Nick Mamatas: Failed Mimic

by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)

Nick Mamatas (b. 1972) is a very peculiar writer. He has attempted to make a career out of mimicking other writers—or, more specifically, of imitating two different writers in a single work of fiction. This schema is the basis for his novels Move under Ground (2004), The Damned Highway (2011), and I Am Providence (2016). The one element that unites these three works—as well as the story collection The Nickronomicon (2014)—is Mamatas’s simultaneous imitation and parody of the work of H. P. Lovecraft, an author with whom Mamatas seems to have a kind of love-hate relationship. Other works include the novels Sensation (2011), Bullettime (2012), Love Is the Law (2013), and The Last Weekend (2014), and the story collections 3000 MPH in Every Direction at Once (2003) and You Might Sleep … (2009).

A useful place to start our analysis of Mamatas’s work is The Nickronomicon, a volume that contains works first published from 2004 to 2013, with one unpublished item. The book was published by one of the lesser small presses in the field, Innsmouth Free Press—a point emphasised by the fact that the very first paragraph of the first story contains a typographical error (one of many peppering the book), along with all manner of other problems of copyediting, design, and production. (It doesn’t help that Mamatas, although generally not descending to Brian Keene’s level of illiteracy, utilises fiendishly bad punctuational practices—a flaw found throughout the length and breadth of his work.) The very title of the book—a riff on Lovecraft’s imaginary tome, the Necronomicon—signals the author’s feeble sense of humour and, more pertinently, his sense of preening self-importance. The stories themselves are supposed elaborations of Lovecraft’s own tales or elements found in them; but nearly all of them end up being ineffectual parodies or whimsies that at best provide transient amusement without any more serious underlying intent.

Mamatas seems particularly obsessed with “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), a novella based on a fascinating science-fictional premise: an extraterrestrial species, called the Mi-Go by the few humans who have come into contact with them, have devised a means of extracting human brains, placing them in canisters, and taking them on voyages throughout the universe, so that the brains can perceive the manifold wonders of the cosmos. Mamatas returns to this concept, and other features of the story, over and over again, but it is not clear that he has done much with the idea. “Brattleboro Days, Yuggoth Nights” focuses on the Vermont setting of the novella, resurrecting Arthur Goodenough, a poet living in Vermont at the time and acquainted with Lovecraft, whose house Lovecraft in part used as the setting for his tale. Mamatas purports to print the microscopic text of a postcard that both Lovecraft and Goodenough wrote on, in which they discuss the story; but in doing so Mamatas commits numerous gaffes, such as riddling the text with split infinitives that Lovecraft would never have used, not to mention rendering incorrectly the jocular phrase (“Yog-Sothothery”) Lovecraft used to designate his pseudomythology. In the story this term comes out absurdly as “Yog-Sothory” (26). Any credit Mamatas might have received for the relative novelty of writing a pastiche of a Lovecraft letter is dissipated by his botching the job so badly.

“Real People Slash” is a staggeringly verbose and tiresome story of a man in New York City who gets hit on the head in a riot involving anarchists and thereby believes he is getting mental messages from the Mi-Go; he later comes to realise that everyone’s minds, except his own, have been taken over by the Mi-Go. “Hideous Interview with Brief Man” is a ponderous and meandering monologue by a disembodied brain in one of the Mi-Go’s canisters, peppered with windy and pompous footnotes.

The one story in The Nickronomicon that exhibits some seriousness of purpose is “Dead Media.” Here, Lenore Reichl, a junior at Miskatonic University, has found the original wax cylinder on which (as described in “The Whisperer in Darkness”) the Vermont resident Henry Wentworth Akeley recorded an apparent gathering of the Mi-Go in the woods near his home. As she and a fellow student, Walt McDonald, play the cylinder on a Dictaphone, they seem to find a previously unidentified voice in the background. They make a trip to Vermont, where they are killed by a disembodied mind. This story features an authentic sense of the cosmic and is one of the few relative successes in the entirety of Mamatas’s work.

