May 25 2017

Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows

by James Lovecrove

The Cthulhu Casebooks – Book One

An interesting premise

Some weeks back I announced that I was reading this book, one written by English author James Lovegrove. I also promised a review once I’d completed it. Well, I’ve read it so here’s the review. Along with some waffling about movies and such.

But first a caveat. As I’ve previously explained, I’m no book reviewer — there’s an art to such things and I don’t profess to have that gift. But I know what impresses me and what doesn’t, and I like to think I have the ability to express my views reasonably well. So that’s what follows here — my own perceptions rather than a professionally crafted review.

That’s that out of the way.


The stars were right

The book was published in November last year and, while it’s not taken me too long to stumble across it and dive between its covers, it was inevitable that I would do so sooner or later. You see, this tale is a cross-over piece in which the author depicts Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as they investigate a supernatural mystery, one that concerns the Cthulhu mythos, invention of 1920s American author, H.P. Lovecraft.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes since first discovering him during my early teens. Okay, the discovery was made courtesy of Hammer Films’ version of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, but it prompted me to go on to devour all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, as well as a few since then by contemporary authors.

On reading ‘The Hound’, I discovered the many flaws of Hammer’s take on the tale but, suffice to say, the movie impressed me at the time. It was bound to, the pairing of Peter Cushing as Holmes, and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville gave the account a level of intensity that thrilled the teenage Steve Wand.

I digress.

The tarantula of the Baskervilles – why?
The old man of Providence – one scary guy

The work of H.P. Lovecraft has also been a favourite of mine for many years — albeit not as many as Conan Doyle’s. As with the Sherlock Holmes stories, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft by accident. I’d been playing Dungeons and Dragons for several years (I know, but what can you do) and ‘progressed’ from there to play ‘Call of Cthulhu’, a horror role-playing game based on the works of — you guessed it — Howard Phillips Lovecraft.



Sherlock Holmes vs the Cthulhu mythos
No contest

A review – at last

Roll forward to 2017 and enter James Lovegrove with this, the first of a trilogy pitching Holmes against the otherworldly horrors of the Cthulhu mythos. Like I said, it’s inevitable that I would arrive here eventually, but was it worth my time?

The short answer to that is ‘yes’, most definitely. Any author having the courage to take on the task of writing a Holmes novel commands a certain degree of respect, whatever the outcome. If novel writing isn’t tough enough, by taking on Holmes one must also overcome the highest hurdle of all — audience expectations. I’m guessing this is why on-line reviews of his book have been mixed. But who pays heed to such things anyway? Hell, even Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ received one-star reviews from some quarters. The slum quarters, obviously. Moving on …

A shadow out of time

The book begins with a cleverly crafted preface in which the author tells of an email he’d received from a solicitor in Providence, Rhode Island — not only the USA’s smallest state, but the birthplace of H.P. Lovecraft. It becomes clear that Lovegrove had inherited a manuscript from unknown relative Henry Prothero Lovecraft, descendant of the 1920s pulp-fiction writer, HPL. With me so far?

He goes on to reveal that the two trans-atlantic families share a common line of descent from the Von Luftgraf family of Germany. A family who had hastily left Germany ‘under a cloud’, one branch emigrating to England where they changed their name to Lovegrove, the other to America where they become Lovecraft. Neat, eh?

The author explains that the tale that follows the preface is a reprint of the manuscript — alleged to have been written by John Watson, ex British army surgeon, thus blowing apart the ‘fictional status’ of the Holmes/Watson partnership. It also reveals that their investigations were of a much darker nature than those published as fiction by Conan Doyle in the Strand Magazine.

Lightweight penny fiction that hid a dreadful reality?

I’d only read the preface and I was already intrigued. But, had Mr Lovegrove managed to write an authentic sounding Sherlock Holmes story? In other words, had he been able to adopt the ‘John Watson voice’? For even if his plot reflected the pinnacle in ripping yarns, if he’d failed with the voice, he’d failed with the story. I was to be pleasantly surprised.

Smutty fiction

Overall, I consider that the author has done well to recreate the familiar nuance of John Watson’s Victorian diction. This was vital as it allowed me to become quickly transported to the bustling metropolis of London with its pea-soup fogs, opium fugue, smut-caked buildings and hansom cabs.

I was able to enjoy the story without the feeling that this was just a poor slip-shod attempt to ride the Arthur Conan Doyle wave and coerce some cheaply-won pounds from the legions of Holmes fans slavering for something new.

New flesh on old bones

The characters of Holmes and Watson are well drawn — perhaps not entirely how I would expect at times, but providing contemporary authors adhere to Conan Doyle’s basic principles, I think it wise to allow a degree of latitude, if only to maintain a sense of vitality. When they step onto the stage, other familiar characters, such as Professor Moriarty and Inspector Gregson have an air of freshness about them, subtle differences injected into their characters by the author that add further interest to the tale.

