H.P. Lovecraft

Ray Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun

Old Stories, New Thoughts

After various distractions, I’ve finally resumed an exercise program I started early in the year. It’s a strength-building regimen by physical therapist Ming Chew, author of The Permanent Pain Cure.  There are two sets of three different exercises, some involving weights. Between sets of “reps,” one is required to rest for ninety or forty-five seconds. It’s amazing how long these rest periods feel if I just sit there, so I grabbed a book to read from the huge and random accumulation of old paperbacks that lives in our basement.

The Golden Apples of the Sun is a collection of stories by Ray Bradbury originally published in the 1940s and ’50s. The scribbled “50” (meaning 50 cents) on the cover indicates my copy was a used bookstore find — probably 30 years ago.  Between exercises, I sit down and read a page or so, and I must admit sometimes the rests are extended a bit if the narrative is too captivating to interrupt.

I was surprised how applicable some of these stories are to present-day concerns. “The Murderer” is about one man’s way of dealing with intrusive communication technology. “The Big Black and White Game” is a charming yet disturbing look at race relations in America through the eyes of a child at a baseball game. “I See You Never” is about a Mexican man in Los Angeles facing deportation. And “Embroidery” tells how three women spend the last hours before a nuclear explosion. Bradbury’s writing is fresh and delightful. I recommend tracking down this book, The Golden Apples of the Sun, or at least the stories I’ve mentioned.

A while ago, I bought The Cthulhu Mythos Ebook Bundle from Dark Regions Press. (I think it’s still on sale for $15 US — a deal at that price). Two of the books in this tentacled treasure chest are compilations of weird fiction that impressed and influenced H.P. Lovecraft, the master of the weird tale. They are edited and introduced by Lovecraft scholar and aficionado S.T. Joshi. The authors include M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers and Algernon Blackwood, plus a few until now unknown to me, such as Fitz-James O’Brien, Ralph Adams Cram, and A. Merritt. Merritt’s story, “The Moon Pool,” contains a reference to an ancient being called Chau-te-leur. Sounds a bit like “Cthulhu,” doesn’t it? Another story, “Ooze,” by Anthony M. Rud, contains a creature that may well be the ur-Shoggoth. And the main character of Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” reminded me of HPL himself.

Cthulhu Mythos Ebook Bundle

All these stories have been around for a while, and many of them show their age, a few in rather unflattering ways, but Lovecraft fans will appreciate most of them, as well as the other offerings in the ebook bundle. I know I’m looking forward to working my way through them.

 

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A Find!

With my interest in Herbert West, you would think I would have known about this before now — a comic book version of the first episode in H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” illustrated by Tealin.

hw1page1_smw-jpgoriginal

The illustrations are beautifully done, with total fidelity to the original. Herbert is portrayed as per HPL’s description — slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled — complete with the gleeful insanity expected of a mad scientist. You can tell the illustrator has, in her own words, “a soft spot for the monomaniacal little fiend.”

The story is visible in its entirety on her website.

Another Fan Fiction: Welcome to the Witch House

I have a habit of embroidering on works of fiction by others. First it was the Herbert West Series — four novels spun off H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Then, a few months ago, a kind of sequel to Robert W. Chambers’s “The Repairer of Reputations.” And now a return to HPL: several years ago I had a notion to write a novel based on “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I started wondering what sort of person Walter Gilman, the main character of that story, might have been. By the time I finished a first chapter, though, I realized there would be no novel. Unlike Herbert West and his narrator friend, Gilman has no opportunities for further choices, no dilemmas. Once he’s embarked on his course of study and living in the Witch House, stuff just happens to him. The only reason to keep reading is to see how he meets his demise. But I had a look at that first chapter recently, and thought it was a well-crafted cul-de-sac. So here it is.

 

WELCOME TO THE WITCH HOUSE

Arkham, Massachusetts, January 1925

The Ruminations of Walter Gilman.

 

He turned up four months after I moved into the Witch House – fat Frank Elwood, from my home town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I saw him in the front hall, talking to landlord Dombrowski, it was like a chunk of that practical, shoe-obsessed city had tracked me down to Arkham, intent on dragging me back.

As if I hadn’t had the devil of a time getting away from the place already. “Why do you have to go to Arkham?” My father must have asked me that a hundred times, alternating with “Why do you have to go to college? You can step into a good job right here and now, and when I die it will all be yours. You don’t need college.”

He was right, if all I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life among clanking, roaring machines and the louts who run them, cutting, stretching, shaping, stitching and glazing millions of receptacles for feet. Or if I was fascinated by the balance sheet and the ledger, the profit margin and the management of business.

But I am not. And unfortunately, my father managed to sire only one son. He will have to resign himself to a son-in-law as heir to his very own chunk of the Queen Slipper City of the World. Not everyone is content to fasten his nose to the grindstone and develop a fascination with grains of grit. The world is too wide and too strange for that.

The second thought that popped into my head when I saw Elwood looming over old Dombrowski was that my father had sent him to cajole or threaten me into quitting Miskatonic and going home. That was absurd, though. If he wanted to do that, he would do it himself, and even if he wanted to send an emissary, it wouldn’t be Frank Elwood.

