Filler content with Hippocampus – Part 3

Following on from last Thursday’s post, here is the third and final part of a feature on Hippocampus Press that originally appeared in Black Static #54:-


Common themes run through the twelve tales in Cody Goodfellow’s RAPTURES OF THE DEEP AND OTHER LOVECRAFTIAN TALES (Hippocampus Press pb, 303pp, $20) – the camaraderie of military men and women, the concept of sacrifice for some greater good, the idea of hidden knowledge. Along with Hughes, Goodfellow has the most distinctive prose style of these writers, and a penchant for violent, vivid imagery. In his introduction Goodfellow talks of his debt with regard to H. P. Lovecraft, and goes on to state his aim “to stare wide-eyed into the forbidden and find terrible beauty”. But while HPL is obviously the presiding spirit of this enterprise, Goodfellow is indisputably his own man. He has the talent, vision, and ambition to take things to the next level.

Opening story ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ reminded me very much of Nathan Ballingrud’s story ‘Skullpocket’, which is a very fine thing indeed, but here infused with the sensibility of HPL’s ‘Herbert West Reanimator’. Medical students venture into a graveyard in search of a cadaver to practice their art on, but one of them is looking for a different kind of knowledge, a quest that takes them down into the realm of the ghouls. Goodfellow writes with wit and sensitivity, capturing both the horror of the situation, the idea that what is proposed is essentially wrong no matter how noble the intention, but at the same time he opens our eyes to the wonders of the ghoul realm, the magnificence of the civilisation they have built for themselves. He adds a cosmic dimension to these most squalid of monsters. A Nazi U-Boat in peril surrenders to the battleship ‘Konig Feurio’, whose crew claim to have been at sea since 1916, but the Nazis soon realise not all is well aboard the vessel, which has been taken over by the monstrous Lorelei. Goodfellow excels in bringing his characters to life, the Nazis with their competing agendas and the others, both human and aquatic who have a mission of their own, conveying a sense of wonder even when dealing with the cramped confines of these seagoing vessels, and in the tale’s codicil he deftly ties everything into HPL’s mythos and world history.

Gangsters double cross each other in ‘To Skin a Corpse’, a story that takes on board necromancy, cannibalism, and alchemy, with enough zest and invention to carry it through all these absurdities and more, and some dialogue that reads like parody but at the same time makes you want to laugh out loud. ‘In the Shadow of Swords’ features a UN team searching for the fabled WOMD in Iraq and stumbling across something far, far worse, the story building gradually, deftly tying in to our paranoia with regard to security operatives, showing move and counter move, and then pushing the whole thing up to a new level with the revelation of what is really going on and the international community’s complicity.

‘Garden of the Gods’ sees an American soldier in Peru become embroiled in a three way fight between an Old One, a shoggoth, and a man from the future, at the same time having to deal with the treachery of his superiors. The story opens with the tragic and disturbing deaths of the other parachutists in Purcell’s unit and continues gradually cranking up the odds until we have the final revelation of what is taking place, the whole undercut with the possibly vain hope that man will always find a way through, no matter how perilous the situation might become. In ‘Grinding Rock’ we confront the concept of sacrificing to the land to avert a bigger disaster, in this case an earthquake that will destroy California. For Vowles the big question is if he is prepared to shed innocent blood to stop the next quake that comes along, his dilemma dramatized in a story that asks hard questions of us all, addressing themes of the greater good. The true horror lies not in what is done, but in contemplation of what may be required from the protagonist in future.

Remote viewers discover the Old Ones on the floor of the ocean in title story ‘Rapture of the Deep’ and there is the danger that, having been detected by these creatures, mankind will become a pawn in their plans. It is a gripping story, one that pulses with energy and repressed violence, and at its core the idea of how unimportant mankind truly is from a cosmic perspective. ‘Inside Uncle Sid’ is the tale of a hoarder, who fills his house with rubbish and itinerant wanderers, the story assuming a much darker hue as Sid’s transformation begins. Told from the perspective of niece Dana, the story has a quintessential strangeness and feeling of disquiet, as she tries to make sense of what her beloved relative is doing with his life.

We’re back in Iraq for ‘Archons’, the tale of a private security organisation that is a front for a secret cult tracing its lineage back to the Templars, and dealing with an inhuman race of snake creatures. Again, it’s a fascinating and multi-layered narrative, filled with images of violence and asking questions about what it means to be human, what we are prepared to sacrifice in exchange for something more. And the fact that the protagonist isn’t especially likeable when we first get to know him, only adds emotional resonance to what happens eventually. ‘Broken Sleep’ is, to my mind, the weakest of what’s on offer, the story of Tre who is the subject of an experiment to exploit lucid dreaming, but the series of visions that he undergoes were a little too hallucinatory and confusing for me to get a grip on what was really going on, the story fizzling out eventually.

In ‘Cahokia’ a group of space marines disturb an alien force, and in doing so they bring into question the history of mankind and our relationship with the natural world. Goodfellow makes it credible with a wealth of incidental detail and army speak, and gives us intriguing and empathic characters, all of which is just window dressing for his greater concerns, the question of what humanity is doing to itself, what we have lost in turning our back on nature and embracing technology. Think of the story, if you must, as a tip of the hat to Von Daniken and Gaian ideology. The final story is the one that plays out on the most cosmic scale, taking us through vast oceans of space and time. ‘Swinging’ is the name for the ability to pass from one body to another, taught to the story’s protagonist by Lorna, a woman he meets in a mental hospital. They share the ability with others, found a church that transforms into a doomsday cult, and all the while the big plan is to emulate the Great Race of Yith and save mankind from extinction by swinging through time into other bodies, future inhabitants of our world. The ideas are fascinating, incorporating into the text so many of our present day fads and fancies, while the alien nature of the story’s final scenes, the sense of endless repetition and hopelessness, are brought to compelling life on the page. And yet underlying all this is a very human story, a love story of sorts, even if it plays out on a greater scale than any before it. It is the story that most closely resembles the work of HPL at his most ambitious, the blue sky thinking of stories like ‘The Shadow Out of Time’, but written with a modern sensibility and modern concerns – Goodfellow’s characters do not fear the outsiders, but wish to emulate them. It’s a splendid end to a splendid collection.

