Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales is bizarro and horror author Lee Widener’s first short story collection and second book (not including the limited stand alone edition of the title novella). Some of the tales here are nearly as strange as Widener’s debut novel Rock’n’roll Headcase, but others are more conventional Lovecraftian horror stories and he moves between the styles well.
The title novella does not take place in Shanghai as I thought, rather the Shanghai Tunnels underneath Portland, Oregon. Melvin is a rare book collector who finds evidence that his best friend Wilson, owner of a bar and saxophone player, had an ancestor who was a victim of Shanghaiing and was kept down in those tunnels. Wilson finds what he believes is a connection to the Shanghai tunnels underneath his bar and sets out with Melvin to find evidence. There they find Wilson’s ancestor’s skeleton and a journal detailing what happened to him.
Widener crafts an excellent Lovecraftian tale here and makes great use of a stacked narrative. The ancestor’s diary does not feel like a diversion, but a logical progression in the story. He nails exactly what a Lovecraftian tale in modern times should read as. My only complaint is the ending feels somewhat anticlimactic, but it still works well.
“At the Shoe Shop of Madness” combines both the Lovecraft mythos and the classic fairy tale “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” The result is just as goofy as you expect. It makes for a very funny and entertaining story. Some of Widener’s attempt to combine the simple language of fairy tales and Lovecraft’s more purple prose are a bit clumsy, but the story remains an entertaining read.
“Eternal Beauty” is a short story inspired by Lovecraft’s “Ex Oblivione.” A man sees a flower in the window of a house and finds it’s the most beautiful, most perfect rose he’s ever seen. He meets the owner of the flower and learns the origin of it. This is probably my favorite story in the book. It’s a dark and strange tale about the often futile pursuit of the sublime.
“The Thing that Came to Haunt Adamski” is kind of an odd man out. Rather than a horror tale, it’s more of a science fiction comedy. A huckster named Adamski has made a lot of money on his books about aliens. One day a Venusian shows up and threatens to destroy Earth if he doesn’t correct all the false things he’s said about his race. It has its funny moments, but it’s the most forgettable story in the book.
The last two stories in the book are connected tales, “KONG-Tiki” and “Sleeper Under the Sea.” The protagonist of both is the leader of a lounge band named Marcus Lameroux. “KONG-Tiki” is a humorous story about Marcus and his band playing the grand opening of a club which turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of mafiosos who died there. You know you have a fun story when it climaxes with a giant green gorilla, a living Tiki statue, and Yma Sumac.
“Sleeper Under the Sea” is a more Lovecraftian type tale yet again. While playing a resort hotel in Hawaii, a nuclear test on an uninhabited island seems to awaken something that leaves under the sea. Something that may very well destroy the world. With the help of a psychic, Marcus and his band try to find a way to put the creature back to sleep. An entertaining story to end the book book on.
Review copy provided
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Under the Shanghai Tunnels and Other Weird Tales is a fun mixture of darkly humorous, bizarro, and Lovecraftian stories. Fans of horror will get a lot out of this. Between this and his debut novel, it's safe say that Lee Widener is a writer of strange fiction to keep an eye on.
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