What is The Elder Ice about?
A classic 1920s science fiction novella — with a 21st century twist. Ex-boxer Harry Stubbs is on the trail of a mysterious legacy in South London. A polar explorer has died, leaving huge debts and hints of a priceless find. Harry’s informants seem to be talking in riddles, he finds that isn’t the only one on the trail — and what he’s looking for is as lethal as it is valuable, leaving a trail of oddly-mutilated bodies. The key to the enigma lies in an ancient Arabian book, leading to something more alien and more horrifying than Harry could ever imagine. Harry is not be an educated man, but he has an open mind, bulldog persistence and piledriver fists — important assets when you’re boxing the darkest of shadows.
The story of mystery and horror draws on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and is inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s incredible real-life Antarctic adventures.
“THE ELDER ICE is a thoroughly engaging read, embodying all the virtues — smooth-flowing prose, crisply delineated characters, effective portrayal of the historical period, and a powerful horrific climax — that we have come to expect in David Hambling’s work.” — S. T. Joshi
I don’t normally write reviews of novellas. There’s so much to write about with longer form works that it seems like a waste to do a review over something under a hundred pages. However, sometimes I find myself reading books which I think deserve reviews despite this and lead into larger more interesting categories. One of these books is The Elder Ice by David Hambling, which clocks in at just under a hundred pages. It is the beginning of the Harry Stubbs adventures and that is a series which I think of as some of the best Lovecraft inspired novels currently available.
The premise is Harry Stubbs is a former boxer and World War 1 veteran who has become basically a sort of repo man working for a law firm. When clients die with debts, he has the rather sleazy job of going to their relatives in search of money. This puts him in touch with the brother of an eccentric explorer who, allegedly, found a kingdom in the Antarctic or at least something incredibly valuable. Harry, himself, is skeptical but soon finds himself surrounded by people willing to believe in lost pre-human treasure.
The book is a side-story to the events of Into the Mountains of Madness. H.P. Lovecraft’s famous story about a expedition to Antarctica which ends horribly when they encountered a group of aliens that destroyed them. It was, perhaps more famously, the basis for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and would have been a movie by Guillermo del Toro. Speaking as a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s work (I even wrote my own novels in the Mythos with the Cthulhu Armageddon series), I’m fairly critical of pastiches set in his world due to the fact most people just throw in some references and don’t do much world-building. This is the opposite of that and really makes use of the period, place, and implications of the universe.
The book actually doesn’t focus on the squid element of the Cthulhu Mythos and it’s left ambiguous whether the supernatural is real or not. It’s, instead, an occult mystery that causes Harry to question what is actually true versus what is the flights of fancy by people who desperately want the truth to be real. Harry, as a man who is self-educated, is torn between his own attraction to the idea of the fantastical versus his skepticism.
Harry Stubbs is a very effective protagonist as you can believe he’s tough enough to survive his encounters with cultists and fellow treasure hunters. He reminds me strongly of the best kind of characters created for the old Chaosium Call of Cthulhu RPG. While not a genius, he’s also smarter than his appearance suggests and doesn’t solve nearly as many problems with his fists as I’d expected.
David Hambling does an excellent job of evoking early 20th century Britain, making it feel authentic while also not dwelling on details. It’s a place caught between a transition from a massive empire to a place currently on the decline. Working class Brits like Harry struggle to make ends meat while the adventurers/imperialists of the past are becoming romanticized legends. One moment that I liked was the discussion of the tartigrades that can survive in virtually any environment and how they might relate to something like the (unnamed) Elder Things.
The Elder Ice is short, far too short, and that’s its biggest flaw but it’s entertaining and does a great set up for the next volumes in the series. If you have a love for Cthulhu or even if you don’t, then I think you’ll like this. It’s an excellent period piece that makes use of its setting while also alluded to but not requiring the works of H.P. Lovecraft to function. I also love the ending which reminded me of The Maltese Falcon.