Nightscape Series

Modern Mythos Review #1: The Burrowers Beneath (1974)

David Edwards1 Comment

Given the nature of the Nightscape series, I thought it might be of interest to offer the occasional review of other, similarly Lovecraftian works. I’ve elected to start this experiment in casual criticism with The Burrowers Beneath, the first entry in the six book Titus Crow series by Brian Lumley...

On evidence of this book, Lumley is more of an addled mythos encyclopediast than a storyteller. The narrative winds like a maze through a library piled high with dusty grimoires and faux-historical records, never revealing a definitive shape and dead-ending in a featureless wall of text. Some of its twists and turns offer a tantalizing glimpse of story before throwing you back into heaps of digressive references. Pivotal leads? Deft characterization? Thrilling plot developments? Bah, says Lumley, measuring you for a coffin in the shape of a book, what do you need with story when you have all this comfy padding?

The book wouldn’t be so frustrating in its clumsiness and stultifying dullness if the set up didn’t have so much potential. Titus Crow is a kind of Sherlock Holmes of the paranormal set—somewhat detached in personality, possessed of estimable smarts, intermittently psychic and given to prescient dreams. Crow is aided in his investigations by the distinctly Watson-like (and decidedly less psychic) Henri Laurent de Marigny, along with assorted agents of the Wilmarth Foundation, a secret organization based out of Miskatonic University dedicated to defending our misbegotten world from Cthulhu Cycle Deities (CCD). Not a bad premise, eh? It’s easy to imagine an invigorating mashup of Doyle and Lovecraft. The elevated ratiocination of Holms versus the insidious irrationality of the Great Old Ones seems a perfect conflict. You might as well enjoy the possibilities the premise inspires, however, rather than read this relentlessly staid rendition of it.

Chapter after chapter consists mostly of second-hand info-dumps—epistolary evidence, secret files and the like—mixed with plain ol’ exposition and prolix neo-gothic dialogue almost as inhuman as the books’ bog-standard snippets of alien gibberish. Ce’haiie ep-ngh fl’hur G’harne fhtagn indeed! Crow and his companion don’t even manage to get out of the room in which they’re first introduced until nearly the two-thirds mark. During that time, Lumley catalogs virtually the whole of Lovecraft’s cosmology no matter the relevance of his citations to the threat at hand. You get discursive passages on Nyarlathotep, Ithaqua, the Deep Ones and countless other aspects of Lovecraft’s mythos that have absolutely nothing to do with his single original contribution, Shudde-M'ell and its titular fellows, worm-like behemoths capable of devastating physical and psychic assaults. These so-called Cthonians raise the prospect of fantastical Daikaiju-style destruction of the type play-acted in backyards everywhere. Bring it on, says your inner child. But like a boorish parent, Lumley denies you the satisfaction in favor of more exposition. Here’s a choice bit of name-checking from early in the story…

Basically the legend was this: that in an epoch so remote in the past as to make Crow’s ‘geologic infants’ statement perfectly acceptable, the Elder Gods punished a rebellion of the Great Old Ones by banishing them to their various prisoning environs—Hastur to the Lake of hali in Carcosa; Chtulhu to R’lyeh beneath the Pacific Ocean; Ithaqua to dwell above the ice-wastes of the Arctic; Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Yibb-Tstll to chaotic continua outside the geometric design of which the known infinite forms but one surface; Tsathoggua to cthonian Hyperborean burrows, and similarly Shudde-M’ell to other lost labyrinths beneath the earth—so that only Nyarlathotep the Messenger was left free and unprisoned…

In a more conventional thriller—one concerned with generating suspense—Crow would deduce Shudde-M'ell’s apocalyptic purpose and struggle against all odds to thwart it. Not so here; instead, Crow’s purported role as the chief protagonist is usurped by late-arriving agents and interlopers who not only serially sit him down for parlor room explanations à la Agatha Christie but offer up the strategy and means to defeat the Cthonians. So if the style of the narrative doesn’t kill any hinted-at suspense for you, the structure of it will. The last several chapters resemble government-issued memos on the action, as if the explication of the Foundation’s strategy were the book’s climax and its implementation mere afterthought.

There are a number of other annoyances as well, most notably:

  1. A vague or otherwise confused system of magic (at one point, Crow protects himself and de Marigny with holy water but it’s never explained why a pointedly Christian artifact should have any effect on Cthulhu-like creatures);
  2. An over-reliance on coincidence to advance the plot (the director of the Wilmarth Foundation shows up unexpectedly just in time to save our heroes);
  3. Lumley’s lame interpretation of the mythos (which relies heavily on August Derleth’s justly-derided mess of good and evil elementals);
  4. The unearned proliferation of exclamation points (after the staccato manner of Stan Lee-penned comic books); and
  5. Perhaps most damning of all, owing to its implications for the rest of the series, the utter lack of personality afforded its leads. Ye milk-chocolatey gods! For all their non-stop dialoging, Crow and de Marigny have fewer dimensions than the geometric entities in Abbott’s Flatland.

I can chalk up some of the book’s failings to youth (this was, after all, Lumley’s first published novel) and its origins as a “fix up”—a book made up of short stories strung together to form a larger narrative. There’s little excuse, though, for the main protagonist’s rote characterization and steadfast inactivity. Maybe my opinion of Lumley as an addled encyclopediast was premature. Given his enthusiastic, albeit scattershot, approach to establishing his Lovecraft bona fides, maybe he’s more like an encyclopedia salesman who promises adventure and wisdom but delivers only dry summaries.

Luckily for me, I bought the complete series sight unseen in the form of Tor's three omnibus editions (each of which contains two novels) so I’ll have the pleasure of refining my initial impressions of Lumley over five more stories…