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Posts Tagged ‘HP Lovecraft’

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Mr Prez himself, Barack Obama, is a big fan of Conan the Barbarian and has a sizable collection of Conan comics. It’s one of those things which seems so natural once you’re aware of it, isn’t it? The imposing physical presence… the grim personal magnetism… the ferocious code of personal honour… peas in a pod, I tell you, peas in a pod.

I should probably stop being snide about Obama, who is not someone I have serious issues with, and write some more about the Cimmerian himself, who… well, Conan may be a fictional character who’s been dead for many millennia, but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to risk writing snotty things about him. Yes, he’s that hard.

And possibly he doesn’t really deserve it. After reading various Conan stories over the course of nearly thirty years – many of them pastiches written quite recently – not long ago I took the plunge and embarked upon Conan: The Definitive Collection, which contains the original tales written by Conan’s creator, Robert E Howard, back in the 1930s. (The word ‘definitive’ is potentially questionable, given that at least two stories from the centenary edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan don’t appear – but I will resist the urge to digress, for once.)

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Most people’s view of Conan has been shaped either by the Marvel Comics version of the character so beloved of the Commander-in-Chief, or the movie incarnation so memorably embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger (I suspect we may safely dispense with Jason Momoa’s contribution), so to go back to the original source of the character would probably come as a shock. I am perhaps lucky in that I never really read the comics and didn’t see the movie until after I’d read a few Howard stories, so I always had a sense of how Arnie wasn’t quite getting under the character’s skin.

On paper there’s really not much to be said about the Howard Conan: the stories comprise a partial biography of a warrior living in a prehistoric but still semi-civilised world vaguely recognisable as our own (the geography is a bit different). After a chequered career as a thief, pirate, and mercenary, he rises to the throne of one of the major nations of his day, and… well, Howard never revealed whether his Ever After was happy or not.

The consensus about Howard’s writing is that this is pulp fiction, perhaps of a superior quality, but still ultimately pulp. And this is probably true: there is no great invention or artifice in the conception or construction of the stories. They are formulaic on a number of levels – the plots usually boil down to a confrontation between Conan with his massive sword and an unspeakably degenerate wizard of some stripe, more often than not featuring a fight between Conan and a big monster of some kind (usually an ape or a snake). It’s possible to view some of the later stories as expanded new takes on the earlier ones – Red Nails and The Slithering Shadow share most of their plot elements, as do The Scarlet Citadel and The Hour of the Dragon.

Even the actual storytelling gets quite repetitive: you find yourself playing a game when reading these stories which I used to think of as Conan Bingo, mentally looking out for the stock words and phrases Howard routinely deploys when describing his hero – not a single description of Conan goes by without an appearance of at least one of the following: wolf, thew, massive, square-cut mane, panther, iron, corded, muscles, frame. (Conan’s love interest of the week, by the way, usually snags at least a couple of: lovely, slim, lithe, pale, figure, alabaster.)

As you can probably imagine, the politics, sexual or otherwise, are fairly unreconstructed in all of these stories. Howard’s Conan isn’t the grunting thicko that Arnie sometimes gave the impression of being, but a sharp and wily customer with various talents beyond hacking people to bits – he speaks numerous languages and is a whiz at commanding an army. (He appears to have a solid grasp of neo-con financial management, too, judging from a few hints in the stories, but Howard never got around to writing Conan the Free-market Economist.) Most men he meets are instantly cowed by and jealous of him, while most women… well, you can probably imagine. He is not unlike James Bond in chainmail, in short.

The comparison with Bond is not quite as flippant as I may have made it sound, because I think both Robert E Howard and Ian Fleming were writing about a kind of idealised archetype of masculinity – from their own cultural perspectives, of course. Bond and Conan are both ruthless killers and bon viveurs, as well as being sexually magnetic – fantasy figures, it goes without saying. The difference is that Bond is an imperial figure, intent on preserving a cultural system, while Conan is a more American figure, representing freedom and individual self-reliance (his creator was a Texan, after all).

The parallels run further – both confront evil masterminds with outlandish henchmen, both are worldly polymaths, and both the Conan stories and the original Bond novels are quite staggeringly sexist and racist by modern standards. You quickly lose track of the number of references to shady hook-nosed easterners, yowling woolly-headed negroes, and so on. There’s never any suggestion of Conan himself even considering relations with a woman of a different ethnicity, and one of his few points of honour is his reluctance to let other ‘white women’ be despoiled by the other races.

Considered all together, this is perhaps why Robert E Howard is one of those very influential writers most serious critics are sniffy about. Even those who can find something positive to say about the verve, colour, and narrative strength of his storytelling qualify this by saying it was all a result of inborn natural talent – the implication being he never really thought about what he was doing.

