Posts Tagged ‘HP Lovecraft’

The default position a lot of people writing about the horror genre tend to take is that H. P. Lovecraft is (obviously) a massively influential figure in that genre’s development, but one whose own works have not been well or frequently adapted into other media – not until quite recently, at least (you could argue that the appearance of things like The Color Out of Space and Lovecraft Investigations mark a change in this).

Nevertheless, there are a few Lovecraft movies from yesteryear still kicking around, some of them featuring unlikely people. Most of them predate the recent boom in Lovecraft’s profile and thus widespread ideas about what the term ‘Lovecraftian’ actually means, which if nothing else makes them interesting; they are also prone to try and find a way to make Lovecraft’s stories work in the style of horror movies of the time when they were made, which can also have interesting and curious results.

Two of these movies were directed by Daniel Haller. The first of them, Die, Monster, Die! (another swing at Color Out of Space) we have already discussed; the second came along a few years later, being made in 1969 and released in 1970. This time the film retained the title of the source material, and is called The Dunwich Horror.

Certain terms and names are so loaded with significance for the seasoned follower of Lovecraftiana that it can be a shock when something comes along and starts using them in (what seems like) a shockingly off-hand manner. So it is at the start of this film, which – after a fairly lurid and gothic opening sequence featuring an, erm, unusually challenging delivery for a pregnant mother – takes place on an American college campus somewhere in New England. One would naturally expect this to be the famed Miskatonic University, and indeed it may be so, but – so far as I can tell – it’s not actually named as such on-screen. Everyone seems to assume it is, quite understandably.

Anyway, here at maybe-Miskatonic U, esteemed academic Dr Armitage (Ed Begley) has just finished lecturing, using as a visual aid a copy of the dreaded Necronomicon (in the literature: an incredibly dangerous, sanity-blasting tome packed with awful secrets of the true nature of the cosmos, in this film: a handy old spellbook). He sends university secretary Nancy (Sandra Dee) off to pop it back in its display case, but she and her friend encounter a strangely intense young man intent on having a look at the Necronomicon for himself. He turns out to be the weird and unearthly Wilbur Whately (played by Dean Stockwell in a weird and unearthly moustache), descendant of a long line of occultists and wizards.

Despite the fact that Wilbur’s ancestors apparently tried to blow up the world by summoning the ancient and powerful Old Ones back into being (they are malevolent residents of another dimension), Wilbur and Armitage get on quite well, but a peek at the grimoire is not on the cards. So Wilbur winds up being driven home to the town of Dunwich by Nancy, who seems rather taken with him.

Scholars of the Lovecraftian canon would be justified in suggesting that so far this only bears a vague resemblance to the original text of the story. In the end, though, it’s more a case of the pieces having been shuffled around a little bit, largely for emphasis, than this being an entirely different game. Stockwell’s version of Wilbur isn’t a repulsive, satyr-like aberration with extra eye sockets in alarming places, but he is still the product of inter-dimensional intercourse and has an inhuman twin who is kept locked up in the old Whately house. His aim is still to use the Necronomicon to open the gate to the realm of the Old Ones.

What makes the film perhaps seem very divergent from Lovecraft is in the way that it is so obviously a product of its time and context. This is another American-International Pictures movie; perhaps inevitably, Roger Corman is credited as Executive Producer. Under Corman, not to mention credited producers James H Nicholson and Samuel Z Arkoff, AIP were by this point in the business of making exploitation movies aimed at a youthful audience – the Hammer-adjacent stylings of their earlier movies (including The Haunted Palace, which was based on another Lovecraft story but marketed as a Poe adaptation) had largely dissipated into something a little more lurid and freewheeling. In many ways, AIP’s audience in 1969 was members of the counter-culture, and this is reflected by the film.