He was the son of a former foreman in Gilman’s Excellent Boot and Shoe Company – former because he was dead, the result of an unfortunate encounter with one of the machines he was in charge of. His death was a considerable nuisance to my father, and even to me, because unrest among the workers and threats to form a union made Father decide it would be politic for the two of us to attend the funeral.

That was where I first saw Frank, glowering at me as I took a place in the pew across from the one he and his mother and sisters occupied. Maybe it was because we were close in age, but I felt him putting a mark on me, as though for future consideration. And now, here he was in Arkham, in the very place where I lived.

Some call it the Witch House, after one of the most famous denizens of witch-haunted Arkham – Keziah Mason, known to the initiate as Nahab. No one knows this (because I haven’t told anyone), but she was my reason for choosing to live in this house, otherwise shunned by Miskatonians, faculty and students alike.

It’s in the oldest part of the city, a huddle of sway-backed, gambrel-roofed structures that manage to stay standing after nearly three hundred years. I’m sure they were never meant to last that long by the honest Puritans who built them, nor to shelter some of the beings that have found homes within them over the years (and I don’t mean the ubiquitous rats). Unless one burns down or collapses from internal rot, they persist, growing ever more disreputable, like a group of drunks holding each other up as they lurch along.

I think the home folks finally gave up on me when I told them where I decided to live. “That horrible slum. Why, the people there aren’t respectable. They’re all foreigners and” – whispering – “Catholics.” They decided I was doomed. The odd few times I went back home to visit, they looked at me the way people look at condemned criminals or the terminally ill.

They would never have believed me if I had told them the simple truth – that Keziah Mason was part of my research, along with non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics. In fact, I think that would have given my father grounds to ship me off to an asylum.

But what was Frank Elwood doing in the Witch House? That was the question.

He and Dombrowski looked up when they heard me close the door. “Oh, Mr. Geelman,” intoned the landlord, scooping at the air with his hand, as though it was elastic and he could pull me closer that way. “Here is another man from the college, Mr. All-wood, his name. This is Mr. Walter Geelman. He lives in the room at the top of the house and has to climb up many, many stairs. You only have to go up to second floor.” He beamed as though he’d said something profound.

Frank Elwood just stood there looking at me like he was trying to figure something out, chewing over his thoughts like a cow with a cud. There actually was something bovine about him; he was big and solid and slow, with a heavy face and a wide forehead and a lot of thick straight brown hair. His eyes peered out like windows under a thatched roof.

Finally his mouth opened and words came out. “Walter Gilman. I know you.”

I bowed in acknowledgement of this fact. “Perhaps, but I don’t believe we’ve actually met.”

This disconcerted him, as I intended. His face turned red and he looked at his feet (which were large like the rest of him and not particularly well-shod, surprising in a Haverhillian).

He raised his head and looked at me again. I could have sworn he was angry and trying not to show it. At me or at himself?

“We have now,” he said and turned to Dombrowski again, then back to me as though he couldn’t help himself.

“You live here?” he asked. “Here in this house?”

I smiled. “I do. Mr. Dombrowski was kind enough to rent me one of the rooms in the attic. A very special room. I have found it most satisfactory.”

I had nothing more to say to either of them and headed for the stairs. The first set was relatively wide and gracious, except that each step was bowed and hollowed from three centuries of use. I watched my feet move from one to the other and thought of all the hundreds and thousands of other feet that had preceded them – and whose they might have been. Keziah Mason’s for sure. They must have trodden these steps many times, even the narrow ones from the second floor to the third, all the way up to the top of the house.

My room was larger than you would expect, but with the low ceiling typical of its location. It had a single eastward-facing window that was bright in the morning and dimmed gradually after noonday. Night came earlier there than in other places.

The real attraction didn’t reveal itself to me until November, when, sick and feverish, I spent a couple of days in bed, dozing and staring at the ceiling, watching the watery sunlight traverse the room, lighting up now this wall, now that corner, a piece of the ceiling and the opposite wall, before fading away and leaving my abode in soft, dusty shadow.

I thought about what we had been discussing in Prof. Upham’s class before I’d been taken ill – the fourth dimension and possible freakish curvatures in space which may be used as points of contact with distant parts of the cosmos. I thought about Keziah Mason and what she had told Judge Hathorne at her trial in 1692, about lines and curves that led those who knew about them to spaces other than the known.

I fixed my eyes on the place where the north wall, slanting gently inward from its outer to its inner end, met the downward-slanting ceiling. The conjunction was an uneasy one, with peculiar angles. I thought of the equations I had pored over on many a long evening, and fancied I could see a sort of sliding or shifting of planes, as though a long-closed door was coming ever so slightly ajar. “There’s the gate,” I thought muzzily, “the portal. Right there.” Then I fell asleep again and dreamed strange dreams.

The next day I was well enough to go back to class, but found it hard to concentrate. I could hardly wait to get back to the Witch House and take a good look at the north wall from the outside. As I expected, it was perfectly straight and what was more, there had once been a window just where my room was. Judging by the carpentry, the window had been closed up a very long time ago, in the 18th century, if not earlier. I wondered what might be found in the narrow triangular space between the inner and outer walls, where no light had entered for more than two centuries.

