“Necroscope”/Cannibal Corpse/fuckin’ br00tal as Criticism

Lying there cold after a torturous death
Your life ended fast you took your last breath
Dead in a grave, your final place
The maggots infest your disfigured face

-Cannibal Corpse, “A Skull full of Maggots”

Let’s talk about “Necroscope”. It’s the first book in an (at present) twenty volume series, which was started in 1986 and the last of which was published in 2013. The author, one Brian Lumley, is still alive, and lives in Torquay, a place I know from the television series Fawlty Towers. I get the impression that he’s mostly retired from writing, and it looks like being an author was kind of a second career for him, so I am assuming the series is ultimately concluded, but one never can be too sure. The Necroscope books are described as ‘best selling’; publishing figures are hard to come by, especially for a lazy essayist, but there’s a general consensus that it’s at least three million copies of the first book were sold, which is better than a sharp stick in the eye, and way worse than say, “Harry Potter”. So sure, they’re best sellers. 

I’ve never met anyone who’s claimed to have read them, or known anyone to talk about them with any enthusiasm. That’s not too surprising, there’s a lot of extremely popular things I personally haven’t engaged with, and as I mentioned in a previous entry, you’ll never see or read it all. That having been said, I interact with a fair number of horror nerds, both in real life and online, and I don’t recall anyone suggesting I read them. I wonder if it’s the sort of thing that captures people at a specific time in their lives, and they grew up with it. If you know, you know, because you’ve followed it from the time you picked it up and have bought each one as they have appeared.

“Necroscope” is also one of the most confusing things I have ever read— there’s a lot of inherent goofiness in it, and a number of things that stick in my craw, which I will mention as I go along, but I can’t (and won’t) trash it because I was ultimately entertained, sometimes because of the  goofiness, and sometimes by Lumley’s world building, and sometimes because it’s exactly the sort of thing that a younger version of me would have admired, and in late middle age that is a comfort. Also, I really don’t view the purpose of this blog as a place to just shit on things. That becomes a drag very rapidly. I’m here to think about things, and yeah, there’s something here to be thought about, even if it’s abstract. So let’s dive in, starting with an anecdote:

I didn’t start listening to heavy metal until I was in my late twenties; I came to it from punk and related things. When I was in high school, hair metal and the like were on the ascendency; Motley Crue and Poison and Quiet Riot and the like were what a lot of the ‘metal dudes’ at high school listened to. I’m fairly certain I bought a copy of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Diary of a Madman” in an attempt to fit in (and I still really like the song S.A.T.O.), but I was the nerdy judgmental dork listening to things on SST records, seeing terrible bands at VFW halls, and the like. I thought of metal as the domain of men wearing spandex and singing about strip bars, and viewed what I listened to as somehow more intellectual and superior, even though it was just nerds singing about Phillip K Dick over a bunch of detuned guitars. 

When Napster became a thing, and the internet opening up more musical discourse, I downloaded some tunes by Cannibal Corpse; a band who’s reputation for extremity piqued my interest. Here was a band singing what amounted to short horror stories about knife wielding maniacs, told in extremely gory detail. Of course, you can’t understand a fucking thing, especially on your first few listens, but these guys 1) sounded incredibly heavy to me, and 2) appeared to at least want to provoke a reaction. To someone like me, that was catnip. I’m not always proud of that, but I would be lying if I didn’t find the fact that Cannibal Corpse had songs with titles like “Meat Hook Sodomy” (and that’s a fairly mild one) sort of attractive simply because it was repulsive. 

“Necrosope” sometimes plays in this same sandbox. There’s an opening description of a Necromancer practicing his art which contains some of the most nauseating stuff I have ever read. The depiction of someone deliberately inhaling gas coming out of a bloated corpse wouldn’t be out of place in a Cannibal Corpse song. It happens early enough in the book to make me wonder if I hadn’t picked up some hidden gorehound classic. However, while there are some further lurid moments, what we ultimately have here is a huge ball of yarn, which I’ll partially unravel: 

“Necroscope” posits that there is a hidden world of people with various kinds of psychic powers. Some, but not all of these people work for government agencies. The book concerns itself with the English branch and the Russian branch of said agencies (which are sometimes called ESPionage), who are in a kind of cold war reflective of the same cold war that was occurring when the book was written. The protagonist of the book is a Necroscope, which, despite sounding like some sort of instrument, is actually an ability. He can talk to the dead. 

It turns out, when we die, that we sort of continue doing what we do when we were alive, in a world of the mind. If you were, say, an architect, you would continue to build buildings in your mind palace, with no one to interrupt or worries to limit you. So if you were a very good architect, you’d presumably have infinite time to refine your art and create buildings of unparalleled, er, architecture-ness. It’s presumably pleasurable, but the book kind of skims over what happens to sort of ordinary schlubs. It’s implied that people who don’t like living find death a relief, but other dead people (and vampires, which we will have to get to) find it lonely. It’s a fairly hazy depiction of an afterlife, but I won’t fault that, most depictions of an afterlife are hazy. 

Harry Keogh, the titular Necroscope, is a super amazing dude. Everyone who communicates with him in some fashion ends up telling him so. Even his wife reminds us that he’s amazing— “Harry, I’m not as clever as you” she says. My notes contain the phrase ‘the greatest eye-roll ever’ in relation to this. But while the novel paints him as a kind of superman, in reality, he’s just cribbing from dead people. They’re the ones who’ve been doing the thinking. 

Also, and this really bothered me, having someone explain something to you doesn’t mean you’ll grasp it. I can attempt to read Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”, but that shit is hard, and without a serious background in philosophy it’s not going to be overly comprehensible. Lumley kind of addresses this, but by and large, you’re just going to have to accept that this sort of instruction from the dead is magical. And literally every time Keogh does something cool, we’re reminded that the reason he has the capacity to do said cool thing it’s because he can ask a dead guy for advice. 

