Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Burrowers Beneath review


    Brian Lumley's Titus Crow is a series I owe an immense debt to. While Call of Cathulhu was the first Mythos-related fiction I was exposed to, it was Titus Crow I picked up in my college town's library which created my love of Lovecraft's mythology. Thanks to Brian Lumley, I picked up the original works by H.P. Lovecraft and devoured them. He's also the guy I owe my desire to write my own Cthulhu Mythos fiction to.

    In short, this will be, by no means, an unbiased review.

    These are by no means "new" works of Cthulhu Mythos fiction but I think they qualify as one of the more definitive works on the subject. Despite this, Brian Lumley's version of H.P. Lovecraft's world is distinctly his own and manifestly not cosmic horror. It's still horror fiction but I'd argue they owe more to the lighter-softer fair of The Dunwich Horror and The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward than The Unnameable. The influences of Robert Howard and Clark Ashton Smith can also be seen.

    As Brian Lumley, himself, wrote:

    I have trouble relating to people who faint at the hint of a bad smell. A meep or glibber doesn't cut it with me. (I love meeps and glibbers, don't get me wrong, but I go looking for what made them!) That's the main difference between my stories...and HPL's. My guys fight back. Also, they like to have a laugh along the way.

    And why not?

    In a very real way, Brian Lumley's take on the Cthulhu Mythos is a fundamentally humanist one. The Great Old Ones are powerful, immortal, and dangerous but our heroes are courageous and clever. Sadly, the humanist element of the story gets downgraded in favor of introducing benevolent Elder Gods to counter the Great Old Ones but even this is somewhat subversive. The Elder Gods turn out to be the very same species as which makes up the Great Old Ones. The terrors beyond are not so terrifying after all and might someday be friends to humanity.

    Which, of course, may be controversial to some in the same way August Derleth's interpretation of the Mythos (of which Brian Lumley relies heavily upon) has run into with detractors. On my end, having been exposed to both interpretations, I prefer the alien and unknowable Old Ones to the merely evil but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy both. It's why I'm going to be reviewing all of the Titus Crow stories over the course of the next two weeks.

    The first of the Titus Crow novels is The Burrower's Beneath. This novel introduces Titus Crow, Henri de Marginy, the Chthonian race, the Wilmarth Foundation, and more or less recaps the entirety of H.P. Lovecraft's works so newcomers will understand all the references being made. It's a chaotic, but in a good way, novel which deals with big issues.

    Like a tabletop Call of Cthulhu mega-module, The Burrowers Beneath starts with minor threats before introducing the monsters then becomes a globe-trotting war against evil that culminates with a Great Old One being confronted.

    The premise of the novel, as explained above, doesn't really convey the journey or its enjoyment factor. Brian Lumley makes ample use of letters, articles, and history to provide a grand scope of a billion-year-old evil inhabiting the Earth. One which has affected humanity throughout its entire existence and is only now being re-discovered. Everything from Commodus, to Stonehenge, to the early formation of the Earth is tied together in a wonderful little package.

    The Chthonians are great villains and manage to be simultaneously alien horrors as well as monsters which can interact with our heroes. By their introduction, you really think they're the kind of monster which would fit perfectly into Lovecraft's universe.

    Brian Lumley isn't afraid to denigrate his own creations, calling them "the least of the Great Old Ones' races." Which is impressive given they can tunnel across the Earth's interior at massive speeds and cause earthquakes. This is in addition to their power to manipulate other humans to their will.

    Titus Crow and Henri-Laurent de Marginy are the real stars of the book. The Sherlock Holmes and Watson inspirations for Titus Crow and his partner aren't subtle but the book humanizes them in ways I didn't expect. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Titus Crow is not the world's leading expert on his field and only encounters the Cthulhu Mythos (called the "Cthulhu Cycle" here) for the first time here. We also get some good character bits like the fact Titus needs his nightly brandy or he becomes very cranky.

