Monday, December 24, 2018

Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea

Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael SheaDemiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea by Michael Shea
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I remember the exact moment when I first encountered H.P. Lovecraft’s work. It was eighth grade, and I had just walked out of the lunch room onto the Mission Junior High School courtyard when I heard someone behind me yell my name. I turned, bracing for a fight (which happened frequently at that school – think bully jocks and all that rot), but found one of my good friends, John Hayes (who has since passed away from a heart attack, just a few years ago) running up to me with a book in his hand. “Do you want this?” he asked. The cover was that of a skull with brains exploding out of holes in the top of its head entitled Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was intrigued. If I recall correctly, John said something like “My mom says I can’t keep this book. Do you want it?”. My response was something like “hellz, yeah”! Thanks, Mrs. Hayes!

And so, my journey into Lovecraft and those who shared his mythos began. I can honestly say that this book changed my life and sent me in directions I otherwise would never have explored. It was a rich stepping off point for many of my interests in life (existentialism, philosophy in general, avant classical music, surreal cinema, etc). It has made my life richer. Since then, I have read much and written a few pieces that would be considered “Lovecraftian,” along with a piece or two (read and written) that riff directly off of Lovecraft’s creations.

I still hold a great deal of fondness of weird fiction. Not “Weird” with a capital “W”, necessarily. This has become a marketing category that I’m becoming unenchanted with. Well, not “becoming,” now that I’ve finished this book. I am, I think, fully ready to leave “Weird” fiction for “weird” fiction. I still love the strange, the metaphysical, love cosmic horror and the “Lovecraftian,” but more as a concept than as a marketing category/genre.

I have heard a great deal about Michael Shea’s work and how amazing it is. Forgive my bluntness, but, while Shea’s writing style is excellent, his ideas, characters, and plots are mostly hackneyed. Yes, I know, that’s no way to talk about a dead man who can’t defend himself, but really: as a thirteen-year old, I would probably have loved this work. But I’ve grown up a little and my reading tastes have matured, as a result. I see the potential for greatness here – Shea’s writing, as I have said, is quite good, borderline exquisite, at times. But the matrix in which the beautiful syntax is set happens to be broken or, at best, boring. It’s like setting a single diamond in the middle of a bracelet that is composed of glass baubles. The diamond is cheapened by its setting, and the baubles look even worse in comparison.

With that, here are my story notes:

Groveling at the altar of Lovecraft, no matter how eloquently, is still groveling at the altar of Lovecraft. Clever turns of phrase cannot save a weak, thin, and most of all, unsubtle story. My disenchantment with the "mythos" grows. This is fanfic. Well-written fanfic, but fanfic nonetheless. Two stars to "Fat Face," and I think that's being overly generous. I hope this collection improves or . . . lem!

"Nemo Me Impune Lacessit" sings prettily, but the lyrics are shallow and hackneyed. Three stars and I am quickly losing all patience with this collection. (note that I did read to the end, surprisingly).

In "The Presentation," street art meets comix meets the 1% meets . . . something . . . beyond. While I didn't enjoy the metaphysical aspect of it, this was a pretty good story. The writing, the syntax, the vocabulary were all impressive, but the metafictional aspect of it was quite jarring. Not great, but worth the read. Three stars floating in space around a cosmic blob in the void.

“The Pool”: Again with the metafiction and the outright references to Lovecraft and the extreme strain to my willing suspension of disbelief? Is there no subtlety? Bleh. One step closer to lemming this. (note again that I showed great restraint in not tossing this book). Two stars. If there's another two star, I'm quitting. (I didn’t – shame on me). Life's too short, even with well-written sentences. A waste of talent. But hey, I'm not Shea. Still, bleh.

"The Recruiter" is the kind of story I was hoping for from this collection. A modern dirge of timeless dread. An existential survey of the landscape of death and being. And not one mention of Cthulhu or any of his cronies, at least not directly. Four stars. Pushing on . . .

"The Battery" is a pulp fiction story in the vein of Lovecraft. Maybe too much in the vein of Lovecraft. Frankly, I couldn't get excited about the characters, the premise, or all the Lovecraftian doo-dads. Two stars.

"Copping Squid" is a great story. Far and away better than all the other stories in this collection. Sacrifice and complicity create a tangled web, with some deep characterization, as a result. The horror is just as much in the inner contemplation of decisions as it is in the outward cosmic forces that feed on the universe. This story is a darkly wonderful exploration of agency and respectful awe vis-a-vis stark terror. Five stars. Does this long story make it worth it to buy the whole collection? No. Not by a long shot. But it’s a great story that deserves your attention. Unfortunately, I don’t know where else you might find it. Remember my earlier analogy about a diamond among baubles? Yeah . . .

Dear "Dagoniad", I'm sorry, but we just can't go on like this. Your blunt granting of "mythos" knowledge (and your characters even call it "mythos" knowledge) to common hookers is, well, just obscene. Not because of the hookers, mind you, but because of the unashamed way in which you spit in the face of willing suspension of disbelief. It’s not a wink and a nudge, it’s like you’re opening your trench coat and exposing yourself to strangers on the street. You're the kind of story that would take it for granted that everyone reads Lovecraft and knows everything about the mythos because they read it. Yuck! Uh-uh. No more. We can't go on. One star. Next story up, please.

I'm torn. Some of the writing in "Tsathoggua" is exquisite, Especially the segments about Maureen's transformation. But, again, "deus ex machina" comes in the form of someone, introduced halfway through the story with no preamble, who just happens to have all this mythos knowledge. Honestly, it's getting really, really tiresome. Three stars.

Nothing really happened "Beneath the Beardmore". The protagonists didn't do much protagonizing, and there was a lot of explaining about Shoggoths and tentacles and stuff. But the characters were flat and unimpressive. Meh. All the trimmings and none of the substance of cosmic horror. The poetic voice of the "guide" was at least intriguing. But only intriguing enough to earn three stars.

When I read the words Great Old Ones Ale near the beginning of the story, I thought that "Momma Durtt" might end up a puerile, trivial, mimetic, unoriginal,, silly, bleached-out shell of worn-out Lovecraftian elements that tried in vain to be funny and horrific and the more it tried the worse it became, until it nose-dived into a downward spiral of inane dreck.

And I was right. One star.

Why, yes, of course every Antarctic submarine researcher carries a Tommy gun with them, just in case. And riding a submarine down an icy slope like a bobsled is perfectly believable. Isn't it? "Under the Shelf" comes in under three stars. Two, to be exact.

"Demiurge" is an interesting take on what it's like to be an alien intelligence possessing others' bodies that ends as the most ridiculous thing in the entire collection. It was pretty good until the last page, then, UGH! Three stars.

In essence, my problem is with the bare-faced mansplaining that goes on in the guise of some expert on “the mythos” suddenly showing up out of nowhere and exposing all the mysteries of said “mythos” to protagonists who either just accept what is given them or become so awestruck that you expect them to suddenly yell out “dude, that’s totally rad!” whenever a Shoggoth appears (and Shea had an unhealthy obsession with Shoggoths). It got old. It’s still old. Maybe I’m just getting old. But I can’t do this anymore. Going forward, I am very likely to avoid anything that directly takes Lovecraft’s creatures as inspiration, at least those, like this, that are borderline fanfic (if not outright fanfic). I’m all about the cosmic horror, all about strange stories, but I think I’ve done with tentacles in my fiction. I’ve got plenty of boardgames and roleplaying games if I want tentacles. I am banishing them from my plane of existence. Ia, Ia!

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