The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter V

My look at Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues. My review of this chapter, the book’s longest at 48 pages, is going to be shorter than normal. While thematic criticism is my favorite type of science fiction criticism, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this chapter because much of it is very much like the thematic entries in the first edition of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were cut and pasted from Stableford’s entries for it or vice versa. However, I did not do my blogger due diligence and check my copy of that book. My boxes of books aren’t labelled that exactly and there are scores of them. And I’ve lifted a lot of them lately

I’ll also note that Stableford talks about now more obscure stories because over 40 years of sf history has been added since he wrote this book.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford, 1987.

Chapter V is titled “Themes and Trends in Science Fiction”. 

The first section is on “Machines” and opens with a quote from Miguel de Unamuno stating that Don Quixote was right to attack the windmill as a dangerous enemy. Stableford goes on to say,

Today the marriage of man and machine, after a long courtship, has been consummated. The honeymoon is over, and we begin to doubt whether we have done the right thing. Science fiction tells the story of our passage from infatuation to the brink of disillusionment with remarkable clarity. 

This section includes coverage of things that have been categorized into entries like “automation”, “computers”, “cyborgs”, and “robots” in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia.  Stableford sees the development, particularly in the case of the robot stories, as largely pro- technology authors losing faith in man and not machines, in our ability to morally and intellectually handle them post-WWII.

Continue reading “The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter V”

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.

“Mysterium Tremendum”

This week’s weird fiction selection.

Review: Mysterium Tremendum”, Molly Tanzer, 2013.Mysterium Tremendum

Tanzer’s story isn’t that weird. It’s not even all that Lovecraftian despite its heroine, Marjorie Olenthiste, working for Miskatonic Univerity’.

It is a humorous tale playing off expections created by its Cthulhu Mythos’ references.

The story opens with Marjorie at a tedious garden party put on by her father (despite the late season snow on the ground) in Arkham. Marjorie is a career woman, unmarried, and eager to make her mark in the Francis Morgan Antiquities Collection of Miskatonic U’s library.

At the party, she finds out that one of her father’s acquaintances, the wealthy Mrs. Quildring, is looking to sell off her late husband’s mummy collection.

She starts negotiating with Quildring to get some mummified cats and come around to see the rest of Quildring’s collections. The latter even mentions the prize bit of the collection is a mummified cat “said to have been the personal pet of Nehesy, also called the Black Pharahoh” (an addition made to the Cthulhu Mythos by Robert Bloch).

The party chills – literally – and the lights go out. When they come back on, two men are standing in front of Marjorie and Quildring. One is Edgar, the unattractive and drunk nephew of Quildring, and the other is Maestro Petar Zupan, a famous stage magician. Edgar, an amateur magician, is hangs out with his much more famous friend.

Marjorie thinks back to the stories she’s heard about the aftermaths of Zupan’s performances: a man screaming and speaking in tongues, a woman going home to decapitate her dog and calling on her neighbors to worship the head as a “true god”.

Marjorie eventually finds herself maneuvered by Quilding into going on a date with her nephew to see a show of Zupan’s. She hopes this will ingratiate her with Quildring and lead to a reduced price on the mummies.

At the show, Edgar admits he can’t ever remember actually seeing a Zupan show even though they’ve known each other for a number of years.

Zupan’s show has him doing many things and eventually showing up on stage atop a small pyramid and scantily dressed as an pharaoh. He asks for a volunteer – specifically Marjorie – who has a knowledge of Egyptian rituals.

On stage, Zupan seems to remove her lungs, stomach, and large intestines and heart in accordance with Egyptian mummification rituals.

After Zupan telling her that she kept your heart for “judgement”, she passes out and awakens in her dressing room. She feels fine, “really good like the time her grandmother had given her Bayer Heroin for a toothache”.

Edgar is jealous of Zupan picking Marjorie to be his assistant. Words are exchanged. Edgar calls Marjorie “dumpy and boring” and just there to get access to his aunt’s mummies. Marjorie reciprocates and says Edgar isn’t good company either. Edgar then turns on Zupan, accusing him of spoiling his plan to impress Marjorie with a trip backstage after the show. That’s out of the question since she participated in the act, and Edgar leaves in a huff.