There is, for example, something very psychedelic about the drug-induced visions than Nancy experiences after being slipped some drugged tea by Wilbur – there’s a lot of writhing flesh and body paint, although the effect is less one of incipient cosmic horror and more of an am-dram reconstruction of people who took the wrong acid at Woodstock. It is also somewhat entertaining to consider what the appalled reaction of an 80-year-old Lovecraft might have been, had he lived, to the emphasis on matters sexual in this movie – it’s not especially graphic, but neither is it particularly subtle. The producers admitted to having one eye on Rosemary’s Baby when making this movie, but it feels like more of a general aspiration than a specific attempt at being derivative.

The thing is that, while the film is schlock, it’s functional schlock – it’s a melodrama and not remotely scary, but it moves along and stays entertaining while it does so. It even manages the occasional moment when it’s rather better than you might expect – veteran watchers of vintage horror may be inwardly bracing themselves for the moment when Wilbur’s inhuman twin is finally revealed, the expectation being that it’s going to be some dude in ropey make-up. But no: when Nancy’s friend unwisely ventures up to the attic to see what lies within, the results are, if not exactly shocking, genuinely startling: the screen is transmuted into flashes of garish primary colours, tinting what happens, as the girl staggers back, shrieking – an amorphous mass, glimpsed so briefly it barely registers, entangles and engulfs her; her screams continue as the clothes are flayed from her body. Her final fate is left to the viewer’s imagination. The film sticks with this effect – with admittedly diminishing returns – as the dark twin marauds its way across town (one of its victims is Tally Coppola, aka Talia Shire, who went on from AIP to a fairly respectable career in more mainstream cinema).

In the end the film abandons any attempt at getting down with the kids, as the story is resolved in the traditional, conservative style – rebellious young Wilbur (and it must be said that Dean Stockwell’s performance is nicely underplayed and reasonably effective) is defeated by the intervention of an older and wiser authority figure. The climax isn’t the film’s strongest moment, but it just about does the job, and the final twist, such as it is, could have been handled worse.

I’ve found myself being much kinder to The Dunwich Horror than I expected to be, given this is a low-budget AIP movie that takes quite a few liberties with the original story. But the bones and heart of the story are still there under the surface, and the brooding mood of the story does feel like it comes from Lovecraft – it’s not Lovecraft dressed up as Poe, like The Haunted Palace, or Lovecraft crossed with B-movie sci-fi, like Die, Monster, Die! It may not be a terribly good film but it still feels unexpectedly authentic, which is uncommon enough when dealing with adaptations of this particular author and his work.

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One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few months to keep myself occupied and stay sane is (brace yourself for delight) write a book. My chosen topic relates to the writer H.P. Lovecraft, a writer of early 20th century horror stories, and one of the things it occurred to me to include was a brief overview of the various movies based on or influenced by Lovecraft’s writing. To be honest, the latter category probably contains more distinguished films than the former: it includes, arguably, every version of The Thing, Annihilation, Hellboy (and many other del Toro movies), and so on. Actual Lovecraft adaptations tend to be cheaper and creaker, beginning with The Haunted Palace, and going on to include the likes of Die, Monster, Die!, The Unnamable, and plenty of obscurities with titles like Cthulhu Mansion, Castle Freak, and Dagon. In the end I gave up on trying to be comprehensive – it’s not even as if there’s a universally-respected reference work on the subject, as the most prominent candidate – entitled Lurker in the Lobby: The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema – has been the recipient of mixed reviews, to say the least.

Despite having spent my time in the trenches when it comes to this kind of thing, there was still a very obvious omission: one of the most obvious cult movies based on Lovecraft’s work, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator. (This garnered Gordon such a following that he has gone on to become possibly the most prolific adaptor of Lovecraft to the screen: some of the films mentioned up the page are his.) Happily, the movie – which for quite a long time never turned up on terrestrial TV, simply because of the levels of gore in it – popped up on one of the high number channels just the other day.

