I think I may have a new favourite Arkham story: Mask of Silver by Rosemary Jones.
Any creation set in the world of Arkham and Cthulhu has to deal in some way with the extensive baggage that comes with the name of HP Lovecraft: by all accounts a racist, sexist, and generally intolerant individual. Fantasy Flight Games have done a great job in this, particularly in recent years expanding the cast of investigators to make them racially and ethnically diverse, as well as providing a growing element of LGBT representation. What you don’t get, however, in the board games, is this diverse group running into people like Lovecraft himself, and facing the backward attitudes and prejudices that so many still held.
Then along comes Mask of Silver, with its heroine Jeany Lin. Jeany is a half-Chinese, half-Swedish woman, the child of a trafficked immigrant, born out of wedlock because it was illegal for a white man to marry a Chinese woman in California at the turn of the 20th century (I was shocked to find out whilst researching for this review that it wasn’t until 1948 that this law was overturned). Jeany has a good behind-the-scenes job in Hollywood, but she also gets funny looks when walking down the street, and ill-considered comments about Chop Suey in diners. Jeany is just the tip of the iceberg here, Mask of Silver has plenty of diverse representation, but it never forgets its historical setting: the female doctor comments on how few places want a female doctor, the lesbian couple are (unwillingly) outed by the tabloid press, and the female professor whose interests stray into the occult has to share a mop-filled ‘office’ with the janitor. The diversity that a 21st century audience wants is right here, but it always comes with an acknowledgement of the battles that people had to face for their right to be accepted.
Beyond the social pressures of the 1920s, Mask of Silver also gives us a really deep dive into the world of Black-and-White, Silent Cinema. All the major characters are Hollywood workers: Jeany herself is a costume and make-up designer, but this is also the story of her sister, star actress Rene, and of the enigmatic, mercurial director Sydney, who insists that his latest horror film must be shot in his ancestral family home in Arkham. Add in the other cast members, plus the backstage crew – the cameraman who is constantly tinkering for the next new invention, the studio executive always jotting down numbers and tutting about costs – and you have the sense of a complete film-set experience, one which feels really well-researched and authentic.
A small but priceless moment for me came when a character notes how ridiculous talk of “ancient” New England towns sounds to a Parisian (this very nearly evoked a cheer from this jaded Englishman who has never lived more than 20 minutes’ walk from a building at least 300 years old, and has always found the Lovecraftian trope of ‘ancient’ Massachusetts a bit comical) and what you end up with is a depiction of 1920s America that never feels anything less than 100% real. This is absolutely crucial to this kind of insidious horror: rather than being able to dismiss this tale as something fantastical set in a place clearly of the imagination, instead you have something that feels like real history, a carefully restored picture of 1920s America – as such, when the creepy stuff starts to happen, you can almost start to wonder whether your mirror is reflecting things at an angle that should not be possible? whether the crows outside your window are giving you funny looks, as you get further and further into this slow-burn work of unsettling horror.
Inevitably, the Horror will creep in from the edges to take centre stage in Mask of Silver. The book makes clear from the outset that it is a look back at a disaster, but still allows things to build gradually, just a simple story of a crew going on location to film, albeit with buckets of foreshadowing. Jones does a great job in building the tension gradually: hinting more-and-more strongly at the dark forces that are converging. There are plenty of hints at exactly who is the villain of the piece, but an air of mystery remains, leaving uncertain until the very last moments just exactly who is pulling whose strings. Whilst we know from the outset that Jeany and at least one character will make it out of this summer more-or-less intact, there are enough twists or even deliberate false trails to keep you guessing: who is friend or foe? Will your favourite character make it to the end?
If you are an Arkham files veteran, then part way through, you will hear a pair of names that will confirm that suspicions that you’ve probably had for a while, and in that moment of confirmation of exactly what is unfolding on the pages in front of you, you might find yourselves screaming at the characters to run for the exits, but there’s no need for any prior knowledge of this world to enjoy the story.
Regular readers of my Arkham reviews will know that I take a particular interest in the established Arkham Horror investigators, a cast of (at the time of writing) 58 individuals who appear as playable characters throughout these stories, and who have their own well-established back-stories. Apart from a name-check in the epilogue (and a possible Easter-Egg in the intro…), there are 2 who make significant appearances in Mask of Silver: the first disappointed me a little bit at first, feeling almost like the character’s name and job-description had been dropped in to the story without any real consideration for how that character might really behave, but without wanting to spoil too much, I was glad to find out later that there was more going on in that scene than meets the eye, and by the end I definitely felt that Jones had retrieved this character’s place in the setting. A bigger, although still fairly minor, role is given to “Ashcan” Pete and his dog Duke, and they felt brilliantly captured: a superficial impression of a friendly drifter just passing through, but with careful undertones to let you know that Pete sees much of the strangeness that others are blind to, and that his fortuitous ‘chance’ encounters are the result of careful effort on his part to put himself rather than others in harm’s way.
There are no happy endings in Arkham, and Mask of Silver is no exception here: there are still the dead and the disappeared, the deranged and the disfigured. For all of this though, Jones has managed to provide an ending that feels satisfying, and which offers a glimmer of hope for many of the characters that the reader has come to care about. Like all Arkham fiction, that hope is tinged with a warning: people were foolish enough to mess with these forces before and it can only be a matter of time before they come again.
As much as I loved the character of Jeany, I’m not sure that I want to see her getting drawn back in to the tentacles of the Mythos again, but I very-much hope that this is not the last Arkham story we get from Jones’ pen.
Mask of Silver is out now in the US and in eBook format, coming soon in physical copy to the UK.