Forrest's Reviews > Demiurge: The Complete Cthulhu Mythos Tales of Michael Shea

Demiurge by Michael   Shea
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it was ok


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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Reading Progress

December 31, 2017 – Shelved
December 31, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
November 25, 2018 – Started Reading
November 25, 2018 –
page 11
3.24%
December 1, 2018 –
page 22
6.49% "Okay, this is, so far, well-written, but insipid. If it doesn't improve over the first few stories, I'm lemming this. And I was really looking forward to reading it. We shall see . . ."
December 1, 2018 –
page 41
12.09% "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!"
December 1, 2018 –
page 65
19.17% ""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."
December 7, 2018 –
page 79
23.3% "Halfway through "The Presentation". The writing, the syntax and vocabulary, that is, is impressive. But the metafictional aspect of it is just really jarring. We'll see how this shakes out."
December 7, 2018 –
page 93
27.43% "That's more like it. 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. Not great, but worth the read. Three stars floating in space around a cosmic blob in the void."
December 9, 2018 –
page 119
35.1% "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. Two stars. If there's another two star, I'm quitting. Life's too short, even with well-written sentences. A waste of talent. But hey, I'm not Shea. Still, bleh."
December 10, 2018 –
page 133
39.23% ""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 . . ."
December 13, 2018 –
page 154
45.43% ""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."
December 13, 2018 –
page 175
51.62% ""Copping Squid" is a great story. Best by far, so far. 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."
December 15, 2018 –
page 205
60.47% "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. 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. Uh-uh. No more. We can't go on. One star. Next story up, please."
December 19, 2018 –
page 239
70.5% "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."
December 20, 2018 –
page 259
76.4% "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. The poetic voice of the "guide" was at least intriguing. But only intriguing enough to earn three stars."
December 20, 2018 –
page 285
84.07% "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."
December 21, 2018 –
page 303
89.38% "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."
December 23, 2018 –
page 338
99.71% ""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."
December 23, 2018 –
page 338
99.71% ""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."
December 23, 2018 –
page 338
99.71% ""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."
December 24, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel I like your remark about the Weird and the weird. It seems to me that the weird is powerful because it's an encounter with something unexpected, troubling, something in some way unlikeable, something not understood*. But when you make it the Weird, it becomes a genre, and genres are things that are likeable, comfortable, understood, predictable... and that has its own appeal, but it's diametrically opposed to the appeal of the weird. So if you commercialise, genericise the weird, you're left with something that's neither quite weird, nor quite generic, something that is likely to fail to succeed in either way.


And if you don't mind me sharing a thought that comes to me reading your remarks here: when you talk about the mythos and why it reads like fan-fiction, my immediate response is to think that the problem with the cthulhu mythos is that too many writers only pay homage to it, rather than re-enacting it. But when you mention the problem of the "mansplaining" (although that seems a strange term to me here - is it really always men explaining the mythos to better-informed women?), it suddenly occurs to me: there's something incoherent in the whole idea of this particular mythos. Lovecraft's mythos is incoherent, scattered, unsystematic, and that works in his stories because not understanding things is at the heart of how his stories work: he only has to drop hints, snippets of information, and it's OK if we can't understand how it all ultimately fits together. But if you want to show your audience that you're writing specifically a cthulhu story, rather than any old horror, you HAVE to explain enough to show that you're working within the mythos. So there's inherently a contradiction in design: on the one hand, to have the feel of the mythos, your characters need to spend much of the story ignorant and confused; but in order to satisfy your audience's demand that you write a specifically cthulhu mythos story, you have to explain how your story fits into that mythos. These two designs - your audience understanding that you're writing a lovecraft story, and your character not understanding that they're inside a lovecraft story - are fundamentally at odds, and this clash is likely to result in ungainly compromises (like the classic "nobody knows what's going on at first, but then somebody explains that they're in a lovecraft story" exposition scene).

There's a popular (and true) theory on the internet that the best Predator film would be one that the audience didn't realise was going to be Predator film. Take any genre and add a Predator, and you can have a great film - the first film is a war (sort of) film, until BAM there's a Predator; the second is an urban crime film until BAM there's a Predator in the middle of it. Whereas the less-regarded later Predator films have made clear that they're Predator films from the beginning, which means that the power of the Predator - its alien nature, it's ability to destroy, and the fear it provokes as a result - is lost. And the same, I suspect, may be true of Cthulhu stories - maybe they only work if they look like something else. Indeed, I think it may go further - maybe the best cthulhu stories are those where you're not sure whether it was a cthulhu story or not even after you've read it...


