OR: Michael Shea

A feature on Michael Shea that originally appeared in Black Static #17:-

CALIFORNIA SCREAMING: MICHAEL SHEA

Aside from the odd (and sometimes very odd) story in an anthology, this is my first exposure to the work of World Fantasy Award winning author Michael Shea, and I’m happy to report that the experience was a positive one.

COPPING SQUID AND OTHER MYTHOS TALES (Perilous Press hardback, 209pp, $32.95) collects together those of the author’s stories which take their inspiration from the Cthulhu mythos, with a foreword by renowned Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi who is also credited as editor. It’s a book on which much care appears to have been lavished, with some striking black and white illustrations from Steven Gilberts adding the finishing touches to a very attractive package (the publishers also have a signed, limited edition with linen dustjacket available for $47 if you like that bit extra).

Shea’s stories take the mythos away from the familiar setting of gloomy New England, and transplant it to the fresh soil of California, where this strange hybrid takes root and flourishes, the San Francisco setting, with the ever present threat of shifting tectonic plates, adding an extra frisson. In lieu of the scholars and writers of Lovecraft’s tales, Shea gives us street people and working stiffs, hookers and pimps and druggies and graffiti artists on the make, so that in some sense what gets exposed here is not just cosmic horror but also the delusions of the American dream, the two playing off of each other to the strengthening of both.

The first story, ‘Tsathoggua’, begins with a chance encounter between two elderly women, one ostensibly a street person complete with shopping trolley and the other a rather prim and proper lady who belongs to a church discussion group and believes in ‘Speaking Out’ (what you and I know as sticking your nose in where it isn’t wanted). In an ironic reversal of values, it is the latter who is transformed as a prelude to being absorbed by the chthonic deity of the title, and finds a rightness in that (possible subtext: the willingness of believers to believe in anything so long as it is outside of themselves), while the former has her eyes opened to the true nature of the cosmos and becomes part of the resistance.

These dual positions are explored and expanded upon in the two stories that follow. In ‘Dagoniad’ the murder of a pimp leads Dee and her young hooker friend to the discovery of a strange mist that blows in off the sea and sometimes takes a terrible form, an emissary of Dagon that means them ill. Shea does everything right here, giving us a narrative that is character driven, with the voices of the hookers, pimps and users who form its dramatis personae credibly realised on the page, and these people gaining a sort of nobility through their struggles, their various lifestyles empowering them to act while straight society remains oblivious to the threat. The story grips, with the occasional moments of gore enriching the text and bringing home the horrific nature of what is taking place. Title story ‘Copping Squid’ is the reverse side of the coin, showing that for some, the dispossessed of society, giving themselves up to great Cthulhu is a form of release, an elevation even, with an innocent bystander drawn into a dark rite of passage and finding himself tempted. Those willing to embrace the Elder Gods gain an ersatz glamour among their peers, and the subtext here, if there is one, has not to do so much with cosmic horror as the purely human sin of social injustice.

‘Nemo Me Impune Lacessit’ takes its title from Poe’s ‘A Cask of Amontillado’ and is the jolliest of these stories, with the whiff of black comedy blowing through its passages, as an elderly adept summons the people who have wronged him to his isolated castle and sacrifices them to the deities he worships. It’s a delicious, dark treat of a story, rich in satire and pungent with the narrator’s distaste for the superficiality of the modern world and its ostensible rulers, in part because they have rejected him. This is Cthulhu as Corman might have envisaged it, with a streak of perversion at its heart and a lead role made for an actor with a Vincent Price fixation.

‘The Pool’ is told from the perspective of Daryl, a manual worker who is given clues that there is somewhat more to the building of a swimming pool at the mansion of a wealthy couple than appears on the surface. Again, Shea is deft at doling out the information, meticulously slotting each piece of the jigsaw into place, giving us time to get to know his characters and believe in them, and then bringing the curtain down with a heart stopping climax in which an alien cosmos erupts into our own cosy world of cause and effect. ‘The Battery’ features a loose alliance of adepts charged with keeping tabs on the Elder Gods and their activities, but in this instant these age-old beings are not necessarily malign. It is possible to solicit their aid in preventing the destruction of the world, as opposing mythological systems are brought into direct conflict. More than any other story this one underlines the fact that Cthulhu and his brethren are not evil. The term has no meaning for them. They follow the dictates of their own appetites, the whims of their alien nature, and in this more than anything reveal their difference from mankind. In ‘The Presentation’ a ragtag band of artists are employed to open a portal between dimensions, a gorgeous blossoming of alien aesthetics at the heart of the story. As the characters labour to create their masterpiece what becomes abundantly clear is that they don’t really care what happens as long as they’re having fun and making money. It’s human cupidity and selfishness that makes so many of us fitting prey for the Elder Gods, and questions as to who is the least human seem apposite.

