Lumley's Little Bites

by Arthur B

A cross-section of Brian Lumley's short stories reveals a career more diverse than Cthulhu Mythos rehashes and endless Necroscope sequels.
Having previously decided that I’d given Brian Lumley a bit of a raw deal, I thought the time had come to have a broader look at his short stories, beyond just the Cthulhu Mythos-related ones. Various collections of his work have come out over the years, but perhaps the easiest and most economical to find - and certainly the ones I remember most fondly from my teenage Lumley phase - are his collections from the 1990s, gathered together when he was at the peak of his commercial and critical success. Aside from the Cthulhu Mythos-specific anthologies which I covered in the previous article, you’re looking at Fruiting Bodies and Other Fungi, Dagon’s Bell and Other Discords, The Second Wish and Other Exhaltations, and A Coven of Vampires. Each contain some 13 stories from Lumley’s back catalogue, with the first three constituting a “best of” series with no overlap between them and the fourth being a thematic collection which does have some overlap with the earlier collections.

Although Lumley’s novel career was, back in the day, the section of his work which got the most spotlight - if only because the sheer amount of space the Necroscope bricks took up on bookshop shelves - he has always kept up his short story writing and regularly appears in genre anthologies. In fact, in recent years he has retired from writing novels altogether (apparently having finally decided that the Necroscope series had run its course), taking to short stories and novellas as his main mode of creative expression. In these collections, we find the full breadth of Lumley’s skills as a writer, revealing a talent not entirely limited to vampire stories and Mythos pastiche. In short, it is the closest we’re likely to come to a complete, rounded picture of Lumley as a writer.

To round things off, I’m also going to cover Singers of Strange Songs, an anthology of Cthulhu Mythos stories by various hands released in honour of Lumley’s Guest of Honour appearance at NecronomiCon in 1997.

Fruiting Bodies and Other Fungi

In his introduction to this 1993 collection Lumley discusses the then-current splatterpunk fad in horror, and opines that like any other genre trend the gems will rise and the dross will sink, whilst distinguishing his own work from it. He also argues that much splatterpunk sets out primarily to horrify the reader without necessarily entertaining them, whilst he tries to do both; this is a somewhat uncharitable take on splatterpunk, though the point that some of the subgenre’s material seems to offer nothing beyond grossout shock value is valid.

Several stories in the collection both illustrate how Lumley is able to offer the reader some extremely vivid imagery without ostentatiously wallowing in it, and whilst offering something of interest above and beyond the gruesome central shocks. The title story, for instance, is a highly atmospheric evocation of a rotting seaside town falling into the sea, which has become home to an alarming breed of dry rot. As well as having an extraordinarily nasty scare towards the end, the story also excels in evoking this air of decay reminiscent of Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space or Campbell's The Nameless. The plot point about infected timber having come from Haiti seems to be, at best, unnecessarily pulpish and at worst weirdly xenophobic; there frankly isn’t much need to explain where this rot came from, any more than there was a need in Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space to explain where the Colour came from.

Another story which exemplifies Lumley’s point about splatterpunk (as well as being an exercise in telling a story in a narrative voice distinctly different from Lumley’s usual) is The Man Who Photographed Beardsley. Some horror fans will recognise the title as being a riff on Bloch’s The Man Who Collected Poe, and this one is a similar story of obsession, though without any supernatural or extra-normal aspect to it. The story itself is improved if you know your Beardsley, or read it with Google Image Search to hand, since a lot of the narrator’s allusions won’t make an awful lot of sense unless you know the illustrations he is trying to photograph. I’ve picked it out as supporting evidence for Lumley’s point about splatter because whilst you could do a splatterpunk take on the story, you wouldn’t really add anything by the exercise - all you would accomplish would be to gruesomely and longwindedly describe things which the story evokes perfectly adequately already.

As well as Beardsley, there are two other non-supernatural stories in the collection, both of which draw on Lumley’s upbringing in the north-east of England. In The Viaduct, inspired by a local landmark from Lumley’s childhood, two schoolboys’ feat of childish bravado takes on deadly stakes. The antagonist is a developmentally disabled teenager driven into a murder frenzy, which is a bit of an awful trope, though you can at least read it (and I think it was Lumley's intention) that this was a response to a particularly vicious bit of bullying from the protagonists, and thus in some respect is poetic justice. (It helps that the antagonist’s lashing-out doesn’t take the form of some sort of overblown slasher movie nonsense - he’s just opportunistically taking a chance to get back at his tormentors after they decided to shake hands with danger.)

The Pit-Yakker shifts the focus away from childhood horseplay to teenage sexual awakening. Although published through horror genre channels, this one could happily pass muster as a rather morbid literary piece; it depicts a tragedy born out of the protagonist’s connection to an old childhood friend that he’d known for some time had a dangerous, violent streak to him, but who he hadn’t quite brought himself to write out of his life entirely. The depiction of the protagonist’s courtship of his first girlfriend would be almost saccharine were it not for the dark note of the antagonist stalking them; as it is, it’s got this awful shade of doom hanging over it.

At the other end of the spectrum from these realistic stories that almost walk out of genre fiction altogether, the collection also includes some sci-fi horror yarns. The Man Who Felt Pain is an excellently realised version of the form, and could have happily formed the basis of an episode of The Outer Limits or somethng; you can tell where it's going early on, but it’s still effective for all that, perhaps because there's a sense of emotional verisimilitude to it. No Way Home is a bit of a Twilight Zone-esque story, complete with a deeply flawed protagonist whose fate can be seen as the sort of draconian poetic justice that Twilight Zone delighted in (and which arguably forms a sort of moralistic cautionary tale strand in horror fiction that several of Lumley’s short stories fits into.) It’s lighter in tone than many of the stories here, to the point where it’d almost be comedic if the scenario outlined didn't cut so close to the bone for anyone who's had to navigate winding country roads in rural England.

