What do authors H.P. Lovecraft and Edward Stratemeyer have in common? Until recently, one could rightly and safely answer “Very little”. But now, one must add “Tom Lucas”. That answer, of course, begs another question: Who the heck is Tom Lucas?
Well, Tom Lucas is an author, and among his writings are three novels. The first was Leather to the Corinthians (2012), an epic, nightmarish, pun-fueled satire of corporate culture consumerism. The narrative doesn’t cross genre boundaries or even obliterate them; it ignores them as if they never existed. The characters are as uncanny as uncanny can be yet as relatable as your Uncle Joe and Aunt Minnie. Well, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Minne, anyway. Existential, comic, violent, absurdist, surreal, Post-Modern, New Lit – an endless litany of descriptors can’t do Leather to the Corinthians justice. However, the overused clichéd phrase of “A Truly Original Masterwork” comes as close as we are likely to get.
Next came Pax Titanus (2014). You could call it Science Fiction. You could call it Fantasy. You could call it a Delirious Abomination Unto Humanity, masquerading as Po-Mo Pop-Lit. And you would, wouldn’t you? Pax Titanus is vile, disgusting, putrid, rancid, and downright off-putting in all the best, nicest, and most proper ways. Readers are advised to keep a barf bag handy for the moments between the incessant laughing jags they will be experiencing. Not surprisingly, Pax Titanus isn’t for everyone. It may not be for anyone—all the more reason to seek it out ASAP and relish in the revulsion.
So, how could Lucas follow up this extraordinary one-two literary punch? He may have even paused for rest because it is nine years later that we have the follow-up opus, his third novel, Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair. This is where Lovecraft and Stratemeyer come in.
H.P. Lovecraft was, of course, a pulp author specializing in what we now call Speculative Fiction and Fantasy, active from the mid-1910s to the late 1930s. The last half-century has seen his status as a significant author rise considerably. Lovecraft’s work and the works he directly influenced are nearly legion across all media forms and platforms, most famously his Cthulhu Mythos and versions thereof.
But what of Stratemeyer? Edward Stratemeyer was a prolific author and publisher. His enduring influence and fame come from his Stratemeyer Syndicate company and its process of using freelance writers paid a flat rate for their books with the Syndicate keeping the copyrights. The most successful of the Syndicate’s publications was the long-running series of children’s mystery and adventure series. The most notable and enduring of these have been the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew volumes.
And now comes Tom Lucas with Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair to fuse elements of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos into a Stratemeyer world. We meet an all-American small-town Stratemeyer nuclear family, the Carters. Mom, Dad, and two child siblings, a boy (Randy) and a girl (Charlie) move from their provincial town of Serenity Bay to the small city of Effingmouth (as in “Shut Your”). The siblings are old hands at solving the oh-so-typical Stratemeyer mysteries.
But the author (Lucas, appearing as…uh, himself) warns us that all is not as it seems and the nameless, eldritch forces of the old ones, including Cthulhu himself (itself?) are about to wreak havoc. And not just in the novel’s fictional world but also in the reader’s reality. Lucas warns us not to continue reading since the act of reading the text reifies it and brings on the apocalypse despite his and his character’s valiant attempts to stifle it.
Lucas captures the tone of the Stratemeyer classics perfectly and, dare one say it, lovingly. Randy and Charlie and the whole ethos of the narrative are spot-on parodies of the character types and tropes of the Syndicate novels. But there is a deep and abiding respect for a parody that is this succinct and accurate. Each chapter ends with instructions to turn to a place near the end of the book for an explanation as to how the siblings solved the mini-mystery or dealt with the chapter’s crises.
As the narrative continues, the Lovecraftian aspects intrude into Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair’s reality with greater frequency and harsher results. Simultaneously, we get messages from the author detailing his struggles with that same narrative escaping his control as he battles against the denizens of Lovecraft’s creations, reminding us that by continuing to read, we are complicit in the devastation. As he does with Stratemeyer, Lucas has his Lovecraft clichés down pat as well.
Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair is as funny as it is clever. Fans of Lovecraft and his artistic progeny will likely laugh out loud at parts, but you don’t have to be a hardcore Lovecraft fan or expert to get the joke(s). Readers who grew up with Nancy Drew and/or The Hardy Boys, even tangentially, will also find the laughs frequent and deep. This pitch-perfect comedic mash-up becomes a textbook example of how to play with both form and content without getting lost in the self-reflexive postmodern labyrinth of chasing one’s tail and never catching it. The closing chapter (chapter 13, of course) pulls Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair into the sublime realm. I’d hesitate to call it the perfect finish, except it is, in every way.
Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair is Lucas’ most approachable book, a quick, fun, and hilarious read, demonstrating that Lucas is a real creative force and a talent worthy of a wide audience.
Sea Dagons indeed!