BACK TO BASICS WITH LOVECRAFT

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

My goodness, but how the H.P. Lovecraft industry surges on, a lava torrent fueled by such intense scholarly acumen and fannish interest. Sometimes I think one may read a thousand times more about Lovecraft than he actually ever wrote. I will assert that, due to the voluminous publications on every aspect of his life, I know more about the man than I do about anyone other than myself. That may be a startling admission, but it doesn't bother me a bit. In my field of weird fiction he's the Master, and a fascinating subject regardless of one's artistic tastes. So, we study the amassed fruits of erudition concerning his works, his letters, his relationships, his diet, his . . . well, I'll stop there, for it's a never-ending list.

Two recent publications of soaring academic quality have dragged me back around to indulging in the sacred Lovecraft texts once more: the Variorum Edition presented by S.T. Joshi, and the Annotated Fungi from Yuggoth edited by David E. Schultz. These are magnificent tomes, both produced courtesy of Hippocampus Press, both of which I consider "must buys" for anybody who cares about such things; meaning, everybody in the known universe (perhaps realms beyond) who really matters.

I snapped up both right away. Why? You may well ask, since I possess two previous Arkham House batches of the stories, and the Ancient Track collection of poetry, so I already had this stuff, could read it any time I pleased. Fair enough, yet being able isn't always doing. Even I need an incentive at whiles to dive in again. These books admirably serve as incentives. Having spent the money, I must peruse the blasted things--no hardship there--and in the process have found myself desiring to document and share the experience. Thus this essay, sort of a book review "plus."

I'm going to tell you about the books, what I gained from them, and my pleasure in reading again the vastness of Lovecraft. No revelations here, merely my impressions of the strange geometry inherent in great writing and its appreciation.

Variorum Edition by Joshi

What's this, another collection of Lovecraft's classic tales? That's what it is, to be sure, with a remarkable enhancement: this three volume set contains every textual variant of every significant publication, from the original manuscripts onward. Some are only editorial choices found in magazines and anthologies, while others are alterations made by the great one himself. Joshi provides more notes than stars in the galaxy! I shudder to think how much labor went into this labor of love.

This must be considered the new standard edition for those stories, superseding anything gone before. It's problematical whether I could recommend it to a first time reader, as the countless variations and added material might prove distracting, but for one previously immersed, this version is indispensable.

Thanks to Joshi, I've learned a lot about craft, that of Lovecraft and his editors. Poring over the minutiae of the manuscripts, where available, places me close behind Lovecraft's shoulder as he inscribes the tales, an entertaining conceit. The editorial processes of the editors inform me of decisions and mistakes, discerned through changes intentional or otherwise. I learn about Joshi as editor, he explaining at length how he set about providing the ultimate version of the works. It is truly a staggering effort.

Annotated Fungi from Yuggoth by Schultz

This is an absolutely beautiful volume, artfully laid out, nicely illustrated by Jason C. Eckhardt. One expects a slim book founded on a collection of just 36 sonnets, yet it's a great deal bigger than you might think, because of all the additional goodies. Each sonnet receives two pages, including the charming pictures, and that's only the beginning. Most of the book is devoted to a comprehensive discussion of the origin and nature of the poems, their complex history of publication, and massive annotation. The latter engagingly homes in on idea sourcing and thematic elements.

As with Joshi's volumes, bibliographical citations henceforth must point to Schultz's edition in order to be deemed current and academic. It's all here, the blessing of Lovecraft's vision married to a glorious presentation, essential to all except self-blinded earth-gazers.

The Advance of Lovecraftian Scholarship

Old news this by now, but these books remind me how far the study of Lovecraft has come since the Golden Age of Fandom. Analysis of the fiction, the sifting through the thousands of letters to and from Lovecraft, has enriched understanding of the works to a degree unheard of, at least in my reading experience. Thanks to these obsessive sages of the forbidden texts, I know so much that incalculably increases my pleasure. Lovecraft's oeuvre exists now within a daunting penumbra of special lore which adds layers of meaning to every word, every concept. Tales and poetry dazzle with fresh insights. "Fresh" is the operative word. Unlike many of my other favorites through the years, this stuff isn't getting stale. Partly that is Lovecraft's mastery, partly the fruit of clever gentlemen the likes of Joshi and Schultz. Once it was timely to ask where Lovecraft would be without August Derleth; where now without the new breed of hyper-dons?

