The Tunnelers, by Geoff Gander

“The following document, as well as a bundle of newspaper clippings, was found among the personal effects of Dr. Vincent Armstrong, a community psychiatrist in the Evaluation Unit at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Center, whose disappearance in Montreal is a matter of public record.”

Forbidden knowledge is a favorite leitmotif of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and many of his literary heirs pick up the theme and run with it at well. It’s easy to see why. There is a certain allure to anything forbidden. Tell someone with a curious mind, like a professor, that they cannot see a certain book or acquire some particular knowledge and rest assured it will be the first thing they try to do. Sometimes, though, you don’t even have to go looking. Sometimes that knowledge find you, unbidden, and you’re stuck with it for better or for worse. In Lovecraft’s tales, let’s be honest, it’s for the worse. Think, for example, of the plight of the grand-nephew of George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University. He inherited a puzzling box containing a bas-relief, the revelation of which launched one of the most memorable adventures in all of literature.

41+tduQPnSL[1]Unbidden is exactly how Dr. Vincent Armstrong comes to possess singular knowledge of a terrible, hidden truth in Geoff Gander‘s short story, “The Tunnelers.” Published by Solstice Publishing in 2011, I am grateful to Mr. Gander for providing me with a free e-copy in exchange for an honest review. “The Tunnelers” tells of how Dr. Armstrong came to care for a patient suffering physical and mental trauma following a mining accident in Ottawa, Canada. Michael Kirkwood had been involved in a mine collapse with two other miners who did not survive the accident, and, when he comes to, babbles on about the “Digging! Digging! Beneath us, above us, around us!” As it turns out, the mining company with which Mr. Kirkwood was affiliated had been digging in an area considered forsaken by the local First Nation. They had warned them, but the company, blinded by the prospect of great riches, proceeded regardless. This is why we can’t have nice things. Or, at least why Mr. Kirkwood can’t have nice things. Like sanity.

The story unfolds in an epistolary fashion, as Gander reveals new information through Armstrong’s journal entries, interview notes, and official documentation. I have to admire Gander’s pacing; the story never bogs down and each new clue leading us deeper and deeper underground is discovered in a natural way that flows well. I was impressed, too, with the clinical way in which Armstrong would describe things in his journal as I felt the style of writing really fit the character. It is easy to say, then, that Mr. Gander’s writing is sufficient. I never got hung up on any choice of diction or syntax but nor was I ever blown away by a turn of phrase. This isn’t a bad thing at all, as some writers try to do too much and then fall flat. That didn’t happen here. Reading Gander’s words felt comfortable and easy.

KzHRTPm[1]In the end, though, being a good practitioner of the craft was not enough to cause this story to stand out in the crowd. One of the words oft bandied about in Lovecraftian circles is “pastiche.” Usually, these days, it comes pre-packaged with negative context, but I don’t feel like it’s a given that pastiche equals bad. In the early days, Bloch, Ashton-Smith, Derleth, Campbell and others wrote fun, accomplished stories that were pure pastiche. But the two things that made those work, in my opinion, were that they were the first ones to do it and they added something that had not been present before. Because so much time has passed now, it is harder and harder to do that and editors (like Ellen Datlow) are explicitly forbidding pastiches for their anthologies. There are good examples out there—John Langan has one that comes to mind, as does Cody Goodfellow, Joe Pulver, and there are very likely others—but they are few and far between.

“The Tunnelers,” I am afraid, is pure pastiche that adds nothing new to the genre. From the opening lines, a reader knows exactly where this story is going and to a large extent (depending on how widely they are read in the genre) precisely how it will unfold. The monsters, Lovecraftian in the sense that they are ancient beyond time and wholly unknown, feel a bit like ghouls and function a lot like Lumley’s “burrowers beneath,” but weren’t new enough to spark my interest. I had definitely been here before.

The last page of the e-book informs readers that “The Tunnelers is his first novel” (though, weighing in at 8000 words or so, ‘novel’ is a big stretch) and it reads like it. You can tell he knows how to write, you can tell he knows how a story needs to be structured, and you can really tell he has a firm grasp on pace. He just needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea wholly his own, or sufficiently twist one of Lovecraft’s to make it his own, and then he’ll have arrived.

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

The Church in High Street, by Ramsey Campbell

“…do you know that rites can still be used at the proper season to open the gates and let through those from the other side? It’s true. I’ve stood in that church myself and watched the gates open in the centre of empty air to show visions that made me shriek in horror. I’ve take part in acts of worship that would drive the uninitiated insane.”

