Eternal Lovecraft: the persistence of HPL in popular culture edited by Jim Turner (Golden Gryphon Press, £25.95, 410 pages, hardback; published 20 October 1998; received 29 August 1998. ISBN 0-9655901-7-8).
What do the following authors have in common? Bram Stoker; Mary Shelley; Clive Barker; Anne Rice.
They've all written in the horror field? Yes. They've all added to and expanded the genre? Yes. They've all made masses of money from their writing? Hmm, not too sure about that.
The answer I had in mind was that their creations have, to an extent, passed into popular culture. Dracula; Frankenstein; Pinhead; Lestat. All legends spawned from the page.
Add to this list, then, the pale and shadowy figure of Howard Philips Lovecraft, fearer of women, despiser of drink, and the original master of purple prose. Stoker's and Shelley's respective babies may be more heavily injected into contemporary culture than the multi-tentacled, vagina-resembling Cthulu, but Lovecraft's inspiration and ongoing presence - not just in books but in television, film, art, and computer gaming - is, it has to be admitted, enormous.
Think of all the films that involve amorphous blobs invading mankind. Think of the slime in HR Giger and the Alien series. Think of the Necronomicon scene in the cult classic, The Evil Dead. Think Brian Lumley and Guy N Smith and the aforementioned Clive Barker.
The volume begins with a definition of the term Lovecraftian. It is:
1: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of the Am. fantasist H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) or his writings. 2: evocative of a theme, setting, or event from a work of Lovecraft <~pastiche>.
It's from this definition that the volume takes its architecture. The stories, which are all reprints, are split into sections. In 'Lovecraft Country' the narratives either involve Lovecraft as a main character, or are set in one of his imaginary milieus. The second section, 'Eldritch Influences', contains stories that touch occasionally on Lovecraftian themes. Finally, in 'Cosmic Realms', the Lovecraftian element is merely hinted at.
As with any anthology some stories work better than others. TED Klein's "The Events at Poroth Farm" is perhaps the most frightening. It follows the narrator as he takes lodgings at a suitably spooky farmhouse owned by a religious couple. A steady descent into peculiarity ensues; screams are heard from the nearby woods, the household's cat is discovered dead, only to be seen alive again hours later, etc etc. What's interesting about this story is how much is real and how much imagined. The narrator, a teacher, is enjoying a sabbatical, and is reading two to three gothic horror novels a day. His perception of everyday occurrences as he wanders around the farm is as claustrophobic as the books - such as Northanger Abbey, Otranto, The Monk - in which he almost lives. The claustrophobia builds up exquisitely, along with the suspense, page by page.
Similarly smooth is "The Ocean and All Its Devices" by William Browning Spencer. An odd family vacation in the same hotel every year, until one year the husband is found drowned and partly eaten by fish. Like the Klein, Browning Spencer's story is in the final part of the collection, the part in which things Lovecraftian - a severed tentacle or a streak of slime - are slipped surreptitiously in. And like the Klein it works well.
The less subtle pieces, while entertaining enough, are not as sophisticated. "The Land of the Reflected Ones" by Nancy A Collins, in which a man is imprisoned in a mirror, is perhaps the least impressive. It uses books such as the Necronomicon and Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice in an almost juvenile, Dungeons 'n' Dragons manner. Nancy A Collins has written some excellent stories, but this falls short. Poor, compared to, say, M John Harrison's "The Incalling", which also sails into the area of magical rites, albeit in a far more persuasive and chilling style.
Buried away in the middle of this anthology - amidst Stephen King, Alan Rodgers, Fritz Leiber, and Thomas Ligotti, amongst others - is a remarkable little novella by Ian R Macleod, entitled "The Golden Keeper". The setting, which is the third century of the Roman Empire, is wonderfully evoked, as is the central character and the plot through which he strides. It's a fine adaptation of the myth of the Great Old Ones, woven into the culture of the times, and well worth the price of purchase alone.
Speaking of purchase price, and matters more literal, what strikes me more than anything about this book is how beautiful it is. The cover painting by Nicholas Jainschigg, which shows a red-eyed stranger in fedora and overcoat skulking past Lovecraft's house, the whole scene presided over by Cthulu, is truly excellent. As are the black and white pictures inside, of Lovecraft himself, which serve to separate the sections. Believe me when I say that Eternal Lovecraft would look very very nice on your shelf.
Now, turn down the lights and repeat after me, Cthulu fhtagn, Cthulu fhtagn, Cthulu fhtagn...
Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of HPL in Popular Culture is published by Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road Urbana, IL 61802, USA.
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© Jason Gould, 15 October 1998