A Little Review of Little Folk
 

The Crock of Gold (originally published 1912) by poet and author James Stephens is made up of five books, each set in the same universe, each containing an episode that gradually advances the narration. But narative is not a strong feature here.

Characters are either humans or supernaturals, with the former believers in the latter. Categorizing this work proved difficult for contemporary reviewers. It is not especially Dunsanian, though perhaps its Irish quality might hint at a relationship. A "fairy tale" probably comes as close to being true as any label, though perhaps it is a kind of symbolic allegory, which may confuse the issue. One reason for suggesting this is partly an allegory is that a number of characters do not bear personal names, but are called the Philosopher, the Thin Woman, the Strongest Man, etc. That a principle character is named the Philosopher suggests that this is a philosophical--or theosophical--fantasy, and the world the characters inhabit is a sort of a pre-Disney construction of a Philosophy Land.

Written, I imagine, with a fey outlook, the author portrays some scenes with wit. He writes of an exchange between an hobbling, old woman and the Philosopher. "'It's my boots, sir,' she replied. 'Full of stones they are, the way I can hardly walk at all, God help me!' 'Why don't you shake them out?' 'Ah, sure, I couldn't be bothered, sir, for there are so many holes in the boots that more would get in before I could take two steps, and an old woman can't be always fidgeting.'" This example suggests Stephens' mastery of Irish expressiveness along with an examination of human experiences. Other incidents are portrayed with a weightier description, though cast in a fantasy format.

The plot is modest. It concerns the stealing of the crock of gold from the leprecauns, which is one of the littler matters that occurs, though its placement in the title misleads its import. The reader expecting a lot of interplay between the leprecauns and humans will be thwarted. The major contribution by the leprecauns to the action is their luring away two children and their implication that the Philosopher has done in another philosopher and that philosopher's wife ("these bodies had been murdered by the Philosopher for reasons very discreditable to him"). Other matters are the inveigling of a man's daughter by the new emigrant Pan (the god) and the subsequent tussle for her--for her soul, one is tempted to say--with the Irish god Angus óg, who becomes the object of the Philosopher's journey. The Quest is a theme frequent throughout--a quest by parent for child, by men for gods, even a quest by police for suspects. The last chapter, called "The Happy March," has the supernaturals bursting forth in a dance of life and living.

I suspect this work would disappoint those whose definition of fantasy is Tolkienian or Dunsanian, or those who want a strong narrative spine, but perhaps those who enjoy someone like Cabell--or who have a hankering for poetic prose--might want to put it on their (doubtlessly overextended) reading list. The Crock of Gold is in print and there is even an audiocassette available.
 

The Celestial Railroad

Born in Nachod, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) Josef Skvorecky has written novels, detective fiction, nonfiction, films, and teleplays. With a Ph.D. from Prague's Charles University, he has been a translator of such authors as Poe, Crane, Hemingway, Chandler, and Bradbury. In 1968 he emigrated to Canada, where he taught in the Department of English, the University of Toronto's Erindale College, until he retired in 1990.

Among his several novels, the one of interest to Lovecraftians is TheEngineer of Human Souls (Washington Square Press, 1985 is the edition I am using). Originally appearing in Czech in 1977, the work was translated into English and published in 1984, where it was widely reviewed by such magazines as Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and others, and considered by a number a literary event. It received the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award, and has been called "'one of the most important novels ever written in Canada'" (quoted in Cyclopedia of World Authors, 3rd rev. ed.)

The title of the novel, as explained on the acknowledgements page, comes from a term that supposedly Joseph Stalin used to describe the writer, who like an engineer was building a new individual. Therefore, literature and politics run through the work. The protagonist is a man of letters, like the author, who has emigrated from eastern Europe to Canada, where he is involved in teaching literature. The time shifts from World War II Europe to the period of the post-war Communists to the present day. Each of the seven chapters of the novel bears the name of a writer; and so Chapter 1 is "Poe," 2 is "Hawthorne," 3 "Twain," 4 "Crane," 5 "Fitzgerald," and 6 is "Conrad." The last chapter, 7, is "Lovecraft." This is the only one I have read, though I have skimmed other parts of the book. My synopsis of the total work comes from what others have said about it and from inferences based on this chapter. Though doubtlessly injuring the text with the this excerpting, I will concentrate on a system of paraphrase, example, and commentary to give the parts relevant to Lovecraft.

