Whenever I’ve come across a Brian Lumley short story, in one of Stephen Jones’s annual compilations or elsewhere, I’ve been hugely impressed. It’s fair to say that Lumley writes Lovecraftian better than Lovecraft does, as he gets to the eldritch horror of it whilst actually being able to write decent, readable prose. As such for the last ten or fifteen years I’ve been meaning to read NECROSCOPE, his most famous novel and the one I always used to see in W.H. Smith when I was kid. Now ten or fifteen years may seem like a ridiculous amount of time to want to read something and not actually get around to reading it and absolutely I agree with you. What can I say? I’m just incompetent and easily distracted.
The biggest surprise for me on picking up NECROSCOPE is how un-Lovecraftian it actually is. Yes, there are faint traces of Lovecraft, but there are always faint traces of Lovecraft in every modern horror. Even if the writer hasn’t themselves read H.P. Lovecraft they will certainly have read writers that have, and so the whole thing gets passed on by osmosis. But no, the biggest influence here is – of all people – John Le Carré. This is the taut, charged and exciting cold war horror novel, with espionage games fought by those with paranormal abilities.
What on earth have I been doing over the last ten/fifteen years? I feel like I’ve missed out.
In the north of England, Harry Keogh is growing up, a strange and withdrawn young boy who spends a lot of time hanging around graveyards and who seems to have knowledge beyond his years. He is the necroscope of the title, a young man who is able to communicate with the dead. In Russia though there is a man with similar abilities – Boris Dragosani – only he is a necromancer and his ways of communing with the dead are a lot less pleasant than Keogh’s. Both countries have ultra-secret government departments designed to fight the enemy through supernatural means, so it’s not long before both are known to their respective agencies and on a course to confront each other.
It’s not hard to imagine this been scribbled down by Lumley’s right hand, while a well-thumbed edition of TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY rested by his left, but first and foremost this is a horror novel. Believe me, if you don’t have a strong stomach then this is not for you. The opening chapter finds Boris Dragosani demonstrating his skills below a château near Moscow and it is one of the most impressively gory things I’ve read in a long while. That’s not to say the whole book is written in that blood stained vein, Lumley knows that a little bit of gore goes a long way, but he also knows that the audience for a book called NECROSCOPE doesn’t want him to skimp on it.
There’s also a lot of sex, which actually gave me something of a nostalgic glow. British horror writers of a 1970s/1980s vintage were always guaranteed to throw in a good few gratuitous sex scenes. I knew as an adolescent that I always more likely to get that kind of thing from a James Herbert than a Stephen King. Reading this not only made me yearn for my mis-spent youth, but it set me pondering: trying to figure out why it was that British horror was so adamant on combining heavy gore with detailed sex scenes. My best guess is that the British authors of this vintage were just over-exposed to Hammer Horror movies and the buxom, blonde wenches who populated them. Certainly that seems to be the case of NECROSCOPE, as the sex sequence with a blonde serving girl in an inn couldn’t have been written any more obviously with Ingrid Pitt in mind if Lumley had included a still from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD.
It’s not a perfect book by any means, the powers our protagonist and antagonist develop just become more and more ludicrous even within the framework of the book, while the confrontation between the two is oddly rushed. But if you were looking for a good British horror novel of the 80s – with all that sub genre’s interest in gore, sex, flawed heroes and drizzle – then NECROSCOPE would be a definite top recommendation.
My debut novel, THE WANNABES – which has been out of print for a little while – is now available for free! A supernatural thriller of beautiful actresses and deadly ambition in London town, it’s well worth your time. You can get your copy here!