Reading Lovecraft for the First Time, Again

So, I've read them all before, multiple occasions, and now I've read them once more. What's the difference?

Those who aren't arch-fans might not get it, but it has made all the difference in the world to me. These books lured me into their intellectual depths, demanding way more than passive enjoyment. I did not merely read, or even rise to the level of perusal: I savored these works, poking at and probing into each line, every word; clawing through thickets of thoughts. It took a lot longer to read them than I recall from past examination. To an extent this is due to my tedious habit of pursuing notes as I come to them (mucho plenty notes here!), but hardly just that. I truly pondered what I read, which takes time.

Well spent, that, for I found myself recapturing some of that ancient thrill felt when the world was young and I met Lovecraft through his stories for the first time. That is a remarkable and rare happening. It may be, for me, unique. It certainly seemed important enough to fire this essay.

Those pages blasted at me a grapeshot of notions that surpassed what I previously derived. In the case of Schultz's volume, full credit should be granted to his copious references, rich in fascinating explication. My goodness, but a learned treatise lurks within each sonnet! It's more than that, however. Joshi's books are not annotated as such, yet they affected me the same. There was something about the delving into the nethermost pits of this literature, scrutinizing the placement of each comma and semicolon, that opened an inner eye. Was that, on top of everything else, Joshi's secret intention? I'll bet it was. Sheer guesswork, just me saying of course, but the process caused me to grapple with the material in a manner I hadn't before. Big thoughts bubbled up while I paused to consider the structure of a single sentence. I related items one to another, fused elements into concepts grander than plot points. I saw meaning beyond the story, and so often saw Lovecraft the man behind the meaning.

Great fun, this, which hasn't cooled off yet. I've become an adventurer in an endless odyssey.

Uncorrelated Contents

What follows are some random sprouts of fungi cultivated from my recent readings. I tackled the texts in a "back to basics" fashion, striving to eschew "gee whiz" or "oh my" responses in favor of a more contemplative, philosophical approach. Take that for what it's worth. Do these observations and impressions unite to form a whole? You decide.

Thanks to the Variorum Edition, I've finally gotten around to reading the "unexpurgated" version of "The Shadow out of Time," which lays claim to being my favorite Lovecraft story. As I'd been warned, it doesn't really make that much difference--some alterations of paragraph structure, a few dropped words--but this is what the Master wanted the world to see, and with Joshi's aid I've been so blessed. More important is that, as a result of the intense perusal devoted to this reading, I indulged in the rich arcana of this tale, the pinnacle of weird fiction. It's got it all: the mystery, the magic, the peculiar amalgamation of Sci-Fi and horror that Lovecraft blends so well, which many others seek vainly to imitate. I wonder if I belong to that latter hapless group? The examples are there, right in front of us, to be studied at leisure, critiqued and absorbed. After all these years, why does no one do it as well (forget better)?

I ponder the artfully fostered nihilism which drenches the story. The Great Race, Lovecraft's heroes, lords of time and space, are mass murderers on a cosmic scale, annihilating entire sentient species in their quest for eternal survival. The human race? Pathetic insects, transient upstarts doomed to an unmentionable fate, their records locked away in the lowest vaults of the Great Race's forsaken library. On the Lovecraftian scale, we don't rate. I suppose he really meant it, too. Perhaps that is his secret. Big thoughts united with extreme horridness: delicious!

I'm still brooding, with Joshi's volumes before me, whether I can pluck from these clumps of syntax, extra-thesaurus vocabulary, em-dashes and colons the clues which may allow an outsider to recreate the power of this fiction. Lovecraft by the numbers? Okay, I know better, but I'm willing to learn, and there must be lessons here begging to be ascertained. My deep reading should have been instructive. Back to the drawing board, then.