The first mention of Lovecraft appears obliquely in Chapter 1, "Poe," through mention of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (p. 4). Then (p. 10) there is an allusion to Jules Verne, a nod to his Antarctic sequel to Pym, Le Sphinx Des Glaces. Then Skvorecky speculates about Poe's journeying to Antarctica where he might have lived "in the beautiful and ghastly freedom of the purple mountians of madness." In the Fitzgerald chapter the protagonist, sitting in a yacht, which he visions as the Pequod, then admits to himself "I have searched all my life for the Southern Passage on a schooner from the Miskatonic University Expedition." (p. 279) So is set a theme culminating in the final chapter. In this last chapter, Irene, the girlfriend of the protagonist, Danny, has bought some items from a Toronto sex boutique that is called "Lovecraft." This is not literary license, for shops with this name and purpose actually exist, as a look through the appropriate city directory shows, though whether as a chain I do not know. When she asks him where they ought to go for their honeymoon, he responds, "Do you know Lovecraft?" (p. 517) and there is the subsequent name play. (One reviewer stated that to a beautiful student the pedagogue was giving "private lessons in Lovecraft (H.P.)." The name ambiguity is cleared up to the woman, then for her muddled when he suggests they honeymoon at the Mountains of Madness. He finds she is "still not vey well versed in American literature." A discussion about Antarctica brings in references to both Poe and Verne, continuing the thread. HPL is called "a kind of hack writer" who "wrote only a few brilliant page in his life. Only one scene." (p. 518) Certainly some of us would object to the application of the word "hack," assuming we cannot lay this to the vagary of the translator. Following Shvorecky's lead, one critic describes Lovecraft as "a founding father of science fiction, who occasionally breaks through the barriers of his own wretched prose to express a haunting vision of human fate." (Edward L. Galligan, "The Engineerof Human Souls: Shvorecky's Comic Vision." Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1997) One-half of this issue is dedicated to Shvorecky).

Exactly what that "one scene" the narrator is referring to seems to be one of two passages that the narrator later reads from the paperback edition in which he found At the Mountains of Madness. It is a real edition, for I have it before me (it was published by Ballantine). His description of the cover is a little inaccurate, for he describes it as having a "fur-covered skull," (p. 549) whereas I would argue against it being a skull. Within its eye sockets there are "formless Kafkaesque beasties" of which only the yellow slanted eyes are visible, and this seems literary license, for what has Kafka to do with it? Perhaps this is being pedantic and the word is used as a synonym for fantastic. There is also a "furry worm," in likelihood a tail belonging to one of the sets of yellow eyes, presumably a rat. When Irene shudders at his description of the cover, he states that "'even horror has its beauty'" and suggests art can capture reality that might be compounded of nightmares. He reads the ATMOM passage beginning "It was young Danforth. . ." (p. 30 in the Ballantine edition). For what it is worth, the quotation is a bit corrupted. For example, Engineer quotes a sentence (p. 550)ending "Tsathoggua was itself" when the Ballantine and the corrected Arkham has it "Tsathoggua itself." The passage not unnaturally leads the woman to wonder why they should go there on their honeymoon.

The narrator mentions the Necronomicon, which he calls "a book written by the dead," (p. 550) and goes on to describe it as "a kind of joke for crazy friends." (551). He suggests that they honeymoon at the Plateau of Leng, and promises that inevitably "we will all go there.'" (p. 551)

A further passage is read that introduces Nicholas Roerich. At a complaint--unfair--from the unwilling Irene that HPL was getting repetitive, the narrator explains, "'Lovecraft didn't have a great range of fantasy, but what he had was intense. It was more like an obsession than a fantasy. Like all prophets.'" (p. 552) He explains that like all prophets, Lovecraft's prophesy was "doom." (I wonder if Skvorecky read "The Doom that Came to Sarnath"?) The next day he reads a final passage (p. 553), beginning, "'There now lay revealed on the ultimate white horizon. . .'" (p. 106-107 in the Ballantine). This is followed with the suggestion that those who visit the mountains die, and that the narrator had died, but is alive again. Though not quoted, the notorious refrain "That is not dead which eternal lies" could almost be intended. Upon her leaving the restaurant table where they are sitting to go to the toilet, the narrator apostrophizes "Dominus tecum--in those Mountains of Madness." (p. 554) I idiomize the Latin as "Go with God." This is the principle section dealing with HPL and how one chooses to fit it into the scheme of the novel is open.

The epigraphs of this section quotes first from Poe's "Ulalume" ("These were days when my heart was volcanic..." the stanza including "In the ultimate climes of the pole") and then from Shakespeare's "We are such suff as dreams. . ." Poe's pole (first chapter) has stretched to Lovecraft's (final chapter). (For Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree Lovecraft existed at "the dreaming pole.") The Antarctic represents fantasy, and by having Poe on the first chapter and HPL on the last, a pole as beginning and ending is established. As in part of Shakespare's eqigraph ("our little life is rounded with a sleep"), the fantasy is a rounding out a life, whose end is the mountains of death. Or is this overbearing in its pedantry?

