Subterranean Press has gathered a collection of Brian Lumley’s stories in The Compleat Crow. As you’d expect, nearly all these tales feature Lumley’s occult detective, Titus Crow.
Crow is the main character of a couple of novels by Lumley. He is a “white wizard,” a force for good who struggles mostly against those in league with the Cthulhu-cycle elder gods. Lumley’s style skates between Lovecraft-lite and an almost Holmesian tone. These eleven short stories were published mostly in the UK and range from 1969 to the early 1980s. Most involve Crow as the main character. Some are third-person; in some Crow is the first-person narrator, telling his own tale, and in a few he is the story-teller, relating events that have nothing to do with him. Notably, two tales use a third person narrator that is not Crow.
“Inception,” the first story in the book, follows a fugitive who has come home to London, seeking sanctuary from the evil Priest of the Undying Dead, who pursues him and the Elixir he stole. The fugitive does not find sanctuary, but he may achieve redemption. Titus Crow and his parents make a brief appearance at the end of the tale, which is an origin story for Crow.
A mature, post-WWII Titus Crow face real, personal danger in “Lord of the Worms,” using numerology to escape the clutches of a ruthless, aging occultist. He successfully defeats an evil coven-leader in “The Caller of the Black,” (even though the ending is predictable), and a Nordic ghost in “The Viking Stone.” In “The Mirror of Nitocris,” Crow’s one close friend, Laurant-Henri de Marigny confronts a cursed object. A trio of short pieces follow: “An Item of Supporting Evidence;” “Billy’s Oak” and “Darghud’s Doll.” These have the virtue of brevity. “Darghud’s Doll,” uncomfortably blending various types of magic in a story about British missionaries in Africa, is the least successful story in the book.
A strange artifact that appears in several of the stories takes the main stage in “De Marigny’s Clock.” This is a thing that Crow bought at auction, which belonged to his friend’s father. Crow’s theory is that it isn’t a clock at all. A pair of thuggish house-breakers helps him prove his theory. This is a nice story of its type, with one badly distracting moment; Crow, the genius, has tried for a decade to open the clock, apparently, but the safe-cracker thief pops it open in one paragraph. Still, it’s a fun, creepy tale, and maybe I mis-read, and Crow was being much more careful around the object.
In “Name and Number,” Crow uses his occult knowledge to take out a supernatural adversary and save the world. The final story, “The Black Recalled,” takes place after Crow has, er, left this plane, and he does not make an appearance, at least not a physical one.
Since these stories appeared over time as stand-alone pieces, descriptions of Crow and his house do feel repetitive. That really can’t be helped in a collection like this. Except for “Inception,” where Crow’s mother has a cameo, there are no women anywhere. Crow is a man with one close male friend and no female ones. This might be a nod to bachelor Sherlock Holmes, but Crow can also be read as a closeted gay man, hiding his true nature from the very unsympathetic, repressive society he works to save. References to Crow’s “original Beardsley illustrations” framed in rosewood in his bedroom support this interpretation. I don’t know if Lumley was being subtle and clever or if this was just the time period when fighting the Elder Gods was a complete boys’ club. Not having read the novels, I like the idea of Crow as a powerful gay man, even if he does seem a bit lonely.
Lumley also has fun with numerology in these stories, and the reader will too. He nicely weaves together numbers with the Major Arcana of the Tarot (although Tarot is not mentioned directly) to create some fun puzzles for the reader to solve along with Crow. Lovers of Lumley’s novels should definitely get this collection.