Like many British people of his generation, Lumley enjoyed Mediterranean holidays, but he seems to used his as an opportunity to gather story ideas as much as a chance to relax, since there’s at least one holiday-themed tale in each of the triptych of Fruiting Bodies, Dagon’s Bell, and The Second Wish. This collection’s Mediterranean tale is Necros, a story of vampirism and erotic infatuation with a twist that most readers will guess, and which the protagonist ends up looking like a huge chauvinist for not spotting the possibility much, much earlier. (Specifically, he assumes that a very attractive woman is not the titular youth-stealer and that her extremely aged gentleman friend is, despite the fact that said gentleman is so frail with age that if he is a drinker of others’ youth, he must be purposefully dying of thirst.)

A slightly better product of Lumley’s borrowings from his own travels and experiences is The Thin People, a fun story inspired by some of the odd, thin terraced houses you get in the Crouch End area of London, where Lumley lived for a while. It’s one of those horror stories that on the one hand is a bit of a joke (to the point where it is structured so as to build up to a punchline) but has this deadly serious undercurrent to it that makes you take it at least semi-seriously despite the absurdity of the central premise.

As you might expect from Lumley, a good swathe of the stories in here have some form of Cthulhu Mythos connection. Aside from The Mirror of Nitocris (quite good, but already covered in my review of The Compleat Crow), you get the matching half-shells of The Cyprus Shell and The Deep-Sea Conch. Both of these wear their Mythos connections fairly lightly; the former is a riff on ideas from Lovecraft’s The Thing On the Doorstep, taking them a bit further by attributing hypnotic powers to unambiguously non-human entities, whilst The Deep-Sea Conch is memorable mostly for the nigh-unforgettable image it ends with.

A more overtly Mythos-focused piece is Recognition, which plays on the extremely Lovecraftian concept that there may be negative consequences to knowing too much. The aristocratic Lord Marriot has found himself the owner of an extraneous stately home which he doesn’t especially want but can’t sell, and summons various experts in matters theological and spiritual in order to exorcise the manor of whatever evil presence it is that lurks there. Before he will allow the exorcism to be attempted, however, he insists on using mediums to identify the entity responsible, because if this thing is going to inconvenience him he’s damn well going to know who or what is to blame. The narrator tries to warn that by trying to gain knowledge of such entities, we in turn give them a chance to recognise and understand us, putting us on their power. Naturally, the warning goes unheeded…

Although this is unambiguously a Mythos story, it isn’t overbearingly heavy handed with its Lovecraftian connections, Lumley avoiding the temptation to throw in an irrelevant lore dump. What backstory we do get drops delicious hints of a connection between the haunter at hand and the pre-Roman cult the de la Poers descended from in Lovecraft’s The Rats In the Walls. The story also makes good use of Atlach-Nacha, one of the subterranean entities of Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea and a rather neglected entity in Mythos fiction. The use of Atlach-Nacha opens up a rather delicious unspoken implication, for those with the background knowledge to spot it - namely, that the underground realms beneath the de la Poer pile and other such cult sites might in fact link into those subterranean realms where Atlach-Nacha and Tsathoggua hang out in Smith's The Seven Geases.

In stark contrast to the Titus Crow series, not a single shred of the Derlethian interpretation of the Mythos is in evidence. This tale was written in 1981, after the majority of the Titus Crow material had already been penned, so perhaps by that point Lumley had got the urge to pay tribute to Derleth by adopting his cosmology out of his system.

Derleth’s shadow hangs heavily over the last and longest story in the collection, the novella Born of the Winds, not least because it involves Ithaqua, a Derleth invention (if by “invention” you mean “ripoff of Algernon Blackwood’s take on the Wendigo”). It’s even written in a vaguely Derlethian style, inasmuch as it uses a slightly archaic writing style as part of evoking a Lovecraftian tone, though it's much less stiff and much more pleasing to read than Derleth’s stuff in this vein.

In fact, dealing with Derleth’s style and ideas better than Derleth himself actually managed is kind of a theme with this story. There’s no full-blown tedious dump of unrelated Mythos lore, for instance, and where callbacks are made to other Cthulhu Mythos stories, it’s because they’re genuinely relevant. (For instance, one of the characters tells the narrator about the events of The Dunwich Horror not as a random aside, as it would be in many Derleth stories, but because it’s actually genuinely relevant to the plot here. On top of that, Lumley does the groundwork to establish that Ithaqua had a wider range in ancient days but was exiled from the portion of Earth outside the Arctic regions by the Elder Gods, so whilst it still doesn’t quite make sense to think of Ithaqua as being imprisoned the idea that there are constraints on him is better conveyed than in Derleth’s originals.

The story also gets across a convincingly Lovecraftian sense of human irrelevance in the sense of Ithaqua’s disregard for human beings save as objects to give worship and flattery. The story does go in a rapey direction in terms of the backstory, but unusually for genre fiction of this vintage (the story was written in 1975) the victim is actually presented as a capable, assertive person who knows her own mind and isn’t left disempowered and helpless as a result of being attacked. In fact, she is the driving force of the story, intent on stopping her son from joining his otherworldly father and becoming a comparable evil, and she’s instrumental in semi-thwarting Ithaqua at the end.

