Posts tagged Lumley

Kaiju Terror v. Intertextual Reality: James Chambers’ ‘The Engines of Sacrifice’ [review]


The Engines of Sacrifice by James Chambers (2011 Dark Regions Press)

cover_The_Engines_of_SacrificeJames Chambers’ The Engines of Sacrifice is a collection of four short novellas linked through time, place, and Lovecraft. The stories (Investigation 37, The Ugly Birds, The Hidden Room and the titular Engines) move through the decades gathering nightmare fuel, from Vietnam-era dark psychedelia through to the nuclear hysteria of the 1980s and into a not-too-distant moment in the future when the stars are almost right, and mankind is bowed and broken even before the imminent return of the Great Old Ones.

This is a good collection, with many fun kicks to make the reading experience enjoyable: historical references to the Love Generation New York-based occult scene are bang-on (Investigation 37), and the shout outs to Warren Publishing era weird comics illustrators (The Ugly Birds) help ground the fictions in pop cultural bedrock. With the latter, I kept seeing, in my mind’s eye, the evocative colours of Tatjana Woods during her run on DC’s Swamp Thing.

And, like the best stories of that series, Engines is overtly Lovecraftian in tone and subject matter; Chambers has here assembled a greatest hits package of Mythos references. All the big players make appearances: Keziah Mason and Brown Jenkin in Investigation 37; Shub-Niggurath in The Ugly Birds; Nyarlathotep makes an effective and utterly chilling cameo in The Hidden Room, and Cthulhu itself festers and seethes inside of and between nearly every sentence in the final novella. The book is so Lovecraftian, in fact, that it could read as pastiche, were it not for the subtle meta-critical stance Chambers takes with the narrative, particularly towards the final moments.

It’s this aspect of Engines that I really enjoyed, the way Chambers directly addresses the erroneous “kaiju terror” interpretation of the Mythos that lesser writers seem to be fond of running with: the idea that Cthulhu et al. are, at base, giant scary monsters escaping their submarine, subterranean, or dimensional prisons to engage in a stomp-fest across the planet. Monsters that are, somehow, physically limited to their singular manifestations. In stories of this ilk, Cthulhu is comparable to Godzilla, and therefore reduced in potency, made manageable… and that way lies Plush Cthulhu, friends. Chambers is aware of this Delta Green-washing of the Mythos and doesn’t allow it to happen in Engines, thankfully…

I sensed an ancient horror dwelling deep within the ruined metropolis, its unstoppable corruption edging outward and remaking the city in a new image. R’lyeh was already rising, but it was rising here and in cities all around the world. Whether or not the dream-city emerged from the Pacific didn’t matter. When Cthulhu awoke, every city would become R’lyeh, and Cthulhu would rule them all. The Old One wouldn’t walk out of the sea to crush humanity … he would exist everywhere and nowhere, a nightmare from which there could never be any escape, one that would show no mercy to whatever remained of humanity.

Here, Cthulhu is Madness: a Platonic, universal ideal smeared greasily across all levels of reality, high and low, beneath the waves and down the street and between the stars, and therefore inescapable, inevitable.

A bleak, and therefore genuinely Lovecraftian world-view, and one that informs and feeds the dread hopelessness that characters in the first three tales experience… before taking an inexplicable Lumley-esque turn towards the stalwart hero-narrator in the final story! And it’s this note, coming as it does at the end of the book and sitting cheek-by-jowl with an innovative interpretation of Cthulhu, that sounds a little false for me.

Without giving anything away as far as the plot of Engines is concerned: in an otherwise harrowing climax, the narrator, in the face of actual personal interest from the manifesting Cthulhu (itself a problem, given the narratives previously mentioned conceits vis a vis the Big C’s trans-cosmic Platonic nature), somehow finds the stones to alter what is largely a text-based reality, and, perhaps not surprisingly, opts for a happily-ever-after.

An opting-out that works, in context (a little) and which, I suppose, is entirely up for interpretation: “or does he?” one could reasonably ask. As humans (and specifically as humans with that strain of the language-virus whose side-effects include writing) who of us has not been tempted to leave a light on at the end of the tunnel for our characters/victims? I get it. But as far as my interaction with the text goes, this sudden philosophical U-turn made my neck hurt and caused me to wonder if it didn’t invalidate everything that came before.

