Lumley Makes a Psychomess of It

by Arthur B

Brian Lumley's first major non-Cthulhu Mythos novel is a bit of a disaster.
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Richard Garrison is a British Army military police officer serving in Northern Ireland in 1972, during one of the most dangerous phases of the Troubles. Thomas Schroeder is a former SS officer turned industrialist - a wealthy man, but also a ruthless one. After the IRA make an ill-advised attempt to strongarm Schroeder into not building a factory in a majority-Protestant area, Schroeder and his similarly tough bodyguard Willy Koenig make their objections known through brutal violence; when the IRA reprisals come down Garrison happens to be on the scene, and rescues Schroeder’s wife and son.

The incident is not without a severe cost, however. A bomb injures Schroeder and leaves him weakened and ailing, with only months left to live; it robs Garrison of his sight. Schroeder at this point takes an interest in Garrison - an interest motivated by more than just gratitude for his sacrifice. For Schroeder is an esotericist who believes that it may be possible for him to survive death, returning after a span of time to become spiritually and psychologically joined with a suitably receptive individual, in effect becoming a passenger in their psyche lending his power and personality to theirs. He had planned to attempt this with his son, but the boy is too young and Schroeder’s time is too short - but he feels a certain connection to Garrison, a hunch justified by the discovery of extensive ESP potential on Garrison’s part. A pact is made: Garrison will inherit Schroeder’s empire, and in return he will help enable Schroeder’s return from beyond the veil of death.

What neither of them know is that Otto Krippner, a far more ideologically motivated ex-Nazi than the generally quite affable Schroeder, has been conducting his own experiments with ESP, and has produced a terrifying device named Psychomech. Ostensibly a mechanical psychiatric aid produced for Gareth Wyatt, who has paid host to Krippner for the past few decades, Psychomech’s purported function is to help people overcome their fears by first stimulating them in dream, and then allowing them to defeat them with psychological bolstering from Psychomech. Its more secret function is to amplify the user’s natural ESP capabilities, unlocking dormant powers and extending them to the superhuman level. After disposing of Krippner and having no idea about these secret functions, Wyatt rekindles an old affair with Garrison’s unfaithful wife Terri in order to get funding from Garrison to continue developing Psychomech. Ultimately, this leads to Wyatt plotting to kill Garrison with a botched Psychomech session - but Wyatt has no idea of Psychomech’s ESP-related functions, or how those will interface with Garrison’s already incredible abilities.

Now, it's reasonably well-known that Brian Lumley worked in the military police before he left the Army to write full-time, so there's a fairly clear point of similarity there between him and Garrison. In the hands of some authors that would be no bad thing - being in the military police is a potentially very interesting job, “write what you know" is common advice for a reason, even if security regulations required Lumley to avoid writing about specific cases or going into detail about particular procedures he presumably came away from the job with at least the kernel of first-hand knowledge to do a really good military police procedural plot.

It's unfortunate, then, that Garrison’s military career is largely irrelevant for most of the novel, save as a vector for bringing him and Schroeder together. For the most part the novel is a story of a series of really awesome things happening to Garrison after he gets blinded - he discovers that he has ESP powers (to the point where being blinded really doesn't pose much of a difficulty for him), he befriends a super-rich industrialist who decides to make him rich, he gets a badass bodyguard who’ll do his every bidding and a lovely doggy who will also do his bidding, he gets to live a jet-setting lifestyle and take terrible revenge on his unfaithful wife and bring his true love back from the dead and gain godlike power by the end of the novel. He also has an enormous amount of sex; there’s more or less no section of the story after Northern Ireland when he isn’t getting some action here or there.

I’m not saying that Garrison is a wish fulfilment self-insert, mind… but I am saying that Lumley doesn’t do very much to ward that off as a potential interpretation.