Overall, I would say that Fruiting Bodies and Other Fungi may be the best of the Bodies/Bell/Wish triptych. Undeniably it is occasionally problematic; Lumley is a middle-of-the-road guy of his particular generation and is sometimes clumsy about issues you’d expect him to be clumsy about as a result of that, but out of the three, it’s the anthology where this jumped out at me least, and the stories presented are all well-executed examples of the horror author’s craft and represent what may be the best of his first 25-odd years as a writer.

Dagon’s Bell and Other Discords

As you might guess from namedropping Dagon, the title story here is a Cthulhu Mythos piece - in fact, following on from Born of the Winds it’s a very Derlethian story, complete with an old-fashioned prose style (though, again more readable than Derleth and with no irrelevant lore dumps).

More specifically, it reads like a tribute to one of Derleth's many follow-ups to Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, telling as it does the story of a man who buys an ancient farmhouse in Lumley's familiar northeast England stamping grounds. The farmhouse turns out to have a Deep One temple connected to the sea under it. It’s very reminiscent of all those Derleth stories where some underground tunnel discovered under a creepy goes down to a watery shrine, but it improves on them by actually having the characters encountering Deep Ones down there for once. (In Derleth they tend to come across evidence of Deep One activity but then go mad and/or die before meeting any.)

Descended as it is from one of Lovecraft’s more dubious stories - based as it was on a fear of immigration and race-mixing - this is a story with a lot of potential to be problematic, and unfortunately rather than skirting around that landline Lumley dives right on top of it. Specifically, the story tends to doubles down on the problematic depiction of Deep Ones as rapey gene-polluting foreigners, and the character of June - the only woman of any real significance in the story - is given no character development whatsoever and is raped and later killed off in childbirth for the sake of a cheap shock.

This isn’t the only Mythos story in the collection which riffs on a Lovecraft original and then hypes up its more problematic aspects. Aunt Hester is, for the most part, a decent riff on The Thing On the Doorstep, written in nicely natural prose instead of some sort of sub-Derlethian pastiche style, and with the title character, the Asenath analogue, treated with some sympathy and given more of a voice to put her side of things. It then lets itself down when Lumley tries to portray the idea of a man being in a woman's body being inherently alien and weird - “more grotesque than any drag artist” is the term he uses - but the concluding horror is quite good.

The rest of the Mythos material in here consists of The Caller of the Black (already covered in the Titus Crow review), The Statement of Henry Worthy (an extremely rudimentary story from 1967 about ancient vegetables), and The Fairground Horror. This one is tangentially part of the Titus Crow canon, since Crow has a cameo, and offers a campy take on cosmic horror reminiscent of Lovecraft’s own The Horror In the Museum, in that both involve a tourist trap which happen to include genuine Mythos peril in their stock, though Lumley adds something by having some good old fashioned carnival circuit avariciousness play a role in proceedings. It is marred slightly by the way it unambiguously includes the dodgy old “psychic gypsy” stock character.

Another story which goes into a racially dodgy place is The Picnickers, since it’s about creatures with disturbing feeding habits masquerading as Roma-esque travellers. That said, it’s told from the point of view of a kid for whom, until the final horror, most of the story unfolds as some sort of idyllic interwar Enid Blyton deal, which I guess is why he has this conviction that the baddies are “gypsies” even though the only thing they have in common with Roma is a nomadic lifestyle. The way this charming northeast village turns into a lynch mob when the true nature of the picnickers is revealed is disturbing, and I guess you can read it as being deliberately so, though the best part of the story remains the revelation of just how the picnickers eat.

In terms of stereotypical tropes, however, I found the most troubling story in the collection to be No Sharks In the Med, this collection’s Mediterranean holiday-themed story. It’s a serial killer story about a couple on honeymoon who are targeted by a very human predator. On the one hand, it’s a believable depiction of an abusive, violent bully with superficial charm, with vividly realised protagonists; on the other hand, the way it falls back on stereotypes of Greeks as swarthy, leering creeps is poor form, especially when the story is otherwise pretty solid and could happily stand without that. (You could set it in the Channel Islands with only minimal changes.)

Another issue with the story is that it’s got this weird Very Specific Level of Coyness about sex. It’s a story about a honeymooning couple which involves murder, gruesome discoveries of corpses, and threatened rape - but the narrator seems unable to mention that he had his wife had sex without giving it some sort of cute little euphemism rather than directly stating it, which seems a weird sort of not-quite-self-censorship: it’s clear what happens, but the narration tiptoes around it weirdly. Maybe this comes down to the editorial policies of the venues Lumley was writing for, but that constitutes a pretty weird set of priorities: if you’re depicting extreme horror, murder, mutilation and mayhem, you can afford to use the words “we had sex”. As it stands, the coyness seems weirdly juvenile and infantilising.

This issue is also notable in The Disapproval of Jeremy Cleave, which actually sees Lumley resorting to using the term “boy and girl togetherness” to avoid typing s-e-x. It might in this case be appropriate for the rather posh narrative voice, the story being told by a cad who’s got together with a toff’s wife that he was having an affair with before the death of her husband (the titular Mr Cleave). The horrific details of Cleave’s disapproval and how it is expressed is spoiled by needless waffle about how he learned some sort of evil “juju” to effect it whilst on his explorer schtick. This is completely pointless, because ofr an “angry ghost” story you really don’t need to explain where the ghost got their powers from - the point is to show why the ghost is angry - and having those powers be based on dodgy foreign magic feels like a needless injection of xenophobia. Were the coyness dialled up to Victorian levels, this could have been done by Kipling, and had dated as poorly. It’s deliberately written as a joke story, but I’m not keen on the sense of humour.

