Lumley Revisited

by Arthur B

A reassessment of the major Cthulhu Mythos work of Brian Lumley.
There’s numerous potential criticisms you can make of August Derleth’s role in shepherding the Cthulhu Mythos following the death of H.P. Lovecraft, but he did at least eventually use his position as an editor, anthologist, and publisher to aid younger authors, much as Lovecraft had provided budding writers with support and advice in his own day. Granted, he wasn’t always so keen to cultivate new talent - he leaned on C. Hall Thompson to stop writing Lovecraftian fiction back in the 1940s, rather shamefully. But in his last decade he seemed to have something of a change of heart, letting new talent board the Mythos bus and benefit from Arkham House’s support. This included Ramsey Campbell, perhaps Britain’s best author of literary horror, and Brian Lumley, a writer about whom my thoughts are, let’s say, a bit mixed.

Very early on in Ferretbrain’s life I wrote a rant about how I thought Lumley was a terrible writer and represented everything that was wrong with the horror genre. I no longer think the article is accurate or appropriate and I’ve consequently binned it. My reaction, though harsh, was by no means unique to myself, because Lumley has suffered something of a critical backlash over the years. There was a time, back in the 1990s, when he was one of the really major figures in British horror writing, his tomes taking up ample shelf space on bookshop shelves.

His era of maximum commercial visibility has, however, seemed to pass, and critically his work has regularly taken a mauling. Part of this, I suspect, is simple snobbery - outside of his earlier Lovecraft pastiches, which like much work in that vein suffers from slightly stiff attempts to emulate Lovecraft’s prose style, Lumley tends to write in a brisk, easy style which is nicely readable but doesn’t have many literary aspirations of the sort that would impress the critics. Another part comes from sheer weariness; his magnum opus is found in the long-running Necroscope series of brick-sized vampire-busting novels, and despite the dizzily escalating stakes (pun intended) in the series it’s hard to retain any reader’s interest for quite that long.

Within the Cthulhu Mythos fandom, however, Lumley is intimately associated with his occult detective character Titus Crow, and the series of novels associated with him. Some of this comes from the novels latching onto some of the most contentious aspects of August Derleth’s idiosyncratic take on the Mythos (controversial for reasons I have already extensively covered), such as the benign Elder Gods and the division of the Great Old Ones into elemental types and doubling down on them, but the real source of derision seems to come from the decidedly odd directions that Lumley would take the Mythos as the novels progressed. Entire entities like Nyarlathotep or Azathoth would be written off as either a telepathic construct or a metaphor for a nuclear explosion respectively. Tonally, the novels would shift from Lovecraftian horror to weird science fantasy adventures in other worlds and dimensions. Perhaps the most risible contribution is the Elder God leader, Kthanid, who is a good version of Cthulhu. You can tell he’s a friendly relative of Cthulhu’s because he looks exactly like Cthulhu except he has kind eyes and he sparkles and talks a bit like a cut-price Gandalf.

All of this stuff would, with some justification, be rejected by a substantial portion of Mythos fandom as being pointless and/or silly, tonally inappropriate for the sort of cosmic horror fiction that the series purported to be and started out as, and especially tonally inappropriate for fiction claiming any sort of inspiration from Lovecraft. I am no means an advocate for absolutely slavish, purist adherence to Lovecraft’s particular philosophy in people’s Mythos-inspired work, but I do think there comes a point where what you are trying to accomplish with a story is so different both from Lovecraft’s original conception of his fictional universe and the general baggage of assumptions which tends to come with the term “Cthulhu Mythos” that the Mythos ends up being the wrong tools for the job you want to do. The later Titus Crow novels probably wouldn’t be nearly so controversial within the fandom had they been set in a fictional universe entirely of his own devising, without connection to the Mythos.

On the other hand, one might question whether they would even be memorable were that the case. Kthanid is an astonishingly silly idea precisely because he’s presented as Cthulhu’s good twin; it’s an absurd concept for a character to begin with, raised to a sort of dizzying peak of ridiculousness by the whole “happy golden eyes and sparkles everywhere” sort of deal. Moreover, the way Kthanid is used is entirely devoid of cosmic mystery; he has straightforward little expositional chats with Titus Crow and is basically very approachable and friendly. Most of all, Kthanid and his Elder Gods can be seen as Lumley taking the good-vs.-evil cosmology that August Derleth heavy-handedly tried to impose on the Mythos and crank it up to 11.

Kthanid and all the baggage that goes with him is certainly silly, and the Crow novels are undeniably a rough ride; a large part of my previous rejection of Lumley comes down to me blitzing through omnibus editions of the novels and getting really profoundly annoyed at the direction they went in. That said, I do think it was unfair of me to do that to Lumley solely because of the silliest aspects of one of his series of novels. Most of the Titus Crow novels were written in the 1970s, in his first decade as a writer, and thus represent an earlier phase of his development as a writer. (The final book in the series, Elysia, came out in 1989 as a sort of final farewell both to the Crow series and other Lovecraft-inspired writing he had been dabbling in, but it’s very much in the style of the preceding books in the series rather than a post-Necroscope take on it.)

So, in the interests of being fair both to Lumley himself and the teenage version of me who couldn’t get enough of his stuff, I’m going to take another look at a cross-section of his Cthulhu Mythos work - in particular, the Titus Crow series and his two other full-length novels in the Mythos. I am deliberately leaving behind his stories set in his own Primal Land setting, or in the Dreamlands, since those are both sword and sorcery fantasy series and therefore have entirely different genre expectations from cosmic horror. Likewise, I am not - this time - going to be taking a look at Necroscope, despite the fact that that series eventually crossed over with Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The Compleat Crow

The Titus Crow short stories include some of Lumley’s earliest writing. Almost all of them are set prior to the events of the first Crow novel, The Burrowers Beneath, and as such they represent both an earlier phase in Crow’s character development and a different style of story. Whereas The Burrowers Beneath and its sequel would see Crow and his allies facing down Mythos threats on a global, interstellar, or pan-dimensional scale, the short stories would unfold on a much more localised scale, before the power creep introduced into the stories took Crow out of the horror genre altogether and made him more of a science fantasy superhero.

In fact, a lot of the things which put people off Lumley’s take on the Mythos - the way he grabbed onto August Derleth’s take on the Mythos and doubled down on it, the sheer goofiness of Kthanid, the extremely reductive take on the mythology and the regular detours into straight sword-and-sorcery - didn’t really feature in the Crow series before Burrowers, so if we are going to give Lumley another chance, we may as well start off with this material. The most complete-in-one-book collection of the Crow short stories is The Compleat Crow, which came out in 1987 - some eight years after In the Moons of Borea, the fifth novel in the series, and a couple of years prior to Elysia, the final novel in the sequence.

One thing which is impressive about the collection is how Lumley is quite good at keeping these stories grounded in the more local and low-key style of his early Crow tales; even though the style of the series would change radically over the course of producing the novels, Lumley seems able to dial it all back, and the material all here, presented according to the internal chronological order, all feels like it belongs together despite the fact that it was written over the better part of two decades. (Compare to Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, where I often feel like the later-written additions he tries to slot into the timeline fail to feel like tonally appropriate neighbours of the earlier-written tales they are wedged in between.)

