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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Black Wings: the Third Flap

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The third Black Wings volume by and large maintains the standard of the second one. By this point, Joshi has managed to establish a stable of writers who can reliably contribute something interesting whilst leaving open enough slots for new contributors to shake things up. That said, whilst I found the hit and miss ratio more or less the same this time around, I found some of the misses much more enraging than those in the previous volume.

For this release Joshi bookends the collection with stories riffing on From Beyond. Houdini Fish by Jonathan Thomas is a decidedly modern sequel to From Beyond in which the unearthing of Tillinghast’s device makes the world go weird – and more disturbingly, makes people accept that as normal. It’s a strong starting story let down by an annoying writing tic of Thomas in which he keeps leaving out “the” and “a” in sentences. I don’t think this is an attempt to emulate dialect, particularly since he really isn’t consistent about it, and it just hurts the flow of the story.

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Black Wings: the Second Slap

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

As reviewed previously, S.T. Joshi’s original Black Wings of Cthulhu collection found him collecting a bunch of all-new original Cthulhu Mythos stories which, whilst a bit hit and miss, at least managed to be an interesting exploration of the breadth of the field and, to my eyes, ended up with a better batting average than more pulp-oriented collections.

I was happy to find that the second Black Wings collection managed to hit a higher overall standard than the original. Part of it is that it’s a little slimmer – Joshi realising that it’s better to have a slightly slimmer book with less poor stories in it than a fatter book with a worse hit-to-miss ratio. Part of it presumably comes from the fact that the original collection made Joshi’s name as a Mythos anthologist – which means that a greater spread of writers would then submit their stories to subsequent volumes, giving him a deeper bench to choose from.

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Black Wings: Takeoff

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

It was originally a comment on Shim’s review of this book. But I refer back to the book enough elsewhere that I want something of substance to point links to when referring to the first Black Wings volume, so here we are. To give context: Black Wings of Cthulhu is S.T. Joshi’s series of anthologies of new Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

Finally got around to reading this so rather than doing my own review I’ll offer some thoughts here:

STUFF WE BOTH LIKE: I wasn’t sure about how heavily Copping Squid leans into a fear of impoverished black people, and I didn’t entirely buy how Andre convinces the protagonist to play along. (There’s a particular bluff which requires the protagonist to believe that the San Francisco police department would give a harder time to a white convenience store clerk than they would to a black guy with a deeply suspicious demeanour, and… yeah.) I think it made up for it with the sheer audacity of the horror imagery involved.

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 7

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The story so far: Arkham House shapes what it means to put out a Cthulhu Mythos anthology by releasing the seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and major followups in the form of New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Cthulhu 2000. Then Robert M. Price makes not one, not two, but at least three attempts to push his vision of the fandom by producing similar “best of the Mythos” anthologies.

Fortunately for us, Robert M. Price isn’t the only big beast of Lovecraft fandom and scholarship; with credentials and a standard of work putting Price in the shade, S.T. Joshi – when he isn’t flipping out about people removing Lovecraft’s likeness from the World Fantasy Award trophy over Lovecraftian racism that Joshi himself has exhaustively documented – is the major figure in Lovecraft criticism these days, and over the years has become increasingly known as a fiction anthologist too, editing not only general horror anthologies or collections by specific authors but also turning his hand to Mythos anthologies. But it would take a while before he’d produce something that qualified as a potential followup to the original Arkham House anthology that started it all…

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Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and Its Imitators, Part 6

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The story so far: Arkham House puts out a string of major state-of-the Mythos anthologies – Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu 2000 – and come the 1990s Robert M. Price delivers a response in the form of the two-part set of Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos and The New Lovecraft Circle, put out originally through Mythos upstart small press Fedogan & Bremer.

As it turns out, Price wasn’t done yet…

Acolytes of Cthulhu

Ranging from the pulp era to contemporary works, Acolytes of Cthulhu doesn’t bill itself as a followup to Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos or The New Lovecraft Circle, but it was prepared for the same publishers originally (Fedogan & Bremer) and has a sufficiently similar approach that I’m willing to consider it a sequel to that set. In his introduction, Price talks up Lovecraft fandom as a substitute for religiosity, and if that weren’t bizarre enough proceeds to push a geek supremacist argument framing Lovecraft fans as having discovered Lovecraft during adolescence and identifying with his solitary preferences, an elite of people who “get it” set apart from the drone-like zombies of the mundane masses. This is where I say “speak for yourself, Price”; what he proposes here is exactly the sort of closed clubhouse approach that makes fandoms toxic.

He then slams cosplayers at conventions, suggesting that they render the whole thing frivolous and mundane, and also criticises attempts to win mainstream respectability for Lovecraft. (This was before the Library of America put out a Lovecraft volume.) Because it’s not enough for us to be Lovecraft fans, apparently – we have to be fans within the set bounds of Price’s sensibilities, keeping things just respectable enough for quasi-academic blowhards like Price to feel like scholarly gentlemen but not respectable enough to get the attention of experts who’d recognise Price’s Lovecraft scholarship as the slipshod amateur work it is.

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Machen Fairies Grim Again

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

To some people’s tastes, Arthur Machen did the whole H.P. Lovecraft thing better than Lovecraft himself did. Although I tend to disagree, at least to the extent that Lovecraft and Machen’s personal philosophy differed greatly and those differences were expressed in important ways in their work (Machen could never have written At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft could never have written The Hill of Dreams), it is true that Machen’s work was a great influence on Lovecraft; in fact, Lovecraft would heavily promote it in Supernatural Horror In Literature, his most widely-read and reprinted essay, in which Machen is the first mentioned among the “modern masters” of the genre. Borges, for his part, also greatly appreciated Machen, and in some of Machen’s more subtle intrusions of the spiritual and the extra-normal into ordinary life we see the seeds of some of Borges’ own work – and, through that, the magical realism genre in general.

At the same time, Machen’s bibliography is intimidatingly large, in keeping with a career which began in the 1880s and kept producing interesting pieces right into 1937. Whilst the major, important pieces are well-known and widely reprinted, at the same time there’s some gems to be found in his less well-known work, though a lot of it is obscured by less distinguished pieces.

Part of the reason for this is that Machen’s career had a number of startling highs and lows, with the result that his finances were often perilously stretched. (It wasn’t until in later life, when his status as a literary national treasure prompted efforts to secure him a suitable pension, that he’d be without money worries.) Although his major works had rocketed him into the spotlight in the 1890s, his extremely oblique, allusive references to socially-disapproved forms of sexuality led to him being associated in the popular and critical imagination with the Decadents (despite the fact that actually, he personally disapproved of the sexual stuff he was hinting at just as much as society did).

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