Tim Pendry's Reviews > The Taint and Other Novellas: Best Mythos Tales No. 1

The Taint and Other Novellas by Brian Lumley
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Jun 27, 2009

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The prolific Brian Lumley, a stalwart of British horror, has collected what his publisher calls his best Cthulhu Mythos tales in the first volume of what appears to be a series.

Where does it stand in the Lovecraftian canon? Well, it mostly stands as a worthy successor to Derleth, if you take the Mythos not to be the starting point for great literature but as a universe for pulp exploitation. In this volume at least, Lumley largely concentrates on tales of horrors associated with the ocean and, in one story, the winds. The smell of the sea, as you might expect of a British writer, pervades the book.

Most of these stories, which contain their own inner coherence (for example, the Oakdene asylum appears repeatedly as if it had wandered in from an Amicus movie production), were written when Lumley was not yet a full time writer but was holding down a steady job in an extended military career - solid, workmanlike stuff but showing none of the signs of a mind able to give itself completely to its subject matter.

Most of the stories come, therefore, from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, and they bear loose comparison with the Stephen King collection, which has its own occasional use of more land-based Lovecraftian themes, as reviewed by us recently - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23...

King, as Lumley might well admit, is the superior writer, although Lumley at his best is far better than King at his worst. The bulk of the stories in this collection are entertaining enough - although the last two ('The Lord of the Worms', a dreadful sub-Wheatley tale of black magic whose only purpose seems to have been to give some sort of back story to his Titus Crow creation, and 'The House of the Temple') might easily have been left out with profit. The latter, however, although largely pedestrian and predictable, opens out (as Lumley is, on occasion, wont to do) into some remarkable last pages of genuine eldritch horror even as it bathetically collapses into cliche at the end.

Other stories are more solid but they contain nothing that should hold a reader who is not a died-in-the-wool Lovecraftian, one who needs his fix and will put up with some less potent drug than he would really like.

Two stories or rather novella rise above the rest - 'Born of the Winds' (1972/3) and 'The Taint' (2002/2003). These suggest that Lumley is at his best (as in his Necroscope series) when he is given the space to tell a longer tale and develop character. In this, he is much like King and unlike Lovecraft himself and, say, Ligotti. His other short stories are basically pulp, at times almost pastiches of the entertaining fodder to be found at the top end of the 'Wierd Tales' market, but these two novella really do have something going for them.

The earliest, BOTW, is derivative of Algernon Blackwood's 'The Wendigo' which Lumley cleverly identifies with Ithaqua, the Wind Walker, from the Lovecraftian Mythos. The transition is seamless. Although perhaps not great literature in that absolute sense beloved of the Academy, the writing is atmospheric (it is set in the Canadian wastes) and it is a worthy addition to the canon.

But it is 'The Taint' that holds our attention. It is a small masterpiece. It can be no accident that it comes after well over thirty years of practice at the art of writing.

It takes the Innsmouth story and creates a tale of miscegenation between man and sea-beast that contains none of the racist disgust of Lovecraft. Instead it creates a very humane story of the human costs of dark dabblings in the past that becomes a lively metaphor for the terrible effects on later generations of the boundary-crossing of earlier ones. References to AIDS and CJD are not accidental, nor the idea that scientific interest in the Innsmouth population might have its own, not necessarily entirely evil, momentum.

There is little of Cthulhu in this story but a great deal of interest in developing what Lovecraft had never explained into a narrative that fills some gaps plausibly. In this sense, it is more than another tale within a tradition, it is a brilliant extension of the narrative, still very much loyal to Lovecraft's 'facts' but from a more humane if pessimistic British perspective at the beginning of the twenty first century.

It has also been brilliantly translated into a Cornish environment - directly across from the New England coast. The 'surprise' (we are not into spoilers) seems no surprise when it comes and yet Lumley's skilled writing has brilliantly drawn us away from the only logical reason the protagonist is in the decayed fishing village and towards the relationships between the middle class exiles who stand apart from the locals. It is a skilled example of literary misdirection and shows what Lumley is capable of.

This story has appeared elsewhere (in 'Weird Shadows over Innsmouth', publ. 2005) so that this book does not need to be purchased if you have that volume and are not a Lovecraftian mythos completist. On the other hand, the story is so interesting that I would say that the book is worth the purchase for it alone - assuming you are reasonably well educated in Lovecraft's themes and can enjoy the other stories for what they are, dark fun.

I like Lumley. He is an honest cove in popular literature, It is good to see him still appearing on Waterstone's shelves and with a decent section at 'Forbidden Planet', but this collection is otherwise really (like King's) strictly for the fans or for Lovecraftians (like me) who cannot fail to get a thrill from the Master's grim world-view (albeit as twisted by Derlethianism).

'The Taint' is the best story in part because it goes to the core of the Master's work and throws out all the accretions of Arkham Press. It develops Lovecraft and when we say we wish Lovecraft had written more, this is what we generally mean - that his dark vision, set in each successive time, should reflect what science, not myth, might tell us about the eldritch horrors 'out there'.
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