Pastiches of Pastiches

BRIAN M. SAMMONS AND GLYNN OWEN BARRASS, ed. The Children of Gla’aki: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell’s Great Old One. Portland, OR: Dark Regions Press, 2017. 292 pp. $150.00 signed/limited hc, $20.00 tpb.

On the face of it, the prospect of an entire volume of stories that imitate the Lovecraftian imitations of a British teenager would not be very appealing. Are there really people out there who want to read pastiches of pastiches? Apparently there are, but even those who think there is some merit or enjoyment in such writing are bound to be disappointed by the farrago of uninspired conceptions and sheer bad writing that pollutes this volume from beginning to end.

The most interesting thing about this book is its subtitle. What it purports to be is a tribute, not to Campbell himself, but specifically to his imaginary god Gla’aki (formerly known as Glaaki—Campbell has made a point of adding the glottal stop in his recent work). It is of course hopeless for any contemporary writers—excepting, perhaps, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti, and Jonathan Thomas—to write stories modelled upon the revolutionary work that Campbell began writing after he left behind the adolescent Lovecraftian tales entombed in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (Arkham House, 1964). It is this work—beginning with Demons by Daylight (1973) and continuing on through dozens of other novels, novellas, and short story collections—that has given Campbell an unassailable place in contemporary weird fiction. As such, The Children of Gla’aki stands in stark contrast to Scott David Aniolowski’s Made in Goatswood: A Celebration of Ramsey Campbell (Chaosium, 1995). It cannot be said that that latter volume focused much beyond Campbell’s Lovecraftian tales, but it had a much more impressive lineup of contributors (among them A. A. Attanasio, Richard A. Lupoff, Peter Cannon, and several other notables) than Children of Gla’aki and, accordingly, a substantially higher level of quality.

What this book offers is a rather monotonous emphasis on the god Gla’aki, trapped in a lake in Brichester (he had come down on a meteor that had landed there, creating the lake), or appearances of Gla’aki in other bodies of water around the world. Campbell’s own story “The Inhabitant of the Lake” leads off the volume—an unfortunate choice in itself, because this weak imitation of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” is by no means the best of the Inhabitant tales, or even the best of the Lovecraftian tales that Campbell had written around that time.[1]

Some authors make exactly the same mistake that Campbell did in writing his own Lovecraftian pastiches. Just as Campbell wrote several tales set in the New England of the 1920s—a realm he knew little about—so do some of the writers in Gla’aki set their stories in a British milieu, or in the 1920s, or both. Nick Mamatas’s lackluster “Country Mouse, City Mouse” tells of a pair of twins from Cyprus, one of whom goes to the Severn Valley and finds himself in the “city of Gla’aki.” The story does little more than showcase the author’s superficial knowledge (easily acquired via the Internet) of contemporary British culture and lingo. Josh Reynolds’s “Squatters [sic] Rights” is set in 1921 and introduces us to Charles St. Cyprian, who it transpires holds the post of Royal Occultist—a position originating with John Dee from Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. When a corpse horribly afflicted with the “green decay” (a detail cited in Campbell’s “Inhabitant of the Lake”) is found in the flat of one Philip Wendy-Smythe, who has purchased the series of houses at Lakewood Terrace near where Gla’aki resides, St. Cyprian seeks to return the deed of purchase to the real estate agent who sold the property to Wendy-Smythe. Aside from being so remarkably ahead of his time as to refer to one character as “Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian has to battle an army of reanimated corpses who besiege him on all sides. One can charitably assume this story was meant as a parody.

Robert M. Price (“In Search of Lake Monsters”), never one to say no to writing sterile imitations, introduces us to one Langdon Rivenbark, a professor at Brichester University who grudgingly participates in a documentary film about sightings of Gla’aki in the lake. Predictably, the divers who plunge into the lake send back footage of strange sea creatures and other odd phenomena. But Price undercuts his own story by ludicrously describing Gla’aki as “a kind of glistening rubbery potato.”

A television show, Haunted: Dead or Alive, is the focus of Tim Curran’s “Night of the Hopfrog.” Here we are again taken to Lakeside [sic] Terrace in Brichester, where two teams of ghost-hunters explore one of the houses near the shore and again encounter peculiar and horrible creatures. Curran indulges in an orgy of all-capitals in a bootless attempt to convey a sense of oh-my-god horror to the reader.

William Meikle is very clearly an author with nothing of his own to say, as he has attempted to make a career by writing pastiches of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories—which themselves were spinoffs of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories. Whereas Blackwood’s tales show considerable depth of conception and vividness of imagery, Hodgson’s show very little; and Meikle’s show even less. In “The Lakeside Cottages” Meikle actually has Carnacki battle Gla’aki, using the same kind of occultist mumbo-jumbo (the “Saamaaa Ritual” and so forth) that makes Hodgson’s Carnacki stories so preposterous. After reading this story, I am deeply perplexed at the very reason for Meikle’s existence as a writer.

