Nick Mamatas, Move Under Ground (Night Shade Books, 2004)

In my earlier review of the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street, I noted the literary trope of the crossover, in which characters from two entirely different milieus are brought together. Move Under Ground is another crossover volume, this one bringing together the largest figures of the Beat era and the Lovecraft mythos.

Taking place early in the 1960s, Jack Kerouac is fighting the aftereffects of a nervous breakdown on the coast of California when he looks out into the Pacific and witnesses the rising of R'lyeh from the waters, in turn heralding the return of dead Cthulhu. Kerouac goes off, again "on the road," in search of his friend Neal Cassady, who may have some kind of secret knowledge of the horror that is about to unfold across the nation. Kerouac is joined by yet another of the great figures of the period, William S. Burroughs, and the three set out to confront Cthulhu.

At least, that's what I think happens.

My approach to reviewing has always mirrored Roger Ebert's: my task is to report the experience I had in exploring a work, whatever that experience might have been, and to give possible reasons why my experience may have been what it was. My problem with Move Under Ground is twofold: not only can I not figure out any reasons for my experience in reading it, I'm having trouble even figuring out what that experience was.

Now, a key to enjoying any kind of "crossover" story is that one generally should understand the basics of the two genres or milieus being brought together. The problem is that crossovers generally involve two sets of tropes being set in contrast to one another, with in-jokes and references and interplay between characters often springing from two different original authors, and often times, from two entirely different genres. A reader not at least conversant in both sides of the crossover will have a difficult time understanding the inner parts of the story.

You can see my problem.

In the case of Move Under Ground, while I'm moderately conversant in the Cthulhu Mythos, I am completely ignorant of the Beats. Somehow, I have managed to get to the current point of my life without ever reading Kerouac's On the Road, anything by William Burroughs, or any of Allen Ginsberg. I had to do some online research in the course of reading Mamatas' book just to learn some background on the Beats, primarily that Neal Cassady was a real figure whose letters apparently inspired Kerouac, along with other tidbits.

As for the Lovecraft-inspired portions of the novel, I enjoyed those a good deal. My unfamiliarity with the Beats aside, there's something groovy in the idea of an entire world becoming perverted by Dark Cthulhu, and the only people who know it are the spiritual godfathers of the American "counterculture". I enjoyed the interactions of these characters to the extent that I was able to understand them, and the book still satisfied at least in part. Mamatas's prose is confident, and if I can't judge the authenticity of what he is trying to do, I can at least voice my suspicion that were I to do my homework, I would find him quite authentic indeed.

I can't honestly claim to have liked Mamatas's work here, but neither can I claim to honestly dislike it, either. The feeling I had reading Move Under Ground was not unlike the very first time I tried to read, say, Thomas Pynchon: a sense that there are jokes here, and that if I got them I'd find them funny, but I don't get them, so I'm laughing nervously in what I hope are the right places. Not a bad way to read a book, I guess, but not the best way, either.


[Kelly Sedinger]