Darkness Below by Barbara Cottrell
2023’s Darkness Below is the first book in Barbara Cottrell’s new THE SHADOWS OF MISKATONIC series. We’re heading into warmer weather, with the promise of road trips and vacations. Here’s a shivery tentacle-horror story for fans of Lovecraftia, complete with a sprinkle of dark academia on top, that’s perfect for the road or that lounge chair by the pool.
Ellen attends Miskatonic University and lives in the town of Arkham with her guardian, Uncle Joshua (who probably isn’t her uncle.) Ellen is a strong psychic whose past is a mystery. When an ex-roommate commits suicide, and Ellen meets a little girl who’s having the same nightmare Ellen is, she begins to put the pieces together and uncovers a frightening convergence of events set in motion by the reckless actions of the Delta Delta Tau fraternity. It will be up to Ellen, with some dubious help from Uncle Joshua and the arrogant golden-boy of the campus faculty, Andrew Carter, to save the town from what’s been unleashed.
My favorite part of the book is the college experience itself, and the depiction of Miskatonic U. Cottrell nicely blends the weird with the genuine college experience—as when Ellen and a fellow student compare notes about their financial aid counsellor. Scenes happen in the bookstore and in hallways, like an actual college. It’s great fun, and doesn’t stop the stakes from getting higher and the situation scarier.
Soon, another theme, brought in from World War II and the German concentration camps, makes its presence felt, adding an element that was truly original to me in Lovecraft-style horror.
I found the pace of the book a bit jerky, mostly because Cottrell slows the action at times to lead us on detours. Ellen’s arrangement with a local ghost, the introduction of her friend Maria and even the apparent mystery of her own past, slow down the danger-plot of the book without adding to it. They do provide convincing local color, as does Ellen’s hilarious job in a cheesy New-Age bookstore, and may serve an important purpose in later books in the series.
Ellen, who is twenty, is surrounded by unreliable men. Her guardian keeps important information from her. He exploits her. A fellow psychic lies to her, and later psychically violates her. Probably the worst is Bad-Boy Carter, descendant of the famous Randolph Carter, who teaches “Weird Art Through the Ages.” Carter is charismatic, self-centered, temperamental, and dishonest, which by Arkham standards makes him perfect boyfriend material. Once he and Ellen are on the trail of a terrible mining disaster and working to thwart the demonic plans of the fraternity, he settles down a bit, but it’s hard to grasp why Ellen puts up with his constant verbal abuse—or, for that matter, why a young woman who can face down a fire entity from a different dimension won’t confront her lying guardian about his true intentions. Maybe later books will answer those questions, or maybe Ellen will find just a good boyfriend along the way.
Darkness Below has a unique blend of vengeance magic (the concentration camp survivor), Lovecraftian horror and academic horror. Lots of fun.
Published in March 2023. Nightmares. Disappearances. Suicide. Fall semester is always a challenging time at Miskatonic University. All Ellen Logan wants to do is pass her classes while holding down a bad job at a New Age bookstore. But when a former roommate jumps to her death from the university clocktower and another friend vanishes, leaving her with a mysterious book, she embarks on her own investigation. With the help of renowned professor Andrew Carter, she uncovers evidence of a murderous cult, a terrifying creature, and a ghost who knows far too much about her. To survive, Ellen and Carter must descend into the Darkness Below to stop the forces that threaten to tear their world apart.