As the short story the film is based on is set in real Lovecraft country – which is to say, mist-haunted New England – I was slightly surprised when the opening scenes of the movie turned out to take place at a university in 1980s Switzerland. Something is terribly wrong with respected academic Dr Hans Gruber: he seems to be having some kind of seizure, followed by his eyeballs exploding (if nothing else this sequence does set the tone for the rest of the movie very accurately). Needless to say, Gruber expires shortly afterwards. Suspicion falls on visiting American student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who insists that rather than murdering Gruber through some dangerous experiment, he in fact brought him back to life!

And we’re off into an appropriately garish credit sequence, which is extra-confuzzling for the cine-literate (or even not so cine-literate) viewer, as the score of the film is very blatantly ripping off that of Psycho (so it’s not as if they’re just copying some obscure movie with bland and nondescript music). It’s perhaps a slightly more poppy, upbeat, burlesque version of the Psycho theme, but even so I’m astonished that writs didn’t fly in the direction of credited composer Richard Band.

Anyway, we find ourselves back in the States, at Miskatonic Medical School, where youthful Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is pursuing his medical studies and romancing the daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the Dean (Robert Sampson). Dan’s life gets a bit more complicated when he rents his spare room and basement out to Herbert West, who has miraculously managed to get out of Europe without being subject to major criminal charges. Now West is looking to continue his experiments into the prolongation of life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by his tutor, Dr Hill (David Gale), and recruits Dan to help him.

Dan and Megan (his girlfriend) are less than thrilled when West uses their pet cat as one of his experimental subjects, raising it from the dead but also transforming it into a hissing, savage, manic terror. When Dan attempts to tell the Dean about what West is up to, the Dean promptly dismisses the idea and kicks them both out. This only serves to strengthen their determination, and they sneak back into the school morgue late at night, intent on using West’s re-animation serum on a human subject…

The odd thing about Re-Animator is that its roots in Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Re-Animator are absolutely clear, yet the tone and style of the film couldn’t be more different from it. The movie is really a textbook example of a rather odd subgenre known as splatstick, essentially a splatter movie (the sine qua non of which is graphic, extravagantly gory special effects) played for laughs: a hyper-active descendant of the grand guignol. It captures the essence of Lovecraft’s outrageously overblown prose surprisingly well, for all that it is still clearly a gonzo 80s comedy-horror film, clearly owing a debt to The Evil Dead amongst others. After the exploding eyeballs before the opening credits, the film calms down, but the gradual escalation of the level of gore throughout the film is surprisingly shrewdly done. The film is pitched with impressive skill, with the horror and comedy elements apparently in lockstep.

It’s still a startlingly extreme film in some ways – quite apart from the moment where one character is obliged to wrestle with a reanimated intestine, there’s another where a naked female character is leched over by the decapitated head of the villain (his headless corpse thrusts the severed bonce into rather intimate areas of her personal space). Part of me suspects that Lovecraft would still have abhorred its crassness and crudeness, though. The source short story is a bit of an outlier as far as the Lovecraft canon goes – for all that it introduces Miskatonic University (one of the key locations in Lovecraft country), it’s not really a part of his wider cycle of cosmic horror stories, arguably being written as an exercise in self-parody. Nothing wrong with that – though it’s hard to tell the difference between a self-parodying Lovecraft and the author in full flow in earnest – but it is also one of the stories in which Lovecraft’s much-criticised racist attitudes are given their fullest articulation. Gordon, thankfully, incorporates none of this, resulting in a movie which may be highly objectionable to many viewers, but isn’t actually bigoted.

I have to say I rather enjoyed it and was very glad to finally see it: it’s played with energy and conviction by the cast (it’s easy to see why Jeffrey Combs has gone on to enjoy a good career as a cult actor), and written and directed with flair. It is still such a spectacularly icky film that I can imagine a lot of people just being repelled by it. And that’s fair enough. But if you can take the pace, and the subject matter, it’s a lot of fun.

