The three short story collections that make up this volume have all been published before at various times: ‘House Of Cthulhu’, ‘Tarra Khash: Hrossak!’ and ‘Sorcery In Shad’ and the present reviewer has in fact reviewed two of those collections for this very website. As such, it might be expected that this compendium of all ‘The Primal Lands’ tales would bring something new to the table but, alas, it doesn’t, unless you count the artwork by Bob Eggleton that this reviewer hasn’t seen because he was sent an uncorrected proof, not the finished book. So for good or ill, my review here will have to focus on the words!
Such a review is actually pretty straightforward to write. Of the three collections, ‘House Of Cthulhu’ is by far the weakest, lacking an engaging hero or really some sort of overarching theme that might link together the separate short stories. While there are some characters carried over from one story to the next, this is Brian Lumley figuring out his invented world.
There is, for example, the central conceit that what we’re reading are ancient manuscripts describing some aspect of this history of our own world but, at the same time, Lumley tries hard to link his invented world called Theem’hdra to HP Lovecraft’s invented timeline. There’s nothing wrong in trying to do this, of course, but it just feels a bit strained given the scale of Lumley’s writing. He’s fantastically good at writting straightforward swashbuckling heroes, the sorts of manly men who enjoy a bit of swordplay, the theft of priceless jewels from forgotten temples, comely women and, of course, a few flagons of strong ale. But such characters don’t really work so well coming up against Cthulhu as the Big Bad at the end of their quest. Lovecraft’s imagining of Cthulhu and his kin was as vast, timeless entities of an abstract, even unknowable nature, not as dragons or demons to be slain.
Things get a lot better by the time we get to ‘Tarra Khash: Hrossak!’, by which time Lumley has clearly figured out what he wants to do with the Primal Lands. The Lovecraftian aspect is basically muted into the background, where it works fine, and the Theem’hdra as an earlier incarnation of planet Earth is ignored. We have a likeable hero, Tarra Khash, a barbarian, possessing of much courage and considerable cunning, as well as a cast of secondary characters including a wizard, an elf-like humanoid who may or may not be the last of his kind, and the fascinating Lamia Orbiquita, a female character who operates on the boundary between good and evil.
‘Sorcery In Shad’ is equally good and, while the focus shifts a bit more towards the wizard Teh Atht and Orbiquita, there’s still plenty of action centred on our barbarian hero Tarra Khash to keep this collection of stories ripping along solidly from start to finish. Both ‘Tarra Khash: Hrossak’ and ‘Sorcery In Shad’ are quirky but pacy adventure stories, the sort of stuff Lumley does extremely well and anyone who enjoys fantasy fiction will enjoy them.
‘House Of Cthulhu’ is harder work but rewarding if you want to know more about the Primal Lands setting. Don’t feel at all like you’re going to miss anything if you want to skip it, though. The blizzard of unpronounceable names and relatively poorly defined characters aren’t important to the second and third ‘Primal Land’ collections.
A curate’s egg for sure and at $40, perhaps an expensive one. Even as a fan of ‘The Primal Lands, setting, it’s hard to call these stories great literature or even particularly influential within the history of fantasy or horror fiction. Lumley, of course, is an important writer – it’s hard to think of many British horror writers of the last 50 years who have been more prolific — and that makes the lack of a proper introduction to this supposed deluxe hardback edition perplexing, to say the least. For $40, I’d be expecting something, even just a few pages from Lumley himself outlining the background to these stories. Lovecraft obviously influenced him but who else? Did he ever resolve ‘The Primal Lands’ timeline vis-a-vis our own? What similarities and differences does he see between ‘The Primal Lands’ stories and characters, to be honest, and the superficially rather similar ‘Hero Of Dreams’ series of novels set in the Dreamlands? Did they influence one another as he was writing them?
Bottom line, these are mostly good stories. Can’t speak about the quality of the artwork because Subterranean Press didn’t see fit to supply any examples of it. Can’t judge the quality of the ‘deluxe’ hardback binding on the basic of the paperback proof they sent me either. Honestly, I find it hard to recommend spending $40 on ‘Tales Of The Primal Land’ without seeing the quality of the artwork and the binding first, because the stories themselves, while entertaining, aren’t so mind-blowingly good they’re a must-have for fans of the genre or even of Lumley; thus, at best, a cautious recommendation from me.
(pub: Subterranean Press, 2015. 605 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-689-2)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com