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.

Continue reading “In Essential Solitude, a Vital Friendship”

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?

Continue reading “Divilled By Platitudes”

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?

Continue reading “Ramsey Campbell Unearths Old Themes”

The Necronomicon Wars

Even in his own lifetime, H.P. Lovecraft got the occasional bit of fan mail from occultists either asking if his mythology of the Great Old Ones was real – or insisting that it was real. Over time, it seemed like the Necronomicon became the particular focus of this sort of inquiry – perhaps because of Lovecraft’s technique of listing it and other invented Mythos tomes alongside real books when using it in his stories.

Lovecraft gently let down all such inquirers. He’d also disappoint fans who knew it was fictional but thought it’d be wicked awesome if he’d write an actual Necronomicon, by pointing out that he’d already established in his stories that the damn thing was hundreds of pages long – and whilst he might be tempted to cook up some scraps, he really didn’t want to spend that long cranking out a tome of that length. Nonetheless, an appetite for the book remained.

After Lovecraft died, pranksters would slip references to it into library catalogues and the like, but the efforts of Arkham House to exert control over Lovecraft’s intellectual property (despite August Derleth’s rather weak claim to be Lovecraft’s literary executor, a role it’s now generally agreed that R.H. Barlow had a better claim to) may have dampened any efforts to turn the artifact into reality. Derleth’s death in 1971, however, made such fakery significantly more tempting.

The early 1970s also saw Kenneth Grant put out The Magical Revival, the first volume in his epic Typhonian Trilogies – a sprawling account of his further development of Aleister Crowley’s occult system of Thelema. This included an astonishing claim – that Lovecraft’s fiction wasn’t fiction, but was on some level communicating psychic truths that were not only compatible with Thelema but were actually important components of it in their own right.

This created the impetus for a bizarre new feature of the occult scene – a spate of purported Necronomicons, at least one of which would inspire readers to actually try out the magic described therein, and a raging conflict in the wider scene over whether these books a) were what they purported to be and b) had any legitimacy as grimoires. In short, the stage was set for a conflict in which shots are still fired to this day – the controversy I like to call the Necronomicon Wars.

Continue reading “The Necronomicon Wars”

Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 3

In the first and second instalments in this series, we’ve gone through the beginning of Clark Ashton Smith’s adult career as a prose fiction author and made our way into the astonishing boom of creativity in the 1930s when he really honed his craft. The first volume in Night Shade Books’ definitive compilations of his weird fiction covers material written from 1925 to 1930; the second volume covered material from July 1930 to April 1931, less than a year.

The third volume, A Vintage From Atlantis, covers material written from May 1931 to May 1932, so whilst it’s still clearly a product of Smith’s early boom years, we can start to see him shifting the dial back from “quantity” to “quality”; whilst as with the previous volume the stories can be hit or miss, the hits feel a bit more frequent, the heights higher, and the lows less low than the previous volume.

Continue reading “Reading Clark Ashton Smith For the First Time Again, Part 3”

Zombies At the Gates of Hell

After producing some well-received giallo pieces in the 1970s, Lucio Fulci’s standing as a horror director reached its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s – elevated on the back of a horde of zombies. Brought in as a hired gun to direct Zombie Flesh Eaters, the movie turned out to be Fulci’s international breakthrough. He was able to use this new stature to produce his famed Gates of Hell trilogy was born – this being City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House By the Cemetery.

Every one of these ended up caught up in some level in the UK’s video nasty controversy – Zombie Flesh Eaters and The House By the Cemetery were on the Department of Public Prosecutions’ “Section 1” list of material successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, The Beyond was on the “Section 3” list of material which had not been successfully prosecuted in and of it self but which police could confiscate under a “less obscene” charge, whilst City of the Living Dead, whilst never on the official list, was sometimes seized by the police anyway since it was a Fulci movie and often lumped in with the others.

For this article I’m going to cover both the Gates of Hell trilogy and the movie which made the sequence possible.

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Though the franchise this kicked off is known as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the English-language market, it was promoted in its native Italy and some other markets as Zombi 2 – in other words, a supposed sequel to Dawn of the Dead, whose Italian cut was released under the name Zombi. This sleazy action on the part of the studio kicked off a naming mess tha’ts almost as controversial as the content of the film itself (and of the many films which tried to freeride on its infamous reputation).

Continue reading “Zombies At the Gates of Hell”

Stanley Unearthed On Farmland Outside Arkham

Richard Stanley’s career as a director is as full of odd turns as one of his films. Gaining some attention with his early short films, he left South Africa to carve out an early niche for himself in London directing music videos, with an output ranging from memorable Fields of the Nephilim releases to a 50 minute video for the Marillion concept album Brave.

His music video work earned him enough contacts to get luminaries ranging from the Nephilim’s Carl McCoy to Iggy Pop to Lemmy to appear in his debut feature-length release, Hardware, which admittedly ripped off the plot of a 2000 AD story but on the other hand combined a distinctive cyberpunk-postapocalyptic aesthetic with a bleakly cynical plot, a great soundtrack, and a supporting character who really upset Harvey Weinstein because, for some reason, he thought that the slobbering, manipulative, repulsive sexual abuser was somehow meant to be a parody of him. His followup, Dust Devil, though less widely-praised was still an interesting achievement, including being one of the first movies to be shot in the newly-independent state of Namibia.

Then The Island of Doctor Moreau happened, and some of you reading this probably just slapped your foreheads and gone “Oh, that Richard Stanley”. As portrayed in the excellent documentary Lost Soul, Richard Stanley’s vision for Moreau was highly distinctive and original – but between studio executive meddling, casting drama, Val Kilmer being shitty to everyone, Marlon Brando behaving erratically (to be fair, his daughter had just committed suicide and he was beside himself in grief), and Stanley himself being shunted out of the director role early in filming and being replaced with John Frankenheimer, the end product became an utter mess, with Marlon Brando turning in a truly Razzie-worthy performance.

Continue reading “Stanley Unearthed On Farmland Outside Arkham”