Shakespeare v Lovecraft: A Horror Comedy Mash-up featuring Shakespeare’s Characters and Lovecraft’s Creatures.
William Shakespeare, H.P. Lovecraft, and D.R. O’Brien
Review by Michael R. Collings
There are several reasons why a novel connecting William Shakespeare and H.P. Lovecraft — a pastiche in the manner of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, George Washington: Werewolf, and Snow White and the Seven Dead Dwarves — should work.
Both Shakespeare and Lovecraft wrote about monsters. Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy is a ghost story; his other plays incorporate witches, aberrant states of mind, spirits and monsters, and humans in the grips of unbreakable obsessions. Lovecraft’s fascination with monsters — particularly the Great Old Ones and members of various cults, Cthulhu and otherwise — lies at the core of virtually every story he wrote. In certain areas of the grotesque and the macabre, he is master of many and servant to none.
Shakespeare and Lovecraft meet in the eighteenth century. The “Cult of Shakespeare” that declared him the finest poet/playwright of all times began in the mid-1700s and continued unabated through Lovecraft’s time. In many ways, the “Saint” Shakespeare we know today was invented during that time; many of the legends about the man and the final (to that point, at least) state of many of his plays derive from them. In other ways, Lovecraft seems just as tightly connected to that time. His writing, so problematical for many modern readers, shares characteristics with the masterworks of 18th-century prose. His love of words and his extensive “wordhoard” pay tribute to that earlier time.
Shakespeare and Lovecraft are among the few writers who have become adjectival. When someone mentions “Shakespearean tragedy,” there is at least a general consensus as to what that means. When someone refers to “Lovecraftian horror” there is an equal consensus. Few writers are so definitive as to who they are and so consistent in the characteristics of their writing as to allow that kind of short-hand reference.
Shakespeare and Lovecraft were both independents in a time of relative conformity. Shakespeare was, as I noted years ago, “the Stephen King of his day,” willing to create terror, fear, or downright horror to captivate his audiences, regardless of the conventional theories of play-making. Lovecraft followed his imagination wherever it led, resulting in some of the most extraordinary prose tales of his century.
For all of these reasons, a book titled Shakespeare v Lovecraft, as this one is, should have worked.
This one does not.
It is not terrible. It is simply not engaging, not interesting on either the Shakespearean or the Lovecraftian levels. And perhaps its greatest failing, it does not blend the two into a seamless entity as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
To a large degree, the disjunctures in the book occur in the bridges between a passage from Shakespeare and one from Lovecraft. O’Brien’s writing simply does not live up to the power of his ‘co-authors’ and the story suffers for that. To give an example: on the first page of the story, we find,
A chaotic whirl of waters crashed against the rugged cliff face as ghoulish black clouds of grotesque contour rested and brooded like unwholesome vultures. Sheet after sheet of tropical rain lashed against the meagre [sic] threadbare cloak, soaking him through to the skin, yet the focus of his attentions remained unaltered and his frame remained resolute.
What are the problems here? For one, too many adjectives, several of which would actually strengthen the sentence if they were deleted. Something like — “Chaotic waters crashed against the rugged cliffs as grotesque black clouds brooded like unwholesome vultures” — might be more to the point, and even then rugged seems implicit (in this sentence at least) in cliffs and vultures are generally assumed by their natures to be unwholesome. Sheet after sheet could become sheets (which carries the suggestion of continuous); meagre would have been more in keeping with the rest of the book if spelled in the American manner, meager; a threadbare cloak is by definition meager; and soaked to the skin is a cliché. In an attempt to sound Lovecraftian, the sentences become bloated, cumbersome, awkward.
The next paragraph contains the following:
Could the opportunity for revenge really have presented itself so easily, dare he believe it to be true: that his villainous brother would solely by happenstance to have simply come across his island prison in the current storm?
Since the two clauses are separated by a colon, that becomes unnecessary and the phrase should be something like “true: His villainous brother had come solely by happenstance…” The phrase “would solely by happenstance to have simply come” is garbled and cries for revision.
Such stumbles in writing continue. Prospero (the single character thus far) sees someone coming: “In an instant it was upon him, attempting to wrestle the Necronomicon [sic] from outwith his steely fanatical grasp.” I’m not certain why outwith appears, because it makes no sense.
A few paragraphs later creatures from the ocean’s depth begin to crawl “up the ship’s bough [sic]” as the “hideous waves rolled in frightfully, lashing away cargo and men with ghastly monotony and deliberation.” The words, as used, don’t seem connected to traditional definitions. Lashing away generally means ‘tying securely.’
Further in (p. 20), Henry V’s flagship, the Grace Dieu, is described as having on its deck “His renowned canons, ‘London’, ‘Messenger’, and ‘the King’s daughter’.” While there might have been canons aboard the ship, certainly none of them would have been the King’s daughter.
In addition, there are anachronisms. Henry V (1387-1422) is troubled by the contents of pamphlets found at crime scenes throughout London. Since pamphlets, in the modern sense of the word, only appeared when printing presses had been popularized and literacy had become more widely spread than during the 14th and 15th centuries — some of the earliest surviving chapbooks date from the late 16th and early 17th centuries — they would not have been scattered around London two centuries earlier.
Perhaps more to the point, the three perspectives in Shakespeare v Lovecraft do not mesh. It is one thing to use quotations from either author and place them in new contexts. For me, a sentence such as:
“Clearly, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” the English King [still Henry V] whispered to himself in terrified amazement as he studied the being from another world.
While I can understand the intent behind the quotation, wrenched as it is from its place and time to be used as a response to a Lovecraftian Old One, the line so powerfully says Hamlet that I cannot accept it as an organic part of this story. For the duration of the line, I am elsewhere in my imagination and memory, to the point that the reference to the English King shocks and startles. Elsewhere famous and near-famous quotations from the plays — more Hamlet, and some Macbeth, for example — create the same disjointedness.
My final concern with Shakespeare v Lovecraft is that the story itself seems flat. It is neither particularly horrifying nor recognizably comedic. It is difficult to read … and the fact that I was tripped up by the wobbles referred to above signifies to me that the story was not strong enough to keep my attention focused; the mistakes became more interesting than the characters, the setting, or the plot.