Friday, July 11, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft: A Master of the Uncanny, by Stanley Larnach

This article, the first on H.P. Lovecraft published in Australia, appeared in two parts in the September and October 1948 issues of Biblionews, the monthly newsletter of the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia. Stanley Lorin Larnach (1900-1978) was a well-known book collector, especially of nineteenth century Penny Bloods, and an academic at Sydney University

In a famous essay, "A Free Man's Worship", Bertrand Russell pointed out that Man and all "his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but accidental collocations of atoms"; that all man has ever created or cherished is doomed to perish in the vast death of the solar system; and that nothing he can do can preserve his life beyond the grave. If these things, says Russell, are not quite beyond dispute, no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. "Brief and powerless is Man's life; on him and all his race the slow sure doom falls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts which ennoble his little day .... Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

In an autobiographical fragment HOWARD PHILLIPS LOVECRAFT described himself as a "mechanistic materialist". Whether he felt the "impending slow sure doom which falls pitiless and dark", and whether this evoked his almost morbid preoccupation with time we may never know. He did regard Time as the most horrible thing in the Universe. In this twentieth century world of science we find it increasingly difficult to reach a medieval attitude to stories of ghosts, demons, werewolves, vampires and such like "things". Perhaps if we actually experienced something utterly alien to our universe yet somehow acting on it we might not be so easy in our minds. Lovecraft subtly creates such an "atmosphere" in his stories. But perhaps no terror his creative imagination produced is as convincing as his attitude to time.

H. P. Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A., on 20th August, 1890. Owing to ill-health, he rarely attended school, but spent long hours reading 18th century books in the attic. In his autobiographical fragment he said that the effect of this reading was to make him feel subtly out of place in the modern period. From the age of eight he took a strong interest in the sciences, particularly in chemistry and astronomy. At sixteen he contributed articles on astronomy to a local paper.

Lovecraft's first story, "The Alchemist", was published in the United Amateur. "Dagon'' appeared in The Vagrant in November, 1919. Pearl Merritt said: "I recall one night I let the moon shine in my eyes because I was afraid to get up and pull the shades down after reading "Dagon"".

The Vagrant, an amateur journal which published some of his stories, had a varied career. At least two issues were printed and destroyed. On one occasion the sheets, left lying on a table near an open window, were wet by rain. They were dumped in the basement where Lovecraft rescued the few copies which survived.

Most of his stories were published in "Weird Tales" Magazine. Attempts to publish in book form were less fortunate. In 1928 "The Shunned House" was all printed and the sheets were in the bindery. W. Paul Cook tells how he cancelled binding orders, withdrew the sheets from the binder and stowed them away. "Sometime later," he says, "a young friend of Lovecraft wanted very much to have the sheets, promised to bind them adequately and send the books out at once." But there is great mystery about the fate of the prints. The only book of Lovecraft's which appeared during his lifetime was a slim volume containing "The Shadow over Innsmouth", and which was privately printed.

Many of Lovecraft's friends have commented on his amazing erudition. He could carry on a conversation on equal terms with specialists on a wide range of subjects ‑‑ from the architecture of Colonial America to the mythology of Mexico: he frequently made the calculations necessary for astronomical predictions. His editors humoured him also in an idiosyncracy, for he always insisted that his English be spelt according to British usage. This caused interminable controversies with compositors and proof-readers. He wrote his stories to satisfy his own artistic judgment and refused to alter a story to suit an editor, although it would then have been accepted.

In his stories he did not draw on the conventional Christian demonology or witchcraft but from "darker and more furtively whispered cycles of subterranean legend." Someone indiscreetly probing in certain forbidden regions of knowledge might stir up indescribable things which are not good even for Man to think about. Only in such blasphemous and forbidden books, such as the "Necronomicon" are such things hinted at.

