Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Books Arrive: Smith and Lovecraft

So, some heavyweight books (literally*) arrived in the mail over the past few days. First there was the two-volume revised-&-expanded edition of S. T. Joshi's biography of H. P. Lovecraft.

This was originally published in 1996, but the manuscript was so long Joshi (the world's foremost Lovecraft scholar) was forced to cut 150,000 words (out of half a million) in order for the publisher to fit it all into one volume. Now he's taking advantage of a switch to a new publisher (Necronomicon Press > Hippocampus Press) to restore the missing material. It also says he did some updates, but a quick spot check shows that a lot of passages have not in fact been updated--for example, a reference to "the latter half of this century" (p. 1034) clearly refers to the one that ended a decade ago, not the one we're in now. The sole reference to Chaosium's CALL OF CTHULHU--probably the single greatest factor in spreading knowledge and appreciation of Lovecraft's work in the last quarter-century--has been expanded from a single sentence then to two sentences now. Of particular interest is Joshi's final judgment of Derleth (p. 1034), who he believes has a mostly negative legacy of having prevented Lovecraft's work from reaching a mainstream audience for decades.

The other book, though unexpected, is v. welcome: Vol. V of a five-volume set of the complete short stories (fantasy) of Clark Ashton Smith (THE LAST HIEROGLYPH, ed. Scott Connors & Ron Hilger), from Night Shade Books. I knew this one wd come eventually, but the timing was unexpected, the first three volumes having arrived in 2007 (January, June, & December) and the fourth in August of last year (2009). The great thing about this series is not only is it complete but the editors used a chronological arrangement, starting with Smith's first short fantasy story (excluding his juvenalia) and ending with his very last. The endnotes discuss their efforts to establish the best possible text and give details about each piece's composition. There have been so many attempts to publish complete collections of CAS's tales, all of which petered out at some point with a significant number of stories left uncollected --most notably the Adult Fantasy Series from Ballantine back in the late sixties/early seventies, but also including the TimeScape series in the early eighties and of course the Arkham House hardcovers from the forties through the seventies. So, well-done, Night Shade Books, for giving the greatest of all the Weird Tales authors a suitable 'Collected Works'.

Finally, and co-incidentally, these arrived while I was reading THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM AND OTHER REVISIONS,** one of the first books I bought after my arrival in Seattle in Sept 1997 (on my first visit to Borders Books, nr SouthCenter). I started reading it then but bogged down without finishing the book, and despite subsequent dipping from time to time never made it all the way through until now.

It's an interesting read, so long as you don't expect too much. Lovecraft's work really divides into three levels. At the very top, like a pyramid's capstone, are a few really good pieces where he outdoes himself, like "The Strange High House in the Mists" and "The Colour Out of Space". Then below this is the pyramid itself, made up of most of his best-known tales, like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", in which he works out his characteristic concerns in his characteristic mannered prose, with lots of italics. There's not much variation in these, but they've a fun read as he works up what is essentially an alternate reality based around a few firmly-held though contradictory beliefs, a secondary world based on New England in the twenties and thirties. These tales have been hugely influential on any number of writers better than Lovecraft himself, who have looted them for ideas just as Lovecraft pillaged Poe and Dunsany. And then there are the failures, like "The Horror at Red Hook" or "The Picture in the House" or "At the Mountains of Madness", including a few so-bad-it's-almost-good guilty pleasures like the 'Herbert West--Reanimator' series.

And then there's THE HORROR AT THE MUSEUM, the fourth in the three-volume series of Arkham House's complete Lovecraft, the best pieces among which almost rise to the bottommost level of what Lovecraft published under his own name. It's ironic that Lovecraft, a horror writer by avocation, made his living as a ghost writer, 'revising' stories for clients. This book collects together those ghostwritten stories (except for a few, like "Imprisoned Among the Pharaohs", which he wrote for Harry Houdini, that appear in the main three-volume set), dividing them in two lots, 'primary revisions' (in which Lovecraft pretty much wrote the whole story based on an outline or story-idea from a client) and 'secondary revisions' (in which Lovecraft at least had a draft to work from, no matter how drastically he re-wrote the piece).

