A Lovecraftian Anthology
Edited by Jim Turner
With Illustrations by Bob Eggleton Arkham House Publishers, Inc.
An Occasional Look at Lovecraftian Anthologies: 4
Just before diving into this anthology I want to get a little nit-picking out of the way. [You know, it has just dawned on me what that expression actually means. Nit-picking. Come to think of it, that’s nearly as yucky as anything in this collection.]
The text on the fly-leaf starts out really well, with an almost unbearably poignant quote from one of H. P. Lovecraft’s later letters:
‘“I lack whatever it is that enables a real artist to convey his mood…. I’m farther from doing what I want to do than I was twenty years ago. The popular faculty which Blackwood and Dunsany possess simply isn’t mine.”’
Somehow, the fact that neither Lord Dunsany nor Algernon Blackwood are even currently in print, let alone known by name outside of weird tales connoisseurs, makes this all the more affecting; whilst almost eighty years after his death HPL is more read, studied and argued over than he ever was.
In fact, as a moving letter snippet I would put that right up there with his comments on ‘experimenting’ with heating canned foodstuffs in his final years of poverty, as amongst the quotes that have the power to bring a tear to the eye of the aficionado.
Unfortunately, that fine intro is ruined by the next comment:
‘This strange Rhode Island recluse, who during his lifetime remained sequestered in his study, muffled to the tip of his long gaunt New England chin…’
Ah, give it a rest, lads; what is this constant need to make Lovecraft out to have been a lifelong, untraveled recluse? Certainly, he would have been reclusive between roughly the years of 1908 and perhaps as late as 1920 or so; but we know from the sheer minutiae of his letters – and let’s not forget that he was eventually writing a couple a day – that he was far from truly solitary, having quite a variety of friends and indeed became a rather well-travelled man.
It’s almost as though people have this inexplicable need to see him in terms as extreme as his work; but this is Arkham House, for heaven’s sake, the publishing company that gave itself the goal of keeping his memory alive. I expect better of it than this.
And after that little rant, this is rather a good collection of modern-day Lovecraftian pieces, published in 1995 and containing all-reprinted material; so thanks for letting me get that off my chest first!
Into the Wild…
The first one up is The Barrens, reprinting F. Paul Williams’s excellent long-short story from Lovecraft’s Legacy, only five years earlier. As I mentioned when reviewing that anthology, this is one of my favourite modern Lovecraftian works. Williams makes the Jersey Pine Barrens and its lore (yes, including the famous Jersey Devil) truly vivid for the reader. With no real evidence, I always think of Yog-Sothoth when reading this tale; and I think that HPL would have very much approved of the atmosphere built around anti-hero Creighton’s terrible need to pull aside the veil that hides our reality from what is to him a more yearned-for truth.
There is also a real pathos to the genetically altered forest dwellers, living an existence of appalling poverty. To me, The Barrens is a great tale and a superb start to any anthology.
The slight piece Pickman’s Modem by Lawrence Watt-Evens is the amusing story of a modem that originates with Miskatonic Data Systems of Arkham, Massachusetts; and if you’ve read any Lovecraft at all then that will tell you all you need to know. And as someone who spends a fair bit of time on a computer I’m taking its warning to heart:
‘The nets will eat you alive if you let them’.
Rough Tongues, Stray Dogs
For the third story here, turn off your phone, make sure that you have your abode completely to yourself and prepare to enter the claustrophobic, underground world of Basil Copper’s Shaft Number 247. Again, HPL would have approved of the sense of ominous suggestion of vast forces that permeates this atmospheric little piece.
The next one up is where editor Jim Turner thought it would be a good idea to let Poppy Z. Brite out of her cage. If you’ve read the charming Ms. Brite before, then there’s no need to warn you that she doesn’t so much do horror as pure disgust:
‘We bound their wrists and ankles with black lace, we lubricated and penetrated their every orifice, we shamed them with their own pleasures. I recall a mauve-haired beauty, Felicia, who was brought to wild sobbing orgasm by the rough tongue of a stray dog we trapped.’
