Sunday, February 25, 2024

Book Review: David Lee’s The Midnight Games

Title: The Midnight Games
Author: David Lee
Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn
Publication Date: 2015

When one thinks of madness-inducing cosmic horror imagined by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, Hamilton isn’t the first place you imagine. But it should be. Hamilton author David Lee’s The Midnight Games conjures a comparable reality-warping setting and, in the process, tells a fast-paced and fun story that proudly puts Hamilton on the map as a place where Lovecraftian horror has taken root.

The book opens with protagonist Nate Silva, a young Hamiltonian sneaking into the old Ivor Wynne stadium to witness a ceremony–the eponymous Midnight Games–by the Hamilton chapter of the ominous named Resurrection Church of the Ancient Gods. The horror that he and his friend Dana witness defies rational explanation and immediately sets the both of them on the run from the dangerous cult and it’s agents. From this launch point, the action in Lee’s story never lets up as we follow Nate throughout downtown Hamilton on a race to beat the cult and prevent them from completing a dire apocalyptic ritual.

Lee’s love of Hamilton shines in his unabashed signposting of dozens of famous Hamilton landmarks, several of which have either changed drastically or are gone altogether. We follow Nate being pursued by the cult through the Hamilton Public Library; later we’re at a table with Nate at the late great Homegrown Hamilton next to the Lister Block. And, of course, there’s the gone but not forgotten Ivor Wynne. Visiting these landmarks at a breakneck pace, it feels like Lee’s mission is to showcase a hidden Hamilton that still haunts the dreams of the city. Given the Lovecraftian adage of “That is not dead which can eternal lie”, and the prominence of dreams in Lovecraft’s stories, it’s a thematic element that makes the story all the more engaging. 

Although I expect hellish horrors, mad cultists, and tentacled beasts in my Lovecraft (and The Midnight Games has these aplenty), I don’t expect tongue-in-cheek humour. And this is really where Lee’s writing takes off. From neighbours gleefully grabbing at Nate’s Timbits, to the forbidden Necronomicon easily found in HPL stacks, to Lovecraft himself, offered ice cream like an average dinner guest, The Midnight Games is filled with laugh-out-loud situational comedy that was never found in Lovecraft’s own work.

Sometimes pedantic and often convoluted, Lovecraft’s writing was perhaps more popular for the horrid imagery and epic mythology that it conjured than for the author’s talent of the craft. Certainly, his work was devoid of humor which was probably the point. Nameless cosmic horror is nothing to laugh at. Except, of course, in Lee’s story. It’s another reason why the setting works so well. Hamilton has never been a city that’s taken itself too seriously and Hamiltonians are a pretty no nonsense bunch. Lee reinforces this “take no guff” attitude while simultaneously offering a  compelling reason for why an apocalyptic cult might easily take root and gather followers in Steeltown.

Lee’s fast paced action and suspense also allows itself to pause every now and then to address Lovcraft’s proverbial Shoggoth in the room. It first reads as patently absurd – an insidious yet prolific cult dedicated to reviving Elder Gods via sacrificial rituals at Ivor Wynne. But the plot gains credibility because of its setting as a gritty city in transition. Lee couples his cult against the backdrop of the very real specter of citywide unemployment, loss of industry, and the desperate yearning for a bygone Hamilton. The haunting power of this city’s history, our famed civic pride taken to the fervent extreme, adds a sinister undertone to the Church’s endgame and raises the stakes for Lee’s young hero.

Years ago, not long after I’d moved to Hamilton, I wrote and produced a play about the life of H.P. Lovecraft. At the time, I didn’t think there was a connection between the play’s subject matter and the city I called home. Having read Lee’s book, I can see why the horrors imagined by Lovecraft perhaps resonate deeper in this city than I ever would have imagined and why The Midnight Games occupies such a unique place in the landscape of Hamilton storytelling.

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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