32709[1]Welcome to the first post of the Miskatonic Review, an online literary review of individual Lovecratian stories by authors writing in his vein!  We begin this loathsome quest with a look at the past.  I’m glad you’re with me.  Every Warren needs his Carter!  In 1961, fifteen year old Ramsey Campbell, having recently discovered the fiction of HPL, sent a few of stories (only at the encouragement of his friends) to August Derleth at Arkham House.  Derleth knew he liked the kid’s writing, but he sent the stories back with some suggestions for edits.  While working on those edits, Campbell received another missive from Derleth, requesting a submission for a forthcoming anthology.  Quickly, Campbell sent him back an edited version of a story he called “The Tomb-Herd,” which Derleth accepted provided the title could be changed and a few further edits could be made.  In February of 1962, Ramsey Campbell had his first professional published story included in Derleth’s anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart, where it was entitled “The Church in High Street.” shadowsoverinnsmouth[1]I picked up the story in Stephen Jones’ anthology, Shadows Over Innsmouth, first published in 1994 by Titan Books.

“The Church in High Street” tells the story, in the narrator’s own voice, of the actions and ultimate fate of one Richard Dodd, a very classic Lovecraftian narrator.  Our pauperish protagonist gathers his few belongings, borrows a friend’s sports car (nice friend!) and heads off to the English town of Temphill, in search of his friend Albert Young.  Young had sent him a series if increasingly paranoid missives, concluding with one demanding Dodd’s immediate aid.  Dodd arrives in the tenebrous town of Temphill and encounters the pretty creepy John Clothier, who appears for all intents and purposes to be an homage to Lovecraft himself.  Just read to how he’s described, “He wore a frayed tweed suit. But his most startling attribute was a singular air of antiquity, giving him the impression of having been left behind by some past age.”  Lovecraft himself would blush in embarrassed pride to be described so! Clothier shares some disturbing details about the town and it’s history and sends our hero packing with a dire warning, that became my favorite line in the story.

Dodd finds his way to the eponymous church and, after minimal exploration, discovers a dark stairwell down into the noisome depths, fillethe tomb-herdd with “bloated, dappled fungi” and poor architecture.  He witnesses something horrific down there, which for me was the highlight of the story, and this terrible, otherworldly spectacle is soon overshadowed by things which sound tome an awful lot like overgrown alien maggots attack our narrator. And he FAINTS!  Yes, fans!  How much more Lovecraftian can you get?  (Lovecraft’s heroes are famous fainters.) The story ends in a way that calls to mind the end of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which may be partially why it’s included in this collection.

By the end (heck by the middle), it is clear that this is pure pastiche.  The young Campbell is to be commended though for putting something together so convincingly Lovecraftian that were you not to tell me this was not Lovecraft, I might not know. There’s cosmic landscapes and horror, alien baddies, a bookish protagonist, and a bleak ending. There are no new ideas here, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. The writing is strong in some areas and it succeeds at conveying a sense of oppressive, ancient atmosphere, like here, “Piles of yellowed hymnals squatted against a pillar like grotesque huddled shapes…”  I love that image of the aged and decaying hymnals piling up.

There are two parts that do bring this story down a bit for me, though.  One, I’ve already mentioned.  When he is down in the undercroft area and encounters the alien landscape through some sort of portal, it’s pretty cool, but the flopping things that make up the tomb-herd, while gross and frightening in their persistence in pursuing him, took away, for me, from the true horror that’s being discovered.  Namely that classic cosmic Lovecraftian sense of other worlds beyond our ken.  Sure, those worlds might be populated by awful beings, like flopping white maggots of gelatinous constitution, but for me this felt a bit like the author needing a monster to round out his story.  I don’t know, what did you think?

The second place that detracted from my enjoyment for a bit came before Dodd makes his descent. He is reading Young’s notes and observes that young was “attempting to unify and correlate various cycles of legend with one central cycle.”  This is common among Lovecraft fans, I think, to try to bring together in one literary universe all of Lovecraft’s eldritch imaginings.  But I don’t believe that Lovecraft created or wrote that way.  The various ways he makes use of the Necronomicon, for example, point to opposing ideas he was exploring.  Is is a text warning against exploring the mysteries of the cosmos? Or is it a manual describing exactly how to do that?   I know that Lovecraft fans the orld over have wished and worked towards that grand Mythos idea, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure that’s what Lovecraft had in mind originally.  With this statement, it seems Campbell is at once aware of that temptation while participating in it.  I’d love to  hear your thoughts on this.

Well, there you have it fellow Lovecraftians, the first post.  I’m sure the format will change and mature as time goes on, but if you’ve ideas, please share them!  I would dearly love to hear from you in the comments.  Tell me if you’ve read this sinister tale, and what you thought about it, or if you haven’t read it yet, do you think you will now?  Tell me, if you would, what your favorite Lovecraftian story is and why, and hopefully I’ll get it up on here, the Miskatonic Review!

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

Favorite Line: “I wouldn’t go into that house for any reason whatever,” confessed Clothier. “Nor would anyone else. That house has become theirs now.”