In Essential Solitude, a Vital Friendship

It’s understandable that Arkham House would have wanted to produce the Selected Letters series – a five-volume collection of correspondence cherrypicked from the massive amounts of letters Lovecraft produced in his lifetime. After all, he was far more prolific a letter-writer than he was a short story author, poet, or essayist, so when those other wells has been tapped, tapping the letters was a good way to get more Lovecraft after there.

Furthermore, August Derleth himself was one of Lovecraft’s regular correspondents, and putting out these collections gave Derleth a chance to show the world a side of Lovecraft which he’d seen but nobody outside of Lovecraft’s circle of contacts would have. The fact that these were specifically Selected Letters, however, allowed Derleth to remain a certain amount of leverage over the fandom.

As I’ve outlined previously, Derleth used the infamous “black magic quote” to push his particular interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos as the “canonical” one, despite the fact that if we accept it as true, it makes Lovecraft look like an incompetent writer who couldn’t adequately communicate his ideas in his actual stories, and the “black magic quote” seems to fit Derleth’s stories (written before and after Lovecraft’s death, some of them misattributed to Lovecraft) far better.

That quote supposedly came from one of Lovecraft’s letters, but as best can be determined Lovecraft never wrote it – or at least, if it exists in any of his letters, none can be found that reproduce it, and the overall philosophical thrust of Lovecraft’s writing would seem to be against it. Precisely because Derleth was sat on top of the pile of surviving letters and choosing which got out to the public, though, it was always possible for Derleth to brush off objections by saying “Well, it’s got to be somewhere here, I just can’t find it right now.”

It’s even possible that Derleth knew that he didn’t have any original for the quote, just a rough second-hand paraphrase (which turns out to be of a passage which says exactly the opposite), but frankly I don’t credit Derleth with that level of intellectual honesty: after all, this is the guy who passed off a bunch of stories as lost Lovecraft tales or “posthumous collaborations” when they were nothing of the sort.

Hippocampus Press have, over the past few years, tried to step into the gap here, producing a Collected Letters series edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi which compile as many of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence as they can (rights issues causing complications in a few cases). These gather together Lovecraft’s missives by correspondent, by and large, with the first part of the series being Essential Solitude, a two-volume collection of the letters of Lovecraft and Derleth.

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Witch World

Andre Norton was not the first woman to write science fiction (Mary Shelley had her beat by a century, Margaret Cavendish by several), but she was the first to receive many of the modern genre’s honours – she was the first woman to be named a Grand Master by both the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the World Science Fiction Society, and the first to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Deliberately using an androgynous name (or her pen name of “Andrew North” when that wasn’t masculine-presenting enough) in order to get her work in front of audiences she felt might have turned their noses up at reading women’s work, she would produce a staggering amount of material over the course of her career, even setting aside the numerous collaborations she undertook with other authors later in life, and much of her work was pitched towards what we’d now recognise as a YA audience – at the more mature end of what science fiction called the “juveniles”, or the lighter end of adult-oriented work.

Her most expansive series was the Witch World sequence, a series of dozens of novels set in a fantasy world; commencing in 1963, the books deliberately put gender roles and power structures under a spotlight, and whilst some aspects of the series now seems unrefined, that may well be because she was coming in at an earlier stage of the conversation to us, and at a time when some of the pitfalls of addressing this sort of thing in an fantasy or SF context hadn’t been so evident. For this review I’ll take a look at the first two novels in the series, which largely set the stage for the rest.

Witch World

One of the advantages of having written SF and fantasy since the 1930s is that you can use the old, now-cliched openings without a second thought, since you helped shape them in the first place. Witch World commences with the old fantasy trope of a man from our world being plunged into a fantasy world through some mystic wibbly encounter. In this particular instance, our traveller is Simon Tregarth, and the mode of travel is the Siege Perilous, an ancient sacred stone which instantly transports those who sit upon it by the early light of dawn to the universe that most needs them, or which they are in most need of. (The implication is that in the Arthurian myths Percival and Galahad can survive sitting on the thing because they were already in the ideal time and place for them to exist.)

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Divilled By Platitudes

In the ancient English market town of Morchester, a TV crew has arrived to produce a documentary – an attempt to discover The Boke of the Divill, an ancient grimoire said to have been concealed somewhere in St. Anselm’s Cathedral since medieval times. Emma, a member of the crew who’s trying to impress in her first media job, makes a promising contact in the form of Basil Valentine – the mysterious proprietor of a local antiquarian bookshop – but Basil is more concerned with making sure that the book’s evil is not stirred once more, as it has several times over the course of Morchester history.