Take, for instance, the first story in this collection, Inception, which was in fact written specifically for The Compleat Crow when Lumley was asked to give Crow an origin story. Lumley had initially thought that the following story (Lord of the Worms) was already a decent enough origin story as it was, but eventually relented and gave us this. It’s World War I, during a bitter winter, and a thief of archaeological relics is being chased through London by an undead high priest. The thief, you see, stole an elixir from a Saharan tribe - the high priest being its guardian - and eventually, as he hides out in an empty church, he decides to ditch the elixir in the church font in the hopes that by doing so the grumpy priest will let him go. (The priest does no such thing.)

Naturally, of course, Titus gets christened in the font the very next day. As it turns out, the elixir is supposed to raise the user’s psychic awareness, but is dangerous for anyone who not truly innocent, which I guess lets this story explain where Titus got his resilience to Mythos revelations and mild but occasionally-useful psychic sensitivity from. This is fun and all, but the story does lay on the messianic imagery a bit thick, what with it being set just before Christmas and all. It’s also clear that we are not operating in a universe nearly as hopeless as Lovecraft’s, since the elixir in itself provides an example of a powerful benign force which its placement in the church doubles down, like Christian god actually exists in this continuity or something.

That’s the sort of thing which is likely to get the hackles up of many a Mythos fan, but I think it would be unfair to flip out at Lumley just for writing a Mythos-themed tale with a somewhat different cosmological and philosophical underpinning to Lovecraft’s bleak atheism. A writer giving their own spin to the Mythos is entirely fair play; what I think it’s more reasonable to object to is if they try to push their spin in a way which treads on or is disrespectful to other people’s writing (as August Derleth did with his heavy-handed pushing of his own One True Interpretation of the Mythos), or if the author’s personal spin on the Mythos is deeply and inappropriately silly (like with the Kthanid stuff that Lumley would work in later on).

Inception is no classic of philosophical cosmic horror, but nor is it a travesty: it’s little more than a fun standalone pulp action story, and it isn’t even necessarily a Mythos tale either (not all the Crow stories are). As far as I’m concerned the bigger problem with it is that a) it reads like it’s demonising and othering the scary foreigners that the elixir was stolen from an awful lot and b) I kind of think Lumley was right in his original assessment that Lord of the Worms is a better origin story for Crow, especially since that story involves Crow actually doing something and having a character beyond “tiny baby”.

Lord of the Worms is the longest story in the collection, and since it was penned in 1983 it enjoys the benefit of Lumley’s time spent honing his craft. In terms of writing order it constitutes a bit of a “back to basics” take on the character, what with it being Lumley’s most significant return to the character since penning the first five novels in the Crow series and offering a story set before all Crow’s other extant adventures, in which the accretion disc of quirks accumulated over the short stories and novels is brushed aside and we get a good look at the man underneath.

Crow finds himself unemployed after end of WWII, during which he worked as expert on the esoteric influences on the Nazis. He takes up a short-term job offered up by Carstairs, the titular lord and a major figure in the occult subculture, who wants him to organise his library of occult tomes properly and produce an orderly catalogue of it. Naturally, it quickly turns out that Carstairs has a much more predatory motive, and Crow needs to use his own appreciable knowledge of the occult to stay one step ahead.

As a character Carstairs seems to be a riff on Aleister Crowley, or rather the pop culture image of Crowley as an aristocratic Satanist rather than the rather more humble figure Crowley’s finances reduced him to after World War II. (There’s an interesting parallel here, in that Kenneth Grant first made waves in occult circles by becoming Crowley’s assistant late in life, and would later churn out a rather fanciful series of books straight-facedly arguing that Cthulhu and other entities from Lovecraft had some reality to them.) In this, then, Carstairs sits in the same tradition of characters like Mocata from The Devil Rides Out, which by my reckoning plays to Lumley’s strengths, since his work doesn’t really sit in the same tradition as Thomas Ligotti or Ramsey Campbell but has a sense of adventure to it which puts me in mind of Wheatley and especially golden-age Hammer Horror.

That isn’t to play down Lumley’s ability as a horror writer, mind. For instance, Carstairs’ true motive will pretty obvious to all but especially unimaginative readers from an early stage of the story, but Crow is kept from consciously realising it by the application of drugs and hypnotic powers which make him forgetting things he’s discovered. Thus, in the early stages of the story the tension comes from Crow facing a danger which he is only peripherally aware of but we see all too clearly, whilst later on, once he puts enough of the pieces together to start working out what is going on, tension instead arises from Crow’s desperate subterfuge to maintain the illusion that he is still under control. The result of this is that story is actually consistently scary, even when in some sections it becomes predictable, and indeed the respects that it ends up being predictable are those respects where the predictability reinforces rather than undermines the atmosphere.

The story is also a nice example of a Mythos tale which doesn’t obsess on the various Mythos deities; the fact that the main adversary is a sorcerer and therefore a human-scale threat helps Lumley walk the tightrope of presenting a protagonist who is happy to fight back against the Mythos forces without failing to make the story feel full of peril or making the Old Ones seem like wimps. (It’s arguably in the tradition of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in this respect.) It’s also a good illustration of how existing Mythos lore can be used to support a story, rather than taking the Derleth route of creating a story as a means of feeding and supplementing the body of Mythos lore. Crow’s research into the threat is also spiced up by a range of ideas from outside the Lovecraft fandom bubble too; there’s bits of numerology here and there, but not so much as to belabour the point and it’s somewhat appropriate given Western occultism’s mania for gematria, and Carstairs’ origins in the region of Chorazin seems to be a tip of the hat not just to those medieval writers who believed that the Antichrist might hail from there due to Jesus’ condemnation of it, but also to M.R. James, whose Count Magnus was an important influence on Lovecraft and made use of the Chorazin legend.

Crow eventually overcomes the threat here with the aid of a wider cast of friends who he can seem to count on to be able to help him handle this stuff. There seems to be a bit of a jump in the timeline between this and the next story, and after this Crow seems to mostly either work alone or with his dedicated sidekick de Marigny. Here, I think Lumley has missed a trick: I think if he’d wanted to write some more stories about Crow’s earlier adventures, set in the 1950s and with this wider supporting cast popping in here and there as needed, it could have been very viable.

The next story in the collection is the first Titus Crow story that Lumley wrote, and was also the title story of his first short story collection from Arkham House, The Caller of the Black. It is narrated by Titus himself, and is another story which has him going up against a human sorcerer dabbling in Mythos powers - specifically, one who has stumbled across an especially nasty curse which they use to dispatch of their enemies. (The way the titular Black - the otherworldly blood of a Mythos deity - is depicted as killing those it is called down on is impressively nasty.) Stories about canny opponents turning curses back on the wizards that cast them are an old trope, but effectively deployed here - and without any Mnar star-stone nonsense to grant total immunity from anything bad happening to Crow either, so right out of the gate Lumley is already writing more effective and exciting stories in the “occult detective” mode than August Derleth’s awful stories about Laban Shrewsbury.

The story, though promising, is not perfect. Titus’ old-fashioned narrative voice makes it feel dated; though plot itself clearly takes place in then-contemporary times, Crow sounds a bit old-fashioned for the era he lives in, though this could be a character development point. (His rather dismissive way of discussing “savages” goes beyond making the story feel dated and starts to make it feel unpleasant). The backstory offered concerning the Black is slightly self-indulgent, but nicely contextualises things and just about avoids presenting the sort of bland restatement of the Mythos that Derleth dipped into so often. The end result is a story that is clearly in the Derlethian tradition in terms of its general approach, but is just plain better than a wide swathe of Derleth’s Mythos stories.

