“He walks and walks. Everywhere he notes the homeless, his new countrymen, and searches their eyes. Many are burnouts, their eyes mere emptiness. Many are smug, have beaten the game because they’re warmed for the moment by Night Train or pills. But more are mad-eyed, and glare like fanatics when you ‘front them. Not insanity, no. It’s a fierce, futile insistence they exist, that they are here in spite of owning not one square foot of concrete, one square foot of floor, or wall, or roof.”Michael Shea, MR. CANNYHARME
“From one of the crumbling gravestones—dated 1747—I chipped a small piece to carry away. It lies before me as I write—and ought to suggest some sort of a horror-story. I might some night place it beneath my pillow as I sleep…who can say what thing might not come out of the centuried earth to exact vengeance for his descrated [sic] tomb.”
—H.P. Lovecraft to Lillian Phillips Clark, September 29, 1922
In September 1922, around the time he was writing to his aunt about a bit of minor grave desecration he and Reinhardt Kleiner had performed in the churchyard of the Dutch Reformed Church of Brooklyn, H.P. Lovecraft penned “The Hound.” It’s one of his more conventional horror stories and for my money is actually scary. It tells the story of two friends who rob a grave while acquiring macabre keepsakes for a forbidden museum collection. It seems real life was all the inspiration Mr. Lovecraft needed for this one. The story goes on to describe the horrific vengeance the owner of the grave reaps, a vampiric resurrection at the expense of those two hapless fellows. In 1981, thirty-three years before his untimely death and one year before he would publish his seminal fantasy work NIFFT THE LEAN, Michael Shea wrote MR. CANNYHARME, an homage to HPL’s “The Hound,” set in San Francisco’s Haight in the waning years of the 1960’s.
It was never published.
Until now. I am grateful to my friends at Hippocampus Press for providing me with a gratis advanced reading copy for the purposes of this review. It will be available to general public on August 20, 2021 and will feature this gorgeous cover design by Dan Sauer and art by Tom Brown. You should definitely pick this one up. This monumental publishing event represents the first novel I have ever reviewed on this website otherwise reserved for short stories.
It’s the story of Jack and Brittany, DeeAnn and Razz, the Hyperion Hotel and its most baleful resident, Mr. Cannyharme. More than that though, it’s a snapshot of the Haight in 1960’s San Francisco, of hopeless fraternity, of drugs and sex, homelessness and chosen family. It’s a vision of place I simultaneously found myself wishing I could see through Shea’s eyes and yet would never visit. And that, of course, is without mentioning the grave darkness befalling our characters.
Jack is the night clerk at the Hyperion, a dank hotel housing drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless denizens of Haight-Ashbury when they can scrape together enough for a night’s stay, hot shower, and semi-clean sheets. There seems to be more than a bit of Shea himself in Jack’s character; he’s an author banging out a romance novel on an Olympia typewriter between buzzing in residents. He’s trying to get out of there, but it’s the only thing he knows. Brittany is a drug addict and prostitute who lives in the Hyperion, paying Jack for her rent with her body, an arrangement Jack feels lukewarm about but still accepts. DeeAnn is an enthusiastic prostitute running her business out of the Hyperion and Razz is her pimp, a man who desperately wants to be more dangerous than he is. And Chester is the creepy, bent-over, old Dutch guy who is one of the Hyperion’s longest tenured residents. He shuffles about, passing out strange tracts to the other characters that seem to be invitations of a sort, oddly personalized. They evoke ill feelings, dark visions, and thoughtless curiosity. Whatever they are, one thing is becoming clear to Jack and Brittany: there is a growing, nameless darkness in “the noble old Hyperion” and maybe this creepy old guy knows something about it.
