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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Spring’s Crop of Folk Horror Thrills

I’d previously been quite impressed with issue 1 of Hellebore, an attempt to do a graphically appealing folk horror periodical in print, and I’m glad to see that it’s survived to produce a second issue, even in the midst of this strange springtime. Issue 2 is the Wild Gods issue, and as the title implies it concerns itself in various ways with the concept of deities living in or presiding over untamed nature.

Katy Soar offers an overview of the latter-day British fascination with Pan, from 18th Century libertines of the Hellfire Club ilk adopting him as a patron of hedonism to Crowley and Victor Neuburg’s occult experiments to the Findhorn collective and all sorts of other revivals besides. She seems to miss Pan’s strange, incongruous appearance in The Wind In the Willows in the chapter The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd would later take as the title of their debut album (which, due to Syd Barrett being the band’s leader at the time, is arguably the most Dionysian and Pan-aligned of their releases).

I’d also be interested in Soar’s thoughts on Pan’s emergence in Hellier as a major figure, though this goes beyond the British shores she’d initially restricted her survey to; the way the team there end up resorting to Pan worship puts me in mind of how Soar argues that, precisely because Pan was a loose, easy-going mythological figure who tended not to have much of an intricate dogma associated with him, he’s more available for revivalists to try and experiment with than deities associated with more involved and difficult forms of worship to replicate.

Similarly informative articles come from Melissa Edmundson and Anna Milon. Edmundson gives an overview of womens’ writing about Pan and Pan-like figures from the late 19th and early 20th Century, identifying as she does so a small-scale movement to recontextualise Pan away from being just some rude dude who terrorises and rapes women and into a figure who represents a more nuanced engagement with the world, nature, and sexuality. Milon provides a fascinating anecdote about how a prehistoric cave painting which may or may not have antlers – depends on the photo you’re looking at – might have influenced Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult In Western Europe theories.

John Reppion makes two contributions. His first is an interview with Alan Moore in which Moore seems to buck against the very notion of folk horror – opining that the Wild Gods might instead walk in urban areas, because only urbanised people regard the rustic and rural as being frightening or special. It’s a fun read, but mostly for how Moore steers the conversation towards his particular areas of interest and refuses to engage with Reppion’s thoughts. Reppion has a bit more success with an article about the Wild Hunt and the history of that particular folkloric idea. Reppion’s other article is a piece on the Wild Hunt, a decent overview of the different forms this legend has taken that takes an unfortunate turn into overt neopagan proselytising which is about as gratingly unwelcome as any other form of proselytising.

Other less successful articles include Kate Laity’s musings on the fairy folk which doesn’t seem to construct much of an argument or have much of a point to it, and Ruth Heholt’s examination of Hammer’s Cornish duology, which is hamstrung by arguing that it’s one of the few zombie movies which follow the Haitian folkloric concept of the zombie being raised and directed at the will of a sorcerer rather than just getting up and chowing down on people in an uncontrolled manner.

This is either a clumsy misrepresentation of the history of the genre or exposes a gap in Heholt’s knowledge: before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the pop culture concept of the zombie was “mind-controlled undead slave directed by wizard”, and zombie movies tended to depict them as such going back at least as far as White Zombie from 1932. It might just be a misstatement on Heholt’s part, but if so it’s a pretty serious one since it puts no caveats suggesting she really means “zombie movies from 1966 onwards” or whatever. As it stands, the text of the article reads like Heholt doesn’t understand the history of the subgenre she’s talking about, which is a problem when she is making sweeping statements about where Plague of the Zombies stands in the world of zombie movies as a whole.

On the whole, this issue was thicker than issue one by about 20 pages or so, tended towards more substantive articles, and generally improved on the weak points of the previous issue and maintained its strengths. Hopefully we’ll see an issue 3 this coming autumn…

A 900 Year Old Backlash

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was the 12th Century’s big bestselling British fantasy novel, a precursor to the likes of The Lord of the Rings in the 20th Century or Harry Potter for the 21st. This is evidenced not least from the sheer number of contemporary manuscripts of the book that survive to this day, which must after all be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of manuscripts actually produced. Monks and nuns laboured away in scriptoria to churn out these copies of the history, and the King Arthur legend as popularised in it immediately became one of the central subjects of the up and coming troubadour art form.