Little else in The Nickronomicon is of any interest even to the most rabid devotee of Lovecraftian “fan” fiction. “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” (written with Tim Pratt) tells of a mixed-race young man (part African American) named Jim Payne whose great-grandfather, Cavanaugh Payne, corresponded with Lovecraft. Once again, Mamatas attempts to write imitations of Lovecraft’s letters, and once again he stumbles badly, writing “Klark Ash-Ton” (42) when he should have written “Klarkash-Ton,” and writing the ungrammatical phrase “brought to bare [i.e., bear]” (44), among other errors. The premise of the story is mind or personality exchange, utilised by Lovecraft in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and other stories. Here, a rabid Lovecraft collector named Fremgen hopes to go back in time and enter the body of Lovecraft himself—and thereby write some of his greatest tales—by a series of mind exchanges. As the story plods to its conclusion, no reader is likely to be surprised that Fremgen fails in his undertaking.

“Wuji” is the story of a Chinese-American student at Berkeley in 1967, Roger Wu, who comes upon a microfilm (!) of the Necronomicon, which Mamatas renders into English as Book of the Names of the Dead (73), a wildly erroneous translation, as Lovecraft scholarship established decades ago. The tale is otherwise full of shoot-’em-up scenes, the murder of Wu by a fellow student who uses a “seven-dimensional blade” (83), whatever that may be, and other implausibilities—all told in a flat, mundane prose that makes the over-the-top action utterly unbelievable.

Things don’t get much better with “Mainevermontnewhampshiremass,” a pointless and flippant story about horror writers who gather at a place called Rover’s Corner, somewhere in New England, for a supposed showdown with an evil entity, with predictably cataclysmic results. “And Other Horrors” (written with Don Webb) is a tissue of Lovecraft borrowings, among them Edward Pickman Derby’s poetry book Azathoth and Other Horrors (from “The Thing on the Doorstep”), and the rugose cones of “The Shadow out of Time,” who practise mind exchange over time. Here the protagonist, one Bob Sturges, finds himself in the body of a member of the Great Race, in the company of another such individual, Nevil Kingston-Brown: that name is also borrowed from “The Shadow out of Time,” although curiously Mamatas later spells the first name as Neville. These tiresome and unimaginative borrowings do not help a story that concludes with a bafflingly inconclusive ending.

Mamatas appears to be fascinated with the idea of the eventual emergence of Cthulhu and his city, R’lyeh, from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, as prophesied in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” “That Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” is an unfocused tale wherein three young people talk about love while chaos—a result of Cthulhu’s rising—reigns all about them. Shoggoths (the protoplasmic entities from At the Mountains of Madness) are also prevalent. The tale seeks to be a fusion of the cosmic and the poignant, but fails to come off as either. “Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nyarlathotep” is an incoherent horror/science fiction tale in which the Old Ones (Lovecraft’s standard designation for his pantheon of “gods”) have somehow been destroyed (along with the Earth) and creatures called New Ones have taken over.

We need pay little attention to the novella that concludes The Nikronomicon, “On the Occasion of My Retirement.” This tale purports to be a lecture given by Dr. Gordon Ewing, an African American professor of semiotics who is retiring from Miskatonic after twenty years of employment there. This long-winded narrative tells of a love triangle featuring Ewing, Professor Diamond (in the anthropology department), and a graduate student, Emma, who has been sleeping with both men. A black statuette is also involved, and somehow or other Ewing is turned into an ant-man crawling on the statuette. The story bogs itself down atrociously by tiresome parodies of academic lit crit lingo—a futile undertaking, since the lingo parodies itself so readily.

