I came to “The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham” because of my interest in works derivative of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror legacy. A mash-up between the Cthulhu Mythos and Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo style seemed like an interesting marriage, and authors Nick Mamatas and Brian Keene seized upon the more extreme elements of Thompson’s conspiracy theories to weave an entirely new narrative that, if not always terrifying, is certainly strange.
Holed up in his fortified compound, “Owl Farm” in Woody Creek, Colorado, Thompson decides to pursue the American Nightmare, the corollary to his unfinished book “Joint Chiefs” about the death of the American Dream. This is Thompson in his later years, infamous thanks to Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoon caricature of him, Uncle Duke, who was in turn inspired by Thompson’s alias Raoul Duke. Thompson adopts a new alias as Uncle Lono, the Hawaiian deity of fertility, agriculture, rainfall, and music. It’s not long before Thompson takes “fungi from Yuggoth” which gives him extra-spatial perception and a connection to others who take the alien mushrooms. This drug ex machina leads Thompson/Lono into the middle of a conflict between upper class Arkham thugs supporting the political machinations of Richard Nixon and the subhuman fish-people of Innsmouth. Their two deities vie for dominance: Moloch, a giant owl worshipped at the Bohemian Grove attended by Nixon, and Cthulhu, the Elder God we know and love.
We’re never entirely sure what’s going on thanks to Thompson’s gonzo journalistic style. Lovecraftian references are often inserted at random; characters appear and disappear, and the narrative cuts away whenever there’s action. The modern setting plays with our perceptions of political, historical, and Mythos realities, all the while reminding us that Thompson was a horndog junkie unafraid to speak truth to power.
The conclusion involves Mi-Go mind canisters, “Samoan Attorney” Oscar Zeta Acosta, Mother Hydra, and enough asides to make your head spin. The conclusion give’s Thompson’s suicide and Acosta’s disappearance more resonance than reality might accord their seemingly random exits, but their passing will leave you wishing we had more drug-fueled crusaders of justice. Because “The Damned Highway” is set in the past, the authors aren’t afraid to use their knowledge of future events of politics and ecological disasters to hint that even if Cthulhu didn’t manage to destroy America the first time around, he’s about to get a second chance in 2012.
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