The next story, The Viking’s Stone, is tonally a bit odd - it's a non-Mythos story where aesthetically the major supernatural manifestation isn't so much horrifying as totally badass, in a power metal sword and sorcery sort of a way. It's notable mainly for being narrated by Henri-Laurent de Marigny, Crow’s Watson and son of Etienne-Laurent de Marigny from Lovecraft's Through the Gates of the Silver Key. Bland though he is, he is at least a better narrator than Crow, since Lumley ascribes to him a somewhat less stiff and old-fashioned narrative voice; we get to enjoy his company again in The Mirror of Nitocris, a solo adventure of his. This is a fairly simple haunted mirror tale rendered a tad more interesting by the monster; based on the description, it seems that the thing in the mirror is constructed from the mutilated, mashed-together reflections of its victims, which is both a cool detail and an impressively subtle detail, since rather than this being explained to us in a belaboured way we’re simply confronted with the shocking image and allowed to realise the implications by ourselves.

The next story is An Item of Supporting Evidence, a super-brief piece for Arkham House’s short-lived house magazine The Arkham Collector. It is narrated in a sardonic and much less stuffy style by Crow this time, and takes the form of an anecdote about some awful historical incident being debated by Crow and a sceptical fellow devotee of weird fiction, with the conclusion being Crow pulling out evidence that the story was real.

The story is interesting mostly for the argument Crow and his conversational sparring partner have leading up to this revelation, since it very evidently draws on conversations which were presumably ongoing in fandom then and still arise today. Crow’s debating opponent takes the position that Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard pastiches have run their course and at this point only serve to dilute the original works; we are supposed to disagree with this and enjoy seeing the doubter get his comeuppance, with Crow implicitly winning a victory not just for his personal belief in the supernatural but also for the validity of weird fiction in general, and Arkham House’s output in particular.

However, the argument on both sides misses the point that there is a distinction between mere pastiche, in which an earlier writer’s style is slavishly imitated for the sake of churning out more of the same, and stories which engage with the themes and ideas and philosophical and aesthetic concepts of the original material whilst giving the author’s own spin on things, advancing the subgenre accordingly. In Lovecraft fandom, we can look to Lumley’s own career as well as that of Ramsey Campbell to find an example of this: though their early material was very much in the cheap pastiche category, they very quickly improved as they found their own voices. Compare to August Derleth’s Lovecraft pastiches, which remained jumbled and mediocre largely because Derleth never really evolved his own voice for telling such stories. Moreover, the fact remains that Lovecraft’s own body of work was, undeniably, being diluted by pastiches at the time - namely, August Derleth’s own faked collaborations with Lovecraft, which were being passed off as the genuine article despite containing more or less no Lovecraft writing whatsoever!

As for Robert E. Howard, in that sphere the accusation of dilution has even more legs. Whilst the broader sword and sorcery genre was still putting out interesting ideas when Lumley wrote this (see Elric, see Kane), it has to be said that Howard’s particular take on it feels less fresh than more recent iterations - and the use of Cimmeria as a setting in particular feels very stale since it was never that interesting a setting to begin with. More to the point, back in 1971 when Item of Supporting Evidence was written, the flow of non-Howard Conan material by the likes of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter had reached nigh-tsunami like proportions, to the point where Howard’s originals were in danger of being entirely submerged by them.

The other argument offered up in by the strawman is that a story Crow had written wasn't convincing because it was set during a too well-documented period of history for anything mysterious to happen in. There, I am more inclined to side with Crow. Firstly, a weird story does not always need to be convincing, at least in terms of taking place in a rigorously realised historical or contemporary setting; not even super-serious, morose, literary material in the horror genre needs to be convincing in this sense. Thomas Ligotti writes stories which simultaneously feel like they happen nowhere in the world more or less anywhere touched by Western culture, but they are able to captivate anyway because even though the settings may seem unreal, there’s an emotional resonance to them which feels appallingly real, (Also, their very unreality is part of the point because Ligotti wants to remind us that we live in a threadbare universe patched together out of scraps.)

Secondly, all eras of history have their blank patches if one conducts sufficient research and sniffs out the dark corners, so the idea that there’s no way to hide a horrific event during, say, the Roman occupation of Britain massively overestimates how encyclopedic and comprehensive our knowledge of the past is. I mean, we barely know everything that’s happening today.

Another brief piece for The Arkham Collector was Billy’s Oak, but this isn’t nearly as interesting; there’s a lot of irrelevant setup and waffling around the Cthaat Aquadingen (one of Lumley’s invented Mythos tomes) that come to nothing, whilst the actual meat of the story is more of a thin little anecdote than an actual substantive story. Another disappointing piece is Darghud’s Doll, a short piece about about sympathetic magic marred by a hyper-stereotypical depiction of black South Africans as superstitious savages - Crow’s racist tendencies in narration are back with a vengeance! - and which basically reads like a bit of reheated Kipling.

De Marigny’s Clock is a more substantial piece, though Lumley admits that he’s riffing hard on two Lovecraftian ideas here. The titular clock first appeared in Through the Gates of the SIlver Key, whilst the plot seed of burglars embarking on a home invasion only to discover more than they bargained for comes from The Terrible Old Man. (Though unlike in The Terrible Old Man, the burglars this time are not immigrants but good old-fashioned London criminals in the Bob Hoskins mode.)

Our crooks make two major mistakes: first, they try to break into Blowne House, Titus Crow’s residence, and secondly they jump to the conclusion that there must be treasure hidden inside de Marigny’s clock - this being the timepiece which had belonged to Etienne-Laurent de Marigny, was inherited by Henri, and at the time of the story was being borrowed by Titus Crow to see if Crow could suss out the secrets of the clock that had evaded both Henri and his father, and which only Randolph Carter had shown any capability to harness. However, whilst it would take an occult genius like Crow an extensive period of study to learn how to use the clock safely, it just takes an expert safe-cracker - as one of the burglars happens to be - to accidentally open a gate to the Lake of Hali!

The overall trajectory of the story is a bit predictable, but that’s no bad thing when it’s comparatively well-executed. It’s very much in the realm of pastiche, but whilst you’d certainly get more out of the story if you had read the material it derives its ideas from this isn’t necessary for its enjoyment. It reads overall, in fact, like the sort of stuff that August Derleth might have been able to produce had he shown a bit more imagination in the range of Lovecraftian plots he used, tightened up his prose, and dropped his bad habit of belabouring the reader with far too much exposition.

Speaking of exposition, that rather weighs down the next story, Name and Number. This is a load of sub-Omen hokum, featuring Crow nerding out on numerology to a far more tedious extent than in Lord of the Worms in a bid to uncover the Antichrist. Whatever tension may have arisen from this high-stakes Cthulhu-meets-Dennis-Wheatley-meets-James-Bond scenario is snuffed out by the fact that Crow narrates all the action to de Marigny after the fact, so the threat is already safely dealt with. This, incidentally, makes a complete nonsense of the beginning of the story, in which Crow summons de Marigny to Blowne House in a tone suggesting urgency, since de Marigny is not required for anything at all save to provide a friendly ear for Crow to regale with this story.

The story makes a passing mention of de Marigny’s housekeeper, which raises an interesting point: between her, Nitocris, Crow’s mum from Inception and Ragnar’s mum from The Viking’s Stone, there are only four women in the whole book of any significance whatsoever! Between this and the way the narration abruptly and without any real basis refers to women as “a perverse group at best”, this signifies the start of a very bad trend in Lumley’s writing, or at least this early phase of it, wherein women tend to be either minor support characters, sexy villainesses, girlfriends-by-default (a term I’ll come back to later) or entirely irrelevant.

