Filler content with added Lumley

Here’s a triple whammy of reviews that was posted to the old TTA Press website on 3 July 2008:-

Torpaperback, 319pp, $14.95
Tor hardback, 253pp, $23.95
Subterranean Presshardback, 166pp, $35

The publication of the first Necroscope books in the late 80s saw Brian Lumley transformed from one of the best kept ‘secrets’ of the Horror genre into an internationally bestselling author, an ‘overnight success’ that, as the author himself allows, was twenty three years in the making. But the very popularity of Necroscope and subsequent books set in the same reality has tended to overshadow the early Lumley, a situation that now looks to be rectified with the release of several short story collections that shine a light into lesser known corners of the author’s oeuvre.

For those unfamiliar with Lumley, Harry Keogh Necroscope and Other Weird Heroes is the ideal introductory volume, containing stories from various periods of his career.

The first third of the book is devoted to Titus Crow, a psychic detective in the tradition of John Silence and Solar Pons, and perhaps the most overtly Lovecraftian of what is on offer. In the beautifully written ‘Inception’ we get an evocative account of the background to Crow’s birth and magical power, while in ‘Name and Number’ Crow reveals how he thwarted a plan to end all life on Earth masterminded by the Anti-Christ himself. It’s the middle story though that is the gem, ‘Lord of the Worms’, an almost textbook example of how to write this sort of fiction. A young man, still relatively new to his psychic heritage, Crow goes to work for an older occultist, a master magician with a plan that doesn’t bode well for our hero. This is a meticulously plotted supernatural thriller, each step fitting neatly into the overall scheme, every detail carefully rendered to further the plot, with the reader sucked in, and realisation dawning gradually, as it does for Crow himself, until the horrible fate prepared for him becomes shockingly obvious.

For the second part of the book, Lumley relocates to a dream dimension which name drops Lovecraft’s Dunsany period in such destinations as Cephaias and Ulthar. Hero and Eldin are two men from our world, transported to this other dimension where they make a living as enforcers for King Kuranes. In ‘The Weird Wines of Naxas Niss’ they tackle a cheating merchant while ‘The Stealer of Dreams’ brings them up against a vampire who feasts on men’s memories. These are light hearted pieces, packed with invention and wit that brings to mind the fantasy work of Fritz Leiber, with more than a hint of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser in the two leads, but it’s a comparison that doesn’t flatter as Hero and Eldin never seem like more than pale copies of those larger than life figures while, enjoyable as it is in a pass the time sort of way, Lumley’s attempt seems forced compared to the casual and easygoing joy in creation of Lankhmar.

Harry Keogh is Lumley’s latest hero. He has a gamut of supernatural powers including the ability to communicate with the dead and transport himself anywhere in the world at the speed of thought. His adventures have been chronicled in the bestselling Necroscope series, and two previously unpublished novellas provide the incentive for fans of that series to purchase this volume. In ‘Dead Eddy’ Harry helps a murdered gambler get revenge on the crooked casino owner who killed him, while ‘Dinosaur Dreams’ sees him investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of an amateur palaeontologist. Lastly in ‘Resurrection’ Harry’s attempt to restore his dead mother to life goes terribly awry. These are engaging stories, with well drawn characters and an interesting backdrop, holding echoes of a whole new universe waiting to be explored, one in which the dead are the Great Majority and, through Harry Keogh, have just as important a role to play as the living, though I have to admit on occasion finding them slightly overwritten, almost as if Lumley deliberately set out to produce something at novella length.

The Lovecraft influence is more readily identifiable in The House of Cthulhu, which is billed as Tales of the Primal Land Volume I and contains ten stories, most written in the 1970s, though actually the Lovecraft attribution is a bit of a red herring. A more accurate description would be to say these stories contain Lovecraft elements picked up and plonked down in a pastiche of Howard’s Hyperborea (complete with map) and are written with a not entirely successful attempt at Clark Ashton Smith sensibility. Lumley takes the familiar framing device of the discovery of an age old artefact, containing documents that when translated challenge our understanding of history, so much so that the only way to get the truth out there is by masquerading it as fiction.

