Griffis inverts the classic Lovecraftian trope of humans amid an incomprehensible universe, portraying human society as a thing incomprehensible to an eldritch monstrosity.
The hierarchies of the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones exist within gulfs and spans incomprehensible to the human mind but they exist; and when humans interact they must be put in their rightful position. Narg works in Human Restraint, the department responsible for what happens to those who interact fatally, and is content in his life; however, when his uncle asks him to undertake a mission to human reality, he does what he’s told. Unfortunately, one of the things he hasn’t been told is what he’s supposed to be doing.
Griffis’ novel shows Lovecraft’s cosmos from the other side, casting it as a massive bureaucracy with shoggoths and other beings undertaking tasks that involve humans without actually understanding humans. Whether this conflation seems a brilliant satire on the incomprehensibility of bureaucracy or a thin veneer of cosmicism over generic humorous fantasy is likely to depend on what readers demand of a “mythos” tale.
The plot is, as one would expect of satire, a serious matter seen from an absurd perspective and unfolding farcically: in this case, an inhuman creature attempting to blend into mid-Twentieth Century US academia that is filled with cultists. It is here that Griffis’ central idea is at it’s most powerful: with a protagonist who doesn’t share a mortal frame of reference, let alone common human experiences, no misunderstanding is too implausible, allowing the novel to highlight absurdities that might seem too far even for encounters between alien civilisations.
While Griffis takes full advantage of this freedom to be absurd, he is careful not to allow it to his characters. The humans, both cultist and not, each regard their world and behaviour as sensible rather than comedic; and, although Narg considers their behaviour farcical at times, that belief stems from the humans’ perspectives differing from his own (unconsciously flawed) accepted truth rather than from an objective assessment. Thus, readers can experience the anticipation that makes a pratfall more humorous to watch without the sense that characters are acting that way because the joke requires it rather than because that is what they think is the right thing to do.
Unsurprisingly for a book featuring Lovecraftian cults, some of the scenes involve mutilation and other body horror. While this is gory, it is not gratuitous and is skilfully balanced by the humour. Thus, readers who do not avoid visceral horror altogether are likely to find most, if not all, of it enhances rather than detracts from the tone of comedy.
Where Griffis’ premise is likely to be most divisive is in Narg itself. Narg is a highly sympathetic protagonist, who might not address challenges in the way the reader would but whose struggle will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has been caught up in the processes of a massive organisation. This makes it an excellent point-of-view character for a novel but this ease of empathy equally makes it almost the antithesis of the incomprehensible other that lies at the heart of cosmic horror.
The supporting cast are well-crafted for a farce on US academia and eldritch cults, filled with characters who are amusing because they are seen from the perspective of an absurd world but would be tragic, heroic, or creepy in a different world.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers who are seeking a fast-paced fantasy satire and don’t consider Lovecraft’s mythos off-limits for loving mockery.