Yep, His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood will remind you once again to be grateful you have your dreams at night and Polly has hers. It’s a kind of re-working of HPL’s The Hound, itself a sort of parody…so God knows what you’ll make of it. Not my cup of gruel, I’m afraid; and yet when Polly slams you with an image, you can’t not look. As my American cousins would say: go figure.
After that, it’s nice to open up Fred Chappell’s The Adder, which is an amusing new take on that hoary old tome of our mad Arabian friend, Alhazred. However, if you’re an admirer of Milton, best give it a miss: the ending will give you a heart attack.
Down Amongst the LA Fruitcakes
After that slight respite it was back to feeling like a shower again. Michael Shea’s Fat Face may not be quite as disgusting as Brite’s offering – and it is awfully well written – but it’s still the kind of thing that makes you feel seedy. Set in the sleazy (sleazier?) end of Los Angeles it is the merry tale of a kind-hearted prostitute who somehow gets herself mixed up with…shoggoths? Yes, you read that right. Proceed at your own peril.
Now: I love Kim Newman’s stuff. He was born in the same year as me – 1959 – and appears to have absorbed almost exactly the same kind of modern culture, particularly the fantasy end of it. Expect, of course, that he has made money out of it and I’ve just…oh, I think that ‘wasted my life’ is the phrase I’m looking for. I’m also looking at his Innsmouth tale from this anthology, The Big Fish, noticing that he’s signed it and remembering that I met him at a convention many years ago. Nice guy; very jolly (yes, he actually earns that word) and very, very dapper with fine long hair.
Anyway, after that walk down Memory Lane, Mr. Newman’s contribution is the most purely entertaining one in this collection, told in the hard-boiled prose of a Hammett – type private eye who is investigating the Order of Dagon, another wacky cult thrown up by Bay City weirdoes; except of course that, as led by B-movie actress Janice Marsh, this is the real thing.
As you can see from that brief summary, the HPL references come thick and fast – and are never less than witty. My favourite is the secretive group of FBI agents known as… the Unnameables. How can you not love that?
Now, deep breath, because here is an odd little story: “I Had Vacantly Crumpled it into My Pocket…But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!” Joanna Russ’s gimmicky title (the conclusion of HPL’s Pickman’s Model) is nearly as long as the bloody story, which is about an oddball Lovecraft fan (is there any other kind, my partner would ask) who finds love with a very strange person. And is there anyone not strange who would fall for a Lovecraft fan?
You know what? I’m going to quit whilst I’m ahead.
You couldn’t get much more of a minimalist title than the ninth one in this collection, which is the rather charming H.P.L by Gahan Wilson. It’s a bit cheeky of Jim Turner, though; because this is another longish short story that is lifted from Lovecraft’s Legacy. Since I reviewed it there, I’ll let you look it up yourselves. It’s a good one.
The Unthinkable by Bruce Sterling is a slight, extremely peculiar little tale in which the Cold War seems to have been fought using creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos. Get a load of this:
“Doughty could recall it with an awful clarity – the great finned navy monster, the barnacled pockets in its vast ribbed belly holding a slumbering cargo of hideous batwinged gaunts. On order from Washington, the minor demons would waken, slash their way free of the monster’s belly, launch, and fly to their appointed targets with pitiless accuracy and the speed of a tempest. In their talons, they clutched triple-sealed spells that could open, for a few hideous microseconds, the portal between universes. And for an instant, the Radiance of Azathoth would gush through.”
Odd; but I liked it.
And that means that so far this is a pretty decent collection. However, I’m going to take a breather from Lovecraft for a few weeks and will come back to finish this one next month. I think it’s time to revisit Alexander McCall Smith’s delightfully hopeless philosopher-sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie.
I wonder what she would have made of H.P.L?
Next: Cthulhu 2000 – Part Two.