Monday, November 28, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Insects from Shaggai

The real appeal of many of the stories I discuss in this series isn't so much their plots or characters as their ideas. This isn't to suggest that pulp fantasy tales necessarily lack interesting plots or compelling characters. Rather, it's to emphasize that their greatest value, particularly from the perspective of roleplaying games, often lies in the author's imaginative conceptions of strange lands, weird magic, or terrifying monsters. One need not look very far into the contents of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, to find examples of ideas inspired by – if not outright stolen from – the works of fantasy and science fiction authors popular during the younger days of Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax. 

The early horror stories of Ramsey Campbell demonstrate my point quite effectively, I think. Like his fellow Brit, Michael Moorcock, Campbell began writing fiction at a very young age. His first professional sale was to Arkham House in 1962, when he was only 16 years old. This early success encouraged him to submit several more stories. Arkham House's editor, August Derleth, initially rejected them on the grounds their New England settings didn't ring true, since Campbell, a native of Liverpool, had never visited the region. Instead, he encouraged the young Campbell to rework the stories by setting them in England, leading to his development of the Severn Valley and its fictional city of Brichester. The result was the 1964 anthology, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants.

Among the best stories included in The Inhabitant of the Lake is "The Insects from Shaggai." Campbell later explained that the tale

is based on [an] entry in the Commonplace Book, or rather on my misreading of it. Lovecraft wrote "Insects or some other entities from space attack and penetrate a man's head & cause him to remember alien and exotic things – possible displacement of personality," a superb idea I rushed at so hastily that I failed to notice he hadn't meant giant insects at all ... Of all my stories, this is probably the pulpiest. As such, it has some energy, I think, but I wish I'd left the note alone until I was equipped to do it justice.

This is a very fair and indeed self-aware assessment of "The Insects from Shaggai." Campbell recognizes that its central idea, one he borrowed from Lovecraft's Commonplace Book – his notebook of story germs – is a strong one. He also recognizes that, at his young age, he wasn't quite up to the task of fleshing it out into a fully satisfying story. Yet, for all that, I still think it a story worth reading, if only for that central idea, which has stuck with me all these years and which likely served as the inspiration for at least one of my own creations.

The story itself is told from the perspective of a writer of fantasy, Ronald Shea, who "feel[s] bound to write down some explanation for [his] friends," since he "must not be alive after sunset," as his "continued existence might endanger the whole human race." This is another variation on a tried-and-true Lovecraftian formula: a narrator who wishes to explain his actions and why they were necessary to safeguard mankind, no matter how insane they might sound. When one considers that this is the work of a very young author who was attempting to imitate his literary idol, I think it's a forgivable set-up. 

While drinking at a hotel bar in Brichester, Shea is approached by a middle-aged teacher who promises to tell him "all the Severn Valley legends which might form plots of future stories." The teacher speaks of a meteorite that fell in Goatswood sometimes in the 17th century. The meteorite soon attracted the attention of the local folk, including one who discovered a metal cone "made of a grey mineral that didn't reflect, and more than thirty feet high." The cone had a "circular trapdoor on one side" and "carved reliefs" on the other. When he got near the cone, he heard "a sort of dry rustling inside," as well as "a shape crawling out of the darkness inside the trapdoor."

Shea is unimpressed with the legend's vagueness and Campbell uses this as an opportunity to mock the conventions of many Lovecraftian pastiches.

"Too vague – horrors that are too horrible for description, eh? More likely whoever thought this up didn't have the imagination to describe them when the time came."

It's a solid jab at the worst of HPL's imitators – and, honestly, some of the worst of HPL's own stories – that I can't help but think that Campbell was using it at least in part to cover for the flaws in "The Insects from Shaggai." In any case, Shea is nevertheless interested enough in the legend, vague though it is, that he seeks out more details and then sets out to look for the supposed location of the metal cone. 

Shea succeeds in finding the cone in a clearing within Goatswood – something he had not expected, given the vagueness of the legend. Equally unexpected was the fear he felt upon seeing it and hearing the "faint dry rustling sound which came from somewhere in the clearing." Not long thereafter, the circular trapdoor opened and

a shape appeared, flapping above the ground on leathery wings. The thing which flew whirring toward me was followed by a train of others, wings slapping the air at incredible speed. Even though they flew so fast, I could, with the augmented perception of terror, make out many more details than I wished. Those huge lidless eyes which stared in hate at me, the jointed tendrils which seemed to twist from the head in cosmic rhythms, the ten legs, covered with black shining tentacles and folded into the pallid underbelly, and the semi-circular ridged wings covered with triangular scales – all this cannot convey the soul-ripping horror of the shape which darted at me. I saw the three mouths of the thing move moistly, and then it was upon me.

The insect-creature flew straight into Shea's head but he "felt no impact" and, when he turned to look behind him, there was no sign of it. Yet, "the whole landscape seemed to ripple and melt, as if the lenses of [his] eyes had twisted in agonizing distortion." He then realizes that the thing "had entered [his] body and was crawling around in [his] brain." It's here that the story truly becomes interesting – or at least grapples toward being so. 

With the insect-creature somehow ensconced like a parasite within his mind, Shea experiences strange perceptions and equally strange thoughts. The young Campbell then attempts to convey the twisting, phantasmagoric experience of Shea's being a host to an Insect from Shaggai and, while the end result doesn't quite succeed, I appreciate his effort nonetheless. What the reader gets echoes the experiences of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee in Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time," as his mind travels through time in bodies other than his own. It's a potent idea and should be at once wondrous and terrifying – if it weren't for the fact that Campbell uses this as an opportunity to regale the reader with a needlessly lengthy exposition of the history of the Insects, the home planet, their worship of Azathoth, and many other details. The elaborate exposition undoubtedly pleased August Derleth, whose own Lovecraftian pastiches luxuriated in similar catalogs of otherworldly places and entities, but it does little to improve the story.

And that's a great shame. As I said at the beginning, some pulp fantasies are best appreciated for their ideas than for their plots or characters and "The Insects of Shaggai" is a prime example of this. I absolutely adore the idea of psychic parasites that employ human beings as their vehicles on Earth. Likewise, the bizarre sensations and knowledge that come with playing host to these entities is worthy of exploration, since it's a splendid way to convey the cosmicism of Lovecraft's literary vision. Unfortunately, Campbell is quite right in judging that "The Insects from Shaggai" falls quite short of the mark. Yet, for all that, it's still of genuine interest to readers for whom ideas are paramount.


  1. Possession by an intelligent insect, or worse a swarm of them, is right up there with my list of cosmic horrors. There was a UK TV series "Tales of the Unexpected" which were all or mostly written by Roald Dahl. There was one tale in particular, "Royal Jelly" I think that it was called, which freaked me out completely for similar reasons.

    1. Oh Lord, I remember 'Royal Jelly' although I had successfully repressed those memories! Haha. It was terrifying.