I’m not sure I would go so far, and I do think it’s interesting that Howard is mostly held at arm’s length when his contemporary and correspondent HP Lovecraft is, to a significant degree, feted as a major literary figure. Lovecraft’s best known fiction is as formulaic as Howard’s, albeit in a different way, and it is just as uncomfortably racist, if not in fact moreso. The only thing that keeps Lovecraft from being sexist, one suspects, is the fact that he seems rather reluctant to write about female characters at all.

The links run deeper – there’s a Lovecraftian influence on some of the Conan stories which seems indisputable. One of the first stories, The Tower of the Elephant, has an encounter between the Cimmerian and an honest-to-Gawd extraterrestrial very much in the Lovecraftian mould – this creature is called Yogah, from the planet Yag. Mentions of blasphemous cities inhabited by dreadful, pre-human creatures also crop up in a number of stories (Queen of the Black Coast, for one). While Howard did write what some have classified as Cthulhu Mythos stories, none of them feature Conan (except to the extent that all his protagonists are to some degree interchangeable – wolfish, with iron, corded muscles, etc), which I can’t help feeling is a bit of a shame. What Lovecraft’s stories lack in narrative drive, Howard has by the gallon – and while the mythology and supernatural elements of the Conan stories sometimes feels a bit vague and underdeveloped, that’s the last thing you can say about the Mythos. A full collaboration between the two of them would surely have been a match made in weird pulp heaven.

But I digress. I really don’t think you can dismiss Howard as a guileless hack while continuing to acclaim Lovecraft as a great literary one-off. Many of the stories are formulaic, but that doesn’t detract from the energy and verve with which they are written. And every now and then Howard transcends his own formula and produces something of undeniable quality: the astonishingly vivid sequence in A Witch Shall Be Born depicting Conan’s crucifixion, for instance (practically the only thing from the original stories to make it into the movies), or the atypically bleak and downbeat tone of Beyond the Black River (Conan wins a Pyrrhic victory as an outpost of civilisation is overrun by savages).

And above all the stories have the smack of sincerity about them – their politics may be unacceptable these days, but the politics itself is implicit in what are primarily adventure stories. Provided you bear in mind these stories are the product of a different era and sensibility, there is still much to enjoy here (especially if you pace yourself and don’t splurge on the whole set in a few days). These stories and this character must have lasted for a reason – and, when you consider that, the whole question of exactly how good a writer Robert E Howard was becomes just a little bit academic.

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So, the initial batch of Babylon 5 TV movies. These are, as a little thought might lead you to expect, curious beasts, and difficult to generalise about as a group – some are deeply tied into the grand story of the original series, others are of necessity required to stand alone. Joe Straczynski has gone on record saying that none of the peripheral projects, like these and the other spin-offs, did anything but cheapen the legacy of the original show. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a near thing either way.

The first movie of the bunch is In the Beginning, which tells – in considerably more detail than we ever got to see in the weekly series – the story of the Earth-Minbari War, one of the main elements of backstory for the first couple of seasons.

Now, the immediate problem with this as a premise is that it’s going to be most appealing to people who’ve already watched the show and know a bit about the war in question already, and so most of the audience is going to know the story in advance. This is not a good recipe for drama, and so JMS works hard to build in lots of little shocks and revelations about the regular cast and their roles in the conflict, even if this sometimes comes at the expense of plausibility and good continuity.

So we learn that, as well as Delenn, both Londo and Sheridan are directly or indirectly to some extent to blame for the starting of the war, and that many of the characters first met many years before it was initially suggested. A lot of this they just about get away with, but I really am surprised we never got a scene where Sheridan and Delenn fondly reminisce about their very first meeting and her attempt to have him shot.

It looks very nice and there are some well-mounted sequences, but as the story nears its conclusion it really turns into just a simple recap of events, which the faithful will already know, and which new viewers will likely find go past a bit too quickly. Here the problem of knowing the end in advance really shows its teeth. In the end this particular movie has a lot of curiosity value but is by no means essential.

On, then, to Thirdspace, which is set at some point during season 4, but exactly when is a somewhat fraught question, as it is apparently almost impossible to find a moment when everyone’s in the right uniform and on the station as depicted here. This is a proper standalone story, though informed by the show’s wider universe. Coming home from a routine mission, Ivanova discovers a massive alien construct floating in hyperspace. Believing it to be potentially valuable or useful, Sheridan has it towed back to Babylon 5 and starts to investigate it, with the help of some passing xenoarchaeologists. Unfortunately, the presence of the artefact is having a very strange effect, first on Lyta, then on many of the station’s inhabitants…

JMS says this is his attempt to do a Cthulhu Mythos story in the Babylon 5 universe, to which I can only say ‘Hmmmm.’ There’s certainly a hint of At the Mountains of Madness in the initial set-up of the story, and the way in which the station’s inhabitants are afflicted with bad dreams certainly rings true to Lovecraft. However, a few dream sequences aside, the horror of the artefact is always floating off in the distance somewhere – it never envelops either the audience or the characters.

