“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.
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.
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,