The final tale in the collection, and the only one set after the events of The Burrowers Beneath, is The Black Recalled. Neither Crow nor de Marigny are present here, as a result of the events of the novel series, and in their wake disciples of the villain from The Caller of the Black return to the ruins of Blowne House to clash over the cult’s legacy. This is a decent enough idea botched by a slapdash execution. The dialogue is, in fact, pretty bad, and includes way too much exposition (including a tedious restatement of basic Mythos principles that hits the proportions of August Derleth’s worst exposition-dumps), and Lumley seems to struggle to structure the story. Whilst I can see why it would be necessary to get the basic facts of the previous tale across before getting into the main action here, if the story had been originally penned for standalone publication, Lumley spends a bit too long on that chore, and the actual meat of the matter seems to be too threadbare to carry the story. The basic problem with the tale is that it is an exercise in padding out the Crow canon rather than a good story in its own right.

What to make, then, of the collection as a whole? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, with one story - Lord of the Worms - rather standing head and shoulders over the rest, whilst other stories - Inception, The Caller of the Black, De Marigny’s Clock and The Mirror of Nitocris - being fun but rather inessential and the rest are completely dispensable. The best of the stories have all been widely anthologised elsewhere - particularly in Lumley’s major set of mid-1990s anthologies (Fruiting Bodies, Dagon’s Bell, The Second Wish and The Return of the Deep Ones), meaning that The Compleat Crow is for only for compleatists - er, I mean completists.

The Burrowers Beneath

The Burrowers Beneath is the first full-length Titus Crow novel, and tends to be the one which faces the least critical distaste within fan circles. This is probably because of all of the novels, it is the one which is most rooted in at least mildly Lovecraft-flavoured cosmic horror, and Kthanid doesn’t show up until the followup (The Transition of Titus Crow). I myself had remembered it being an OK read, but on coming back to give it a reread I find that my assessment was probably overgenerous, in light of how much I disliked the subsequent books.

The novel represents a sea change in Crow and de Marigny’s adventures, since it is the first time when they come up directly against fully-fledged Mythos monsters resident on Earth and acting at the behest of a Great Old One. (In this case, it’s the appallingly huge subterranean worm-things, the Chthonians, and their sire Shudde-M’ell.) These represent the highest stakes yet in the series; in de Marigny’s Clock the monsters are largely offstage and the operation of the clock prevents a mass incursion, in The Mirror of Nitocris the evil entity is fairly easily dealt with, and in An Item of Supporting Evidence the monster is dead. Here, Crow and de Marigny must deal with the malevolent inventions of an entire species - physically powerful enough to cause mini-earthquakes in their own right, and psychically powerful enough to exert a baleful influence over human minds.

The Chthonians and Shudde-M’ell were first introduced in Cement Surroundings, one of Lumley’s first short stories, and that tale and another one (The Night Sea-Maid Went Down) are incorporated into the text here. In order to provide a rationale for this, Lumley uses the old motif of having the novel be presented as a compilation of different people’s writings - often used in Mythos pastiches, but a time-honoured technique in horror fiction at least since its use in Dracula.

The early sections of the novel allude to other Lumley stories, such as The Horror At Oakdeene or Rising With Surtsey, mostly to establish that Crow has enough psychic sensitivity that his dreams can pick up impressions of significant Mythos events. This isn’t done too heavy-handedly, and I was hoping that this would be Lumley’s way of signalling that the novel deals with his personal corner of the Mythos rather than purporting to offer an overall explanation of it.

Alas, my recollections of the novel series were a bit off - whilst some of Lumley’s most risible additions to the Mythos wouldn’t appear here, this novel would still signal the start of his extremely reductive attempt to try and explain the whole shebang - a bid, perhaps, to pick up the baton that August Derleth had dropped on his death, though the post-Derleth backlash would ensure that no new “Pope of the Cthulhu Mythos” would be installed on Derleth’s throne. Right as Crow is explaining his psychic sensitivity to de Marigny, de Marigny goes off on an internal reminiscence about his own Mythos studies and provides a massive, unwieldy plot dump that could have been cribbed directly from a Derleth story, rather clumsily wrecking the narrative flow which admittedly Crow’s wittering had weakened. The section culminates in Crow declaring the basic nature of the Chthonians before chapter 2 is even done, wrecking any chance of creating a sense of mystery surrounding them or having their nature be a surprise.

So impatient is Crow to spill the beans that he does it immediately before we are presented with Cement Surroundings itself, which would surely have been a far better introduction to the creatures than Crow’s lecture. It’s clearly a very early story which owes an awful lot to August Derleth’s approach to writing Mythos tales, but it’s competent enough and at least it isn't Derleth’s standard narrative. (I’d regard it as a very rudimentary story by Lumley’s standards, but a pretty good one by Derleth’s.) As soon as that’s done it’s back to the exposition. Fairly rudimentary action sequences pop in here and there to provide some semblance of excitement, but for the most part the following chapters are devoted to even more over-expositional conversations in which Crow and de Marigny jabber at each other in a manner no actual humans do.

These conversations begin Lumley’s unfortunate “let me tell you about my headcanon” habit, in which he keeps telling you what the real story was behind some other Mythos writer’s idea. For instance, there’s some dull blather about how the Mnar star-stones from Derleth’s stories work by virtue of the Old Ones having been brainwashed by the Elder Gods into respecting the signs, rather than them actually being magic. This is an instance of Lumley creating a problem for himself which he then has to solve: had he given himself the creative licence to ignore Derleth’s Mnar stones, he wouldn’t have felt a need to explain them and could have come up with his own containment mechanism, and likewise he wouldn’t have to put so much work here into trying to explain away magic with pseudoscientific rationales if the earlier Titus Crow stories hadn’t been utterly steeped in magic to begin with.

(Really, given the science fantasy emphasis of the subsequent novels, Titus Crow the occult detective is a really counter-intuitive choice for a protagonist for them, and indeed an entire novel in the series - The Transition of Titus Crow - is dedicated to Lumley completely demolishing and rebuilding Titus Crow as an entirely different protagonist better suited to the action of the later books.)

Had Lumley enjoyed the opportunity to seek advice from Lovecraft on this point, Lovecraft would have probably advised him not to bother with the reconciliation to begin with. The narrative and structural problems Lumley has to resolve with these conversations only exist if you’ve a) swallowed Derleth’s personal take on the Mythos and b) want to believe the Mythos has a consistent canon which it plainly does not have.

This fool’s errand takes Lumley (via the mouthpiece of Crow) out onto some decidedly narrow rhetorical branches. At one point he actually has Crow push the idea that there is no supernatural, just sufficiently advanced science, which is frankly a bit rich considering that the Crow canon contains stories like Billy’s Oak and The Viking’s Stone. Crow also claims that the Old Ones are not supernatural, just from “outside”, which is a magnificent incident of Lumley not thinking through the implications of what he is writing: if the Old Ones come from “outside” - in other words, from beyond the zone in which the natural laws we understand hold sway - then they’ve come from a place beyond nature, a place that transcends or refutes nature, a place which is, by any reasonable definition, supernatural, and they are surely therefore supernatural by dint of coming from that place.