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If you have any experience of the work of the director Daniel Haller – which, if you are of a certain vintage, may not be unlikely – it is most likely to have something to do with his association with Glen A Larson, the TV impressario responsible for Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Knight Rider, amongst others. Haller did a handful of episodes of all these shows, but sci-fi appears to have not been his thing – he appears to have enjoyed working on the more down-to-earth pleasures of The Fall Guy far more, directing dozens of episodes.

I find this a bit surprising, as it is certainly not what one would expect from a man who started his movie career as the art director and production designer on a whole range of baroque and generally good-looking American International movies: he did one or other of these jobs on virtually all of the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Whatever else you want to say about these films, they do look good, and you could see why the company decided to give Haller a go at directing a movie himself. The fact that Haller spent the last few years of his career directing episodes of The Fall Guy may lead you to suspect that his career as a movie director did not really work out – and this suspicion would not be unfounded, certainly not based on the evidence of his debut.

This is Die, Monster, Die!, released in 1965. I know – that’s a hell of a title for a movie, isn’t it? If perhaps not one that promises the utmost level of subtlety and refinement. There are a number of other hellacious things about this movie, which we shall come to in the fullness of time, but just bear in mind – lurking in the director’s future is the refrain ‘I’m the unknown stunt-man that makes Eastwood look so fine‘.

The movie opens with one of those not-quite-psychedelic title sequences of swirly colours which were briefly fashionable for budget-conscious genre movies in the 1960s (cf. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD). Is that the name of legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft we espy in the credits? It is! No wonder this film came out in a double bill with The Haunted Palace, likewise based on one of his short stories.

Hang on, though: rather than being set in Lovecraft’s traditional New England milieu, Die, Monster, Die! is just set in – well, England. A train pulls into the quiet village of Arkham (which must have amused punters at the double bill: The Haunted Palace is set in Arkham, too, just an entirely different one) and disgorges our first imported American star, Nick Adams. Unlike Haller, Adams did his TV work at the start of his career, before switching to playing the American lead in genre films – in the same year as this movie, he went over to Japan, where (billed as Nikku Adamsu) he co-starred in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Here, Adams is playing Steve Reinhart, who has come to Arkham to see his love-interest, a young lady named Susan Witley. Reinhart wants to get out to the old Witley place (as most people seem to refer to it), but there is a problem. None of the surly local yokels will go anywhere near the place. The taxi driver gets positively aggressive at the suggestion. The owner of the local bicycle shop refuses to even contemplate renting him a bike. Subtle stuff this is not – and, to be honest, there is something slightly awkward about this whole sequence, which is set in the present day (the mid 60s) but plays like something that should really be taking place the best part of a century earlier. But that’s low budgets for you.

But where did all the budget go? Well, when Reinhart yomps out to the old Witley place, he meets his girlfriend’s father, Nahum Witley (there’s a typical English name for you), who is played by Boris Karloff. I never really know what to make of Boris Karloff, to be honest: he’s not obviously a brilliant actor who somehow ended up typed in horror movies in the same way as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price. I mean, he’s very good in the Frankenstein movies he made, obviously, but he just seems to have traded on that fact for the next three decades or so: I always find him just a bit hammy, and this film is no exception.

All is obviously not well at the old Witley place: Mrs Witley (Freda Jackson) appears to have become bedridden and very light-sensitive, and the servants aren’t looking well either. Still making an effort, however, is the girl Reinhart has come to see: Susan Witley, played by Suzan Farmer in her film debut (Farmer is perhaps best known for the films she made for Hammer the following year). But what is afoot? Why is everyone so scared of the place? What odd affliction has befallen the Witleys? And what’s making all those weird noises that are coming out of the greenhouse…?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you may be scratching your head and wondering which H. P. Lovecraft story this film is actually based on, because so far it sounds like any one of half a dozen of them. A fair point, and I should probably make it clear at this point that this film is based on a Lovecraft story in the sense that it really bears very little relation to it. In theory, and I only really say this because it’s what’s in the credits, Die, Monster, Die! is based on The Colour Out of Space (the same story recently brought to the screen by Richard Stanley, with Nicolas Cage). The story is about the ghastly fate suffered by a decent family of farming folk, after a strange meteorite falls on their land. You can just about make out the vestiges of that tale here, but it has had all manner of other story elements piled on top of it until it is almost unrecognisable: a romance, the spooky old mansion, a family with a history of trafficking with the powers of darkness, and so on.