But is it too late? With local landowner and famed composer Sir Everard attempting to assert his family’s age-old claim to ownership of the book, “happy-clappy” evangelist Reverend Eastwood mobilising his flock to protest the show, the Dean of M0rchester Cathedral troubled by intrusive thoughts and urges, and dead bodies being discovered in states of mutilation in Morchester itself, could the book already be doing its awful work? And if so, what could be done to stop it?

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A Corny Trilogy

As far as Stephen King short stories go, Children of the Corn is a pretty good one – a neat example of King taking a diverse range of influences and mashing them up into a powerful mosaic. You’ve got a touch of Lovecraftian menace in the sinister deity, He Who Walks Behind the Rows, you have a nod or two to It’s a Good Life – the old Twilight Zone episode where the adults destroyed by the whims of an all-powerful child are euphemistically referred to as being “in the cornfield”, you have a shade of the same hippy-ers “don’t trust anyone over 30” generational warfare that Logan’s Run drew on and maybe a snifter of Animal Farm in the sense that an agricultural community is taken over and run by those you might not expect to be able to operate it, but do so through a form of despotic tyranny that has powerful real-world satirical parallels (theology-poor, bigotry-rich American Fundamentalism as opposed to Soviet Communism this time around) – all powerful stuff.

But at its heart, it’s a fusion of two main pieces of precedent: Lord of the Flies and The Wicker Man. The main stroke of genius on King’s part is to relocate the story not on a natural island in the literal sea, but in a sort of man-made island in a man-made sea of corn – namely, the state of Nebraska, where outside of Omaha and Lincoln you have vast expanses of corn that you could lose a few European nations in and never find them.

All this made the original short story good fodder for turning into a movie. (For one thing, as a short story it doesn’t have the masses of backstory that King stuffs into his novels and makes any movie adaptation of them a challenge.) A whole movie franchise, though? With a remake currently shooting in Australia, let’s see if the original series provided a nice regular harvest or whether the field should have been left fallow after the original.

Children of the Corn

Once upon a time in the Nebraskan town of Gatlin, a strange young boy called Isaac Chroner (John Frankin) was preaching to the kids out in the cornfield whilst the adults were gathered at church, as was his habit at that time. Two children were missing – Joby (Robby Kiger) was made to go to proper church by his parents, and his sister Sarah (Annie Marie McEvoy) was sick at home – so whilst they, as youths under the age of 19, are permitted to continue to exist by Isaac’s cult, they aren’t full members.

For a cult is what Isaac’s little congregation became that day; he had been given a revelation from He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and he set his congregants to work, slaying all the adults in the town. Three years later, Burt Stanton (Peter Horton) and his ladypal Vicky Baxter (Linda Hamilton) are driving through Nebraska, Burt having taken up a prize new intern’s position as a newly-qualified doctor in Seattle. Abruptly, they end up running into a child (Jonas Marlowe) in the middle of the road – when Burt examines the kid he discovers the lad was already fatally wounded, his throat having been slit by Malachi Boardman (Courtney Gains), Isaac’s sneering teenage lead enforcer, for the crime of trying to run away.

It’s the 1980s and a freshly-qualified doctor certainly doesn’t have a carphone in this era, not that he’d be likely to get reception here anyway; if they are going to alert the authorities, Burt and Vicky need find a phone, but when they enter Gatlin to look for one it’s a ghost town. Or at least, that’s what it looks like at first…

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The Remains of Middle-Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories weren’t cranked out to satisfy an audience demand, and writing them wasn’t even Tolkien’s day job: writing the legends of Arda was effectively a hobby of Tolkien’s, a way to exercise the skills of his professional work in a recreational manner he could share with his immediate family and his friends in the Inklings.

Since Tolkien prepared far more material than he ever actually published, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were enriched by numerous references to a mythology only half-glimpsed by the reader, which plays a major role in creating the impression of a world with a rich past. Sure, it’s entirely possible to fake that sort of thing, but having the structure of those myths worked out both makes it easier to make those allusions seem like they relate to an actual story rather than being made up on the spot and can also help inspire aspects of the present story.

Still, a side effect of this is that after Tolkien died, he left behind a ton of unpublished material, a sizable chunk of which has been released since. First, Christopher Tolkien (with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay) produced The Silmarillion, as close a reconstruction of Tolkien’s intended narrative of the backstory of Middle-Earth as could be reached. Much later, three books were produced focusing on the three Great Tales – the stories of the First Age which Tolkien thought had the most scope for being fleshed out into full-length narratives that could be read in their own right; these were The Children of HúrinBeren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin.

