This review is by Peter Rawlik, author of The Peaslee Papers, Reanimators, and more.
Purchase Screens here. Garden Path, January 2021.
Screens is billed as a “chilling near-future dystopia”, and given the current state of the world I would not normally have read such a thing, but then I flipped the pages and I saw the second dedication, “For Frank Belknap Long, who made THEM real to me.” That was all it took, and honestly the author should have lead with that.
Screens is a novel, apparently the fourth book in The Seven Coins Drowning series, which are apparently thematically linked interpretations of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is also apparently linked to another of Laine’s works a book called In the Realm of the Midnight Gardner. It doesn’t appear that one needs to read these other books to understand and enjoy Screens.
The opening pages of Screens are an introduction to a conspiracy theory concerning The Network and the Manuscript, which they distribute. You cannot buy the Manuscript, you cannot read it on-line, indeed that is a fundamental plot point of the whole book. The digital world is dangerous, it serves as a portal for something otherworldly to enter our reality, and feed on humanity. Given that state the Manuscript cannot be scanned or duplicated by anything with a screen, it is advised not even to read it in the presence of anything with a screen. This little bit of world-building served to pull me out of the narrative for I could easily think of more than a half dozen ways to mass produce a manuscript without using anything with a screen, including a printing press, woodcuts, photography, stencils, mimeographs, thermofax, and even xerography. Following this rather long introduction, one realizes that Screens is itself the Manuscript in question, and we descend into the core narrative, the story of James who works as a bicycle messenger, was once addicted to heroin, and who had some years ago once read a book by Halpin Chalmers.
Halpin Chalmers of course is the doomed novelist from Frank Belknap Long’s story The Hounds of Tindalos, a story now considered one of the key narratives of the Cthulhu Mythos, but which surprisingly contains no direct ties to the mythos within its own narrative. It is however linked to the mythos through the setting Partridgeville, and the narrator Frank, both of which appear in Long’s story The Space Eaters, which is directly linked to the mythos by a quote at the beginning of the story from the Necronomicon.
Laine’s novel details James’ rather mediocre life in the Nineteen-Nineties, during which he is gifted a book by and about Halpin Chalmers, and then goes in search of Liao, the drug that Halpin Chalmers used to travel in time, and attract the attention of the Hounds of Tindalos in the first place. Here Laine’s interpretation of the Hounds deviates from that of other writers. Where others have seen the Hounds as the terrible guardians of time, Laine’s Hounds are an invading force, a parasitic race feeding off of mankind through the now prevalent screens that link our eyes to the digital world of the Internet.
At first I found this reinterpretation troublesome, but the more I thought about it the more it grew on me. What’s more is that I openly debated whether Screens was a sequel to Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos, or more rightly his The Space Eaters. Many of Laine’s descriptions of the Hounds seem more at home with the latter, rather than the former, and I’ve come to realize that the answer may not be one or the other, but rather both. That realization has fundamentally changed my perspective on Laine’s work. It may be a radical interpretation of Long’s story, but there isn’t anything wrong with that. Its been done before. Most notably by Colin Wilson whose novels The Space Vampires, The Mind Parasites, and The Philosopher’s Stone, all radically reinterpreted the mythos, bent it into a new direction, one steeped in the deep philosophical debate of what is reality, how do we perceive it, and ultimately relate to it as sentient creatures. Wilson’s work was underpinned by Existentialism; Laing’s work relies on the paranoia and associated disinformation that has sprung up at the dawn of the Twenty-First Century. He takes full advantage of the frenetic, frantic and fumbling manner in which humanity is flailing about as technology quickly outpaces mankind’s ability to adapt, and some seek solace in nostalgia for decades they were never even a part of.
Laine’s other books in this series may not be linked to the Cthulhu Mythos but I’m certainly going to seek them out and pursue how he has built this world, and how it all fits together.