Phipps’ sequel to Cthulhu Armageddon, The Tower of Zhaal is a dark and forlorn tale; a hybrid of cosmic horror and weird-west. For those unacquainted with cosmic horror, it is a sub genre, also known as Lovecraftian horror, inspired by the works of Late Victorian-era author H. P. Lovecraft. Known for it’s philosophy called cosmicism, this style of writing focuses on philosophically intense horror based on the occult or the unknown, almost always with the dominant themes of helplessness or hopelessness.
The Tower of Zhaal does not shy away from it’s nihilistic roots. Henry Booth, our protagonist, is slowly transforming into a monster. When cultists from the University approach Booth and his lover Mercury, they offer to save him in return for one task; they must hunt down a rogue cultist who is determined to release the last Great Old One, an ancient cosmic deity that exists outside of time and space.
In the tradition of weird-west epics such as Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Charles Phipp’s The Tower of Zhaal is a milieu adventure filled with as many creatures and concepts from Lovecraft’s works as you could imagine. A dark world that your imagination paints with roiling black clouds across apocalyptic orange skies, rusted and corroded buildings, dead trees and wastelands in every direction.
Not bogged down by plot, it is a strong character-driven tale. The new threat to an already desecrated world doesn’t motivate the heroes; they are literally only concerned about Booth’s transformation. His character arc is the driving force behind the entire book – without his growing disability he would never venture forth, nor have been contracted to save the world (or have been capable of the deed.)
I found that the book’s main weakness was it’s assumption that the reader was familiar with the first book. Many elements felt rushed: characters, locations and events cropping up from the previous tale and being mentioned only in passing. As a first-time reader of Phipps’ work I feel I would have enjoyed the book more if he had slowed down and spent some time reminiscing for the reader’s sake. Also, the book reached a point where, instead of feeling dread or anxiousness for what was going to happen next, I became tired with the introduction of more, and more, and more creatures. Sometimes less is more, and I think this book could have used less villainous creatures and given the remaining ones more impact.
But these aside, the book was very enjoyable. There have been many high profile authors try their hand at Lovecraftian horror – the most notable being Stephen King or Ramsey Campbell. The difference being, most writers try to craft an intense story set in our world, facing the threat of cosmic horrors… Phipps has challenged himself to make the heroes of those books fail, to allow the darkness to swell over the Earth and corrupt it. As the past decade’s obsession with zombies and Y/A dystopias starts to wane, it is a treat to read a more unusual version of the end of the world.
Recommended for those who enjoyed Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, David Gemmell’s The Jerusalem Man, or Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. You can read my interview with Charles Phipps about this book here.