Reading them, I'm reminded of a passage in Christopher Hitchens' HITCH-22, where he quotes P. G. Wodehouse as saying 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'*** Joshi occasionally takes refuge in the claim that Lovecraft stories he particularly dislikes must be intentional self-parodies. I'd say instead that Lovecraft often lapses into unintentional self-parody. A particularly egregious example here is "The Diary of Alonzo Typer", who is actually writing in his diary while being dragged away to the cellar (to suffer an unnamable fate!); the mental image of him desperately holding on for dear life with one hand while jotting down some observations with the other is so comical as to ruin any effect the story might have aimed for (rather better is "The Loved Dead", where the dying suicide reports feeling hellfire already burning him just before the end). Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will find relatively little here, aside from Yig. There are certainly references to other Great Old Ones and strange tomes, but they're relatively minor -- it's always been my belief that Lovecraft inserted them into these tales (which appeared under other authors' names) as a way of signaling to WEIRD TALES fans that HPL himself had actually written them, rather like the Old English poem Cynewulf.

After that, reading a judicious mix of some C.o.C. scenarios (the newest from Miskatonic River Press) and a few CAS tales shd serve as a good pallet cleaner . . .

*When I went to mail to a friend in London the extra set I'd ordered as part of a book exchange, I found each volume weighed 2 lbs. 8 oz.
***one of Wodehouse's stiff-upper-lip quips made when being held in a prisoner of war camp early in WWII, having been captured as an enemy alien during the German invasion of France. For which he was, incidentally, hounded out of England after his release when the propaganda department (including, I think, A. A. Milne) decided to make an example of him for not having said nasty enough things about his captors while locked up -- the main reason Wodehouse left England and lived in America the last thirty years of his long life.


David Bratman said...

Yes, Milne was one of those who publicly criticized Wodehouse in strong terms - without, by the way, himself having listened to the broadcasts or read transcripts. Not one of the brighter moments of Milne's career.

Wodehouse responded in his typical way by parodying Milne's children's poetry in a novel.

I read the one-volume Joshi bio of HPL. It was the most monumentally over-detailed biography I've ever seen, and now you're telling us that it was abridged? My imagination fails to come up with anything Joshi could possibly have left out, as he put in everything down to HPL's preferences in baked beans.

Magister said...

It may be of interest to you that Tales of India & Irony, a tpb collection of Smith's obscure early tales which was originally intended only as a bonus volume to those who subscribed to the series, will be upgraded to hc and made available to everybody who wants to purchase it. There is also a good chance it will contain more material than originally intended.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
Thanks for the Milne confirmation. Yr comment about the Joshi brings up an interesting larger point I think I'll devote a separate blog post to in a day or so.

Magister: I subscribed to the series but this is the first I've heard of this additional volume. Good news; I'll look forward to hearing more about it. I assume this will collect together things like THE BLACK DIAMONDS and THE SWORD OF ZAGAN -- both of which I have but I confess have not read, only dipped in.


Magister said...

@John: Not as far as I remember. This is stuff that Smith actually published as a teenager -- I have a vague recollection that one of them is called "The Malay Crise".

*Some Google-Fu later*

Ah yes. From the Eldritch Dark Forum, March 17, 2005, the table of contents for the book as it looked then:

"Introduction by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger
The Animated Sword (unpublished)
The Malay Crise
The Ghost of Mohammed Din
The Mahout
The Rajah and the Tiger
Something New
The Flirt
The Perfect Woman
A Platonic Entanglement
The Expert Lover
The Parrot
A Copy of Burns
'O Amor Atque Realitas! Clark Ashton Smith's First Adult Fiction' by Donald Sidney-Fryer"

P. S. I proofed the stories for The Last Hieroglyph, and the endnotes as well (but I didn't do as good a job on those, I think). You can find me -- "Martin Andersson" -- in the credits.

Magister said...

And now Scott Connors has announced that the following may be included:

The Infernal Star
The Dead Will Cuckold You
The two stories that Smith gave to E. Hoffmann Price which he then re-wrote (I can't remember the titles at the moment)
The Sorcerer Departs -- by Donald Sidney-Fryer (maybe)