The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth by John Michael Greer
Posted May 5, 2019
I sent author John Michael Greer a review copy of my own book, The Yoga of Strength, back in February when I was getting the ARCs out to folks who might be interested. What drew me to John was the fact that he commented on my review of Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, a thoughtful romp through Hindu mythology. In return for my ARC, he gave me a copy of The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, the first novel in his Weird of Hali series. Being a die-hard H.P. Lovecraft fan, I immediately recognized and was intrigued by the name. Then John told me that it was a bit of an expectations-flipped type of story, wherein the “tentacled horrors are the good guys.” I was pretty consumed by the launch of my own book so I didn’t have much time to have a look for a while. Until this past Tuesday.
Review – 5/5
I demolished the book in a matter of a few hours. It’s about two hundred or so pages long, so not a typically long fantasy read. But it got its hooks into me and I could not stop until I was done. I bought the second in the series and proceeded to read through that The Weird of Hali: Kingsport within the next 24 hours (also great, though with a more subdued and decidedly different tone). That is enough for a 5/5, as far as I am concerned.
In the afterword, John mentioned that weird fiction has more in common with science fiction, in that it is a literature of ideas. I get that. I also feel like this book is one of those mythological dark horses that sneaks in a bit of divine truth with its narrative. I am hardly surprised that this is the case, given John’s avowed love of Lord of Light.
The story starts off unassumingly enough. Owen Merrill, grad student at Miskatonic University (yes, the Miskatonic University of Lovecraftian lore), studying H.P. Lovecraft’s work. The book is a love-letter to the Lovecraft and weird fiction fans, filling the text to bursting with references to his work. The references do not feel ham-fisted or ridiculous – John does a fantastic job of making the world feel lived-in. Innsmouth is a real place, for one. But Lovecraft’s horror story about the murderous fish-people is not reflected there – Owen visits the place and he is received warmly enough by the townsfolk. At the beginning, at least, Lovecraft’s legacy is simply that of a much-beloved pulp fiction writer who took boring reality and turned it into something horribly magical.
And then, following the thread of the classic hero’s journey, this normal world starts to turn over on itself as he is called to adventure and he answers that call. I do not want to get further into the plot, as it really is quite wonderful, but John does a great job of having the doldrums of poor student life slowly unravel into a pulse-pounding exploration into the unknown.
As John did warn me, the Lovecraftian baddies are the good guys. And the mythology of Great Old Ones and humans (and not-so-human but still kindly) does fan out from there. But the overarching theme is an extremely poignant commentary about how badly mankind fucked up in its embrace of reason itself as a god that could kill the gods of nature. It’s a story about ecological decline and the demonic aspects of greed and human arrogance.
The story, at its core, is about choosing to accept the unseen realms as truth in a world where the rational is so convincing. Joseph Campbell said that the point of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to make your nature match Nature, and the myths all teach this in different ways. To me, this book is a classic myth.
There was a bit of cheese (owing to the main romantic relationship), but it did not really detract from the plot. And myths are not really known for pulling symbolic punches - subtlety, in the conventional sense, is not the point. In fact, it made the thing feel more wholesome. When Nyarlathotep and Shub-Ne’hurrath (yes, in the book Lovecraft’s original term for the deity was framed as racist – I won’t repeat it here) have got your back and the evil ones are power-mad hypocritical creatures whose main drive is to excise emotion from the world, the fact that the book is wholesome at all is quite a feat. But that is what it felt like. Warm and fuzzy. It is a feel-good adventure story, and that is directly up my alley.
Don’t get me wrong, I love horror fiction. But it is springtime, and my thirst for that kind of thing waxes and wanes with the seasons. This one is a springtime tale, through and through. Do yourself a favour and grab a copy. You’ll be glad you did.