Shea’s writing is direct, revealing, and gorgeous. He lifts the veil on San Francisco’s drug, sex trade, and street culture in an almost reverential way. It’s as if he is saying: here, you can take a peek, but in the midst of your revulsion, remember these are people, too. He writes, “Down the street outside the Hyperion, Jack just stands there for a moment, taking in the early evening. The candy-colored neons are coming on, the signals blaze, all the tail-lights and headlights river and roar, and above it all a first shy star or two gleams in the purple sky. The sidewalks throng, the working stiffs—many Latins and Easterners— threading through the lowlifes. And even these drinkers and druggers, these hookers and hardcores, move briskly with a Happy Hour air, as the Mission turns to jewels all around them.” There’s a dirty beauty there that’s almost enough to make me weep. I am hesitant to assign significance to it for myself because this is so clearly their world, not mine, and I can’t steal what joy they can find. But, I am grateful for this glimpse. Yesterday I passed a homeless couple on the street and I greeted them with a smile Shea inspired. I wanted to say, in some wordless way, I see you. They smiled back. Shea does that on every page and it’s never sentimental or saccharine. It’s real, stained, unwashed. In the midst of all that grime, he accepts the inherent worthiness of miserable human beings without dressing it up. He writes them with unvarnished dignity.
His love for the city of San Francisco isn’t limited to the people who inhabit its alleys and alcoves. Its life, its arteries, its architecture all hold a special place for Shea that is so evident in his writing. “He is calm and watches the beautiful turmoil of the city’s rush-hour. The rain tapers down, sunset bleeds through a narrow seam in the west, and the cloud-wrack is underlit, a wild and wooly upside-down landscape hustling along on the wind. The traffic, like scoured gems, rivers between walls of windows flashing orange and gold.” I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever wanted to be in rush hour traffic, but that description almost makes me want to bear witness. This was his world, in all its broken glory, and he loved it. He loves it on every page.
All this wondrous description and loving characterization comes at a cost to the pacing of the novel, though, especially in the early going. There were stretches where not much was going on to advance the plot and I felt myself drifting as I read through them. Other readers may love getting lost in those wildernesses but I felt like some of it could’ve been edited out. S.T. Joshi, who boldly proclaims himself editor of this novel on the cover, wrote in the introduction that two versions of the book existed, a longer and a shorter. He chose the longer because of the more rich characterizations at the expense of plot progression. I definitely feel that and probably would have made the opposite choice. I wonder, too, if such a decision might not have been different were Mr. Shea still alive; is there a bit of hero worship going on here? Laird Barron assures me it’s “vintage Shea,” and I have no reason to disagree. However, I’ve come to Michael Shea’s body of work quite late and so I don’t have that same sense of matured admiration that has grown in others over decades. That’s not to say that I don’t admire his writing. I adore it, but from a different vantage point than others.
Lovecraft’s “The Hound” is the inspiration for this tale, but Shea takes it, molds it, makes it his own. If I hadn’t been told of it’s influence, I may have been hard-pressed to see “The Hound” lurking behind these pages without some luck. I’d of had to recognize the Dutch connection maybe, or somehow tie the two revenants together. That’s how much his own this story is. Some readers will be drawn in by the cover’s proclamation “A Novel of Lovecraftian Terror,” and then be left wondering at the end, how exactly? Here there is no Cthulhu, no Azathoth, no Nyarlathotep (maybe). There are no Deep Ones or Yithians, neither mind transfer nor dream quests nor mountains of madness. So, I’d encourage you to read “The Hound” first; it’s quick and quite fun. Then take up MR. CANNYHARME, just don’t expect pastiche or a simple modernization. MR. CANNYHARME is a complicated adulation born of an abiding knowledge of Lovecraft, his work, and his direction.
Towards the end of the novel Jack makes a series of decisions about his future. Even though Shea wrote it three full decades before his death, I couldn’t help but read it as a beautiful coda on his life. He said, “He chooses to grab his manuscript, his Olympia, pick up his wonderfully portable career and take it elsewhere. So many beautiful Elsewheres in this big beautiful world! Elsewhere, drugs—however exotic—will wear out of his system. Elsewhere, this indelible nightmare will shrink into…a story. Elsewhere, it will become an ordinary stack of typed pages.” As you sit to read this story in a few weeks, perhaps it will warm you, as it did me, to think of those Elsewheres Shea inhabits now, those beautiful vistas of this wide universe, those endless seas of glass. “He’s got a party to go to. The wind feels full of danger, and of promise.”
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,