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”

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”

Mini-Review: World of the Unknown – UFOs

I was taken enough with Usborne’s reprint of their World of the Unknown – Ghosts book that when I got the chance to pick up the UFO volume in the series for cheap came up, I jumped at it.

The impressive thing about these books is just how much material they pack in. Over the course of some 32 pages, extensively illustrated, the book offers readers very basic introductions to touchstones such as Kenneth Arnold’s original 1947 sightings that began the modern UFO flap, Chariots of the Gods-esque theories about ancient alien visitations, Project Blue Book, artificial Moon theories, experimental aircraft, the Betty and Barney Hill abductions, the Kentucky Goblins, and hoax techniques.

Of course, it doesn’t do a deep dive on any of those subjects – but in terms of giving a very brief overview of the subject, it’s useful for readers of any age. Don’t break the bank hunting it down, but if you see a cheap second-hand copy and fancy a nice slim book on the subject (or a bit of nostalgia if, like me, you read this as a child), it’s not a terrible idea.

Mini-Review: World of the Unknown – Ghosts

Usborne’s World of the Unknown: Ghosts was the first book the nascent children’s publisher put out, back in 1977. Penned by Christopher Maynard, it was a lavishly illustrated introduction to the subject that took up a slim 32 pages. Despite the brevity that format forces on him, Maynard is able to go into surprising depth – offering a range of ghost stories ranging from the well-known to the surprisingly obscure, along with an overview of ghost-hunting practices and sceptical explanations of significant hauntings.

As the first release from a new publishing house, it’s not a bad choice – you’ve got exciting subject matter, you’ve got a vivid presentation of said subject matter, and you have a larger form factor which makes it stand out. Compared to, say, the twee and tame subject matter of the Ladybird series, and you’ve got the Usborne difference as it was at the time perfectly expressed: whilst some children’s publishers took the view that kid’s books should be soothing and charming (at the risk of being boring), Usborne’s material was often a bit more exciting.

Arguably, in fact, Ghosts was basically a pre-teen’s equivalent to the sort of occult coffee table books that I’ve covered here before from time to time – and when you pitch it that way, I can’t imagine other publishers from the era putting out something similar. The World of the Unknown books were some of my favourites in the library at school, and it’s delightful that Usborne have reprinted this first volume for new generations to shiver over, with an introduction by Reece Shearsmith being the only new addition over the basically can’t-be-improved-on original.

Same Title, Different Spirit

What’s in a name? Sure, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – but if you called roses “roses” and called turds “roses” you’d have an enormous amount of confusion on your hands. A little while back on a folk-horror themed Facebook discussion I was in, there was a bit of confusion about the existence of two books bearing the utterly badass title of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology – one a credible academic text, one a silly coffee table book from the 1970s which I and others had fond memories of seeing in our local libraries as late as the early 1990s. As it turns out, both books have merits – one is good, one is so bad it’s good – so I thought as a public service I’d offer a bit of disambiguation here as well as reviewing them.

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (Robbins Version)

Originally published in 1959, Rossell Hope Robbins’ Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology is a rigorously researched and sourced text, offering a massive resource for anyone researching the specific flavour of witchcraft under the microscope here.

See, when Robbins refers to “witchcraft” here, he’s really talking to a very specific cultural phenomenon. He doesn’t mean the practice of magic or occult arts, or the concepts in cultures beyond Europe and the European colonies in North America which could be translated as “witchcraft” if you wanted to. He refers, instead, to the very specific belief, prevalent in Europe and North America from the late 1400s to the 1700s, that there was a type of person out there called a “witch” who would make a pact with the Devil to deliberate cause hardship and misery within the community, and who, precisely because they derived their powers from a pact with the Devil, should be treated as a heretic rather than their crimes being handled by the secular courts.

Continue reading “Same Title, Different Spirit”

Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

Continue reading “Digging Up Spooky Roots”

Save vs. Libel, Pt. 2: The Rumour Dies, the Scars Remain

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.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

As outlined in the first part of this article, the popular rumours smearing Dungeons & Dragons were largely driven by the James Dallas Egbert III case, but soon took on a life of their own. It would take other hands, however, to really bring them to the absurd pitch that they’d reach during the Satanic Panic – and the primary driver of that process was Patricia Pulling.