This isn’t the only joke story included here either. You also have Problem Child, a brief piece about the everyday problems of transforming into a ghoul, and The Whisperer, a darkly humourous story about a man who encounters a grotesque little guy whose hypnotic powers allow him to take what he pleases from others - and he's decided to take, take, take from the protagonist. It’s a good concept, but the story is marred by Lumley throwing in a rape-via-mind control angle for cheap laughs and shock value. Lastly, there’s The Strange Years, where I’m not sure whether or not it’s meant to be a joke story but given that it’s a clumsy ecological story about giant lice destroying humanity it’d be nice to imagine it was meant as some sort of parody rather than a serious effort. Whilst the occasional spoof is fair enough, to have about a quarter to a third of the book constitute gag stories seems to be an excessive proportion.

We also have Lumley dipping back into his SF-horror sideline. In Big “C” an astronaut visits a strange object in Earth’s orbit which seems to have a baleful effect on people; the astronaut in question goes on the mission because he has terminal cancer, so if it does prove to be a suicide mission, then it at least spares him the indignities his cancer portends. The twist is that the dark force leaves him alone and instead possesses his cancer, using it to take over much of the US East Coast.

According to Lumley’s intro to the story, it’s derived from cast-off bits from Lumley’s abortive SF phase from around the time he wrote The Man Who Felt Pain, and it kind of shows - it feels, to be honest, like a bunch of reheated leftovers, and whilst it’s gripping enough while you read it, the tale doesn’t seem to amount to much once it’s over.

The other science fictional story here is In the Glow Zone, an absolutely uncompromising post-nuclear war tale as told by child reared after the war. The narrator’s limited vocabulary calls to mind the decay of language itself in Threads, as does the nigh-total unravelling of society, though this story came first. Murder, rape, infanticide - it’s basically a quick tour of all the bad shit you can expect after the bomb, though a mercifully brief one.

In The Second Wish Lumley said he reckoned that the Bodies/Bell/Wish trilogy had covered the best of his short fiction; if that’s so, I think Fruiting Bodies may have benefited from coming first and enjoying the absolute best material, because here we’re already dipping into the B-grade stuff. The best stories in this collection are available in other collections - Dagon’s Bell, if you absolutely can’t get enough Deep One stories, is in the Stephen Jones-edited anthology Shadows Over Innsmouth, and The Fairground Horror is readily available in The Disciples of Cthulhu, a collection which had become unfortunately very rare when this came out but fortunately was reprinted by Chaosium later, and The Picnickers is in A Coven of Vampires. As for the rest of the material, you can happily skip it, since it largely all pales in comparison to more or less anything in Fruiting Bodies.

The Second Wish and Other Exhaltations

Just as Dagon’s Bell seemed a bit heavy on the joke stories, this one is a bit heavy on the science fiction horror yarns. We get another sub-Fallout postapocalyptic story in the form of Mother Love, a brief tale that lazily defaults to rape and otherwise fails to connect. We also get Snarker’s Son, another story about people slipping between parallel universes - it’s amusing, but No Way Home did it better. The real SF treat here is The Thief Immortal, an excellent science fiction allegory about what becomes of us if we have no motivation or ethical principle higher than personal survival.

We also get a big dose of Cthulhu Mythos stories here. The title story was written for New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, an anthology compiled by Ramsey Campbell as an official sequel to the much-admired, much-imitated Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos focusing on new Mythos authors. Set in the modern day, during a couple's prenuptial holiday in Hungary, it sees Lumley working in references to Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone and Chambers’ King In Yellow mythology quite subtly. The actual cultists the protagonists encounter are more blatant, but entertainingly so; the outcome of story is, as Lumley admits, basically a riff on the whole Monkey’s Paw thing, but adeptly done.

What nicely sets it apart from the generally quite chaste material in the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology is in its foregrounding of eroticism as the main character gears up for some sneaky infidelity, an angle which is scaled up bit by bit until Lumley abruptly shifts gears on you at the big reveal. It's a bit obvious to the reader what is happening, but crucially there is no reason why it should be obvious to the protagonist, so we get the delicious dread of knowing that he's getting into serious trouble without the irritation of a protagonist behaving in an infuriatingly clueless way.

Another high-quality Mythos piece is The House of the Temple, which presents perhaps the very best “straight” implementation of the Derlethian Standard Narrative I’ve ever seen. Part of me wonders whether Derleth kept rewriting the same story because he kept hoping to get it right some day; if he had ever succeeded at it, it’d have probably looked something like this.

The first way Lumley improves over Derleth is that he actually has an original monster involved, rather than one of the rather generic masses of tentacles Derleth tended to resort to where be bothered to even describe a monster at all. Derlethian Elder God cosmology is invoked, but that’s fair enough for such an overtly Derlethian tale, and at least it isn't as part of some sort of overblown Mythos lore-dump of the sort Derleth would have deployed. Where Derleth would have put such a wodge of exposition, we instead get the narrative of the house's strange history - which does not, unlike in Derleth, boil down to “it's another branch of the Innsmouth families or the Whateleys” or “eh, I dunno”. The various supernatural manifestations that take place coherently support the central premise and themes of the story, rather than representing a simple deployment of stock scare effects of the sort that Derleth tended to resort to.