Reading Fungi from Yuggoth with Schultz's support gives me a better understanding of the work in totality. It's a disparate collection of weird jottings, yet it's all of a piece, too. One may conceive of the initial trio of sonnets--the "Book" arc--as introduction, as the launching pad from which one enters, with that narrator, a kaleidoscope of strange visions, journeys, and realizations. I like that. Instead of an entertaining bag of tricks dumped in my lap, I've been led on an eldritch pilgrimage across the entire sweep of the Lovecraftian landscape, and with a most knowledgeable guide. I see this now as the essence of Lovecraft in capsule form, a string of perfect pearls more pure than the prose. I hope that isn't heresy.

Apparently Lovecraft thought so, because he never returned to the poetic form. That is a pity, because this, his last burst of poetry, is the best he produced by far. More sacrilege, perhaps: a lot of that stuff in The Ancient Track collection bores me. Lovecraft found his poetic voice late, and then pretty much dropped the whole business. I'd gladly swap a couple or five of his lesser tales for another irruption of wonder on the scale of Fungi from Yuggoth.

For the sonnet cycle he borrowed snippets from stories, and sometimes previewed tales he subsequently wrote. I regret some story possibilities that didn't materialize. Where, for instance, is the Lovecraftian extravaganza relating the horrors of St. Toad? My imagination spins off its fly-wheel contemplating that odd nugget. Perhaps "The Haunter of the Dark" is a tenuous derivative, only it lacks those wonderful cracked chimes. Yes, that great story needs only the baleful chimes to attain perfection.

The theme of "adventurous expectancy" haunts the works of Lovecraft, cropping out clearly in a number of places. The author and poet ties the emotion to scenes and imagery. In this reading I sensed it most in two stories, "The Whisperer in Darkness" and "At the Mountains of Madness," and heavily from the sonnets. There's no doubt that in these pieces Lovecraft deliberately emphasizes the concept. They were written quite close together, suggesting that the idea was much on his mind at the time. His letters establish, however, that the feeling was a constant part of him.

Adventurous expectancy as a literary device suddenly looms large to me. This may be one of the strands running through Lovecraft's works which lend them their exceptional status. It isn't always there, possibly, but there enough to tip the balance toward excellence. It creates a mood, and Lovecraft is all about mood.

It, this adventurous expectancy and what it's meant to imply, begins to seem real to me. Yes, I know Lovecraft, the hard-nosed materialist (he declares himself so too often to override) didn't mean it that way, yet through stories and poems I half bring myself to believe it. There are mysteries hidden behind certain landscapes and skylines, and the right brain, armed with the right knowledge, can open the doors to those mysteries, and visit the extraordinary worlds beyond. Lovecraft suspends my disbelief, convincing at least for the duration of the reading. I can almost understand those who profess to believe (or pretend to do?) that Lovecraft actually possessed keys to cosmic secrets, and that an arcane reality underlies his writings. Lovecraft says no, but his art vociferously argues.

Rereading in such detail, akin to what anthropologists have called "thick description," caused me to examine Lovecraft's writing style. From hoary days of yore there's been carping about that: he's too wordy, convoluted, cumbersome, etc., whatever. I may not be the best critic, because it's never bothered me, far from it. His style suited me fine, and I didn't waste time muttering over it while reading. This time I did, now and then, only to reach similar conclusions. Dismissing Lovecraft as "verbose," even in his earlier tales, misses by a wide margin what he endeavors to accomplish. Mood trumps narrative; an intentional choice, the correct one. Lovecraft decides that the reporter's style, or Hemingway's, won't serve to wrench those emotions from the reader. Lovecraft's way does, and that is the bottom line, another element in his success.

Going over "The Whisperer in Darkness" with a fine-toothed comb, and giving the poor guy every imaginable break, I still find Wilmarth to be Lovecraft's dopiest character. The author advocates the notion of the horror story composed as a literary hoax, intended to explain why the horrors described don't become common knowledge, but this time he goes too far. Furthermore, it's utterly unnecessary. Wilmarth doesn't have to be a total fool to be gulled, he doesn't have to stupidly cooperate in losing all the material evidence in his possession. That evidence, the pictures and letters, wouldn't have impressed the stodgy authorities anyway. Why, then, make an otherwise intelligent scholar out to be such a sap? I've read somewhere that Lovecraft actually toned this down in the final version, after comments from his comrades. I shudder to think what the original version was like.

