infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z


The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions

by HP Lovecraft

(Arkham House, $27.95, 450 pages, 1989, ISBN: 0-87054-040-8.)

Review by William P Simmons

cover scanHP Lovecraft brought fantasy to an unsurpassed level of maturity, particularly by his insistance on employing the devices of modern scientific thought and mechanicalism as means to help achieve horrid effects -- using them, in fact, as components of his dark aesthetic -- rather than depending on the supernatural to refute materialistic culture and thought. Whereas much dark and fantastic fiction of his (and our) time did little other than shock with effect while reaffirming conservative moral constructs, Lovecraft stared beyond such man-made behavior controlling tools and into the infinite. He suggests in his seriously approached, intricately plotted if less than meaningful characters awesome alien powers, unknown vistas of space, and broken scientific myths. He was a pioneer, exploring the very ambiguity and cold reason of a bleak, black existence.

The belated if growing recognition of the importance of Lovecraft's work has resulted in various byways of learning from various disciplines. Aside from a belated acceptance by some branches of academia and publishing, a tireless cycle of research and literary dissection is also blossoming among scholars devoted to his personal life, philosophical outlook, and, more to our interest, his ghostwriting. HP Lovecraft remains a pivotal force in weird fiction as a result of his unique creations (Ancient Ones, Dagon, Cthulhu, etc), his purposely antiquated style, the freshness of his themes (alien/human sexual breeding, science and mathematics as magic), and, most importantly, for the learned, reflective philosophy of life that sings deep in the subtext of his work. These facets add authenticity and intellectual depth to his mythos and psuedo-science pieces. Regrettably, he was largely ignored in his life, and found that he had to depend on the literary failures of others to keep spirit and body attached. Charging a small amount of cash for revision and ghost-writing work, a majority of his literary output was for other writers.

A follow up to ST Joshi's three volume collection of Arkham's revised, corrected texts of Lovecraft's fiction, the editor presents in this complementing collection all the known collaborations and revisions that Lovecraft did for clients and friends. Rescued from archival manuscripts, typescripts, and original appearances in such magazines as Weird Tales, this collection includes appendices of sorts to the Cthulhu Mythos, including "The Electric Executioner," "Out of the Aeons," and "The Diary of Alonzo Typer." From the more traditional supernatural horrors of curses and regional deities to examples of the comic terrors of alien species and encounters with the unknown which Lovecraft is justly revered for, this collection restores texts to their original form and attempts to consider the amount of the author's involvement. The structure includes "Primary Revsions," which were wholly or primarily composed by Lovecraft (ex: "The Curse of Yig," The Mound," & "Medusa's Coil") while "Secondary Revisions" (ex: "The Green Meadow" & "The Crawling Chaos") are thought to constitute works which he had less involvement in. In still other cases, Joshi has collected stories which, not being fragments or wholly written by Lovecraft, once existed as manuscripts in their own right before Lovecraft revised or rewrote them. Of these perhaps CM Eddy's infamous "The Beloved Dead" is the best (if not most rewarding) example. While not containing quite ALL of Lovecraft's revisions or ghost-writing, the quality of this Arkham House edition, the research which went into the collecting of the material, and the uneven quality of the stories makes up for the exclusions. Some pieces missing are "Under the Pyramids" ("Imprisoned with the Pharaohs"), ghosted for Harry Houdini; "Through the Gates of the Silver Key", the collaboration with E Hoffmann Price; some minor work with RH Barlow; and, of course, "The Challenge from Beyond," an early round-robbin experiment written with, among others, A Merritt and Frank Belknap Long.

Often taking only a plot germ or line or two of original prose from a client, Lovecraft would plot and write many of these stories completely on his own, allowing him to join several of them thematically with the dropping of place names/settings/characters of his own developing mythological cycle. Now scholar/editor ST Joshi offers us an entire collection of Lovecraft's revisions, collaborations, and re-writes, treated rightfully as inclusions in his own cannon. An omnibus collection that gathers "weird" revisions, this includes Weird Tales staples, fan favorites, and obscure pieces alike. This gift of nightmares and cosmic awe is both an entertainment and a scholarly tool, allowing readers to note thematic, subject, and stylistic similarities between these pieces with Lovecraft's other work. While few of these stories compare with the cosmic imaginative vision or sureness of his late work, and often lack the visionary essence found in his Dunsnion fantasies or Dreamland fables, some are admirable additions to the Cthulhu pieces for which he is mostly remembered by fans of the weird tale, including "The Crawling Chaos" and "The Green Meadow" (Elizabeth Berkeley and Lewis Theobald), brimming full with the sense of creeping menace so prevalent in his mythos. More common are stories whose horrors more closely resemble Lovecraft's earlier supernatural attempts in honor of Poe and the supernatural story, including vengeful deities, the angry dead, and such sensational material as necrophilia, alien traps, and pulp-style violence. In these pieces a more traditional Lovecraft is at work. "Winged Death," the story of a mad scientist's attempt to kill a colleague for discrediting him, is amusingly similar to the pulpy pleasures of 1950's science fiction movies, while "The Horror in the Museum," another piece written for/with Heald, is closer to the mythos in both atmosphere and plot, involving an artist who whilst in a supposedly haunted museum, invokes a creature from the very Yuggoth featured in Lovercraft's cosmos.

Containing the good, the bad, and the indifferent, these dreams and nightmares are for the most part worth reading for pleasure and study. While few pieces reach the impressive heights of terror and self reflection of Lovecraft's mature work, relatively few leave a bland taste in the mouth. "The Diary of Alonzo Typer," while fitting within the mythos, mentioning Shub-Niggurath, isn't dramatic or well envisioned enough to satisfy. Similarly, Wilfred Blanch Talman's "Two Black Bottles" is uncharacteristically formulaic although bringing to mind Lovecraft's interest in corrupting ancestral heritages and the malignant past capable of invading the present. Of particular enjoyment are the revisions of Zelia Bishop's material, which mark for Lovecraft a departure from his preferred New England setting. In "The Curse of Yig," anchored in Mexico and the Oklahoma plains, we find a unique intermingling of oral folk belief and the cosmic. A disturbing ménage of psychological fear and unnamable fear evoked by all-too-human paranoia and vulnerability, "The Curse of Yig" features a man who invokes a snake-devil of Indian legend by killing his children (snakes). The roots of superstition and an almost palpable sense of fear is summoned in this story, which reaches its climax on a wonderfully described Halloween night. In "The Mound" an ancient mound guarded by Indian spirits is thought to be behind the disappearance of men who defile its sacred limits. Into this thrilling concept is injected a materialistic, doubtful scientist who discovers (in a premise similar to At The Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time) an ancient account of a man who claims to have journeyed into an alien world underneath the mound, where some familiar Lovecraft gods/beings are revered. These tales focus on the dens of ancient alien deities beneath the ground and the terrors faced by humans unwary enough to cross their paths, enticingly re-envisioning Lovecraft's cosmic visions of fear by interweaving wit with folklore from the Spanish tradition. "Medusa's Coil" rounds out the Meade material, and, while not as inventive as the first two, clearly shows Lovecraft's hand.

While there is more than a little of the first person narrative hysterics and outlandish coincidences, many of the stories are enjoyable precisely because, even in their more awkward moments they take themselves seriously. Therefore, so can we. A necessity for the Lovecraft collector, the stories work as both artifacts of another age and as modernly enjoyable extensions of older themes, showing us again that true terror, and true aesthetic impulse, never goes out of style

Elsewhere in infinity plus:


Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:
sf@infinityplus.co.uk

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror
amazon.com (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)