‘How Kank Thad Returned to Bhur-Esh’ is the story of a killer sentenced to death by scaling the ghost cliffs that surround the city of Bhur-Esh and what befell him, the drama laced with an amusing comic thread as officialdom is lampooned and inescapably bringing to mind Smith’s ‘The Testament of Athammaus’ with its unkillable miscreant. The mighty wizard Mylakhrion seeks to take on apprentice and sets the most likely candidate the task of bringing him ‘The Sorcerer’s Book’ in a story packed with invention and subtle psychology. In the title story a pirate chief attempts to rob ‘The House of Cthulhu’, with suitably dire consequences, and there’s a similar reversal of fortune in the tale of ‘Tharquest and the Lamia Orbiquita’. ‘Lords of the Morass’, the story that to my mind most obviously echoes the work of Howard rather than Lovecraft, has two adventurers falling foul of a hidden tribe and their witch doctor, with the result that they are sacrificed to giant snails who serve as the tribe’s gods. ‘The Wine of the Wizard’ is about a city’s downfall at the hands of a necromancer and the volcano he controls, but with consequences for the present day translator of the text also.

And so on and so forth, in four similar stories, all of which are pleasing to some extent. There’s nothing startlingly original here – Lumley strikes his own grace notes and has enough ability to deliver more than mere pastiche, but ultimately he is building on the foundations laid by other hands – but the stories are entertaining and worth a few hours time of any lover of the weird and fantastic.

By way of proof that Lumley is a jack of all genres, Subterranean’s Screaming Science Fiction brings together nine of his SF stories, ranging in time from 1975 to the previously unpublished ‘Feasibility Study’. But of course terror is never far away with Lumley, as the book’s title suggest and subtitle, Horrors From Out Of Space, confirms. We have reached The Outer Limits.

Some of the themes will be overly familiar to seasoned SF readers, as with ‘Snarker’s Son’ which presents the old genre chestnut of a person from another dimension lost in our own, as a policeman tries to reunite a young boy who speaks strangely with his father, and encounters a terrible fate. The story has some nice touches towards the end, but is nothing special, and the plot is more or less reprised in ‘No Way Home’, with a man who helps one of the lost ending up adrift in a world where he does not belong, the story slightly silly but compensating with a powerful and horrific end note. More challenging than either of these is ‘The Man Who Felt Pain’, whose astronaut protagonist falls prey to a condition that lets him experience the torment of other people. His plight is regarded by some as the next step in evolution, Nature’s way of making us kinder to each other, but such philosophical concerns are overshadowed by the agonised fate of the test subject. ‘The Strange Years’ is a simple account of events leading up to the unravelling of mankind’s hegemony over the Earth, poignant and unsettling with its matter of factness, almost like a text from one of those other dimensions and a snapshot of what could so easily be our own fate. There’s an intriguing concept at the heart of ‘The Man Who Saw Spiders’, the idea of a reality shift as the prelude to an alien invasion, but however fascinating for me the story was rendered unconvincing through the narrative device of a psychiatrist who seems totally oblivious to such things as non-disclosure, confidentiality and medical ethics.

‘Feasibility Study’, the longest piece here and the most recent, neatly turns the tables on human beings, on the one hand having us visit another world where we gleefully eat the local fauna, and on the other falling victim to aliens who see Earth as nothing but a source of tasty protein. The irony won’t be wasted on vegetarians, and the story addresses issues of moral culpability adroitly, combining some squirm inducing alien experimentation with a tongue in cheek ending. ‘Gaddy’s Gloves’ is another highlight, as a young man who prides himself on his ability at computer games is handed his comeuppance by a war vet with alien technology in his gloves, a cleverly structured story that seems to offer an oblique perspective on Ender’s Game. Finally there’s ‘Big “C”’ with an alien infestation resulting in a cancer growth that wants to take over the world, a variation on The Blob that manages to be both sinister and enthralling as the story unfolds.

An eye catching, full colour cover, complete with spaceman and many tentacled thingie, plus several excellent interior illustrations by artist Bob Eggleton make this an attractive showcase for the less well known work of a writer whose first priority is always to give the reader a good time, something at which he seldom fails.


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