Book Review: The Throne of Bones by Brian McNaughton

A masterwork of ultra-dark fantasy.

The Throne of Bones is a collection of stories all sharing the same history and mythos. The core of the collection – the titular Throne of Bones itself – is a series of interwoven tales revolving around the figure of the ghoul. Though ghouls have haunted western literature ever since the translation of the Arabian Nights into English, appearing in the works of Beckford, Poe, and Lovecraft among others, McNaughton does more to flesh them out than perhaps any other author, exploring their strengths and weaknesses, their hungers and lusts, their peculiar powers, and even the various theories that try – and fail – to explain their existence. The result is a literary treatment of ghouls and ghoulishness so exquisitely rich that it makes other representations look pallid in comparison.

McNaughton’s development of a unique ghoul mythos is only one example of his worldbuilding skills, which are nothing less than awe-inspiring. Throne of Bones provides a cohesive vision of a world of sumptuous decadence, inexorable ignorance, and casual cruelty, where life is cheap and sinister clans of aristocrats lord it over those of less fortunate rank. In its aesthetics and mood it recalls the baroque decadence of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Averoigne stories, and it is not surprising to find that CAS was a formative influence on McNaughton. Nevertheless, McNaughton’s creation is his own, as is his voice, gleefully nihilistic and full of black humor.

The stories themselves are extremely horrific, teeming with visceral and psychological terrors. This is the darkest of dark fantasy – macabre, grotesque, and devoid of any sense of tiresome generic decorum. McNaughton takes you to horrible places with no apologies given. Here we have a rancid world overflowing with necromancy, necrophilia, incest, rape, slavery, cannibalism, and a whole host of unique horrors of McNaughton’s own devising. His unfortunate characters are thrust into fates so twisted and blackly ironic they make Oedipus Rex look like The Truman Show.

McNaughton’s prose is exquisite, his dialogue witty and rich, his characters distinctive and vivid. In terms of genre, this work is almost unique, blending the gothic, the weird, the grotesque, the fantastical, and the mythical into a rich and intoxicating blend the likes of which is very seldom seen. McNaughton has taken the weird and gothic threads of his literary forebears – Beckford, HPL, CAS, REH, Machen, E. R. Eddison, etc. – and added elements of horror so graphic and gleefully obscence one is tempted to label these stories “splatter fantasy.”

It’s hardly possible to praise this work enough. It’s ingenious, pure and simple. Reading these tales, I found myself shocked that McNaughton has not become a household name in the realm of horror, nor even a particularly well-known one.