“The Truth About Pickman”

Originally, I was going to review this story at a much later date since I’m still catching up on reviews. However, after I reading it, I nominated it for discussion at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group devoted to weird fiction.

I’m not really sure it qualifies despite originally being published in S. T. Joshi’s Black Wings of Cthulhu, but I’ll get to that later.

Review: The Truth about Pickman”, Brian Stableford, 2010.

This is an interesting story, actually a strong piece of science fiction which uses Brian Stableford’s extensive knowledge of biology to rationalize the existence of Richard Pickman from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model”. It’s ends on something of a nasty joke.

Spoilers aplenty lie ahead.

This story has an underlying tone of menace almost from the beginning since it narrator, Eliot, makes it clear that he’s concealing information from Professor Alastair Thurber who has come to visit him from America.

Eliot lives in a rather odd house on the Isle of Wight in a chine, a wooded ravine at the edge of the sea, a place formerly used by smugglers.

Eliot lives by himself, and Thurber is a microbiologist who also has an interest in Pickman’s paintings. Both men are descendants of characters in Lovecraft’s story. (You probably should read it before this story.)

Continue reading ““The Truth About Pickman””

“The Fungal Strain”

This week’s weird fiction story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Fungal Strain”, W. H. Pugmire, 2006.

Cover by Rafael Tavares

This is an oblique takeoff on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep” using the “Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey” mentioned in passing in that story. 

Pugmire’s prose is lush and filled with vivid incident.

Our narrator is a sometime poet though he claims he’s just interested in the craft of poetry.

The story opens with him seeing, in the fog outside a bookstore, a woman of somewhat bestial face. She comes inside while he looks through a volume of Geoffrey’s works. 

It turns out the woman – whose name we never get — can quote his favorite poet. But the narrator is a loner and somewhat antisocial and isn’t interested in making friends with her. After her opening conversational gambit, she hums an odd song. 

When he leaves the bookstore, the woman follows him, humming a beguiling tune. He begins to “creep” towards her, but she walks into the Kingsport fog.

Continue reading ““The Fungal Strain””

The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England

Low Res Scan: The Watcher by the Threshold, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, 2005, 2012.

My multi-part look at this collection of John Buchan’s fantastic fiction continues with his stories set in England.

Off all the stories in the collection the most memorable and, I think, most original – even though Buchan gave it a Latin title – is ”Tendebant Manus(1927). This is a story with a tinge of predestination at its end and centers around World War One. The story is the reminisces at the funeral of one George Souldern recently killed in a motorcycle accident. For most of his life, George was considered to have a first-class brain, to be industrious and clever but not the sort of man who could lead others, a man of no enthusiasm, a man lacking in personality.

But George, in his later years, starkly transformed. The catalyst seems to have been the death of his brother Reggie on the Western Front. Reggie was everything George wasn’t: a natural leader (he served on staff at General HQ), a man of ordinary intellect who used it all.

Continue reading “The Watcher by the Threshold, Part 4: England”

The Midnight Eye Omnibus Volume 2

Low Res Scan: The Midnight Eye Omnibus Volume 2, William Meikle, 2019.midnighteyeomnibus

Derek Adams, the Glasgow private eye who is a magnet for the weird, is a character Meikle returns to again and again. He’s added to the series since I read this book though I have not read the newest installment.

This collection actually has an “Introduction” by J. Kent Holloway, an appreciation of the deep use of mythology in Meikle’s fantasy and horror stories. Holloway also talks about how Meikle was his entrance point to the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

And the influence of Lovecraft is certainly seen in “Eeny Meeny Miney Mi-Go” which, as you would expect from the title, is Meikle’s takeoff on H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”. Adams is hired by an astronomer, Penderton, to find his son within 48 hours. Of course, it doesn’t turn out to be that simple, and Penderton has a lot of secrets. The story seems to be from early in Adams’ career. He’s already a private eye, but we hear about his friend Dave who shows up in the earliest Adams novels. Derek’s girlfriend Liz is probably the woman whose suicide, while Adams was in the next room, left him guilt ridden.

