It seems unlikely that anyone would attempt to create a pastiche of the styles of Jack Kerouac and H. P. Lovecraft, even less likely that it could be done successfully, and much less likely still that it should be anything beyond a really clever genre exercise. Yet this is exactly what Nick Mamatas accomplishes in his first novel, Move Under Ground. He forces Kerouac (as a character) into Lovecraft’s cosmos and makes it work.
A reader might ask why. But in this post-whatever era, most are resigned to accepting clever genre exercises for their own sake. So beyond why, the question is raised: how? It’s hard to imagine the intersection of two twentieth-century literary figureheads with such directly opposed ideas about existence. Lovecraft’s writing can easily be interpreted as being, as Michel Houellebecq recently put it in these pages, “against life,” and I’ve always thought Kerouac’s writing to be a frenzied cele- bration of being for the heck of it.
It helps that Mamatas has Kerouac’s voice and personality down cold, from the bebop prose and poetic eye to the sexism and strange helplessness. Ole Jack is Move’s narrator and the book is to be taken, presumably, as one of his autobiographical novels. Thus the frame is familiar: Kerouac joins Neal Cassady (and later, William S. Burroughs) for a cross-country journey full of kicks and wisdom, except this trip is spurred by the rising from the Pacific of the dead city R’lyeh and the awakening of the Elder God Cthulhu. Instead of rediscovering America, Jack and company must save it from the abyss.
The America of their travels is in bad shape.While Lovecraft himself does not appear, the monsters he created in his fiction—the unpronounceable, indescribable, unknowable horrors from beyond that made him legendary—are seizing control and warping reality.They are welcomed by a cult that has spread across the United States. The only people immune to its Call are “the bums and tramps and beatnik kids [who] seemed to have souls.” Another mindless sect is also on the loose, the cult of personality that pestered Kerouac after the publication of On the Road. Jack begins and ends Move in hiding from a public that doesn’t understand him. The coincidental fallout of the two cults can be quite amusing. Around Denver, Kerouac meets a beatnik who fails to recognize him. When he asks her to read to him some of the book she’s engrossed in, it turns out to be the very one he is narrating.
The book is shot through with Buddhist mysticism, which provides a necessary and logical link between Kerouacian joie de vivre and Lovecraftian oblivion. If the merciless truth of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror reduces mortal men to psychic shambles, it must, Mamatas seems to say, take someone as enamored of life as Kerouac (balanced by Buddhism) to resist. And resist he does.
Move Under Ground is not Jack Kerouac writing about H. P. Lovecraft’s universe; it’s Nick Mamatas writing as Kerouac against Lovecraft’s view of the universe. When Kerouac literally looks into the sky and sees that the universe not only does not love him, but actually contains forces that actively hate him—the point where most of Lovecraft’s narrators throw in the towel and the story ends—he begins to become infected with an uncharacteristic misanthropy. But that’s all.