Daryl Gregory's novels inspire reflection and conversation, but above all else they are just different and so much fun. His new book, Harrison Squared is fresh and enjoyable, and proves that he's a writer to be reckoned with.
You may have heard the term "writers' writer" before. This refers to the sort of author who, while not necessarily obscure, is far from a household name, yet each of their new books is eagerly anticipated by the literary community. Outside the 2014 Nebula Awards banquet room were several tables crowded with the year's best offerings as well as choices from decades past. Giants of the science fiction field, legendary editors and authors browsed, making professional observations or asking the booksellers about recent sales trends. Then they would stop at one particular stack and their gaze softened on the cheerful red and yellow cover.
"Oh! I loved this one!" the éminence gris would gush, "I wish I could write like that."
The book was Afterparty (now out in trade paperback) and the writers' writer that can make Grandmasters squee likes fangirls is Daryl Gregory.
His prose is just so damn readable. We are propelled along effortlessly through the plot. The genial characters are welcome traveling companions and the landscape is perfectly acceptable even as it becomes stranger with each page. The surface of reality peels back and we coo like infants when the oozing clockwork within is jingled like a shiny keychain. Our attention held gently in an adamantine vise, we gulp down the tasty, tasty hooks that pull us deeper in and further along. We bob, spin, and plunge through stormy seas; then float clear and calm, it's all over and we wonder where the time went. Seriously, you can lose a full day or two in reading rapture. A wise and benevolent author, Gregory's novels are not too thick, otherwise his fans would miss too many meals and waste away.
Mr. Gregory is an obvious fan of Philip K. Dick, even writing a version of that troubled genius into his first novel, Pandemonium. He has explored themes of altered realities and consciousness; philosophy and religion with a similar subversion but far more coherence then PKD. He is also quite at home with horror, and has brought some fresh takes on the same old shambling conventions. These disturbing themes go hand in hand with fondness for loving families and spiritual faith presented without irony. All of this is wonderfully balanced to provoke, but never alienate.
Harrison Squared proves Mr. Gregory is a writer worth paying to attention — it's wonderfully funny, and manages to be accessible to people who only know Cthulhu from the occasional bumper sticker and still satisfying to scholars who have read the Necronomicon in the original Arabic.
The titular hero Harrison Harrison is the fifth of that name, his family caught in the grip of a quirky tradition rather than lack of imagination. At only three years of age, he and his marine biologist parents went on a three-hour tour, turned tragedy at sea. The elder Harrison disappeared forever to the briny depth, and the little boy lost a leg. Harrison knows it was just a boating accident... despite nightmares of tentacles and teeth. His childhood in sunny San Diego was happy and well-adjusted, but he has some understandable maritime issues. Okay, he really, really hates the ocean. Now years later, his mom moves them away from his friends to a tiny New England backwater to pursue her theories about the Colossal Squid.
Dunnsmouth, MA: without cable TV or reliable cell phone coverage is torture enough for a teenager, but everyone in this town is just so clannish, insular, and downright freaky. It doesn't help that Mrs. Harrison is of indigenous Brazilian descent. The local gentry, all a weirder shade of pale, are openly hostile to outsiders and people of color. Strange, you'd think that with a long maritime tradition, some of the townsfolk must have encountered other cultures; maybe even intermarried (heh). None of the kids at Dunnsmouth Secondary School (Go Threshers!) will talk to him. They seem to actually enjoy the classes on knot-tying, or ancient civilizations Harrison has never heard of. Even worse, the PE teacher insists Harrison should enjoy swimming as much as the other kids. And what's with those hymns they sing in the assembly hall? Doesn't sound like Latin. The cafeteria is also really unpleasant.
Harrison is even denied perfectly normal adolescent brooding by the cruel sea. Within a week of their arrival his mother goes missing during a routine expedition. His jet-setting Aunt Selena arrives to act as Harrison's guardian. Too bad, as she seems to have gotten all her parenting tips from Edina and Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous. Bright, resourceful Harrison feels trapped in a nightmare, alone and helpless. The only thing he wants more than to leave Dunnsmouth is to find his mother and the townspeople seem eager only to help with the former.
Harrison Squared is such a funny novel, one wonders if it was named in honor of the creator of the Stainless Steel Rat. Please don't dismiss these wildly colorful characters as "quirky". With his characteristic economy, a casually dropped phrase or glimpse of backstory, Mr. Gregory imbues them all with depth and humanity. Even if they do have gills.
Harrison is a very likable guy, and he will eventually win allies. Just when he feels like a fish out of water, someone special comes along who shows him that may not be such a bad thing. There is also one of those suspiciously convenient cabdrivers that cruise through some stories, but Saleem is a nice guy. You will adore the cranky, distracted librarian.
The content is perfectly suitable and appropriate for teenage readers, but they will not find any of the forced, insipid romance that seems required for YA novels. Thankfully, the withdrawn and ethereal Lydia never gazes longingly with her big eyes at Harrison even though he is the new boy at school, brooding and with a dark past. There is love in these pages, but it is more about family or those people screwy enough to call family. These are the bonds that make facing terror possible and when lost can be the end of the world. Wholesome Horror — yes, it can be done.
As some of the weird characters become more sympathetic, others become ever more menacing. Readers familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos are right to suppose what is going on in the portmanteauwnship of Dunnsmouth. Certainly lighter in tone, Harrison Squared never becomes mere parody. This is an excellent Lovecraftian pastiche with enough original twists to be on par with Laird Barron's Mythos (but considerably less brutal). And there's an interesting revelation in the climax, combining natural science with eldritch horror, that Lovecraft would approve of. The Bard of Providence would not, however, dig Gregory's modern attitudes toward women and people of color, but he's dead.
An obviously tacked-on epilogue sets up an inevitable yet welcome sequel. There is a delightful novella, We Are All Completely Fine already on bookstore shelves, where an older Harrison plays a major part (so yeah, spoiler, he doesn't die). If you have been hankering for a new Scooby Gang of witty young people bonding together and fighting horrors from beyond space and time, this is for you. For any marginally sane soul who enjoys being taken over by Daryl Gregory's brilliant storytelling, the stars are right and we have much to look forward to.
Chris Hsiang is a bookseller for Books Inc. in San Francisco.