Marjorie realizes, especially after spending some time on stage with the near naked Zupan, that she rather likes him:

very handsome; something about him was electric, magnetic, even when he wasn’t actively performing miracles.

He suggests they go to Quilding’s house and check out that mummified cat.

In front of the house, Zupan asks Marjorie if she believes his powers are genuine. Marjorie is unsure. Zupan tells her she should just trust him.

It isn’t magic that gets the two into the house but a lock pick. Marjorie begins to find Zupan rather irresistible, and they go look at the cat, handily labeled “Mummified Cat, Allegedly Belonging to The Black Pharaoh”.

Marjorie finds it lovely.

Then Zupan begins to reminisce about the cat, Mau-Mau, his old pet put in his tomb 27 centuries ago. Edgar discovered that tomb. Zupan says he’s “another Black Pharaoh entirely” and not Nehesy. Even Edgar figured that out.

In fact, Edgar burned Zupan’s corpse in an attempt to destroy him. However, because Zupan was “mummified with . . . mouth and eyes closed” so his soul would not be reunited with his body in the afterlife, he survived. With his body burned, his soul found a new body.

But he still wants Mau-Mau, the mummified cat, back. She was the only creature never afraid of him.

Then Zupan magically compels Marjories to help in a ritual to resurrect Mau-Mau.

Zupa then thanks Marjorie for her help. And he tells her that he’s sure that she’ll come up with some explanation for the police about

why such a promising young acquisitions librarian would sneak into a home and destroy a priceless Egyptian artifact.

Maybe they’ll blame her attendance on his show “that’s a popular one these days.”

And then he disappears leaving Marjorie to offer Quildring and Edgar some explanation as to why she has a hammer in her hand and where the cat mummy went

It’s a humorous takeoff on the Mythos, here magic used for a relatively petty purpose. The heroine is not left dead or insane, just a fall gal. Zupan is rather like Nyarlathotep, a traveling magician of disturbing power.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Disciples of Cthulhu

The Lovecraft series and now we’re getting into Lovecraftian authors rather than the Gentleman from Providence.

Raw Feed (2005): The Disciples of Cthulhu, ed. Edward P. Berglund, 1976.Disciples of Cthulhu

“Editor’s Foreword”, Edward P. Berglund — Brief summation of the various waves of H. P. Lovecraft imitators.

“Introduction”, Robert Bloch — Bloch talks about how the reputation of his old mentor, H. P. Lovecraft, has been on the ascendant unlike the celebrated mainstream authors of 1929 the year Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was actually published. He talks briefly about the religion/cult of Lovecraft of which he is one of the oldest members.

The Fairground Horror”, Brain Lumley — In his biography of Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi singled out Brian Lumley as symbolizing the worst of the Lovecraft imitators. I have a fond spot for Lumley though.  After being introduced by a friend to Lumley’s first two Titus Crow books (the best ones of the series), I read all the Lovecraft fiction I could find thereby filling in the gaps from reading a lot of his short stories earlier but none of Lovecraft’s novels. However, this biter-bitten story simply seemed, with its Cthulhu idol in a carnival funhouse, a takeoff on the Hazel Heald — H. P. Lovecraft story “The Horror in the Museum“. Lumley also seems determined, as Joshi noted, to work in as many references as possible to names in Lovecraft’s work.

The Silence of Erika Zann”, James Wade — Certainly not written in H. P. Lovecraft’s style and not using any elements of the Cthulhu Mythos, this story doesn’t really work. Basically, it’s about the daughter of Erich Zann, as in Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann“, encountering an extra-dimensional entity called to Earth by the strange properties of her psychedelic rock music (the story is set in a psychedelic club in San Francisco). The combination of too-explicit prose with, paradoxically, too vague of an explanation, doesn’t work. Continue reading “The Disciples of Cthulhu”

H. P. Lovecraft: A Life

The Lovecraft series continues with a look at S. T. Joshi’s biography of that writer.

