Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cinerati Book Review: The Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper


In the movie My Favorite Year, Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole), in quoting another actor, claims that "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." While the origins of the quote are relatively unknown -- being attributed to several sources -- the spirit of the quote is none the less true. It is very difficult to write an engaging work of comedy of any length. Nowhere is this more evident than in comedic Science Fiction and Fantasy writers.

While there are those like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Ernest Bramah who have written what many consider to be consistently high quality SF/F books of a humorous nature, the majority of genre humor writers fall into a trap that Jo Walton succinctly describes in a blog post on her love hate relationship with humor fiction. Walton argues that the majority of humor writing tries to hard to be funny and doesn't let the humor rise organically from the material, and she finds this very frustrating as a reader. As she puts it, "I hate things that are trying to be funny, rather than letting the humour bubble up from underneath." I agree with her sentiment, and I agree that this is a pratfall that too many writers fall into too easily.

It is a pratfall that Seamus Cooper risked falling into in his recent novel The Mall of Cthulhu. The novel, published by Night Shade Books this past June, attempts to use comedy to synthesize the mystery procedural with weird fiction.

The book's plot is relatively simple. Ten years ago, a college student named Laura Harker was saved from being turned into a vampire when a geeky folklore student named Ted charged into the vampire's den -- the Omega Alpha sorority -- and slew all of the undead occupants therein. This act of heroism shattered Ted's sanity, and led Laura to pursue a career in the FBI. Ted now works at a chain coffeehouse named Queequeg's hoping that the mind numbing routine of a service job will help him remain sane, and allow him to lead a normal life. Alas, Ted's fate -- and Laura's -- is not destined to be one of day to day doldrums. Ted has accidentally stumbled upon a group of modern day Cthulhu cultists who wish to use a shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island as a nexus of power to summon the Old Ones to wreak havoc on the world.

As the back of the book describes it, "[Ted] and Laura must spring into action, traveling from Boston to the seemingly-peaceful suburbs of Providence and beyond, all the way to the sanity-shattering non-Euclideian alleyways and towers of dread R'lyeh itself, in order to prevent an innocent shopping center from turning into...The Mall of Cthulhu.

The book is an entertaining read that hits all of the right plot points for a first novel in a series of comedic weird tale procedurals. The two main characters, Laura and Ted, are extremely likable and Cooper's writing has us empathizing with them as real people in relatively quick order. Especially engaging, for me, was Cooper's ability to convey just how mentally damaging slaying an entire pack of vampires might be -- particularly when the person doing the slaying is an everyday kind of guy. Laura is also affected by the night of mayhem. Nearly being turned into a vampire by someone she was attracted to has had lingering affects on her ability to form long term romantic relationships -- she has a hard time trusting the women she meets.

As a procedural, the story works its way through the mystery at a nice pace and we get to see how Ted's impulsiveness -- and laziness -- interacts with Laura's trained professionalism and adherence to routine. It makes for some nice narrative tension when Ted gets into trouble and Laura comes running to help. Is she too late? The only real problem with the underlying mystery is that it opens feeling like a grand conspiracy and ends as what feels like a few guys with a chip on their shoulder acting out. I understand that mass conspiracies are implausible and unsatisfying, but so is a small group who don't seem capable of some of the tricks they pull early in the plot. I didn't need a huge conspiracy, but one that was a little bigger would have been beneficial. With that small complaint, the book's procedural elements were interesting enough to keep the reader engaged.

The book has a good pace, likable characters, and is an entertaining procedural. But...is it funny or does it fall into the trap of trying to hard to be funny? The short answer is both. At times Cooper has me laughing inside my head at one joke or another. It's pretty amusing to read about a character so disturbed by the mind numbing timelessness of R'lyeh that he begins kicking Cthulhu in the head in the hopes that the Old One will awaken. It's also funny reading about someone sitting in a dumpster, using a milk filled garbage bag as a pillow, while reading a version of the Necronomicon through the eyes of a character in a Sims-like video game. The book also avoids an over-abundance of puns. There are "easter eggs," to be sure, but Cooper refrains from making every other line of the book a pun.

The comedy does break down a little bit in three distinct ways.

First, there are both too many, and not enough, internet porn references in the book. Had Cooper used only a couple such references, they would have remained funny. Had Cooper tossed one out every couple of pages, they would have become funny again. Sadly, Cooper used them to the point where they lose comic value, without using them enough to where they become funny again -- though the foot fetish porn comment was in itself amusing.

Second, the commentary about Lovecraft's racism, and his "ambiguity," became tiresome. No one who has read any Lovecraft can walk away from his fiction without the strong feeling that Lovecraft had some peculiar ideas about race -- and likely eugenics -- but readers don't need to be reminded every chapter. Cooper attempted to use this conversation, as well as a couple of rough asides about role playing games, as witty banter -- banter that also served as an important connection between Lovecraft and the cultists -- but it gets a little over played. It might have seemed less overplayed if Cooper had included more specific examples of Lovecraft's racism by including quotes from stories where Lovecraft's racism really shines through. This is a place where it would have been nice to have been shown rather than told. Give the reader a couple of passages from Dunwich Horror and have your characters talk about how disturbing they were. The same can be said for the mocking of Lovecraft's use of "indescribable." Though it should be noted that Cooper does have a good comedic moment in R'yleh which is only made possible due to previous complaints regarding Lovecraft's prose. Once again, it would have been nice to get some more actual Lovecraftian passages. The purple prose might have been comedy enough all by itself.

Third, Seamus Cooper's attempts at political humor largely fall flat. The best political comedians skewer both those they agree with and those with whom they disagree fervently. Cooper's political jabs can be summed up as simply as Republicans underfund paranormal defense and Democrats fund it appropriately. Their was one gem of a joke where the post-94 Congress wanted to restrict a certain agency to using only "Biblical Based Defenses." Anyone who has read a Chick tract should get a good chuckle from that conversation, but by and large Cooper misses a couple of real opportunities for humor. For example, why wasn't Nancy Reagan's use of an Astrologer included? One can easily imagine a dozen jokes stemming from that concept alone.

What if Ronald Reagan, after he fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers, had the replacement military controllers have planes fly paths prescribed by the Astrologer? And what if those paths corresponded to a particularly dangerous summoning ritual? One could have a field day with that, as one could also have had a field day with Clinton needed a special anti-Succubus Secret Service Agent, or how Tipper Gore's anti-D&D statements in her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society led to some D&D obsessed "occultists" using a ritual they thought was fake against her? There is no limit to where these jokes could go.

Were I Cooper's editor, I would have had him unpack a lot of the political comments and have him transform them into more specific jokes. There's a lot of humor, on both sides of the aisle, to toss around and the book would have been better for it.

These complaints aside, The Mall of Cthulhu was exactly the book I needed when I read it. The book is an enjoyable and light-hearted yarn where underfunded, and under-powered, good guys have to fight against larger than life enemies -- including a hundred plus year-old sorority member vampire priestess named Bitsy.
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