April 2004

Adam Lipkin

fiction

Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas

There are plenty of ways to bias me against a book. Writing Lovecraftian fiction is a great way to start -- for every inspired Resume With Monsters that plays brilliantly with Lovecraft's settings, there have been dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of books that have simply felt like really bad fanfic (and that's included some of the more "successful" books, like Brian Lumley's Titus Crow books). It's a dangerous literary subgenre for any author to try.

Another great way to bias me is to try to emulate the style of the Beats. Unlike Lovecraft, the Beats aren't high at all on my reading list, and with the exceptions of Howl and On the Road, I've got no use for any of the literature that came from that movement.

So color me extra impressed that Nick Mamatas's latest novel, Move Under Ground, a story of Cthulhu rising in the early '60s, narrated by a fictional Jack Kerouac, works as well as it does.

Like so many Lovecraftian novels, the premise is golden: The Beats, including Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neil Cassady (with a cameo by Alan Ginsberg) discover that only they and other outsiders like them (the discontent, drug users, hobos, etc) are able to fight back against the mad Lovecraftian gods that have devastated our world. They embark on a road trip from California to New York City to attempt to stop the madness; at the same time, the madness slowly begins to consume them as well.

What's impressive is that Mamatas has taken this premise and actually pulled off a damned fine novel. His Kerouac, if anything, tells a much more coherent story than the one who gave us On the Road, while still maintaining a stream of consciousness style that's true to the character (the setting is right around the time of one of Kerouac's Big Sur era breakdowns). As an unreliable narrator in an unreliable situation, many of the items of Lovecraftian fiction that are normally crippling to the narrative (the instant access the characters have to information, the ability to perceive the insanity of the world, etc) weave seamlessly into the narrative, and the potentially irritating beat cadence ends up fuelling the feeling of insanity that Jack and his buddies are undergoing.

The characters here -- and other than the three central Beats (and Burroughs definitely takes the back stage to Cassady and Kerouac), few of the cast ever really get the focus -- develop more than one might expect, given the need to maintain some level of historical accurateness. Cassady, in particular, experiences bouts of madness that yo-yo from his being the most rational of the bunch to truly unhinged. His final steps into madness are the results of one of the most horrific moments in the novel, and the scene surrounding it (although the least "Beat" in tone), is definitely the most powerful in the book.

If there's a central weakness to Move Under Ground, it's a tendency on the part of Mamatas to get a little cutesy when it's least appropriate. The most egregious example of this is the absolutely unnecessary (and smug) inclusion of a farmer named "Mr. Love," from Providence, of course. It was about as subtle as a sledgehammer for any fans of Lovecraft (who hailed from Rhode Island, of course), and folks who don't have at least a basic appreciation of Lovecraft aren't likely to make it that far into this volume in the first place. The ending, as well, is a little too pat, and if Mamatas attempts to ameliorate this by making self-conscious references to it, it's still hard to not feel a little let down that there wasn't something more.

That said, this is still a very good book, leagues beyond the typical Lovecraftian stuff that hits the shelves every month. Horror fans looking for something different will definintely enjoy this, and fans of the Beats should find more than enough good stuff here for them, as well.

Move Under Ground by Nick Mamatas
Night Shade Books
ISBN: 1892389916