Then I grew curious about the loft above my ceiling, in the very peak of the roof, and borrowed a ladder from Dombrowski so I could get a closer look. Peering through festoons of cobwebs from the other end of the attic, I could see heavy planks and pegs similar to those that sealed the window, covering an aperture that must have led to a cramped space with a slanting floor directly above my room. I tried to persuade Dombrowski to let me open it up, but he refused outright, saying that he had enough trouble keeping the rats under control. But he’s a superstitious old loon, like all these Poles, and I thought I saw a nervous twitch in his eye. There was nothing I could say to make him change his mind.

The next time I saw Elwood, he was trying to manhandle a couple of suitcases up the stairs.

“It would be easier if you took them one at a time,” I offered, earning myself a look like a clenched fist. I guessed he would have shaken one at me if his hands weren’t full. That nearly made me laugh.

“Here, let me take one of them,” I said and seized the handle. The thing weighed a lot more than I expected and nearly wrenched my arm off, but I didn’t think Elwood saw that. We progressed up to the second floor and down the hall to his room. After landing the case, I stood and looked around. His room was bigger than mine and had a fireplace, but all the walls and ceilings met at the expected ninety degrees.

I thought a bit of conversation was the right thing for the occasion. “So what is it you’re studying at Miskatonic?”

Elwood scowled and emitted a foggy grunt, as though this was the first time he’d spoken aloud all day. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Medicine,” he said. “Eventually. I’m taking a bachelor of science degree first, of course.” A pause. “What about you?”

“Math and physics,” I said. “And witchcraft, of a sort. Welcome to the Witch House, Elwood.”

Then I turned and left.

The Account of Frank Elwood.

I never intended to live in such a shabby part of Arkham. I didn’t even think a college town would have a slum like that. Just about all the people who live there are poor, except Gilman, but I guess he has his own reasons for being there.

My first semester at Miskatonic I had a room close to the college, practically across the street, in fact. It was nice and clean and close to downtown as well. Right at the start I kicked up my heels a bit, seeing as I was away from home and didn’t have to be the “man of the house,” as my mother called me.

But after a few months I sat down and did some figuring and the results of this effort were not good. I was living beyond my means. My scholarship wasn’t enough to pay for everything and there was nothing to spare for me from my family. After counting up my remaining dollars I decided the only thing to do was to find cheaper living quarters.

I didn’t want to ask other students or my professors. No one likes to admit that he’s coming down in the world, not that I had a very long distance to slide before I hit the bottom. As luck would have it, I saw a notice in a cafeteria on Church Street – “Room for Rent.”  It gave the address and the name John Dombrowski. I went over there right after classes the same day.

The house was brown and reminded me of an old person who used to be taller, with little windows squinting out like bleary eyes. I stood in the street for a while, wondering if I really wanted to live there. It looked like it had rats. I hate rats. The truth was, though, I didn’t have much choice.

Just then a fellow came out of the front door and grinned at me. “You looking for Dombrowski?” he asked, speaking with a thick Polish accent. “He’s in his office. You just go in.”

“I guess I will,” I replied and walked inside.

Dombrowski was one of those short, fat Poles who smell like garlic. You see them everywhere now. A bunch of them were in my Dad’s crew at the factory. He said they were good enough workers, once you pounded the right way to do things into their thick heads. I never figured one of them was going to be my landlord.

I asked about the room and he showed it to me. It was all right – on the second floor, not too small, with a bed, a wardrobe, a chair and a table. There was no bookcase, but what did I expect? There was a fireplace that looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, but most important there didn’t seem to be any active rat holes, although I could see a couple of stopped-up ones.

“Are rats a problem here?” I asked.

“No rats!” Dombrowski said, so quickly I knew he had to be lying. “I use traps, I use poison. No more rats!” I wasn’t in a position to argue and Dombrowski, who knew his business, escorted me swiftly back to the front hall. He was telling me that for an extra twenty-five cents a day I could get a good breakfast, “cooked by Mrs. Dombrowski; you can’t find better anywhere,” when the door opened and someone came in. I looked up expecting to see another lodger, a stranger, but then I recognized him.

I had seen Walter Gilman around Haverhill when I was growing up there, but it wasn’t like we were pals. He was the big boss’s son and my Dad was just one of the workers. The last time I’d seen Walter was at my father’s funeral, sitting next to his old man. I wanted to go up and slug them both, but that would have troubled my mother and probably landed me in jail, so I didn’t.

It looked to me like Walter was trying to dress like he belonged to one of the wilder college sets. He wore a coat that looked like part of a costume, with a fringed scarf wrapped around his neck and a fedora in his hand. He was shorter than me and skinny, with almost-black hair that needed a trip to the barber and a little moustache that looked like he fussed over it in front of a mirror, willing it to grow in thicker.

He closed the door and stood on the mat looking at me like I was an exhibit in a museum. I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head:  there’s that fellow whose father died in my dad’s factory. Too bad. I had to take an afternoon to go to the funeral. What a bore. What’s his name? Not important.

Then Dombrowski got back into his song and dance, introducing us as though we were at a party. I guess to him we were two of a kind, both college students. People from Miskatonic probably didn’t rent rooms from him often so he was delighted to have two of us at once. And I can’t blame the man for what he couldn’t possibly have known.

He couldn’t have known that James Gilman, Walter’s father, killed my Dad. All right, he didn’t stick a knife into him or poison him or shoot him dead, but he was just as responsible for his death as if he’d done it deliberately.

