Not an author to dare wearing out his welcome in any one genre, Afterparty’s Daryl Gregory turns his attention to tentacles in Harrison Squared, a light-hearted Lovecraftian lark featuring a friendly fishboy and a ghastly artist which straddles the line between the silly and the sinister superbly.
It’s a novel named after its narrator, Harrison Harrison—to the power of five, in fact, but around his mom and his mates, just H2 will do. Whatever you want to call him—and you wouldn’t be the first to go with “weirdo”—Harrison has a paralysing fear of the sea. A hatred, even, and for good reason, because when our boy was a baby, his father—Harrison Harrison the fourth, of course—was swallowed by the waves, one dark day; a day Harrison has forgotten almost completely.
Some images, however, are so clear to me that they feel more true than my memory of yesterday’s breakfast. I can see my father’s face as he picks me up by my life vest. I can feel the wind as he tosses me up and over the next wave, toward that capsized boat. And I can see, as clearly as I can see my own arm, a huge limb that’s risen out of the water.
The arm is fat, and gray, the underside covered in pale suckers. It whips across my father’s chest, grasping him—and then it pulls him away from me. The tentacle is attached to a huge body, a shape under the water that’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.
In the lifetime since that nightmarish sight, Harrison has reasoned his strange recollections away. He knows, now, that he imagined the monster:
Yes, we were out on the ocean, and the boat did flip over, but no creature bit through my leg to the bone—it was a piece of metal from the ship that sliced into me. My mother swam me to shore, and kept me from bleeding to death. My father drowned like an ordinary man.
Little wonder, really, that Harrison isn’t keen on the sea. His marine biologist mother, on the other hand, is obsessed with it—as his father was before her—which is why she and her son have arranged to spend a couple of months in Dunnsmouth: a creepy coastal village where Harrison’s mother means to meet Mr. Mesonychoteuthis Hamiltoni.
(That’s a forty-five foot long squid “whose suckers are ringed not only by teeth but sharp, swivelling hooks,” for those of you who haven’t been practising your Latin of late.)
Harrison has been dubious about the move from day dot, not to mention his mother’s mission, and his doubts are redoubled rather dramatically when he sees the secondary school he’ll be attending for the foreseeable. The building—formerly the site of a certain temple, as we learn later—“looked like a single gigantic block of dark stone, its surface wet and streaked with veins of white salt, as if it had just risen whole from the ocean depths. The huge front doors were recessed into the stone like a wailing mouth. Above, arched windows glared down.”
To make matters worse, the locals are even less welcoming than the “out of kilter” architecture. According to Harrison’s improbably tall Practical Skills teacher, Dunnsmouth is “a small town. An old town. We do as we’ve always done,” which practice evidently extends to the cold shoulder outsiders are shown.
Harrison’s only hope is to get in and get the hell out, creating as few waves on the way as he’s able, but when his mother goes missing in circumstances suspiciously similar to those surrounding his father’s disappearance all those years ago, he swears to stay until the day he figures out what in Urgaleth’s good name is going on.
As to that, we have a better idea than he, since several chapters of Harrison Squared take place in the Scrimshander’s shack, where his mother is being held captive by an ageless artist with ties to a group of people—presumably—called the Dwellers of the Deep. Other than these occasional exceptions, however, Gregory immerses us in Harrison’s first-person perspective.
Happily, he’s a cracking central character. Given his particular situation it’s no surprise that he’s sympathetic, to wit we root for him from the first, and ever more so as the story goes. He’s also quite likeable, which really does make a difference in this instance. Witty, self-aware and dangerously daring, Harrison has a way of taking life in his stride—the highs and lows alike—which won this critic over quickly. That said, he struck me as rather too relaxed in his reaction to his mother’s apparent departure, and indeed to the aforementioned fishboy Harrison befriends in his quest to find out what happened to her.
The town his quest is set against is perfect. Simple, yes, yet effective in its directness. Dunnsmouth is immediately, unmistakably ominous, such that I hardly need note that a Lovecraft-loving cult comes with the territory. On the other hand, Harrison Squared takes place today, so there are a couple of conscientious objectors as well. These “Involuntaries” make up the majority of the supporting cast, and they’re a bunch of fun, meeting as they do in secret to conspire in a language called fingercant.
It’s when Harrison is invited into the fold that the story really gets going—not that it’s been slow before. The plot of Gregory’s novel kicks in quickly, with the mysterious abduction of our main character’s mother in the first act, and the pace rarely relents later, such that if you can restrain yourself from reading Harrison Squared in a single sitting, I’d be surprised.
Slick and smooth where it isn’t covered in squamous suckers, Harrison Squared represents a real tentacle of a time. Take a hold of it forthwith, but be warned: this one is slippery when wet.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.