The way the story develops is also authentically very non-Lovecraftian, although I perhaps sense the dead hand of JMS’s network backers in this. The Cthulhu Mythos is quite short on fist-fights, and the idea of actually giving battle to Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is laughable -and yet the climax of the story boils down to a lengthy brawl on the station and a massive space battle against encroaching aliens from another dimension. Everything is finally resolved by Captain John ‘Nuke ‘Em’ Sheridan reaching for his favourite brand of warhead again. Nice idea, very dubious execution.

'Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!'

‘Take that, Nyarlathotep! Get that stitched, Ithaqua!’

One thing you can say about  Thirdspace is that it at least looks fairly lavish: The River of Souls appears to have been made on a much more restricted budget. Set six months after the end of the series proper, this is another standalone story (though one which reuses the Soul Hunters from early in season 1).

You would have thought the people running the station would by now have instituted a blanket ban on any brilliant-but-maverick xenoarchaeologists being allowed to visit, as when they do it almost inevitably leads to disaster. Alas no, and so we have what’s a close cousin to a Wandering Loony story, with Ian McShane rocking up as someone who’s just pillaged a Soul Hunter crypt. Funding his operations is Garibaldi’s corporation, and so the man himself turns up to ask him just what he’s been up to. But the relic McShane has stolen is not what everyone thinks it is, and things become even more involved when a Soul Hunter turns up demanding his property back.

Playing the Soul Hunter is Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen! Possibly the most distinguished actor ever to cake himself in prosthetics and wobble strangely across a soundstage. To begin with, Sheen’s performance just comes across as incredibly mannered and affected – but then it sinks in that Sheen is genuinely trying to play this alien being as an alien being, not just a fantasticalised analogue of a German, or a Russian, or someone Japanese, which (let’s face it) is basically what most screen aliens essentially are.

The story itself is decent but a bit underpowered. There’s also what initially looks like an unconnected B-plot about Lochley and Allen having trouble with someone operating an unauthorised holo-brothel on the station. This, frankly, comes across as a bit crass – Tracy Scoggins has to cram herself into a pink basque, there’s what appears to be a joke at the expense of SF critic John Clute, and it’s all a bit leery. It does connect up to the main story with the Soul Hunters eventually, but I’m still not sure it does enough to earn its place.

Obviously this picture is just here so you can draw an informed conclusion...

Obviously this picture is just here so you can draw an informed conclusion…

None of these movies is especially accomplished, with River of Souls in particular only being lifted above mediocrity by Martin Sheen’s performance. But they’re all fairly watchable and by no means as bad as the worst episodes of the parent series. Is JMS being a bit hard on them, then? I’m not sure – but I’d say his judgement was bang-on about Crusade and the associated movie, which is what’s up next.

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kraken-by-china-mieville-UK 

I bought China Mieville’s Kraken because I thought I knew the kind of book it was – and if you like the same kind of things I do, you will understand why. In the opening pages of the book, a preserved specimen of the giant squid, not to mention its tank, inexplicably vanishes from a museum in the centre of London. One of the curators of the centre, Billy Harrow, discovers the existence of a squid-worshipping cult, the members of which believe that this may mark a sign of an impending apocalypse. In the nights that follow the disappearance of the squid, people across the city are afflicted with terrible nightmares.

To a certain type of reader it all sounds very familiar, almost winkingly so. One is fooled into thinking one understands the game that Mieville is encouraging the reader to join him in. But then, quite early on, it turns out that things are jarringly not as they have previously appeared to be. ‘So I’m being chased by the Cthulhu cult?’ asks Billy, casually and sardonically. Everyone in the book gets the reference without the need for an explanation, and – tellingly – Mieville assumes the reader does not require one either. Around this same point it becomes clear that Kraken is much more than a simple exercise in pastiche, ultra-knowing or not, for the story widens out to cover a much wider canvas and a broader range of sources. To some extent the book is actually about how different perspectives and sources of ideas can interact and be mapped onto each other, whether they be literary, mystical, philosophical or scientific.

