Nutshell: In the shadow of Chernobyl, Dr. Victoria Cox is told, "a little vodka keeps away the radiation." Don't look for blood and gore or fast-paced thrills here; Sarcophagus moves slowly but inexorably like a Crawling Chaos. Some points are predictable, but they are skillfully set in order to lull you into complacency and keep you from realizing how it's all going to end.
Atmosphere: 3 out of 4. While it doesn't suck you in from the very first sentence (few stories do), the story's opening paragraphs still set a wonderful mood, and this is kept up until the very last sentence.
Characters: 4 out of 4. You can practically feel them breathe through the pages, even the ones that appear for only a couple of pages. Heck, even the characters that are only referenced.
Plot: 3 out of 4. Most of it runs tightly, with not a single scene wasted, but there is one section that is arguably an infodump, when Dr. Cox meets the old woman who lives in the Zone of Alienation.
Writing Style: 3 out of 4. Philip Hemplow's dialogue is, how can I put it any other way, human. The writing is also thorough, but nevertheless clean and simple, unadorned. There are a couple of technical issues, but nothing severe.
Worldbuilding: 4 out of 4. Slavic mythology. Soviet and nuclear folklore. Even a Japanese cult gets a fleeting mention, among other names dropped, and all of it is tied together with Lovecraft's horrendous Mythos.
All ratings are on a scale of 0-4, 4 being incredible and almost literally beyond belief, 0 being so abysmal as to be the literary equivalent of a trainwreck, and 2 being average.
Details, details: [here be spoilers]
I really don't know how to feel about some of this. Appropriately enough for a Lovecraftian story, I think I might be going insane. I can't help but read a story nowadays and predict half of the things that are going to happen just on the basis of stepping out of the story and thinking meta, and then going meta on my meta to decide if the author is aware of what people may predict and is going to aim to subvert that, and then I wonder if, at that point, I'm thinking at one level higher than the author or still one level lower and I'm going to be outfoxed.
Well, I predicted almost all of it this time, but I can't shake the feeling that Philip Hemplow played me hard. Maybe it's just paranoia, but I'm pretty sure that the predictable parts were there just to keep me distracted from the other stuff, the stuff that I didn't see until it smacked me on the back of my head and drove a knife in my back.
Also, Nyarlathotep as the middle manager of Azathoth, Incorporated. Yes please.
It was great when the Lovecraftian elements began to really appear. I read "1000 masks," then "Dark Pharaoh," and then I had to go back to "1000 masks" and make sure that I just read this right, and then OH YES.
I wonder about the black bird, which has eyes but no head. I can't tell if I'm misunderstanding something (is it supposed to be a kind of mothman-like being?) or if this is an inconsistency in the writing.
The scene with Anubis-hotep was one of the best, and a superb scene of supernatural interaction. I would say that it was second only to the very last passage. Indeed, the whole story feeds excellently into one of my own usual themes in horror, that being an experience with the divine (which need not be a nice or happy thing).
The last couple of paragraphs really nailed it and made this story pure gold, turning Sarcophagus into a Lovecraftian anti-natalist story to make Thomas Ligotti and Detective Rust Cohle proud. It is, in a Cthulhoid way, a very beautiful ending, and the very ending that the story and its world demanded.
For more reviews and free story ideas and books (like an introduction to comparative mythology for writers and worldbuilders), check out White Marble Block, at whitemarbleblock.blogspot.com