The antagonist, one Boris Dragosani, is a Necromancer. He too, can talk to the dead, but has to have access to their corpse directly. He literally rips the corpses apart, and through his power, tears their knowledge out of them. It appears to be more limited to situational knowledge. Dragonsai works for the Russians, and is called upon to extract information about, say, if someone is working with others as a double agent more than he’s figuring out how to do math, defend himself, or anything like that. 

Dragosani was granted this power by a vampire. The book calls vampires “Wamphyri”. Wamphyri, in turn sounds to me like some sort of child’s toy, possibly some sort of scary board game from the 70s with a lot of mechanical parts that never worked properly, but you really begged for it for Christmas so now you have to continue pretending to enjoy it. This particular Wamphyri has been imprisoned in the grave, has established some kind of psychic link with Dragosani, and is granting him powers and feeding him information so that Dragosani will help resurrect him, which ultimately doesn’t prove to be all that important to the story, at least as it’s presented in this particular book. 

Wamphyri are actually aliens which have vampire-like characteristics. They possess people, and form a symbiotic relationship with them. This one impregnates Dragosani, something they can only do once during their own lifetimes, which are basically forever, unless they are killed, which is a process that involves destroying both the host and the symbiote. This gives Dragosani additional powers, which when combined with his necromancy, make him an appropriate rival for Keogh, who’s basically superman by the time the novel wraps up. 

There are a fuck ton of side plots involving both Keogh and Dragosani, which I absolutely will not recount here, eventually leading to a fight between the two at the Russian ESP-spy compound, involving Keogh learning to teleport, possibly time travel, and raise zombies to act as his proxies, at least one of whom tells him he’s awesome. 

Both of them die. For Keogh, this is depicted as a kind of freedom and presumably an opportunity to continue to be awesome beyond the confines of space time. For Dragosani it’s a prison, not unlike the one the vampire who gave him his necromantic power was trapped in. 

It’s… a lot. And I’m skipping over huge chunks of plot, including the books framing device, which involves the ghost of Keogh telling the story to Alec Kyle, who’s the new head of the British ESP-spy agency who’s apparently actually writing the book we’re reading, dictated by Keogh and on and on and on. To go back to one of my earliest entries, this book is extremely based around the contract model. Lumley provides you a bunch of plot, and you construct an experience around it. Keogh is a big old Mary-Sue. Everyone likes him and tells him how brilliant he is, but he actually doesn’t have much of a personality that I could pull out of the writing. Dragosani is eeeeeevillll, but he’s given more in the way of motivation than Keogh ever sees. 

The book is also extremely horny. Keogh is a master at the fucking arts, and it’s strongly implied he learned them from a ‘17th century rake’. Dragosani is depicted as a weird virgin but there’s a sub-plot with his aunt and her daughters that I think you can find somewhere on PornHub. The line “beast’s great pole of living flesh” is used to describe a penis. Even the kindly old man who introduces Keogh to the British ESP-spy agency is given a horndog moment when he notices a hot woman on a subway. 

Does it work as horror? I’m gonna say no. It’s too abstract. Unless you accidentally stumble into the hidden world of the book, it’s not something civilians are exposed to. The threat isn’t there, and the protagonists are more like superheroes than people. Effective horror happens on a level where there’s a direct existential threat. This can be in the form of an axe-wielding maniac attempting to hunt you down, or maybe a plague which threatens to wipe out all of humankind, but at some point, it has to be personal. There’s too much plot, and too much of it takes place in the hidden world to feel that threat. There’s an implication that the Wamphyri would be generally awful for humankind, but they are also infighting little bitches who are too annoyed with one another to make that happen.

Cannibal Corpse, oddly, is more directly frightening. Their protagonists in a typical Cannibal Corpse song are awful people doing awful things to strangers; it’s easier to imagine being the victim in the song “Sanded Faceless” than it is to fret about spy vampires. There’s a direct visceral nature to the former, but not to the latter. However, both Cannibal Corpse lyrics and Necroscope are equally goofy, and both really have at their core a desire to entertain first. Anything beyond that is extra. 

In criticism about death metal, you see the word ‘brutal’ thrown around. It’s maybe more meme than reality at this point, but calling something ‘brutal’ is a compliment. It’s heavy-sounding, technical, and also kind of gross at the same time. In the extreme memefication of this sort of compliment we have ‘fuckin’ br00tal’, something so over the top that there’s no other phrase to describe it. It’s… fuckin’ br00tal, dude. The best parts of Necroscope are ‘fuckin’ br00tal’. It’s not looking to be ‘high art’, it’s looking to provide a thrill ride. 

And that brings us to the horrible, unsolvable beating heart of criticism. Do we make these distinctions between high and low, and are they valuable? Is it sufficient to say that a work does what it sets out to do, and that’s it, or do we ask for it to do more. Is fuckin’ br00tal enough? And if we fall short of constantly, relentlessly fuckin’ br00tal, do we continue on anyway for those nuggets?

It’s not my desire to come over all Albert Camus, asking the big questions and then pretending they are the big answers, but a book like this one gives me an opportunity to think about these questions in a way that a more deliberately literary work does not.  

In one sense, “Necroscope” really succeeds: I want to know where all this goes in the ensuing books. I want to see how Lumley can keep this level of insanity going, even though there’s a number of parts of said insanity that it’s tough for me to engage with authentically, particularly the horny parts. 

I own every album Cannibal Corpse has released. They get better produced over time, the band’s chops improve, and yet they stay the same. I’m hoping that the Necroscope series is ultimately like this; the rough edges slowly filed off and the sort of glorious insanity getting heavier. Time will tell if it’s all brutal enough to continue with. 

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