What few interesting ideas are offered up in this segment tend to be those parts which are implemented through action rather than dialogue. (Of course, we get plenty of dialogue about them anyway, because here Lumley shares August Derleth’s utter lack of faith in the reader to actually follow what the story is about unless the characters have a conversation carefully spelling everything out for them in a redundant fashion.) The problem with the adversaries in the book being massive underground worms is that, on the face of it, their capacity to act seems limited to really massive physical assaults, but Lumley adds to their menace by giving them potent psychic capabilities. The concept that they create a sort of cognitive fog by their very presence, even as juveniles, is nice twist which adds to the menace posed by the Chthonian eggs Crow has obtained and is actually vaguely well-executed. Likewise, the idea that Chthonians can scoop your brain out and put it in a body under their control may be a mashup of ideas from various Lovecraft stories (I’m thinking The Whisperer In Darkness and The Thing On the Doorstep, with a pinch of At the Mountains of Madness when one considers that the artificial protoplasm body is a bit like Shoggoth), but fun, though deployed a little clumsily here.

The brain-in-a-blob incident threatens to divert the novel away from expositionary conversations and back in the direction of having a plot where stuff happen and people do things. Lumley is saved from this and takes the focus of the book back to waffly conversations with the arrival of Peaslee of the Wilmarth Foundation - this being a group of Miskatonic University academics dedicated to fighting the Old Ones. This is a potentially fun idea which isn’t entirely without precedent in Lovecraft - one of the characters from At the Mountains of Madness takes part in the expedition to the Australian outback in The Shadow Out of Time, for instance, and it is evident from both those stories that other Miskatonic academics like Wilmarth of The Whisperer In Darkness or Henry Armitage of The Dunwich Horror have been hinting to their colleagues about their experiences. The idea that Miskatonic might end up being home to an unofficial “Mythos Studies department” builds on these hints nicely - in fact, it fits them so well that it feels possible that Lovecraft could have come up with the idea himself had he lived long enough.

The problem here is that Lumley implements it in a rather boring way, using it as a vehicle to continue his process of demystifying the Mythos rather than as a means for these academics to reach the awful conclusion that their faith in a universe which will yield to reason, scientific inquiry, philosophical exploration and the like is terribly misplaced. They even have a cute three letter acronym for the Old Ones - CCD, for Cthulhu Cycle Deities. (The Foundation actually manufactures its own Mnar stones, which I would regard as being a combination of risible demystification of the stones and giving excess power to the Foundation, were it not for the fact that Mnar stones were already absurdly common in Derleth’s stories; as it stands, having someone producing them to order at least makes some vague sort of sense.)

Not content with dragging the novel back to the morass of exposition it had been struggling to get clear from, Peaslee also sabotages the work done to make the Chthonians seem scary by revealing their secret weakness: namely, water. Whilst this makes sense if you are fool enough to swallow Derleth’s attribution of the Old Ones to the classical Greek elements, there’s several problems with it: firstly, it makes them seem laughably unsuited to living on Earth (what, do they start choking once they encounter somewhat damp soil); secondly, Derleth’s elemental theory is stupid; thirdly, making water the Chthonians’ weakness is more than a little bit Dune - and given their close resemblance to Herbert’s titanic sandworms, anything which makes them seem even more like a ripoff than they already are is very counter-productive.

Far from content with undermining his own ideas, Lumley has Peaslee act as a mouthpiece for his personal headcanon about Azathoth. This is the idea that Azathoth is not an actual entity but is merely a nuclear explosion and/or Big Bang based on an asinine reading of Lovecraft’s description of Azathoth as a “monstrous nuclear chaos” that relies on discarding a whole heap of distinctive features (like how Azathoth is mindlessly entertained by sinister pipers) in order to follow Lumley’s project of demystifying Mythos and giving an SFnal basis to its least SFnal elements. (For what it’s worth, in the context Lovecraft uses the term, it seems clear to me that he refers to Azathoth as being “nuclear” in the sense that Azathoth is a sinister mass at the centre of the universe, “nuclear” here being used in the sense of “found in the central region of a larger body”.)

Peaslee is not the only source of eyeroll-worthy nonsense in this conversation; there’s a bit where de Marigny suggests that summoning Elder Gods would be unthinkable and may even be impossible, when that's exactly what happens in Derleth’s Lair of the Star-Spawn, one of the earliest implementations of the Elder Gods concept - and indeed, an Elder God shows up without anyone even asking at the end of The Return of Hastur. This rather underscores the folly of trying to follow Derleth’s canon - not only does Derleth’s work contradict a whole bunch of other Mythos material, but his own body of work isn’t even internally consistent, so you end up chasing a mirage of consistency which is not and never was real.

In the midst of this conversation we get an island of mild enjoyment in the form of The Night Sea-Maid Went Down, which is presented as an interesting snippet from the Foundation’s archives but is actually just a self-contained story. It’s not astonishing but it’s entertaining enough, its main issues being a reliance on a stereotypical “superstitious Pole” stock character from Lovecraft for exposition and a slight inconsistency in narrative voice, which is mostly quite colloquial but sometimes gets a bit stiff and formal in a way which doesn't ring true for the tone of the rest of the tale. It largely consists of a lot of build-up to a big, flashy punchline, but to give it some credit the punchline is actually pretty good.

Whatever merits and flaws the story of the Sea-Maid may have in its own right, there’s no getting around the fact that it is a complete non sequitur in this context. In a more capably-constructed novel, putting in a short story with no real bearing on the main plot this late in the running would be a major flaw, wrecking whatever momentum had been established with the core narrative right as the novel should have been building to its climax. Here, however, it’s a welcome respite from the extremely patchy main story, which shows no sign of improvement in its last legs. Once again, way too much time is spent on exposition, and - in a classic Derleth-imitating move - exposition of matters which don’t really have any real bearing on the immediate plot at hand.

For instance, right here in the last stretches of the novel, there’s a long rambling digression explaining the Deep Ones in way more detail than ever becomes relevant to the actual story, and likewise we get Crow expounding his theory about how Nyarlathotep isn’t an actual distinct entity in his own right but a sort of psychic projection of the collective will of the Old Ones, which feels like another attempt to reductively scale back the scope of the Mythos and neuter its more fantastic elements - and again, Nyarlathotep never shows up in this novel, so what’s the point of raising the idea here?. Slightly more relevant to the Foundation’s anti-Old One efforts is some waffle about how the Old Ones are extremely vulnerable to radiation, a weakness which if you think it through actually makes the Old Ones more vulnerable to the harsh, uncaring conditions of the universe than human beings are - a complete inversion of Lovecraft’s original concept of his superhuman space gods, though perhaps an inadvertent one on Lumley’s part.

Since Lumley insists on spending page count continuing his worldbuilding and wiki-tickling and other expositionary babble almost to the very end of the novel, the actual ending has to be fitted in between these outbreaks of theorising, and as a result the concluding sections of the story are rushed and for the most part lack tension as the process of systematic destruction of the Chthonians becomes almost routine. Things only really pick up in the very final chapter; the failure of the Foundation’s effort to kill Shudde-M’ell itself and the Chthonian’s retaliatory attack on Blowne House could have been a shuddersome indication of the limits of human effort against the Old Ones, were it not for the rest of the series finding Crow and de Marigny foiling the Old Ones on a regular basis (indeed, even here in the epilogue it is evident that the Foundation lives on). The actual ending would be much more of a cliffhanger if the escape route via de Marigny’s mysterious clock hadn’t been signposted with such ham-fisted obviousness..

