Brian Lumley,
The Taint & Other Novellas: Best Mythos Tales, Vol. I
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

Just in time for Halloween, British horror stalwart Brian Lumley treated his fans on the American side of the pond with some sweetmeats selected from across his long career of churning out chillers.

Up until reading the seven tales collected in The Taint, I couldn't have told you much about Lumley except that if one were to take all the rather chunky paperback editions of his massive Necroscope series (ubiquitous in all chain bookstores that I visit) and stack them up, they would reach halfway to the moon. Having never braved a start at what would likely be a lifelong effort to finish that series, I'm heartened to discover that most this author's snack-sized offerings are both digestible and satisfying.

As its subtitle hints, this is the first of a two-volume set of stories owing its genesis (sometimes just a little, sometimes a whole lot) to the Cthulhu Mythos adventures of H.P. Lovecraft. The earliest, the rather ponderous "Rising with Surtsey," dates to 1971, and deals with a case of troubled siblings enhanced by a bizarre interdimensional version of trading places. It is one of several segments in this volume that is rendered less effective than ideal either by being set entirely in an asylum or by relying on hackneyed setups in which the narrator is known from the start to be institutionalized because he was driven mad, quite mad, by the terrors he is about to recount. These entries can have their moments of good, bloody fun, but getting there can be a tad tedious.

The newest and best of the tales, the highly inventive title novella from 2005, is an atmospheric ode to Lovecraft's doomed little town of Innsmouth, albeit set in what appears to an English seaside environ so gloomy you have to wonder why anyone is living there in the first place. Lumley surpasses himself in setting up the clammy events to come in this story by crafting distinct and sympathetic characters, by not over-relying on familiar Lovecraftian references, and by pulling off a genuine surprise concerning the true nature of a key participant in the oddness that abounds here. In a welcome manner that I have not often seen in horror works of this length, family and social ties, both natural and decidedly unnatural, are key to this somber but solid novella.

Another excellent selection is "Born of the Winds," from 1975, which sounds the least like Lovecraft of any of the tales here. Set in the wilds of Canada, it puts the landscape and lore of that region to good use as it recounts a man's attempts to help a woman reconnect with her son -- a son whose lineage is not entirely of this Earth. Although highly readable, the narrative would have been stronger if Lumley had developed the woman's role to the level it deserved. Like Lovecraft himself, Lumley seems to have trouble doing much of note with females in his shorter tales, with the exception of the aforementioned "The Taint." In "Born of the Winds," as we experience the plot machinations from a younger man's point of view, it is distinctly jarring that the first meeting between the main characters is never even presented to the reader, and that most of what we learn about the woman, important as she is to the plot, is told to the young man by someone else.

Of course no Mythos-inspired tales can avoid having some dark tomes containing eldritch spells and descriptions of oozing monstrosities play a role. From the frequency with which they crop up in most of Lumley's stories, and the familiarity that many of the characters seem to have with them, you'd think you could find such blasphemous books as the Necronomicon, the Cthaat Aguadingen and De Vermis Mysteriis shelved next to the Necroscope series in the horror section of your local Borders. Such antiquities play the biggest role in "Lord of the Worms," a chronologically early adventure of Lumley's hero from other works, Titus Crow, but they do not detract from the effectiveness of this throwback thriller. It borrows an oft-used setup in which the main character goes to work in a sepulchral mansion cataloguing items for a mysterious host, but steers the action in a gruesome and original direction so that the payoff twist is well worth the reader's effort of getting there.

Lumley's morbid affection for the Cthulhu Mythos shines through in these stories, and we are all the richer for having such rare frights set before us in a collected format. I look forward to the next volume with the fervor of an overgrown kid waiting for his next Halloween candy spree.

review by
Gary Cramer

15 December 2007

what's new