Saturday, 17 December 2016

First of the “Big Three”

Much has been written about the three towering names of weird fiction in the golden age of pulps, probably every definitive comment has been made by the likes of August Derleth, Ray Bradbury, Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Colin Wilson, Gene Wolf and a hundred other literary authorities, but a subject so foundational to speculative fiction as we know it today can always stand a little more.

The “three” were of course H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clarke Ashton Smith (of whom I have spoken previously). They were the backbone of Weird Tales, that market-leader in the strange, the creepy and unsettling in the 1920, ‘30s and beyond, and were the flag-carriers for the magazine’s glory days. Between them, they must have contributed hundreds of stories which, eighty years later, remain well known to fans of the macabre.

 I knew Howard’s work as a kid, encountering the Marvel Comics Conan franchise around 1975, stumbling upon the art of Frank Frazetta in the pages of Savage Sword of Conan and rapidly expanding to the Ballantine artbooks of the period. I found the Conan anthologies in the Sphere paperback edition, itself the first mainstream, mass rerelease since the famous Lancer Books edition of the 1960s, for which Frazetta produced his seminal covers. (Above, a 1975 Sphere and a 1969 Lancer original, straight out of the personal library) I expanded to King Kull in the comics, and El Borak and others in paperback as the years went by. But of the other two I knew nothing at all, and learned of them piecemeal, a comment here, a reference there.

Smith I first became aware of when Grenada released a selection of stories in their Panther imprint in 1987. I bought Lost Worlds Volumes 1 & 2, I remember the shop where I got them, and it probably has not existed in twenty years. There were six books in the range, providing a good slice of Smith’s work, though still not exhaustive. His prolific output has since been gathered in other editions and definitive collections have put in an appearance, but, other than the Ballantine volumes of the early 1970s, his work seems to have been somewhat lost against the expanding panorama of modern writing, and I never heard his name in my younger days.

Howard Philips Lovecraft is a name it’s hard not to stumble over. He is widely considered the father of modern American horror, building upon the foundations of Edgar Alan Poe, Lord Dunsany and others, and his macabre creations, his sense of the strange, are every bit as powerful today. He was writing earlier than his colleagues – born 1890, his first professional story (The Tomb) is dated 1917. (He wrote in childhood but his earlier opus, also horror even then, may be placed apart from his adult material.) Ninety-nine years ago! He went on to pen reams of tales (63 under his own name, many more besides), ranging from brief vignettes to short novels, and did so with an often lush and classical prose filled with the ponderous solemnity of the 19th century which today verges on the ‘high style,’ echoing medieval expression. Smith’s was still the richer, a prose filled with image, sensory input, and with pointedly clever literary devices, including use of archaic forms (as Lovecraft also used). Neither would get by gatekeepers today except as a curiosity – their very linguistic fireworks would factor against them because the general modern readership has no patience with it. If a story isn’t verbally stripped to the bone and surging ahead with its events by page two, it’s considered poor writing. (To be fair, Lackington’s Magazine is one of very few who actively seek lush, surprising prose, so the delight in such literary form is not completely dead.) In this much, many of Lovecraft’s early stories are almost bereft of a plotline but are composed entirely of exposition which itself forms the story – The Doom That Came to Sarnath, for instance, or Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family. One cannot help feeling that writing was more attuned to creativity in those days, for the simple fact these tales could be told as they were.

Lovecraft is of course the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos. This is a cycle of stories in which he explored a fabulous cosmology, in which Earth was visited in ancient times by extraterrestrial beings of vast power, aloof intellect and unspeakable nature – foul and terrible. These beings were worshipped as gods, and were in turn driven out by gods. Explicitly, they are pan-dimensional, and over and over, strange and distant places present the aspect of parallel worlds, a reality removed from our own. This concept has been explored by many other writers: Howard and Smith featured Lovecraftian parallels in their own work, and there are “easter eggs” to them in Lovecraft’s in return. Since August Derleth founded Arkham House Publishing in 1939 to commemorate Lovecraft’s work, a great many writers have contributed stories falling into and expanding the mythos – one could almost call it an “expanded universe” surrounding the original core material. To this day, “lovecraftian” storytelling is an active field, and publishers are seeking the 21st century’s take on his themes.

Oddly enough, despite having become quite familiar with the other two, Lovecraft’s work is the last for me to sample. I looked up the publishing history of the Cthulhu anthologies and there have been surprisingly few, in editions of just a few thousand copies. I was about to dig deep and order up some collections online when my sister suggested we check “Project Gutenberg” for classic literature out of copyright, and, lo and behold, there it was… The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft, over 700 A4 pages, in .pdf form, and it’s a free download! I have the unique process of starting with his first story and working forward chronologically, which should be an experience to savour.

Lovecraft and Howard were in some ways birds of a feather. They were both isolated, social misfits, deeply introverted and fascinated with the dark. In Howard’s case, he was a boxer, a fighter, his sympathies lay with the fighting man wherever he was found, and his heroes are tough guys of the classic form, taking on evil magic and foul and ancient terrors. Lovecraft was a sickly young man whose symptoms resemble chronic fatigue syndrome, and he lacked social confidence; his protagonists are often “everyman” characters, as mentally and physically unimpressive as their creator, humans lost in a nightmare to which they can only be spectators, as indeed were some of Smith’s. (His 1920 story Celephaïs features as protagonist a clone of himself in all significant ways.) Both writers also died young, within a year of each other, Lovecraft at 47 from cancer, Howard at just 36 by his own  hand in the depths of depression. Smith was shaken to lose his colleagues, and wrote little after 1937. They all corresponded but there is no evidence they ever actually met.