The Burrowers Beneath is very obviously the product of Lumley trying to shift gears from writing short stories to producing novels, and between the recycling of short stories and the clunky structure it’s clear that producing it was very much a learning process for him. In addition to the rookie errors involved and the bad writing habits indulged in, it also reveals biases and blind spots in his writing that do him little credit. There are literally no women in novel save for de Marigny’s landlady and a fortune-teller correspondent of Crow’s, both of whom are firmly offscreen presences. Likewise, not only is the narrator dismissive about black Africans in Cement Surroundings, but over the course of the novel as a whole it is revealed that Shudde-M’ell was released as a result of local witch doctors foolishly digging up star stones.

This actually goes a little beyond Lovecraftian racism; Lovecraft may not have thought much about other cultures, but he did at least give people some credit for recognising danger when they saw it (even if he didn’t credit them with a nuanced understanding of it) - typically, in Lovecraft, local peoples tend to have superstitions surrounding Mythos-related sites which turn out to be justified to some extent or another. (You would, after all, expect people living in an area for long enough to realise where the places you don’t go are and develop appropriate taboos surrounding them.) Here, Lumley doesn’t even give African peoples that level of credit.

On the whole, the fact that The Burrowers Beneath is regarded by some fans as being the best novel in the Crow series says two things, neither of them flattering. The first thing is that some fans have some pretty damn low standards. The second thing is that the rest of the series must be particularly objectionable to be generally considered to be worse than this. And so it is.

The Transition to Elysia

From this point on the series descends into utter silliness, and rather than reread and give full reviews here I am just going to give a broad outline of what comes next because whilst I was willing to give Burrowers Beneath another chance based on my vaguely positive recollection of it and the good impression it made on some fans, as it turns out it was much worse than I remembered - so why should I expect the rest of the series to be better when I remember hating it? (Thanks, by the way, to TV Tropes and The Cultural Gutter, whose pages on the series have helped me remember much that I had wished to forget about the sequence.)

The Transition of Titus Crow mostly consists of de Marigny, who has believed Crow dead or lost forever, being visited by his old friend who regales him with a big flat plot dump concerning what Crow has been getting up to since they got separated in space and time. What he has mostly been getting up to is being Dr. Who, with de Marigny’s clock as his TARDIS. Lumley claims not to have been consciously influenced by the TV show in doing this, but the parallels are nonetheless rather blatant and Lumley’s specific excuse - that Lovecraft came up with the clock long before Doctor Who ever aired - is rather weak when the mechanism of travel with the clock here is reminiscent more of Who than it is of the depiction in Through the Gates of the SIlver Key. (It can also double as a rudimentary X-Wing, given that it shoots little pew-pew lasers at the bad aliens who chase it across the spaceways.)

What's more, Crow’s journeys find him levelling up to superheroic levels. Having been injured in the proximity of a helpful robot, he is turned into a cyborg capable of fighting battles against the Old Ones and winning take him to Elysia, home of the Elder Gods. There he meets their leader, Kthanid - yes, the benign, kindly, sparkly version of Cthulhu who just wants to be everyone’s wise avuncular friend. The Elder Gods duly turn Crow into a cyborg so that he can fight battles against the Old Ones and win, and in the process he also gets a girlfriend in the form of an Elder Goddess of much more human aspect - Tiania, who exists mostly to be impressed by him.

For a member of the ruling benign forces of the universe, Tiania is certainly often belittled and talked about in a sort of juvenilising way by Lumley. She’s apparently Kthanid’s ward, despite the fact that as a goddess she presumably doesn’t need sparkle-Cthulhu to look after her, and Lumley keeps referring to her as a “girl-goddess”, as though to emphasise that she’s there to be eye candy and a love interest. (Not so much “Cthulhu fhtagn” as “Qtp2t fhtagn”...)

She is also an example of a Lumley character type not represented in the Crow short stories, and which is rather symptomatic of his rather limited ability to write women: what I call the “girlfriend-by-default”. This is a character type not exclusively limited to Lumley - it pops up a lot in adventure stories, especially those written with teenage boys in mind as the primary audience - but whilst I can’t blame Lumley for the invention of the trope, I can certainly criticise him for using it. A girlfriend-by-default is a character who exists in a story to be the protagonist’s girlfriend, so that rather than being a character in her own right she mostly acts as a cool accessory for the protagonist, to be filed alongside his badass magic sword and his awesome motorcycle and his spaceship with go-faster stripes.

It’s a transparent wish fulfilment trope which becomes all the more obvious when, as in the Crow series, the woman in question turns out to be the only woman the protagonist encounters who could viably date him in the first place - or at least, the only benign one. Evil seductresses may exist, but they aren’t really dating material, and protagonists who stray from their girlfriends-by-default will be punished by the narrative for doing so, though rarely to the extent of the girlfriend-by-default actually leaving them.

Another clear sign that you are dealing with a girlfriend-by-default is that, whilst they may have some semblance of a background and an origin story and a personality, it isn’t enough to actually give them a sense of having a life independent of the protagonist. The key question to ask is “If this character never met the protagonist, do I have a firm idea of what they’d be doing with their life?” If the answer is “I have no idea what they’d be doing” or “I’m fairly sure they’d just be sat around not doing much of anything”, you may well be dealing with a girlfriend-by-default.

One of the traits of the girlfriend-by-default is that the defaultness can often look like destiny - in particular, the “we were destined to be together!” sense you get when characters who - like Crow - previously had very little interest in dating women are suddenly written as though are, like they’ve discovered their heterosexuality stashed in their spare pair of cargo pants or something. This is often passed off as the protagonist never having met anyone as mutually compatible with their interests as the girlfriend-by-default is before, though naturally this compatibility is a bit of a cheat on the girlfriend-by-default’s part because she’s written to be very interested in everything the protagonist is interested in, and if she has any other interests, she pursues thiem in such a way that the protagonist is never inconvenienced in any way. This is not how relationships work, but it’s how the inexperienced and the naive would like to imagine relationships work, which makes it great when you’re writing for an assumed heteronormative teenage male audience.

The introduction of Tiania is also, arguably, part of Crow’s titular transition, since it is one of the many respects in which his character is completely transformed from that of The Compleat Crow or The Burrowers Beneath by the events of the novel. In the earlier books in the series, Lumley wanted to write in a vaguely Derlethian mode, so there was no need for a love interest and Crow and de Marigny expressed a mild disdain for women in general; in the later books, he wanted to shift to science fantasy and planetary romance, so Tiania is sent skipping in in her green harem pants, Lumley having instructed her to show Crow a good time, and lo and behold our wish fulfillment hero has yet another trophy for the old prize cabinet, his previous utter disinterest in women having been forgotten.

Having completed the job of mangling Crow until he is unrecognisable, Lumley was largely stuck for ideas as to what to do with him, and the bulk of the following novels only have him as a supporting character. In Clock of Dreams de Marigny uses the totally-not-a-TARDIS to visit the Dreamlands setting of Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, in order to save Crow and Tiania from various perils they blunder into.

The next two novels, Spawn of the Winds and In the Moons of Borea go full-on planetary romance and revolve around a cast of Wilmarth Foundation investigators who get whisked off to the world of Borea, which is ruled by Ithaqua. What would have been an interesting concept devolves into by-the-numbers planetary romance, complete with a local rebellion led by Ithaqua’s hot part-human daughter (who is, of course, a girlfriend-by-default for one of the characters). The basic problem is that there’s an essential genre mismatch; the idea of a planetary romance novel about an icy planet ruled by a spooky ice alien is entirely viable, but making that ice alien Ithaqua is kind of tonally inappropriate. It’s like making a Star Wars movie where the Empire starts using the creatures from Alien as a biological weapon against the Rebels: it’s a cool idea for a short, quirky bit of fanfic, but it’s an awkward mashup which is doomed to leave fans of one franchise or the other franchise or both franchises disappointed.