Thomas Elwood, my father, was foreman on the leather cutting machines at Gilman’s shoe factory. He’d worked his way up from the bottom and was proud of that. One day when he was clearing a fault in one of the machines, a belt pulled him into the blades and he was badly cut. He died a couple of hours later. If James Gilman hadn’t been too cheap to install modern equipment with safety switches, my father would be alive today, my mother and sisters would have a comfortable life and I wouldn’t have to live in a rat-infested slum.

But never mind – once I’ve earned my degrees and qualified as a doctor, things will change.

As for Walter Gilman, I decided to stay out of his way. It would be easier if we didn’t live in the same house, but it could be done.

Walking back to the college district, I started to wonder just what Gilman was doing in a place like Dombrowski’s. It wasn’t because he didn’t have enough money; the last time I looked, his old man was driving a Packard and the factory still didn’t have a union. Well, he could keep his secrets to himself. I was going to avoid him.

This resolution was tested the very next day, when I moved my things into my new room. I had two big old suitcases that had belonged to my grandfather. He’d arrived in America with all his belongings in them and had done well. My worldly goods fitted into them with room to spare, so I suppose I had a job of work to catch up to Grandpa. The case with my books made for a heavy load, but I wanted to get the move done as fast as I could, so lugged both suitcases at once and was damn glad when I finally hauled them and myself onto the porch of Dombrowski’s house.

I used the case with the books to hold the door open while I got the other one inside, then picked them both up and started to hump them up the stairs to the second floor. It was harder work than I thought, but I couldn’t go back and there was nowhere to put either case down. I was beginning to think I would have trouble with the corner at the top, when I heard a voice from below.

“You should have known better than to carry both of them at once.” For a second I thought that the labour of moving my possessions had rendered me light-headed, because I remembered my Dad saying things like, “Slow and steady wins the race, Frank,” and “Measure twice, cut once.” Much as I admired my father, I have to admit these sayings sometimes got on my nerves. But now I wished it really was him even while I knew it wasn’t.

I turned and saw Gilman standing at the bottom of the stairs with that stupid fedora in his hand, smirking under his moustache. Smirking at me. I was about to tell him to keep his advice to himself when he ran up the stairs, holding out the hand that didn’t have his hat in it. “Here, I’ll take one of those cases.”

I let him have the one with the books, hoping he’d drop it on his foot. It would serve him right, and besides, I couldn’t hang onto it any more. He had a hard time with it at first but he was right behind me when we reached the top. He followed me into my room and put the case down next to the one I had carried. Instead of leaving, he just stood there, looking around as though he was doing an inspection. I was about to ask him if he’d noticed rats in the house, but he spoke up first.

“So what is it you’re studying, anyway?” he asked.

“Medicine,” I said. Then, because I supposed I owed him something, “What about you?” trying to sound as though I cared.

“Mathematics and physics,” he replied, in that lah-de-dah way of his. Then he said something else, about witchcraft. “Welcome to the Witch House.” He didn’t wait for an answer but turned and left, flipping his fringed scarf over his shoulder.

Math and physics. Well, well. Sometimes I think the good Lord has a sense of humor. I was doing all right in my classes, except for math. One of the things that bothered me about moving farther from campus was that there wouldn’t be anyone handy to ask for help with math problems. But here was Walter Gilman, who was studying that very subject. Except I couldn’t stand to look at his face and remember how he sat there at my Dad’s funeral looking bored.

No – forget Gilman. I’d just have to work harder. I didn’t want any more help from him.

The idea that I might end up helping him never even entered my mind.

 

So now that you’ve read my take on Walter Gilman and Frank Elwood, go and read the real story.

Turning to Mush

Before I retired, one of my fears was that my brain would turn to mush and my days would become an unstructured blur.

For the first few weeks, all was well. I bustled about, undertaking garden projects, getting rid of my working wardrobe (well, some of it) and relishing the prospect of infinite choice.

Then, last week, some sort of pollen allergy hit. I had episodes of these when I was younger, but not for the last decade. (One of the benefits of age, I thought). But last weekend, it was just like old times — runny, itchy nose, sneezing, stuffiness. No question of bustling or blogging, just sneezing, wheezing and blowing.

Enter antihistamines! One that promised 24 hour relief without drowsiness did the trick, although I’m not sure about the “no drowsiness” part. It’s unbelievable and indecent how much time I spend dozing and resting. Bedtime has been advanced an hour too. Old age is sometimes called “second childhood,” but I didn’t think I would regress so fast!

Logically, this is just a passing phase. Maybe my body is reacting to the change in routine. After all, five days of most weeks would start with “Get up, get washed, get dressed, get breakfast, get out the door by seven a.m.” Day after day, week after week, for more than 20 years. No wonder the poor old bod’s dazed and confused.

Between bouts of self-pity, mugs of tea and wads of tissues, I have been revisiting some of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, in a hefty edition annotated by Leslie S. Klinger. The footnotes, which elucidate historical and scientific details mentioned in the stories, are a distinct bonus, as are the many pictures. I have only two major problems with the book: 1) It’s huge! Definitely flunks the bath and beach tests, and is a bit of a job to read in bed (especially if it has to share lap space with a cat); 2) The absence of one of my favourite HPL stories, “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

Here’s hoping the mush will firm up soon! Gardens don’t wait for gardeners.