This is not the only respect in which Psychomech resembles a real-life Garth Marenghi novel; between the shallow characterisation (to the point where stock characters based around simple stereotypes are the order of the day for the most part), the shaky pacing, the weird choice of what to focus on (major plot involving the development of Psychomech is glossed over extremely quickly, whilst Lumley lingers on lovely dinners and exotic holidays that Garrison enjoys), and the occasional interjection of somewhat bitter and grumpy personal opinion all has a decidedly Marenghi-esque quality to it.

(Lumley also does this thing I’ve noticed him doing in his short stories, where he’ll devise quite sexually explicit scenarios but get abruptly coy about the language he uses, like he’ll fairly directly refer to anal but simply refer to it as the “third way” to have penetrative sex with someone - this in a scene which has already clearly involved penis-in-vagina sex and oral. Suddenly getting circumspect about the language you use at that point feels outright redundant.)

The thing which largely broke my desire to read any further than about two thirds of the way into the book was the depiction of Terri, who after being saved from a planned gang rape by Garrison and Koenig not only has the indignity of having the whole incident being presented as being semi-her fault, but also is presented as a big lying liarpants who misleads Garrison by not being absolutely transparent about her sexual history with him and then has an affair with the main villain of the book, setting up her ultimate demise. Other issues build up over the course of the novel; Schroeder’s wife and son are more or less forgotten about once the Northern Ireland segment is over, which is outright odd (even though they no longer figure in Schroeder’s plan you’d think they would at least have some bearing on his life), and the small fact that Garrison never has much of a problem with the fact that he’s palling around with two ex-SS officers.

Now, I think the expectation here is that we’re going to assume that Schroeder and Koenig were the sort of SS officers who spent most of their time fighting the Red Army rather than doing atrocities (if we play along with the idea that there was a clear division between the two), but here Lumley’s own worldbuilding undermines that - the fact that they know and are friendly with full-blown war criminals who are living under assumed names to stay ahead of the authorities, and were close enough to the inner circle to have at least a vague idea of what Krippner’s work involved, would suggest that they were proper hardcore SS members rather than nominal SS members - and ultimately when you are dealing with the SS it’s a bit futile to try and separate them into “Dyed-in-the-wool Nazis” and “OK blokes caught up in an awkward time”. It’s not like they were in the Wehrmacht, into which people were drafted en mass, or the Abwehr, whose members actively went rogue and worked against the Nazi regime; it’s always been my general understanding that if someone was in the SS then you can generally assume that they probably were ideologically motivated Nazis unless you have significant evidence otherwise, because it was the organisation specifically for the ideologically motivated to join. Lumley displays at best a lack of understanding of this; at worst, his willingness to depict these ex-SS officers as action movie badasses is really quite alarming.

Psychomech and its sequels constituted Lumley’s first non-Cthulhu Mythos-themed series of novels, and in some respects its themes constitute dry runs for some aspects of the Necroscope series - the “older intelligence inhabiting and offering guidance to a character” angle is a major aspect of the first Necroscope book, the series as a whole has a similar interest in ESP, and the ramping up of the protagonist’s power level over the course of the story are all deployed with a bit more polish and art in the later series.

For my part, I couldn’t finish Psychomech and have no intention of tackling the sequels. The back cover blurb for Psychosphere says that the villain in that book is “the loathesome hermaphrodite Charon Gubwa”, and I have no confidence in Lumley to handle that idea at all well. That said, based on the reviews of others it sounds like both Psychosphere and Psychamok continue the process of ramping up the stakes and the power levels, and continue to fail to interrogate whether Richard Garrison is necessarily doing right by palling around with former SS officers and continuing their weird ubermensch project. Back when I was a teenager reader with much more patience for Lumley than I have now, it was a matter of regular annoyance to me that the Psychomech trilogy seemed to have dropped determinedly out of print, and I suppose we can all guess why: in retrospect it’s really rather embarrassing.
Themes: Books, Horror
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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 17:50 on 2017-10-07
I'll take your word for it that this is a terrible book, but "Monstrous Evil and Savage Lust Pulsate in the Depths of the Horror Machine" is a classic of its genre.
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