Having churned these out in the mid-to-late 1970s, Lumley quite wisely seems to have taken a step back to work on other projects, with a full decade passing until the final book in the series, Elysia, emerged. This tried to cap off the series - plus Lumley’s Dreamlands stories and other stories by his inspired by Lovecraft and the Weird Tales crowd - by having the Old Ones finally rise up from their imprisonment to besiege the home of the Elder Gods. It’s exactly as absurdly over-the-top as you’d expect; one notes that it ends with the Old Ones going back to bed for another cycle of dormancy but with the Elder Gods apparently gone, perhaps as a belated attempt to shut down the whole Elder Gods thing as no longer really representing the consensus within Mythos fandom or something. To be honest, Lumley could have been better served by just leaving well alone.

So, what to take of the series as a whole? If it had not tried to base itself on the Cthulhu Mythos, it’d have just been a rather confused science fantasy world-hopping series. But it was - and moreover, it came from an author with a privileged voice within the scene, since at the time the series started if you wrote Mythos material for Arkham House that tended to imply that your shit was “canon” on some level, if only because a) Derleth had given you his blessing and b) Arkham House was a respected platform within the fandom.

The big problem with the series’ connections with the wider Mythos is that it focuses a lot on Lumley saying “Hey, here’s my headcanon about what the real ultimate truth is behind something someone else established!” The issue with doing that is that you are a) making a call about what previous authors really meant when they were writing about it, regardless of how tonally appropriate to their work your headcanon is, and b) depending on the platform you are using it can come across as trying to impose your idea on future writers who want to use the same concept in future.

Conversely, “here's the secret truth about my own thing I made up!” is a much easier sell. Elysia as a benign realm of ultimate foes of Cthulhu including his sparkly brother is hard to swallow because it doesn't seem to fit next to established lore - it doesn’t even fit the original Call of Cthulhu, and even if you brush aside other hands’ work as non-canon you should at least be trying to do something that is either tonally consistent with the original idea or is an interesting alternate spin on it (and flatly contradicting it doesn’t qualify as an interesting alternate spin), otherwise there’s no point using the idea of Cthulhu in the first place. Elysia as a home of foes of Lumley-invented entities and Kthanid as a sparkly equivalent of Yibb-Tstll or something would have been somewhat easier to accept, partly because it treads on less toes and partly because “my corner of the Mythos, my rules” applies.

What’s really baffling about it is how we know, both from the short stories and from other Mythos novels he has written, that Lumley can actually produce work that interestingly engages tonally and/or conceptually with the original ideas he’s riffing on.

Beneath the Moors

In 1974, the same year as DAW put out The Burrowers Beneath, Arkham House were putting out a Brian Lumley Cthulhu Mythos novel of their very own - Beneath the Moors. This is the tale of an archaeologist, Professor Ewart Masters, who whilst convalescing from a car accident which left him with brain damage starts an investigation of a strange statue discovered in the Yorkshire Moors. It transpires that in caves deep beneath the moors there exists Lh-yib, the “sister city” of Ib from Lovecraft’s The Doom That Came to Sarnath and home to two orders of being - the servitor race called the Thuun’ha, cousins of the original inhabitants of Ib, and a master race of reptilian patricians worshipped by the Thuun'ha as gods, of which Bokrug of Ib was but one scion. Soon he finds himself imprisoned in the sister-city, where he witnesses a range of its terrors.

This is another novel that piggybacks on one of Lumley's short stories - in this case it’s The Sister-City, which tells of how one Robert Krug discovers his secret nature as a member of the “Bokrug” species. Robert is probably the “Bokrug” encountered and conversed with by Masters in the novel, in fact, which is a much more palatable and interesting concept than Masters chatting to the same Bokrug that featured in Doom That Came To Sarnath. The short story does, of course, suffer from the fact that it's basically another riff on the hoary old “dude discovers that he's a Deep One” narrative, except with the Bokrug species substituted for Deep Ones (assuming they are even appreciably different and are not just cousins of each other).

For the purpose of the novel, Lumley seems to recognise this and tries to flesh the idea out by offering a series of vignettes occurring during Masters’ imprisonment in Lh-yib, but these don't seem to go anywhere. In principle, Lumley was well-placed here to produce an updated riff on the old “Hollow Earth”-type narrative that included Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: the Power of the Coming Race, the Shaver Mystery, or Lovecraft's own The Mound. The issue is that Lumley's underground setting is nowhere near as developed as those of any of those stories. Masters is largely kept away from the Thuun’ha city, which conveniently saves Lumley from having to develop any especially deep notions of how their society works, and his various encounters resemble random dungeon-crawling incidents that don't add up to much beyond means of eating page count until the story hits novel-length. The fact that Masters spends much of his captivity believing that he's having a neurological incident and none of it is real is potentially interesting but never really comes to much beyond laying the groundwork for everyone writing him off as mad when he returns to the surface.

Lumley hits on an idea for a good setting here with Lh-yib, but he recoils from giving it a satisfying description and doesn't really seem to have any strong narrative in mind after Masters’ capture. And the fact is that taking this sort of quasi-science fictional approach with the subject matter of Sarnath, which sits very much towards the fantasy end of Lovecraft's portfolio, is a bit of a discordant choice. Lumley, to his credit, almost makes it work - it's certainly a far more interesting alternate take than yet another pushing of the Derleth Mythos (and I note a pleasing lack of Elder Gods and elemental correspondences here), and the early stages of the book covering Masters' investigation are quite fun, but that all ends up being setup for a punchline that flops when delivered.

Oh, and once again the novel includes pretty much no women of any note.

The Return of the Deep Ones

Originally serialised in Fantasy Book in the mid-1980s, The Return of the Deep Ones didn’t see book publication until it came out in the 1994 compilation of the same name, which also reprinted Beneath the Moors after it had lingered in obscurity for a good long while and rounded itself off with Inception and Lord of the Worms. Coming a decade after Beneath the Moors, it remains Lumley’s most recent novel-length Mythos work outside of the Titus Crow series.

As the title implies, it is yet another sequel to The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and yet another rerun of the tired old “narrator discovers that Deep Ones exists, discovers that he is a Deep One, turns into a fish person” plot thread from that story which August Derleth repeated ad nauseum. Yet, at the same time, I can’t entirely write it off, because as far as stories in that vein go it’s actually quite good. Most of this is because, unlike Derleth and so many other imitators, Lumley seems to have sat down and had a good think about what would would happen if an unwitting Deep One hybrid were lured into embracing their true nature by the other Deep Ones on purpose, rather than it happening by sheer accident.

It is, of course, an accident in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and because that provided the model for Deep One-themed stories subsequent writers (and Derleth in particular) seem to have taken the stance that blundering into your Deep One nature is the norm rather than the exception, but this approach overlooks the sophistication and intelligence Lovecraft attributed to the Deep Ones in the original story. August Derleth was particularly bad for this; in his stories, Deep Ones are all too often used as generic goons, and in The Watcher From the Sky (the second episode of The Trail of Cthulhu) they are easily dispatched with fairly simple tactics.

