BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A young man has to rescue his mother in the midst of a Lovecraftian village.
PROS: Great protagonist, great sense of humor throughout.
CONS: Some strong characters get sidelined, possibly too many in-jokes.
BOTTOM LINE: A really fun and funny Lovecraftian adventure.
I had thought, briefly, that in this foray into YA Daryl Gregory would finally prove my hypothesis wrong. I had theorized that Gregory starts stories after everyone else would stop them, and that his most recent adult sf novel, Afterparty, was a dead giveaway. But who starts a YA novel after a major trauma occurs? People get their traumas during YA novels, right? But here we are, with a prologue that starts: “What I remember are tentacles. Tentacles and teeth.” As Harrison Harrison (the eponymous Harrison Squared) recalls the “accident” where his father died and he lost his leg. He’s convinced that the tentacles and teeth are the mere illusionary memories that his three year old brain filled in because it didn’t understand the “real” boating accident. But during the rest of story, we’ll find out the reality behind the jumbled memories.
Then we start with something more like what I think of as a “traditional” YA beginning—Harrison at his first day of school in a new town, a place his mother has come as part of her marine biology studies. And on the first page of that first chapter, we get a sense of what we’re in for: the new school is “THE DUNNSMOUTH SECONDARY SCHOOL” and the back of his mom’s truck is filled with sensor buoys E, H, S, and P “otherwise known as Edgar, Howard, Steve, and Pete.”
That brings me to my biggest uncertainty about this book. Is it an entry exam to realize that darn near the whole book owes its existence to H. P. Lovecraft’s “A Shadow Over Innsmouth” and that the buoys are named after the influential horror writers Edgar (Allan Poe), Howard (P. Lovecraft), Steve (King), and Pete (Straub)? Or is it just a nice bonus thrown in for those in the know? I found this book to be freaking hilarious, but that’s because the in-jokes were aimed straight at me—-and I’m not exactly in the YA target audience anymore. So just consider that ambiguity as a given, and let’s move on.
Harrison starts attending a very creepy school in a very isolated town. The students chant in an unknown tongue during morning assembly. Instead of normal classes they study tying knots to make fishing nets (“Practical Skills”) and their biology lab is taught by Dr. Herbert (from Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator”) with an interest in cryptobiology. The students are all intense and aloof, and have their own secret language. Not exactly where Harrison would naturally fit: half-WASP, half-Brazilian, amputee, all Californian with a temper-management problem. By the time the teenage fish-boy shows up, he seems like the most normal character in the book.
The plot gets underway when Harrison’s mom is lost at sea while deploying the instruments to search for a giant squid. It doesn’t take long before many things get revealed as Not What They Seem—especially the other students at school. Bigger things are underfoot and undersea, and everything moves along quite briskly. Harrison is a great narrator—snarky and completely uninterested in self-pity, more likely to fly into a rage than whine. The intrusions of the “normal” world (such as the police orchestrating the search for the mother) are quickly mitigated by the intrusions of even odder people, such as Harrison’s aunt from New York. Harrison’s hot-headedness means that he’s not a great tactical leader, which role falls to Lydia, one of his classmates. She becomes particularly interesting and a much more effective leader than Harrison, unfortunately placing her in the well-worn groove “girl who is much smarter than the lead and also understands the situation better because it’s her home turf is side-kick to the hero guy,” although she manages to avoid the stereotypical love-interest pigeonhole. Everything comes to a satisfying conclusion—but not all the threads are neatly tied up, leaving ample room for a sequel if there’s enough interest—a sequel more immediate than the award-nominated, not-even-a-little-bit YA novella We Are All Completely Fine, which came out from Tachyon Press last year in a case of very odd timing.
I remember picking up a Lovecraft anthology in my twenties because I knew that I would need to know at least the basics of Lovecraft if I were going to understand anything in this field. Horror isn’t my thing, but I started to see at least a fraction of the appeal. For one thing, after a few plodding stories the actual “Call of Cthulhu” short stood out like static electricity, crackling with the potential the reader’s imagination can bring to it. But I also remember reading “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” It’s a classic Lovecraft story where the narrator is horrified by being stuck in an isolated New England coastal town, and realizing to his growing horror that the townspeople have long been interbreeding (and inbreeding) in some way with some kind of off-shore aquatic tribe. Really, it’s emblematic of Lovecraft’s visceral horror of miscegenation, but I kept thinking—if the protagonist stopped being obscurely horrified for a second and instead said “Hello” to the fish people, who I kept reading as aliens, this would make an interesting science fiction story. I had the exact same feeling reading Lovecraft’s tale of antarctic horror, “At the Mountains of Madness.” If the “heroes” were a little less freaked out by the Other and a little more curious, these would be great sf. I believe I mentioned at the time that I would have loved to see the alternate universe where Lovecraft came along a little later and was edited by John W. Campbell for Astounding.
And now in a way I have my wish! Harrison, being Californian unlike the Lovecraft protagonists, has no problem saying Hello to anyone who can help him find him mom, the only even vaguely stable element of his life. If that means creepy school kids, harebrained aunts, or fishboys, so be it. And Gregory, being a sf writer to the core of his being (even when he’s writing about demonic possession in Pandemonium or zombies in Raising Stony Mayhall) can’t help but add a rationalizing gloss to the rituals underway by the shadowy cults, even while inventing an amazingly fantastic new form of killer, who gets examined a little more in the precursor-follow-up novella, which you should also read. Of course, treating Lovecraft rationally gets played for laughs, and they’re some of my favorite laughs. I feel the same way about Charles Stross’ Laundry series, where demonic summoning turns out to be a consequence of higher order multi-dimensional mathematics—but it can still kill you. The Laundry novels are up to five books now with more planned, and I for one hope that Gregory’s Harrison Squared, having already starred in a fun YA novel and a fascinatingly different novella, will meet with similar success. And I’d like to read more about Lydia too; she would make a great spin-off heroine all on her own.