On one level Kraken is a ‘hidden world’ novel, in which the protagonists discover that the apparently-mundane surroundings they inhabit actually mask a much stranger and more terrifying substrate – an obvious comparison would be with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (to which, perhaps significantly, Mieville makes no reference here). But the mystic London which Billy Harrow stumbles into is riotously strange and imaginative, and fuelled by all flavours of history, myth, and pop-culture: it is policed by a distinctly Torchwood-esque branch of the Met, its museums are guarded by terrifying ‘memory angels’, certain streets only exist at particular moments in history and apocalyptic cults seem to be lurking in every dark corner, some of them devoted to the most implausible deities. As well as Lovecraft, there are tips of the proverbial to Michael Moorcock and many other cultural phenomena – we hear of Doctor Who-loving sorcerers whose sonic screwdrivers have become literal magic wands, while Mieville takes advantage of a requirement of the plot to delivery a scathing indictment of the implicit theology of Star Trek.

There is such a profusion of ideas in this book, some of them so outlandish, that in places it really resembles the kind of offbeat comedy Robert Rankin would write, but told with an absolutely straight face: at one point a witch working in the police Cult Squad attempts to apprehend a disembodied, supernatural trade unionist by despatching the animated spirits of TV police cliches after him. But to me it was really much more reminiscent of a modern-dress, much harder-headed and nastier version of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – there is the same depth of narrative, breadth of world and sense of absolute conviction on the author’s part. The books also share the plot element of the return of a legendary figure: the problem with this is how one crafts a legendary figure from scratch and makes their appearance feel properly portentous when it finally comes – to my mind Mieville managed this less successfully than Susannah Clarke. 

Despite the scope of the book the core narrative is never difficult to follow and the prose itself slips by effortlessly. This is more than just a pyrotechnic fantasy romp – at its centre is some very astute thinking about the ways in which we perceive and shape the world, the primacy of idea and paradigm and how we actualise these things – ‘spell’ not just as magical procedure but the act of setting something down in writing, in its own way a magical alteration. The plot boils down to being about different ways of writing, in some ways; I am reluctant to say more for fear of spoiling the book.

I enjoyed most of Kraken very much indeed, but after a while I found myself almost wilting under the continual onslaught of brilliant throwaway ideas and images, and I couldn’t help noticing that in all this creative chaos at least one thread of the plot was never properly explained (at least, if it is, I missed it) – not a major one, though. And when the actual climax to the book returns to (loosely and very obliquely) Lovecraftian territory, it does so in a way that feels vaguely hackneyed – at least, the nature of the central conflict does not startle and delight the same way that much of the rest of the book does. But all this only means that Kraken is merely very good indeed rather than absolutely brilliant. I will be reading more China Mieville when I get the chance.

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I think it will come as no surprise to regular readers hereabouts that, of late, I have become as indifferent as I’ve ever been about the Doctor Who currently in production – and given that we have one of the best Doctors ever, being overseen by one of the best writers ever, this is a bit baffling. Nevertheless the last mini-season left me cold, mainly because of too many episodes where gimmicks or spectacle or the pursuit of the high-concept seemed to have taken priority over proper, solid plotting and storytelling. The last Christmas show was one of the most insipid things I’ve ever seen – it’s not available in a DVD box set as I write (the Christmas show usually gets lumped in along with the following series) which actually had me momentarily wondering if I actually could be bothered to buy it. (But only momentarily: readers, I have Time and the Rani and Warriors of the Deep on DVD. Story quality is not an issue set against the power of fannish completism.)

And so I sat down to watch The Snowmen with expectations dialled down as low as they have ever been, probably, fairly glum and somewhat indifferent. An hour later I was beaming and cheerful, because it seemed to me that it was the best episode in eighteen months and the best Christmas show since The Runaway Bride. I have to say that I distrusted my own reaction somewhat – could it be that reduced expectations had played a part in making this episode look so good? So I watched it again a few days later, expecting to not to have nearly as much fun second time around. Well – true, a few things did jump out at me as dubious that hadn’t done the first time. But hardly any; this episode still looked and felt great.

'They used to say I was hansom, but now I'm more of a growler' etc, etc.

‘They used to say I was hansom, but now I’m more of a growler’ etc, etc.

Is it as simple as the fact that there was just a nicely twisty-turny but nevertheless coherent story going on behind the introduction of the new companion? Was it just the inclusion of a decent, thought-through bad guy? Could it have been the the-clues-were-there-why-didn’t-I-see-it-coming-fanboy-pleasing twist? (Actually, watching the episode on my sister’s hi-def TV I was able to read the small print on Simeon’s business card very early on and worked it out then, but I still didn’t spot the significance of the Doctor’s tin until the end of the episode.) Was it the new TARDIS interior? (It seems to be growing to resemble the Cushing version inside and out.) Surely it can’t have been just the fact that the bass-line is back to a position of due prominence in the theme arrangement?