Joshi has expanded this 708 page book into 1,200 pages with the updated edition called I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to do my wrists a favor, when I do, and get the kindle edition.

Raw Feed (2005): H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, S. T. Joshi, 1996, 2004.H P Lovecraft A Life

Joshi is such a concise writer that it would do little good to sum up all the points of interest in this book’s 655 pages of text, and some it, expectedly, repeats Joshi’s H. P. Lovecraft and H. P. Lovecraft:  The Decline of the West. Since Joshi sums up all of Lovecraft’s fiction including some of his most important revisions, I think this book comes about as close as you can get to a one volume introduction to Lovecraft without reading his work.

He gives brief summaries of Lovecraft’s most important correspondents and professional contacts, the magazines he published in, and other matters related to Lovecraft’s interests, life, and times.

Granted, some of this gets a bit far afield.

Is it really necessary to give a summary of Antarctic exploration when mentioning Lovecraft’s interest in it even though it is, of course, relevant to his “At the Mountains of Madness“?

Still, I learned a lot about Lovecraft. Continue reading “H. P. Lovecraft: A Life”

“The Haunter of the Dark”

Raw Feed (2005, 2012): “The Haunter of the Dark“, H. P. Lovecraft, 1935.Dunwich Horror and Others

This story is dedicated to Robert Bloch, then one of the youngest members of the Lovecraft circle. I don’t know if he had started writing then, but the titles of tales the protagonist-writer Robert Blake has written sound like some Bloch Cthulhu mythos stuff I’ve read. The Cthulhu Mythos was never a planned, internally consistent series, but by this time Lovecraft and others had written enough of the stories that Lovecraft mentions Azathoth, Yuggoth, Khem, and Nyarlathotep and the Necronomicon and several other of the fake books of the Mythos.

On reading the story for the third time in 2012, I noticed this time that this story – perhaps because I knew he was jocularly responding to Robert Bloch’s “The Shambler from the Stars” – is Lovecraft’s most personal in that he goes on and on about the architectural details of the building housing the Church of the Starry Wisdom and Providence in general.

Also, this story has a similarity to “The Music of Erich Zann” in that, with the area around the church and its strange power and seeming portal to other dimensions, is reminiscent of the apartment building that story takes place in.

Also, I forgot the addition to the Mythos’ blasphemous library and scholarly (including a play on the Bloch invented Black Pharaoh) that Robert Blake finds.

 

More reviews of Lovecraft are indexed on the Lovecraft page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Big Book of Jack the Ripper

No, I’m not a Ripperologist. I do not (often) go to Casebook.org.

But I don’t have to be a Ripperologist to know about Jack the Ripper, and neither do you. Never being caught and writing (maybe) those taunting letters to the police gave him a posthumous infamy not attained by those more vicious.

I’ve rarely gone out of my way to read about the Ripper – no nonfiction beyond some articles, a single novel and some short stories. All those, except for Robert Bloch’s The Night of the Ripper, were encountered by chance.

Ripper movies are another matter, but I don’t do movies at this blog. (For the record, my favorite Ripper films are Time After Time and Jack’s Back.)

So why did I ask Amazon to send me a review copy of an 864 page book on the subject?

Mostly because I didn’t have a copy of Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” in the house, and we were discussing it on the Deep Ones discussion group at LibraryThing. And I am mildly curious about the Ripper.

Review: The Big Book of Jack the Ripper, ed. Otto Penzler, 2016.big-book-of-jack-the-ripper

Yes, it’s a big book, 864 pages, 11 non-fiction pieces and 41 pieces of fiction, and there’s no way I’m going to mention every single entry. (And, while it’s just barely manageable in print form and nicely laid out in double columns, you may want to spare your wrists the effort and go for the kindle edition. There are no illustrations.)

