Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Spoilers ahead, so heads up.
In 1999, a young filmmaker named M. Night Shyamalan broke onto the scene with his debut full length, The Sixth Sense, in which a young boy seeks the help of a child therapist to deal with the increasingly horrifying visions he is having. The boy’s mother thinks he’s suffering from some kind of mental disorder, but it’s revealed as the film goes on that the boy is actually able to communicate with the dead and cannot cope with the horrific things he is seeing. The film was a smash hit, and while I enjoyed it overall (I guessed the twist when I first saw it so take that), it saddened me that another property I was fond of would likely never receive any sort of cinematic adaption, as it would be unfortunately (and incorrectly) labeled as a Sixth Sense knockoff. That property was the Necroscope saga by Brian Lumley.
Lumley began this saga in the 1986 novel, Necroscope. It’s the story of a young British man named Harry Keogh, who as a child discovers he can communicate with the dead. However, unlike the boy in Shyamalan’s film, the dead hold no terror for Harry. They are his best friends, his confidants, his tutors, even at one point his coaches in martial arts. He lives in a world populated entirely by the dead, rarely interacting with the living unless he absolutely must. He is content to live his life quietly with the help of “The Great Majority;” breezing through school as a student with the help of a deceased headmaster as a study guide, and eventually making a modest living as a novelist publishing the works of dead novelists. At the age of 18 he finds out his mother was murdered when he was a baby by his stepfather, whom he seeks out so he can enact justice/revenge. He is then almost murdered by his stepfather until his dead mother, long gone to the river and little more than a skeleton covered in water plants, rises from the dead to drag down her murderer and save her son’s life. So, in addition to being able to communicate with the dead and transmit their ideas, Harry is so beloved by the dead that they will literally rise up to defend him. Also at some point, he enlists the help of Ferdinand Mobius himself to figure out the secrets of the Mobius strip, which he uses to teleport instantly from one point in space to another. Can’t forget about that!
All of this sounds pretty awesome, right? And you’ve likely figured out why this would never fly in a post-Sixth Sense landscape: despite the myriad differences to the film, the basic story is close enough that people would probably assume it a rip-off of Shyamalan’s film. But… there’s more. It turns out that Britain has a secret branch of the government that uses “talented” individuals to spy on foreign governments and combat them if necessary. Known as “E-Branch”, it engages in all sorts of cloak and dagger activities; think James Bond but with telepathy, scrying, and precognition. By the time they notice Harry, who is of course the most powerful talent they’ve encountered, they’re engaged in a cold war of sorts with Russia’s answer to E-Branch, who in turn have their own version of a necroscope: Boris Dragosani. Unlike Harry, however, Dragosani doesn’t talk to the dead, nor is he beloved by them. Dragosani is a necromancer and through his insidious talent can inflict pain upon the dead. Anything he does to their corpses, no matter how old or rotted they are, they feel. He uses this talent to extract classified info from suspected spies who the Soviet government kills, finding secrets in their guts and brains and bones, and before long he and Harry find themselves on each other’s enemies list.
Doesn’t this sound fun? Spies, telepaths, covert activities, a touch of mad scientist syndrome, all sorts of sneaky stuff. Now we’re way out of Sixth Sense territory. Did I mention that the character Dragosani was under the influence of a centuries old vampire buried in the Carpathian hills? Oh, I didn’t? Okay, so it turns out there are vampires. One of them, Thibor Ferenczy, has been buried for hundreds of years, deep in Transylvania, and he’s been using Dragosani since the latter was a child to enact his plan to rise up and once again be a power in the world. In the process, he infects Dragosani with vampirism, making him even more powerful. And then Dragosani gains the ability to literally kill with a glance and he takes over Russia’s E-Branch and murders the head of the British E-Branch. And then Harry lays siege to the headquarters of Russia’s E-Branch by raising the cadavers of Crimean Tartars and leading them into battle. And then he drives a stake through Dragosani, cuts his head off, and burns his remains. Oh, and Harry’s body dies, but his incorporeal mind escapes into the metaphysical realm he accesses to teleport. And that’s the first book. Of eighteen.