Call and Response” is not only a call-out to the Cthulhu Mythos as Adams is hired by an ex-New York City policeman to find an unknown professor but also to a bit of Scottish pride in the references to John Logie Baird. He was the inventor of the first tv technology and conducted the first transmission of color on tv. Throw in cosmic cycles, a certain being slumbering in the depths of the Pacific, and a nod to Charles Darwin, and you have a light-hearted story, one of the best in the Adams series. it’s also another case of Meikle attracted to the idea of dance and music – rhythm, in other words – as a way of communicating with the supernatural and extraordinary.

The book contains several other Adams’ tales, and you’ll find my reviews of each linked to their title: Rhythm and Booze, “The Weathered Stone“, “The Inuit Bone“, “A Slim Chance“, “Farside“, Deal or No Deal?, and “Home Is the Sailor“.

As long as Meikle keeps writing Adams, I’ll keep reading about Derek’s adventures in the mean, weird streets of Glasgow.

Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories

Low Res Scan: Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories, William Meikle, 2016.

Watcher at the Gate
Cover by M. Wayne Miller

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I like Meikle’s Carnacki better than William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki.

There are two reasons for that.

First, Meikle will often work in odd bits of history or folklore into his stories, and Hodgson didn’t do that. (Of course, Hodgson presented his stories as contemporary. Their setting is now over a 100 years old.)

Second, Meikle’s Carnacki doesn’t go on at length about his photographic methods or how he checks a dwelling out. His Carnacki will simply say something like, “You all know my methods by now.”

Meikle’s Carnacki stories are presented roughly in chronological order. This is, currently, the second of Meikle’s Carnacki anthologies. Don’t worry, though, you won’t be lost if you jump around in the publication order of them.

The Banshee” does allude to some of the menaces Carnacki has faced in the past and how be vanquished them. Here an old friend in Scotland has heard the banshee’s cry which means, according to family lore, he will die if he hears it seven times. So, naturally,  Carnacki sets out to help him. Unusually, Carnacki tells most of the story to his friend – and series regular – Dodgson by letter. Continue reading “Carnacki: The Watcher at the Gate and Other Stories”

“Robert H. Barlow’s ‘A Memory’ in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land”

Review: “Robert H. Barlow’s ‘A Memory’ in William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land”, Marcos Legaria, 2014.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

R. H. Barlow critic Massimo Berruti thought Barlow’s “A Memory”, a far future tale, greatly resembled The Night Land. (I have not read it.) This article tracks the passing around of Hodgson’s novels from the 50-year-old Herman C. Koenig, a book collector and a key figure in keeping interest in Hodgson alive, to various members of the Lovecraft Circle: Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and R. H. Barlow.

Barlow seems to have written his story around September 1934. We just can’t determine from extant letters when, if ever, Barlow got a hold of a copy of The Night Land though we know approximately when he saw Hodgson’s other novels.

“The Children of the Night”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Children of the Night”, Robert E. Howard, 1931.

Children of the Night
Cover by Stephen Fabian

The story starts with our narrator, John O’Donnel, hanging out with six other men. They discuss various historical, anthropological, and literary matters. They are all

of the same breed — that is to say, a Briton or an American of British descent. By British, I include all natural inhabitants of the British Isles.

Well, maybe not all of them. There’s that Ketrick fellow. He says he comes from the “Welsh branch of the Cetrics of Sussex”. But his eyes are “sort of amber, almost yellow, and slightly oblique”. Why, if you look at him just right, he almost looks Chinese.

Talk turns to an artifact one of them has reconstructed, a strange stone axe. Ketrick picks it up, experimentally swings it about.

And smacks O’Donnel in the head. Continue reading ““The Children of the Night””

“Pioneering Essays”

Review: “Pioneering Essays”.

