weird fiction

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.

 

Advertisements

Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?

Well, OK, not that yellow sign.

Most of us have seen many yellow signs, but only one has elicited shudders since 1895, when Robert W. Chambers’s book The King in Yellow was published. It has become a classic among readers of weird fiction, and influenced H.P. Lovecraft and his literary successors.

I first read The King in Yellow more than 30 years ago, but lost touch with it after I inadvertently left my copy at the train station in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1984. Recently I acquired an ebook copy and proceeded to read all nine stories in short order.

I found that 99% of the book’s content had been expunged from my memory — all except for the words of the title and the phrase “the Yellow Sign,” along with a few other key words or phrases — the Pallid Mask, the Lake of Hali — and the name Cassilda. Also that the Yellow King’s garments were, for some mysterious reason, tattered. Everything else was as though brand new in my recent re-reading.

All the stories have these elements in common: the protagonists are young American artists, as Chambers was before he turned from art to writing. The locales in which the stories play out are New York City or Paris, with one tale set in Brittany. Descriptions of bohemian life (American style) in Paris are delicious — sights, sounds, smells, plants, flowers, clothing, birds and even insects, all are all rendered in detail and imbued with nostalgia. I think some of these stories, “The Street of our Lady of the Fields” and “Rue Barree” in particular, are thinly fictionalized reminiscences of youthful hijinks that seem charmingly quaint when read in our cynical times. However charming, these tales boil down to relationships between the young Americans and Parisian ‘working girls.’ Little perfumed notes about rendezvous at various cafes and clubs are mentioned, but the word ‘prostitute’ or any of its synonyms is never to be seen, and yet the point is made that the young ladies, however delightful, are not to be fallen in love with, for one could never contemplate presenting them to Mother back home.

An exception among the Parisian stories is one titled “The Street of the First Shell.” It paints a vivid and disturbing picture of life during the Siege of Paris in 1870-71. The characters are, as usual, young American artists, but they are shown dealing with starvation, betrayal, and the despair of a population pushed to its limits. It’s worth reading as an introduction to an episode in history that is not well known to many now.

The fifth story — a bridge between those that mention the King in Yellow and those about Americans in Paris — is called “The Demoiselle d’Ys.” It is a well-wrought tale, something between ghost story and fantasy, with a bonus of a lot of information about the art of falconry.

But what about the King in Yellow? Well, that reference is to be found in the first four stories — “The Repairer of Reputations,” “The Mask,” “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign.”

“The Repairer of Reputations” is set in a weirdly dystopian New York City in 1920 (remember, the book was published in 1895). The protagonist is a seriously unreliable narrator, but it takes a while for that realization to emerge.

“The Mask” combines chemistry and art with something of the romanticism of the later stories. It would play beautifully as a graphic novel rendered in the Art Nouveau style of Aubrey Beardsley, an exact contemporary.

“In the Court of the Dragon” takes place in a church. Churches appear often in these stories, and Chambers has some of his protagonists reveal that they are Catholics. This story features a sinister organist who is a harbinger of doom to the narrator, who had been reading the forbidden play entitled The King in Yellow. He hopes the church will be a safe haven in which to recover, but that is not to be.

In “The Yellow Sign” we are once again in New York City. This time the artist protagonist is a man of experience, filled with regret about someone in Brittany by the name of Sylvia, but the story concerns his relationship with his young model, Tessie. It’s all quite innocent until the grotesque figure of a cemetery watchman appears. Things become really complicated when Tessie reads The King in Yellow.

The thing about all these stories is that the action is quite independent of the yellow-clad king and his world. Only at the very end of “In the Court of the Dragon” does the King emerge from the shadows and speak. In the other stories, “The King in Yellow” is a play, reputed to cause madness and terror in those who read it. Bits of text from the play introduce the stories, such as this from “The Repairer of Reputations”: Strange is the night where black stars rise, And strange moons circle through the skies But stranger still is Lost Carcosa. Songs that the Hyades shall sing, Where flap the tatters of the King, Must die unheard in dim Carcosa.

So who is the King in Yellow? That is never explained. He is a representative of a world that is hinted at, that hovers unseen behind our world, that may break through and destroy those who read the dreadful play. This world and its inhabitants are utterly alien and unknown to us. Only in this do these stories resemble those of H.P. Lovecraft, whom they are thought to have influenced. Otherwise, Chambers’s stories are concerned with the thoughts and emotions of their human characters. The King — whose garments are said to have “scolloped tatters” — is somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Nylarlathotep or possibly Azathoth. The lack of descriptions of him — only a few fascinating details — is what gives these stories their weird power.

The King in Yellow is definitely worth a read, not only by those who are interested in early weird fiction, but by anyone who would enjoy a vicarious visit to Paris as it was in the 1880s or 1890s.

 

 

 

 

 

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).