Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Green & Unpleasant Land

Ian Edginton is no stranger to the Cosmic Horror that is the hallmark of the Cthulhu Mythos, his most notable contribution (with artist I.N.J. Culbard), being the graphic novel adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. With his latest stories, Ampney Crucis Investigates…, he dabbles and hints at the Mythos rather than drawing directly from Lovecraft’s works, just as he did with 2003’s Leviathan. As with Leviathan, these new tales originally appeared in the British weekly comic, 2000 AD and are now collected into volume of their own.

Ampney Crucis Investigates… Vile Bodies introduces us to Ampney Crucis, upstanding member of the British nobility (and not a small village in the Cotswolds) and Eddie Cromwell, Crucis’ stalwart man servant. Once tipped for high things, a strange otherworldly encounter in No-Man’s Land during the Great War, tipped him into temporary madness from which he has since recovered. The encounter has also left him with both a sense for the outré and a certain strength to withstand its malign power. A decade onwards and Lord Crucis is drawn to investigating the occult as its insidious influence infects dissolutely the Green and Pleasant Land that he holds so dear.

Ampney Crucis Investigates… Vile Bodies contains two cases, the titular story being the first in which Crucis must come to the aid of Lady Calliope Wykes, once his fiancée, but now driven from her home by the overripe advances of her husband. The second story, “The End of the Pier Show,” sends Crucis to a Northern seaside resort gone all to hell after his Lordship’s man Crowell, receives a postcard from a friend he saw shot dead during the Great War. Of the two stories, “Vile Bodies” feels very much the pilot, being a straightforward horror tale whose apian fecundity suggests at the influence of Shub-Niggurath. “The End of the Pier Show” is where the author and artist, Simon Davis, begin to really enjoy themselves, whether it is Crucis’ quartet of maiden aunts being depicted as the United Kingdom’s leading acting dames of the twenty-first century or hinting at the seediness underlying the polite façade of a seaside town with an artistic nod to the saucy postcards of Donald McGill. The threat faced is less obviously Lovecraftian, much more open to interpretation, but far more grounded in the woes of the period.

As the hero of the piece, Ampney Crucis draws from a familiar British archetype – the upper class twit with his resourceful servant. He is in part Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, but Crucis is no fool, and Cromwell no urbane Jeeves, but rather more akin to Parker of Thunderbirds. Initially and outwardly, the pair do feel like the stereotypes that the author draws from, but by placing them in dire circumstances, their polite façade drops and they become more comradely with each other, lifting their portrayal out of caricature.

Simon Davis’ rich illustrations capture the delineation between the threats and the threatened. The inhabitants of dissolute England are pallid and wain, whilst the threats that Crucis and Cromwell must face are painted in swathes of rich colour.

The characters and situations of Ampney Crucis Investigates… would work as easily in print as on the radio – the latter perhaps the only other medium where its colours could be as rich – helped as much by our familiarity with its characters as its situations. There are certainly and hopefully, more of his Lordship’s investigations to be told of and collected, as the tales in Vile Bodies are most entertaining. That they are not overly Lovecraftian should not dissuade the reader, for these delightfully place manners against monstrosities.

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