*if you don't mind me getting philosophical for a moment, I'm reminded of the idea that emotions are an urge to act, and that actions are displaced emotions, just as language is displaced action (when we cry, we in some ways 'let out', transmute, our grief, and when we complain in words our words in some way transmute, or stand in place of, tears). The most powerful, or at any rate most troubling, emotions are those where we do not know how what action might answer them. When we encounter the weird, we feel the need to act, but do not know quite what action - even what verbal action, even what internalised cognitive actions - is called for... and as a result, we are left, as it were, almost physically restless.
[and perhaps some people feel so strongly about it because, as Wittgenstein says, religious acts are the gestures we make when we need to speak, but do not know what to say... confusion, dread and awe are all closely connected]


Forrest Wastrel wrote: "I like your remark about the Weird and the weird. It seems to me that the weird is powerful because it's an encounter with something unexpected, troubling, something in some way unlikeable, somethi..."

This is incredibly insightful. Thanks for sharing these comments. I think you hit the nail on the head with the inherent contradiction of mythos fiction. I think the initial discovery of the mystery, watching it unfold, is where most of the stimulation is at. It's making the unknown known in an organic way and incompletely, leaving the reader with trailing "creepiness" that I really enjoy, or even trailing wonderment at what I don't know, rather than the explanation of what has happened or what specific agents are at work and what their motives might be. The lack of clarity, particularly in regards to motives, is the true horror.


message 3: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Thanks for saying so. Your reply in return reminds me of the best use I've seen of the cthulhu mythos in recent popular media: the first season of True Detective.

Ok, it wasn't cthulhu, it was the King in Yellow, but the same sort of cosmic horror vibe: gradually weird hints get dropped, there's talk of strange books that will explain all this weird stuff, there are people who have gone mad...

...and then it all fades out and, no, it's just a run-of-the-mill, rather formulaic paedophile serial killers story. That was disappointing. But to be fair, if it had turned into a cthulhu (or King in Yellow) story, that would have been disappointing too, in hindsight. Because what was thrilling was that temporary feeling of... holy shit, is this crime series secretly a cosmic horror!?

It wasn't - but that gradually-mounting confusion and disbelief as the audience started to wonder whether it might be was a brilliant reminder of how these stories CAN work.

And, of course, a demonstration of how they often don't. A story needs a resolution - but there's no satisfying resolution once you raise the prospect of ineffable cosmic horrors. If they can be resolved, they're not cosmic horrors! So I think the trick is finding a way to resolve the plot, while leaving the mystery unresolved. And that means that the mystery can't be the plot, even if it seems to be - the story can't be about the mystery. But it's hard not to make your story be about the mystery, when it's the mystery that's your selling point! In the case of True Detective, which worked in large part because nobody was expecting cosmic horror at the outset, that would have meant finding a way to find the specific, mundane perpetrator of the crimes (or at least to conclusively show that the perpetrator could never be found) without having to first rule out a supernatural explanation. And that's... well, that's a very fine line to try to walk.


Just thinking out loud here. Partly because I'm "writing" [i.e. started writing a few years ago and keep telling myself I'm going to manage to work out how to finish one day] a cosmic horror-adjacent (but don't worry, probably no tentacles!) novellette/novella myself, so, while I've not articulated these problems out loud so precisely before, they're something I've kind of been feeling my way around for a while...


Forrest Excellent points. I'll be curious to see what you come up with!


message 5: by Jordan (new)

Jordan West Much as I enjoy Shea do have to agree somewhat here, inasmuch as his straight-up mythos stories on a whole are probably the weakest portion of his oeuvre - stories like 'The Autopsy' on the other hand are pretty amazing, and his weird fantasy epic In Yana, the Touch of Undying is nothing short of a masterpiece in my opinion.


Forrest Jordan wrote: "Much as I enjoy Shea do have to agree somewhat here, inasmuch as his straight-up mythos stories on a whole are probably the weakest portion of his oeuvre - stories like 'The Autopsy' on the other h..."

I can see that Shea is a good writer, that's obvious from his syntax and turns of phrase. But these stories, outside of "The Recruiter" and "Copping Squid" just did not do it for me. If he had just used some more restraint and not "spilled the beans" so suddenly, obviously, and clumsily, or, better yet, not at all, I might have liked a few of these stories much better.


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