Epigraphs to the chapters of Hawthorne and Fitzgerald quote Colin Wilson's The Outsider. Is there a deliberate linkage here? While the first Wilson quote identifies art as "sickness," the second compares daydreaming with literature, and seems more germane to the Lovecraftian theme.

Contrary to the superficial thought of Carl E. Rollyson, Jr in Magill's Literary Annual 1985 that the chapter entitled "Lovecraft" has "amply confirmed throughout, that Skvorecky's attitude toward literary history is not excessively pious," it instead ties up loose ends and cements the identification of the Antarctic with fantasy, with literature, with the dead. Perhaps "Poe" and "Lovecraft" are bookend chapters, and to remove one results in the themes between sagging.

(As an minor aside, a paper I wrote on HPL fifteen years past bore the title Strangeness in the Proportion, which I got from Loren Eisely quoting Sir Francis Bacon, and I find, according to this novel (p. 25), Poe had taken this same phrase from Bacon. A neat confirmation.)

This book is not the last of Skvorecky and Lovecraft. In 1992 in Czech was published epot ve tme a jiné hruzostrané príbehy by Lovecraft, which had Skvorecky's participation. Other Lovecraft works have been published in Czech, but this is the only one associated with Skvorecky.

The preceding remarks on this novel would receive greater substance were it possible for its author to speak about it and Lovecraft in general. Therefore, I give the floor to Mr Skvorecky, who very graciously responded to a letter I sent.

"I am, indeed, Lovecraft's fan and have written an extensive postscript for the anthology of his short texts epot ve tme (Whisper in the Dark). The characterization as "hackwriter" in my novel is an inexact translation: the Czech word is "pisalek" which means an unimportant writer, and the speaker is a professor of American literature, and it is his opinion.

In my opinion Lovecraft, though not being in the category of Faulkner or James, was a remarkable and consistently interesting writer in his genre; a masterly painter of ominous landscapes both entirely imagery as At the Mountains of Madness, and in his stories set in New England.

The reason why I am attached to the Mountains of Madness is that it was the first book of Lovecraft I read. It was given to me by a good friend who wanted to cheer me up: I had just returned from four months in a hospital . . . with an ugly case of hepatitis. When you recover from such a grave case of the illness, your nerves are abnormally on edge. I read the Mountains at night . . . and it made me really, really scared, as if I had been ten (I was 34 at the time)--an experience I had more than twenty years earlier when I secretly, under the blanket but also at night and using an electric torch shivered over The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. These two names, Lovecraft and Poe, became connected in my mind, and they both became a great inspiration.

As a teenager, I wrote a poetic tribute to Poe and a Poesque short story (The Devil in the Painting). As an old man I wrote a TV script for a feature film Poe and the Death of a Beautiful Girl, which was made by the Prague TV company two years ago (I have a print with English subtitles).

As for Lovecraft, I always wanted to write some sort of tribute to him. The first attempt was the chapter entitled "Lovecraft" in the Engineer of Human Souls. . . I read Colin Wilson's excellent introduction to the Necronomicon and I love The Case of Charles Dexter Ward--if for nothing else then for the allusions to the Prague of Emperor Rudolph II. Unfortunately I have not read Lovecraft's letters (only excerpts in various books on Lovecraft). . . .

I believe that Lovecraft--while not a writer in the above mentioned category--was an original, innovative and very influential writer. His essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature is ground-breaking. . . .

Last but not least: there is a group of Lovecraft fans in Prague, connected to the publishing house Zlaty kun (Gold Horse) which published the entire Lovecraft oeuvre (fiction) in beautifully illustrated large-size paperbacks. You should get in touch with the leader of the group, the publisher Mr. Pavel Nosek . . . Zlaty kun, P.O. Box 8, Kaprova 12, 110 01 Praha 1, Czech Republic.

As for myself, my latest novel Narratio Questi is a fantasy novel, starting with an archeological expedition of the Miskatonic University led by Professor Howard Phillips Langhorn to Copan in Honduras, continuing via ancient Rome to the island of Tsalal, and ending on the Sphinx of the Ice-fields. So it's a double tribute to Lovecraft and Poe (and Jules Verne).

I hope this will suffice for today and that you will put me on the list of subscribers to your fanzine."
 

Thank you, Mr. Skvorecky. Perhaps someone can send Mr. Skvorecky a sample or a mailing and perhaps joining information? A copy of this fanzine has already been sent.
 

RIP RAWL

Fan, writer and editor Robert A. W. Lowndes died this summer. Mr. Lowndes wrote, among other stories, some that were influenced by Lovecraft. One story that comes to mind is "The Leapers," which I recall being reprinted in one of the magazines he edited, The Magazine of Horror. It is as an editor of this title that he most sticks in my mind, although I realize that he goes much further back, and was a force in fandom. He was the only editor who made a comment on a story I sent in during that time I struggled--and failed--to find satisfactory talent within myself as a writer of fiction. It was a short comment of the gently critical sort, but it showed me that there was something out there other than form rejection letters and that somebody actually appeared to read the material sent them.

