The Dulwich Horror & Others by David Hambling (book review)

I’d only recently come across David Hambling via his entry in a collection of stories, ‘His Own Most Fantastic Creation’, featuring Lovecraft himself as a character. His addition to that collection, ‘The Basilisk’ was cleverly done, using virtual reality to make the resurrection of a long-dead writer perfectly plausible. The result was an effective and modern story that toyed with the elements of Lovecraft’s life that his fans enjoy while simultaneously critiquing those aspects that rightly disturb us.

In a sense, that’s the key problem with modern Mythos tales. If all you’re writing is a plain, simple pastiche you aren’t going to offend anyone but, at the same time, you’re unlikely to say anything new. Dig into Lovecraft’s stories to find out the fundamental themes and you’re going to come across elements of racism, sexism and elitism that are difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

What David Hambling manages to do in ‘The Dulwich Horror & Others’ is produce stories that explore the Mythos in an effective way but draw upon a new and more interesting, wellspring of anxieties than some of those Lovecraft used.

Take, for example, the second story, ‘Two Fingers’, a story perfectly suited to the world of Instagram where wealth and beauty matter above all else. After a super-yacht trader accidentally smashes the hand of his wife, he becomes aware of a technique that could regrow the missing fingers. This being a Mythos tale, we’re not talking about science here but rather than use of a dangerous entity dwelling beneath the house of a retired army officer. There’s a pretty piece of irony here when the subtle inch-by-inch cheating the protagonist thinks he’s using mirrors the slowly-but-surely efforts of the Lovecraftian monster, which makes the seeming happy ending much more unsettling. Inequality is also explored: the entity takes more than it gives. A poor Romanian women loses her arm so that the yacht trader’s wife can get her hand back, prompting us to think about the ways the characters are taking from one another, from their families, from their clients and from London itself.

Rooting most of the stories in southeast London does more than merely provide local colour. Hambling does a good job of getting under the skin of each of the different bits of the area. The first story in the collection is ‘The Dulwich Horror’, the name of course a homage to the fictitious hamlet where Lovecraft set his ‘Dunwich Horror’. Dulwich, though, isn’t a decaying scattering of cottages and farms but a salubrious and fashionable suburb of London. The protagonists are the sorts who wouldn’t be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel, bright young things, talented and urbane in different ways, rather than the middle-aged academics and inbred yokels Lovecraft used in the original tale. Each character has their own skills and unpicks the mystery from a different perspective and compared with Lovecraft’s version rooted in folklore and religion, Hambling makes connections with the scientific and philosophical innovations of the era.

Five other stories fill out the anthology. Of these, ‘The Thing In The Vault’ stands out as not being set in London, but Chicago. It’s a Prohibition-era gangster story at heart but, at the same time, develops the aliens of Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer In Darkness’. A nice nod at the biology of a type of Earth fungus, known as slime moulds, indicates how animal-like properties can be observed in organisms otherwise considered to be immobile and insensitive. As a biologist, it’s always nice to see authors using science in the right sort of way when they’re writing fiction: to hint at possibilities rather than merely provide the language necessary to describe the impossible.

By the time you finish the final story, ‘Shadows In The Witch House’, you very much feel as if Hambling has created a Lovecraftian world of shared characters and locations rooted in southeast London. One or two of stories felt a little over-long to me, but others would doubtless feel that gave the stories room to breathe. There’d be something to that for sure, as atmosphere, more than anything, is the key to a successful Mythos tale. That the stories do this while simultaneously feeling modern and even dryly ironic at times does Hambling credit. We’ve been told that there’s nothing left to do with the Cthulhu Mythos, with contemporary writers offering little more than parodies and pastiches but that’s definitely not the case here.

Neale Monks

July 2024

(pub: PS Publishing/Drugstore Indian Press. 347 page paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84863-905-8)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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