The story even ends with the titular house getting blown up, as in Derleth’s The Return of Hastur, but even this is handled better - the dead relative who bequeathed the house provided the explosives and urged his inheritor in his will to blow the place up, so the bombs are established as a factor early on, rather than being just abruptly parachuted in as a deus ex machina as in The Return of Hastur.

In short, Lumley deserves applause for applying Derleth’s Standard Narrative with such skill here, though it does make Derleth's work in this vein look even worse by comparison - after all, if Lumley could follow the formula and make a really fun story out of it, the fact that Derleth couldn't do it despite trying so often is a strike against him.

The third major Mythos offering here is Rising With Surtsey. Once again, Derleth is honoured, as the narration name-drops the various narrators of The Trail of Cthulhu as persons whose testimony the main character here reads. This is appropriate because once again it’s a very Derlethian story in its style, right down to its creaky prose style; it’s quite evident that this is one of Lumley’s earlier stories, because there are some bad habits in evidence that would be ironed out in his later works. He makes basic errors like presenting bulk of story as something written by narrator, but concluding with something which, whilst it makes sense for the narrator to have said, it makes no sense for them to write down. It’s also front-loaded with a bit of a tedious lore dump. Still, at least the meat of the story is good even if the surrounding bread is a bit stale - most particularly, it isn't the Standard bloody Narrative, and it avoids Derleth's awful habit of ending the story just as things seem to be finally happening; instead, Lumley allows matters to progress and degrade until they reach a truly hideous conclusion, though the big bad does talk a bit too much like a supervillain and not enough like a submarine tentacle monster.

Other Mythos offerings here include the Titus Crow stories De Marigny’s Clock and Name and Number, both of which I already covered in the Crow article.

As far as the other bits and pieces here, The Sun, the Sea, and the Silent Scream is another “horrors on a Greek holiday” story trading on broad stereotypes (both of the Greeks and the tourists), like a clumsier No Sharks In the Med with an added “Greeks have bad hygiene and public health standards” spin. What Dark God? is a fun story about a rail traveller who stumbles across a curious sect in a train compartment; the big nasty here is possibly a relative of The Picnickers, due to the commonalities in their methods of feeding. Back Row is a brief piece, and another one of those horror stories constructed like a joke where all the payoff is in the punchline, though at last this time it’s a pretty good joke this time. The narrator at least has a distinctive voice, being an old duffer gone to see a reshowing of an old favourite of him and his ex-wife’s who ends up spotting something nasty happening in the cinema, and we get enough details to infer more of the story without having it spelled out for us. David's Worm is another brief little jokelet, but a rather good one about what happens when a botched radiation experiment gives a microscopic creature a chance to exert its capabilities on a macroscopic scale.

The remaining piece here is The Luststone, which is a real mess of a story. Apparently it’s extensively cut down and heavily adapted from a pornographic novel Lumley had written as a writing exercise. The premise is that the titular stone was erected (hurr) by a prehistoric shaman to inspire lust, and does just that when it is dug up in the modern day. Between the caveman nonsense (including the ghosts of the shaman and his sacrificial victims getting comically confused in the modern day), an incest angle, and the inclusion of a spree rapist for shock value, the story betrays its origins as a massively abbreviated novel from the fact that it consists of all of these weird little strands and none of them are developed satisfyingly or conclude interestingly.

On the one hand, aside from a few misfires like that, I genuinely think The Second Wish is a stronger collection than Dagon’s Bell. At the same time, it isn’t quite on the level of Fruiting Bodies, and once again the best stories can be found in other collections. Aside from a brace reprinted in A Coven of Vampires, The Second Wish itself is in New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Rising With Surtsey is in the James Turner-revised edition of the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (which for my money is the superior version of that collection); both of those are items which any serious Mythos fan is likely to already have. Once you’ve got those stories covered, the remainder here isn’t much to write home about.

A Coven of Vampires

This is a bit of an odd one: with the remaining uncollected material, Lumley and his publishers at New English Library could have happily put out a fourth collection of tales with no overlap with the preceding three collections, but instead they did this themed collection of stories featuring creatures which could be described in one fashion or another as vampires. On the one hand, it’s not an awful idea for a compilation, given that Lumley is primarily known for his vampire-themed Necroscope series and he does have a range of good stories on that theme. On the other hand, it seems weird to issue a compilation with so much overlap with other collections - especially when two of those three collections were published by New English Library. (There’s no less than four stories from The Second Wish, in fact, including longer tales like The House of the Temple.)

Then again, since the stories drawn from the other collections tend to be the better ones, the existence of A Coven of Vampires means I can keep that and Fruiting Bodies and ditch the lesser Dagon’s Bell and The Second Wish.

As far as the unique stories here go, the most interesting one is Kiss of the Lamia. (Note that an editing mistake in my edition means a chunk of the story is missing, but nothing overwhelmingly plot-critical.) This is part of Lumley's Primal Land series of sword and sorcery tales inspired by the work of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. Tarra Khash, who is the hero of several of the Primal Land tales, is robbed in the desert by bandits, who also captured and raped a lamia and left her to die in that same evening, her powers having waned as a result of the way lamias need to renew their powers every five years. Tarra rescues the lamia, who on regaining her powers turns out to be a terrifyingly handy ally when on a mission of revenge. It’s pretty decent as far as sword and sorcery stuff goes, but of course there’s that rapey premise, though at least unlike in Robert E. Howard we are not meant to side with the rapist. The depiction of the hidden society of lamias and its rules is rather fun.

