Robert E. Weinberg
Martin H. Greenberg
An Occasional Look at Lovecraftian Anthologies: 3
Some time back, in an interview with the Innsmouth Free Press, the great Lovecraftian scholar (I would say the greatest of Lovecraftian scholars), S. T. Joshi said:
“It is not merely that Lovecraft’s tales form a roughly coherent single entity—a kind of loose novel in which each story comprises a chapter. It is that his work is founded upon a deeply held philosophy of life—a philosophy that saw human beings and all Earth life as a transient phenomenon of no consequence to the immense spatial and temporal vortices of the cosmos.
“Lovecraft also had the talent to convey his message in stories that are meticulously constructed and written with a prose of extraordinary evocativeness and resonance.
“It is precisely because his stories do not deal with the mundane aspects of human life—social relations, class distinctions, love and marriage and children—but instead deal with broader issues (Who are we? Why are we here? What is our place in the universe? ) that they have survived. They are timeless in a way that many stories—whether genre or mainstream—are not.”
And that is a summing up that’s just about as succinct and spot-on as you could wish for. But there is one other thing I could have wished for: that the editors of this 1990 Centennial celebration of Lovecraft’s work had been able to read it first. Because a volume which takes a title like Lovecraft’s Legacy should be celebrating that extraordinary legacy a lot better than this one does.
It’s not that it is really all that bad –and on top of that you’re taking the usual chance that you are with any anthology – it’s just that I find it a missed opportunity to celebrate HPL’s 100th birthday in better fashion.
The introduction is in the form of an open letter from Robert Bloch, who I believe would have been the last of the fabled Lovecraft Circle. In that respect, Mr. Bloch talking to his old mentor more than half a century after the man’s death is touching. Then comes the first of the stories – all of which were written for this volume– and A Secret of the Heart by Mort Castle seems an odd one to begin with. The first couple of sections are good but belong more in a celebration of Edgar Allan Poe. When he begins to introduce Lovecraftian elements it all becomes curiously flat and forgettable.
Next comes The Other Man by Ray Garton and I was left with the same feeling. It is reasonably effective but very hard to believe; and not just because it’s a tale of astral projection. It’s just peculiar –and, again, forgettable.
Now, Graham Masterton’s welcome contribution Will…this is more like it. Combining Shakespeare with Yog–Sothoth in a very bad deal for the playwright is a similar theme to that used in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (although Gaiman got there first) and is very affectionate in its treatment. And enthusiasts will smile knowingly at seeing the Globe Theatre used to house that particular Mythos deity. Yog-Sothoth, globes – geddit? I can’t help wondering, however, if this short piece was originally intended as a novel. I would certainly have enjoyed reading a fuller version.
It looked as if we might be on a roll here because next up was Big ‘C’ from Brian Lumley. I’m not a fan of his stuff but this is good. It’s got that kind of B-movie Quatermass feel to it –and is really a nice offbeat rift on a theme by Lovecraft.
Gary Brander’s Ugly is pleasant but is a short story that could nearly have fitted anywhere. Well, anywhere that printed whimsical tales about the love between a man and a small lizard.
The Blade and the Claw by Hugh B. Cave is a straightforward tale of voodoo in Haiti just after the reign of Papa and Baby Doc. It’s pretty woeful and once again I’ll be buggered if I know what it’s doing here.
Joseph A. Citro’s Soul Keeper is even worse. By the time I had finished this sub-Misery piece of misery I was wondering if Misters Weinberg & Greenberg (sounds like a firm of Jewish lawyers) had been breathing in the fetid, mephitic fumes of an Arkham side alley.
Some light relief came in the form of From the Papers of Helmut Hecker. It’s an amusing little piece that sees HPL reincarnated – rather appropriately – as a cat, and which also manages to take a few digs at the kind of up-their-own-asses, full-of-themselves writers who look down on their horror-story brethren.
Where’s Johnny Depp When You Need Him?
