Harrison Harrison—H2 to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school.
On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Deep Ones, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother.
Harrison Squared is Gregory’s follow-up prequel to We Are All Completely Fine, centred on Harrison Harrison’s experience as a child that leads to his participation in the support group of the latter novel. Naturally, it requires no knowledge of the earlier-sequel, and that requires (though perhaps is given interesting extra layers by it).
Harrison Squared is very much a Lovecraftian novel, but at the same time a critique of Lovecraft; using some of the tropes of the original weird fiction practiced by HPL, Gregory also turns them on their head. From the idea of a stranger coming to town and being excluded from some weird mystery, through the critique of the universal loyalty to the cult of a place, and into the racism and misogyny of Lovecraft, Harrison Squared ticks all the boxes whilst also critiquing them; hence the teenage kids of Dunnsmouth rebelling against the strange religious strictures of their parents; hence the non-white protagonist Harrison Harrison himself having to fight the evil all-white cult; hence even the Deep Ones not being so monolithically loyal to the Old Ones. It’s an interesting approach, requiring a good deal of familiarity with Lovecraft to understand what tropes Gregory is playing with; and in a modern young adult audience, it is perhaps a bit of a stretch to assume such a strong familiarity with works of the weird nearing a century in age.
The same goes for the references spread throughout the novel, from the biology teacher who gets his class to attempt to reanimate frogs with electricity to the librarian endlessly searching for a single, specific tome; from the town’s name of Dunnsmouth to the names of the sonar-buoys Harrison’s mother uses. Gregory has scattered these moments throughout, and while they theoretically add nothing to the novel, without an understanding of what Gregory is referencing, Harrison Squared gives every impression of having simply gotten a little jumpy, filled with strange moments that add nothing to the plot; while understanding these minor references instead gives a little insight into what Gregory is trying to do. They also slow the plot down considerably; because Gregory feels the need to get each of these in, Harrison Squared is far slower than it ought to be, as these moments don’t vanish as we move towards our conclusion, instead simply slowing that conclusion down with a sense of uneveness.
As a novel, rather than a riff on Lovecraft, then, it is already clear that this is a little uneven. However, where Gregory excels is in his characters; Harrison himself is an excellent portrait of a teenager used to looking after his parents, but with a darker history – as well as making Harrison Squared a novel which has a mixed-race protagonist with a disability (the sections talking about how Harrison deals with his prosthetic leg are excellently done, and very matter of fact). He’s not written as someone to be pitied, but as someone strong who has undergone a horrifying experience; the loss of his leg is simply something that happened, not life-defining. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are also interestingly written, albeit on the whole a little less well-characterised; that is in part due to the first-person narration but also because there is a degree of flattening of the rest of the cast in favour of Harrison’s characterisation; female and male alike are essentially there to serve the needs and interests of the protagonist, including admittedly the need to negotiate and grow up.
None of that is to say I wouldn’t recommend Harrison Squared to a reader familiar with the “canon” of H. P. Lovecraft; but Daryl Gregory, in aiming this novel at a young-adult market, has instead sidestepped that, especially as Lovecraft becomes increasingly marginal and unpopular as a “model” of the Weird.