Voices from the Borderland
Cover by Daniele Serra

This is a collection of the earliest essays on William Hope Hodgson, mostly by writers.

H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Weird Work of William Hope Hodgson” says Hodgson is one of the few writers that can capture “the inmost illusive essence of the weird” and puts Hodgson just below Algernon Blackwood in his skill even if his conception of the universe and man’s place in it is “conventionally sentimental”. I’m not sure exactly what Lovecraft meant. Hodgson’s stories don’t appeal to God or any higher power save man. Perhaps he was noting Hodgson’s characters often have love interests whereas Lovecraft’s (with the exception of “The Thing on the Doorstep”) never do. Lovecraft uses variations on the word “siege” in describing every Hodgson novel except The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. He finds the prose of that novel inaccurate and “pseudo-romantic”. Of The Night Land, Lovecraft says that, despite all its faults, it is one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever conceived. Generally, Lovecraft is not fond of Hodgson’s Carnacki stories but concedes that some have “undeniable power” and show Hodgson’s peculiar genius.

Clark Ashton Smith said that Hodgson’s work had the quality of the “realism of the unreal”. He thinks Hodgson at least the equal of Algernon Blackwood and perhaps exceeded him in The House on the Borderland. Of The Night Land, Smith said “there are few works so sheerly remarkable”. Smith thought those two novels were Hodgson’s masterpieces though he liked the beginning scenes on the island in The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”. He thought The Ghost Pirates was “one of the few successful long stories dealing with the phantasmal”. Continue reading ““Pioneering Essays””

Sargasso #3

This is the newest and, with the death of Gafford, last issue of this magazine. While thinner than its predecessors, it’s still a worthwhile mix of fiction, criticism, poetry and illustrations.

Review: Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies #3, ed. Sam Gafford, 2016.

Sargasso 3
Cover by Ronald H. Knox

Josh Reynolds “Corpse-Light” is dedicated to “H. P. Lovecraft and W. H. Hodgson and all the shunned houses and derelicts quietly rotting.” It’s an entertaining story, and part of Reynolds series detailing the adventures of Randolph Carter and Harley Warren before the latter meets his end in Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. There is indeed a “shunned house” here. It’s on Wacalaw Island off the Carolina coast, deserted because of the Spanish Flu, and about to be turned into a golf course. Warren, reckless adventurer that he is, is looking for evidence of a particular fungus normally found in the pyramids of Egypt. It’s kind of a combination of Hodgson’s “The Derelict” and Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”.

What’s a journal on Hodgsonian without a Carnacki tale? And James Gracey gives us one with “A Hideous Communion”. Moderately interesting, it has the occult detective going to Ireland and investigate sightings of his friend’s dead wife. The solution to the mystery is a novel one.

Since it combines Hodgson and geology, I, of course, was delighted with Joseph Hinton’s “The House on the Burren: The Physical and Psychological Foundations of The House on the Borderland”. It looks at Hodgson’s time in Ardrahan, Ireland where he lived from age nine to twelve. Ardrahan is 20 miles away from the Burren, an area of karst topography in Ireland which, with its sinkholes and caves, may have influenced the setting of Hodgson’s novel. R. Alain Everts’ biography of Hodgson, Some Facts in the Case of William Hope Hodgson, Master of Phantasy, claims that the local Catholics, who Samuel Hodgson was sent to convert, were hostile to him. Supposedly, there were threats to kidnap his children (though William Hope Hodgson spent a lot of that time in England at boarding school). Accounts from the 19th century quoted by Hinton paint the locals as few and poor and enslaved to the papacy. Some interpretations of The House on the Borderland have seen the swine-creatures as metaphors for the fear of the Irish peasant. Continue reading “Sargasso #3”

Letters to James F. Morton

(This first appeared May 4, 2012 in

 

Review: Letters to James F. Morton, H. P. Lovecraft, eds. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, 2011.