Another individual whose permanent retirement from the realm of authorship can only be a benefit to the human race is Edward Morris. In “I Want to Break Free” Morris begins with a ham-fisted pastiche of Lovecraft’s “The Colour out of Space,” then proceeds to a moony treatment of a man in Brichester who falls under the sway of Gla’aki. This volume reaches its nadir with Pete Rawlik’s “The Collection of Gibson Flynn,” in which a rabid book collector in Florida will do just about anything to gain possession of a volume of The Revelations of Gla’aki once owned by Errol Undercliffe (a character in some of Campbell’s Demons by Daylight stories). Let it pass that Rawlik gets a number of details wrong about the rare books he is discussing: we are introduced to Azathoth and Others by Edward Pickman Derby (Lovecraft, in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” refers to the book as Azathoth and Other Horrors); and when he cites Zorad Ethan Hoag’s Dreams from R’lyeh, Rawlik seems entirely unaware that this was an actual book of poetry by Lin Carter published by Arkham House in 1975. But these blemishes are only the tip of the iceberg of Rawlik’s derelictions, for the tale quickly descends to an orgy of pornographic sadism and scatalogy that serves no aesthetic purpose.

In Scott R. Jones’s story “The Spike,” a character ridiculously named Domitian Hark begins work for a company whose CEO is Aldo Tusk—an obvious riff on Elon Musk, although it is unclear whether the resemblances between the real and the fictional character extend to much beyond the name. In any event, it turns out that Tusk’s remarkable discoveries (including, incidentally, a cure for cancer) were the result of material derived from the spikes that Gla’aki habitually sports on his person. The plot of Jones’s story is of some minimal interest, but it is spoiled by a prose style that fluctuates wildly from the slipshod to the ponderous. For you see, Jones is very fond of sentence fragments. Very dramatic. Something like this. Get the picture?

In Lee Clarke Zumpe’s “Beneath Cayuga’s Churning Waves” we are interested to learn that Gla’aki is now in one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, as a determined investigative reporter, Tisha Hewitt, learns to her peril. Orrin Grey’s “Invaders of Gla’aki” tells of a video game based on Gla’aki to which one teenage boy becomes addicted. This tale has some poignancy and terror, but it needs further development. Tom Lynch’s “Scion of Chaahk” finds Gla’aki near the ruins of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán; how he ever got there is a mystery. Thana Niveau’s “The Dawning of His Dreams” is an effective but not entirely coherent prose-poem about Gla’aki and some unspecified “aliens” whom he has subjugated. And I scarcely know what to make of Kostantine Paradias’s “Cult of Panacea,” a perfectly incomprehensible horror/science fiction tale about Gla’aki.

Only a few stories in this book have any merits at all. W. H. Pugmire (“The Secret Painting of Thomas Cartwright”) can always be relied on to provide his patented conglomeration of exquisite prose-poetry, profound Lovecraftian (and, in this case, Campbellian) sensitivity, and delicacy of character portrayal. Here Gla’aki—or, rather, an “aspect of its eidolon”—is found in Sesqua Valley, Pugmire’s evocative Pacific Northwest parallel to Lovecraft’s haunted New England and Campbell’s mysterious Severn Valley.

John Goodrich’s “Tribute Band” speaks of the baleful results that follow when the member of a band, Murderous Dwarfs—a “tribute band” to the Goatswood Gnomes of decades past—comes upon the ninth volume of The Revelations of Gla’aki and becomes obsessed with it. It appears that the leader of the Goatswood Gnomes, Brian Brady, has been trapped in a “plane of sound”—an ingenious reference to Campbell’s early and innovative story “The Plain of Sound,” one of several tales in The Inhabitant of the Lake that showed traces of the originality and dynamism that he would soon be displaying in his later work. I will excuse the fact that Goodrich has written “You broached [he means ‘breached’] the walls of sound, and now Gla’aki is free.”

Tim Waggoner’s “Nature of Water” is the affecting tale of a man, Mark, who as a twelve-year-old boy had taken up with a slightly younger boy, Dustin, at Lake Clearshore (in an unspecified area of the United States). Irritated at Dustin’s smart-aleck ways, Mark had dumped Dustin into the lake, whereupon he had disappeared. From that point on, Mark’s life is marred by alcoholism, failed relationships, and a general sense of futility. Now, at age forty-two, Mark encounters Dustin’s ghost—who, in a plangent parody of an Alcoholics Anonymous slogan, urges Mark to seek “the help of a higher power.” This tale shows how weird fiction can be used to convey profound emotions and shed light on human frailties. John Langan’s “Mirror Fishing” begins as a light-hearted fantasy wherein nineteen-year-old Lisa, babysitting her teenage cousin Patrick, leads him bodily through a mirror to encounter what in old Scots legend is called Auld Glaikit. But the tale quickly takes a darker turn, leading to grisly death and horror.

Aside from these few stories, The Children of Gla’aki is a hopeless mess. And the saddest piece in the book is Campbell’s own afterword, where he is forced to say polite things about the wretched stories that were ostensibly designed as a tribute to him but prove to be unwitting parodies of his early writing. As I have suggested, this volume was misguided in its very conception, and the resulting array of mediocrity—occasionally descending to actively offensive dreadfulness—was only to be expected.

[1] See the augmented edition, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing, 2011), which contains other Lovecraftian stories not included in the original Inhabitant volume.