To say eighty years separate us from the days when these three writers supplied chills and horrors to an enthusiastic monthly audience is a commentary on our collective memory. Their stories evoke the dark spaces of our own minds, the race memory of olden times and the terror of that which lies unknown for it predates record-keeping, the communal memory of our culture. Ruins crumbling with time, cities taken over by jungle, relics thrown up by cataclysm from beneath the sea, and a thousand other devices, all whisper to our fear of the unknown, play to tropes such as the Atlantean model of prehistory, and notions of cyclical time, that what was shall be again, and again, epochs in which the human race has prospered, waned and perhaps fallen completely. Today we can say these concepts are stock-in-trade for science fiction and fantasy, but in the 1930s they were both new, disturbing notions, and more closely associated with horror. This was before Guy Smith, Stephen King and their many cohorts perverted horror – a respectable genre – into splatterporn, for which a case can be made that it is anything but respectable.

An interesting observation can also be made of the pointed difference in the underlying narrative assumptions of the three writers. Lovecraft has been called a racist, a Nietzschian, certainly a devotee of Social Darwinism, and is said to have made no secret of it, not to his contemporaries, not to his audience, though many commentarists have challenged this interpretation. The late Colin Wilson, in his 42-page introductory essay to The Necronomicon, the amazing docu-drama/mockumentary tie-in to the Cthulhu Mythos, speaks of Lovecraft as an ardent anglophile who despised the Irish, and in Lovecraft’s 1919 story Beyond the Wall of Sleep (very much science fiction) he dismisses the American “mountain man” as physically and mentally “degenerate,” a subhuman order of being. Neither Smith nor Howard expressed such notions toward peoples in the modern world, much as they may speak of tribes and communities in the past in neo-evolutionary terms – Howard’s Picts were always described as seeming low on the developmental ladder, harking back to the Neanderthal state, a conscious seeking for a connection to the Stone Age. At least, insofar as I have yet read the work of either, I have not encountered any explicit statement to lead me to think they shared Lovecraft’s prejudice. Howard loved his brawling Irishmen, whether Turlough the Black, Cormac Mac Art or the indomitable Francis Xavier Gordon.

Lovecraft is, at a technical level, the most unpredictable writer of the three. Smith had him beaten for pure literary genius, while Howard does him to death for solid stories, viscerally told, and both were more consistent. Though Lovecraft has standout pieces – for instance, his 1919 story Memories is a flash-length gem – he penned plenty of pot-boilers, falling back on his florid prose and stock-in-trade themes of the old, the dark, the loathsome and the mysterious. That prose is often repetitive, verbose, a torrent of adjectives (he was known to have 15 in one sentence, which was also unfortunately pretty much his entire vocabulary) and unremitting hyperbole, and today’s editor would call them a boring veneer on top of doubtful storytelling. Wilson comments that Lovecraft appeared written-out by the time Weird Tales began (March, 1923), though this may be unfair, given some of the seminal elements of the Cthulhu Mythos date from the late 1920s. And, in all fairness, despite the shortcomings apparent in his less than stellar episodes, the balance contains some very memorable and very enjoyable tales. It seems his style varied with his influences, such as his exposure to the writings of Lord Dunsany after which he produced pieces such as Memories, The White Ship, Celephaïs and The Quest of Iranon, told with a smooth, lyrical style and seeking not to horrify the reader but to beguile them with a vision beautiful as well as challenging. It is during these outings I cannot much store by the comments of those who call Lovecraft a poor writer. Perhaps, as with any artist, his product changed over time with his inspirations, and, in his case, very much with his mood.

A psychiatrist would have a field day with the writings of all three, but perhaps most with Lovecraft. As with the late, great H. R. Geiger, Swiss surrealist and creator of the well-known “xenomorph” of Alien fame, Lovecraft based much of his work on dreams. Geiger painted to exorcise the memories of unremitting, horrific nightmares, as if giving them tangible form robbed them of their power over him. So, too, did Lovecraft, expressing in prose what many would call a “dream diary,” springing awake after a torrid excursion of the subconsciousness and committing it to notes, then developing it as a story to capture the essence of the moment. In many pieces one can almost sense this process, Nyarlathotep, for instance. From the perspective of one not troubled with such preoccupations, it is easy to view Lovecraft and Geiger as both being at least somewhat mentally ill, though it is fair to speculate that the habit of transcribing dream images into creative productivity may perhaps be a self-reinforcing cycle – the more one does it, the more dreams might reliably come to feed the mechanism. Perhaps – and if so, it was a grim cycle. That said, many, perhaps most writers, draw on the fully-formed symbolic imagery of dreams as inspiration – myself included.

I am over 100 pages through the Lovecraft collection at time of writing, and have enjoyed a re-read of the 1980 Necronomicon volume, and will post about that exercise in literary cleverness in due course. Geiger’s famous art book of the same name pre-dates it by a few years and is a topic worthy of its own commentary.

Cheers, Mike Adamson

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, to coin a phrase -- a great analysis of the fantasy/horror genre of that era. I haven't read enough from those years -- I know Howard, Wilson, Wolf, but have only a nodding acquaintance with Ashton Smith and Lovecraft; then it's on to Burroughs, after which it's a general sort of *slither* into sf. I definitely need to sink my teeth into some of these!