To read a Lovecraft letter is to hear Lovecraft’s voice. That is what those who knew him well enough to make the comparison said. He wrote as he spoke. Modern audiences might think of these letters as a Lovecraft blog full of the details of his life, intermittently playful, sometimes earnest and serious, often returning to the legacy of the 18th century he so loved.

These particular letters are all at least 70 years old, yet they sometimes touch on things we still discuss: economic chaos and dislocation, political reform and radicalism, race, culture, and immigration. Contentious issues then and now, but, at least with these two men, the debate was genial and reasonable. In that, they seem less modern.

James F. Morton maintained a correspondence with Lovecraft from sometime around 1920 until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Morton was many things Lovecraft wasn’t. He was 20 years older. He was a college graduate – specifically, from Harvard, where he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s and master’s degree at age 22. He was a political radical who had associated with anarchists, including Emma Goldman, and written books on tax policy and religious “freethinking”. He had once made a living as a lecturer and belonged to many national organisations, including ones devoted to natural history, Esperanto and genealogy. For much of the time of their correspondence, Morton was gainfully employed at the Patterson Museum in New Jersey, where, after learning mineralogy in three weeks, he convinced them to hire him as curator and eventually built one of the premier mineralogical museum displays in America.

And yet, the reclusive Lovecraft was, remarked mutual acquaintance Edward H. Cole, the only one in their circle who could talk “on the same plane” as Morton.

Amateur journalism, said Lovecraft, gave him “life itself”, and part of that gift was Morton. Their first contact with each other was not the auspicious start of a lifelong friendship. Lovecraft attacked, in 1915, an essay by Charles D. Isaacson. The latter responded, as did his friend Morton. As Schultz and Joshi put it in the book’s introduction, Lovecraft got “his ears boxed by one of the organization’s grand old men, a liberal, free-thinking anarchist.” In an essay, “’Conservatism’ Gone Mad” – The Conservative was the magazine Lovecraft published – Morton firmly rebutted Lovecraft’s contentions. But, in the final paragraph, after saying,

Lovecraft needs to serve a long and humble apprenticeship before he will become qualified to sit in the master’s seat and to thunder forth ex cathedra judgements,

Morton complimented his “evident sincerity” and “vigor of style” and said that Lovecraft could become “a writer of power”.

But, sometime in the next five years, Morton went from a man who participated in, according to Lovecraft, the  “wanton destruction of the public faith and the publick morals” to one of his dearest friends, a man he would write, and personally meet often, until Lovecraft’s death.

None of Morton’s letters are reproduced here. Lovecraft didn’t usually save all the letters from his many correspondents and, despite their long and deep friendship, Morton’s were no exception. For whatever reason, he only saved about 45 of Morton’s letters, and many of those were recycled when Lovecraft wrote his manuscripts on their back. Most of the 162 letters here are from transcripts done for Arkham House’s Selected Letters series, though most of the time, they were abridged there and this volume reproduces each letter in its entirety. Only three of the letters are based on actual physical copies and not those transcripts. Therefore, this is not the entire record of Lovecraft’s letters to Morton and it also omits the many postcards Lovecraft sent Morton.

The subjects covered in the letters are not what you would always expect.

Both living on tight budgets, and in an age of usually regional-only distribution of particular food items, the two spend some letters discussing the merits of particular brands of canned baked beans and coffee. Lovecraft would even sometimes mail Morton particular food items Morton couldn’t find in New York or New Jersey.

Architecture and, especially, Georgian architecture is probably the subject that comes up most often. Morton’s interest in this, perhaps, was not equal to Lovecraft’s, but he seems to have had knowledge and experience with some of the historical restoration projects then under way along the Atlantic seaboard.

