SOMETHING FROM BELOW by S T Joshi -- a review

Review by Gary Fry

S T Joshi has spent the great majority of his career commenting upon and editing/publishing work focused on cosmic horror, with only the occasional foray into writing any himself. But now we have a novella squarely located in that (other)world, so I guess we need to ask, given Joshi’s analytical expertise in this subgenre, whether he can pull off the same standard of material in a fictional sense.

The book opens with Alison Mannering returning to her native town shortly after her father’s death. Her father worked at a local mine, the main source of employment in the area, and there are suspicious circumstances involved in his demise. Cue Alison’s investigations into recent events, all of which draw her inexorably down into the mine itself.

The author is good at establishing character, his first-person narrative convincing in its details of a woman seeking reintegration into the locality of her youth. The friction with her mother, reacquaintance with an old boyfriend, and then ad hoc sleuthing are all conveyed in a highly readable prose with more than a dash of style about it.

The novella unfolds at a steady pace, with a familiar string of developments. After accessing information from old newspapers at a local library, Alison conducts enquiries with the spouses of other men who have died at the mine, before becoming aware of the business’s nefarious owner, whose ultimate appearance is pleasingly counterintuitive. Yes, he’s the villain of the piece but not quite in the way similar fictions might lead the reader to expect. I found this a neat twist in a piece that felt for the large part conventional. Indeed, the last quarter transforms the whole, though hints of its subversive nature have been present all along.

Indeed, Joshi strays into potentially controversial territory when he reveals the methods to which Alison resorts in order to manage her investigations. This involves sexually manipulating her former boyfriend, a development that some readers will interpret as her being wilfully independent and others might consider rather typical of a male author. All the same, given the novella’s denouement, this focus on sexuality is required, and whether it is justified will depend on how each reader interprets that conclusion.

Myself, I found it both pleasing in a traditional cosmic horror sense and reticently suggestive of gender politics. The piece certainly turns out to be more ambitious than any number of other Lovecraftian pieces in which the “thing” stands for nothing other than an otherworldly entity, however effectively conveyed. Joshi’s provocative central character, and the moral dilemma she ultimately faces, will probably divide the field’s community, but rather that than the “safe” horror I see so often and find tiresomely unmemorable.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this lengthy novella and read it in a single sitting, at first settling into its cosy familiarity and then feeling rattled by that edgy ending. A few minor issues struck me, mainly lapses in the author’s style. Amid original and incisive paragraphs, I found such stock phrases as “snoring her head off” and “stopped in my tracks” and, worst of all because these appear within the space of several lines, “bigger fish to fry” and “taking the bull by the horns”. Here we have missed opportunities to make the prose shine. Joshi also seems enamoured of the (unusual) word “mulishly”, as it appears several times in the novella, but that really is being overly fussy.

What we have here then is a striking addition to the cosmic horror subgenre, one that’s bound to divide readers, particularly, I feel, during this period of high-stake gender politics, the so-called “male gaze”, and issues of fictional appropriation. All this constitutes the broader cultural context into which Joshi releases his novella, but nobody could ever accuse him of shying away from potential controversy or of being boring. I truly admired this work, and what that says about me can only be decided if you buy and read the book. So just follow the link below.

SOMETHING FROM BELOW can be purchased from PS Publishing:


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