004

Authors And Their Characters

The other day, on Mike Davis’s Lovecraft e-zine blog, I read a post about a recently-discovered letter by H.P. Lovecraft, written in 1924 to J.C. Henneberger, the publisher of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine in which many of HPL’s stories were first published. A scan of the complete letter is available here. Each page may be displayed and enlarged for easier reading, and it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. An interesting detail quite apart from the content is that the letter appears to have been typed on hotel stationery, with the hotel’s logo appearing upside-down on alternate pages.

The letter is revealing in many different ways. Lovecraft’s command of the language (and of typing!) is impressive, as is his committment to weird fiction. He recommends several authors of his acquaintance as sources for new work for the magazine, showing an admirable consideration for writer colleagues. He describes two novel-length works he was hoping to complete and publish, although it seems neither of them ever saw the light. (A comment to the original post about this letter suggests that one of these works may have morphed into the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath).

HPL also speaks of stories he wrote at the bequest of the editor of a publication called Home Brew. One of these was a set of six serialized tales under the collective title “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Those familiar with this blog will recall my special interest in these stories and their principal character, Herbert West. HPL clearly describes his antipathy for the stories — not so much their content as their format. The serial aspect required each story after the first to recap the preceding one, a process HPL found tedious, and which, I suspect, coloured  his attitude toward the entire project. “I was sick of the job before I was half done,” he wrote. “The necessity for the completeness of each instalment spoiled the artistry of the whole thing — involving as it did the wearisome recapitulation of former matter in each instalment, and the eternal repetition of the description of Dr. Herbert West and his unamiable pursuits.”

As a writer, I can understand these sentiments, but as a reader, I did not find this to be a problem. In fact, those repeated descriptions of Herbert West — variations on “slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled” — made him, in my mind, a more vividly realized character than the protagonists of many other Lovecraft stories, in which setting and atmosphere are primary. As the series progressed, HPL added additional elements to his descriptions of West, such as “a soul calloused and seared,” and “behind his pallid intellectuality, a fastidious Baudelaire of physical experiment — a languid Elagabalus of the tombs.” So vivid, in fact, were my impressions of Dr. West, that he took up residence in my imagination for several years, during which I wrote his entire life history, one never imagined by his originator.

All of this shows that written works have a life beyond that intended by their creators. Every time they are read — casually or critically, for purposes of entertainment, scholarship or research — written words may set up a resonance in the reader’s mind, may link up with other writings to generate something entirely new, that goes on to have its own influence.

 

Local Author Book Review #6: When The Stars Are Right by Scott R. Jones

WTSAR_313px

The subtitle of this book could just as easily be A Rhapsody On Themes Of H.P. Lovecraft.

While reading the first few chapters, my biggest problem was trying to figure out what it is: serious literary criticism, parody, philosophy, humour or a weird amalgam of them all?

One thing it isn’t, I soon realized, is any kind of explication or critique of H.P. Lovecraft. Scott Jones makes this clear from the get-go: We thank him [Lovecraft] for his art, then, and acknowledge the suffering that produced it, even as we leave the man (a random confluence of flesh and foibles, if ever there was one) in the ground.

Jones doesn’t think much of HPL, referring to him more than once as “malnourished,” as though this aspect of the Old Gentleman’s life extended to his personality and creative abilities. But Jones has a lot of time for HPL’s creations, especially Cthulhu. “Look, Howard,” he says, “you’ve made some pretty nice things here — Yog-Sothoth, Chthulu, R’lyeh, the Necronomicon — just leave them to me. Go away, eat some beans, write a few letters, while I play with your toys.”

Don’t read this book expecting to find out much about Howard P. Lovecraft. It isn’t about him. It’s about things that happened in Scott R. Jones’s brain after reading Lovecraft and a lot of other stuff. Everything went into that cranial Mixmaster and out came R’lyehian spirituality.

So what is “R’lyehian spirituality?” According to Jones, it’s a lifelong quest for the Black Gnosis (a wonderful phrase, that you won’t find in HPL, by the way). And what is the Black Gnosis, you ask? It’s the realization in the fullest sense that “when all is madness, there is no madness.” It is a knowledge, deeply felt and internalized, not of That Which Is, but of That Which Is Not; a profoundly instinctual apprehension of the liminal spaces, in-between-ness and porosity of the world, of the Unknown.

In making his argument, Jones often slips in key words and phrases from HPL — the very title of his book is one, along with others, such as: serene and primal, placid island of ignorance, non-Euclidean, tittering, vigintillions, strange aeons, and, of course, the Three-Lobed Burning Eye. They serve as props and springboards to the Spaces Between, and to R’lyeh. Jones gets pretty lyrical about R’lyeh. The chapter on that Dreaming City, and the one on Cthulhu, the Lord of Dreams, are the most poetic parts of the book.

At the same time, When the Stars Are Right in many paragraphs reads like an academic thesis. Where else would you find words like asemic, oneiric, telluric and entheogenic? Jones sprinkles these proofs of an extensive vocabulary throughout the book. Looking up their meanings can be regarded as an educational bonus, albeit an irritating one.