Even so, there is still probably potential here for something engaging and vivid, and certainly meeting the usual criteria for being Lovecraftian: there is the terrible influence of heritage and pedigree, not to mention some reasonably well-realised octopus-monsters at one point (can’t be proper Lovecraft without tentacles, or so the consensus would have you believe). The octopus-monsters are certainly better than the jug-eared mannequin that Karloff transforms into at the climax.

The problem is that the film is just too slow: there are differing reports as to what the exact duration is (the US version seems to have been 10% shorter than the UK release), but none of the suggestions are that long, and the film plods along in all of them. There’s a lot of atmospheric walking about with not much else going on: if only the cycle shop had rented Reinhart a bike, the whole business could have been finished in under an hour. Even when things are happening, they’re often just re-stressing points that have already been made – filler, basically.

It’s a shame, because as I have alluded, the film has an interesting cast and is based on a classic short story, to say nothing of being directed by a man with an intriguing visual sense. But none of these things make it into the film wholly intact, somehow. If you’re a serious fan of Lovecraft you will probably find this film of interest, but for everyone else, AIP were making better films in the UK around this time, to say nothing of outfits like Hammer and Amicus. Die, Monster Die! is a fascinating curiosity, but just not a very good film.

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Well, how’s about this for a coincidence: we go from one film about a man stuck on a remote island with slightly crazy host and some unfriendly half-human half-animal creatures, to – well, another one, albeit of rather different feel and tone. I refer to another fairly obscure genre movie currently hosted by Get Clicks, which so far as I can tell didn’t get any kind of cinema release in the UK, despite the fact this is a Franco-Spanish movie made in English solely to improve its international chances. The name of the movie is Cold Skin, made in 2017 by Xavier Gens, and based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol (though owing a debt elsewhere as we shall soon see).

We are on a ship heading somewhere remote, in Autumn 1914, and a young man (David Oakes) is off to take up a posting as a sort of meteorological clerk on a bleak island somewhere. Could it be that he is running away from the war consuming Europe? This certainly seems to be the implication. Already everything has got very Thoughtful and Significant. Soon enough the ship reaches its destination, but of the man our chap is replacing there is no sign. Despite the fact that the island is a thousand miles from nowhere, it still has a lighthouse on it (the script has a brave stab at explaining this rather obvious plot contrivance) and it turns out the lighthouse keeper, Gruner (Ray Stevenson), is a dissolute old grump unable to satisfactorily explain what happened to the previous weatherman.

Nevertheless, they still drop our chap off and sail away, leaving him with his anemometers and the notes left behind by his predecessor, which include some alarming anatomical sketches and the declaration ‘DARWIN WAS WRONG!’ which is never a good sign if you’re a character in this sort of movie. Before very long at all, dark shapes are slobbering around outside the shack and webbed hands are creeping in under the door – the fish-men have landed, and they are not friendly!

Now, I have to say that at this point I was not unimpressed with the movie, but it did seem to me something had gone badly wrong with the pacing of it: we were less than twenty minutes into a film lasting an hour and three quarters, and we had already reached the monster-menace-jeopardy stage. How on Earth were they planning to sustain it for another ninety minutes?

But no: the film goes off in a slightly different direction. Our chap realises he won’t survive alone and prevails upon Gruner to let him live in the much better-fortified lighthouse with him. The young, sensitive idealist and the bitter old misanthrope are thus thrown together in a nightly battle for survival with the swarms of (badly-nicknamed) ‘toads’ seemingly intent on tearing them to pieces. Things are complicated by the presence of a female fish-person whom they have, shall we say, a similar yet different interest in (let’s just say that everyone gets lonely sooner or later).

