What is The Last Ritual?
A mad surrealist’s art threatens to rip open the fabric of reality, in this twisted tale of eldritch horror and conspiracy, from the wildly popular world of Arkham Horror.
Aspiring painter Alden Oakes is invited to join a mysterious art commune in Arkham: the New Colony. When celebrated Spanish surrealist Juan Hugo Balthazarr visits the colony, Alden and the other artists quickly fall under his charismatic spell. Balthazarr throws a string of decadent parties for Arkham’s social elite, conjuring arcane illusions which blur the boundaries between nightmare and reality. Only slowly does Alden come to suspect that Balthazarr’s mock rituals are intended to break through those walls and free what lies beyond. Alden must act, but it might already be too late to save himself, let alone Arkham.
THE LAST RITUAL is the second novel of the Arkham Horror standalone novel series. I was a huge fan of Josh Reynold’s WRATH OF N’KAI novel and was interested in seeing what more the series might do with the boardgame’s version of Arkham, Massachusetts. Chaosium’s CALL OF CTHULHU has a history of fiction but most of it is typical Lovecraftian horror, which is to say, “Everyone dies or goes insane at the end.” Which has somewhat limited its mass appeal. Arkham Horror seems more keenly aware of the audience’s love of pulpy fiction (or at least mine) so the stories are horror-adventures.
The Last Ritual by S.A. Sidor is a bit more typical of “classic” HP Lovecraft compared to its predecessor in that the protagonist isn’t a classy cat burglar with an experience hunting occult artifacts. Instead, it is about a failed (or perhaps never was) painter named Alden Oaks. Thankfully, Alden Oaks has money and is of the “stupid rich” variety.
After a chance encounter with an occult festival in rural Spain, Alden returns home to Arkham, Massachusetts only to find a series of strange events occurring. I know, strange events in Arkham, perish the thought. Either way, he soon hooks up with an intrepid would-be crime reporter in Nina Tarrington and the two set out to unravel the mystery while beginning their romance.
I know that romance and Call of Cthulhu are not typically associated. The only romance that gets any real depth in Lovecraft is “The Thing on the Doorstep” (and arguably “Medusa’s Coil” but we don’t talk about that one). However, I really like Nina and she forms an interesting bond with the lay about rich boy who is one of the least likely occult investigators you’re going to find in any version of the Mythos. I really liked the two and it helped set up the events for the finale that is strong.
The use of the 1920s environment is very well realized with period slang, artists, and a general “Great Gatsby” sort of feel to events. Alden has never worked a day in his life and wouldn’t understand how to begin but that doesn’t stop him from being a likable protagonist anyway. His encounter with Harry Houdini is one of the high points of the book, especially since Lovecraft wrote a story with Erich Weisz as the protagonist.
The antagonist of Juan Hugo Balthazar is a nice contrast to most Cthulhu cultists with his focus on magical paintings and “evil art” contrasting to the usual depraved cities or inbred hillbillies. A Spanish surrealist, he has a fascist bent despite his hippie commune-like environments. You also get the sense that he’s not nearly as capable or talented at wielding occult forces as, say, Carl Sanford. That makes it credible that Alden might pose a threat, however inadvertent.
The GraphicAudio version of the book is the one I recommend over the regular audiobook or text version. The cast manages to capture the characters perfectly and really bring to life their 1920s ultra-wealthy lifestyles. There’s a naïve innocence to Alden that makes you regret that he’s going to encounter the Mythos in any form since that’s something that won’t last in the face of it. I also like Nina’s actress as her Bostonian accent is something few Lovecraft productions try to replicate.
In conclusion, The Last Ritual is a really enjoyable piece of work. While the first book was a pulpy action-mystery, these re about more typical ordinary citizens getting caught up in the supernatural. It’s lighter fair than most cosmic horror but still definitely in the horror genre. I definitely recommend readers pick it up if they have the chance in any format.