There were some other less-than-sweet notes in this book, most of which happened in The Hidden Room: the replacement of Standard Lovecraftian Invocation Boilerplate with common English words strung together (say them quick to break the code!) was fun the first couple of times, but quickly felt forced; and the dropping of one of the Million Names of Nyarlathotep into the regular boilerplate (when it happened) came off as clunky. Random Aklo or what-have-you sprinkled with English will always feel weird to me. But it’s a complaint I have with The Whisperer In Darkness, too, so take that for what it’s worth. References to Azathoth as ‘the Chaos King’, although I suppose technically correct, made It sound like a pro-wrestler or animé character to me. Again, that’s my pop-cultural bias kicking in and really, Lovecraft’s ‘daemon-sultan’ is no worse. Ignore my unfortunate spasm of geek-pride at your leisure.

It should be noted, too, that Chambers removes his characters from the usual Lovecraftian locales, basing most of the action in the fictional Long Island town of Knicksport. I don’t know that this was an effective move: aside from some interesting set pieces (a desolate factory, weird topography), I saw no point in using a fictional town that seemed no different from any number of actual towns. For this reason, I would class Engines with more traditional Lovecraftian fiction, and less with the New Weird school, which prefers settings that utilize complex, real-world environments. Arkham is fine, and Knicksport is okay, but I could have done with more happenings in New York proper.

All this aside, though, I enjoyed The Engines of Sacrifice quite a lot; any negatives here listed were minor indeed, and did nothing to lessen my enjoyment of the book. James Chambers has been extensively anthologized everywhere from Hardboiled Cthulhu to Bad-Ass Faeries and his writing style is polished with just the right amount of grit added (in language and mood) to make the reading fast-paced and pleasantly bumpy, like barreling down a bad road at three in the morning, slightly drunk, with a head full of philosophy. When his shocks come, they arrive at speed from out of the dark with an intention to spin you into the ditch, and that’s just how I like them.

(this review appeared originally in the Lovecraft eZine on August 14 2012)

When The Spooks Come Out – MMP Interview with S R Jones…


author S R JonesOn March 15, Martian Migraine Press will be releasing SOFT FROM ALL THE BLOOD: 7 Surreal Tales of Terror by S R Jones. This is a strange and unsettling collection of fiction, so the Face sat down with Jones for a little chat about writer’s shame, writer’s block, and the curse of H P Lovecraft. The results were strange. And unsettling…

MMP: So, we’re fairly excited and proud to be bringing out SOFT FROM ALL THE BLOOD in a couple of weeks! It’s a weird little book and we think folks are going to dig it. Are you a weird little man?

Jones: I’m 6 feet 2 inches, so I’m gonna say no. As for weird, well, I can never hear that word without flashing on the original definition. It’s Celtic or some such thing, and basically, it means “that which actually happens”, like the actions of the gods, as opposed to all the everyday stuff. So you’re asking me if I’ve happened, or am happening, and I’m going to have to go with no on that one too. I’m not weird, because I don’t feel real, or actual, at all, most days. Which can be a handy mode of being… but I want to be weird. Someday. I would like to actually happen.

MMP: You sound like Pinnochio. And pretty weird.

Jones: Ha ha! Yeah, a real boy. I think we’ve all got this problem, only writers are perhaps a little more honest about it. More comfortable with saying hey, I’m not really here, I’m just a vehicle for these other people, these characters, who are even less real, but more entertaining. I dunno.

MMP: You write in the afterword for SOFT that you find writing embarrassing. Most writers we’ve met tend to let you know right away that they write, but not you. Can you explain why?

Jones: Well, horror writing is embarrassing, for sure. I don’t know why. I think it’s basically admitting, in a really kind of intimate but also public way, that you’ve thought about these things. Just to get them onto the page, you have to think about them. Cannibalism, knife play, mutations, demons…

MMP: Mutant demons.

