Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lovecraftian Horror from Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley

Cover of the 1996 edition
Prolific British horror writers Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley each have two stories in Robert Price's 1996 collection The New Lovecraft Circle. Could any of them be as good as Thomas Ligotti's masterpiece "Vastarien?"  Let's hope so!

"The Plain of Sound" by Ramsey Campbell (1964)

In the early 1950s, three students from Brichester University are hiking across the English countryside.  They come to a flat valley nestled between four ridges.  There is a small house on the plain, and from some indeterminate place comes a loud irritating sound.  One of the characters thinks it sounds like machines are building a mine underneath the plain.

The students investigate the house, which is abandoned, but, as you expect in these sorts of stories, includes a diary, ancient forbidden books and a strange apparatus.  It turns out that the valley is a point where our universe intersects another universe, "S'glhuo," and the apparatus can be used to contact S'glhuo.  The college kids test the device, get a glimpse of the other universe, and one of them goes insane.

For the most part this is a traditional Lovecraft pastiche, with aliens communicating with humans via dreams and a guy going mad and all that, but there is an interesting weird element.  The alien world in this case is made up entirely of sound, and sounds in our world that reach S'glhuo can create objects there.  If the aliens get aggressive, as aliens are wont to do, humans can play particular notes on a specially constructed stringed instrument that will create an indescribable monster in S'glhuo; this monster will massacre the aliens in some mind-wrendingly gruesome fashion.

This story is OK, a step above the Glasby pastiches I read in my last foray into The New Lovecraft Circle.  

"The Stone on the Island" by Ramsey Campbell (1964)  

Back cover of 2004 edition
This is better than "The Plain of Sound," straying as it does from the Lovecraftian template a bit.

An island in the river Severn has been a site of pagan worship for thousands of years.  There is a Roman temple on the island, and a still older artifact, a white sphere on a short pillar.  People who touch this white stone are cursed and die soon after, horribly mutilated.

Michael Nash works in an office in Brichester.  His father, a medical doctor and amateur investigator of the creepy island, commits suicide, apparently to escape having to live through the mutilation process, he having touched that stone.  Young Nash investigates the island, and even though he knows that he shouldn't touch the stone, he can't resist.  The curse is upon him, and he starts seeing disembodied faces, staring at him through windows at home and at work. His coworkers cannot see these haunting faces.

In a scene that surprised me and pushes the story to a higher level than many of these Lovecraft-inspired things, young Nash is in a dark storage room at his office building, on a ladder, and sees one of the faces below him.  Nash viciously kicks the face, and too late realizes he has killed an innocent man, a new employee.

A solid horror story, just the right length and with some surprises.

"The Statement of One John Gibson" by Brian Lumley (1984)

This is an odd piece of work, largely a sort of literary game.  H. P. Lovecraft is a character in this story, and H. P. Lovecraft's work is depicted as nonfiction disguised as fiction.  The text of this story is a recording made by a man, John Gibson, who has come to realize he is not quite human after going through the effects of his father, an investigator of the occult who recently died.  Among these effects are old issues of Weird Tales, copies of books by and about Lovecraft, and a medallion depicting Cthulhu and other alien gods.

A large proportion of the story is taken up with a sort of history lesson about Cthulhu's career and methods, and by Gibson's analysis of a story by William Lumley and Lovecraft, "The Diary of Alonzo Typer" (1935).  Gibson believes that a character in that story is a real person, a great uncle of his.  To me, all this seems like a waste of time.  Perhaps I would appreciate it more if I had read "The Diary of Alonzo Typer."  Still, something about a Lovecraftian universe in which Lovecraft appears as a character (a stunt that authors besides Lumley have attempted) offends my ability to suspend disbelief.

The actual plot of the story is how Gibson comes to realize his own paternity.  He learns that his father's side of the family has some small proportion of alien blood in their ancestry.  We readers are led to believe that our narrator must also have some trace element of alien blood in his make up, but then comes the shocker: our narrator Gibson is not really the son of investigator Gibson!  In fact, while investigator Gibson and his wife were exploring the setting of the story "The Diary of Alonzo Typer," they were attacked by some extra-dimensional creature, and this monster raped the narrator's mother!  Our narrator is 50% alien monster!  In the climactic scene, John Gibson visits his mother in the mental hospital (bringing his tape recorder with him), transforms into a hideous tentacled creature, kills his mother with a corrosive ooze he secretes, and then flies or teleports away before the hospital staff can burst into Mom's room.

I'm going to have to give this one a negative vote.  The father-exploring, mother-raping, son-discovering, and matricide stuff is fine, but it is weighed down by too much extraneous material that is boring and distracting.  Lumley even includes a long end note about his own family, telling us he is not closely related to William Lumley. 

"The Kiss of Bugg-shash" by Brian Lumley (1978)

I'm not sure how seriously to take this one; at times it feels like a joke.

Two college students, while getting high and listening to prog rock (an LP by the band Fried Spiders) summon a demon that manifests itself as a theoretically limitless volume of slime, liberally sprinkled with grotesque eyes and mouths.  Bugg-shash can only appear in the dark, so the two students are safe as long as they are in the light, but in the event of a nighttime power outage they are vulnerable to being drowned in slime.

The students enlist the aid of an expert in the occult, and in the process the occultist also falls under the curse of Bugg-shash.  The occultist, thanks to his private collection of sorcerous books and access to still more at the British Library, figures out a spell that will lift the curse.  But the spell has some fine print: it only lifts the curse temporarily--once you die Bugg-shash has access to your corpse.  The spell is also reversible.  And don't forget that Bugg-shash also has the power to animate the dead.  That's a lot of fine print.

A week after the ceremony which liberates the three of them from the curse, the occultist dies in an automobile accident. Bugg-shash animates his corpse, the corpse ambushes the two students and reverses the spell, and so its glug glug time for two students who won't be graduating with their class, or any class.

Am I supposed to be scared by this story, or laugh at it?  There is also the problem of Bugg-Shash; the demon's characteristics don't seem to follow any theme.  He's a blob of slime who can't stand the light and also can animate the dead.  It's a little like if you wrote a story in which your werewolf could breathe fire and your vampire was scared of elephants; it feels a little arbitrary.

I guess this one gets a passing grade, but it's a close call.


"Vastarien" is quite safe on its lofty perch.

I've had a good experience dipping into Robert Price's The New Lovecraft Circle.  However, I should probably take a break from reading these kinds of stories; since they all have the same elements (contact via dreams, alien dimensions, forbidden books, people landing in insane asylums) they lose their power if you overdo it.


  1. Please forgive me. Reading your reviews, I was reminded of "Cthushi" or perhaps "Cthuloops" breakfast cereal.

  2. Still, something about a Lovecraftian universe in which Lovecraft appears as a character (a stunt that authors besides Lumley have attempted) offends my ability to suspend disbelief."

    You are right. I also have come to despise those stories where the writer has to include HPL into the story. Unfortunately this has become one of the tropes of Mythos fiction.

    The books edited by Price and his introductions of the stories are often quite interesting. The Mythos tales of Robert Bloch for instance is fascinating as it illustrates how much Bloch changed as a writer over the time. But some of the other theme anthologies are also a good introduction to the Mythos.