The other three stories unique to this collection are rather minor. In The Thing From the Blasted Heath, a collector obtains a plant from the contaminated zone from Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, which grows into a mutant tree. Uzzi stands out mostly for its really great opening mystery - a man driving in Germany runs over someone right in front of a police station, but the police officer that witnesses the incident not only doesn't charge the driver, but actively encourages him to just drive on and forget all about it. The rest of the story is OK, but I really love the setup - I mean, you could start with an incident like that and take it any direction you like, all of them weird, it’s just great craftsmanship. Lastly, we have Zack Phalanx *is* Vlad the Impaler, another joke story, though at least it’s brief enough that it isn't derailed by all the characters being simple (occasionally sexist) caricatures of movie industry stock characters (the overbearing director, the fussy diva actress, etc.).

Unless you are a Lumley completist, I wouldn’t say any of the stories unique to this collection are essential, but I would say that between them and the excellent pick of stories reprinted from the other collections, it’s his best compilation since Fruiting Bodies.

Singers of Strange Songs

This was put out by Chaosium to mark Lumley’s 1997 Guest of Honour spot at NecronomiCon. It contains two Lumley stories, plus a poem of his, plus a brace of all-original stories making use of his contributions to the Mythos (or handling Mythos concepts in a Lumley-esque manner). Though Robert M. Price tended to be the editor for most of Chaosium’s Mythos collections at this point in time, this one is an exception, having been edited by Scott Aniolowski. In his opening comments Aniolowski thanks Robert Price for suggesting the idea, but also seems to throw a little shade on Price by declaring his distaste for doing individual intros for the stories on the grounds that a) editors shouldn't press their own interpretation on the reader and b) each page so used is a page that a story could have gone on. (Given that by this stage Price’s story intros had become both really irritatingly overlong and involved Price pushing his own interpretations and grinding his own axes, this complaint - whilst potentially impolitic - was rather apt).

Aniolowski wisely leads with the poem - best to get such things out of the way early, right - though as far as pastiches of Lovecraft or Howard’s weird poetry goes, Lumley’s City Out of Time isn’t terrible - nonetheless, he’s no Clark Ashton Smith. Lumley’s talents are better showcased in his short story contributions, which - though both reprints - still offer appropriate bookends to open and close the anthology with.

At the front of the collection is a welcome reprint of Cement Surroundings; I’ve already spoken about this one in the Titus Crow article, but I will say it’s quite nice to have it in a context that’s independent of the rather lacklustre Burrowers Beneath. Bringing proceedings to a close is Spaghetti, a Lumley rarity which fully deserves a new outing.

What makes Spaghetti fun is that it’s recognisably a parody of the Derlethian Standard Narrative. As in Derleth, we have a character who inherits an occultist relative’s house after that relative disappears; however, our inheritor is far from being the sort of quaint academic innocent who populated Derleth’s stories. In fact, he’s a bit of a rough sort who hastened the inheritance process along a little when he discovered his uncle possessed a fabulous treasure, only to be frustrated when his uncle’s gold was not in evidence when he inherited the house. Far from being at risk of sinister influence from reading up on Mythos lore, the inheritor is more interested in bashing holes in the walls to try and find the money. Our narrator is a guy who meets the inheritor down the pub and is roped into helping search for the treasure - he, at least, is interested in the various Mythos tomes left behind by the dead uncle, though the process of puzzling out the mystery using them (and dumping lore on the reader) is mercifully truncated by the fact that the feckless nephew has sold off most of the books second hand already!

What’s particularly good is that although this is a clever and often funny subversion of the conventions of Derleth’s oft-imitated Standard Narrative, at the same time it also tells a really solid story in its own right - and the ending is quite convincingly nasty.

As you might expect from a Lumley tribute anthology, a brace of stories here involve the Chthonians, because even though The Burrowers Beneath isn’t that good of a novel it’s been widely read enough in fandom circles - and the Chthonians prominently used enough in the Call of Cthulhu RPG - that they’re kind of his signature monster. The first such tale is Bad Soil by Don D’Ammassa, in which a Chthonian’s subterranean feeding habits are leeching the life out of a small town - starting with the soil, but by no means stopping there.

The character of Rianna, the narrator's niece, is kind of badass, being a teen girl investigator who actually cracks the case, and whilst it's the narrator who rescues her from the danger it is at least a danger she gets into through her own agency and which she holds her own against until he turns up (and he only arrives there thanks to her detective work in the first place). The nastiness of the bad soil - and what happens when the entity responsible starts leeching on more living things - is reminiscent of Lumley’s excellent evocation of decay in Fruiting Bodies, or for that matter the decaying gruesomeness left behind when Lovecraft’s Colour Out of Space is done with a victim.

The second Chthonian story is Subway Accident by Gregory Nicoll, a fun, brief little piece with a bleakly cynical sense of humour. The title comes from one of Pickman's paintings from Pickman's Model by Lovecraft, which sets you up to expect ghouls, but the twist when it turns out not to be ghouls is pretty good.

The third Chthonian story here is Shudder Wyrm by Stephen Mark Rainey, in which an architect hired to build a new student accommodation building for a college discovers that the building is also intended to be a ward against the Chthonians. To a large extent it’s a rerun of The Burrowers Beneath with a different protagonist - you have the same revelations about the Chthonians’ nature, capabilities, and weaknesses, and the same revelation of an academic conspiracy to fight them, though it’s of a far more modest scale than the Wilmarth Foundation’s project of extermination from the novel.