I won’t outline the plot here. The back-blurb does that sufficiently. Suffice to say that, having now read the book, it does what it says on the tin. So, overall, I was well impressed and I enjoyed the story — enough to want to read books two and (if the quality is maintained) book three as well. The second novel is scheduled for release November 2017, with the third a year later.

That’s all on the plus side. There are two negatives.

Music hall flim-flam and flummery

While I’ve already declared that Watson’s voice is well articulated by the author, Lovegrove does lapse on occasion into what I’d describe as alliterative gobbledegook of the sort usually heard in Victorian old-time music halls. Such unnecessary use of archaic jibberish — that he may have injected to create an air of authenticity — only serves to kill the immersive element of the story. Like advert breaks during a thriller movie.

The second gripe I had was Lovegrove’s habit of over-explaining the nature of the Cthulhu mythos during immersion-wrenching information dumps. Sure, the mythos is a complex and horrifying concept, but its very mystery is part of that horror. To indulge in elaborate exposition only serves to remove the mystique, and thereby destroy any tension created by uncertainty.

Some questions are best left unanswered

I’m a strong advocate of leaving some things unsaid, or unexplained. Life’s like that. Sure, an author needs a full understanding of those things or characters he’s writing about, but only a small percentage of that needs to be relayed to the reader. The fact that the author possesses all the cards allows him suggest an impressive hand while only revealing a fraction of it. Readers are generally intelligent creatures and don’t need spoon-feeding.

Those that aren’t tend to read books like ‘Wolf Hall’ then bitch about them.

Overall, a hearty thumbs up

Don’t let those two shortcomings put you off reading this book. It’s a good story, based on a neat and original premise, and is well told. There’s some cracking writing here and several of the set-piece horror scenes are graphic page turners that set the pulse racing.

These, together with their contrasting genteel-gothic backdrop create a memorable Holmes tale that I’m sure would have both Conan Doyle and HPL doffing their caps in salute.

March 7 2017

Cthulhu Lives

For many years I declared my favourite fiction genre to be fantasy of the ‘swords and sorcery’ type. From the early 80s I read The Lord of the Rings every year for an unhealthy period of time, while also devouring such as Donaldson’s  The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and many classics by Raymond Feist, David Eddings and others of that ilk.

Then I discovered the writings of H.P. Lovecraft — not that I sought him out in a literary sense. No, I stumbled into the product of his tortured mind through Chaosium’s brilliant horror role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu. Prompted by the game, I read Lovecraft’s Rat’s in the Walls and was blown away by it. Since then, the works of Lovecraft and his many subsequent disciples have captured my imagination.

I believe I’m correct in saying that Lovecraft created this sub-genre of horror fiction when he introduced the world to his ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ tales.

If not cosmic horror’s actual creator, he certainly popularised the genre and gave it a staying-power that has enabled scores of author-acolytes to subsequently pen their own versions. Not all of them good, I hasten to add. Not by a long stretch.

Those aside, one noteworthy exponent — the best in my view — is the Scottish author, Graham McNeill. I won’t blather on about the chap as his bio has already been written and may be found on his Amazon author page.

Should you visit his page you’ll see that he’s written a good many books. Not all may appear to be to your liking — the covers of some may put you off venturing further. Let me assure you, however, that this guy can write well. Not only that, he has a passion for this particular genre that allows him to produce tales that far outshine those of his peers.

I read three such tales last year and am about to enjoy them a second time. It was this decision to revisit 1920s USA by way of McNiell’s ‘Dark Waters’ trilogy that prompted me to share my reviews of last year and add them to the post your’re now reading.

I figured the books are too good to enjoy by myself.

Book One:  ‘Ghouls of the Miskatonic’

I approached this book with trepidation.

A long-time fan of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, I’d read a lot of spin-off tales by a multitude of authors. Tales that were nothing more than pulp press. Although I hoped otherwise, I feared Ghouls would be more of the same. I was wrong.

This is the kind of book Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have written had he been a good writer. As it was, despite creating a unique brand of horror fiction that’s stood the test of time, he couldn’t write dialogue to save his life and was guilty of the most horrendous purple prose imaginable.

However, Graham McNeill CAN write, and he writes well.

This story perfectly captures the very essence of the mythos spirit. His characters are well drawn, their dialogue flows well, the story is well crafted and the pacing is excellent.

The tale ranks as highly as those by August Derleth, TED Klein and other writers of Arkham Horror, and I certainly look forward to the second in this series. And, no doubt, the third.