The rest of the first series, five books in total, details Harry’s various adventures on Earth while combatting the vampire threat and his ultimate sacrifice to stop them. Lumley released thirteen more books on the legacy of Harry Keogh after the fifth: two more series of three books each, one series of four semi-prequels filling in a gap between the second and third volumes in the original series, and then a few miscellaneous supplemental books. Over the course of the series, Harry would father a son, gain a new body, travel to another dimension to defeat the vampires with the help of his son (who is by that point a werewolf), and eventually become infected with vampirism, at which point he sacrifices himself and his essence is splintered and disseminated throughout the multiverse. The second series detailed the adventures of his twin sons in the parallel dimension, and the third series was about more vampires on earth. Towards the end, the plots became so out there and weird that Harry was teaming up with pirates and E-Branch was fighting actual space aliens. The first two series were solid horror fiction with a heaping dash of dark fantasy woven through them, but the last book in the second series felt like a solid conclusion to the story of Harry Keogh. Everything else after felt like an unnecessary coda to an already complete story.
So, what was it about these books that grabbed me as a kid? I remember being fourteen, wandering through the horror section at the Waldenbooks in the Palmer Park Mall, seeing the covers of these books, and feeling both horrified and intrigued. The editions in America had painted by the fantastic Bob Eggleston. The cover of the first book was an empty eyed skull, jaws agape, with vampire fangs and a forked tongue. Simple, but effective. The second was a wolf’s head with the front completely skeletonized. The third was a grotesque bat with empty eye sockets. They were straightforward and spooky and they hooked me. You’ve probably seen some of the covers without realizing it. For the longest time, all I knew about the plot was the summary on the back of the first book. It wasn’t until one of my friends bought one on a whim and insisted I borrow it that I finally read it.
It was so much crazier than I thought it was going to be. It was insanity.
For one, there is a lot of sexual content. It’s graphic, but in a really strange sanitized way that makes it all the more so, and probably inappropriate for a teenager to be reading. These scenes run from the “normal” coming-of-age style sex scenes of two teenagers exploring one another, up through more exotic sexual encounters in the spy world where acts whose names I had to look up in a dictionary are committed, and into the outright bizarre where two vampires melded into one another to form a tangled mess of limbs and teeth in the ultimate coupling. Of course, this made it all the more appealing to me. Weird, graphic sex scenes in a horror novel? Sign me right the fuck up!
The cartoonish amount of violence in the books also appealed to my teenage self. Characters in the book are devoured alive by the fiendish undead who are, in turn, impaled and dragged screaming into the sunlight and then decapitated. Vampires duel with one another wearing spiked gauntlets and literally tear each other’s hearts out, with the loser being fed alive to gigantic vampiric war beasts. All of these acts Lumley describes in lurid detail. His prose is like Fulci shoving the camera lens into a leaking neck wound. There is unfortunately (but not wholly unsurprisingly) a gratuitous amount of sexual violence in these books, and it’s honestly a shortcoming for Lumley. Sexual assault is oftentimes described in a rather nonchalant manner, as just another aspect of life when living amongst vampires, and while I suppose it makes sense narratively – that beings of intense sensual appetites would be prone to bouts of such behavior – it’s overwhelming.
