein either couldn't decide how he wanted the tale to conclude, or was confined to a page count or deadline against which he ran at full speed.
While all four of Klein's stories feature elements which could be called 'Lovecraftian', "Black Man with a Horn" is a literal homage to Howard Phillips himself. Klein's unnamed protagonist of this story is a contemporary of Lovecraft's, with whom he corresponded frequently before Lovecraft's passing. While a published author in his own right (akin to August Derleth or Frank Belknap Long), the protagonist is hamstrung by his relationship with Lovecraft, and therefore doomed forever to be considered a disciple or protégé of the master, unable to shed the grander shadow within which he is cursed to reside despite outliving his colleague by decades.
While taking a plane trip home to North America, our unnamed protagonist makes friends with another passenger who is seeking to get as far away from Malaysia as possible. Intrigued by the man's story and his obvious fear, the narrator listens as the man unburdens himself. He was part of a missionary team who went to Malaysia to build a church there, but once his small group reached the jungles, bad things kept happening. Their guide disappeared one night, even to be seen again. Other members of the party likewise vanished without a trace, while others abandoned the project until he was alone, and decided to call it quits. Despite leaving the tropics, he cannot shake the feeling that he is being followed, stalked, by someone or some thing, older and more powerful than human-kind.
Intrigued by the story, the narrator decides to assist the man. Sadly, there's little protection the 20th century can offer against magic and powers older than time itself. Clearly, this is the most Lovecraftian tale of the bunch.
It's also the most uncomfortable story of the lot. You'll definitely want to read this one with the pulpier contexts of the 1920's and 30's in mind if you want to enjoy it. Again, I don't think this is Klein himself being racist so much as it is the pulp formula lending itself to such simplifications as the "dark outsider" and "killer native" tropes which fed the genre, along with a protagonist who is very much of-the-era.
That said, if you enjoy Lovecraft's penchant for twisting the ice pick in your intestines with a constant progression of things which are, on the surface, no big deal but combine to create the sensation that something is horribly wrong, "Black Man with a Horn" is a great story for tripping that paranoia.
That leaves us with "Nadelman's God", which is by far the most literate and enjoyable tale of the four. The story follows the titular Nadelman, an advertising agency exec who creates slogans and jingles for other companies while maintaining the required health club membership and irregular infidelities which are part and parcel of that life.
Back when he was in college, Nadelman composed a work of epic poetry for the university's student literary magazine, where he metaphorically slew the traditional notion of what god was, and instead offered up his recipe for the 'truth' of what god actually entailed. Years later, a friend working in the music industry re-discovered it and convinced Nadelman to license it to the band Jizzmo, who converted some of the stanzas into song lyrics for their latest rock album.
Everything seems to be going fine, until Nadelman receives a letter from a fan who learned he wrote the original poetry from which Jizzmo's lyrics sprang. This man, named Arlen Huntoon, has taken the recipe for god creation proffered by Nadelman twenty years ago a bit too literally. Now, Nadelman is noticing more and more terrible things about the world, and is starting to wonder if the act of writing the poem has brought about the birth of some dark god all its own, or if Huntoon is using it to disguise his own criminal behavior.
This story is easily the lynchpin of the whole work, and I can understand why it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 1986. It deserves every accolade you could bestow on it--it's that damn good.
Klein is a fascinating figure in the world of horror literature, because so much of what he wrote is so highly-praised by his contemporaries and yet he has produced so little of it over the years. After the publication of his first novel, The Ceremonies, in 1984 and this follow-up collection of shorter pieces, Klein completely vanished from the literary landscape.
That's not to say he stopped doing anything involving writing. He edited Twilight Zone magazine until it went defunct in the mid-80's, penned a work of nonfiction entitled "Raising Goosebumps For Fun and Profit" about creating horror fiction, co-wrote the screenplay for Trauma with Dario Argento, and produced a truly staggering number of essays, op-ed pieces, and articles over the intervening years. But more fiction? He contributed a previously unpublished work entitled "Growing Things" for the Al Sarrantonio-edited anthology 999: Twenty-Nine Original Tales of Horror and Suspense in 1999, and that's really about it. Guy's still alive and kicking, hell he even won the World Horror Concention's Grand Master Award in 2012, just don't ask him about the novel he's been working on for the last thirty years.
Now, with as much praise, some of it albeit cautious, that I've heaped on Klein, you'd assume this review would end with the suggestion to rush right out and buy Dark Gods, right? Ordinarily, yeah, I'd totally suggest such a course of action. Unfortunately, Dark Gods has been out of print for only slightly less time than I've been alive, making copies of it, especially ones in decent condition, ridiculously expensive. The pocket paperback edition which I own published by Bantam Books will set you back US $30 or more, and you could make two or three car payments for the price of the hardcover.
So I'm rather stuck. I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Gods: even the weakest entry is well worth investigating, and its clear Klein's talent was prodigious. If you run across it for a price that fits your budget, and you have a penchant for Lovecraftian pastiches, then by all means, scoop it up. Otherwise, the three anthologies I noted earlier where Klein's work appears are all far less expensive and easier to acquire than a copy of this book...but the downside to that is you'll be missing the best story of the lot. Until this one's available in electronic format, or someone anthologizes "Nadelman's God", you might be waiting a long time to get your hands on this one for a reasonable price.
Four (reserved) stars out of five.