Jones: With knives! I remember when I was writing Coronation, which is the second story in SOFT, when I was writing that I was also reading, for the first and last time, thank god, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. And a passage in that, y’know, a passage describing a murder or murders, just something really appalling and horrific, coming right after an entire chapter on the merits of different brands of mineral water or something… this passage comes out of nowhere and hits me right upside the head and I get physically ill. And part of that, that sickness, y’know, running to the toilet to puke and everything, part of that was due to the realization that Ellis, well, he had to go there, to that place, in order to put it down on paper. There was no distance, in that moment, between the writer and the reader and I felt too close to that guy, too in his head. The paper was too flimsy a barrier between his reality and mine.

Which is great, because it means the writing worked the way it’s supposed to, but also kind of embarrassing, because that’s his head, or my head, spilled out. In public. It’s a shame, a shame that I guess the good writers have to bear. But we do it, usually in a compulsive way, and hopefully it’s entertaining.

MMP: Some would say that writing like Ellis’ is courageous, since he “goes there” and these days you hear a lot of writing coaches and inspirational speakers talk about how writers are brave. Do you agree? Does writing take courage?

Jones: Can’t speak for others, can I? But no, I don’t think we are. No writer is out there saving the world, and I don’t necessarily trust the ones who say they are. I mean, there are probably brave writers out there? And maybe lots who need to feel brave to do what they do. But I’ve never felt that. You know, you can’t escape addiction, so choose yours carefully, right? There’s worse things you can do to yourself than write, it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else all that much. Okay, maybe a little. But it’s still an addiction. The language virus working itself out in an interesting way.

MMP: Sounds like Burroughs…

Jones: I love Burroughs. He’s my cure for writer’s block.

MMP: How does that work?

Jones: It’s just his ability to see beyond the ego that writers develop. Can’t recall how he said it exactly, but there’s an interview with him out there that has him saying something like “look, the book is already there and the good writer takes dictation” or finds them, in the ontic sphere or the Platonic realm or whatever. Checks them out of the astral Library. Finds them and copies them out. The poet Jack Spicer used to say the same thing, that the poet needs to rid  themselves of all the ego-fictions, clear all the cheap furniture from his head and then just, y’know, just listen. Listen to the Outside, to the spooks and the Martians.

That’s what I try to do, mostly unsuccessfully, when I get blocked. Realize that the block is, somehow, me: my identity and my needs and personal crap. And then just stop and listen. Late at night, usually.

MMP: When the spooks come out? So Spicer and Burroughs are obviously big influences on you.

Jones: Oh yeah.

MMP: But there’s no indication of that in SOFT. If anything, the writer who seems to influence you most in these stories is H P Lovecraft.

Jones: Aaggh. That name…

MMP: A holy name, in some circles!

Jones: Oh, absolutely. In my circles, too. No, I got hit by Lovecraft early on, what, late teens, early 20s? And I’m still working him out of my system. Worse, when I found HPL I found Brian Lumley at the same time… Lovecraft in one of those old Ballantine paperbacks with the surreal art on a black cover, The Lurking Fear, I think it was, and Lumley’s Return of the Deep Ones at the shop. Bought them both. So there’s Lovecraft, the original, and then an example of a decades-later interpretive, and some would say derivative, writer riffing on Lovecraft.

MMP: Not even riffing. Pastiche. There’s many who hate Lumley…

Jones: So glorious, though! I’m not one of them, I love Lumley’s brand of muscular, almost gleeful horror. You just know, as you’re reading, that he’s totally enjoying himself! No shame there, and I guess I admire that. Just tapping away there in England, grinning. I mean, come on, Necroscope? That series? That man was having a balls-out crazy good time and the reader could tell! It’s infectious. Which is perhaps what appeals to so many about HPL, too. Not that he was having a good time, if the biographies speak truly, but, y’know, the man was invested. We read HPL not so much because the stories are good (although in many ways they are) but because the man is in there, inside his stories. And he’s interesting.

But yeah, those were my early influences and I made all the usual newbie mistakes with my efforts round that period. In fact, I’m working right now on re-tooling my first novel, The Waiting Deeps, which is… I mean, talk about embarrassment, this thing is a mutant child best left in the attic…

MMP: How do you mean, re-tooling?

Jones: It’s everything you shouldn’t do in Lovecraftian fiction, a real object lesson. It is the worst kind of pastiche, which is to say it copies all the tropes and typical flourishes of HPL without an authentic appreciation of what makes HPL work. So, I’m making the object lesson obvious, re-tooling it as a guide, and re-titling it The Waiting Deeps: How Not To Write A Lovecraftian Novel.