This crazy amount of sex and violence is what made consuming these books an act of rebellion in my eyes. My parents didn’t know I was reading them, and they were slightly deeper cuts than Stephen King, so that made me feel even more like a badass outsider. And I don’t think I was entirely wrong in having that sentiment. They were transgressive, and I was a weirdo for reading them. They were too fantastic to be considered splatterpunk, but there was definitely a touch of punk-style rebellion in there. Lumley was not nearly well known commercially as King but still had credibility within the genre as one of the foremost Lovecraftian writers in that time period, so that only elevated the feeling of some kind of underground quasi-punk attitude. The experience of consuming these books felt like my first real act of stepping out on my own when it came to the kind of art I enjoyed. I’d already moved past the basics of Stephen King and Dean Koontz into the realms of F. Paul Wilson, Bentley Little, Robert McCammon, Douglas Clegg, Dan Simmons, and the gang of literary misfits who, along with Lovecraft himself, formed the so-called “Lovecraft Circle”; writers like Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Robert Howard, and Fritz Leiber. Necroscope was just the continued evolution of that. If Stephen King was Green Day or Blink 182, then Wilson, Little, McCammon etc. were the Alkaline Trio and Lumley was the Gorilla Biscuits.
As trite and kind of corny as it sounds, Necroscope was my first exposure to the idea of vampires as something bestial, something completely other. At that point in my life, I’d already seen The Lost Boys and Near Dark, so I was aware of the idea that vampires could exist as something other than eccentric aristocrats in evening wear slinking about castles and seducing English real-estate agents. But Lumley’s vampires are far more alien and inhuman than Kiefer Sutherland and his gang of punks, or Lance Henriksen and his ragtag band of road people. Mind you, this was before Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II, which I think was the first mainstream versions of vampires as something totally alien, and almost twenty years before del Toro again switched it up on us with his ghoulish vampires in The Strain, so anything remotely monstrous as a vampire was new to me. From Dusk til Dawn is probably the closest to what Lumley was describing, but Lumley’s vampires are far more… other than Rodriguez’s Meso-American mythos inspired vampire. Lumley’s vampires are as distant from humanity as we are from chimpanzees. They largely resemble people, but when agitated they become absolutely monstrous. Lumley writes of how their mouths are be a “crimson cavern of stalactite, stalagmite teeth, jagged as shards of white, broken glass”, slicing through their own gums and lips and filling their mouths with blood, the eyes bulging and ruby and animalistic over bat like snouts, their ears similarly bat-like.
Their very physiology is pushed past eleven. Yes, they share the same weaknesses as traditional vampires: sunlight, silver, and garlic weaken them, cause pain, and, if exposed to enough of it, kill them. However, holy water and crucifixes mean nothing because God is but a myth in Lumley’s universes. Their condition is caused by a symbiotic relationship between human (or animal… Lumley has room for werewolves in his world) hosts and the actual vampire creature: great slug-like leeches that grow from eggs, passed down from one vampire to a host they find worthy. The leeches live in the body cavity, endowing their hosts with all sorts of strange abilities, such as metamorphosis, speed, strength, endurance, and vastly enhanced lifespans. They, of course, have to sustain themselves on blood, but as the symbiosis deepened, emotions such as empathy and compassion were bred out of the host until they see humans as just another food source. Their flesh becomes greatly malleable, to the point that they eventually become a restrained version of the titular creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing. A drop of vampire blood is enough to contaminate and infect a person not into a full-blown vampire but into something more than human. There’s a scene in The Lost Boys when Corey Feldman tells Corey Haim that no matter how a vampire died, they would always try to take you with them. Lumley’s Wamphyri embodies this vengeful method of dying. If the vampire itself feels it could survive without the host, it will try to escape through the host’s mouth like some horrid Giger creation; lashing out at anyone present with tentacles and teeth.
Under the right conditions, a piece of flesh shed from a vampire will grow into a creature of its own: mindless and lacking the cunning of a vampire, but equally dangerous. In one book, a character who was born as a sort of pseudo-vampire loses his first tooth and keeps it in a petri dish. The tooth eventually grows into a great fleshy amoeba sort of thing, which the character uses as his own personal attack dog. In another book, a vampire cuts off their own finger and leaves it behind in the ruins of a castle, knowing it will grow into something capable of guarding that castle while they’re away. And in the parallel universe that serves as the homeworld of the vampires, things get even more fantastic. The vampires live in gigantic columns of rock in the shadow of a titanic miles-high mountain range, existing in the perpetual dusk of that shadow. They wage war on one another using biological tanks created from human beings infected with vampirism and then, through cruel experimentation, changed into heavily armored beasts that barely resemble humans. They have names like Vasagi The Suck, Lesk The Glut, Dramal Doombody, and Spiro Killglance. They hunt humans for sport, for food, for fucking, and in turn were hunted by a scrappy band of Szgany who refuse to submit to the will of these inhuman monsters. It was completely unlike anything I’d read before, like Tolkien on an extremely bad day.