Finally we have John Shirley’s LOVECRAFT ALIVE! (Hippocampus Press pb, 253pp, $20) which, as the title would suggest and the subtitle confirms, is ‘A Collection of Lovecraftian Stories’. After a preface in which Shirley explains his feelings about Lovecraft and gives details of some of the stories’ origins and influences, we get into things proper with ‘When Death Wakes Me to Myself’. Psychiatrist Fyodor Cheski acquires a young patient with memory problems and a penchant for breaking into his house, but as the story progresses along with the good doctor we come to realise that Roman C. Boxer has been possessed by the spirit of HPL. This is one of those type of stories where the reader is more clued in than the character, but that doesn’t spoil the fun as we learn details of Lovecraft’s past as filtered through the sensibilities of Boxer, plus the touches of minatory detail by which Cheski becomes aware of the threat to him personally, before the delightful final reversal of fortune, which comes with a subtext concerning the need to act on one’s feelings before it is too late.

The protagonist of ‘Those Who Come to Dagon’ is stranded at sea and taken aboard a vessel whose crew have fallen under the spell of an African cultist, but though the others are sacrificed to Dagon for Caleb Ward there is the chance of transformation and immortality, but at what cost to his soul. Shirley writes well of the sea, and while what happens to Ward is undoubtedly monstrous there is no denying that the white men bring this on themselves through the practice of slavery and worse. Dagon offers the chance of freedom to those who will worship him, and such is the alternative that for slaves the metamorphosis is appealing. Written in the form of a letter to Thomas De Quincey by the poet Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Cosmic Mariner’ chronicles that worthy’s encounter with the numinous, courtesy of an Arab sorcerer and his strange optical instruments that offer a different view of reality. Beautifully written and with a wealth of incidental detail, it is a strange and minatory tale, one that captures much of the feel of Coleridge’s poetry, the sense of wonder mingling with menace. ‘The Witness in Darkness’ tells the story of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ from the viewpoint of one of the alien race who were vivisected by their human discoverers, and ends with a grim warning to leave their city alone for fear of the shoggoths. It’s an intriguing piece, one that succeeds in casting the monstrous in entirely different terms to those we expect, and all the more powerful for this unique approach.

Sid Drexel is on the pull in ‘How Deep the Taste of Love’ and can’t believe his good fortune when the gorgeous Sindra seems to offer the fulfilment of all his wildest dreams, but of course she isn’t quite what she seems to be in this erotically charged and ultimately repellent story. Erotic horror usually strikes me as a contradiction in terms, but here Shirley manages to pull it off magnificently (pun intended), with echoes of Philip Jose Farmer’s Image of the Beast in the text. After the death/suspected murder of her mother, Deede and her family move to LA and the high tech Skytown complex where they end up ‘Buried in the Sky’. Not everything is kosher in the building, with something very nasty lurking in a cavern beneath the structure’s foundations. This story reads rather like Ballard’s High Rise meets HPL, with hints gradually mounting until we, along with the characters, cannot deny the terrible truth that is staring us in the face, though for all of that there is a sense of wonder too, as we realise that the monster exists in a nexus between many worlds, and that element of the plot elevates it above the merely horrific, though I’ll admit that I did find the precocious kids slightly annoying at moments, albeit good to see Deede get revenge for her mother’s death at the end.

With climate change accelerated and global flooding a fact of life, the denizens of Innsmouth and their descendants come into their own in ‘Windows Underwater’, and one outcast finds a place where he belongs. Again, as with several of these stories, the monstrous is anything but repellent, with human beings adapting and finding their lives enriched as a result. In ‘At Home with Azathoth’ a computer hacker seeking revenge for the suicide of his gay brother, uses an internet portal to lure the bully he holds responsible into a deadly trap, but underlying the surface text is a message about the need for catharsis and to let go of the guilt and grudges of the past. Set in the near future, humanity faces extinction at the hands of the Elder Race and our only hope is ‘The Holy Grace of Cthulhu’. It has about it the feel of filler, but the episodes of combat are well realised on the page and the end twist, with Cthulhu’s insatiable need for sacrifice, should bring a shudder to most readers.

Finally we have ‘Broken on the Wheel of Time’, the one original piece of fiction and a story based in part on HPL’s ‘The Shadow Out of Time’. In 1878 naturalist Glyneth Berling is married to the sombre and misogynistic Benjamin, who has forged an alliance with a Yithian faction and travels through time to further their plans to take control of the US. While Ben resides in the present day body of a Thomas Peaslee, he takes over Ben’s body in 1878 and joins forces with Glyneth in an attempt to foil Ben’s plans, the two falling in love along the way. It’s an interesting story, and never less than readable, though I would argue that by giving them such a lowly objective the Yithians are diminished. What isn’t reduced is the splendour of the cosmic backdrop, with the characters adrift on the winds of time and experiencing almost hallucinogenic chronological trips, and also the way in which minds from different centuries can so readily find common ground and cause. The story offers a compelling and thoroughly entertaining end to a strong collection, one that is never less than entertaining and thought provoking even if it fails to break any new ground.

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