In the end I don’t really care. If this is a sign of the quality we can expect over the next twelve months then this year may even live up to the collective expectations of fandom. At this moment in time I am back on board with my confidence fully restored (for all that the Doctor’s resolution to retire barely lasted beyond the opening credits, and Moffat seems to insist on writing every major female character as relentlessly flirtatious).

However, a few points to ponder. (Spoilers follow!)

The Snowmen went out of its way to establish that, in Who-world, Sherlock Holmes is and always has been a fictional character. Fair enough, but Moffat saying ‘this has always been the case’ made me think – has there ever been an explicit stating of this on TV in the past? I can’t think of one off-hand. I can sort of understand why Moffat wants to put an end to all the ‘do a crossover!’ chatter, but given Sherlock has a contemporary setting why go on about the original Strand stories like this? I am probably over-thinking as usual. (Of course, no-one in 1892 would have recognised the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes costume, given this story is set well before William Gillette started playing the character dressed like that.)

I’ve no idea what the current consensus is as to the status of the Virgin novels, but we can cross All-Consuming Fire off the list of apocryphal possible-stories now (this novel introduced the detective and his partner whose adventures, lightly fictionalised, formed the basis of the Sherlockian canon – obviously Vastra and Jenny take their places now). The same novel, incidentally, provides an alternate origin for the Great Intelligence – identifying it (rather improbably) with Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth – which is likewise superceded by the events of The Snowmen.

Speaking of which, Moffat might possibly have stuck a line in about the newly-created Intelligence being banished to the fifth dimension, or somewhere similar outside normal time and space – given that first contact between the Intelligence and the monk Padmasambhava is implied to have occurred some time in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there’s an apparent glitch here (also, the old boy would have to be welding like a demon to get all those robot Yeti built between 1892 and 1934).

Other recurring-monster news – four years have gone by, from Vastra, Jenny and Strax’s point of view, since their trip to Demon’s Run (assuming that the reason Jack the Ripper ceased operating in 1888 was simply because Vastra ate him). If the material in the 2011 Brilliant Book is canon, Vastra and Jenny have been associating for at least eleven years now. (I wonder who performed the wedding?) Neve Macintosh is so good as Vastra that I’m a little sorry she’s not the new companion. She gives the character a poise and authority that’s very impressive – this is someone who works with the Doctor as an equal, rather than an assistant. Still, I wonder if the prominence of this character means we won’t be seeing the Silurians back as an adversarial race in future. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the back-story of this race has got increasingly mangled since they were revived in 2010 (I may return to this topic in future).

The same could also be said of the Sontarans. Admittedly, a lot of the brilliant work done in reinventing this race in The Sontaran Stratagem was almost instantly undone in The Poison Sky (which appears to suggest that they’re only the greatest soldiers in the universe as long as whoever they’re fighting can’t shoot back at them), but they’re still a rather more interesting and impressive proposition than the revamped version of the Cybermen (and I would just add that if Neil Gaiman can’t write a great Cyberman story, no-one can – if Gaiman blows it, retire them until the next big anniversary, as they have clearly shot their bolt). However, having a prominent recurring Sontaran as comic relief sort of undercuts that. I can see that, in a very Robert Holmes-y sort of way, Steven Moffat is more interested in writing about characters than races of alien monsters, but he doesn’t want to mess up too many of the big name monsters. A full-on story with hostile, threatening Sontarans would be a good idea sometime soon.

Possibly I am getting much too wrapped up in minor details. But it’s a joy to be doing that rather than complaining about script holes, improbable plot contrivances, or story logic coming a distant third to spectacle or melodrama. I hope I can carry on buriyng myself in the details throughout 2013.

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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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Not long ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. I would say I’m interested in Lovecraft more than an actual fan of his work – while the so-called Great Texts are brilliant achievements (though in quite what field I’m not entirely sure), also owning the recent releases of Necronomicon and Eldritch Tales means I am aware that a lot of HPL’s output is repetitive, peculiar and arguably quite wearisome.

Anyway, the Houellebecq book is interesting, though I would just say this should you also come across a copy – it looks substantial enough, but once you take out Stephen King’s rather lovely introduction and the reprints of two classic HPL tales, you’re left with an essay rather less than a hundred pages long. If you were a complete HPL newbie then I can’t imagine this being much of an issue, given you get two of the Great Texts in the same volume: I, on the other hand, am now the owner of four different copies of The Call of Cthulhu in different collections and formats, and three of The Whisperer in Darkness (not even a particular favourite of mine, it has to be said).

