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.