The Elder Ice (A Harry Stubbs Adventures) by David Hambling (book review)

I really enjoyed this! As stories go, this was something like a mix between a ‘Call Of Cthulhu’ game and an episode of ‘Peaky Blinders’. The protagonist, apparently of a series of books, is one Harry Stubbs, ex-prize fighter, WW1 veteran, debt-collector and, at the start of the book anyway, investigator for a firm of solicitors.

With a working class background and amicable relationships with the local villains, he’s an unusual sort of character to find in a Lovecraftian setting. Able to handle himself in a fight, Stubbs is an intelligent man as well, but not in any way steeped in occult knowledge. But he’s intensely likeable and, the more of the novella that I read, the more I kept thinking about the late Brian Lumley, the prolific British horror and fantasy writer who died earlier this year. Lumley was criticised by ST Joshi, in particular, for not really creating cosmic horror in the way Lovecraft supposedly intended. Unlike Joshi, Lumley was a massively successful author who sold millions of books, which surely says something about what fiction readers, if perhaps not critics, look for when reading.

One of those things is a tightly-written, briskly-paced adventure story and this is where Hambling definitely, in my opinion, echoes Lumley at his best. ‘The Elder Ice’ moves along at a refreshing pace, not so quickly that colourful details are lacking, but quick enough to keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next. Like Lumley, Hambling uses details sparingly, throwing them into paragraphs without ostentation. ‘The Electric was no longer the only establishment on the street to boast electric lighting…’ kicks off one such paragraph. In a few words, Hambling conjures up the era, electric lighting having recently been a novelty but, now commonplace and an ambience, it’s easy to imagine a cafe with a modern sort of feel rather than the Victorian pub Stubbs had visited a few pages back.

Where Hambling scores over Lumley is in the way he references real world history alongside the Lovecraftian. Since the story opens with Stubbs following up on the death of the explorer Ernest Shackleton. For many Britons he’s one of the great heroes and, as Stubbs explains, trumps ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ as being sufficiently skilled a leader to bring his men home safe and sound despite the most terrible odds. Yet Shackleton had a less laudable side, leaving behind thousands of pounds in debts. If not quite a fraudster, he certainly seems to have mislead his creditors, though perhaps all in a good cause. Shackleton is also where readers will make connections with ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’, Lovecraft’s longest and possibly his best Science Fiction story. That story is set some years after Shackleton’s expeditions and there’s really no surprise that ‘The Elder Ice’ involves the same lost civilisation.

Following up on Shackleton’s debts, Stubbs learns that something valuable was brought back by Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole. Initially, he assumes that this was gold or at least evidence of a potential gold mine. As it turns out, he ends up between two people with a better idea of what Shackleton found. By the end of the story, I definitely wanted more. While I’m glad the story wasn’t overstretched beyond its worth, Stubbs is a compelling character and the way Hambling articulates his narration is great fun. It’s Damon Runyon-like at times with the right sort of argot for a man of his times but knowing, too, pointing the reader towards the meaning of the story.

I miss Lumley and his Lovecraftian adventure stories but if Harry Stubbs is anything to go by, Hambling is offering himself up as a most acceptable successor.

Neale Monks

July 2024

(pub: Macabre Ink, 2018. 90 page paperback. ISBN: 978-1-94602-558-6)


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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