Houellebecq writes cogently and interestingly about HPL’s style and preoccupations, suggesting that the lack of certain subject matter in his work (basically, there’s no sex) is not necessarily as psychologically illuminating as people often assume, but perhaps instead the result of a conscious choice. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this, but it is at least thought-provoking.

Most interesting is a section on Lovecraft’s soujourn in New York City in 1924, which is actually quite touching as it depicts his inability to engage with the modern world and opens up the intriguing possibility of how his life might have gone differently had he managed to find a job, preserve his marriage, and so on. Never to be, I suspect, and it’s only after this traumatic period that the Great Texts were written (Houellebecq throws up the engaging notion that the blasphemous city of R’lyeh, along with all the other nightmarish metropolii which crop up in his later work, are in fact depictions of New York as HPL perceived it).

Houellebecq also touches upon the issue of HPL’s racism and does so with a commendable lack of squeamishness. Even a cursory skim through HPL reveals some very nasty stuff going on – blacks explicitly likened to chimpanzees, the demonisation of anyone who isn’t Caucasian in The Call of Cthulhu itself – but to read extracts of HPL’s own letters on this topic is to take it to another level. The delirious, hyperbolic, almost glossolalic outpouring of words which characterises HPL’s most characteristic moments is put to the service of some appalling notions, such as when he describes New York’s immigrant population:

The organic things – Italo-Semitic-Mongoloid – inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamabilities.

Damn it, Howard, don’t mince words – tell us what you really think! Of course, here we’re touching upon one of the age-old issues, as to how much one should let the nature of the artist influence one’s opinion of the art – the same thing applies to a lesser or greater degree to everyone from Wagner to Damon Albarn, not forgetting Charlton Heston along the way. With HPL it’s possibly slightly different in that his prejudices are so clearly fundamental to his work. Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to excuse them, but instead attempts to put them in context and explain their origin (maybe this in itself constitutes an apologia of sorts).

HPL’s racism is one of things that makes reading his work a slightly awkward experience sometimes, but Houellebecq is also very clear about why it is his work has endured and thrived – it is unique in style, and in its startling effect upon the receptive reader.

I nibble around the edges of HPL’s works quite often, not often having the time and energy to tackle the longer, lesser stories, but I think about him and influence relatively frequently, quite simply because he seems to me to be the single most influential figure in the horror genre as we understand it today.

I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating – HPL was writing in the early years of the 20th century, when our whole conception of the world was shifting onto a new basis following various developments in the sciences. Influential, largely mechanistic philosophies were entering the mass consciousness for the first time, and there was a transition in process between a spiritual age and a materialistic one. And this transition, to me, is what drives HPL’s best writing.

The Great Texts, and many of the other stories, seem to me to be the products of a writer appalled by the philosophical basis of the new age and seeking to articulate this revulsion in any way he can. With the old Judaeo-Christian anthropocentric worldview looking increasingly archaic, the materialistic Darwinian one replacing it offered rather less comfort. I use the word Darwinian intentionally, because HPL clearly seems to have found the notion of evolution as repulsive as any fundamentalist Christian today. And this disgust finds its way into the stories – the central horror of Arthur Jermyn is of a man discovering he is descended from apes, while that of The Shadow Over Innsmouth is of another character discovering his ultimately marine ancestry.

HPL’s rejection of the modern scientific worldview also finds an expression in his praise of ignorance and rejection of the quest for knowledge in several stories. The famous opening sentence of The Call of Cthulhu expresses relief at human inability to make sense of the contents of our own heads, while At the Mountains of Madness features the narrator desperately hoping his account will dissuade anyone from following in his footsteps and acquiring more sanity-blasting knowledge. This is the intellectual and moral equivalent of sticking your head under the duvet and refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths even exist, a rejection of reason and curiosity at a fundamental level.

Perhaps this explains some of HPL’s appeal, but then there is also his unique (and that’s putting it mildly) prose style. It is customary to point out that HPL’s plotting is usually somewhat pedestrian, his characters thin and interchangeable, and his dialogue frequently rather embarrassing (his fondness for meticulously-rendered dialect speech particularly so). Was HPL even bothered about these things? How much of his style is the result of conscious decisions?

Hard to say. But show any reader savvy with SFF literature a paragraph rattling on breathlessly and stuffed with words like Cyclopean, paleogean, chromaticism and unnameable and they will instantly identify the author. Restrained and subtle HPL is not, but he is still a notable stylist, especially since all this overwrought prose at the same time manages to be usefully vague about most of what he’s writing about.