At the same time, I have to say that it’s actually much more enjoyable than Burrowers - there’s no excessive plot dumps of irrelevant Mythos lore, it’s over sooner, it’s more exciting and unpredictable, and even the whole “their weakness is water” thing is used in the ends of at least creating a memorable scene rather than just giving them a daft Achilles heel. (It helps that there’s hints slipped in that the Chthonians don’t spend all their time in our dimension but peep in intermittently in little incursions, which makes the water-weakness thing seem somewhat less risible than it does in the original story.)

Shifting away from the Chthonians, The Temple of Yig by Donald R. Burleson is a sequel to The Fairground Horror. Exiled from more and more countries due to its increasingly sinister reputation, Hodgson’s Funfair shows up in New Mexico - where the Tomb of the Old Ones attraction is joined by a sideshow themed around a local celebrity. Ably capturing the local colour without being heavy-handed about it, Burleson makes better use of Yig than Lovecraft did in any of his Yig-themed stories, and by putting Yig on a cosmic scale that Lovecraft neglected to invest him with Burleson accomplishes the difficult task of making Yig seem like a full-bore Old One rather than the runty cousin to the bigger lads he can come across as.

Another story constructed as a direct sequel to a Lumley piece is Not to Force the Rhymes by Benjamin Adams, which is a follow up to The Horror at Oakdeene, a rarely-reprinted Lumley story that, based on what I am able to discover about it, seems to be a fairly simple “asylum inmates attempt to summon a Great Old One” deal.

This story is somewhat more nuanced than that - the narrator is a punk who in the summer of 1976 discovers that one of the doctors at Oakdeene hasn't been entirely ethical in their handling of the patients - but the patients’ own secrets are pretty dreadful. Against a background of social unrest, class and generational enmity, and street fights between punks and Teddy boys, the story puts the narrator in a position where they end up making sympathetic choices but there's still scope to wonder whether they did the right thing, all the options available to them having pretty severe downsides.

In His Daughter's Darkling Womb by Tina L. Jens tackles the idea of Cthylla, Cthulhu's daughter. Cthylla was one of various inventions Lumley unveiled in The Transition of Titus Crow - a book which, between her and Cthulhu’s cute sparkly goody-two-shoes twin Kthanid, was much given to Lin Carter-esque elaboration of Cthulhu's family tree. There, she was an off-stage presence who existed solely to give birth to Cthulhu after his foretold death aeons in the future and is kept under guard as a result, Lumley thereby somehow managing to inflict the patriarchy on a Great Old One.

Jens clearly recognises how problematic this is and teases this out in the story through the protagonist Katherine, the lead scientist on a research project that has captured Cthylla (or that Cthylla has allowed herself to be “captured” by…). Even as Katherine undertakes an artificial insemination procedure to try and further study Cthylla’s species by observing how she handles her young, so too is Katherine herself used - by her corporate backers, by the agents they have sent, and by Cthylla herself - as the host for a pregnancy of their own design.

Naturally, with this sort of plotline there’s all sorts of body horror issues and pregnancy-as-horror issues, though of course going there is precisely the point of the story and Jens does handle it with a reasonable degree of care and nuance. The scene where one of the characters issues Katherine with a restraining order to prevent her getting an abortion (that she doesn’t intend to get because she has had such bad experiences with miscarriage she doesn’t believe she can take the baby to term anyway) is perhaps an unsubtle way of highlighting the issues involved, but it gets the job done. (That said, it seems a bit rich that Katherine would be willing to have that same character be around at the birth after such a nasty stunt, though her diary doesn’t go into whether she was pleased to see him so there’s that.)

A weakness of the story is that you’ve got all of this Rosemary’s Baby action happening but it isn’t apparent what, if anything, Cthulhu would actually do with the sort of human-ish form which this whole conspiracy seems intent on granting him, though maybe the idea is that it’s not Cthulhu himself so much as a sort of avatar to bridge his people and humanity - perhaps as the ultimate end of the longstanding Deep One interbreeding project.

As a last note, as well as daring to attempt to redeem and reclaim one of Lumley’s more risible additions to the Mythos, Jens also tackles one of Lumley’s silliest moments - namely, the use of really silly punning names as in The Sister City. There you had “Robert Krug” as a connection to Bokrug; here you have a Deep One called “Johnny Depone” and a child called Keenan, which I like to think is a reference to K’n-yan.

Another Deep One-connected story is The High Rollers by Benjamin Adams and James Robert Smith. Andrew King, who is basically Donald Trump in his casino-building phase, has bought up a bunch of land in Innsmouth and built a luxury casino on it: naturally, the Deep Ones want it back. The story does great job of making the Deep Ones seem less like dodgy foreigners and a product of miscegenation panic and more like transcendent entities invading our limited dimension. (It’s also, inadvertently become a very cathartic piece for this day and age.) It’s not Lumleyesque in ideas so much as implementation, with the general approach to the characterisation and the sense of humour on display.

James Robert Smith’s other contribution here is The Reliable Vacuum Company, which is also a story which doesn’t deal with a Lumley-original idea but does toy with a Mythos concept that Lumley had made use of - namely, Ithaqua. To be specific, it’s a humourous Ithaqua story about Leng immigrants selling a “vacuum” that is a gate to Ithaqua and having their ad be mistaken for an advert for a vacuum cleaner by a trailer trash duo. The unfortunate stereotyping of the salesman and the prospective buyers alike is very much in keeping with Lumley sense of humour, though not in a good way.