Mamatas’s first novel, Move under Ground (2004), has been labelled a “cult classic” by its devotees, even though I purchased my own copy at a very low price as a discard from a public library. Here the author claims to present the novelty of seeing Lovecraftian events (specifically, the rising of Cthulhu) through the lens of a very different sort of writer, Jack Kerouac, the first-person narrator. (Mamatas had already put these two writers on stage in an early story, “Jitterbuggin’,” which purports to be a letter from Lovecraft to Kerouac.) The idea is that Cthulhu, having emerged from the waves and caused all manner of depredations (in part through his ability to influence the thoughts of his followers and others), must be combated in some fashion by the “dharma bums” (29), including Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and other members of Kerouac’s circle. Kerouac himself seeks to travel—along with Cassady and “Bill Burroughs” (90)—from his cabin at Big Sur in California to New York City, because “the cult was strongest there” (102), and somehow combat Cthulhu.

As a premise for a novel, this does not sound at all prepossessing—and it isn’t, at least in Mamatas’s handling of it. What we in fact encounter in this meandering and directionless novel is a superficial imitation/parody of Kerouac’s On the Road with scattered Lovecraftian allusions and incidents. There is little point in examining the details of the book’s plot, which features such things as Kerouac and Cassady shooting some individuals in Utah (they are “either cultists or Mormons” [68]), then being on the verge of being executed in Kansas, only to be saved by a gun-toting William S. Burroughs, and Cassady marrying a woman who proves to be a shoggoth (the marriage dissolves in three days, as does the shoggoth). All this might be mildly amusing if there were any coherence or dramatic tensity to the overall plot; but there isn’t. Evidently we are to envision a cosmic battle between Cthulhu and Azathoth (the “nuclear chaos” of Lovecraft’s tales), although exactly how such a battle could proceed is never clarified. Burroughs tells Kerouac at one point: “Neal’s not on our side, he’s on his [Azathoth’s?] side. Against the Dreamer, but not against the starry wisdom Azathoth teased him with” (114). If anyone can make any sense of that sentence, he is doing better than I.

When our protagonists finally reach New York, it appears that “the dark tentacles of great Cthulhu” (149) are there, although how the entity could have crossed the continent is unclear. Cassady at one point turns into a shoggoth—or, perhaps, a shoggoth has fashioned himself into Cassady. There are also creatures running around known as “beetlemen” (163) whose identity and function are never elucidated; but Cassady (or maybe the shoggoth masquerading as him) turns himself into one of these creatures—and is conveniently dispatched by bug spray being wielded by Burroughs. At this point, the universe seems to be falling apart; but Kerouac comes to the rescue by refashioning it through mental energy, or something like that.

It becomes apparent that what Mamatas hopes to achieve in Move under Ground is simply a series of clever or humorous tableaux involving the historical figures he has resurrected (which also include brief cameos by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others) without any attempt at coherence or logical progression. Perhaps Mamatas believes this lack of focus constitutes a genuine pastiche of On the Road; I shall leave it to Kerouac scholars more learned than myself to verify such a claim. All I can say is that large stretches of the book are so mind-numbingly wearying that it takes an heroic effort to continue reading. Kerouac’s frank comment at a late stage of the proceedings—“I didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing” (131)—unwittingly encapsulates the novel’s deficiencies.

It is unclear whether Sensation (2011) should be considered a work of weird fiction, but it is at least one novel in which Mamatas does not attempt to mimic some other author’s voice. That is perhaps a mixed virtue, for his own voice is laced with tedium and self-indulgence. The plot of this book, if it has a plot, focuses around a certain kind of spider that has apparently controlled the progress of the human race from the beginning; but the spiders are in a struggle with a kind of wasp that is their predator. Among the human characters in the novel, we are evidently to take some interest in one Julia Hernandez, who has divorced her husband, Raymond, for no reason, and then engages in all manner of not terribly rational actions, including writing “I JUST WANT YOUR HALF” on the side of a stadium under construction in Brooklyn and commandeering a bus in an attempt to kill Raymond and his lover, Liz; oh, yes, and she orders hackers to destroy the Internet, although what purpose this action serves remains opaque.