It’s clear that Jones professes to be a R’lyehian. One chapter describes an event intended to invoke the Black Gnosis, performed on an August night at a location just a few kilometers from my home here in the city of Victoria. (And indeed, in 2010 I myself attended H.P. Lovecraft’s 120th Birthday Celebration and Cthulhu-riffic Cabaret, organized and hosted by Scott Jones). I even wrote a blog post about it. R’lyehians, Jones says, are subtle folks. They may carry some beliefs in their craniums that many would find bizarre, but those craniums are, more often than not, topped with groomed and barbered hair, and the bodies they’re attached to are clad in perfectly normal garments. R’lyehians dwell among us, but don’t flaunt it. (I’m not sure if I find that disturbing or reassuring).

Anyone who cracks this book but is put off by the weirdness emanating from it, or merely by Jones’s excessive enthusiasm for obscure words, should read the Afterword before giving up: “Yes, Meridian, There Is A Great Cthulhu.” For Scott Jones is a husband and father. The book is dedicated to his daughter Meridian, who came into the world just after he finished the first draft. In the Afterword, he offers her some advice about how to deal with fear. It’s a (mostly) sincere and even touching wrap-up for the book.

My rating: 7 out of 10 stars.

A copy of When The Stars Are Right is available in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at the Greater Victoria Public Library.

 

 

 

 

Happy 125th, H. P. Lovecraft!

Today, August 20th, 2015 (it’s only 7 p.m. here on the west coast of Canada, folks) is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s 125th birthday.

HPL in what appears to be a library reminiscent of the one at Miskatonic University

HPL in what appears to be a library reminiscent of the one at Miskatonic University

It just happens that my next Local Author Book Review (#6) will be of a Lovecraft-themed book. Look for it in the next week or so.

Literary Horror — Too Much of A Bad Thing?

Recently I read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree, and now I’m engaged in a struggle to finish Nick Cutter’s The Deep. Both books are in the horror genre, and both, in my opinion, are problematic.

The thing is, these are not straightforward genre books. They are literary horror. And that’s the problem.

Before I go on, I’ll just say that I have no problem with the writing itself. Kiernan and Cutter are skilled writers whose prose is artful and compelling. It’s the entire reading experience I want to dissect.

First, what is horror? It’s fiction whose purpose is to provide the reader with a vicarious experience of something terrible that is outside of reality. (This distinguishes it from thrillers, in which the threat is reality-based). It may be gory and graphic, it may be subtle and inexplicable, but whatever the fictional characters experience must be vividly shared by the reader. The best horror fiction lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished, providing jolts of terror at unexpected moments.

Literary fiction is character-based. The characters and their inner lives drive the plot. Whatever happens to them is of less importance than how they change in the course of the narrative.

Strong, fully fleshed-out characters are thought to be a mark of superior fiction. Readers (this one included) who post reviews of books often complain about “cardboard cutout” or stereotypical characters. But I’m wondering if that criticism applies less to horror fiction.

Think about it — in horror, it’s the situation that’s the star of the show. It’s the house with something dwelling in the cellar, the forest full of malign presences, the stealthy noises in the walls. The reader should be right there, cheek by jowl with the character experiencing these things, trying to figure out what’s happening, becoming terrified, confronting the fear, discovering the terrible truth. If the point-of-view character is also a complex personality sorting through messy personal baggage and possibly struggling with mental health issues, the story sometimes becomes muddy and tedious.

Unreliable narrators are practically a given now, even in genre fiction, and they can add texture to a story. But the degree of unreliability should be limited, and the reader must be given a fundamentally sympathetic character to travel with and root for.

In both of the books I mentioned at the start of this post, the main characters are troubled to start with, as a result of unhappy childhoods or traumatic events in the recent past. Add the bizarre or dangerous situations that underpin the plots (a tree with a weird history, a research station 8 miles underwater that’s gone incommunicado) — and who is surprised when they start to crack? But the reader who just wants to experience a series of terrifying situations while sitting comfortably on the couch may get impatient when their companion character breaks down and needs psychoanalysis. It’s like when you’re on a hike in challenging conditions and your only companion starts to lose it. Yes, this ramps up the tension (always a good thing in fiction), but once a character’s psychological issues become more important than the shapes in the shadows, you have a different type of book.

And indeed, many readers enjoy the combination of literary + horror, as shown by the ratings of both these books on Goodreads. I may be in a minority, preferring a greater degree of separation between the two. For what it’s worth, I think the literary/horror balance is a bit better in The Deep. The main character, although overburdened with personal issues, including a most peculiar upbringing, is basically sympathetic. In both this book and The Red Tree, however, the psychological is too tightly entangled the with the horror for my taste.

Critics have commented that H.P. Lovecraft’s main characters are not well developed. They are usually types — New Englanders of an academic bent faced with evidence of weird goings-on, often in the form of documents or artifacts that lead to the situations and settings that were HPL’s darlings. The characters are merely vehicles to take the reader to those situations. Aside from the basics (name, residence, scholarly interests, family background) little detail is provided. And really, it doesn’t much matter. The reader is sucked right in, reading accounts of R’lyeh rising from the ocean, traveling haunted rural roads to Henry Akeley’s place, exploring the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica. Who cares about Francis Wayland Thurston’s mental quirks, Albert N. Wilmarth’s love life or William Dyer’s childhood?

