Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Move Under Ground, by Nick Mamatas

The Beats go on the road to stop Cthulhu in this Lovecraft/Kerouac mashup.

Move Under Ground

Wildside Press, 2006, 158 pages

The year is nineteen-sixty-something, and after endless millennia of watery sleep, the stars are finally right. Old R'lyeh rises out of the Pacific, ready to cast its damned shadow over the primitive human world. The first to see its peaks: an alcoholic, paranoid, and frightened Jack Kerouac, who had been drinking off a nervous breakdown up in Big Sur. Now Jack must get back on the road to find Neal Cassady, the holy fool whose rambling letters hint of a world brought to its knees in worship of the Elder God Cthulhu. Together with pistol-packin' junkie William S. Burroughs, Jack and Neal make their way across the continent to face down the murderous Lovecraftian cult that has spread its darkness to the heart of the American Dream. But is Neal along for the ride to help save the world, or does he want to destroy it just so that he'll have an ending for his book?

You probably have to have read On the Road to really appreciate this book, and I haven't. Nick Mamatas is obviously a big fan of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and all the other Beat writers, whereas I know just enough about them to have caught some of the references he dropped in this crackfic.

I say "crackfic" tongue-in-cheek, but this really is a fanfic-like premise written in a serious, literary style.

Jack Kerouac — yes, the actual author — wakes up one morning in Big Sur to find that R'lyeh has risen from the sea and Cthulhu now looms over California like an apocalyptic celestial mirage. So what can he do but hit the road in search of his buddy Neal, who may know enough about this to stop the Elder Gods from destroying the world. William S. Burroughs comes along for the ride. There is a cameo by Allen Ginsberg (and probably other people I didn't recognize).

From other reviews I read by people who are familiar with Kerouac, Mamatas has his style down pretty well. But I am familiar with Lovecraft's stories. Mamatas definitely doesn't write in Lovecraft's style (Lovecraft was kind of a horrible stylist, actually), but he definitely gets the bleak, horrific, gibbering awfulness that the Cthulhu mythos was meant to invoke.

Great Chicago glowed red before our eyes. We were suddenly on Madison Street among hordes of cultists, some of them sprawled out on the street, elongated chitinous scythes where their hands used to be dragging across the ground, hundreds of others gathered around storefront churches or crowded onto corners, all waiting and buzzing. "Wup! Wup! Neal approaches! The Man Of Two Worlds, chosen one of Azathoth! All hail Neal!" I cut the wheel hard and proceeded to downtown Chicago, but there wasn't a true human on the streets anymore. Only mockeries of life: flatulent mugwumps in clouds of swampgas, children oozing along the streets on a mass of thick cilia, hawking newspapers of human skin scrawled with unspeakable blasphemies, letters you couldn't even trace upon a page without the madness coming for you. And those were the remnants of our sweet race, the folks who were people once before R'lyeh rose and the missiles tore their way up from the deserts--there were plenty of pretty girls with a smile for our dream car and swarthy working stiffs, chests broad as barrels and V-shaped torsos leading to chinos and black boots, but there were not women, they were not women, they were not men. Shoggoths to a being they were, phalanges, avatars of insanity and destruction mocking me with human form and countenance.

This is a seriously literary book whose literary credibility is kind of undermined by the fact that Nick Mamatas wrote RPF crackfic. Elder Gods only know where he came up with the idea, but with Cthulhu in the West and Azathoth in the East, Jack, Neal, and Bill head to New York City for the end of the world.

"We need you to join our little operation, Mr. Kerouac. All this terror couldn't stoke half the haunted dreams we need to finally rend the veil between worlds, to let the starry wisdom of the Great Old Ones descend unfettered onto our fair cities. But you're a battery, a dynamo. Tying your shoes is an adventure; when Jack Kerouac finds a parking space, saints weep. Your soul can rewrite the world for us, just like a book. That's why you struggled across the country, squeezing out ghosts from your own past to push and prod you on, to make here. To be acquired by our concern." The beetlemen clicked with the forced glee of an office Christmas Party.

It's a seriously creepy book, with lots of violence and gross sex and really disturbing images, the good kind of Lovecraftian story that is all about the SAN loss. And Beat philosophy.

The style wasn't really my thing — I think I'm more of a fan of Lovecraft (that bent, racist hack) than Kerouac. But if you like Lovecraftian stories then this one is written in a very non-pulp style, but it's as bizarre and disturbing as anything by Derleth or Howard or Bloch.

Move Under Ground was Nick Mamatas's debut novel, and he's made it available for free online.

For a book in a somewhat similar vein, see Borges and the Eternal Orangutans. It's very different in tone, but it's also a Lovecraftian story by a literary author using another real author as a character.

Poll #1928318 Move Under Ground

Have you read Move Under Ground?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
Yes, and ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn...
No, but now I want to.
No, and it sounds too weird for me, man.

Have you read any other books by Nick Mamatas?


Verdict: Dense, sometimes almost turgid prose deliberately imitating the style of the first-person protagonist Jack Kerouac, Move Under Ground is deeply weird and succeeds at being exactly what it's supposed to be: the bastard lovechild of a Beatnik Shoggoth orgy, with seminal contributions from two very different generations of writers. The style may or may not be to your liking, but if you're a fan of either half of this bizarre literary cross-breeding experiment, it's short enough that you should consider it worth reading.

Also by Nick Mamatas: My review of Starve Better.
Tags: books, horror, nick mamatas, reviews

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