Genealogy was an enthusiasm for both. At one memorable point, in a 1933 letter, this spun off into a facetious genealogy, beginning with Lovecraft’s created god Azathoth and terminating in branches that list the reputed ancestors of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft was not enamoured of geology and especially not with mineralogy, which he regarded as mostly an exercise in classification with no intrinsically interesting drama behind it, but he did aid in Morton’s efforts to gather specimens for the Patterson Museum collection. Besides ghost writing, Lovecraft’s other main source of income was small lease payments from the owner of a quarry around Providence, and he worked as a go-between in getting mineral specimens from there, including, according to their mutual friend W. Paul Cook, one that was only known, as far as the eastern United States was concerned, from that quarry. This same friend claimed that there was a ton or more of rocks in “Lovecraft’s room” (presumably a study) for over a year before they were sent to Morton.

Stamp collecting and puzzles are also frequently discussed. Lovecraft had collected stamps as a boy and sent specimens on to Morton. As for puzzles, Lovecraft could not understand Morton’s inveterate love of them. He not only solved them, but created them and two of the many organisations he belonged to were the National Puzzlers’ League and the American Cryptogram Association. To Lovecraft, puzzles were a pointless expenditure of time and mental energy that he would rather spend actually learning facts about history and the natural world, rather than solving an arbitrary and artificial problem. But he granted that Morton probably had the mental energy to spare. And, indeed, Morton was a whirlwind of activity. Lovecraft asked him if he wouldn’t be happier not trying to cram something into each minute of the day, and spending some time in idle contemplation and emotional reflection.

Why, rather than reading at meals, asked Lovecraft, couldn’t Morton just let his mind wander? Then Lovecraft goes off on an example, a remarkable, multi-page chain of free association inspired by the utensils and foods of a common breakfast. At another time, he does this with architecture, and ends with images and plots reminiscent of his stories. For Lovecraft, association was everything, a source of comfort and identification, an aesthetic basis for happiness in a cosmos with no real human values. I sense that these chains of association account for what some critics deem his adjective-heavy style. (Though I would be curious to see Lovecraft’s fiction put to a mathematical stylistic analysis to see how it actually compares, in adjective frequency and density, to the writers these same critics favour.) Perhaps they were the most concise way he could evoke the associations he intended, an allusive imagery of the sort a poet would use, since that was his first field of literary endeavour.

Another interesting feature of these letters is how many times Lovecraft, the lover and emulator of 18th-century English prose, imitates contemporary slang and dialects of various types. Contemporaries said the slang usage was spot on and, of course, he best put this dialectic skill to use in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”.

There is, as with many biographies, a sense of drama that comes as you near the subject’s rendezvous with eternity. A letter from July 25, 1936 mentions the recent suicide of his friend Robert Howard. His last letter, started in December 1936 and found unfinished on his desk after his death, is full of the kind of portents a fiction writer would use: references to muted fall colours, increasing bouts of “grippe”, and the Christmas gift of a skull.

Oddly, this is one of the few letters that actually talk about weird fiction. Morton was interested in a variety of literature, old and new. He was, in fact, the one who introduced Lovecraft to Algernon Blackwood and there is a hilarious letter in which Lovecraft, taking up the suggestion of one of Morton’s museum co-workers, spins out the possible plot details of a detective series featuring two mineralogists, where all the crimes have to do with rocks and all the solutions hinge on points of mineralogy. But Lovecraft seldom mentions any fiction projects he is working on, just sends the completed versions to Morton. His ghostwriting assignments are talked about much more and the two streams of his writing come together when he good-naturedly, but with a hint of exasperation, notes how many tales in Weird Tales under other names were worked on by him. But, in that last letter, he comments on the promise and talent of those who would, in part, take up and expand his legacy: Robert Bloch; Fritz Leiber, Jr; and Henry Kuttner, Jr.

But there is another subject in these letters which must be confronted, that modern sensibilities demand be mentioned: Lovecraft’s views on race.