The Nullity of Choice by John Tynes is an oddball story about a serial killer worshipper of Yibb-Tstll intent on killing people who have had paranormal experiences, so as to remove all uncertainty from the world and thus defeat and ascend from it. It’s quite nice how the only bits we read not from the killer's viewpoint are conversations between the police officers on his tail, offering a very down to earth bedrock of fact to test the killer's perceptions against. Another minor piece is A Forty Share In Innsmouth by CJ Henderson, which narrates a sleazy reality TV attempt to summon Bugg-Shash live on camera, though this is a daft joke which is allowed to play out for slightly too long.

The worst story in the collection by far is Where I Go, Mi-Go by Lois H. Gresch. This is a consciously hyper-strange “weird for weird’s sake” story, disinterested in the usual approach of presenting Lovecraftian eruption of strangeness into a recognisably mundane setting and instead presenting for weirdness happening in a very unusual world which clearly has only coincidental connections to our reality. The main Lumley connection seems to be that one character is referred to as the “Spawn of the Winds”, which is the title of a Titus Crow novel, though as with all the other Mythos references in the story this seems to have little connection to the material the terms originate from.

It’s not that I necessarily mind people having very variant takes on the Mythos, but words and terms seem to be attached to things here in a completely arbitrary way: you could remove literally all the Mythos-related namedropping here and then completely randomly apply other Mythos terms and the story would make exactly the same amount of sense (very little) and the terms used would have exactly the same amount of thematic relevance and resonance (almost none).

I am very much of the school of thought where, even if you have a very different take on what the Mi-Go are or what Nyarlathotep is or whatever, that at the very least you ought to be trying to have some sort of thematic connection with the original coining of the term, otherwise the use of the term is nothing but cheap, arbitrary name-dropping for the sake of tickling the fancy of an existing audience. (For instance, here Nyarlathotep is a sort of cosmic cloud that blows between the worlds carrying the mi-go - but if you already have Ithaqua references, why not make this cosmic cloud Ithaqua, since Ithaqua is already said to ride the wind between the worlds way more than Nyarlathotep is ever said to?)

I am frankly baffled by the thinking behind the inclusion of this one. Possibly it is a nod to the fact that one of Lumley’s stories - The Night Sea-Maid Went Down - appeared in The Starry Wisdom, an infamously hyper-surreal collection of Lovecraftian tales which showed a joyous disregard for the stodgy old Mythos “canon”. But it’s one thing to bust Lovecraftian themes out of a confining canon and another to just be incoherent. In addition to the issues I have outlined, the story has absolutely horrible pacing, with incident after incident happening one after the other like we’re being babbled to by an overexcited five year old trying to recount how their day went, so no incident is given time to really breathe and have the full impact that it might. Plus it ends with a total garbage ending where the protagonist decides that she is going to save the world by fucking her cousin because… well, to grasp for a “because” would to imply that anyone does anything in this daft story for any discernable reason, which would be inaccurate.

Still, even despite this misstep, Singers of Strange Songs remains a very strong anthology and a great tribute to Brian Lumley, and the fact that it’s better than some of Lumley’s own story collections of his own material means that not only is it a good read for Lumley fans, but it’s also a strong Cthulhu Mythos anthology in its own right.

And hey, at least nobody was silly enough to use Kthanid.

To finish off, I'm going to start a little feature I'm going to wheel out for the purpose of reviewing short story anthologies - namely, the Boy's Club-o-meter, a quick analysis of how male-dominated the anthology is based on what percentage of the represented authors are male.

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 11
Number of said authors who are male: 9
Boy's Club-o-meter rating: 82%

The anthology doesn't entirely follow the lead of those who have presented Mythos writing as being a boys' club, but at the same time it's hardly going to radically counteract that impression. Could do better there.

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Comments (go to latest)
Helter Shelter at 11:18 on 2017-02-19
Excellent review as always.

May I ask what it was that put you off Lumley in when you were younger?
Arthur B at 13:59 on 2017-02-19
I think it was a combination of the Necroscope series losing my interest and the Titus Crow novels being rage-inducingly bad.
Shim at 22:38 on 2017-02-21
The Horror at Oakdeene, a rarely-reprinted Lumley story that, based on what I am able to discover about it, seems to be a fairly simple “asylum inmates attempt to summon a Great Old One” deal

I actually have this one - it's in The Taint. Happy to pass it along if you'd like.

Happily it also contains The House of the Temple, which I agree was one of the strongest stories and is a good implementation of the trope. My take from that very small selection of 7 stories is that Lumley works best when he shakes off the Derleth/Lovecraft style and writes something a bit looser and more natural.
Arthur B at 10:58 on 2017-02-22
No need - I don't feel like I'm missing out horrendously from not having read it.

Looking at The Taint, it's a collection of Lumley's longer Mythos stories, which I think helps a bit since he's able to develop his ideas more convincingly.
Ichneumon at 23:45 on 2017-03-01
Possibly it is a nod to the fact that one of Lumley’s stories - The Night Sea-Maid Went Down - appeared in The Starry Wisdom, an infamously hyper-surreal collection of Lovecraftian tales which showed a joyous disregard for the stodgy old Mythos “canon”.

I actually own a copy of this one. Should I find it, I would gladly give it a review. It's very, very odd.
Arthur B at 08:39 on 2017-03-02
I have it too but if you're keen to review it then I say go for it.
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