You can see Pulling as the David Icke of Dungeons & Dragons conspiracy theories: many of her ideas were parroted from others, her credentials and competence as a researcher and investigator were wildly overstated, and she’s mostly notable for weaving all of the different theories she picked up from others into a dizzyingly paranoid collage, a fear-riddled look at the world in which almost anything she didn’t approve of was part of a grand conspiracy to destroy America’s children.

The major difference between Pulling and Icke is this: in Britain we laugh at our extreme conspiracy theorists, in America they get elected President. Whilst Pulling never attained quite that level of power she did end up with an undue level of influence – particularly within police forces which turned to her as a consultant on “occult crime” – which resulted in her being treated as an expert in criminal cases when in fact her credentials were not up to snuff. (If you want an illustration of how dangerous it is to have unqualified amateurs posing as experts and hyping their personal conspiracy theories to the police, you could do a lot worse than doing some Googling on the subject of the West Memphis Three.)

Continue reading “Save vs. Libel, Pt. 2: The Rumour Dies, the Scars Remain”

Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error

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.

(Content warning for this series: over these two articles I’m going to touch on sexual abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and Gamergate. If you aren’t up for such subjects, maybe skip these.)

The most infamous variant of this story is Jack Chick’s second most paranoid tract, Dark Dungeons. (Chick’s most paranoid comic is, of course, The Last Generation.) The beloved tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons is not a mere hobby, but an indoctrination system for occultism and Satanism – one which teaches participants real magic, drives them insane, and causes them to commit suicide. It’s an implausible story, rendered even weirder when someone tries to get the idea across in a brief little comic with unintentionally hilarious and highly quotable dialogue, a surprisingly progressive gender ratio in the gaming group depicted, and an evil Dungeon Master drawn by an artist who can’t quite conceal their secret attraction to hot goth ladies that their religion won’t let them act on.

It’s an urban myth which had a pretty brief shelf life. The movies Mazes & Monsters and Skullduggery were based on it, but after they had their day in the Sun it was largely evangelists riding the Satanic Panic bandwagon pushing the concept – and most of them moved on to other targets after a while. The current boom in popularity of D&D thanks to hit streaming shows like Critical Role, Harmonquest and the like is pretty much the last nail in the coffin; this conspiracy theory is the sort of thing which hinges on tabletop RPGs being a poorly-understood thing where people don’t have much of an idea of what goes on in a typical game session, and now that there’s plentiful examples online of people who can apparently bathe and look after themselves gaming happily the mystery is gone.

A discussion of the wider issue of where the Satanic Panic came from, why it happened, and why it died down is something you could right multiple PhD theses on – but I’m not going to go that broad this time around. Instead, I’m going to cover a brace of materials which, between them, illustrate where the particular moral panic surrounding tabletop RPGs emerged, why it stopped, and how some of the gaming community’s worst habits of the present day can be traced back to the fight against censorious moral panics of the past.

Continue reading “Save vs. Libel, Pt. 1: The Rise of a Popular Error”

Fool Me Once, Dzyan On You…

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.

Among the various changes that have happened at Chaosium since they went under new management has been the appointment of a new Executive Editor for their fiction line, James Lowder. Much of his work since the takeover has apparently focused on handling wayward payments to contributors and contractural issues; if these problems were anything like those that had infamously affected their RPG publishing efforts, Lowder had a big job on his plate. He has now issued new submission guidelines for Chaosium’s line of tie-in books, with an eye to relaunching it in 2018.

Many tabletop RPG companies have taken a sidestep into the world of producing more conventional books – if you can arrange to get an RPG rulebook printed, after all, you’ve got most of the logistical issues licked – and back in the day Chaosium were no exception. Starting in 1993, their non-gamebook releases included both original fiction and reprints of old material, with game lines like the Arthurian-themed Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu each, as a result of being based on various literary traditions (of very different vintages), having a strong body of material available for Chaosium to republish.

Continue reading “Fool Me Once, Dzyan On You…”