I can’t think of another time I’ve bought a book the very day I knew it was out and read it immediately.
That’s what I did with this one.
Review: Master of Chaos, David Hambling, 2018.
It’s madness, modernism, Egyptian secrets, and racial hygiene in the latest Harry Stubbs adventure.
It’s 1925 and ex-boxer and bill collector Harry Stubbs, our narrator, is now an agent for the sinister Estelle de Vere, “Our Lady of the Holocaust” as another of her coerced agents calls her. Stubbs accepts her service in exchange for her not harming his family. De Vere, as he says, has a quite literal scorched-earth policy when dealing with humans suspected of alien contamination. Her TDS supposedly stands for Theral Development Service, but he thinks it has other names like Tribus Dies Syndicate.
Lovecraftian heroes frequently end up in insane asylums. But this story starts in one, an asylum in London’s Norwood section, the site of most of Hambling’s Lovecraftian fiction, and most of the action takes place in the asylum.
Stubbs is sent undercover into that asylum to keep his eyes open for something. And that something happens pretty quickly when inmates begin dying in strange, unexplained ways. Another TDS agent tells him he has been sent to look for traces of a “tiger”, a person or force that leaves madness and death behind.
But there’s oddness outside the asylum too with a local showing of The Phantom of the Cinema, a short bit of film that produces some unpleasantness in its audience.
With that, and mention of a Dr. Nye, Lovecraft fans will correctly suspect who we’re dealing with. Of all his uses of Lovecraft’s concepts and characters, this one is the most congruent with the original, and I think the Gentleman from Providence would have been quite pleased.
Stubbs has to go deep into his mental and physical resources to get out of this story alive and that includes his boxing skills.
I’ll admit that, when finishing this novel, I was a bit disappointed it didn’t have as many elements of fringe science, forteana, and alchemy that early novels in the series had.
Then I realized the book was full of them with all the early 20th century notions of madness and cures for it. And the big question here is what is madness? And what is it good for?
Devoted followers of Hambling’s fiction will find ever tightening connections between this and the stories in The Dulwich Horror and Others including at least one significant character from those stories showing up for the first time in Stubbs circle.
It’s the most philosophical of the Stubbs books, and the theme of madness and perception is reflected and refracted and reversed better than any theme in his previous Stubbs books.
Don’t let that put you off, though. This story grabs you as effectively as the early Stubbs novels and has several memorable set pieces.
Hambling has mastered quite well the chaos of creating compelling and modern Lovecraftian fiction.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
The modern world’s concerns show up subtly here.
Dr. Nye’s fall from professional grace reveals faked credentials and faked studies, perhaps Hambling’s commentary on modern science’s, particularly the social sciences, “replication crisis”.
On the other hand, head doctor of the asylum, Dr. Beltov, seems an embodiment of “scientism”. Any theory of madness or curing it is ok with him if it comes with the imprimatur of scientific verification – even dubious ones like Nye’s
There’s even a character with “gender dysphoria” (decidedly not a term Stubbs uses), and the question discussed among the attendants of the asylum is whether that’s the result of a bad brain or a bad body.
There are a few World War One bits so this story gets added to the long list of stories I’m going to be revisiting at some point. Eventually, I want to take a detailed look at Hambling’s work and how it uses both history and Lovecraft as well as its use of World War One material specifically.
More reviews of Lovecraft related fiction are on the Lovecraft page.
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I’m ordering a copy of MASTER OF CHAOS right now! Excellent review!
I really do, at least as far as my tastes go, think Hambling is doing some of the best Lovecraftian fiction out there.
Its combination of science, an unusual hero in Harry Stubbs, tie-ins to Lovecraft’s mythos, and working in of 1920s history is unique. Plus he doesn’t try to imitate Lovecraft’s voice.
Did my previous comment make it?
Many thanks for the review, so glad you enjoyed it.
The e WW1 theme is likely to continue, it was something that marked everyone who was involved – and the cases of ‘shell-shock’ continued to emerge for many years.
You’re right about Nye being a comment on science’s inability to deal with deliberate fraud and fakery – they’re much more concerned with analysing the data than checking if it’s real,
Beltov was inspired by scientist Dr Gottlieb in Sinclair Lewis’ 1925 hit novel Arrowsmith. Beltov goes further though: he’s unable to look at patients as people, and prefers a surgical/chemical/physical approach to actually talking to them. He is entirely benign, but not equipped to deal with the forces of chaos.
Ross, incidentally, owes something to TE Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), who enlisted in the RFC using the name Ross after the war, He wrote up his experiences in The Mint.
Btw you may have spotted Dr Hamilton, who crops up as Sophie’s shrink in Shadows of the Witch House.
And for weird science, Fitzroy’s Storm Glass remains mildly enigmatic…https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22430001-200-storm-warning-can-crystal-gazing-predict-the-weather/
(SPOILERS STILL AHEAD)
I’ll have to admit that, after first finishing the book, your theme of luck and chaos was a bit of a letdown.
But, after I thought about it more, I liked it, and I thought it played in nicely with the balance of horror, chaos, hope, and danger that exists throughout the Stubbs books and also shows up in “Shadows of the Witch House”. “Love in the Time of Nyarlathotep” as it were.
I admit I completely missed Hamilton’s link to the early stories, but I am assuming that Tom the photographer is the Tom from “The Dulwich Horror of 1927”.
I also noticed the concluding initials “WB” in the book and have thought of its possible links to the Dulwich cycle.
I forgot to mention in the review what I detected was a hat tip to Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments
Some of the tech in the asylum put me in mind of Albert Abrams radionics equipment though, as far as I know, he wasn’t interested in mental illness.
BTW, I’m looking forward to your forthcoming robot book. I enjoyed Weapons Grade back when I read it in 2006.
That’s a good way of putting it. I was trying to express the idea that all human existence, indeed all existence, is simply due to the mad churning nuclear chaos occasionally throwing off a random bubble in which life is possible — not because it is benign but because that is just how the dice fall occasionally. As the incarnation of chaos, Nye raises the question of why cosmic forces would have any interest in us…but, as I think HPL establishes, you cannot expect sane answers.
And yes, that’s the same Tom. The process of capturing dreams is an imaginary analog version of current work using brain scanners.– https://gizmodo.com/5843117/scientists-reconstruct-video-clips-from-brain-activity — the conceit being that a talented human would be able to do the job of a computer.
We: Robots was a somewhat mind-expanding experience, there are a lot of robots out there doing amazing stuff. Swarm Troopers: how small drones will conquer the world , written in 2015, now looks highly prophetic (…review copies available!)
And yes, that’s Milgram!
I ordered THE ELDER ICE and read it in one sitting. My review will be posted to my blog (http:\\georgekelley.org) on April 12, 2018. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll be reading Hambling’s other works in the months ahead.
I’ll be looking forward to it.