Again, this can be controversial – Michael Moorcock, in Starship Stormtroopers, describes HPL’s writing as ‘offensively awful’ with a ‘resultant inability to describe his own horrors’ (‘leaving us to do the work – the secret of his success – we’re all better writers than he is!’). Given the rather forensic descriptions occurring in several places in the HPL canon, I think this is a bit unfair – and, in any case, suggested horror is more to my personal taste than the no-holds-barred explicit kind.

Which brings me to another HPL-themed book I looked at recently, a collected edition of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon. Now, this isn’t a book I can properly review or write about in great detail, but even the fairly cursory glance I gave it has left it lodged in my head ever since (I think I may partly be writing this piece in an attempt to exorcise it).

Some people have suggested that Neonomicon is an oblique rant by Moore against the state of the current comics industry and the style of storytelling in widespread use within it. Well, maybe, but Moore himself has said in an interview that one of the notions motivating this story was (I paraphrase) to dig into the texture of the Mythos and actually explore what it is that HPL was writing about so obscurely – to take the unnameable and unspeakable, and to name it and talk about it.

The result is a book which, to be honest, I am surprised is on sale in high street bookshops – certainly without a sealed wrapper, anyway. On one level the plot is quite straightforward, concerning FBI agents investigating what appears to be a cult of Lovecraft-influenced fetishists, but – this being Alan Moore – there is inevitably a level of metatextuality going on here. The story is set in a world where Lovecraft was a penurious writer, and the Mythos stories are cult fiction, and this allows Moore to slip in various jokes and observations along the way. But then someone notices that the fetish cult has been in existence since before HPL wrote his stories, which means they can’t be copying him – could he in fact have been writing about something he really encountered?

All this is clever enough, but really by the by: the core of the story concerns an attempt by the main characters to infiltrate the cult and what happens afterwards. All goes well to begin with, but then they are discovered: the male agent is killed and his female partner is gang raped at considerable length as part of a ceremony to summon a Deep One (which duly shows up at the end of the second issue). The rape is depicted over many pages and in great detail, and – to my mind at least – it’s utterly vile and repulsive. If the same images were shown in a movie, that film would only be on sale in specialist adult shops.

The next issue is arguably just as bad, concerning the female agent being locked in a cellar with the Deep One, who proceeds to violate her repeatedly over a period of days. Again, nothing is left to the imagination and it is really quite appalling. I can see why some are suggesting that Moore is making a point here about the mindset of a certain kind of comics reader, and the way female characters are routinely treated, but – Jesus. This stuff is really horrible, surely much more than was required to make the point and easily enough to alienate and disgust people who would agree with Moore on this issue.

The final issue is a bit more palatable and has an interesting new take on certain aspects of the Mythos, but it’s hard to escape the notion that for the writer this book is primarily about the graphic sex and sexual violence that comprise most of the middle two chapters.

Lovecraft himself would surely have execrated Neonomicon as gutter filth of the lowest kind, for all that it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, thoughtfully-produced, and written by someone very familiar with the HPL canon. Is Moore in fact challenging readers of HPL’s prose in this book, as if to say ‘This is what really powers these stories – these are the unspeakable rites you’re so used to reading about’? If so, then Neonomicon is a typically brilliant piece of work from Moore, delivering a typically incisive and plausible critique of HPL and the Mythos while simultaneously being a credible addition to the Mythos itself.

That said, HPL’s words, at their best, leave me with a nebulous sense of wonderment and an equally vague kind of existential dread. Moore and Burrows’ pictures, on the other hand, just overwhelm me with a visceral disgust. Which of these is the more honest and realistic response to HPL’s ideas is surely debateable, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that Neonomicon is what Lovecraft’s work is ‘really’ about. There may be an element of truth there, but to reduce the Great Texts to being nothing more than camouflage for such squalid and limited obsessions is to do both them and their creator a great disservice.

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Well, it promises to be a gribbly few days here at NCJG as a new version of The Thing arrives in UK cinemas imminently. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the 1951 version of this story, and I do appreciate that the 1982 iteration has qualities of its own. This seems like a good opportunity to take a look at John Carpenter’s version, which I haven’t seen in over a decade, but before that I thought it would be interesting to look back at the heritage of this story.

Three adaptations (we can quibble about whether to talk in terms of prequels, remakes, and suchlike) mark The Thing out as a bit of a banker as far as stories go – but we also have to take into account the legion of homages and other variations the different films have received. One way or another, there are a lot of Things out there of different kinds, some rather more obscure than others.