Book Two:  ‘Bones of the Yopasi’

After reading Ghouls of the Miskatonic I knew I’d enjoy Graham McNeill’s second book in the trilogy. Sure, all readers hope for a consistent standard in the books they read, but I’d not anticipated quite the level of improvement that Bones represents over the saga’s opening. That’s not to say that Ghouls was lacking in any way. It wasn’t.

In Bones of the Yopasi, Graham builds on the epic tale begun in his previous story. He also fleshes the bones of those characters introduced in the first book by adding to their backstories, giving meaning to their actions and greater depth to their personalities. Here we see the unlikely mix of protagonists gel as a team They gain strength from one another and confidence to face the horrendous task in hand.

The storyline to this episode is more complex than the first. Here we see the link between the world as we know it and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands as the characters are forced to step from one to the other to achieve their quest.

These transitions are deftly handled. The author is able to develop the intricate storyline whilst retaining a level of credibility, vital in any story – whatever the genre. This leaves the reader immersed in the tale, without experiencing the suspension of belief that would’ve resulted from clumsy handling or awkward scene changes.

The pacing of the story is excellent throughout. Even in the investigation phase of the piece there’s not a dull moment. The constant threat of impending doom overshadows each of the character’s actions, creating an urgency that made me keep turning the pages. And that was often despite the lateness of the hour. This foreshadowing is added-to by the clever use of setting.

Lovecraft’s fictional locations of academic Arkham, mist-swept Kingsport, degenerate Innsmouth and even the exotic Dreamlands are well-drawn, adding to the unbridled sense of menace.

As with book one, this story is written in a manner that’ll appeal to modern readers. That said, it sufficiently retains a prerequisite gothic-style in compliance with the genre. No mythos tale would be complete without token sporadic lapses into purple prose and Graham ‘s occasional contributions are quite clearly his way of doffing his cap to HPL. Nevertheless, whereas some prompted me to reach for my dictionary, they didn’t interrupt the immersive element to the story.

Moreover, this is a tale well told, for the quality of writing is first class – well on a par with that of authors who are afforded far greater space on Waterstone’s shelves than Mr McNeill. It’s also considerably better than many I could name. Here’s an example in which the writer assaults the reader’s senses during a particularly horrific scene:

‘Luke watched in horror as the grotesque shadow play gave terrible clues to events behind the curtain: flailing limbs, writhing amorphous shapes that were at once solid and permeable, and splatters of viscous fluids. Something splashed the floor behind the curtain and the man’s screams were reduced to a feeble gurgling, like a backed up drain that foams and bubbles with runoff. That horribly final sound was followed by a rain of wet slaps, like a wet mop on a tiled floor.’

At no time do we get to see the tragedy unfolding behind the curtain. But through shrewd use of well-selected wording we’re left in no doubt as to the appalling horror being experienced by the poor unfortunate. Excellent stuff.

I now relish re-joining Oliver Grayson, Rex Murphy and their associates in the story’s concluding episode: Dweller in the Deep.

Book Three:  ‘Dweller in the Deep’

“The human capacity for horror is a fickle thing, my friends, and hangs over the abyss by a frayed thread.”

Well, there’s plenty of horror to be had in this final chapter of McNiell’s trilogy, and the characters spend so much time hung over the abyss it’s a wonder they’re able to function.

But function they do. Those threads spun during the previous books, along with the cast assembled to weave them, all come together here in this climactic thrill-ride as battle commences with the protagonists’ hated evil nemesis and his otherworldly minions.

This is Cthulhu fiction written as I’ve never seen it before and I thank the author for finally doing justice to a superb genre. A genre that had been created by a man who – despite his fertile imagination – possessed limited writing ability. In my view, of course.

Characterisation is again well drawn and it would be worth going back to book one to see the full extent of each character’s development. For it’s clear that each one follows their own separate journey in the series. Journeys which effect each one deeply — some tragically — but with unique consequences for all involved.

There are a number of memorable set-piece events here. In the hands of someone else they may well have fallen flat and disappointed. However, Graham’s flair for the genre and his enthusiasm for spinning a good yarn result in each scene being a well-executed example of dramatic, powerful storytelling.

Once again the setting is well drawn and there are a number of nice touches. Specifically, one character’s meeting with ‘Howard’ in Providence, and Minnie’s introduction to another well known author of the period (Ernest Hemmingway) as she sails home from France. There are also several sporting and topical references that help the reader experience the USA of the 1920s.

In summary, the series is well recommended for fans of this genre … and also for those who aren’t.

To make things easy I’ve added their respective links. Just click on the books’ titles, above.

P.S.  Should you share my interest in Lovecraft-esque mythos fiction, you may wish to read the blog post on my editorial site titled ‘A Hand on the Shoulder‘.