The Mask of Silver (releasing January 5, 2021) is the third novel from Aconyte Books set in the Arkham Horror Files universe, the Lovecraftian 1920s about investigators of cosmic horror. The Mask of Silver travels to Prohibition-era New England via sunny California, as the protagonist of Rosemary Jones‘s tale – Jeany – works as a designer in the silent film industry. The cast and crew travel to Arkham to create the latest horror masterpiece, pushed by the imaginings of a ‘visionary’ director. However, an ominous sense of foreboding hangs over the production, and Jeany comes to wonder if there is something more sinister afoot than Hollywood profits trumping all.
Out of the prior set of Arkham Horror novels (published directly by Fantasy Flight Games) the clearly least appealing to me also involved the making of a film. So I experienced a bit of trepidation when I started reading The Mask of Silver. Here, however, the backdrop of 1920s moviemaking was pretty interesting. Not only did Jones deliver what seemed to be a well-researched look into the shoestring behind-the-scenes workings of the industry, but she also took the opportunity to shine a light on way race and sexuality were thought of at the time. For example, Jeany and her sister have a mother of Chinese extraction and a father of Swedish. But sister Renee can pass, while Jeany cannot – making Renee eligible to play the leading lady, but only so long as their sisterhood is kept secret. Acknowledging this sort of reality is especially appropriate given H.P. Lovecraft’s well-known views on race.
Unfortunately, the development of the filmmaking side of the tale comes at the expense of the investigation side of the story. Jeany specifically tells the reader on more than one occasion that the film is going to come to a bad end. It’s the sort of thing that, as the reader of a cosmic horror fiction novel, you probably knew was going to happen from the moment you knew there was a film. It seems like the opening of the book required laying so much groundwork that Jones felt the need to remind the reader that the bad stuff will be coming, lest the reader forget what sort of novel this was.
Alas, the wait does not pay off as much I had hoped. There’s a slow opening introducing the movie industry, an ensemble cast of characters, and how the former fit into the latter. Things start to pick up in the middle as nightmares and accidents plague the set, and Jeany receives hints of some evil afoot. Rather than building to a crescendo, however, the action continues at a sedate pace. Partially, this is because Jeany’s “investigation” doesn’t really involve much investigation. She’s the one member of the cast/crew who mostly realizes that there’s something wrong, but she spends most of the book fretting about it instead of doing something about it. By the time she tries to take action, there’s little action left to take and little time left for drama.
I appreciated Jones’s shout-outs to the existing characters from the Arkham Horror world. While the main characters are original, the book includes appearances by or references to “Ashcan” Pete, Agnes Baker, and Darrell Simmons. These references are a bit shallow but broader Cthulhu Mythos fans will enjoy the deeper use of elements of The King in Yellow (just check out the cover).
Taken together, The Mask of Silver will be best enjoyed by sometime who appreciates the way that Jones has done her research and worked in real-world and existing setting elements, from film production to game characters to genre writings, and who is looking for a slow burn, low key tale of cosmic horror. Personally, I really liked the former, but wished for a protagonist who was more proactive and participated in a more involved investigation that could push a more aggressive tale.
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