Of those who engage with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth texts at all, many have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A pretty decent number have tackled The Silmarillion and bounced off it hard; for those who enjoyed it, the three First Age books I’d say are also worth a look. For those who want more Tolkien material set in Middle-Earth, however, there’s an even denser, drier inner circle of material than the already a bit dry and dense Silmarillion-tier stuff: that is the raw texts offered up with extensive commentary from Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth. Few indeed are those who have undertaken the journey into those realms; I, myself, have wandered into the border region and then written it off as not for me. Here’s what I picked up on my excursion…

Unfinished Tales

Despite the title, a chunk of the material here doesn’t really represent actual stories so much as essays and worldbuilding notes. A Description of the Island of Númenor, for instance, is mostly what it says on the tin, but it’s mercifully brief and the geographical details are interwoven with sociological points which set the stage for the next story.

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Erudition That’s Not Just Skin Deep

“Egypt is magic” is a cultural assumption that dates back millennia. In part, it was a narrative which the ancient Egyptians promoted about themselves; magicians were a part of their culture, and their civilisation was ancient enough that over time understanding of its earlier phases passed into legend and myth as much as official history. (More time passed between the Great Pyramid’s construction and the dawning of Christianity than have passed between now and the Crucifixion, after all.)

It was also a bit of PR which numerous other Mediterranean cultures bought into, and became a recurring assumption in European culture as a whole. The Greeks bought into it, the Romans bought into it, Jewish sources like Exodus and the Talmud bought into it, and so it’s no surprise that much of Christendom bought into it, Enlightenment-era Freemasons and other such esoteric societies bought into it – particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt rekinded a general interest in Egyptology, the Golden Dawn bought into it to the extent that most of their rituals involved extensive riffs on Egyptian myth, and Crowley bought into it so hard that his Book of the Law was steeped in Egyptian imagery and received during a honeymoon in Cairo.

Many occult practitioners like to hype up the extent to which they are participating in a tradition which winds its way back through the ages to ancient Egypt. The extent to which is the case has always been doubtful. The myth that the tarot dates back to Egyptian times seems to have little to no basis in fact, and the Golden Dawn’s rituals reflect tentative Victorian reconstructions of Egyptian religion more than they do actual practices handed down through the years by a centuries-old tradition.

However, whilst there is little evidence for a tradition passed down on an institutional or personal level – no secret society or Sith-style chain of master and apprentice winding its way back through the years to connect modern occult groups to the practitioners of ancient Egypt, there is evidence for a literary or textual tradition being passed down – concepts in Egyptian writing on the subject of magic which ended up in some fashion influencing the medieval grimoires which Renaissance and Enlightenment-era magicians would then develop in their own directions and make their own additions to.

Perhaps the most extensive collection of material we have on Egyptian magical practices are what’s known as the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of magical texts – including what seem to be the handbooks used by actual practicing magicians – that had been accumulated in private collections in the post-Napoleon burst of Egyptological research.

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Ramsey Campbell Unearths Old Themes

Once upon a time, when Patrick Semple was young, he’d sometimes get to spend holidays staying with Thelma, his aunt, and her husband Neville. Thelma was a talented artist, successful enough that her work graced the covers of a range of books, but she had rather eccentric ways and habits – many relating to the forest her house backed onto – and eventually, when Patrick was a teenager, Thelma’s behaviour managed to scandalise Patrick’s parents enough that they put a stop to the visits.

Some years later – when Patrick was all grown up with a little son of his own, Roy – Thelma died in a nasty fall; it was far from clear from the circumstances whether it was suicide, accident, or something more malicious. Around a decade or so later, Roy is fifteen and is staying over at Patrick’s place in the New Brighton area of Merseyside – Patrick and Julia, Roy’s mother, having divorced sometime in the intervening years – and becomes interested in Thelma’s art, as well as a curious journal she left behind in her studio which Patrick had kept hold of.

Patrick still thinks a lot about Thelma too, so Roy’s interest prompts some father-and-son trips to visit areas of significance to her work and life. In the course of this they meet Bella at an exhibition of Thelma’s work, and Roy and Bella are soon dating and going on excursions to locations listed in Thelma’s notebook without Patrick in tow.

This would be adorable if it wasn’t for some nasty coincidences and incidents that start occurring. What are the voices that Patrick thinks he can just about barely perceive in the places where Thelma found her inspiration? Who is the anonymous figure who keeps showing up in Thelma’s late-period paintings? Why is it that everyone vividly remembers Thelma splitting up with her husband Neville and living with another man – but nobody knew the man in question well enough to contact him after her death, or could even remember his name at the wake? And if Bella is just some stranger who happened to cross paths with Patrick and Roy at the exhibition, why are Patrick’s parents so unnerved by her?

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