The Dark Waters

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

I have been a fan of horror fiction and movies for many years. Of the two I much prefer fiction. The written word coupled with human imagination is far more capable of creating greater levels of fear and outrage than any Hollywood A-listers and CGI witchcraft and wizardry can ever hope to match. Visual media tends to fall short, and fails to shock to the same degree.

Among the legion of horror writers who’ve filled bookshelves over the years, one who has influenced my own writing and taste for the macabre more than any other has been H.P. Lovecraft. The imagination of this spindly, sickly-looking yet fiercely intelligent man spawned an entirely unique mythos. It was this mythological narrative that sparked the publication of dozens of short stories and novellas spanning the period from 1919 to the mid 1930s.

Although now branded as a bigot, racist and even a white supremacist among today’s politically-correct snowflake community, aspects of Lovecraft’s writing demonstrated a considerable level of insight. Take, for example, the opening to perhaps his most well known story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu‘:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Howard Philips Lovecraft – ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, 1928

Publication of this story in February, 1928 coincided with the first trans-Atlantic transmission of a TV image, and the first ever solo flight from England to Australia. Yet, had the author somehow managed to envisage our internet age?

Whilst it failed to put food on his table during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s incomparable brand of weird fiction and exhaustive correspondence – estimated at over 100,000 letters – hatched a succession of acolytes, such as Frank Belknap Long, August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith.

Each of these writers and many more since have adopted Lovecraft’s singular genre at some point in their writing careers and stamped it with their own writing styles.

Another writer of Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu mythos‘ tales came to my attention more recently. His name is Graham McNeill.

Having read a great deal of material by those authors already mentioned and more besides, I was delighted to discover ‘fresh’ material. But, would it match up to the work of those more seasoned writers? I decided to find out.

I approached McNeill’s ‘The Dark Waters‘ trilogy with trepidation. As I’ve already explained, I’ve long been a fan of Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos and have read a considerable number of spin-off tales by a multitude of authors. Some works could best be described as ‘pulp fiction’ – many more were downright trashy. Although I hoped to be wrong I feared McNeill’s would be more of the same.

I was wrong.

The first book in the trilogy is the provocatively-titled ‘Ghouls of the Miskatonic‘. This is the kind of book Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have written had he been a less overweening writer. For, despite creating a unique brand of horror fiction that’s stood the test of time, Lovecraft couldn’t write dialogue to save his life and was guilty of the most horrendous purple prose imaginable. However, the opening lines of this book confirmed that Graham McNeill COULD write, and write very well indeed.

This story captured perfectly the very essence of the mythos spirit. McNeill’s characters were well drawn, their dialogue flowed well, the story was well crafted with excellent pacing.

For me, the tale ranked as highly as those by August Derleth, TED Klein and other writers of Arkham Horror. Better still, although maintaining tradition through the use of a roaring-twenties setting, Mcneill’s modern writing style brought the genre into the twenty-first century, thereby capturing a new generation of avid readers.

I finished the book well-satisfied and immediately looked forward to reading number two in the series, delighted there was also a third waiting on the shelf. Cracking stuff!

After enjoying Ghouls of the Miskatonic I knew I’d appreciate 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 of the Yopasi represents over the first offering. That’s not to say that Ghouls was lacking in any way. Far from it.

In Bones of the Yopasi, Graham builds on the epic story begun in book one. He also fleshes the bones of his characters 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.

Degenerate Innsmouth

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 is excellent throughout and, 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, often despite the lateness of the hour. This foreshadowing is added-to by the clever use of setting.

The 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 will appeal to modern readers whilst sufficiently retaining 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 did not interrupt the immersive element to the tale.

By the end of Bones of the Yopasi, our characters are in a very bad place.‘ – McNeill

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 bookstore shelves than Mr McNeill. It’s 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.

Bones of the Yopasi – Graham McNeill

At no time do we get to see the tragedy unfolding behind the curtain. But through shrewd use of well-selected wording we are 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.

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

Dweller in the Deep – Graham McNeill

Well, there’s plenty of horror to be had in this final chapter of McNeill’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 – one that had been created by a man who, despite his fertile imagination, possessed an unrestrained archaic writing style having an overabundance of adjectives and glut of metaphors.

Characterisation is again well drawn and it would be worth going back to book one to see the full extent of the characters’ development. For it is clear that each one follows their own separate journey throughout 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 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 immerse the reader into the USA of the 1920s.

I wholeheartedly recommend this excellent series, not only for fans of the Cthulhu genre, but anyone who enjoys a ‘ripping yarn’.

There are sacraments of evil as well as of good about us, and we live and move to my belief in an unknown world, a place where there are caves and shadows and dwellers in twilight. It is possible that man may sometimes return of the track of evolution, and it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead.

Arthur Machen

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