At one point Mamatas introduces the concept of the Simulacrum:

The Simulacrum is not just a precise copy of the world, it is overlaid on your world, like the other half of a chessboard a particular pawn may never cross.…The Simulacrum is a web of tendencies and notions, the bakery down the block from the one you go to for our bagel. The Simulacrum is the subway stop you watch blur by as you always seem to be on an express train and it’s a local stop. The part of town where the fire hydrants are yellow rather than brick red. (56)

And so on and so forth. All very interesting—but what is the point of this other realm? The spiders lodge Julia into it for a time, for no discernible purpose. At the end of the novel, Julia gets back together with Raymond, only to abandon him again after a short time.

I suppose Sensation is what passes today as postmodern fiction, but its only purpose appears to be a demonstration of the author’s cleverness—a purpose that does not succeed quite as well as Mamatas fondly hoped.

The Damned Highway was written in conjunction with Brian Keene, although the extent of Keene’s involvement is unclear. The book bears striking resemblances to Move under Ground, so in my judgment it would seem that most of the writing is by Mamatas. Here the schtick is a fusion of the work of Lovecraft and that of Hunter S. Thompson, specifically Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), a cynical account of the campaign for president between the incumbent, Richard M. Nixon, and his Democratic challenger, George McGovern. Thompson himself is, like Kerouac in Move under Ground, the first-person narrator; and as in that earlier volume, we are treated to Thompson’s progress from his residence in Woody Creek, Colorado, to Arkham, Massachusetts, all narrated in a weak imitation of Thompson’s “Gonzo” idiom and with haphazard Lovecraftian references along the way (e.g., “get in touch with some starry wisdom” [21]). In the course of his voyage, Thompson receives some mushrooms (fungi)—from Yuggoth, of course. He meets strange individuals at various stages, including a vagrant in a bus station whose valise has tentacles coming out of it (the vagrant says it is a shoggoth), and a truck driver named Smitty who apparently hails from Innsmouth (“Which candidate will earn the Innsmouth vote?” [136], Thompson wonders).

The supposed premise of the plot is Nixon’s quest to win the electoral votes in all fifty states; in some inexplicable manner, this will allow him to usher in the reign of Cthulhu. (Thompson had already told us at the outset, “This is the age of R’lyeh” [12].) How exactly this is to occur is never clarified, but Thompson’s lawyer (identified in the book only as Oscar—i.e., Oscar Zeta Acosta, a well-known activist and attorney who worked occasionally with Thompson) is emphatic on the point: “Once Nixon wins all fifty states, the game is over. He can give the whole fucking world to Cthulhu” (152).

Aside from the ludicrous implausibility of the premise, the overriding problem with this idea should be obvious to everyone: any well-educated reader will know that Nixon did not win all fifty states, but that McGovern managed to win the state of Massachusetts in the Electoral College. As a result, whatever suspense the novel might have is dissipated at the outset.

And yet, Mamatas does introduce one clever element: the presence of the formidable J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972). Taking note of Hoover’s long career in government (he joined the Justice Department in 1917 and became director of the Bureau of Investigation—the predecessor to the F.B.I.—in 1924), Mamatas ingeniously postulates that it was on Hoover’s orders that the government raid on Innsmouth occurred in 1927. This makes Hoover an antagonist of Nixon by virtue of his opposition to the Deep Ones and the Cthulhu cult that is allied to them. Accordingly, Thompson, after spending some time in Arkham, where he is chained up by some burly students under the direction of Professor Madison Haringa of Miskatonic (“I hear a whisper in the darkness and rats in the walls” [104], Thompson reflects—a formulation that Mamatas no doubt struggled for days to devise), gathers some cohorts and heads to Washington, D.C., to meet Hoover. Hoover wants Thompson’s help in foiling Nixon’s plans, doing so by a somewhat convoluted method: using one of the Mi-Go’s brain canisters, he will switch brains with Thompson, go to Nixon for an interview, and then switch brains with Nixon; he will then kill his own body (with Nixon’s brain in it) and “will make sure that I, as Nixon, only win forty-nine states, rather than the fifty they need” (180). (There is in fact a question as to whether this kind of brain-switching can even occur, if the premises of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” are applied. Mamatas seems to be fusing the brain-canister idea with the mind-exchange idea in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow out of Time.”)

