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Tales From Failed Anatomies is the second Kickstarter Arc Dream Publishing has done for their (Originally Pagan Publishing’s) Delta Green – a modern setting for Call of Cthulhu. The first Kickstarter, Through a Glass, Darkly raised $27,000 from 346 backers. The newest one saw 1,085 backers raised thirty thousand dollars. It also went so far beyond the original goal, that Arc Dream was able to fund a second book, entitled Extraordinary Renditions via the same Kickstarter! That’s pretty impressive. While Extraordinary Renditions will be an anthology by multiple authors, Tales From Failed Anatomies is a collection of (lucky) thirteen short stories by Delta Green Co-Creator Dennis Detwiller along book ended by two pieces from Robin D. Laws. I’ll admit I took part in the Kickstarter primarily to get playtester access to the new upcoming Delta Green RPG that appears to be shedding its Basic Roleplaying roots. However, I was more than pleasantly surprised by Tales From Failed Anatomies. The book was not only top notch from beginning to end but it’s currently the best tabletop related fiction I’ve read this year, displacing Troy Denning’s The Sentinel and Richard Lee Byers’ The Reaver. Of course it might help that I’m a big fan of Delta Green, but as I think you’ll see from this review, Tales From Failed Anatomies is a book you can enjoy if you’re a longtime fan of Delta Green or if this is your first foray into this Call of Cthulhu spin-off.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Tales From Failed Anatomies consists of thirteen lightly connected short stories showcasing the history (and eventual future) of the Delta Green program. The phrase Delta Green isn’t used that often, which is a nice touch. Same with other references to the history of the game setting like MAJESTIC, but for the most part the book’s references to the myriad incarnations of the tabletop game are subtle. The book is exceptionally friendly to newcomers, all though this is partly due to the writing style of these stories, which is both inviting and yet esoteric. This ensures that all readers get a strong sense of what the story is about, while leaving aspects of the bizarre and incomprehensible left to the imagination of whoever is reading. In many ways, I found the stories in Tales From Failed Anatomies to be a mix of European Existentialism and a twisted version of Mexican Magical Realism (American Science Cthuluism?) which will leave the reader with a sense that there are two tales being told with each short story – the general one of a human encountering what its puny insignificant brain was not meant to understand, and another one that is only hinted at because of man’s incapability of properly understand what it unfolding before it. Detwiller’s writing style ensures that readers will find the tales eerie and more in-line with the origins of the Cthulhu Mythos than most modern takes which unfortunately come down to “blowing up Lovecraftian horrors with guns and bombs and other weaponry.” I always find a good Mythos tale to be one that leaves just as much unsaid as is explored in the written word, and each piece in Tales From Failed Anatomies hits the mark in this regard.
The first three stories in the book (“Intelligences,” “The File” and “Night and Water,” are all about the WWI to WWII era. As such, all three focus on Innsmouth and the Deep Ones. Delta Green gets its origins from The Shadow Over Innsmouth after all. Again, you do not have to be familiar with the Delta Green roleplaying game in the slightest to enjoy or appreciate these stories as you get a cursory look at the roots of the organization with this triad of stories. Perhaps because they are the core of what causes Delta Green to be, these three stories take up a full third of the book, but perhaps Dennis just really liked Deep Ones. I know a lot of Mythos authors do! “Intelligences” is many ways is yet another take on The Shadow Over Innsmouth‘s core twist, but it’s done in a very interesting way. “The File” is a wonderful look at Innsmouth from a not-so rank and file government employee’s point of view. While “Intelligences” and “The File” are both heavily centered around the events that went on in Innsmouth, “Night and Water” is only vaguely connected to the Deep Ones and is more a WWII story about Nazis using a hybrid of mad science and occult magics to create…well, something horrible anyway. Still, the Deep One connection has me group it with the other two. These first three stories are tremendous and by the time you are done you’ll have a hard time putting Tales From Failed Anatomies down.
“Dead, Death, Dying” gives you a look at a scientist forced to examine something horrible brought back from an excursion into the Soviet Union. “Punching” tells the tale of a Delta Green agent who has little to no sanity left and his trip back to Harvard for a class reunion. “The Secrets That No One Knows” is a foray into a more conventional and yet somehow Kafka-esque Mythos story. Everything is spelled out and yet nothing is ever truly said in regards to what is actually happening. I loved it.
“Coming Home” is a look at the horrors and metal issues plaguing many that returned from the Vietnam War and our other excursions into Southeast Asia. In the case of the story’s main character, this is compounded all the more by the pivotal events that shook out Delta Green in 1970. “Coming Home” is perhaps the least accessible to newcomers as there is lot alluded to from the tabletop game that is never expressly mentioned in the short story, but I think newcomers will still be able to enjoy it for what it is and will take the vague mentions the same way they do all the others in the collection – sinister allusions to something not said.
“The Thing in the Pit” is the story of a hapless IRS agent that gets in over his head. What starts off as a routine inquiry into fraud turns out to be far more than he ever expected. It also features what appears to be a husband and wife Shoggoth Lord tandem, which makes for an interesting tale. Usually I hate stories and adventures involving these creatures because they are done so poorly, but “The Thing in the Pit” is the best I’ve seen that uses them. Of course they might not BE Shoggoth Lords as they are never called that, so hey.
“Contingencies” gives us a look at the Russian equivalent of Delta Green, GRU-SV8 and one agent’s hapless foray into a strange machine known only as the Mironov device. This is a wonderful story that really looks at the fallacies of reality. What starts off as a story about mathematical equations ends up becoming a stark look at what existence really is…or is not. It’s a hard story to describe without piling on spoilers, so let’s just say that you never know what is taking place in the core reality of the tale and what is taking place in a splinter version.
“Drowning in Sand” is a look at an old, probably insane scientist and his reflections at MAJESTIC in what may or may not be Area 51. “Philosophy” looks at the “forced retirement” of a long running Delta Green agent. It’s also a look at how underground Delta Green is by this point in time (pretty close to the original release date of the game version).
The last two stories in the book are the weakest and by far my least favorite in the collection. While still entertaining in their own right, they are a bit lackluster compared to what came before them in the collection. I think this is because both stories take place in the near future. One very near (2015) while one in the latter half of the 21st Century (20XX). “Witch Hunt” apparently shows “Delta Green” being exposed to the American public at large and the cover-up that goes into it while “After Math” is the apocalypse of sorts. They definitely are the weakest in the collection and it’s sad to see the collection end on a down turn, but hey, I loved the first eleven stories in the collection, so it had a pretty good run. They can’t all be winners after all, and even if I didn’t care for these two, this was still the most I’ve enjoyed tabletop related fiction this year.
You don’t have to be a Delta Green fan to love Tales From Failed Anatomies. You don’t even have to be familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos at all. Newcomers will walk away from this short story collection wanting to know more about this agency that is almost as shadowy as the things it fights. Perhaps that will lead people to purchasing other Delta Green Fiction, but hopefully it will make them want to try the Delta Green roleplaying game, be it the original version or the new upcoming take. Either way, for $9.99, you’re getting a wonderful short story collection and it’s one you’ll be able to devour regardless of your prior knowledge of the setting. These days most tabletop fiction releases assume you are intimately acquainted with the world and/or characters in the novel and make no attempt to draw in newcomers. That insular style of writing only serves to push casual readers or newcomers away. Thankfully Tales From Failed Anatomies does the exact opposite. Pick it up, even if you’ve never heard of Delta Green before this review. Once you’ve read it, there is a whole wide world of horror for you to explore.
[5 of 5 Stars!]