Almost as soon as it came into existence, other historians adapted its material, inserting their own opinions and spin on the subject matter – and for that matter, Geoffrey hardly seems to have had a neutral agenda itself. A particularly interesting study of this phenomenon from a feminist perspective is Fiona Tolhurst’s Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Transmission of Female Kingship.

Over the course of an exhaustive analysis of Monmouth’s magnum opus (concentrating on the non-Arthurian portions, which have been rather neglected over the years), Tolhurst produces a credible argument that Geoffrey’s history was a feminist work – not, perhaps, by the the standards of what we recognise as feminism today, but certainly by the standards of the period in which he was writing.

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Fresh Folk Horror For the Darkening Seasons

Autumn, especially that part where it begins turning into winter and the hours of darkness seriously start closing in, feels to me like the natural season for horror, especially folk horror and its neighbours. Even after the festivities of Halloween itself, it feels like the dark powers of the universe haven’t so much been banished as appeased, and that cold night is still on the upswing.

It’s good timing, then, that some interesting new offerings have come out at just the right time to be savoured – whether that’s the full-throated folk horror of Hellebore, or the more retro-suburban twist offered by Scarfolk, as explored on the blog of the same name and the previously-released novelisation.

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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.

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Gems of Criticism

Of all the incidents in Aleister Crowley’s extensive history of shit-stirring in the occult subculture of the early 20th Century, The Equinox is the one which left behind the most material for later generations to pick over. The Equinox was Crowley’s journal of esoteric philosophy and practice; with the motto of “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion”, it had an initial run from 1909 to 1913, then returned briefly for a bumper issue in 1919 (the so-called “Blue Equinox”), and then for all intents and purposes that was that. (Such subsequent volumes as issued during Crowley’s lifetime were basically self-contained books on a single subject, rather than journals with articles on varied topics; in the case of books issued during World War II, this was a wheeze intended to take advantage of the fact that magazines were under different paper rationing restrictions from books.)

For its brief run, the original Equinox was supposed to be the teaching organ of the A∴A∴, a splinter group of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn founded by Crowley and some of his allies. Crowley’s eclectic approach to spirituality doesn’t quite hide the fact that, overall, the entire shebang is basically a sort of repackaged Theravada Buddhism, the magical goal of communication and union with one’s Holy Guardian Angel being part of the process of attaining the enlightenment of ego-death.

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An Alien Aesthetic

As you might have gathered from some of my past articles on the subject, I’m more interested in UFOlogy as a cultural phenomenon than as anything objectively happening in our skies, and read UFO books more for entertainment than for information. There’s a certain joy to be had in delving into this rabbit hole without being too invested in the truth of anything you encounter, and I’m gratified to know I’m not alone in this, since much the same approach seems to be taken by Jack Womack, who over the years has obtained quite the collection of UFO books.

Womack offers us a guided tour through his library in the coffee table book …Flying Saucers Are Real!, which combines some brief writings on the subject from Womack with a range of delightful front covers, photographs, illustrations and textual extracts from the books under discussion. Womack convincingly argues that the UFO flap was essentially an evolution of the Shaver Mystery of prior years – a bizarre craze in which the claims of one Richard Shaver that he’d intercepted and decoded secret messages from fallen civilisations and evil BDSM robots from the Hollow Earth became unaccountably popular on a commercial level. Pioneering science fiction editor and shamless huckster Ray Palmer not only turned the Shaver Mystery from a lone man’s delusion into a minor pop cultural phenomenon; he was also instrumental in early publicity for Kenneth Arnold’s infamous 1947 sighting which kicked off the modern UFO meme – a meme whose evolution and mutation Womack traces across the rest of the book.