MMP: Sounds educational and fun!

Jones: So fun. And embarrassing for me, but I get to go back and horribly abuse the Jones from 1996, and maybe help new writers not make the same mistakes.

MMP: Maybe three of the seven stories in SOFT could be called Lovecraftian…

Jones: Well, Greetings from Sunny R’lyeh, yes, definitely, and Notebook Found In A Deserted Houseboat, that’s a nod to Bloch and HPL. Coronation is a speck of Bierce filtered, magnified through HPL. The Frozen is another nod, but to Derleth, really, more than anyone else…

MMP: That’s four.

Jones: Oh. Yeah, there’s four. That’s four out of seven. Alright, it’s a big old Lovecraft-fest, I guess!

MMP: I was going to say that your protaganists are not of the usual type. Mostly they just seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jones: Yeah. I got tired of writing about men of learning learning too much, right? That’s the pastiche trap. “Now that I know what I know, I wish I didn’t know it, oh god, the hand at the window, etc.” So in Greetings, which I’m not especially proud of, because it’s a clumsy attempt at cyberpunk with a little Cthulhu thrown in…

MMP: A lot.

Jones: Okay, a lot. In it you’ve got these media punks who just consume everything, that’s their way, their mode of being, and should we feel sorry for them that they consume a little cosmic madness along the way? No. I wanted to say something about sanity as a commodity, I guess, which I think we as a society might be just giving away without knowing it, but I don’t think I said it all that well.

And in Notebook, I wanted to just explore the idea that it’s a harsh, weird world, and sometimes when harsh things happen to decent people, it just opens a door and invites more of the same into their lives. I wanted to take that as far as it could go, so we have a protaganist in Notebook who thinks he’s lost everything, but he’s wrong. And the Universe, cold bitch that she is, educates him as to her nastiness and brutishness and shortness. Though not so much with the latter. He’s a victim, totally.

MMP: But a deserving one?

Jones: No, not at all. With him, it’s literally a case of turning left when you should have gone right. That’s what eventually feels so arch and false about HPLs protaganists: they could stop researching anytime! Don’t read that horrible old book, dude. You know it’s horrible, you’ve read the insane journal of the guy who read it before you and he died in the asylum, put it away! Jesus. We feel no sympathy for the Danforths and the Armitages and their colleagues because they’re idiots on one level, they walk right into their fates with eyes wide. Same thing with some of Steven King’s characters. You always know which ones are going to get it in the end. Which is not how the world works.

So my characters are victims, mostly, and sometimes they walk right into it, but in the same way you or I would turn a corner, or make one bad decision. Eyes to the ground, or turned inwards. So there’s some sympathy for them, because we all do that to a greater or lesser degree. It’s the horror of the shoulda-woulda-coulda…

MMP: Earlier you mentioned media consumption and it’s made me think of hype and spin. Would you say that there’s fear of a future event, the hype, and then the event itself, and then after the event the spin, or regret? I mean in the case of these stories, specifically.

Jones: And regret is the worse portion? Interesting, I hadn’t thought of that. Living to regret something is perhaps worse than the actual thing or action. Yeah, I can see that applying. This could be a book about regret.

MMP: As a writer, do you regret being influenced by Lovecraft?

Jones: Ha! No. Sure, he’s a curse, and maybe you never really get over him. But he’s fun. Fun on one level and actually pretty profound on other levels, and if you can get over the aping of his style, I think he does some decent things for your world view and your art. He’s a curse, but in the same way that getting bit by a werewolf is a curse.

MMP: Pretty sure that is a curse!

Jones: Yeah, but let’s face it, at the end of the day, or night, I guess, after all the pain and weirdness and blood, guess what, you still got to turn into a wolf! You’ve always got that. And that’s pretty cool, that’s a decent trade off, to my mind. HPL is like that for me.

MMP: Alright! One last question: your initials. Care to enlighten us?

Jones: The R is for Rabid.

MMP: And S?

Jones: Somewhat!

SOFT FROM ALL THE BLOOD: 7 Surreal Tales of Terror by S R Jones will be released as a Kindle e-book on March 15.

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