Cold Skin would normally seem like a very weird film, but nowadays it at least has the advantage of not feeling quite as aggressively strange as The Lighthouse, a film with which it shares a number of superficial similarities: both films are largely two-handers, largely set in lighthouses, largely about the effects of isolation (literal and emotional), and so on. There’s also the fact that both films are conducting respectful raids on H.P. Lovecraft – in Cold Skin‘s case, this is not just in terms of substance (angry fish-men on the prowl) but also some of the dialogue: ‘What we know is a small island in the vast ocean of what we don’t!’ cries our hero. Compare and contrast with ‘We live on a small island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity’ (that’s from the opening of Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, by the way).

Well, you know, I love a bit of Lovecraftiana, especially if it’s engaging with the author’s deeper themes and not just sticking a CGI version of Cthulhu in at the end as a sort of Easter egg. Unfortunately, Cold Skin is… actually, I’m not sure what it is. It certainly feels like an attempt at a more commercial movie than The Lighthouse – it has a lot more action in it, and it’s not made in black and white using an ancient aspect ratio – and initially it seems like there may be some kind of metaphor going on for the first world war, with the endless, brutalising battle between the two men and the fish-creatures. But in the end it turned out to be less bleak and existentially dismal than I was hoping for, and the film turns out to be about the horribleness of people much more than the horribleness of a dispassionate mechanistic cosmos.

The film’s highminded seriousness is impressive, and the performances from the two men are impressive – as is that of Aura Garrido as the fish-girl, I suppose, but I did spend a lot of time wondering where her prosthetics ended and her body-paint began – but in the end the movie still feels slow and heavy and rather portentous (I was looking at my watch long before the end). It’s likewise an impressively polished production, but then I really think I need to stop commenting on things like that – these days it’s an exceptional movie that looks primitive and rough around the edges.

I ended up not liking Cold Skin nearly as much as I wanted to. It’s a decent film, made well, clearly with serious intentions – but it doesn’t really grip, it doesn’t seem to have anything unexpected to say for itself, and in the end its one of those films that seems happy to raid from Lovecraft on a superficial level but not really engage with his ideas in a deeper way. It passed the time reasonably and was occasionally not uninteresting, but I would struggle to give it a stronger recommendation than that.


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You may recall that last week we talked about the Roger Corman-produced movie Humanoids of the Deep, on which occasion I concluded that, despite appearances, the film’s similarities with the Lovecraft short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth were probably just coincidental. I still stand by that, on the whole, but just the other day I saw another old movie which did give me pause and reason to possibly reconsider: 1963’s The Haunted Palace, directed by Corman himself.

The movie opens in the 18th century New England village of Arkham, where rum doings are a-transpiring, as young women are being lured to the palatial residence of wealthy local grandee Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price, naturally). The music is stirring, the production values classy, and the sense that these AIP movies were the closest thing to Hammer horror in American domestic cinema is only intensified when the local villagers grab their blazing torches and decide to pay Curwen a visit, declaring him to be a necromancer and magician. This is bad news for Curwen, and also for the tree that they decide to tie him to before setting fire to him (presumably they didn’t have a stake handy). In true malevolent warlock style, though, Curwen declares that he will have his revenge – if not on the men present there that night, but on their descendants…

Cue fade out and a quick quotation from Edgar Allan Poe; this was (rather spuriously, as we shall see) promoted as being part of the series of Poe adaptations Corman and Price were engaged upon at the time. Before we know it, it is the 1870s, but Arkham is still blighted by its dark past. Clearly unaware of all this is Bostonian gentleman Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Debra Paget). Ward has just inherited his great-great-grandfather’s house in Arkham, and this turns out to be the ‘palace’ that Curwen had imported stone-by-stone from Europe. It almost goes without saying that Price is playing his own descendant, but who exactly he’s inherited the house from is left a little obscure.

