Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk

Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

Some of the trustees were still unhappy, but Christine’s stunning find of the tomb of the Black Pharoah Nephren-ka had commanded headlines across the globe.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins 14

1897. Somewhere between Boston and Providence lies the small city of Widdershins, a quiet place where a man can start over…at least until the Liber Arcanorum drops into the lap of a closeted translator of dead languages and the bodies start piling up. Nothing like an unexpected mystery to bring two people together.

Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins (2013) is an historical paranormal romance with two little twists: the world is set in the same country as Lovecraft’s Mythos (Dr. Whyborne even went to college at Arkham), and the protagonists are two homosexual men. It may, in fact, be the first homosexual Mythos romance novel—somewhat of a weird distinction to make, but previous Mythos romance novels like Margaret L. Carter’s The Windwalker’s Mate (2008) and Robin Wolfe’s Arkham Dreams (2011) were focused on heterosexual relationships, and homosexual characters and relationships remain rather rare in the Mythos by comparison. The closest comparable work in the field is probably “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman.

The depictions of the men and the challenges they face are sympathetic; the construction of the setting is very competent. Hawk does their research:

A: But the research into the period!! How much did you actually do to capture the period as well as the paranormal element?

JLH: As much as I can! I have a replica Sears & Roebuck catalog from 1897 so I could figure out what sorts of goods and furnishings an average person in the period would have in their home. And I managed to find plans for middle class homes and hotels of the era online, which was a major boon.

My biggest problems research-wise actually came from the American setting. Casually glancing over the history section, you’d think America in the 1800s was nothing but the Civil War, followed up by the western expansion. At times it wasn’t easy to find out about the day to day life of people living in the northeast, especially if I needed something really specific. Most of the “daily life” books of the period center on Victorian England rather than Gilded Age America, and although there is some overlap, there are a lot of differences beyond drinking coffee versus tea.
Author Interview: Jordan L. Hawk

The Mythos elements are also rather refreshingly grounded: Arkham and the Necronomicon and all exist, but to the majority of the world (and the two protagonists), they are but part of the setting. The protagonists only discover gradually that there are secret cults about and some brands of paranormal science actually work, if you know how to pronounce the Aklo. Once that is established, given an expert in dead languages and a genuine grimoire, progress is fairly rapid.

The tone established falls somewhere between Cthulhu by Gaslight and Lois H. Gresh’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions (2017); magic exists, there’s a mystery afoot, and by chapter 7 the two principals have met and teamed up to solve it. As they continue through the adventure, the two grow closer; the common goal, trials, and tribulations provide the crisis for both men to open up, commiserate, empathize, and grow fond of one another.

“Damn it, Griffin, fuck me,” I growled.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins 152

There is a sex scene. Not a weird one; no naughty tentacles or atypical anatomies. It is no more or less than the same kind of scene that would appear, without comment, in any number of other novels; only the genders of the particulars are different. That in itself is almost exemplary of the attitude of the novel as a whole: the book is not a homosexual pornographic novel. There is more hanging between Whyborne & Griffin that Victorian reticence, personal and social boundaries that have to be overcome and guards let down; readers who just want to see the two get together have to wait for it.

Then there’s the small matter of saving the world.

While not written in a pulp style, there’s a pulpish appeal to Widdershins. The stakes rise like something in an Indiana Jones film, the protagonists have to take into account all the possibilities that magic and the Mythos bring to their setting, and there’s an action scene at least every couple of chapters to keep the pace up. The characters, even beyond the two protagonists, have their own motivations and hangups. The best supporting character is Dr. Christine Putnam, an archaeologist that has fought an uphill battle her entire professional life because of her gender—and succeeded. Her desire to retain her hard-won reputation almost gets her killed, but that’s all the more endearing.

Searchers after horror will have to haunt stranger places than Widdershins to find what they’re looking for, but it is a well-written novel in its own mode of historical paranormal romance. It never descends into any attempt to ape Lovecraft’s style like a bad pastiche, nor does it hold slavishly to the tropes of a roleplaying game. Hawk refers to Lovecraft’s setting, but she makes few direct references to any particular story so the story is fairly accessible to the lay reader—which is also rather rare for a Mythos novel.

Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins is the first in the Whyborne & Griffin series, which as of 2018 includes a total of 13 novels and novellas.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

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