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What is Hammers on Bone?

John Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He’s been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid’s stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He’s also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he’s hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

As Persons investigates the horrible McKinsey, he realizes that he carries something far darker. He’s infected with an alien presence, and he’s spreading that monstrosity far and wide. Luckily Persons is no stranger to the occult, being an ancient and magical intelligence himself. The question is whether the private dick can take down the abusive stepdad without releasing the holds on his own horrifying potential.

Review

HAMMERS ON BONE by Cassandra Khaw is a rare gem in what I’ve always felt should have been a larger genre: the Cthulhu Mythos detective novel. I’ve played a few video games with the premise like Dark Corners of the Earth, The Sinking City, and Call of Cthulhu (2018) but I feel like it’s something that should have been as popular a genre in paperback fiction as the Dungeons and Dragons novel was in the Nineties. I feel like Chaosium and other parties could have made some serious bank on this and I’ve always wondered at that missed opportunity.

Personally, my theory is that in addition to the nebulous status of Cthulhu copyright ownership, I also felt like there were people who felt that Pulpy fun “Tommy Guns and Two Fisted Action” Cthulhu playstyle was something that people in charge disdained. This despite the fact that I think it’s the absolute best way to play Call of Cthulhu and why I will always choose Pulp Cthulhu over its regular counterpart. I know my friend Seth Skorkowsky prefers to run the games that way and if you don’t mind a digression, I suggest if you haven’t checked out his YouTube channel then you should. I also recommend David Hambling’s Harry Stubbs series for another Cthulhu detective adjacent series.

Hammers on Bone is a detective novel set in the Cthulhu Mythos with protagonist John Persons. John acts like a detective from the 1940s in the Modern Era and very few people comment on it. He’s also got a touch of the Mythos as well, possessing the ability to see things that other people do not see and interact with the supernal world. However, despite this, he doesn’t want to do these sorts of cases as a general rule and is annoyed when a young boy asks him to kill his stepfather. Doubly annoyed when the boy make san excellent case for why it should be done.

Cassandra Khaw did a short interview where she said the book was primarily an allegory for domestic abuse (link: http://www.thebooksmugglers.com/2016/11/hammers-bone-cassandra-khaw-inspirations-influences.html ) and I can certainly see that. John Persons wants to help the family out of their situation but finds himself stymied at every opportunity. There’s a certain argument that John is also suffering from “The Hamlet Question” where if he’d just straight up murder McKinsey then things might end better than they do. However, murder isn’t something that is easy to do for our protagonist and I appreciate it is treated with suitable gravity.

Cassandra Khaw has a great mastery of the weird and disturbing. Her interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos is that reality is a a thin wallpaper over something nauseating and terrifying. Many of the encounters John has with the creatures around him are viscerally disturbing and work to underscore the all-too-human evils being conducted around him. Unlike Lovecraft, she does have an interest in the petty awfulness of mankind and the juxtaposition works very well.

John Pearson is a likable enough protagonist that manages to explain away a lot of his unusual insights into the occult and sixth sense without overpowering him. He’s also someone who is neither superhuman nor particularly effective against the human evils around him, let alone the human. You feel his sense of frustration and desire to do the right thing but no real sense of how to even figure out what that would look like.

Hammers on Bone is a short novel, really a novella, and yet is worth the full price. Not every novel is measured in the quantity of its pages after all. I think if you like horror novels, detective fiction, and the Cthulhu Mythos then you’ll definitely enjoy this book. The ending is a gut punch but feels appropriate to everything that happened before in the novella. I’m definitely going to check out the sequel as well.

Available here

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