So, deep-frozen aliens under the polar ice. Back we go – where did this story originally come from? Which was the first Thing? Passing over the new version and moving back through time, in 2004 we encounter the possibly unexpected form of Alien Vs Predator, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. An intruder from a different set of franchises entirely, you might say – but this film qualifies. The main difference from the Thing movies is the inclusion of a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times – but even this, as we shall see, only confirms that this film is part of the same lineage, albeit something of a distant cousin.

Proceeding back to 1993, we meet our first small-screen Thing-offspring, acknowledged as such by its creators: the first-season X Files episode Ice, in which defrosted parasitic organisms infect a human research station in Alaska, resulting in much paranoia and carnage. The Carpenter version seems to have been the main inspiration here, with infectious sled-dogs and icky body-horror much in evidence. The parasites are discreet and unassuming little Things, but none of the others in the family could really fault them for their attitude.

Innocent Looking Things (ice parasites from The X Files).

Passing over other marginal candidates such as the 1988 War of the Worlds episode The Raising of Lazarus, we arrive in 1982 to find John Carpenter’s famous version of the story waiting for us. This is probably the highest-profile member of the clan , probably on the strength of the eye-popping visual effects.

80s-style Blobby Thing (an iteration of Carpenter’s take on the monster).

This is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten films, which may explain why it has always had such a polarising effect on viewers. It has such a strong identity of its own that it’s arguably less available as a source of story ideas and images than some of the other versions.

We encounter a botanical addition to the Thing lineage in 1976, in the form of the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom. Typically, this story wears its sources openly on its sleeve – scientists in Antarctica uncover an alien pod, which infects one of them and initiates a shocking transformation from human to alien.

Green Thing (a Krynoid).

This story – amongst the very best of the series – is interesting in that it seems to be both looking back to the 1951 version of the story, with its hostile, humanoid plant, and forward to the 1982 one with its grim tone and emphasis on body horror. I suspect that to focus too much on this would be a mistake, as the metamorphosis in the story seems largely derived from that in the original Quatermass Experiment – although John Carpenter himself is on record as a fan of Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale.

(It may be worth mentioning in passing a number of other references to The Thing in the history of Doctor Who – most obviously in the 1967 story The Ice Warriors, which is based around the concept of deep-frozen and hostile aliens being defrosted with inevitable results.)

In 1972 we meet one of the more obscure and distant members of the family, in the Spanish horror movie Panico en el Transiberiano. No-one, to my knowledge, has made the connection between this film and The Thing before, but to me the similarities are too significant to be ignored.

Really Obscure Thing (wearing its ape-man body).

The Thing in this movie initially appears to be nothing but an ape-man, frozen in ice for thousands of years, but as the narrative progresses the startling truth is revealed – the ape is merely the latest host of a body-hopping, brain-draining alien, stranded on Earth for millions of years. The mutability of the Thing is psychological rather than physical here, but it otherwise behaves in a very similar way to its cousins elsewhere. The narrative waters are muddied somewhat by the ill-judged addition of supernatural elements to the story, but otherwise this is a fun movie which deserves to be better known.

Moving on back to 1951 we meet the first of the true Things, in Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ superb The Thing from Another World. This is really the source of the Thing archetype and nearly all the elements are here: the remote polar location, the frozen alien defrosted by mistake, the desperate battle to survive.

Black and White Thing (James Arness from the 1951 movie).

All that’s really missing is the paranoia and threat to identity which are present in most of the other versions. James Arness’ malevolent plant is rather more of a lumbering, snarling monster than most of its descendants, but the film remains a classic for all sorts of reasons.

Surely, then, we are getting close to the source of the Thing? The 1951 movie is credited as an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the most significant change being the nature of the alien itself. Campbell’s Thing is no vegetable but the amorphous, assimilating horror familiar from Carpenter’s adaptation and beyond. So the origins of the Thing as we know it really lie here in Campbell’s story.

Dog thing (Campbell’s monster in mid-transformation).

Or do they? Published two years before Campbell, and written five years before that, was a story in which an expedition to Antarctica discovers frozen aliens, which are not as dead as they first appear. Later in the story the protagonists barely escape from an amorphous, protoplasmic horror.

Original Blobby Thing (a Shoggoth).

The story in question is, of course, HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – which, incidentally, also features a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times. The question of whether Campbell was deliberately drawing on Lovecraft or not is an open one, and one could of course go further back and look at Lovecraft’s own sources for this tale (Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allen Poe amongst them), but in terms of the recognisable story we’ve been tracking, this seems to be the beginning.

And the final, poetic touch? Lovecraft’s aliens – the ones that are uncovered in the ice, wreak havoc amongst the humans, and thus set the template for everything to follow – are presciently named as Elder Things. You can’t argue with something like that.

Elder Thing.

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