The Lovecraft essay that Isaacson and Morton responded to said, “Race prejudice was a gift of nature.” For his part, Morton, a member of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People and author of The Curse of Race Prejudice, was having none of it:

Race prejudice is not defensible by reason…Like other vices it can be readily overcome by individuals capable of rising to a rational view of existence,

he said in “’Conservatism’ Gone Mad”.

Judging by Lovecraft’s side of the conversation, the two individuals never altered their starting points much. Morton, said to always be a firm-but-polite debater, seemed to have continued to try to convince Lovecraft, given the references to articles Morton sent him for which comment was sought. There are four long letters in this collection, 64 out of 383 pages of letters, where Lovecraft expounds his views on ethics, tradition, race, and immigration. Essentially, Lovecraft believed that there were no moral, no human values in the universe. There was no end that the human race was working towards, no moral purpose or order it was charged with working towards. Random chance was the starting point of everything and all was determined after that from preceding events. Individuals could usually find moments of happiness in the products and traditions of the culture chance had put them in, and those culture streams were the product of particular races. Thus, race created culture and, except for a few individuals, happiness could not be found in cultures created by other racial groups. His frequent expressions of distaste for other races (and his categories of race are not identical to the ones we would use today) was in the context of their presence in America, and the changes they brought to the land and culture he grew up in.

Now, there’s a lot to argue about with this – and there are plenty of other places beside this site to do that. The key point to take away is that Lovecraft didn’t regard most other races as inherently inferior on all points compared to his self-identified Nordic-Teutonic roots. He cheerfully conceded that, in some areas, they were the equals or superiors to his race. His was a position of racial segregation. (A fuller explanation of these views can be found in S.T. Joshi’s discussion of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy in H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West.)

There were, however, two races excluded from this view, for which he had nothing good to say – at least in these letters:

…the Australian blackfellow & (now extinct) Tasmanian is even more emphatic; this race being nearly as far below the negro as the negro is below the full human.

It is, of course, true that writers, by nature, are at hazard for leaving a record of unpleasant sentiments that are shared by hundreds of mute others of their time. It’s also true that words and thoughts are not the same as actions, and Morton himself noted that Lovecraft always acted gentlemanly. And Lovecraft wouldn’t be the only 20th-century writer who expressed some murderous private sentiments. (George Bernard Shaw’s justification of Stalin’s purges comes to mind, for instance.) But even I, a fan of Lovecraft, squirmed when he wrote this, without a trace of hyperbole or irony:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas – giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears…. )

Showing a more nuanced – and, certainly, more gentle – side, Lovecraft, hardly known for a close examination of human relations in his fiction, offers his analysis of the benefits of newly widowed Cook’s troubled marriage and expresses horror on news of the death of Ida C. Haughton, an amateur journalist he had memorably attacked in his poem, “Medusa: A Portrait”.

The shadow of the Great Depression falls across the later letters when Lovecraft mentions his many acquaintances who have lost their jobs. These letters show him moving from an explicit admirer of German and Italian fascism to socialism of the American variety in the New Deal. His complaints about “machine-barbarism” and an American plutocracy may find sympathy with some modern readers. To me, his claims that Mediterranean influences corrupted the Anglo-Saxon world into an undue emphasis on commerce is bad economic history and a place where his intellect failed him.

The book, as usual with Hippocampus Press products, is well organised and thorough in its presentation. The letters are annotated with footnotes – my only complaint is that they are at the end of each letter and not at the bottom of the page. A glossary lists several of the people mentioned in the book and the index is extensive. Not only is there a bibliography for Lovecraft and Morton, but autobiographical writings by Morton, his memorial to Lovecraft, and others’ memorial writings on Morton, including a touching account of the scattering of his ashes by Rheinhart Kleiner, another of Lovecraft’s friends.

Anyone interested in Lovecraft’s letters will want this book. For those curious about the fascination of Lovecraft the correspondent, but who haven’t read any of his letters, I think this could serve as a good introduction to the subject.