Monday, June 13, 2011

"Lovecraft. . ."

. . . it's bizarre that the guy had the word 'love' in his name, yet he was never a specialist on the subject . . . a failed marriage, a hermit's life . . . It's said that his best friends were his cats . . . strange. . . ("Found in a Trunk from Extremadura")





The Innsmouth Free Press is a Canadian micro-publisher of dark/supernatural fiction and horror, with a focus (as their name implies) on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. They also have a wonderful website that includes a fictional Innsmouth newspaper online edition, articles and reviews, and a free triannual literary magazine. Historical Lovecraft, released in May, is their second book following the novel Fraterfamilias in 2010.

The submissions page for this short story anthology called for "Historical fiction with a Lovecraftian twist" (up to 1937, the year of Lovecraft's death) with an emphasis on multiculturalism. That last part especially caught my interest. His ideas may have been original, but Lovecraft was mired in deep racism that was excessive even by the standards of his own day. Most notably, the various cults and cosmic horrors they worship are associated with marginalized communities such as immigrants, the poor, the disabled and mentally ill, and racial and ethnic minorities. The deformed mutants and "blasphemous fish-frogs" of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" represent the dangers of miscegenation and the foreign pollution of Anglo-America, with a final revelation that recalls the infamous "one-drop rule." The sanity-shattering monstrousness of an Eldrtich Abominations comes from its sheer alienness rather than any special ability. At its core, Lovecraftian horror is about fear of the unknown and unfamiliar (and not to mention sex and seafood).

Historical Lovecraft, on the other hand, takes the Lovecraft out of New England and sets him down in Africa, Europe, China, Indonesia, Latin America, and the Middle East, where a Byzantine bishop, a Javanese medicine man, Laotian guides, Stalinist officials, and a Moche priestess face terrors from the stars above and from the earth and waters below. It's like that moment of recognition between the Polynesian medicine man and the Yankee sailors in Pierre Comtois's "The Old Ones' Signs" from Tales Out of Innsmouth: "He says he knew we would come around to see him sooner or later. That any normal man, even sickly looking white men, would be repulsed by what had happened to his own people and be compelled to seek out their own kind. . . We white men always think ourselves the superior of other races, and now we can see just how closely related we really are to them." It is no longer a threat of foreign freaks and their arcane gods threatening Massachusetts but a diverse array of humans dealing with powerful beings and dark forces in a variety of culturally-prescribed manners. Though not quite a deconstruction - scary things are still pretty scary - Historical Lovecraft explores how people from different backgrounds might deal with the reality of Cosmic Horror.

Despite the global setting, the stories together reveal a general procession from a "primitive" acceptance of the fantastic to the modern outlook that interprets the supernatural as unnatural violations of scientific law. The "Ancient History" and "Middle Ages" sections tend to place Cthulhu & Co. in the context of established practices and beliefs. Y.W. Purnomosidhi's "Pralaya: The Disaster" is unusual in that nothing Lovecraftian actually happens, but the primeval force of the Mount Merapi volcano is subtly likened to a sleeping monster (such as Cthulhu) that brings destruction upon its awakening. This pagan idea of nature as something alive and active in its own right is ironically revisited in Orrin Gray's "Black Hill," set in the oil fields of the American Midwest in the early 1900s. Possibly the most modern piece is Bradley H. Sinor's "The Second Theft of Alhazred's Manuscript," which follows Sherlock Holmes and Watson on the trail of a missing edition of the Necronomicon. Holmes's faith in science and logic simply does not allow room for old-fashioned superstition and other such nonsense. Even the extraordinary events of the case are blamed on a "hallucinogenic of some sort pumped into the room via the gas outlets."

Although most of the stories were unique and entertaining in their own ways, the crown jewel of the collection isn't until the very end. "Found in a Trunk from Extremadura" by Meddy Ligner (a French translation!) is a circular, non-linear narrative that it begins and ends with that trademark Lovecraftian madness. (It is also the only Mythos work I've ever read besides Lovecraft is Missing that includes the Master himself as a character without being hokey about it.) Also of note is Sarah Hans's "Shadows of the Darkest Jade," which inverts the old "Mighty Whitey vs. Savage Cultists" trope by putting a pair of Tibetan Buddhist monks in the role of civilized outsiders who stumble upon something too horrible to describe. Really the only story I disliked was "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" by Molly Tanzer, which seemed intent on outdoing itself in shock value. Along with the "antiquated" prose it was more eye-rolling than anything else.

Historical Lovecraft is the first book from the Innsmouth Free Press that I've read and I was not disappointed. They are a great publisher with a commitment to increasing the visibility of women and people of color in speculative fiction and I salute them for it. Even if you don't get to one of their books, the website is still well worth a visit. Right now they are seeking submissions for another anthology called Future Lovecraft that sounds very exciting. Candle in the Window, a collection of Gothic tales, comes out in September.

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4 comments:

mel u said...

These Lovecraftian works sound fascinating-it was your lead that first got me to read Lovecraft-I was a little shocked by the Racism of the stories but I see the power and the sheer fun of his work and I can see how people would be caught up in it

JoAnn said...

This sounds fascinating. Think I need to read some real Lovecraft first though!

SJ said...

Lovecraft's At The Mountains Of Madness was also released in a new audio book version, narrated by Barry Schwam and published by Stella James Studios, who are also going to be doing the feature film adaptation of the work (you may know the Del Toro Universal project collapsed in March when NBC Universal refused to fund it). Info on it at stellajamesstudios.com

E. L. Fay said...

Mel u: Yeah, I really should've warned you about the racism. But that aside, his ideas are a lot of fun to play with. I've got some plot bunnies floating in my head right now, actually.

JoAnn: Please do. His complete works are readily available online.

SJ: Oh no! "Mountains of Madness" isn't my favorite work but I was so looking forward to a great Lovecraft movie. Something better than that misogynist gorefest Dagon.

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