Copping Squid, by Michael Shea

“When he was a kid, he’d always felt sorcery in the midnight streets, in the mosaic of their lights, and he’d never lost the sense of unearthly shapes stirring beneath their web, stirring till they almost cohered, as the stars did for the ancients into constellations. Tonight, with mad, bleeding Andre riding shotgun, the lights glittered wilder possibilities, and a sinister grandeur seemed to lurk in them.”

Michael Shea, “Copping Squid”

This past week there was an online discussion about some of the now out of print fantasy fiction of Michael Shea, who is also a noted author of mythos stories. Though sadly Shea died in 2014, his mythos fiction is consistently held up by luminaries in the field as exemplary. None less than Laird Barron, whose 2014 award-winning collection OCCULTATION Shea introduced, said this of Shea and his work: “I steadily and inexorably pursued Shea’s fiction over the years, recognizing in it a kind of cynosure of the modern weird tale: a dark star shining at the heart of the matter…Too easily one might be captivated by the visceral elements of Shea’s writing, its panoply of the grotesque, the baroque, and the erotic, missing the subtle textures and flourishes, the fact his pieces are layered tight as folded steel and sharp to the touch. Shea demonstrates an unnerving facility for the macabre, the cerebral, the whimsical, and possesses the deceptively effortless ability to conjure scenes of horror and dread leavened by sly, acerbic humor.” (Read the rest of Barron’s comments here.) After reading the online discussion I really wanted to read some Shea but didn’t think I had any until I remembered BLACK WINGS OF CTHULHU Vol. 1, which features the story “Copping Squid.” (Later, I realized I also had the story “Fat Face” in THE BOOK OF CTHULHU, VOL. 1.) So, I dove in for my first Michael Shea experience.

The first thing I noticed about Shea’s writing was how successfully he pulled me into his world, a familiar enough San Francisco, though I knew the sinister would be lurking just beyond the shadows. I was wrapped up in Ricky Deuce’s (the protagonist) life before the first paragraph was completed. Before you know it, a fight breaks out, a knife is swung, blood is spilled, and you think the story is going one direction when it takes a hard left turn into the weird. Ah, there it is. This facade of normality propped up by the setting was as paper thin as I suspected and I was all in. Reality blurs throughout the story, leaving solid ground just long enough to disorient you, then returning to it for a moment of safety. “Ricky felt a ripple of hallucination, and saw here, for just a moment, a vast inked mural, the ink not dry, themselves and all around them still half-liquid entities billowing in an aqueous universe…” These undulating rhythms form a backbone of sorts to the story’s structure, carrying the reader along on their waves.

Artist: Steven Gilberts. Interior illustration from Perilous Press’ anthology, “Copping Squid.”

The second thing to strike me was how seamlessly he sutured insanity and mundanity together in his characters. So often in Lovecraftian fiction characters go mad and start spouting off nonsense, spiced with a “Ïa!” or two, but rarely does it sound as authentic to who the character is as Shea accomplishes. In this story we have Andre, a man of the streets acquainted with the underbelly of San Francisco. He walks like that, talks like that, acts like that. He’s a great character. So, when his insanity peeks through, he does in fact sound nuts, but he sounds like his own version of nuts, not a generic, Lovecraftian insanity. Witness here, as Andre addressed a gang of street toughs: “Andre barked, hoarse and brutish as a sea-lion, “Jus look at me here! I have gone up to see Him, and I have looked through His eyes, and I have been where He is, time without end. An I’m here to tell you, all you dearly beloved mongrel dogs of mine, I’m here to tell you that it’s consumed me!” It’s brilliantly done and serves only to deepen the reader’s engagement. It’s then that things start to get real weird, real fast, complete with some particularly macabre body horror.

I loved the cosmicism of the story’s conclusion, particularly the way it holds out a certain question without answering it. I suppose that’s the last thing I want to say about my first foray into Shea’s mythos: his restraint when it comes to the more direct mythos components and set pieces keeps the tale elevated above pastiche. To be sure, those elements form an important backdrop to the story, but they are not the story. Lovecraft had already written those. What Shea does is different, unique, his own, and it is all the more terrifyingly wondrous because you don’t know where it is going. His restraint permits your imagination to sail the abyssal winds all on their own, and that is what makes this story truly great. It certainly won’t be the last Michael Shea I read, especially if I can get my hands on DEMIURGE, a volume of the complete collected Mythos tales of Michael Shea.

I really loved this story. The authenticity and realism of his San Francisco setting pulled me in, the believability of his characters—especially as they slowly revealed their insanity—coupled with my sense of connection to their plight held me rapt, and Shea’s restraint when it came to the bigger Lovecraftian set pieces had me applauding by the end. If you’re like me and have not read Michael Shea before, I suggest you get to correcting that. The writing in this story was so good that I can’t imagine the quality is any different in other works. I’m particularly interested, too, in the out of print fantasy from the discussion that started this whole endeavor, so I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled in the local used book store. But until then—

I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
~The Bibliothecar