    Much like Watson, Henri-Laurent de Marginy is also as much the star of the book as the titular character. His amazement and horror at the existence of the Cthulhu Cycle's "truth" (knowing of it only as a perverse mythology before) helps ease the audience into the surreal new world our heroes inhabit. His enthusiasm and horror as the story see-saws between triumph as well as tragedy drives much of the narrative. Our heroes make mistakes while fighting the Mythos and only through sheer luck are they not instantly fatal.

    I give credit to Brian Lumley for remembering to keep the tension tight and the body count high. While one might assume Titus Crow will live, this being his series and all, everyone else is fair game. We also have several logs of unfortunate individuals which form short-stories within the larger narrative and often end in Lovecraftian ways.

    I heartily recommend The Burrowers Beneath. If I have any complaints about the novel, it's sometimes a little too overwhelming in its referencing of H.P. Lovecraft's work and goes in odd directions. Brian Lumley attempts to replicate Lovecraft's flourishes and, as a result, the text  can get a little purple. Despite this, I think it added to the charm of the volume.

    The story is available for download separately from Kindle or available in any number of previous editions and omnibuses. I personally recommend the audiobook version by Simon Vance as he does an amazing job with the voices and emotions of the characters involved. It's a book which has a dramatic radioplay quality I think Lovecraft would have approved of.

10/10

Also in the Titus Crow series and reviewed by the United Federation of Charles:

The Transition of Titus Crow
The Clock of Dreams
Spawn of the Winds
In the Moons of Borea
Elysia

4 comments:

  1. I personally think this is a great book up to when Crowe meets up with Peaslee on his houseboat. Then it starts to get a bit out of hand in my opinion. If Lumley could have kept the first half of the book going right through to the end then that would have made this an exceptional piece of work

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    1. I generally agree with you there. After the incident with Peaslee, the heroes tend to be handed their victories. I think the book would have benefited from the pair starting on a new investigation after being warned by the blob-monster which was the source of their threat.

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  2. Enjoyed the review, as I just finished this book. I do think it was somewhat unfairly maligned - this book is perhaps one of the earliest versions of "adventure" Cthulhu, which is a worthy genre in itself (e.g., Laundry Files, Delta Green, etc.).

    That says, I agree with N. Logan in that Brian Lumley's plotting falls apart as it goes. The two main heroes lose agency toward the end of the book as Peaslee's organization dominates the narrative.

    Far too many revelations are told to our heroes by the supporting cast rather than uncovered through their efforts; major plot elements, like the magic clock, are simply conveniently "there" for them.

    Moreover, the major plot coupon in the series, the Derleth inspired Star Stones, while serving a useful purpose, are simply too potent and too convenient, especially once it becomes possible to mass produce them.

    The intersection of technology, magic, and psychology is interesting in theory, but its bounds are ill-defined and often come off as little more than conventional exorcisms; the justification for the use of holy water, in particular, fails to come off as anything other than silly. This is a shame, as every so often Lumley can get off some quite exciting psychic battle sequences with telepaths risking their sanity to hold off the Old Ones. Had he concentrated more on psi-powers vs. the tentacled hordes and less on conventional exorcism stuff it might have worked better, an approach Lumley would later take to good effect in his Necroscope series.

    However, the book is decently readable, and the combination of hard boiled Doctor Who-type scholar- adventurers fighting the mythos and winning with the help of secret societies, psychics and high technology appears to have been quite influential. It's not Cosmic Horror but it's valid in its own right.

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    1. In fact, I actually think Brian Lumley was a little too determined to do in the wizard. I always felt Lovecraft included the occult in his world because he wanted the universe to not strictly work in scientific principles because those were things he cherished in RL. Basically his universe has the horrors of evil deities and emptiness of strict materialism but none of the comfort of good gods or benefits of science.

      Overall, I do agree with you that the book really hurts with the introduction of the Wilmarth Foundation as they kind of leave our heroes hanging for stuff to do. While I still enjoy the book as a Pulpy adventure novel, I think it might have been more interesting to have Titus Crow and Henri travel after the Houseboat to deal with the Chthonians on their own. In my Call of Cthulhu games, if you find allies in your quest against EvilTM then the best thing to do to them is kill them off one at a time.

      Not let them do the dirty work.

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