When I read Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator,” I thought Herbert and the unnamed narrator had potential when it came to character development. What led Herbert to reanimate corpses? Why did the narrator remain loyal to West even when he began to fear him? These questions don’t really have much to do with the corpses lurching around, but they led me to write my novel The Friendship of Mortals. “Herbert West, Reanimator” is definitely horror; some have called it the first zombie tale. Re-Animator, the movie based on the story, is horror of the splatter and gore variety. But my book? Answering the character-based questions that compelled me to write transformed it from horror to psychological/supernatural.

 

 

 

What is “Lovecraftian”?

While writing my post about Pete Rawlik’s novel Reanimators, I started thinking about Lovecraftian writing in general. You see the term everywhere these days, in blogs, book reviews and descriptions. What does it mean, anyway?

What is a Lovecraftian novel or story, and how does it differ from other types of weird fiction, science fiction or horror fiction?

Tentacles? Surely more than that!

First of all, who was Howard Phillips Lovecraft? He was a writer of weird fiction who lived almost his entire life (1890-1937) in Providence, Rhode Island. Almost unknown during his relatively short life, he achieved enduring fame after his writings caught the popular fancy. Lovecraft’s friends and fellow writers August Derleth and Donald Wandrei are credited with bringing public attention to his work by publishing it posthumously under the Arkham House imprint.

Fiction dubbed “Lovecraftian” covers a wide range:

1. Rewritings or expansions of HPL’s stories. Examples include Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators and my own The Friendship of Mortals, both of which use Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator” as a starting point.

2. Original stories with HPL’s settings, entities and situations, but with new plots and characters. The body of such writings is sometimes described as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Authors include August Derleth and Brian Lumley, among others.

3. Original stories with new themes similar to those of HPL, often referencing his works. Colin Wilson’s story “The Return of the Lloigor” is an example. Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft is another.

4. Original stories that mention HPL or elements from his fiction but with plots that go beyond his characteristic settings and situations . Many present-day writers in horror and the paranormal give a nod or pay tribute to Lovecraft in varying degrees. Stephen King, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell and many others — too many to name, really. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree, which I recently finished reading, is a perfect example.

I think that to be truly Lovecraftian, a story or novel must include certain qualities and plot elements, such as references to ancient books, other dimensions and displacements in time, but especially the idea that we and our Earth are not the culmination of anything, merely a small blip in the cosmos. The horror, when revealed, must be enormous and incomprehensible, on a cosmic scale.

Fiction of the “classic Lovecraftian” type would include some or all of these:

1. A New England setting.

2. Old houses or other buildings, or subterranean places.

3. Ancient books or manuscripts of secret lore.

4. Concerns with ancestry.

5. Connection with a university or with researchers.

6. No sex and almost no female characters.

7. An earnest, scholarly narrative style.

8. Accidental discovery of shocking secrets by a character (always a man, of a scholarly, solitary type) engaged in genealogical or other research.

9. No magic; presumably all manifestations are natural phenomena, even though some violate the laws of physics as we know them.

10. The idea that the earth, solar system, galaxy and universe have a history independent of any connection to humanity, involving life forms or vast entities that, while indifferent to humans, may pose deadly threats to them, either directly or by actions of worshippers or minions of these entities.

This brings me to religion and magic. Lovecraft’s atheism and scientific rationalism are reflected in his fiction. Magic appears only in Lovecraft’s fantasies, for example The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Even there it is somewhat limited, being part of that fictional world — for example, cats that can fly to the dark side of the moon. As for religion, it’s human beings who worship and act in the name of the Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth. The entities themselves appear to be indifferent to humanity.

Personally I think the term “Lovecraftian” is being applied rather too freely these days, as a synonym for weird fiction generally. In a straight-up Lovecraftian story, their main characters may not necessarily be male, but should definitely be unattached and engaged in some sort of scholarly enterprise or genealogical research, rather than sex. Characters with active sex lives are not Lovecraftian in the strict sense, no matter what weird things happen to them.

In fact, I would argue that many of the works in my fourth category of types above aren’t really Lovecraftian at all. They may have been inspired by HPL’s writings or contain references to them, but it takes more than that to be “Lovecraftian fiction.” It’s a subset of weird fiction, not a synonym for it. Writers and reviewers owe it to H.P. Lovecraft and his admirers to be familiar with his outlook and style before applying the term to a piece of writing.

 

A Peculiar Pastiche: Pete Rawlik’s Reanimators

Several weeks ago I read an interview with author Pete Rawlik on the Lovecraft eZine blog, in which Rawlik referred to his novel Reanimators. I had not heard of this work before so of course rushed to read it. Given my connection with HPL’s character Herbert West, I couldn’t wait to see what another writer had done with him.

Hence this review.