I do detect a lack of logic drifting through several of Lovecraft's tales, mainly those emphasizing the accouterments of the "Cthulhu Mythos," or whatever one chooses to call it these days. This point relates to the incredible furtiveness of the various alien races, pan-dimensional entities, and assorted spooks with which Lovecraft populates the earth, without most people having the slightest perception of they're existing. I confess that it can get hard to swallow at times. Writing about "The Whisperer in Darkness" brings this point to the fore. Why are the fungi from Yuggoth so afraid of us? We're assured they aren't, they could destroy us at will; but they act as if they are. There are potential ways to explain this, which Lovecraft doesn't employ, or doesn't adequately develop. When you get down to it, there are more problems with this one story (otherwise magnificent as a fright tale) than the rest combined.

A similar situation occurs in "The Shadow over Innsmouth," with yet another powerful, intelligent race sharing the planet. The notion of all these beings and creatures lurking on, over and under our world, scarcely noticed by modern, civilized man, fails to convince if consumed too heavily all at once. That may be more of a problem for the Derlethian systemizer who attempts to tie everything into a neat Cthulhu Mythos package, the ultimate meta-story. I'm capable of skirting that conundrum without mental pain, tending to approach individual tales on their singular merits. That way, I don't stumble over the apparent discord between stories, such as the competing histories contained within At the Mountains of Madness and "The Shadow out of Time."

This latter duo of powerhouse stories present the sweeping chronicles of incredibly long-lived races. They read to me like enormously magnified, non-human versions of the Roman Empire, extremely enduring, and remarkably static. In these cases, rather than hundreds of years, we're talking about hundreds of millions. While not keen on being accused of being a pre-Lovecraftian dolt, those interminable rises, declines, and falls do seem a bit weird if I ponder them too much. I'll write it off to alien psychology. Did Lovecraft? Did he consider that at all? A point arises, perhaps, when over-analysis becomes ludicrous. Scary stories aren't meant to be treated as sociological tracts. I do believe, however, that Lovecraft inserts some of that in these two, and in "The Mound" as well, so even if a minor issue, it's fair game.

That said, such stories get so much right. "The Call of Cthulhu" is nigh on perfect, and the pan-dimensionalism of "The Dunwich Horror" treads an avenue minimizing some grumbles.

Curiously, the more I cavil, the less these niggles matter. A strange process operates here: the devil isn't in the details. Despite intellectual twists and turns on my part, the basic elements of Lovecraft's artistic triumph break through the spheres.

The Basics

Endeavoring to get back to basics, in the course of this essay, has evolved from reading for enjoyment to inner discussion. Come to think of it, that was the prior pattern as well, stretched out over years. Ostensibly I've achieved the same thing, and no more, but I've surpassed that. The analytical digestion amuses, and I guess that will keep cropping up--chewing Lovecraft gives me a kick--but the stars do come right again. I've learned from my latest indulgence that the enjoyment of these lovingly crafted works is fundamental. This time, uniquely, having read all the tales in association with the best poetry, I find that what moves me most is the enthralling music of Lovecraft's language and vision. The Master plays his infernal instruments, to which my imagination sings accompaniment. The tune I hear is composed of ethereal notes comprising night-gaunts and ghouls, rats in the walls and witch-house dreams, Old Ones and Deep Ones, blasted heaths and sprouting fungi; these notes, impressive in themselves, but played on Erich Zann's viola.

That's what it's all about! It was never anything more than that, nor will it ever be. Maybe this proves I'm just a dumb fan. If true, so be it; I'm happy. There's plenty of "gee whiz" in me after all. As a result of the recent labors of Messrs. Joshi and Schultz, I discover that the literary king of terrors satisfies me as much as ever; that is my "Recapture." For this I thank them.


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