The plan, however, goes awry. Hoover dies in attempting to switch brains with Thompson (Mamatas is well aware that Hoover in reality died on May 2, 1972). Thompson now pretends to have Hoover’s brain in his own body. He is taken to see Nixon and asks him why Nixon wants to raise Cthulhu. Nixon startles him by saying, “Cthulhu’s been reigning. There is no age of triumph to come, this is as good as it gets!” (196). Thompson nonetheless forges ahead, trying to switch brains with Nixon; but he evidently finds the contents of Nixon’s mind so unappealing that the process does not work.

In an epilogue written in 2005 (Thompson himself died on February 20, 2005), Thompson reflects gloomily that the prophecies the truck driver Smitty had once told him (about 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and other events) have all come true, and that must mean that “the age of R’lyeh” (203) must either be already upon us or is imminent. He plans to dispatch himself before that happens.

Aside from the involvement of J. Edgar Hoover, The Damned Highway is another confused and not terribly imaginative venture into double pastiche—Lovecraftian conceptions expressed in Thompson’s Gonzo style. But Mamatas (or Keene, or whoever wrote the bulk of the book) simply can’t pull off either element effectively. The action is seemingly improvised and haphazard, the various characters are either stereotypes or overly broad caricatures, and the novel actually peters out at the end, lacking any kind of impressive or cataclysmic denouement. The melding of what purports to be political satire with Lovecraftian cosmic horror never comes off even as humour or parody, and the hapless reader is left to wonder, as one incoherent incident leads to another, what the point of it all is.

And now we come to I Am Providence. This is Mamatas’s most extensive send-up of Lovecraft (and Lovecraftians), using the framework of a Lovecraft convention (here called the Summer Tentacular, a play on the recent NecronomiCon conventions taking place in Providence, R.I.) and a pair of murders that occur there. It would be a profitless exercise to specify the true identities of the various characters Mamatas puts on stage (I myself appear in female guise as the Lovecraft scholar and editor Bhanushali [no other name provided]); anyone knowledgeable in the main figures of the Lovecraft community could make the identifications with little effort. It is here that Mamatas expresses his unrestrained detestation of Lovecraft for the racism that the author exhibited in some of his private correspondence and in a few of his stories and poems; as the first-person narrator, Panos Panossian, states at the outset, the convention deals with the “pulp-writer, racist, and weirdo Howard Phillips Lovecraft” (1). Panossian himself—who states that he is the author of The Catcher in the R’lyeh, “a literary mash-up of the sort that was popular some years ago” (1), is an obvious stand-in for Mamatas.

The striking thing about this book is how many things the author gets wrong about Lovecraft. For someone so obsessed with this writer (who, after all, wrote a fairly limited body of work, aside from his voluminous correspondence), Mamatas cannot seem to trouble himself to get the details right. He repeatedly refers to “Elder Gods” (4, 16) in Lovecraft’s fiction, by which he apparently means the pantheon of “gods” including Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, and others. But Mamatas will look in vain for that term in Lovecraft’s stories. In fact, as he should have known, the Elder Gods were fabricated by Lovecraft’s self-styled disciple and publisher, August Derleth, as a set of countervailing “good” gods who have imprisoned the “evil” Old Ones (Lovecraft’s term of choice for his pantheon) in various remote corners of the earth or the universe. This disfigurement of Lovecraft’s bleak atheistic vision has been exposed by Lovecraft scholars since the early 1970s, but Mamatas is unrepentant in using this discredited term. (He used it in Move under Ground also: “I need a book, a bestseller, an On the Road for the Age Of The Elder Gods” [172].)