The plot? I was going to say “The plot in brief,” but it’s hard to summarize this novel. It’s a composite of many stories, each based on or involving characters from other stories by Lovecraft. In a way this maintains the spirit of “Herbert West, Reanimator,” which was published as a six-part serial. The main character and narrator (for the most part) is Stuart Hartwell, a fellow student of Herbert West and Daniel Cain (a name from the 1985 movie Re-Animator; the narrator of HPL’s story is unnamed). West and Cain’s early experiments result in the violent deaths of Hartwell’s parents, inducing a desire for revenge that waxes and wanes over many years. During these years, Hartwell practices medicine in Arkham but also pursues research into reanimation, achieving better results than West and Cain, who turn out to be bunglers. Hartwell manages to conceal his research from the authorities while becoming involved with a host of characters including Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (from HPL’s “The Shadow Out of Time”), Dr. Munoz (from “Cool Air”) and — wait for it — Charlie Chan! Every now and then Hartwell sneaks into Herbert West’s secret laboratory, reads his notes and sabotages his experiments. Eventually, he begins his own grand experiment, with the population of Arkham as unwitting subjects. He also takes a trip into the country around Arkham, meets Lavinia Whately and her father, and witnesses a momentous event near Dunwich. Some time after this, on a visit to Sefton Asylum, Hartwell meets a Russian doctor who had spent some time in Dunwich and examined an amazing boy named Wilbur Whately. In 1914 Dr. Hartwell, like Dr. West, goes to war, where his reanimating reagent proves singularly useful, in a terrifying way. After the war, Hartwell swears off pursuing his reanimation research, but to no avail. Despite his good intentions, his reagent has a bizarre role in the worldwide devastation brought about by the so-called Spanish influenza. This episode is followed by a rather sparse reprise of the concluding chapter of HPL’s “Herbert West, Reanimator,” except it’s Stuart Hartwell who drives the truck that delivers a gang of reanimated dudes and a big square box to West’s house. After this, Hartwell takes a time-out, and the narrative is continued by Daniel Cain, by way of a document discovered among Hartwell’s papers at a later date. Cain relates how he and Herbert West spent part of WWI — in the crumbling Chateau d’Erlette, which is inhabited by a lady and her exceedingly strange son, a talented violist whose name is Erik, nicknamed “Zann” by his mother. ‘Nuff said. West and Cain make a reappearance in Arkham, moving in mere doors away from Hartwell, who is exceedingly annoyed by this proximity, but makes use of it by spying on his (former?) enemies. Combat with syringes and pistol ensues. Hartwell gets involved with rural medicine in the Miskatonic Valley and, along with Lake and Dyer (“At the Mountains of Madness” and Wilmarth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”) witnesses bizarre activities in a village called Quirk. He returns unscathed to his practice, and in 1927 participates in the investigation of strange goings-on in Innsmouth. About this time, Wilbur Whately arrives in the Library of Miskatonic University. Thanks to Dr. Hartwell’s efforts, Henry Armitage (the librarian), is in fine form and plays a heroic role, but soon after this Mrs. Armitage dies. Her deathbed is attended by one Frank Elwood (“The Dreams in the Witch-House”). Elwood gives Hartwell a document he has written, outlining the true story of Keziah Mason and the death of Walter Gilman. Said history is pretty colourful — Keziah Mason was a prodigy and had two twin sisters, and they were all midwives and… Enough, already. Another set of triplets, this time boys from Kingsport, precipitate the final horror, in which a convergence of ancestral follies and scientific travesties plays out, sealing the fate of Stuart Hartwell.

Whew.

My review: I have to give Rawlik full marks for weaving together characters and plot bits from a dozen or so Lovecraft stories, combining them with actual events from history. The prose is vivid in spots, even a little feverish. Rawlik maintains most of the necessary characteristics of a Lovecraftian story — a main character who is a single, unattached male, narration with little dialogue, and no sex. Scientific details are added with authority and reasonable plausibility. Some of the plot elements created to provide background — for example Dr. Munoz’s and Keziah Mason’s backstories — show ingenuity and imagination. Aficionados of HPL would certainly find this novel a gold mine of allusions and expansions on the work of the master. As an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, Reanimators is admirable.

Now the elements that aren’t so good, first among them the fact that a reader unacquainted with the work of Lovecraft would probably find this book incomprehensible. In order to incorporate characters and plot elements from a number of stories, Rawlik sacrifices overall plot integrity. His adoption of Lovecraft’s style — old-fashioned, sometimes pedantic and wordy — becomes tedious at times, and is not helped by the paucity of dialogue. (In the few places where dialogue is used, it has a distinctly livening effect). Most of Lovecraft’s works are short — stories and a couple of novellas. Adopting his style for a novel of more than 300 pages risks straining the patience of readers used to contemporary fast-paced fiction. Like most of Lovecraft’s main characters, Rawlik’s Hartwell doesn’t have much personality. Apart from token chest-beating about his role in some of the disasters that occur, he doesn’t do much self-examination or undergo any development. His function is to tell what happens, but he does not engage the reader. What kept me reading wasn’t sympathy for Hartwell, but merely a desire to find out what happened next.

Finally, I was quite disappointed to find that despite the title of the book, which references “Herbert West, Reanimator,” Herbert West is almost invisible in Reanimators. Creating Hartwell to play the role of a rival and enemy of West was a good idea, but Rawlik sends Hartwell off on side trips in order to bring in all those other HPL plots and people, breaking the original plot thread in the process. There is almost no interaction between Hartwell and West. I wish the author had stayed focused on reanimation and examined different motives for and methods of accomplishing it, ending with a showdown between West and Hartwell. Anyone looking for that won’t find it in Reanimators.

(But something of the sort may be found in a book entitled The Friendship of Mortals, by one A. Driscoll).