Lumley, in contrast, credits the Deep Ones with having a level of intelligence at the very least commensurate with humans, if not superior - which is the right call, because the smarter a monster is, the scarier it is. The novel tells of how one John Vollister, a marine biologist with some distant Deep One ancestry, is targeted by a Deep One conspiracy to recruit him and use his skills in their plans to radically accelerate their reproductive process and crowd out humanity. The story unfolds along the Cornish coastline, and as Vollister becomes entangled in events he witnesses how all of this is part of a bigger plot brewing in that region - the establishment of a new Deep One city in the Celtic Sea, and a beachhead in Britain.

The whole Deep One concept originally arose from Lovecraft’s racist fears of miscegenation, of course, but Lumley does a reasonable job of backing away from that. The Pacific island connection is played down - the islands are mentioned as places where a Deep One population exists, and that’s it - and the Deep Ones encountered draw, if anything, more on establishment figures from the US and UK rather than being representatives of a downtrodden part-immigrant community. (They live in isolated boating clubs and drive around in limousines and so on.) This is in refreshing contrast to August Derleth’s works riffing on the Deep One thing, in which the Pacific island connection is harped on nigh-incessantly.

Even more interestingly, Lumley works in a suggestion that Deep Ones were the original, amphibious human race, and what we think of as “humanity” represents nothing less than a distant branch of Earth’s true masters, with our atrophied ability to breath water leaving us with a major disadvantage. If true, then that’s fun in itself - but if that isn’t true, the fact that the Deep Ones seem to believe it is true is interesting in its own way. It would mean that they think of us as stunted mutants, poor disabled wretches stuck in a genetic cul-de-sac but who can be restored to our former glory with suitable interbreeding, and add a certain tang of “scaly man’s burden” to their colonisation plans. (It would also make the human-Deep One genetic compatibility make way more sense.)

That said, it is a bit of a shame that Lumley doesn’t quite take the next logical step here. Consider: if humans are atrophied Deep Ones, then you could conceive of a scenario where anyone could, given sufficient medical skill on the part of the Deep Ones, end up being fishified without having any especially recent connections in their family tree whatsoever, which would be one way of reclaiming the whole Deep One thing from the racist fear of miscegenation that inspired it in the first place. You could then reframe the Innsmouth stuff as being a more rudimentary take on “restoring” human amphibious capabilities, the result of the Deep Ones not yet having the technical knowhow to take a more effective approach.

Of course, a slight question mark exists over this point, because it all comes as part of the Deep Ones’ attempt to persuade Vollister around to their point of view. You could accuse this story of pulling a Derleth-style Mythos Dump - a fat wad of exposition about the Cthulhu Mythos solely for the purpose of waving around ideas about the Mythos - but I think it’s both more adeptly handled this time and actually a fair enough inclusion, because rather than taking the Derleth route of just reiterating the same set of facts yet again for no particular purpose, there is in fact a point this time. The whole intent is to present the Deep Ones’ particular worldview, which necessitates at least some discussion of their religion, and the presentation of the Mythos here is a believable take that they may have on it. (For instance, though the Derlethian Elder Gods do feature, they are painted as sinister oppressors by the Deep Ones discussing them, which is what you’d expect.)

Now, some may accuse Lumley of demystifying the Deep Ones by having them chat about their view of the cosmos with Vollister like this, but I don’t think he’s necessarily radically departing from Lovecraft’s own precedent here; substantial chunks of At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time and The Mound are given over to descriptions of the weird little societies depicted there, so giving the Deep Ones the same treatment is fair game, especially when the very brief snippet Lovecraft gives us of the Deep One worldview at the end of Shadow Over Innsmouth is so evocative.

Moreover, this isn’t a nice, cozy chat over tea and biscuits (or fish treats for the Deep Ones); much of this stuff comes as part of a long process of drugging, re-education, and attempts to break Vollister’s will and force him to accept his true nature, much of which takes place in a cell constructed for the task. (It even has a little pond in it, where after a certain point the jailors dump live fish into it, informing Vollister that if he wants to eat, he’ll need to dive in and hunt the fish, because he isn’t getting conventional meals any more.) The process is delightfully creepy (Lumley doesn’t have anyone say “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a frog stamping on a human face - forever”, but you’re in the same sort of ballpark), and just as you begin to get used to it Vollister escapes - only to encounter even worse horrors, the novel being capped off with a very effective Invasion of the Bodysnatchers/I Am Legend style paranoia-and-siege section in which Vollister finds that there’s very few people indeed he can rely on, and it isn’t in their power to help him despite their best efforts.

This includes some really effective, nasty deployment of a shoggoth, making the Deep Ones’ use of shoggoths (first alluded to in Shadow Over Innsmouth) actually relevant this time. Lumley’s depiction of the shoggoth makes excellent use of established facts in Lovecraft about it, especially in the way that it is, for once, a believable industrial slave-organism rather than just a big spooky blob-monster that does generic spooky blob-stuff. (I’d even be tempted to say it’s better than the shoggoth appearance in At the Mountains of Madness, the only time one of them comes onstage in Lovecraft proper.)

Like The Burrowers Beneath and Beneath the Moors, the novel incorporates a previous Lumley short story. This time, it’s Haggopian, the narrative of a journalist who gets to interview a famed Jacques Cousteau-esque celebrity sea-explorer who turns out to be a rather unusual type of Deep One. By itself, it’s a pretty effective story - essentially an eccentric spin on the old vampire tale, which also introduces the idea that the Deep Ones are a far more varied and weird lot than just the fish people they are typically depicted as - as varied, in fact, as the various life forms of the ocean itself. In the context of this novel it’s slightly incongruous and seems to have been slipped into make the page count, but it isn’t entirely irrelevant - in particular, it provides a nice transition from the take on the Deep Ones which Vollister has been offered (which, despite the nastiness he’s been subjected to, is still comparatively sanitised) and the true gloves-off horribleness he encounters once he escapes his cell.

On the whole, then, the novel is really quite effective, its main blemish being the character of Sarah Bishop. This is a sexy Deep One from the US that Vollister starts to fall for early on, is repulsed by later when she turns out to be a Deep One, but ultimately ends up coaxing him into accepting his nature. Her characterisation is, on the whole, rather thin, and she seems to exist mostly to give Vollister a girlfriend-by-default rather than to have much of an agenda of her own. There’s some references to her having sex with Vollister whilst he is drugged, but the narration doesn’t seem to acknowledge this as rape so much as a sexy surprise, which is rather creepy in a sort of inadvertent way.

Still, even that isn’t enough to change the fact that The Return of the Deep Ones perhaps the best of Lumley’s novel-length Mythos stories (if we don’t count novels which, like some volumes of the Necroscope series, make passing reference to the Cthulhu Mythos but are primarily rooted in Lumley’s own fictional worlds). More than that, it’s actually - if you can get over the eye-rollingly crass handling of Sarah Bishop’s character - a pretty good Lovecraftian tale in its own right, particularly in the way the Deep Ones end up coming across not as being cacklingly, two-dimensionally evil, but simply creatures who are doing their thing the way they see fit and who don’t happen to put any higher value on human life than, say, meat-eaters put on the life of chickens.

I certainly hope it gets a bit more kudos than it previously has among Mythos readers - in particular, despite being a flawed work, it deserves to be lauded as Lumley’s best Mythos-related novel much more than The Burrowers Beneath, which really doesn’t deserve the grudging respect it gets in fan circles.

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