Once upon a time, Fantasy Flight Games released Arkham Horror, which was identified as a Call of Cthulhu board game because Cthulhu hadn’t yet become such a big thing that FFG created its own in-house world of Lovecraftian horror to house gems such as Mansions of Madness (second edition). But even before the Arkham Horror Files came onto the scene, Fantasy Flight released eight novels set in the world of Arkham Horror (the first launching right around when they stopped making actual Arkham Horror expansions). The eight novels are divided up into two trilogies (Dark Waters by Graham McNeill and The Lord of Nightmares by Alan Bligh/John French) and two stand-alone books (Feeders from Within by Peter J. Evans and The Sign of Glaaki by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley).
I’m coming at these novels as someone who read a lot and someone who enjoys Arkham Horror and the other Arkham Horror Files games, and someone who really likes the use of a shared world and characters across these sorts of game. But I am not coming at these novels as someone who is big into Cthulhu or Lovecraftian horror broadly, so I do not judge the novels by any specific standards to that milieu more generally. Like my review of Dungeonology, I’ll note that my usual RPG book review technique of giving you lots of information and little observations doesn’t work as well for a more ‘normal’ book (where spoilers matter), so what I’m going to consider here is whether Arkham Horror novels are a fun read as genre fiction.
The Dark Waters trilogy goes narrow for the opening book (Ghouls of the Miskatonic) with a fairly self-contained tale occurring in Arkham and at Miskatonic University that focuses on unraveling local murders. As the trilogy progresses the scope of action expands as well, as the characters travel elsewhere in New England (especially Kingsport), to the Pacific Coast, and to other realms, with a goal of preventing planetwide destruction. The primary protagonist from the trilogy is not an investigator from the board game, but the trilogy loaded up with characters who are, including some secondary protagonists – Amanda Sharpe (the Student), Rita Young (the Athlete), Rex Murphy (the Reporter), “Ashcan” Pete (the Drifter), Finn Edwards (the Bootlegger), Kate Winthrop (the Scientist), Luke Robinson (the Dreamer), Marie Lambeau (the Entertainer), and Silas Marsh (the Sailor). Many of these characters have continued to make appearances in the Akrham Horror Files games, such as Mansions of Madness, Elder Sign, and Eldritch Horror, so even if one hasn’t played Arkham Horror itself (which hasn’t received new content in years and has, to some extent, been replaced with Eldritch Horror), there’s still that extra kick from seeing characters you know from the game show up in the books. With that said, knowing the characters from the game isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying the books, and the Dark Waters trilogy is a solidly written, enjoyable tale of semi-ordinary folks pushing back against ancient evil and the humans that abet it.
The Lord of Nightmares trilogy employs a more complex narrative structure. The first two books (Dance of the Damned by Alan Bligh and The Lies of Solace by John French) are related only in background material. The final book (The Hungering God, written by both Bligh and French) pulls a few characters from the first two books, but shifts most of the focus away from the original primary protagonists. The Lord of Nightmares is set in the traditional New England, in Arkham and elsewhere, with much of the action focusing on cultists (there are a few more exotic things, but they spend more time interacting with each other than the main protagonists). Like the Dark Waters trilogy, Lord of Nightmares uses characters from the board game, with Daisy Walker (the Librarian) and Tony Morgan (the Bounty Hunter) headlining Dance of the Damned and Jacqueline Fine (the Psychic) leading The Lies of Solace. Harvey Walters (the Professor) gains prominence in The Hungering God. I found the Lord of Nightmares trilogy a less satisfying read. There’s always a certain about of coincidence or luck in any sort of mystery or horror work, but here I felt more like the characters sometimes almost entirely dependent on happenstance – including literal ‘I knew this but got amnesia and now I remember the critical information that will unravel everything all at once.’ I appreciate the effort to go a little non-traditional in the trilogy structure, but I didn’t think these hung together well enough, between the switching characters and plot lines that weren’t quite tied together enough. I have to get at least a little invested into the characters to maintain peak interest over several books, and the Lord of Nightmares didn’t give me that.
A couple of years after the initial trilogies launched, Fantasy Flight came back with the stand-alone Feeders from Within. I don’t mind trilogies, but I’m glad when publishers realize that not every piece of genre fiction needs to be a trilogy (or hexology or more). Feeders from Within features Mark Harrigan (the Soldier), Carolyn Fern (the Psychologist), and Diana Stanley (the Redeemed Cultist) attempting to (shock!) uncover and then thwart a plot to permit creatures from beyond to torment the locals in Arkham. All three are presented in a believable and engaging manner, with independent motivations and competencies to help them through the plot. Although there isn’t a world-spanning or world-threatening plot, the characters still get to brush up against big and terrible truths, including a brain in a jar and a gun-filled expedition into another realm. That last part might be a bit much for a Lovecraftian traditionalist, but surely anyone who has played an Arkham Horror Files game knows the significance of having lots of firearms for the investigators.
The Arkham Horror novel series wrapped up with The Sign of Glaaki, and I’m going to just lay my cards on the table and say that this was the most disappointing of the bunch. The primary protagonist mostly follows behind Harry Houdini, although it is never really clear why exactly Houdini has permitted Mr. Wheatley to join him from across the pond (or why Houdini was used as a character in this novel at all). Wheatley’s backstory is constantly hinted at, never well-explained, and doesn’t really matter anyway, since he mostly runs around playing Watson to Houdini’s Sherlock. Houdini is in Dunwich as a contractor for a (somewhat anachronistic) movie production that seems to be plagued with missing or dead actresses. As Houdini and Wheatley interview the cast and locals, it becomes apparent that there is a sinister cult about, and that director is slowly losing his mind. Neither of these protagonists is from the game, although the novel isn’t entirely missing cameos (Joe Diamond, the Private Eye, does show up).
All told, I would give a thumbs up to the Dark Waters trilogy and Feeders from Within and a thumbs down to the Lord of Nightmares and The Sign of Glaaki. The books in my favored half don’t break out of the genre fiction category, so there probably won’t be anything there if you aren’t into the Arkham Horror Files games or vaguely Lovecraftian mystery/horror novels, but they were an entertaining read. However, the others were not able to hold my attention. If you really like this sort of thing, The Lord of Nightmares might float your boat (I note that many disagree with me and consider it superior to Dark Waters), but I wouldn’t recommend The Sign of Glaaki even for a fan; it just has too many holes.