Robert Ashcroft’s horror debut explores humanity in age of monsters

An augmented soldier fights against apocalyptic nightmares in a brutal war to save humanity in Robert Ashcroft’s “The Megarothke.”

Debut novelist Ashcroft unleashes a witch’s brew of macabre, Lovecraftian imagery in this strange horror novel that couches a heavy emotional arc within its video game-like setting. Our narrator is former LAPD officer-turned-cybernetic survivor Theo Adams circa 2051, in the last days of the human race. Seven years earlier a “Hollow War” decimated Earth’s population with rail guns and viruses before unleashing the terrifying creatures of the Harvest, known to survivors as the Scourge: “The fiends, bruisers, tender-monkeys, huddlers, snatch rats, cabritas. Rape, slaughter, feast. You don’t need to be reminded in detail. You got organized. You got weapons and established perimeters.” Now some 50,000 scarred survivors remain in the Santa Monica Collective, a ragtag, militarized band of soldiers barely winning skirmishes with the monsters they face. On one side of this conflict there is the Megarothke, the unstoppable, spiderlike killing machine who leads the Scourge, aided by a human quisling called the Recluse. On the other, the Orbital, a desperate but well-armed group of survivors who have fled to orbit but yearn to return to Earth. In flashbacks, Theo takes us back 10 years to his troubled, soon-to-end marriage, whose only saving grace is his daughter, Amelie. The situation is made worse when his ex becomes entangled with a cult called the Trans-Sentience movement, where a splinter faction wants to use a kind of sorcery to summon a powerful demon called the Lightbringer. It’s some heavy mythology-building, but Ashcroft’s skillful blend of noir vocabulary and cyberpunk aesthetics works to its advantage. Between its robotic doppelgängers, mutated monsters and actual ray guns, the book manages to take a hard look at what it means to be human in an age when humanity barely remains.

“The Megarothke” is a bloody, blistering novel of war and sacrifice set in a time of actual monsters.

(Ashcroft will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 7 p.m. April 15 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information:

A subtle, moving collection

Doug Ramspeck’s debut collection, “The Owl That Carries Us Away,” abounds with flawed families, tense confirmations and unlikely moments of grace.

In these stories, Ramspeck traces the emotional fallout from failed and imperfect connections. The threat of violence hangs over the proceedings: When recalling his first love, the narrator of “Slippery Creek” recalls her disapproving father revealing his gun. “He almost smiled, as though he thought I might appreciate the gesture,” the narrator notes — and that blend of implied violence and unexpected emotion serves as a template for much of what follows. The poverty-stricken protagonist of “The Second Coming” prays for a miracle to save his family; someone who might be his troubled father or a divine presence shows up with “a handful of wadded-up and dirty bills.” It keeps eviction at bay, though it doesn’t solve all the family’s problems — and these ambiguous miracles and flawed salvations continue as a motif. The narrator of “The World We Know” thinks back on his relationship with one of his sons, whose life imploded after he killed his girlfriend as a teenager; in “Bedtime Story,” the lines between life and death blur for one grieving woman. Ramspeck eludes easy sentimentality: In works like the title story and “Old Places,” he presents an honest view of the irrational violence and petty grievances of childhood. And while he’s able to work powerfully in a small number of pages, he can also evoke a more lyrical mode, as in the opening sentence of “Slippery Creek”: “When I was sixteen and living with my father for the final winter of his life, I fell in love for a time but did not mean to, and I lost something that was not mine to lose.”

These precise and resonant stories chronicle humble lives and unspoken traumas, making for a subtle and moving reading experience.

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