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Alien Stars is a thrilling adventure in the spirit of HP Lovecraft: 1920s science collides with cosmic horror as ex-boxer Harry Stubbs encounters an insidious alien force.

A gruesome discovery in a ladies’ boarding house is just the start. What is the secret worth killing for in the Horniman Museum? What drove the under-gardener insane? When is a beetle not a beetle? Mysteries and bodies pile up, and Harry will need his brains as well as his formidable fists to crack the case. Skinner, his cheerfully reckless partner is not to be trusted, and the alluring Miss De Vere is knowledgeable but dangerous…time is running out as the stars wheel towards a cataclysm that only Harry can prevent.

What makes your world special or different?

The series is set in Norwood – my part of South London — in the 1920s, and builds on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Each story uses local history and local characters as the starting point, filling in gaps with fiction and fitting them together into a larger picture.

For the first book I used Sir Ernest Shackleton, a famous polar explorer; the second one involves medium Madame Blavatsky, who stayed briefly in Norwood, and a notably dangerous member of her circle,. Alien Stars third is centered around the Horniman Museum, a local landmark which started with the collection of curios amassed by a local tea baron during his foreign jaunts in the Victorian era.

The underlying elements mine a pure strain of Lovecraft. HPL was a committed disbeliever in the supernatural who looked for a scientific explanation for traditional folklore. Following Machen, he started out the trend for lost nonhuman civilizations with powers (and motives) beyond our imagination, who might be taken for gods. If magic exists there is science underlying it.

There are good reasons for situating it in 1920s, an era of astonishing technological and social development which mirror ours own. Mass communication in the form of radio and cinema were opening up new worlds, science was advancing by leaps and bounds — Edwin Hubble gets a shout in Alien Stars for his then-recent discovery of extra-galactic objects. Women in particular were enjoying an entirely new sort of freedom and breaking into traditional male domains. There was a darker side, as new technologies were weaponized to bring the potential for mass destruction, and the nascent science of racial difference – so important to people like Lovecraft – opened up dark possibilities for institutionalized racism. How far we have come…or not.

All this is a great opportunity to put some modern spin on Lovecraft’s vision (and fill in some vital details) while staying true to the spirit of cosmic horror and enjoying the immersive experience of life in a very different era.

This 1920s Norwood-based world, which is the setting for the Harry Stubbs series as well as my collection The Dulwich Horror & Others,  and stories in ST Joshi’s Black Wings collections,  has its own Facebook page, with maps, pictures and more —

How does your main character fit into this world?

Harry Stubbs himself is a far cry from Lovecraft’s delicate, scholarly gentlemen, being a good deal less educated and a long way down in the social pecking order – and rather more robust.  Having worked as a butcher’s boy, served in the Royal Artillery during the Great War, and briefly as a heavyweight boxer, he is no stranger to blood and violence, though he is anything but violent himself. Harry is a great fan of popular novels – John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, H Rider Haggard – and this has given him a hunger for adventure beyond the ordinary.

Harry’s career prospects are limited, and much of his income comes from working as a debt collector and carrying out jobs for his patron Arthur Renville, whose business interests lie in a legal grey area. Referring to Arthur as a gangster would be a terrible gaffe; Arthur himself is all tolerance, but some of his friends might be moved to explain your error to you in as dark alley.

In Alien Stars, Harry is employed to find a mysterious Maguffin on the basis of his previous successes. Naturally, the task gets both weird and lethal.

Is there a system of magic?

The system of magic – for want of a better word – draws heavily on Paracelsus, the astonishing 16th-century alchemist, physician and proto-scientist.

Paracelsus was several centuries ahead of his time, and disagreed with the medical authorities on everything. He shocked his peers for his lack of respect for accepted sources like Galen and the theory of humors. He believed that wounds should be cleaned and dressed rather than cauterized and treated with poultices. He derided the expensive compounds sold by pharmacists for syphilis as useless while himself developing a the first chemotherapy to treat it. Paracelsus introduced and named laudanum, the first effective painkiller.  He also invented or discovered zinc, alcohol and gnomes – the latter being elemental spirits of earth.

Paracelsus was a believer in natural magic, the inherent powers in things. While some of this, such as the best way to treat wounds, has now been accepted, his other claims – such as creating miniature humans, or restoring plants to life from their ashes – are well ahead of current understanding. Paracelsus claimed to be able to transmit messages instantly over hundreds of miles, and suggested that matter could be converted into energy. Maybe Paracelsus was crazy. Or maybe he was even further ahead than we realized.

((I was also delighted to discover that Paracelsus described a phenomena which he called Necrocomica, which was a gift to someone writing Lovecraftian fiction. A book about Necrocomica would be a Liber Necocomicon…))

This ties in with Lovecraft’s ideas that the sorcerers of old really have tapped powers which, though inexplicable to our current understanding, were as much a part of nature as electricity and gravity.

How does the landscape or geography of your world affect the plot or theme of the story?

One of the greatest joys is building stories around the real-life places.

(One inspiration was a visit to Stockholm when we visited locations mentioned in Steig Larsson’s Millennium series – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc. Until you go there you don’t realize that Larsson used almost entirely locations within a few blocks of where he lived, and I liked the idea.))

 I started off Alien Stars with the idea that there must be something strange lurking in the Horniman Museum, as it is a great sprawling collection of objects from butterflies to mummy cases, gathered in the great days of British Imperialism, when you could plunder anything from an archaeological site without anyone objecting – anyone who mattered. After Horniman started his first museum, various others (or perhaps their exasperated widows) dumped unmanageable collections on him.

Having started on this track, I started looking for a plausible connection between the Museum and the occult – and I was astonished to find a better link thank I could have invented. Thanks, bizarrely enough, to the Nobel-prize winning poet and part-time magician) WB Yeats. The most unlikely elements of the story are the historic ones – you would not dare to make this up.

Another local feature is Gipsy Hill, so-called for the Romany encampment based there for hundreds of years, until the occupants were driven out in the late 19th century. The local Gipsies were famous for magic and fortune-telling; diarist Sam Pepys recorded his wife visiting them in 1668. The Gipsies were dispersed, but their descendants’ caravans still roamed the country in the 1920s – and they play a part in the story too.

The small enclave of Norwood New Town has an equally colorful history. It consists of six streets of workers’ housing, walled off from the rest of the area to keep the rough workmen away from respectable folk. There were two gets which were manned by police at night. The wall no longer exists, but in Harry’s day it was still there, and the New Town was a dangerous place to venture.

The use of real-life locations is a constraint, but it’s also inspiring – the more you start looking at local history and folklore, the more you find. If you look hard enough you can find the strange roots running deep under everything.


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