There are, of course, fans who are open to writers who take a few core Lovecraftian themes and run with them in a completely unexpected direction. Writers who eschew the traditional Cthulhu Mythos to create their own stories are a rarer lot, since they risk not attracting readers from either camp, but such experimentalists are certainly out there. Justin Robinson and David A. Rodriguez are two writers who walk this off-beaten path with their young adult novel, Daughters of Arkham.
Right off, Daughters of Arkham is treading unpaved roads by declaring itself to be the first book in a new young adult series. The YA format is still a newer literary phenomenon, and only a few forays into combining Lovecraft with YA have been done, with Ian Welke’s End Times at Ridgemont High being a notable high mark. While the novel is called Daughters of Arkham and sports a ship’s wheel tangled with tentacles on its cover, they are, in fact, marquee elements that have almost no connection to Lovecraft’s writings at all. While the town is called Arkham and takes place in a contemporary setting, there is no world famous Miskatonic University or other iconography to indicate that this city is the same as Lovecraft’s Arkham. The tentacles on the cover owe more to a nautical theme instead of the tentacle visage of Cthulhu. In fact, if there is any real culling of Lovecraft into Daughters of Arkham, it is the reimagining of the Deep Ones (humanoid-fish monster folk) from The Shadow over Innsmouth as the Croatans, monsters who use illusions to make them appear human so that they can mingle with the human populace around them.
While this lack of adhering to rigid Lovecraft elements may be off-putting to both the purist and Cthulhu Mythos camps, taking Daughters of Arkham as its own story, separate from those connections, is actually quite successful at establishing its own identity. It becomes an exciting investigative/occult/horror young adult adventure.
The story revolves around Abbigail Thorndike, her best friends (Sindy Endicott and Nate Baxter) and Bryce Coffin whom she has a crush on. The catalyst that sets the story off is that Abby becomes pregnant after a night at a carnival in which no one can remember what transpired except only with fragments of dream-like recollections. Abby soon develops the ability to see that many of the male inhabitants of Arkham are the Croatans. The normal high school lives expected of all four characters crumble as they are forced to work together to unearth Arkham’s dark secrets. The town is governed behind the scenes by the titular Daughters of Arkham, a sisterhood who wields extraordinary influence through their wealth and occult powers. Abby, Sindy, and Bryce’s mothers are all members of the Daughters of Arkham which complicates the teenagers’ agency as they go about their amateur detective work.
It is this detective work of the four main protagonists that drives the action of the story, and Robinson and Rodriguez execute it well, making it the stand-out element of the novel. Each character has their own investigation, sometimes partnering with someone, sometimes solo, and often times without being privy to the other investigations. For example, Bryce and Nate, both of whom are at odds with each other due to their love interests in Abby, have their own agendas; Bryce wants to know what is happening to all the fathers in Arkham while Nate is more concerned with researching a pivotal event in the town’s history. It is awesome to see these independent endeavors eventually coalesce, and in the process the characters develop while friendships are born or renewed. In a way, the four students’ actions are much in alignment with how Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG operates, which has a heavy focus on researching old newspapers, journals, interviewing townsfolk, combing through libraries – all which are performed in Daughters of Arkham. With a bit of creative tweaking, the general plot of Daughters of Arkham could perhaps be adapted as a Delta Green module.
As the investigation bears fruit, the story becomes more thrilling and dangerous to the characters. The chapters stay firmly in the single digits when it comes to page count, which actually helps keep the action riveting and progressing forward. It is easy for the book to convince you to read one more short chapter to see what happens. Since all the characters are underage, they have to deal with dangers and obstacles not normally impeding horror characters. In typical horror stories, the option to run away from a haunted house or masked killer is often an (under utilized) option, but it becomes harder to suggest such actions to younger teenagers who have no cars and have to attend school, all while operating under their own powerful mothers who are part of a sisterhood that controls the entire town. Movement and safe places are greatly restricted to these heroes.
Abby, Sindy, Bryce, and Nate’s personalities are communicated extremely well. While typical teen drama does occur and small rifts in relationships happen, the characters’ thoughts provide their insight in these matters. This has the effect of showing these young characters maturing. For example, Bryce remarks that Nate is friendzoned, and Nate’s possessive thoughts of Abby eventually betray this aspect to himself. He is able to somewhat acknowledge this, establish a friendship with Bryce, and, in the process, grow as a character.
Daughters of Arkham certainly exceeds expectations in these departments, but the book does falter in a few areas. While character growth that occurs on the page is executed proficiently, characters do not act accordingly during the passage of time that occurs when they are off page. For example, early in the book, Abby attends a Halloween party and dances with Bryce. She is, of course, ecstatic. Chapters pass that are via other characters’ perspectives, and then after two months of book time, a chapter switches focus to Bryce who remarks that since Halloween, he and Abby had only traded a few general texts. This is hardly believable that in the intervening two months neither character would not have built on their connectivity and relationship during school lunches or during other daily encounters.
Secondly, Daughters of Arkham has many intertwining mysteries, and the vast majority of them see no resolution, making much of the investigative work done by the core heroes all for naught. While the book is part one of a series, going into a part two with so many unresolved mysteries is unsatisfying for an invested reader. Ideally, many of these mysteries should have been resolved, and their resolution either sets foundational structures for the next book, or they create additional mysteries to commence in subsequent books.
The most egregious fault with Daughters of Arkham lies with the main character of Abby herself. Female protagonists are a rare sight in Lovecraftian texts, let alone one that is both underage and pregnant from a non-consensual encounter. By virtue of being all of the above, Abby is inherently carrying social commentary. Robinson and Rodriguez play it safe under the umbrella of the young adult fiction categorization and do not explore these aspects of Abby with any rigor. This causes the writers to commit a common error when it comes to storytelling: disregarding the mantra of “show, don’t tell.” The concentration on Abby’s pregnancy is always rooted in the physical aspect of it: her weight and belly cause her to falter riding on the handle bars of a bike or her back hurts when she is walking outside and trying to traverse a graveyard. These reminders of her physical pregnancy are constantly reminded to the reader throughout the story (the tell part), but there is no mention of Abby’s internal struggle to come to terms that she will soon be a mother (the show part). Her emotions, her stress, her fears, her hormones, and even basic thoughts of the matter (What clothes should I buy? How do I change a diaper?) are never brought to the reader’s attention. Early in the book, Abby operates under the mindset that her pregnancy is a thing of the future and can be addresses in due time, but currently she can go about as a normal teenage girl. The authors also operate with this mindset and never reconcile it. This causes a disservice to the character as it roots her pregnancy only as a physical thing, instead of the full, complex package it is.
Despite this faux pas in addressing Abby’s pregnancy, it is overshadowed by what Daughters of Arkham does accomplish. The novel is both fun and thrilling with its horror, and it puts forth the effort to lead the readers to become invested in the young characters. The 428-page count of the book may seem daunting, but like the human visages that the Croatans wear, this is an illusion; the story moves at an incredible pace that fits with the investigative action of the characters. Daughters of Arkham is ultimately successful at flirting with only the barest of Lovecraft elements and creating its own story.