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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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 4: It’s Not Easy Marrying Greene

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 have seen how Lovecraft’s return to fiction-writing and continued involvement in amateur journalism circles coincided with him emerging from the social isolation he had held himself in for about a decade, with even his mother’s hospitalisation not slowing him down for long. In the wake of his mother’s death, Lovecraft would continue attending amateur journalism conventions – not a bad plan if you’re the sort of person who finds it useful to keep busy when getting through bereavement. Notably, he attended the NAPA convention, at which he was called on to deliver a brief post-banquet speech (Within the Gates) in which he turned out to be quite good at poking fun at himself:

It is charged that I, as so-called Rhode Island Chairman of some “intensive recruiting drive”, employed the backs of National application blanks to write “poetry” on. I take this opportunity to refute so unjust a charge, relying for absolute vindication on Mr. Dowdell; who will, as in the past, assure you that I never could and never can write a line of genuine poetry!

He included quips about his very presence at the convention, since in past years he had been a UAPA loyalist with not much nice to say about the NAPA, but in fact he had moderated his tone quite considerably recently. (Perhaps attending conventions and establishing better personal friendships with people helped him cool off – and Lovecraft’s friend W. Paul Cook being NAPA president for the year can’t have hurt either.)

It is just as well that he was at his most charming at that point, because would be at that convention that Lovecraft met Sonia Greene; soon she would join the UAPA and Lovecraft would be singing her praises in his United Amateur contributions, Lovecraft having retained the editorship for the 1921-1922 term. Much has been made of the apparent contradiction between Lovecraft’s avowed antisemitism on the one hand and, on the other, the high esteem he obviously held Greene in and his decision to marry her. In his private correspondence, Lovecraft speaks of her having a volatility he ascribes to her “Continental and Non-European heritage” but says she has genuine cultivation underlying that; this suggests to me that Lovecraft saw Greene’s Jewish background almost as an encumbrance she overcame through assimilation, and therefore forgivable to an extent.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 3: You Never Forget Your First Dunsany

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 we’ve previously explored, Lovecraft ended his nine year hiatus from prose fiction with The Tomb. Even as Lovecraft finished that story, he was becoming further entangled in amateur affairs. The current editor of the United Amateur, Andrew Lockhart, had been sent to Federal prison – Lovecraft, a supporter of Lockhart’s vigorous temperance campaigning, claimed that Lockhart had been stitched up by liquor and vice barons – leaving the post vacant. Lovecraft stepped in to ensure that the UAPA’s official organ would make it out, and took the opportunity to and round out its pages with a slew of his own contributions (not missing an opportunity to razz the National Amateur Press Association, which was undergoing an even more acute decline in membership and output than the UAPA).

Despite this unexpected increase in his UAPA workload, Lovecraft persisted in flexing storytelling muscles that had long laid dormant. Over the next few years, as I’ll be outlining here, Lovecraft crafted a plethora of work which for the most part tended to be fairly minor entries in his portfolio when taken individually, but provided important groundwork for Lovecraft both in terms of improving his craft and in pioneering ideas he would later express much more successfully in the major stories of his later career.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 2: The Vogon Poetry Phase

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.

Now that we’ve covered Lovecraft’s juvenile works, we can take in his early adult career. Lovecraft’s transition into adulthood was, to put it mildly, a bit of a bumpy one, and it pretty much shut down his fiction output for nearly a decade. During that time, he made his big effort to craft himself into a poet, took up his science writing again, and broke into the hobby world of amateur publishing, all of which I am going to try and take in with this article. I’m also going to include a bit more biographical notes than I intend to include in other portions of this article series, firstly because I think these details are significant to the writing of The Tomb, his return to fiction, and secondly because I think there is a significant enough autobiographical dimension to The Tomb that knowing these details aids greatly in its interpretation. Lastly, I will look at The Tomb itself, to see how Lovecraft’s approach to fiction had developed as a result of life experience and a substantial number of years spent away from such stories.

At the end of Lovecraft’s last year of formal education he suffered a serious breakdown (which may have been purely psychological, or may have been connected to a serious head injury he somehow suffered whilst exploring an abandoned house), and in the future he would feel acutely embarrassed by his failure to obtain a high school graduation certificate or to attend university. One of the few writings Lovecraft issued to the outside world during his 1908-1913 period of seclusion was a letter to the Providence Sunday Journal in late 1909, in which he recounts how on a night-time walkabout on Christmas Eve he stumbled across a group of people who had mistaken Venus for lights from an airship, and was able to point out their mistake.

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