I began The Magazine of Horror with issue 13, appropriately, and continued to read enthusiastically, buying back issues. It included a few new stories, or stories that had received little distribution, such as some by David H. Keller. That Stephen King was "discovered" here is just a small sidelight. For me its strength was in its many reprints from Weird Tales, Strange Tales and other pulps, and in effect it served as a contemporary Weird Tales, which I only knew as a legend. Among its reprints one of my favorites was that splendid bit of terror, Laurence Manning's "Caverns of Horror." Introductions to reprints helped contextualize the story in a certain time as well as giving information about an author along with the hindsight of facts and judgments. The nostalgia present in this digest-sized magazine was supported through cover and interior illustrations by the likes of Vergil Finlay and similar artists.

There was also the references in the letters columns and the editorials to HPL and other immortals. The fan letters and Lowndes editorials (which he signed RAWL) added the feeling of fellowship. At times I suspect Lowndes was strapped or hurried for ideas in the editorials so there could be repetition--though not necessarily monotony--as when the distinction between terror and horror was argued and reargued.

I appreciate Mr. Lowndes editorship and look fondly back at the enjoyment that title gave me.
 

Welty's Weadings

A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews (University Press of Mississippi, 1994) is the work of the highly respected Eudora Welty, who wrote articles chiefly for the New York Times Book Review. A review of the August Derleth edited Sleep No More from the 24 September 1944 issue (called "Ghoulies, Ghosties and Jumbees") opens by stating that some readers find "the name M. P. Shiel is a password to a delirious and astounding world," then refers to "'Purple Cloud' devotees," and calls the author "probably a kind of genius," though she states none of the other anthologized writers validate that appellation including, one presumes, "old master H. P. Lovecraft" (p. 39), whose "The Rats in the Wall" [sic] and Shiel's "The House of Sounds" are the only stories named in the anthology. In the same article she also reviews Henry S. Whitehead's Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales, which she describes as containing "the comfort horror tale," stories that are "gentle" and "rather fatherly." (p. 40)

In another article from the Times Book Review (10 December 1944) she examines Six Novels of the Supernatural, one of which is Arthur Machen's The Terror, "the purest example of the truly supernatural story" (p. 47). Curiously, another of the six novels is entitled The White People, but the author is not Machen--it is Frances Hodgson Burnett, best known as the author of such children's classics as Little Lord Fauntleroy!
 

But I Bet You Didn't Know

In late June I heard a book editor of the Washington Post, Michael Dirda, give a reading from one of his columns, which had appeared, significantly, on 15 March. I later learned (via Locus (Tuchus) that the following week (5 July) appeared a column by him about the twelve "most influential stylists of our century." They either founded genres or influenced prose. That Lovecraft was there I had nothing to do with--I did not speak to the journalist. Others of the 12 included Dunsany, Chandler, and S. J. Perelman.

*

There's a new title out, Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of HPL in Popular Culture (Golden Gryphon Press, $25.95) an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired tales. Jim Turner is the editor.

*

There's a per pay site, Rare Books Online: Witchcraft in Europe and America, which offers a selection of Cornell University's witchcraft collection. It covers the 16th to 19th century. http://www.psmedia.com/witchcraft.htm

*

Recently published has been The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siecle Culture of Decadence by Susan J. Navarette (University Press of Kentucky, 1998). Among the writings examined are those by de la Mare and Machen.

*

In the Spanish occult magazine Su Futuro (no. 88, 1995?) a short discussion of occult books (p. 42) briefly looks at the relationship between Lovecraft and a work called the Esteganografia of Tritemo, a name which may be a hispanicized version of another which has been anglicized.

*

In reviewing a book on an actual murder case, Umberto Eco says of Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culiann that its author, Ted Anton, "does not adopt the deductive method of Sherlock Holmes and his story suggests Lovecraft more than Conan Doyle. The book confines itself to lagying out facts and coincidences." (From the New York Review of Books, 10 April 1997, p. 6).

*

The May issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has a story called "The Birth of Fabulaic Surmimesis," by Paul di Filippo. It is a future book review of a so-called biography about cult "hermit-author" Timothy Eugene, known as the "Psychopomp of Poultney." He is later compared to HPL, though beyond what I have mentioned there is relatively little Lovecraftian parody unlike, for example, Ron Goulart's "Ralph Woolstonecraft Hedge: A Memoir," which appeared in the same magazine in May 1959.
 
 
 

This has been the 26th issue of The Criticaster ((October 1998, mailing 104) by Stephen Walker.

walker@libserv.ucmo.edu

http://library.ucmo.edu/walker/introduc.htm