Authors of the Amorphous: Brian Lumley
Space Vampires and Existentialism in The Necroscope
Continuing our journey into the lurid and ineffable borders of fiction, this week we examine the works of Brian Lumley, a master of the “new weird form.” His Necroscope series and assorted other works are exemplars of the genre’s balancing act, blending, sci-fi, horror, and a fair amount of mystery and detective tropes together in…
A few decades and a bit ago, I was a young college student. Unfortunately for my social life, young was indeed one of the appropriate words; back in the day being below the age of 18 meant there weren’t any clubs that would let me in. At that time, “18-to-enter, 21-to-drink” clubs were still a new thing in the area I was going to school, and the only places I could go were the campus pizza shop, which closed early, and the movie theater, which cost money. I suppose there was also the arcade, but that also cost money.
A quick aside: yes, there was a thing called an arcade. You used a quarter (or two, or three, or four, depending on the greed or desperation of an owner), and played through a game until you got a “game over.” Yes, you have that at “barcades” now, but try to picture the whole thing without alcohol, bereft of maintenance, and having that ambient red lighting from an early-’80s flick.
I never was much of a social butterfly, and one of my fellow gamers introduced me to a series of books which, at the time, clocked in at nearly half a million words. By the time I moved back home, that amount had increased to well over a million, and I was picking up Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books as fast as they came out.
The Necroscope books were probably the first example of the New Weird I personally read or at least can remember. Of course, at the time I didn’t call them “New Weird”; I thought of them as an exotic blend of horror (which I don’t normally read), sci-fi, and fantasy (although paranormal would have been a better descriptor).
If you ask others about it, they’ll likely tell you that the horrors contained therein are some of the darkest and most terrifying in any genre [ 1 ]. Of course, now, looking back, I realize how firmly Necroscope and its many sequels fit squarely into New Weird.
For those of you who haven’t read them, I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers as I describe the stories of Harry Keogh and how they were one of the early examples of New Weird proper, but be aware: with any New Weird title, there are at least half a dozen points in the story where a genre-savvy reader of another genre is going to be terribly surprised by the twists and turns the story takes. Just when you think the novel is going to bring on the magic powers, super-science raises its head. When you turn a corner expecting a villain, things straight out of Lovecraftian horror slither out from under the desk. This is true of most New Weird stories, and Necroscope is no exception.
Looks are Deceiving
Each of the variations of cover art I’ve seen lean toward what you would expect on a horror novel: skulls, blood, and stylized exposed tissue predominate, with gothic lettering on most of them. Open that cover, however, and instead of horror or suspense, within the first few pages the story seems to be a well done, yet fairly typical modern fantasy about a young man with an extraordinary supernatural power. In this case, the power is fairly straightforward, although it has a few interesting wrinkles and far-ranging repercussions. Harry is a “necroscope,” a person with the ability to speak to the dead [ 2 ]. As for the “wrinkles,” there are two major ones, along with one aspect of the world which makes the repercussions even more extreme.
First, Harry has the ability to allow the dead to possess his body, granting him the skills the person had when they were alive. The aspect of the world that makes this even more powerful is that in the world of Necroscope, the dead do not stop learning once they die. Martial artists continue refining their knowledge. Artists continue creating, although those creations remain fixed firmly in their own imaginations. Mathematicians continue to develop whatever equations they worked on in life, and so on. They do so for lack of anything else to do, for until Harry arrived, they were each stuck within their own minds. Therein lies the second ability Harry possesses.
The dead who have been touched by Harry’s power as a necroscope are no longer isolated. They can communicate with one another, sharing their knowledge, communicating with loved ones, and generally regaining the ability to socialize. Before long, the dead of the world revere Harry as something of a national treasure of the undiscovered country of death; so long as he lives, they are no longer stuck in their own minds, but allowed to become a community once more.
Now, fans of fantasy will recognize Harry as an interesting spin on one of the classic fantasy tropes, whereas horror readers will be a little disappointed, since the “horror” aspect comes almost entirely from glimpses at the villain: what appears to be an honest-to-goodness Eastern European vampire working for the Russians. Even that wouldn’t, by itself, push something into horror, but both horror and modern fantasy readers could find something they could putatively latch onto to try to predict the books’ tropes and turns.
Lumley, a fan and creator of old school Lovecraftian Mythos fiction [ 3 ], laid that groundwork purposefully and masterfully; although, even as he laid the groundwork, he couched everything in terms acceptable to science fiction readers. Harry’s powers are explained as “psychic phenomena,” which is typically what science fiction labels magic it doesn’t want to look at too hard. Hints are dropped throughout the story that the power is at least partially genetic, again keeping the science fiction in the loop. Finally, when Harry meets Möbius (the mathematician), he learns how to use knowledge of mathematics to “move via the Möbius continuum,” i.e., teleport.