Now…stand back and let me roll my sleeves up! From the pen of Brian McNaughton, Meryphilia is nothing less than a small gem. Get a load of this:
“Meryphilia was the least typical ghoul in the graveyard. No man would ever have called her a beauty, but her emaciation was less extreme, her pallor less ghastly, and her gait less grotesque than those of her sisters.
“Untypically tender-hearted, she would sometimes shed a tear for a dead infant that her nature compelled her to devour.”
Ah, the poor thing! For a ghoul, Meryphilia has a kind heart. She didn’t fit in with the world of the living and now that she has passed over she doesn’t fit in with her fellow ghouls either. And to make matters worse she falls in love with a handsome, pale poet of the moonlight, Fragador, who is mortal.
Did you ever see Corpse Bride? Well, all the way through this charming tale of love amongst the grave-worms I kept thinking of what Tim Burton could do with it, having immediately cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter as the star-crossed couple.
And whilst there will be readers who feel that this one doesn’t belong here, I think that HPL –who did after all have an odd sense of humour – would have thoroughly approved.
I also like what McNaughton had to say in the Afterword which follows each entry:
“I can reread only a few authors from year to year with unabated pleasure: Shakespeare, Joyce, Boswell, Gibbon, and Lovecraft. It may seem unlikely company for HPL, but similarities can be traced: Boswell was obsessed, Gibbon was a snob, Joyce didn’t give a damn for the average reader, and Shakespeare had looked into the abyss.
“Those qualifications on their own may never make a great writer, but they combined in Lovecraft to make an American original. Many have conjectured about what he saw in the abyss, so I won’t. It’s enough to know that it scared him, and that the narrow focus and obsessive force of his art allowed him to give us all a taste of his terror.
“A popular writer of horror novels who shall remain nameless – most likely to posterity as well – once told the moderator of a televised discussion that no one over twelve years of age can read Lovecraft with pleasure. This slander contains a distorted truth, for the qualities I have cited are childish; in any activity but art, they might be considered disabling flaws.
“Who else is like that? Kafka, yes, Poe, okay, but then the list comes to a shuddery halt. The sane and sensible may write horror stories, but not all the Koontze’s and Kings of this world can infect us with the cancerous dread of a haunted genius.”
Even if Meryphilia hadn’t been the delight that it is, it would have been worth including McNaughton for this comment alone.
If straightforward horror and ‘hold the whimsy’ is more to your taste, next up is Lord of the Land from Gene Wolf. Now this is good and contains those elements that will delight Lovecraft’s admirers. There is an ancient backwoods setting, an exploration of the origins of a piece of folklore and a growing sense of unease. In fact, Lord of the Land is a highlight.
So is Gahan Wilson’s extremely quirky H. P. L. which offers us an alternative reality wherein the Dark Prince of Providence discovered after a near-fatal illness in 1937 that although he and the Lovecraft circle of ‘30s writers had made up his entire mythology between them, it was all true anyway. Now, with his companion Clark Ashton Smith he awaits his hundredth birthday and a cosmic change.
Affectionate towards its subject if not towards the human race, this is a fine tale and at around forty pages is the second-longest in the collection.
The Order of Things Unknown by Ed Gorman is a slight but very well-written piece that mixes the serial killer genre with the Mythos.
And then it is on to the finale and the story that is the longest piece in the anthology.
The Barrens by F. Paul Wilson is also my favourite from this mixed collection; but I am going to leave it for the moment, since it kicks off the next anthology that I’ll be reviewing. Suffice to say that it is set in the famous Jersey Pine Barrens, an area that fascinates me. It contains a lot of authentic Piney history and pulls back that thin veil that hides our reality from that of the horrifying other one. It is just about perfect and one of my most reread non- HPL stories. In fact, it has become something of a ritual after many years for me to read it whilst drinking hot milk with honey and eating copious amounts of cheese.
The dreams afterwards are only intense.
NB: This website recommends that you use hot milk with honey and cheese carefully as you may not be able to handle the dreams. I’m a long time addict but your tolerance level is possibly not as high. It’s a dangerous astral plane out there!
Next: Cthulhu 2000