Ballantine Books, 1976, cover art by Murray Tinkelman (thanks Uncle Doug!)
I discovered that many of the stories were only in the barest fragment form when they reached Lovecraft through the mail, and that one served as a sort of dry-run for his own soon-to-come masterpieces "The Shadow out of Time" and At the Mountains of Madness. If that doesn't get you to salivating at the prospect of discovering new untamed vistas of mind-blasting cosmic wonder and fright... you're reading the wrong blog, probably.
Original Arkham House hardcover with art by Gahan Wilson, 1970
Most of the paperback editions included fewer than a dozen of the 20-odd tales included in the original 1970 Arkham House hardcover. I own the 1989 revised Arkham, but just read a sampling; most of the plots, prose, and characterization started to run together in my imagination, alas. It can get to be a bit much, all those scholarly types of tender disposition, delicate sensibilities, nervous system a hair's-breadth away from total collapse, moonish pallor and solitary habits who, with the aid of the racially-stereotyped, stumble upon ancient subterranean horrors, mind-boggling proof of alien gods with consonants and apostrophes for names (our pal Cthulhu affects the nom de guerre "Tulu" here), living corpses, and that final reveal in the last sentence. You know how it goes.
Revised Arkham House hardcover with art by Raymond Bayless, 1989
But I can recommend some titles you shouldn't miss. There are several tales from one C.M. Eddy, Jr., - a personal friend of Lovecraft's - none impressive save "The Loved Dead" (1923), which reaches purple heights of perversity in prose so ornamental the word "necrophilia" needs never be said (which caused some controversy for Weird Tales upon publication). First-person narrator, of insulated and awkward boyhood which leads to similar adulthood, relates his unholy lust, his obsessive search for his next conquest, literally writing the short tale as he lounges upon gravestones in a midnight graveyard. Dude becomes an assistant at a funeral parlor, of course.
No case was too gruesome for my impious sensibilities, and I soon became master my chosen vocation. Every fresh corpse brought in to the establishment meant a fulfilled promise of ungodly gladness, of irreverent gratification; a return of that rapturous tumult of the arteries which transformed my grisly task into one of beloved devotion - yet every carnal satiation exacted its toll. I came to dread the days that brought no dead for me to gloat over, and prayed to all the obscene gods of the nethermost abysses to bring swift, sure death upon the residents of the city.
Lush and pulpy as exotic rotting fruit, "The Loved Dead" is a solid if noxious gem in the collection, somewhere between the poison eroticism of Baudelaire and Gautier and the modern horror decadence of Poppy Z. Brite. And I'm sure Lovecraft wrote the bulk of it!
Del Rey trade paperback, 2007
"The Curse of Yig" (1928) and "The Mound" (1929), two of the more well-known stories, are by Zealia Bishop (I didn't read "Medusa's Coil"). Both are good and gruesome. It was a refreshing change-up to find these are set in the American Southwest, amongst its deserted mesas and spare vegetation, not to mention the convoluted mythologies of the Native Americans who've lived there for centuries. The latter features extensive descriptions of an alien race, one so debased and cruel it's clear HPL meant it as a real-life commentary, and in it are the horrific roots for his later, longer classics. The descent into what lies beneath that mound is nightmarishly captivating! The title story, from 1923 and ostensibly written by Hazel Heald, was fine, similar to "Pickman's Model" (which was written after the Heald story). Another Heald, "Out of the Aeons," overplays its hand, although I still liked it:
Even now I cannot begin to suggest it with any words at my command. I might call it gigantic - tentacled - proboscidian - octopus-eyed - semi-amorphous - plastic - partly squamous and partly rugose - ugh! But nothing I could say could even adumbrate the loathsome, unholy, non-human, extra-galactic horror and hatefulness and unutterable evil of that forbidden spawn of black chaos and illimitable night.
R.H. Barlow's (with HPL above) story, eschews all mythos blather - nary a shoggoth or a degenerate anywhere - becoming a meditative piece of eerie suggestion. Told by an artist seeking respite oceanside in a rented cabin after a bout of exhausting work, it is a fine and quiet tale rife with gloomy wonder. A series of drownings occur during his stay that get him ruminating on the sea and what hides in its dreadful brooding depths.
The people who died - some of them swimmers of a skill beyond the average - sometimes not found until many days had elapsed, and the hideous vengeance of the deep had scourged their rotten bodies. It was as if the sea had dragged them into a chasm-lair, and had mulled about in the darkness until, satisfied that they were no longer of any use, she had floated them ashore in a ghastly state.
Necronomicon Press chapbook, 1991, art by Jason Eckhardt
There is palpable near-romantic yearning for nothingness in this unassuming work. In its prose-poetry and philosophy of negation, of giving up oneself to powers - perhaps natural, perhaps not - beyond our ability to comprehend, it is a powerful predecessor to Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti, while also in the grand tradition of Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows."
I felt, in brief agonies of disillusionment, the gigantic blackness of this overwhelming universe, in which my days and the days of my race were as nothing to the shattered stars; a universe in which each action is vain and even the emotion of grief a wasted thing.