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Posts Tagged ‘Brian Lumley’

I’ve always said that HP Lovecraft was a one-off – it’s one of the things you say, isn’t it? All that stuff about abhorrent cyclopean architecture and hideous extraterrestrial chromaticism… The logical corollary being that for anyone else to try and knock off HPL’s style is rather unwise, to put it mildly. And yet, the production of HPL pastiches, and more specificially Cthulhu Mythos pastiches,  has become – well, not even a cottage industry, it’s a major moneyspinner for a number of publishers.

I’ve generally steered clear of this sort of thing in the past, but on being short of something to read I’m as prone to picking up second-hand paperbacks as anyone else with a container in a storage facility containing 69 boxes full of musty, decaying paper. And last week I availed myself of a pre-owned copy of Brian Lumley’s Return of the Deep Ones and Other Mythos Tales. My familiarity with Lumley was previously limited to reading the first Necroscope in the late 80s, which I recall finding a bit more freewheeling and action-oriented than the typical James Herbert (my baseline for horror novels at the time). He’s certainly a bit more freewheeling and action-oriented than Lovecraft, too.

return

As the title would suggest this is a collection of tales (it feels weirdly appropriate to call these offering ‘tales’ in a way it wouldn’t for, say, the contents of the new Miranda July anthology – but then again that’s another kind of horror), ranging in length from short story to short novel. Not being very familiar with Lumley’s output, I don’t know how characteristic it is that the quality of the story increases with its length – nevertheless, it does. (The first of several heresies I find myself about to perpetrate: Lumley seems considerably more adept at working in the longer forms than HPL himself.)

The first tale in here is a very generic horror story, only really qualifying as Mythos-related through one tiny reference – and the power of a Christian God partly resolves the plot, which would never happen in a Lovecraft story. (Lumley seems to subscribe to the post-Derleth ‘war in heaven’ view of the Mythos – I myself am much more of a Lovecraft purist.) The whole thing just works as a pre-origin story for a character called Titus Crow, and you would wonder just why it’s been included (save to bump up to page count) except for the fact that Crow’s actual origin is in the volume too.

This is Lord of the Worms, a marginally more – er – Mythic tale of dark sorcery and unnaturally prolonged longevity. Several tropes recur across the longer tales – stories within stories, characters being drugged and manipulated without their cognisance, horrific bodily transformation, rambling shoggoths, people seemingly living off coffee – and a few of them appear here. This is a rather linear story, possibly too much so – it has, very loosely, the same central idea as The Wicker Man, but tips off the audience as to the ghastly evil of the antagonist and (more generally) what he’s up to rather too soon. As a result Titus Crow comes across as slightly slow-off-the-mark, and the question of why he doesn’t do anything more proactive than… oh, I suppose I’d better not spoil it… is never really addressed.

Things improve rather with the distinctly more HPL-flavoured Beneath the Moors, which riffs efficiently on lots of different stories, some of them very famous, some rather more obscure (particularly The Doom That Came To Sarnath). The protagonist is an authentically HPL-ian middle-aged academic of possibly dubious sanity (at the start of the story, certainly), and the tale concerns weird saurian statues being found in the rivers of northern England, testaments retelling ghastly genealogical revelations, cyclopean chambers far from the sight of man, ominous frogs – you know the sort of thing. It’s very authentically Loftcraftian in that an opening which sets up a promising mystery is followed by a long section in which not much happens beyond the protagonist describing things, and Lumley (of course) doesn’t have Lovecraft’s semi-demented way with words.

Or does he? Easily the best story here is Return of the Deep Ones, which is primarily a direct sequel to The Shadow Over Innsmouth (which was also arguably a donor to Beneath the Moors as well). Another middle-aged academic, this time a marine biologist, receives a peculiar conch in the post from New England, and is befriended by the goggle-eyed, dermatologically-challenged coterie running the local private yacht club (the story is set in Cornwall, by the way).

There’s a bit of a recurrence here of the protagonist seeming unreasonably slow off the mark in working out what’s really afoot (and that’s a webbed foot, natch) – particularly if you’ve read the original story, but the tale hits all the right beats of insanity and physical degeneration – there’s a description in a story-within-the-story of a bodily mutation more queasily and suggestively graphic than anything Lovecraft himself ever wrote, but it still rings true to his vision, somehow – and if it never quite hits quite the same notes of appalled cosmic horror as HPL himself, Lumley’s facility for adding action-thriller elements to the recipe is a considerable compensation.

The pastiche is so accurate that you wonder if this isn’t in fact some kind of loving, deadpan parody of Lovecraft, especially when the story starts indulging in excruciatingly-rendered dialect-speak (‘Ar, um’s a funny old place, um is’) and (possibly) poking fun at HPL’s love of indecently verbiose description – ‘The surface on which I lay was not solid: that is to say it had a certain resilience, now stretched almost to its limits by my weight… In short -‘ a little late for that, hmm? ‘- I lay upon a fairly wide bed.’ You could have mentioned it earlier…

There even seems to be a potential dig at some of Lovecraft’s own famous foibles, when the protagonist suggests the Deep Ones are ‘degenerate’, someone responds ‘Degenerate?… Would a visitor from another planet be degenerate just because he was different? Is the Chinaman, the pygmy, the Eskimo degenerate?’ HP Lovecraft would probably have been quite convinced that they were – but set against this we have to remember that the Deep Ones are the bad guys, and the person sticking up for the minorities at this point is amongst their number.

The story really works on its own terms, anyway, whether the implied critique of HPL is genuine or just my own semi-fevered imagining. As it goes on it even has the cojones to wheel on Cthulhu himself for a semi-cameo (Tolkien apparently thought ‘cellar-door’ was the most euphonious word in the language – worryingly, I’m starting to feel the same way about  the word ‘Cthulhu’) and make explicit references to the original Call of Cthulhu. The danger is that the story will just feel like glorified fan-fic – but it works so well, and so faithfully, that it really does feel like a genuine sequel, and – the lack of a proper climax excepted – one with a much sturdier narrative structure than any of HPL’s own long-form stories.

As I said, these stories improve with length, and Return of the Deep Ones is a lot of fun, properly icky and genuinely chilling in places, faithful enough to its roots to be satisfying but original enough to feel fresh. I’ve never really felt the urge to write explicit Mythos fiction myself, though I’ve contemplated stuff in a similar vein occasionally – but reading this story I caught myself thinking ‘Lumley makes this look like good fun – I might have a go’. (Don’t panic, readers – ’twas just a passing fancy. To date.) I still think that when it comes to the quintessence of the Mythos, no-one approaches Lovecraft himself, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with or disgraceful about Brian Lumley’s take on it. I will have to keep more of an open mind when checking out new Mythos collections from now on (even if this does mean ending up the owner of umpteen copies of A Study in Emerald, without which it seems no recent anthology is complete…). I will keep you posted. Until then, Cthulhu fhtagn!   

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