It is interesting for a book-collector to read in so many of Lovecraft's stories about the curious libraries of strange and rare books which are discovered in old and crumbling houses. Of all the rare, forbidden books, none so arouses our interest as the "Necronomicon". This work was written by the Arab Abdul Alhazred and its dark secrets reveal and reflect a curious light on his blasphemous researches on things best left alone.

Originally known as "Al Azif", it was first translated into Greek by Theodorus Philetus of Constantinople; and a Latin translation was made in 1228. In spite of vigorous efforts by both Church and secular authorities utterly to destroy this work, there are five known copies today. There is a fifteenth century edition in the British Museum. Seventeenth century editions are to be found in the Widner Library at Harvard University, in the Library of the Miskatonic University at Arkham, in Buenos Ayres University, and in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. There is also a persistent rumour that there is a copy in the collection of a well known American millionaire.

Yet perhaps it is no worse than Von Junzt's "Unausprechlichen Kulten", which was originally published in Dusseldorf in 1837 but is better known in the drastically expurgated Golden Goblin Press edition of 1909. Other dark and infamous books found in these libraries are the "Book of Eibon", the "Pnakotic Manuscripts", Ludwig Prinn's "De Vermis Mysteriis", the Comte d'Erlette's ''Cultes des Goules", and the even more obscure "R'lyeh Text" and the "Dhol Chants".

On the 15th March, 1937, Lovecraft died. Two fellow authors, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, undertook the task of collecting and publishing his complete works. Ardent admirers of Lovecraft, they named their publishing firm Arkham House after the fabled town of Arkham which was the scene of many of his stories.

Their first publication was "The Outsider and Others", sold at five dollars and limited to 1200 copies. Already copies on the used book market have reached 75 dollars. It was from the date of publication of this book that we may date the beginning of the "Lovecraft Cult" which is becoming world-wide. A French edition of his works is announced from Paris. Since the appearance of "The Outsider" in 1939 Arkham House has become a successful publishing venture. A number of books have been published and among them most of Lovecraft's work has appeared or will shortly appear. Arkham House books are tastefully produced in black cloth bindings and are usually retailed at three or five dollars. They have not stopped with American authors but have anthologised Coppard, and published such writers as Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson. Lovecraft is truly in the tradition of the masters of the uncanny and his books should appeal to literate collectors.

Works of H. P. Lovecraft

i. 1928. "THE SHUNNED HOUSE" was ready for binding but not actually issued. It has been reported that about a dozen copies have since been privately distributed in bindings of different colours.

ii. 1936. "THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH by H. P. Lovecraft. Illustrated by Frank A. Utpatel. Visionary Publishing Co., Everett., Pennsylvania. Pp. 158 plus 16 blank pages. Black cloth covers. 7" x 5".

iii. 1939. "THE OUTSIDER AND OTHERS" by H. P. Lovecraft. Collected by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin. plus 553. Black cloth, 9¼" x 6¼". $5.

iv. 1943. "BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP" by H. P. Lovecraft. Collected by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, Arkham, House, Sauk City, Wisconsin. Pp. xxx plus 458. Black cloth, 9¼" x 6¼". $5.

v. 1944. "MARGINALIA" by H. P. Lovecraft. Collected by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, Arkham. House, Sauk City, Wisconsin. Pp. x plus 378. Black cloth, 7½" x 5¼". $3.

vi. 1945. "THE LURKER AT THE THRESHOLD" by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. Arkham House, Sauk City, Wisconsin. Pp. 196. Black Cloth. 7½" x 5¼". $2.50. (Although this novel is concerned with the Lovecraft mythos, there is little of Lovecraft's actual work in it.)

Two further publications have been announced by Arkham House, viz., "SOMETHING ABOUT CATS" and an omnibus of "SELECTED LETTERS". There have been a number of cheap editions of some of Lovecraft's stories, including "THE BEST SUPERNATURAL STORIES OF H. P. LOVECRAFT" (World Publishing Co), "THE LURKING FEAR" (Avon Publishing Co.), etc. 

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