Don’t be mistaken and led to believe that Lumley’s work was nothing but blood and gore and fucking and fear. He knows how to develop characters and he knows how to make you care about them. Over the course of his saga, he introduces not only Harry Keogh, but a whole host of likeable if not loveable characters. People such as: Darcy Clarke, Harry’s best friend and fellow E-Branch associate; Ben Trask, another agent for E-Branch whose gift is instantly knowing if someone was lying; Lady Karen, the single benevolent vampire on the vampire homeworld who eventually joins Harry’s cause of ending the oppressive rule of the Wamphyri because of course there has to be a good vampire; Nana Kiklu, Harry’s lover and mother of his twin sons; and his children themselves, his three sons who all forge their own destinies in this world and the weird parallel universe that is the vampire genesis.
These all sound ridiculous, I know, but Lumley excels at his craft to such a degree that these ridiculous characters, after a while, begin to feel like friends. It still pains me to read the parts when some of them die, because as a first-time reader I had grown with them as they faced increasingly nightmarish scenarios. As a reader, we get to witness the characters change over time as they adapt to these scenarios. Especially Harry Keogh himself. We watch Harry’s transformation from an optimistic young crusader into a tired and cynical middle-aged man who is weary of this world and what it’s thrown at him. Ultimately, he’s left completely alone after the world he has dedicated his life to protecting turns its back on him. Even his constant companions, the teeming Dead, turn away from him in revulsion and fear. The fledgling vampire inside of him changes him into a paranoid monster, making him see his closest friends as enemies he needs to kill to survive. His compassion and hesitance to increase the number of the Dead is gone, replaced with a selfishness that is radically unlike the character we were introduced to in the first book. There’s a sadness there; even though he’s the hero, there is no real redemption for him in the end. Even in later series, we see that most still consider him a monster, despite all the good he did, and those who see him as the hero he actually was are sadly a minority. That’s a rare phenomenon in fiction, and Lumley made something of a bold choice by leaving his main character villainized even after death. Harry’s story is ultimately a tragedy, and Harry himself something of a classic Gothic character: a brooding and tortured soul who is more comfortable with death than he is with life.
Malibu Comics and Caliber Comics produced a short run of comic books that covered that first two books of the series. While the artwork is sufficiently gruesome to please diehard fans, I don’t think they’re particularly great comics. Bob Eggleston’s covers are gorgeous and grotesque, but the actual writing is… less than stellar. Lumley’s prose is too floral to be directly plopped into speech bubbles, and the story without his distinct style doesn’t feel right. I’d love to see a company like Avatar give it another run, and I’ve also thought an artist like Jacen Burrows would be excellent at bringing the story to life visually. Rumors of a Necroscope movie still float around occasionally, but honestly, I don’t think it’ll ever go anywhere. Even today if you Google the term “necroscope,” one of the first auto-populations is “necroscope movie”, so enough people who are familiar with the novels are still searching for it. I do think the first three novels would make a fantastic Netflix series, especially if the spy/intrigue aspect was emphasized alongside the horror.
Enough time has passed that comparisons to The Sixth Sense wouldn’t be nearly as cutting or relevant as they would have been when the film debuted twenty years ago. Realistically, I’ll probably have to be content with digging up my battered paperback copies of these books every few years from the Rubbermaid container in the basement. But… I think I’m okay with that. Great stories never go out of style. They’re survivors. And much like vampires, they never get old.