Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory (book review).

In short, ‘Harry Potter’ meets ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’ pretty much sums up both the themes of the book and its style. On the one hand, many young adult readers will take the book at face value, a coming-of-age story involving a lonely teenager who doesn’t accept the official story about the death of his mother. Instead, he slowly pulls together a small group of oddball friends and allies and step-by-step they piece together what’s actually been happening and eventually set about trying to save not only the protagonist’s mother from a fate that’s literally worse than death, but the safety and sanity of their home town, if not the world!

That, then, is the ‘Harry Potter’ side of the story, but ‘Harrison Squared’ is also an affectionate and well-written retelling of HP Lovecraft’s classic short story, ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’. That story concerned an isolated seaside town that had become embroiled with a community of evil fish-men living beneath the sea a few hundred metres offshore. Lovecraft’s story was born out of his anxiety of miscegenation: by interbreeding with the fish-men, the people of Innsmouth were losing themselves and, ultimately, ushering in an age of chaos and catastrophe.

Gregory has updated this considerably, not least of all by setting aside the racist undertones of Lovecraft’s original story by making the protagonist, Harrison Harrison, the son of an American father and Brazilian mother. He also plays down the difference between the land people and the sea people by offering up a variety of characters from both races that play roles both heroic and nefarious. One of Harrison’s closest allies, Lub, is a fish-man or fish-teen anyway, who demonstrates quite clearly that it isn’t the race of the characters that matters here, but their motives. By contrast, many of the authority figures in Dunnsmouth are up to no good, including many of the teachers and policemen our heroes interact with.

Whatever else you say about Lovecraft, atmosphere was something he nailed and Gregory has worked extremely hard to generate an Innsmouth-like level of isolation and introspection in a modern setting, something that isn’t easy to do in an age of broadband Internet and almost ubiquitous car ownership. It goes without saying that the name of the town, Dunnsmouth, alludes to the town of Innsmouth, but probably another invented Lovecraftian location as well, the decaying village of Dunwich, Massachusetts. This drab and decaying village is where Wilbur Whateley intends to summon his father, the Outer God Yog-Sothoth, which will, needless to say, usher in the end of humanity and the re-establishment of the Great Old Ones in their place. The main threat of Gregory’s story is very similar, a group of humans and various non-human monsters are working to summon an evil marine god of some sort and, after the necessary human sacrifices have been made, this god will, of course, establish a new age of horror and madness in true Lovecraftian style.

It’s the careful balancing of timeless horror with the contemporary anxieties of teenagers that makes this book work so well. Harrison is disabled, having lost part of his leg in what he tells himself and others was a boating accident. He doesn’t really believe this and eventually the truth becomes plain, and rather like Harry Potter’s scar, the damage done to his body plays a key roles in connecting him with the chief antagonist. Similarly, the sense of isolation that Lovecraft described using a sleepy little New England fishing town is portrayed here by focusing on the school, a place where newcomers, like Harrison, can find thoroughly alien and hostile. There are allies to be found there, of course, including a female lead, Lydia, whose relationship with Harrison is allowed to develop in a natural, even awkward sort of way that works beautifully. Highly recommended.

Neale Monks

October 2017

(pub: Titan Books, 2014. 369 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78329-764-1)

check out website: www.titanbooks.com

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