The Wards get an unfriendly reception from the Arkhamites, but in this circumstances this is not entirely surprising: since Curwen’s day the town has been plagued by horrific deformities, with some families having to keep their less-human members chained up for the safety of everyone. (There are various people with webbed fingers, missing eyes and homicidal dispositions, but also one man who appears to have been born without a mouth, which does raise some questions). Ward decides it would be best just to stick around long enough to organise the sale of the house – an encounter with the ‘housekeeper’ of the palace, played by Lon Chaney Jr, may contribute to this – but is in much greater peril than he realises. The portrait of Joseph Curwen still hanging in the house exerts a strange influence upon him, and it soon becomes clear that Curwen’s spirit has been hanging around ever since his untimely cremation, waiting for a suitable vessel to occupy.

The local doctor is friendlier than the other villagers and explains some of the back-story to Ward and his wife: Curwen managed to lay his hands on a copy of a dreaded book entitled the Necronomicon and used it to summon dark otherworldly beings, such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, so they could breed with human women and create a hybrid race which would go on to dominate the world. With Ward increasingly under the possession of Curwen, and his wife not really any the wiser, this project is back on – as soon as Curwen exacts a little revenge on the descendants of his executioners…

As I may have said before, I only really became aware of the Corman-Price-Poe cycle of films when the BBC showed a season of them in 1990 (prime time BBC2, each with a special introduction from Corman himself, how very different the world was then): The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, and (of course) The Masque of the Red Death. The Haunted Palace was notably absent from this run, though – but I can think of a couple of possible reasons why.

Firstly, it may just have been that this was a bit too much for BBC2 at 9pm: it’s not what you’d actually call scary, but it has a profoundly effective brooding and doomy atmosphere, and some of the sequences – particularly those with the mutant, hybrid villagers – are very unsettling even today. There are strange notes being struck here which are not present in any of the other Poe movies Corman was involved with.

Of course, this may be because it’s not actually based on Edgar Allan Poe in any meaningful sense (which is another possible reason why it wasn’t included in a season of Poe movies). The title is Poe, the main ‘based on’ credit goes to Poe, and there are a couple of Poe quotes inserted into the film, but the actual plot is from elsewhere: as the script’s references to Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and the Necronomicon suggest, this is really an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and the first credited Lovecraft-derived movie, which makes this a landmark in horror cinema). But Lovecraft was virtually unheard-of back in the 1960s, and it was Poe’s name that would sell tickets.

Nevertheless, as a modern viewer, used to nudge-wink references to Lovecraft and his mythology in various movies and TV shows, it’s startling to come across a movie from so long ago which so openly makes use of iconic Lovecraftian props and concepts: the only slight disappointment is that we don’t actually get to hear Vincent Price say ‘Cthulhu’, as that dialogue goes to Frank Maxwell’s character. One thing which slightly irritates me is the way that anything which features a slimy tentacle lazily gets described as ‘Lovecraftian’ by default, when the writer really worked from a wider palette. But The Haunted Palace captures much of the essential Lovecraftian feel – the pervasive atmosphere of gloom and despair, the obsession with the influence of the past upon the present, the almost-instinctive revulsion connected to notions of heredity and miscegenation. This may have been one of the first ‘official’ Lovecraft movies, but it remains one of the most authentic.

Even if you’re not particularly bothered either way about the origins of the story, this is still an effectively creepy movie – Price is on top form in what’s effectively a double role, as you’d expect, but there’s also a very good supporting turn from Lon Chaney Jr, as you might not. That said, this is a movie filled with good performances, made with impressive production values and capable direction. Several times during this film I was struck by how much it resembled the kind of Gothic horror which Hammer Films were making in the UK during the same period. The Corman-Price films often had a slightly lighter touch and a little more colour about them, but the best of them are as good as any classic Hammer film, and The Haunted Palace is amongst the best.

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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.)


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.

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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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.


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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