There are other silly errors in the book. Lovecraft’s celebrated story “The Outsider” is said to be “from 1926” (22), when in fact it was written in 1921 and first published in Weird Tales in 1926. One scene features Bhanushali and others venturing out of the convention hotel to attempt to find the grave of Lovecraft’s pet cat, Nigger-Man. As Bhanushali observes: “I myself am an expert on Lovecraft’s correspondence. . . . A few of them mention his cat, and these few . . . hint at where Lovecraft buried the cat” (114). She cannot be a very good expert, because Lovecraft states repeatedly in letters that his cat did not die (or, rather, that he did not witness the cat’s death), but instead ran away in 1904 after Lovecraft’s family had to move out of his cherished birthplace to a smaller house down the street. At one point Panossian expresses nostalgia for the time when “a story in a pulp magazine paid five cents a word, and Manhattan landlords were charging twenty-five bucks a month to rent an apartment” (186). But Lovecraft states repeatedly that he received at best one and a half cents a word (and usually less) from Weird Tales, and much less from other pulp magazines, such as Amazing Stories; and he also states that during his time living alone in Brooklyn (1925–26), he paid $40 a month (later marginally increased to $10 a week) for a tiny one-bedroom apartment.

But these are the least of Mamatas’s derelictions. So blinded is he with loathing for Lovecraft as a writer and as a person that he states that Lovecraft “was crippled by neuroses so huge that he had no choice but to become a genius at what he did” (21)—a backhanded compliment if ever there was one, especially since Mamatas never specifies what these huge neuroses were. He states that the story “He” (1925), set in New York, is “one of Lovecraft’s worst and most racist stories” (53), when in fact it is plainly anti-racist: the reader is expected to derive satisfaction from the fact that the spirits of Native Americans rise up and kill the English squire who had poisoned them in the eighteenth century and taken over their land. Finally, Mamatas heaps scorn on Lovecraft’s “right-wing bullshit” (230), when it is widely known that in the last decade of his life he converted to moderate socialism, strongly advocating for FDR’s New Deal and pungently lambasting the reactionary Republicans of his day—stances that would put him slightly to the left of many of the liberal commentators today who so disdain the dreamer from Providence.

As I say, Mamatas knows—or should know—better. He reveals clear familiarity with my own biography of Lovecraft, first published as H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996) and later expanded as I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2010). But it is apparently more satisfying to him to kick Lovecraft posthumously in the pants regardless of the inaccuracies inherent in his attacks. And given the fact that, in his own social media posts, Mamatas has himself clearly expressed an inclination for ethnic stereotyping, one cannot but wonder whether his fury over Lovecraft’s racism is some kind of Freudian projection.

Mamatas’s treatment of the Lovecraftian community—scholars, fiction writers, fans, editors, and others—is no less prejudicial: his portrayals of the various figures at the Summer Tentacular range from affectionate parodies to faintly malicious caricatures, and early in the text Panossian notes that “Lovecraftians in particular are a bunch of misfits and social defectives” (21). And Mamatas’s handling of the surface plot of the novel—the murder of both Panossian and another conventiongoer, one Charles Cudmore—is so clumsy and confused that it fails to serve as an adequate foundation for whatever point the book is trying to make. Although the chapters are narrated largely in the third person (and from the point of view of Colleen Danzig [a stand-in for the minor Lovecraftian writer Molly Tanzer]), some chapters are narrated in the first person by Panossian, both before and after his death (one chapter is narrated by the deceased Cudmore). This alteration of narrative voice might have allowed for interestingly varied perspectives on the action; but as far as the mystery element is concerned, we are simply treated to a contrived attempt—right out of Agatha Christie and the cosy mystery—to cast suspicion on as wide an array of characters as possible (as Danzig reflects at one point: “There are so many possible suspects” [178]). Mamatas cannot even trouble himself to provide any kind of detail or specificity as to the actual manner of Panossian’s or Cudmore’s deaths, except that the killer of the former cut off his face for an unknown reason. In the end the murders prove to be the work of a policeman, Antony Amato, who was a frustrated Lovecraftian pastichist in years past. But by this point, the reader has ceased to care about this revelation, because it is so apparent that Mamatas himself doesn’t care, and has fashioned the overall scenario only as a way of poking fun at the Lovecraftian community.

