Review by William Dean
June 8, 2020
David Hambling is an author I’m increasingly coming to laud. Elsewhere on this site I’ve reviewed the first two Lovecraftian novellas in his Harry Stubbs adventure series, but this particular volume - The Dulwich Horror - collects a number of his short stories which I believe represent his best work to date.
First of all, let’s get this out of the way: yes, you read that title correctly – it’s the Dulwich Horror, and not to be confused with Lovecraft’s own tale the Dunwich Horror. Dulwich, if you’re not familiar with it, is a suburb of south London and happens to be the author’s real-world home. Very much in the same fashion that Lovecraft created a rich setting – Arkham, Kingsport, Innsmouth et al. – for his tales in New England and Ramsey Campbell developed Goatswood and the Severn Valley as the stomping ground for his mythos tales, so has Hambling turned the area of Dulwich into his own bailiwick of cosmic horror. This is the theme of this collection then: Lovecraftian and mythos tales set within Dulwich.
The stories themselves, although sharing the same broad locale, take a number approaches and explore a number of themes. A few, set in the 1920s, share characters and loosely follow on from one another – I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy a continuation of story in the classic manner of a tabletop Call of Cthulhu campaign – and even have some subtle Easter-Egg-like links to the Harry Stubbs adventures for eagle-eyed readers to spot. Some of the tales are creeping terrifying mysteries (the title story, The Dulwich Horror of 1927); others are brooding existential horrors, heavy on mood (The Norwood Builder). A particular favourite of mine was Two Fingers, which successfully critiques modern British society and ambitions while telling an excellent weird-gothic suspense story. High action and adventure are not absent either, present in several tales in varying degrees (The Thing in the Vault, The Monsters in the Park, The Devils in the Deep Blue Sea and the titular story). Across all of them, I felt that the collection’s real strength is its imaginative ideas: how well the author has understood Lovecraft's fascinating conceptions and has successfully expanded upon them to paint fresh and broader meaning. The whole volume gave me a real shiver.
Hambling's prose is really very good, and I think in these short tales he’s at his absolute best. His Harry Stubbs stories, while highly enjoyable, are much faster paced adventures in a superficial resemblance to the pulps, whereas in these tales Hambling is able to take his time over the scenes and capture everything with exquisite clarity. Characters – believable ones, with depth and that we can empathise with, even the villains – are a real forte for him, but he also draws the locales and develops atmosphere and mood beautifully. They are of course well-paced too, but the short-form vehicle allows him to generate a much more intense experience in each story.
The only thing that let me down about this book was that eventually it was over. I found it a really excellent and enjoyable read. Hambling gets everything right in this volume: the characters whom you can’t help but root for, the picture-perfect south London setting, the inveigling moods and atmospheres, and the exciting plots which drag you inexorably forward with them, like the mechanism of some horrible but captivating machine pulling you towards some glorious and horrific end.
I initially read the 1st edition hardback a couple of years ago, was impressed enough to move onto his other writings and have now just re-read it out of sheer pleasure. A brief word on the presentation - the print version, like all books from PS Publishing , is handsomely bound and an especial pleasure to read from. It deserves to be back in print, but in the meantime the stories can be enjoyed in e-book format.