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The Mall of Cthulhu
by Seamus Cooper
Night Shade Books, $13.95, 256pp
Published: June 2008

Yeah, that's a pun in the title and it's quite a stretch of one, given that the location where dark deeds go down could have been anywhere and was clearly only a mall to make that pun possible.

The rest of the book is a bundle of irreverent fun, though it has little substance to call its own. Whether you like it or not may have more to do with how well you connect to Seamus Cooper's sense of humour. If you do, you'll race through this in no time. If you don't, you're going to wonder what the fuss is all about.

Title notwithstanding, this is more about H P Lovecraft's famed Cthulhu mythos than reminiscent of it. It isn't remotely like the pastiche you might expect. It's a sort of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' pastiche with vampires mostly replaced by the dread lord's cultists.

I say 'mostly' because we begin with a vampire takedown by Ted, a dorky college student who's nicknamed Shaggy by those around him. He takes down a sorority of vampires with awkward style, severing heads, chopping bodies into bits and setting the whole place on fire just to be sure. He also saves Laura from being turned into one of the undead, possibly but not only because he has the hots for her.

Fast forward ten years and the vampires are long gone, but not in the memories of the two survivors. Ted still wakes up every night screaming and blanks out his trauma by working at Queequeg's, a coffee shop in Boston. Laura, by contrast, faced her experience head-on by joining the FBI where she hopes to never be the damsel-in-distress ever again. Their shared horror has led them to be best friends, though Ted is never going to win her in any other way because she's happy being a lesbian.

We might expect their lives to continue on in this vein forever, but the real world crashes in on both their distractions with a vengeance. A customer of Ted's accidentally drops a CD, which Ted picks up and blithely puts in his apron. While Ted is delivering a latte to Laura, that customer returns to Queequeg's to massacre everyone there in an apparent search for the CD. Once again, Ted is a survivor but this time his trauma has him run and run far, which then makes him believe himself to be a suspect.

The Lovecraft connection comes in when Ted examines the CD and realises that a cult of Cthulhu worshippers plan to acquire a copy of the 'Necronomicon' from under the writer's old house in Providence and use it to open portals to let in the elder gods. You know, the usual.

I liked Ted, even though he's a colossal pain in the ass, buried under the trauma of his vampire slaying evening back in college. He reminded me of Odie from the 'Garfield' cartoons, a loyal little puppy who runs around driven by his instincts and doing whatever he believes needs to be done, without the brain to get in the way of all that. He doesn't just act before he thinks; he acts without thinking pretty much all of the time.

I liked Laura too, even if she's clearly Clarice Starling-lite. She's young and green and, while she joined the FBI to kick the butt of the next nest of vampires, she's stuck watching blurry ATM footage of old guys in Florida to try to find some crook who probably isn't even in the state. It's called paying your dues, but she's aching to do something more substantial and so she's naturally right behind Ted when he runs to Providence to take on the Cthulhu cult all on his own.

I liked how all this progressed, even though Ted leaps to every conclusion he has and only gets them right by sheer luck. This is about as far from a procedural as you're ever going to see. Instead, this is Ted following his gut in such outrageous leaps and with such outrageous faith in his decisions that he could be Odie playing Inspector Clouseau. Laura merely gets to attempt to keep him vaguely safe and fails quite spectacularly.

This isn't remotely a Lovecraft pastiche but it does follow the general rules that he set down. Scenes in R'lyeh with Cthulhu himself are utterly irreverent, if not outright blasphemous, but they unfold in traditionally non-Euclidean space. Ted and his companion, an apparent like mind in Cayenne, can't figure out whether they're standing on floors or ceilings or whether one becomes the other halfway through a sentence. It's literally mind-boggling, in all four dimensions too, as the passage of time is impossible to track.

The plot is easy to follow because it's hardly substantial. This is less of a novel and more of a comedy routine translated into prose. Ted and Laura might appear to have depth, but they're really just a set of neuroses riffed on consistently throughout. They're recurring gags rather than characters, even if they're somehow sympathetic enough to root for. They're still much more substantial than their opponents, who are more like a cardboard cutout cult than actual people. Don't ask for their motivation!

Fortunately, given these inherent limitations, the comedy does work. I adored the irreverence, perhaps partly because it was so deliberately offensive. Ted has read Lovecraft but Laura hasn't, so she keeps asking him about 'his racist author' as if he's a personal friend. Cthulhu is reduced to being a villain of the week, though there are limits to the sacrilege. He gets to sleep on, dreaming his dark dreams and sending the sensitive insane.

Maybe he'll be back for a sequel. Cooper wraps this up neatly with a firm beginning and a firm end, but it wouldn't seem too much of a stretch to see Laura and Ted, with their new found companions, continue onwards to face the next villain of the week with biting sarcasm and irreverent wit their most powerful weapons. It could easily be a TV show, but more of a cartoon than anything live action in primetime. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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