Far and away the most significant work in Brian Lumley’s bibliography is his epic Necroscope series. The title refers to the main character, one Harry Keogh, who has a knack for conversing with the dead. Thanks to this talent he is recruited into E-Branch, a top secret, underfunded UK government spy agency specialising in what it punningly calls ESPionage – intelligence work utilising psychic powers. In the first novel, it becomes apparent that the Soviets have their own Necroscope – the cruel Boris Dragosani, who extracts secrets from the dead through torture and degradation in contrast to Harry’s vastly kinder methods. Dragosani, for his part, is being drawn into the web of Baron Ferenczy – one of the Wamphyri, a type of vampire unique to this series. The Wamphyri are powerful psychics and resemble less a person than a disease which infects people, the quasi-fungal substance of their offspring infiltrating the human body and expressing itself, when wanted, as bizarre transformations. (This is pretty much what the Tzimisce clan in Vampire: the Masquerade were a riff on.)
It all culminates in a big showdown in which Keogh and Dragosani must fight it out using the powers both have gathered over time – Dragosani through his new Wamphyri nature, Keogh through various secrets the dead have taught him over the years. Subsequent books involve return engagements between Keogh and the Wamphyri and related forces (including the Cthulhu Mythos – a certain Baron Ferenczy having played a significant role in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), Keogh becoming more and more boringly overpowered until at the end of the fifth novel Lumley had to find a loophole to write him out of the cosmos. (The sequel series takes place on the Wamphyri home planet and is basically a very sanguinary take on sword and sorcery. It is imaginatively entitled Vampire World.)
Thing is, I’m not going to get to very much of that. I’m not even going to be able to offer up a full review of the first book. I tapped out 89 pages into this 500+ page brick. I’d torn through the series when I was a teenager and not very critical about my reading material, but this time around… no. It’s impossible.
It’s not the prose style as such, Garth Marenghi-esque as it is. It’s not even the mild self-insert qualities of the protagonist, what with his upbringing in a coal mining town up north paralleling Brian Lumley’s life story because apparently someone told him “write what you know” once and he took that lesson very much to heart. It’s the fact that, early in the book when he needed to be establishing character and momentum, he splurged page after page on a school days reminiscence culminating with Harry Keogh totally owning his maths teacher over a simple maths problem by spotting a way to solve it without resorting to the usual volume formulas. Not only is this an utter triviality – any reasonably bright person could have spotted that – but it’s also completely risible, since we’re supposed to realise that Harry was actually given the answers by his maths teacher’s dead dad, who was also a maths teacher.
In other words, rather than establishing what the framing of the scene seems intended to establish – that Harry is a smart boy who’s gotten ahead of the curve by chatting to the dead – it makes him sound like a dullard and a cheat who gets by on tip-offs from the dead, under absurdly petty circumstances. Come to think of it, David Icke also wheeled out a “spirits totally helped me make a fool of one of my teachers” anecdote in his autobiography In the Light of Experience; I am not saying that Icke stole the anecdote from here and changed it up to be less mathsy, since after all fantasies of inflicting humiliating ownage on a teacher you dislike are hardly uncommon. What I am saying is that “invisible spirits helped me do well at school” seems as risible in fiction as it does in real life.
And that made me recall Harry’s toe-curling interactions with the dead over the rest of the series. See, not only do all right-thinking living people come to like Harry sooner or later, but the dead absolutely worship the ground he walks on. Granted, they appreciate having someone they can chat to, but giving Harry this massive army of the deceased who are absolutely happy to do whatever they wish for him seems a bit much. The prospect of wading through more page-filling anecdotes – many of which littered with the fawning flattery of the dead – was too much for me, and I gave up.
So that’s why you’re not getting an epic Necroscope hateread takedown from me.