by G R Jordan
286 pages, Carpetless Publishing
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
As much as I admire H.P. Lovecraft’s works of cosmic horror, I would never describe myself as a Lovecraft fanboy. In creating the monstrous Cthulhu and his Elder pals, Lovecraft secured his place in the fantasy hall of fame and the huge influence of his works shows no sign of diminishing. However, Lovecraft is a divisive writer. One doesn’t have to dig very deep in his oeuvre to realise that he held some pretty unpleasant views about race and social class. It’s hard to wholeheartedly ‘enjoy’ Lovecraft’s work when these things keep bubbling to the surface. We can try and fool ourselves that he was just a product of his time, but there are plenty of authors from his era whose work isn’t mired in such backward-thinking.
My other criticism of Lovecraft is a purely literary one. Although we can look at his florid prose as being the means by which he crafts the particular atmosphere of dread and terror, many of his stories can be bogged down by his verbosity. This is, of course, just my opinion, and there will be others who maintain that Lovecraft’s prose is perfect. I find issue with the pacing of his stories, even those considered to be his greatest works. There are passages in “At the Mountains of Madness” that lose much of their power through over-long, turgid descriptions. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy his stories of the sinister Elder gods; I just don’t believe Lovecraft was the best writer of the pulp-era.
I was only a few pages into Gary Ross-Jordan’s “Crescendo” when I realised it was dipping its toe into Lovecraft’s world(s). This isn’t particularly radical, plenty of authors, artists and game designers have borrowed from and contributed to the Lovecraftian universe. What gets me excited about Ross-Jordan’s approach is that he makes no attempt to mimic Lovecraft’s style, choosing to write a witty, fast-paced, action-adventure romp rather than a brooding tale of horror. I’m fairly sure that the words “witty”, “fast-paced” and “romp” have never before been associated with anything Lovecraftian, and that is precisely why you need to read “Crescendo”.
Moving at an often bewildering pace, “Crescendo” does not mess around with lengthy expositions of a character’s backstory. Ross-Jordan pulls us from one scene to another, scarcely giving us time to catch our breath or make sense of exactly what is going on. Whilst you would think this would serve to alienate readers, it had the opposite effect - I was drawn in from the start and was gripped throughout.
“Crescendo” is the first in a proposed series of books featuring Austerley and Kirkgordon, a dynamic duo who tick many of the boxes of classic ‘buddy cop’ films. Austerley is a fantastically intelligent, socially inept oddball academic with a comprehensive knowledge of arcane and weird lore. His close encounters with things from other worlds have also left him teetering on the brink of insanity and the start of the novel sees his release from Arkham asylum. Kirkgordon is Austerley’s longsuffering companion. A man of action, Kirkgordon spends much of the novel rescuing his friend from a variety of dangerous situations and the rest of the book cursing Austerley for the detrimental effect their friendship has had on virtually every other significant relationship in his life. But the two characters aren’t a simple division of brains and brawn. Austerley’s curiosity about the Elder beings and his insatiable thirst for forbidden knowledge means that he is as much of a hinderance as he is a help. Kirkgordon has a sensitive side that serves to give bit of humanity and stop him being a one-dimensional action hero. He’s still smarting from the breakdown of his marriage and finds himself torn between remaining faithful to his estranged wife and his attraction to the mysterious Callandra. Kirkgordon is also a man of faith and Ross-Jordan handles this part of his character with sensitivity and intelligence. As a double act, Austerley and Kirkgordon work extremely well, Austerley dabbles in the unknown and Kirkgordon kicks ass and gets them out of the ensuing chaos. The dialogue between the two lead characters is suitably snappy and captures the love / hate dynamic that is par-for-the-course in any mismatched partnership.
The McGuffin in the story is a piece of music with mysterious powers and Austerley and Kirkgordon’s pursuit of the manuscript sees them embark on a globe-trotting adventure to rival those of Indiana Jones. From Arkham to Moscow to a fog-shrouded island off the coast of Scotland, the narrative never stays in one place for long enough for it to grow dull. Indeed, the novel’s Hebridean finale is a riff on Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” that brings the book to a very satisfying conclusion. It is at this point that one really appreciates how meticulously Ross-Jordan has structured the novel. I mentioned earlier how the frenetic pace of the story leaves the reader a little bewildered, but this grand finale effectively answers all the questions that are raised and ties up any loose ends. What has hitherto seemed chaotic and unstructured suddenly falls into place in the titular “Crescendo”.
Although it is set in the same universe as Lovecraft’s works, Ross-Jordan’s novel is a radically different beast. Where Lovecraft’s dense descriptions help to conjure a sinister atmosphere and mood, Ross-Jordan focuses instead on action to propel his narrative along at a rollicking pace. Although dabbling in Lovecraftian themes, Ross-Jordan’s work is so radically different that comparisons between the two are redundant.
“Crescendo” is a wonderful, accessible piece of fantasy. I will certainly be checking out the next installment of Austerley and Kirkgordon’s adventures. With the vast scope of Lovecraft’s universe at his disposal, it will be interesting to see where Ross-Jordan takes the due next. There’s bound to be some die-hard fans out there who feel that it isn’t properly Lovecraftian without dense prose and an over-reliance on words such as “cyclopean” or “eldritch”. This is a shame as those people will be denying themselves the opportunity to dive into a refreshingly modern take on Lovecraftian themes.
Read the author interview here.