The One-Fingered Salute
This particular blending is where I realized this story wasn’t veering wildly between different genres, uncertain what it was; instead, it was holding up three middle fingers to its parent genres, screaming “I do what I want,” and very deliberately breaking trail down a new path not quite like any of its forebears. That was the point where I was hooked; I’d never read anything similar to the story of a guy with unusual gifts combines psychic powers and mathematics to give himself Nightcrawler-like superpowers to fight horror movie monsters. To use Lumley’s own words from the mind of one of his characters, “Robots and romantics. Super science and the supernatural. Telemetry and telepathy. Computerized probability patterns and precognition. Gadgets and ghosts!” [ 4 ]
If you can look past the gorgeous writing, unravel the twists and turns of the plot, peel back the labels and glimpse under the hood, combining genres while ignoring whatever standards he needs to in order to tell his story is exactly what Lumley is doing, and the way he does it leaves readers of all three genres blinking just a little, not sure what just happened, but almost certainly satisfied by the strange flavor combinations he has achieved. Even the horror fans, once they realize the big bad isn’t a typical vampire, but a blending of vampire, were-creature, shapeshifter, and eldritch horror from beyond, will be well satisfied by the path the story takes.
Along with all that, Necroscope definitely takes a unique look at what it means to be alive, dead, or something not quite either. The idea that the afterlife isn’t a paradise or an inferno, but is instead an endless time alone with your thoughts can be terrifying for the very same people bothered when Alanis Morisette asks “Are you petrified of silence?” followed by two seconds of dead air [ 5 ]. Lumley makes us look at who we are, and more importantly how we would cope if the realities laid forth in Necroscope were the ones that we actually had to contend with ourselves after death.
There’s another thing here that marks a stark difference between any of Lovecraft’s writings and Lumley’s work; the use of the other to surprise without lasting fear. Creatures from the Cthulhu mythos tend to be unknowable, beyond understanding, and unable to communicate meaningfully. Their motives don’t make sense to mere mortals, and their visualization is often dodged (heads you run a boat into notwithstanding). Necroscope explains its cosmology in the narrative; not completely, but in a way that takes the reader on a ride and forces them to keep up.
The unknowable is to be known, adapted to, and made use of by the protagonist. This isn’t a super-hero story, nor is it the dread terror that leads some gamers to scream “burn all the books.” It’s an element to be sure, but one that transforms the world and the central character, not ending life, but rather allowing it to continue.
Certainly, there are many places the story could have gone with this. Imagine if Harry was sitting across a long table from corpses, asking them questions as his necroscope powers took hold, attempting to discern vital details about them.
‘Let me tell you about my mortician…’
For any of you who are looking to start your voyage through the amorphous sea that is the New Weird with a dark action adventure that sits squarely in the middle of everything that makes the New Weird what it is, I can highly recommend Necroscope. It has something for fans of just about everything; fantasy readers will appreciate the adventurous feel and powers of the protagonist and antagonist, sci-fi readers will downright adore the beautifully phrased pseudoscience sourcing of those supposed fantasy powers, and even horror fans will have their fill of things that go bump, squish, and crunch when they are introduced to the Wamphyri.
So go get yourself a copy of Necroscope, say goodbye to your ability to sleep soundly at night, and I’ll see you next time as we continue to Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “As iconic as Lumley’s use of body-horror, are the Bob Eggleton covers that have graced each volume of the series since its inception.” Lumley, Brian. Necroscope. 4, Deadspeak. Tor, 2001.
- “A distant yet potent component of Lumley’s cosmos, is the long shadow cast by Cthulhu.” Tithi Luadthong. “Dark fantasy scene showing Cthulhu the giant sea monster destroying ships, digital art style, illustration painting.” Shutterstock. 6 April 2022, shutterstock.com/image-illustration/dark-fantasy-scene-showing-cthulhu-giant-2022594404
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- House, Grumpy Andrew’s Horror. “Necroscope Book Series by Brian Lumley.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 Dec. 2017, youtu.be/VU2zChXMtbE.
- Lumley, Brian and Barbara Ann Lumley. “Who/What is a Necroscope?” Brian Lumley’s World Of Necroscope, Brian Lumley, 2013, necroscope.org/whowhat. Accessed 26 Oct 2020.
- Lumley, Brian. “Cthluhu Mythos.” BrianLumley.com, Brian Lumley, Sep 2020, brianlumley.com/books/cthulhu/. Accessed 26 Oct 2020.
- Lumley, Brian. Necroscope. 10 June 2008.
- Morissette, Alanis. “All I Really Want,” YouTube, YouTube, 8 Nov. 2014, youtu.be/zdIsRewzVZ4.