The bulk of the material here hails from the 1950s and 1960s, with a few exceptions – such as the cover of the 1989 edition of Space Aliens From the Pentagon by William Lyne and other such pieces with a particularly exciting aesthetic to them. This makes the volume a charming portal into an era when book covers were garish and gaudy, UFO photos were blurry and lampshade-ish, and contactees like the Unarius Institute’s Ruth “Uriel” Norman dressed fabulously and told us that space Aryans just wanted us to love each other. Whilst the book will offer little if you want to argue for the objective reality of UFOs and alien visitors, it offers a striking visual history of the way we talk about the subject.

What the Victorians Read One-Handed

First emerging in 1877, Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (so titled in parody of the Catholic Church’s own index of forbidden books) has been republished under various names – mine is a late-1960s paperback copy entitled Index of Forbidden Books. Published under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi, it is the first of a three-volume series he did chronicling the expansive body of erotica in his book collection. Were it a mere book catalogue, there’d be little interesting about it; fortunately, as a bibliophile who had also published a number of bibliographic works about less scandalous subject matter, Ashbee had very developed opinions about literature, books, writing, and for that matter sex, and he freely comments on the books cited here as well as offering synopses and extensive quotes.

To an extent this means we end up with more of an insight into Ashbee’s preferences than we might have expected; he certainly seems to have a lot of works on the subject of flagellation, and sufficiently developed opinions on the subject that it’s clear that he’s given it a lot of thought. However, Ashbee’s commentary and analysis isn’t just restricted to giving an overview of what got his Victorian rocks off – it also gives us an insight both into the sheer variety of erotic literature available to those who knew where to look in the time period, but also a snapshot of social attitudes surrounding it, as well as an insight into a realm where, in part because more or less all overt discussion of sex was forbidden, there seems to have been little barriers between subject matter we would today find completely innocuous and material which we still consider taboo.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 8: Supernatural Horror In Biography

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.

Having covered much of Lovecraft’s work from the early 1930s, we’ve now come to the point when he put the final touches on Supernatural Horror In Literature, so this seems to be the best time to take a good look at it. It’s easily the most widely reprinted of Lovecraft’s essays, and to be honest it genuinely deserves to be because it’s far and away the best of his nonfiction writing and represents a useful early survey of the genre as it had developed up to the time Lovecraft wrote it. He had begun it way back in 1925 during his New York stint, but revised it and added new discoveries of his when the prospect of it being republished came up; several versions available, including the one in the second volume of the Collected Essays series, helpfully indicate where the new insertions are.

As the title suggests, the essay is about the literary merit of the weird tale. Lovecraft suggests that only a few readers will really appreciate such material, because most people are too bound up in the daily routine to get much out of literature that does not deal with real life and won’t be especially sensitive to transcendental themes. This may have been accurate enough at the time of writing – and goodness knows Lovecraft was in a better position than many to appreciate how limited the audience for Weird Tales and other such outlets for supernatural horror was.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 7: Innsmouth, Heald, and Hitler

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.

We’ve previously seen how Lovecraft’s work reached its peak of ambition with At the Mountains of Madness, only for Lovecraft to become disheartened at his failure to sell it. Still, Lovecraft couldn’t stop writing if he wanted to eat, so the next phase of his writing saw him trying to rekindle his enthusiasm for his solo sories whilst doing plenty of revision work to try and scrape out a living.

The Trap is a revision Lovecraft did for Henry Whitehead. This is seen as a “secondary” revision and in truth there does not seem to be much Lovecraft in it to my eyes, though it’s an interest enough story about a mirror that traps a boarding school student who must be rescued by his teacher. The close of the story, in which the student turns up back in the teacher’s room and they need to come up with some sort of convoluted ruse to avoid any dodgy questions arising from the boy just turning up in the teacher’s room in the middle of the night, makes for slightly uncomfortable reading in a “How did this guy who was a teacher in his day job put so much thought into smuggling boys into and out of his room?” sort of way, and to be honest there doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount to it that’s especially Lovecraftian beyond one mild touch in which, as a result of being caught in the mirror, the kid ends up with his organs mirrored so his heart is on the right-hand side and so on, which borrows an entertainingly discomforting idea from The Mound.

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