This book should satisfy everyone interested in the Ripper killings. The non-fiction pieces provide the context and introduction to the historical murders. Obsessive collectors on Ripper material will find new Ripper material here. (Though I note only one parenthetical mention of a suspect I find credible, American doctor Francis Tumblety.)

The first 136 pages are taken up with the historical details of the Ripper murders and the wake he left in criminology. Continue reading “The Big Book of Jack the Ripper”

The Fantasy Hall of Fame

An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame, eds. Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, 1983.Fantasy Hall of Fame

The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.

Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land. Continue reading “The Fantasy Hall of Fame”

The Man Who Called Himself Poe

Another Poe related retro review, this time from April 13, 2009.

Review: The Man Who Called Himself Poe, ed. Sam Moskowitz, 1969.Man Who Called Himself Poe

This is a theme anthology that doesn’t even stick to its stated theme: stories and poems that feature Edgar Poe.

Moskowitz’s introduction contrasts Poe with Sherlock Holmes. The latter, as a fictional character, has an immense accretion of fictional biography about him. His fans want to bring him into the real world and settings never imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle. Poe, a real man with a real, fairly well-documented past, has a legion of fans who want to make him a character, introduce him to realms never seen in his life.

A reprinted 1962 from Poe scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbott concisely sums up Poe’s life, his influence, and scholarly work on him.

The book then starts into presenting various fictional Poes, each usefully introduced by Moskowitz. Continue reading “The Man Who Called Himself Poe”

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Volume 2

The weakest of the lot here are two by Brian Lumley: “The Sister City” and “Cement Surroundings“. As usual, one part of your mind, while reading, is noting which Lovecraft stories and ideas Lumley is recombining this time — and he believes in reusing all of Lovecraft. Yes, these are pale imitations of his model and provide only a tiny bit of Lovecraft’s cosmic paranoia, but they’re still more engaging than August Derleth’s work.

Plotwise, the teenaged Robert Bloch’s 1934 effort, “The Shambler from the Stars“, doesn’t have much to offer. However, there is the fun of a thinly disguised Lovecraft who meets a grisly end. The master returned the favor with his last story, “The Haunter of the Dark“, which has one Robert Blake meeting a horrible end after uncovering a fearsome alien artifact in a Providence church. Bloch’s 1951 story “The Shadow from the Steeple” completes the trilogy and shows how much Bloch developed as a writer in those 17 years. There’s no imitation of Lovecraft’s style here, but Lovecraft and his characters from “The Haunter of the Dark” show up and Cthulhuian horrors are effectively moved to the atomic age. Bloch also makes nice use of Lovecraft’s poem “Nyarlathotep”. Another Bloch work, “Notebook Found in a Deserted House“, uses an old Lovecraftian standby — a journal desperately documenting horrors closing in on its writer. But here the narrator is a type Lovecraft never used: a twelve year old boy telling us about the monsters in the woods around his aunt and uncle’s farm.

J. Ramsey Campbell aka Ramsey Campbell started out with Lovecraft pastiches set in England, but the style of his “Cold Print” isn’t Lovecraftian nor is its unseemly, vague linking of sexual taboos with Cthulhu entities. Here a teacher is lead to a mysterious London bookstore where something a mite stronger than bondage and discipline porn is offered.

James Wade’s “The Deep Ones” brings Lovecraft into the sixties with a John Lily-like researcher studying some decidedly sinister dolphins, a Timothy Leary-like professor warning against it, and a telepath with some family ties to Innsmouth. It’s quite good.

Surprisingly an even better story is Colin Wilson’s “The Return of the Lloigor“. Surprising because Wilson’s earlier attempt at writing a Mythos story, The Mind Parasites, was so bad. Wilson uses his erudition to create a plot mélange of Welsh crime, Mu, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, the Voynich Manuscript, the Kabbala, Aleister Crowley, and Charles Fort. Mixed in is some delightfully absurd metaphysics about the sinister and congenitally pessimistic Lloigor. This clever story may use some of the themes and furniture from Lovecraft and his work, but it’s no accident that the hero is a Poe scholar because the tone is that of the latter author in his hoaxer mode.

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