‘Fat Face’, the last story in the book, belongs to the good natured Patti, the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, who decides to give an obese man a pity fuck, a sentiment of which I thoroughly approve, but let’s not dwell on that. She finds herself the love object of a Shoggoth Lord, and that is not a situation which is going to end well. Shea is excellent at delineating the character of scatterbrain Patti, who wanders through a world of horror but remains only dimly aware, her natural goodness and belief that people mean well, even when her whole life seems to have demonstrated the exact opposite, shining through, and seen in the cheery camaraderie she has with the other working girls. Sympathy for the devil seldom played out so tragically.

These eight stories offer engaging variations on a theme, the work of a writer who has taken Lovecraft’s template and infused it with a vibrancy that is all his own. Shea conjures up cosmic visions with an easy skill and counterpoints them with scenes of gore and destruction that are not gratuitous window dressing but a way to make the horror all the more immediate and real. And if you peek beneath the surface, you find that the subtext is all about us, about the value judgements we make and the things we do, and that’s the hallmark of most good horror, turning a mirror on the reader and asking exactly what we can see.

Novel THE EXTRA (Tor hardback, 288pp, $22.99) is also located in California, but moves the action south to Los Angeles, and the Hollywood dream factory.

Set at an unspecified time in the future, The Extra is a black comedy that satirises the most violent excesses of Hollywood in the figure of Val Margolian, a producer who has gained a worldwide following and made huge profits for the studios with his ‘live-death’ action blockbusters. Hordes of extras are let loose in special sets where they must fight against automated killing monsters, those who survive being handsomely rewarded with a standard fee plus bonuses for any of the monsters they ‘kill’. For those who live in the slum known as the Zoo, this is the only hope of escape from their dreadful lives. Curtis, Jool, Japh and Chops sign up, smuggling weapons onto the set, in the hope that they will survive and take away enough money to start a new life. Adding a further complication, there are saboteurs in the producer’s entourage, while Margolian himself has a plan to expose the traitors and at the same time rack up the highest extra kill score ever. The stage is set for mayhem and mayhem is what we get.

The central idea here is so over the top that it’s hard to credit, but at the same time it does bring to mind certain reality TV shows which are little more than mental torture porn, and seems like a logical enough extension of that sort of thing. Once you accept it and go with the flow, then everything that follows makes perfect sense, with plenty of action and fire fights galore against a horde of spider monsters, while there are all sorts of crosses and double crosses thrown into the mix (our intrepid band of brothers also have some personal scores to settle with other contenders). The love between Curtis and Jool introduces a romantic element, while the characters are never less than believable. On the one hand the Zoo kids with their desire to better themselves no matter what the price, and on the other the monstrous Margolian, with his philosophy of the spectacle and the reasoning he uses to justify the terrible things that he does (Shea is careful not to give us a cardboard cut out villain, instead providing Margolian with principles that sound disturbingly media savvy). Beneath Margolian and snapping at his heels are a coterie of yes men and women, potential rivals and wannabes, which adds yet another element of conflict to the story.

In the end I’m not convinced it contains that much realistic criticism of Bay-esque action films and their ilk, the trend to reality TV and ensuing excess. To my mind it stretches society’s tolerance of in our face entertainment a little too far for credibility. And yet, as with Dean Swift’s proposed solution to the Irish famine, sometimes you can only get your point over through adopting an extreme position. Whatever view you take, The Extra works very well as a fast paced adventure yarn that keeps the reader on his or her toes, never knowing quite what to expect. Perhaps the most apposite comparison would be with Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man, a film with a serious point underlying all the surface sound and fury, but one which we can’t quite take seriously. It was, however, a lot of fun, and so is this.

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