There is very little of substance—either in plot or in wit or in the analysis of the “fan” or “cult” mentality—in I Am Providence. At the outset we are told that a “major theme of [Lovecraft’s] work is that of the outsider as the secret insider” (3). Evidently this is the secret of his appeal to his legions of fans:

The bookish little nerd, often with aesthetic inclinations if not exactly artistic talent, figures out what is really going on. Ancient languages are deciphered, inexplicable phenomena examined, myths so obscure they can only be discussed in terms older than mankind are discovered to be the literal history of the universe. And the texts themselves provide all sorts of insider jargon and references for the initiated. And like all initiatory regimes, there are levels of enlightenment, ever more complex signs and tokens, layers of occult truth. It’s easy to where L. Ron Hubbard got his inspiration for the Church of Scientology from. (23)

(In fact, there is no evidence that Hubbard was in any way influenced by Lovecraft in his creation of Scientology.) But if this is all there is to Lovecraft—racism and appeal to nerds—it is difficult to see how he has achieved the worldwide and universal popular and critical acclaim that he has.

Nick Mamatas is a fundamentally frivolous and ineffectual writer. He has nothing to say, no message to convey. He may fancy that he is working as a satirist; but anyone who has any knowledge of the satirical tradition in the West, from Aristophanes to Gore Vidal, will readily recognise that he falls far short of genuine satire and descends instead to the level of smirking sarcasm, mechanical parody, and yuk-yuk humour and in-jokes. He cannot draw character because he is fundamentally uninterested in human beings except as the butts of a cheap jest.

But the overriding problem with Mamatas’s work is that it is simply . . . boring. It would be difficult to find in the writings of another purportedly professional writer a greater absence of narrative drive, a greater inability to fashion vivid and distinctive characters, and a more pitiable instance of imaginative poverty. It might be a minimally interesting, from a psychological perspective, to investigate why Mamatas is so obsessed with a writer (H. P. Lovecraft) whom he appears to despise; at a minimum, a more notable instance of biting the hand that feeds you would be hard to come by, since it is only Lovecraft’s immense popular and critical success over the past several decades that has allowed Mamatas to have a literary career at all, such as it is. And the only effect of his pastiches of Lovecraft, Kerouac, Thompson, and other writers is to renew our admiration for these genuinely innovative literary figures and to laugh derisively at Mamatas’s wooden and lifeless mimicry.

Amusingly enough, Lovecraft himself has presented a nearly perfect characterisation of Mamatas’s few strengths and many failures as a writer in his description of the work of his friend Frank Belknap Long: “He knows how to make words & images fairly radiate music, pictorial value, & associative intensity—his only trouble being a sheltered & quasi-infantile remoteness from life which cuts down his natural fund of things to write about & makes him fall back on aesthetic theories, mannerisms, ‘smartness,’ & a sort of professional ‘rebel’ pose in consonance with his cut & dried abstract views on art & life” (letter to Wilfred B. Talman, [12 February 1931]). To this encapsulation, very little need be added. The “smartness” Lovecraft refers to manifests itself in Mamatas’s work as a kind of languid affectation of hipster sophistication—a pose that he adopts with such wearying monotony that all his novels and tales pretty much sound the same, regardless of what author he happens to be imitating at the moment. And the flippancy of his writing, from beginning to end, renders it inconsequential as an aesthetic utterance. If the author himself regards his work with such an evident lack of seriousness, there is no reason why anyone else should think otherwise.

Works Cited