On Saturday at Worldcon in Montréal, while wandering through the dealer room, I noted a whole boxful of Nick Mamatas’s debut novel Move Under Ground available for the taking, so I grabbed one and read it. That same day. Granted, at 160 pages it’s not exactly War and Peace, but still, for a book that initially seemed like little more than a 60,000-word gimmick, it was unexpectedly gripping.
It helped, of course, that I’m a big fan of both the Beats and HP Lovecraft, and to be honest, if you’re not, then this may not be the book for you. But if you know your Neal Cassady from your Abdul Alhazred, then you have a treat in store: a tale told in first-person by Jack Kerouac himself, whose early 1960s attempt to drink himself to death near Big Sur is interrupted by the rising of R’lyeh just offshore, and the resultant lemming-like slaughter of all the nearby squares.
Yes, squares. It turns out that only Beats, hippies, junkies, and similarly counterculture souls wear the They Live sunglasses that allow them to see the horrors that have erupted and metastasized through all of America. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the population are morphing into and/or being devoured and replaced by gibbering things with tentacles for faces, without even noticing that Cthulhu is risen, and he and Azathoth are competing to corrupt and consume the souls and bodies of humanity. (The obvious metaphors here are thankfully left as exercises for the reader, rather than hammered home.)
The skeletal plot is mostly an excuse for Mamatas’s bravura Kerouac pastiche, and an overland journey into the savage heart of the American dream, ie California, Kansas, and Manhattan. Allen Ginsburg plays tour guide to the secret sewers of San Francisco. William Burroughs shows up, guns blazing, in Goodland, Kansas, during an episode that features (says me) one of only two genuine horror sequences in the book, alluded to but not actually shown, in which children are sealed into a school and abandoned there: an act of neglect, rather than malice, by townspeople desperate to save their own ragged shreds of humanity. Again, the metaphor is left nicely understated.
That episode aside, for 140 pages, both text and subtext of Move Under Ground are mostly a lot of fun—until the book is suddenly and unexpectedly raised into art by its stunning epilogue, which features no horrors more eldritch and bone-chilling than those of quotidian life, but which stayed with me for days thereafter.
It’s an impressive work, not least because genre crossovers are always tricky. Artistically, you want to at least note the conventions of both genres, without being so cramped by them that your work is reduced to a mere two-tone pastiche. Commercially, you want to attract the union of the two sets of fans, but all too often, you wind up only with the intersection. (See also the recent and criminally neglected horror/western movie The Burrowers.)
At least, that’s what I would want; but Mamatas is so uncompromising that I suspect he was only ever aiming at doubly hardcore fans. From the opening chapter onwards he requires his readers to be familiar with both Beat and Lovecraftian mythology, while rarely if ever throwing out an explanatory bone. Fine by me: but if you aren’t au courant with both On the Road and The Call of Cthulhu, expect to feel a little swamped by MUG.
If you can tell an Elder God from a Beat, though, do look it up. You don’t even need to visit a bookstore: it’s been released online under a Creative Commons license, which is very civilized, and makes life much easier for reviewers who left their own copy at Frite Alors! in Montréal in the hope that curious passersby might pick it up, and themselves be ambushed and indoctrinated in the ways of that which is not dead and can eternal lie.
Jon Evans is the author of several international thrillers, including Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the forthcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His novel Beasts of New York, an epic fantasy about a squirrel in Central Park, is freely available online, under a Creative Commons license.