Welcome to Shelf Care , where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: There’s Something In The Water
There’s been a last minute change for this month’s theme after realizing* that the 20th would have been Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s 127th birthday. If you’re not familiar with his work, you’ve at least most likely seen its effects. Many aspects of pop culture, from books to movies to games, owe a debt to his Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories published in Weird Tales starting in the late 1920’s. The stories describe unfortunate encounters between mere mortals and horrors from beyond time and space that dwell deep in the ocean, or in the forgotten corners of our world, just waiting to be awakened. With all that in mind, here are a few H.P. Lovecraft-inspired books, even if they’re not loaded with posthumous missives about madmen who got answers to questions they never should have asked in the first place. So:
If you like:
Stephen King’s It
The pop culture references of Chuck Klosterman and Ernest Cline
You might like:
The members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club may have started off as kids in a Saturday morning cartoon, but they’re finding themselves as adults in a Stephen King novel, with one escaping jail, one in a mental institution, and another dead by the time they decide to revisit their most famous case and reunite to make sure they really got the Sleepy Lake Monster.
“Gentlemen. I staged a haunting in an old mansion and dressed myself as a giant salamander to scare people away. I was captured by four teenagers and a Weimaraner. And I am sixty. Do you seriously believe I pose a threat to anyone?”
The board members chortled. The commissioner started putting away his papers.
Five days and nineteen hours later, he made parole.
From this month’s theme, you can be pretty sure that there’s something not-so-sleepy in Sleepy Lake, and from this book’s title, it’s clearly pulling inspiration from Scooby-Doo. It does an excellent job of smoothly dropping pop culture references and playing off the expected tropes of its source material, like why would you split up when exploring a creepy place? It reads as a cartoon for grown ups who remember what it was like to be a kid.
Or if you like:
Kids solving mysteries
Stories where the cool city kid moves to a hick backwater town
Young adult fiction with a smart protagonist
You might like:
Harrison Harrison (H2) moves to Dunnsmouth, Massachusetts, so his marine biologist mother can continue her search for a giant sea creature. Between the school being more like a dungeon, the students chanting in an alien language at mass, and a late-night encounter with a book thief who was pretty probably not human, there’s definitely some weird stuff going down.
“But everybody’s not on the same schedule, are they? There’s got to be electives.”
“We concern ourselves with the fundamentals, and only the fundamentals.”
I thought, Cryptobiology is a fundamental?
So Lovecraft fans will see “Dunnsmouth” and immediately realize that it was inspired by the novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (and if you’re not a fan, you’re welcome), but Gregory takes a different angle, telling a fresh YA story while retaining the Lovecraftian elements. For example, where Lovecraft’s protagonists are usually verbosely describing their activities (posthumously), this narrative has Harrison solving things in the present and handling his unusual circumstances rationally and analytically— a gift from his scientist mother. He’s not beyond making mistakes, and comes across as an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. The plot moves smoothly, and has a number of well-thought-out twists that make it a real page-turner. I found the ending satisfying, but be aware that not all threads are wrapped up at the end of this book as it’s apparently the first in a yet-to-be-published trilogy.
Or if you like:
British workplace comedies, like The Office or The IT Crowd
Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams
Monsters subject to government regulations
That spot on the Venn diagram where magic and technology intersect
You might like:
Agent Bob Howard is a network administrator at the Laundry: a secret British agency tasked with handling the supernatural. When a billionaire uses magic to cast himself as the unstoppable villain in a James Bond plot, Bob discovers he has to take the role of James Bond to have any chance of disrupting the evil plan of raising one of the Old Ones from the ocean floor and breaking a treaty that would result in the extinction of humanity.
“The Laundry field operations manual is notably short on advice for how to comport one’s self when being held prisoner aboard a mad billionaire necromancer’s yacht, other than the usual stern admonition to keep receipts for all expenses incurred in the line of duty.”
The Jennifer Morgue is actually the second book in Stross’ Laundry Files series**, but it stands well on its own and, given the current context, has quite a few nods to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology. The rationale of the spell making the villain invulnerable to everything except Bob was really well-thought-out and allows the plot to follow the format of a James Bond film without being a predictable copy of one. Add in the dry office humor and the ‘fish out of water’ aspects of nerdy Bob knowingly playing Bond, and the plot is one that grows around this framework, rather than being constrained by it.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be “…but I Wouldn’t Want To Live There.”***
*Changing course when having 127 years of advance notice proves that there’s no minute like the last minute.
**The first book, The Atrocity Archives, in which Bob enters the Laundry, is well worth checking out.
***and this time I mean it.