Book Review: Prey

Prey is really not so much a direct sequel to H.P. Lovecraft‘s novella “The Dreams in the Witch-House” as it is another story involving two key characters, the witch Kezia Mason and her familiar, the abhorrent rat/human hybrid Brown Jenkin. Author Graham Masterton‘s writing style is nothing like the old master’s. Lovecraft was unparalleled at crafting an atmosphere of dread by using unsettling language. Masterton’s prose is far more mundane, and he revels in details of gore and sex that would have left Lovecraft aghast. And, to top it all off, Masterton’s overall tone is starkly at odds with Lovecraft in general, and “Witch-House” in particular.

My affection for the original tale is what compelled me to track down this new novel. Brown Jenkin’s elliptical appearances in Lovecraft’s piece left an indelible mark on my psyche, and the star-headed, barrel-shaped Old Ones are also a favorite with me. In Lovecraft’s short story, Miskatonic student Walter Gilman rents a cursed room in Arkham’s famed Witch House. As a math scholar, he is fascinated by the strangely shaped room, which seems to defy the laws of physics. While sleeping there, Gilman is troubled by lurid dreams of traveling through space and having encounters with Lovecraft’s trademark strange creatures, described as sentient “iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles” and visiting a blasphemous city of Elder Things. I believe the story (though not popular among Lovecraft aficionados) is eminently worth reading, so I won’t spoil it here, but it does rely on ideas of using mathematics to unlock the secrets of the universe.

In contrast, Masterton’s hero, David Williams, is a single-father handyman who knows more about carpentry than non-Euclidian geometry, and he travels not through space, but back in time. Hired to refurbish the reputedly-haunted Fortyfoot House on the Isle of Wight, David discovers that the angles of the house’s roof don’t seem to match the interior, and that the attic contains a trapdoor connected to the year 1886, where the house’s owner was cavorting with sinister forces trying to bring about the end of the world. Two of those forces, the witch Kezia and Brown Jenkin, cross over to 1992 to wreak havoc on David, his son Danny and especially his girlfriend Liz. It is clear that Masterton wants us to root for the power of love, but throughout the novel David struggles to keep Liz at arm’s length, so we’re left wondering how he will balance her fate against the entire world’s.

The most pervasive presence in Prey is Brown Jenkin, who Masterton suggests is the demonic offspring of Mason; Jenkin is depicted as a ruthless killer dressed in children’s clothing who speaks a tortured amalgam of English, German and French in every sentence. This removes a lot of mystery from the character, which disappointed me greatly, because I found the original depiction of Brown Jenkin to be highly disturbing. Lovecraft described the vile beast thusly:

“Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands.”

How Brown Jenkin, Mason and the Witch-House itself crossed the Atlantic from Lovecraft’s New England to coastal England is never addressed, but Masterton does attempt to link the concept of employing geometry and mathematics for time travel to ancient Sumeria by likening the construction of Fortyfoot House to Sumerian ziggurats.

Perhaps I am a little overprotective of the original, but in the final analysis, Prey veers so widely from Lovecraft in form, technique and content that there seems to be very little reason why this book was written as a sequel, other than perhaps to pay homage to one of the most influential (and yet little-acknowledged) authors of the 20th century. Had Masterton come up with original names and cut the few mythos shout-outs and cameos, Prey might have been an adequate modern horror novel rather than a sketchy pastiche.

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