Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Lovecraft's Legacy, ed. by Weinberg & Greenberg (1990): A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay

What creative artist doesn't enjoy the opportunity to speak to those who inspired them, express their gratitude, and perhaps even engage in some flattering imitation? That's the impetus behind Lovecraft's Legacy (Tor hardcover, Nov 1990/St Martin's trade paperback 1996, cover art by Duncan Eagleson), an anthology celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. A baker's dozen of authors of various genre backgrounds contribute their literary thank-you notes (literally too in short afterwords appended to each story) to one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. I think one can state that pretty unequivocally these days, right? In the quarter-century since Legacy was pub'd, HPL's rep has grown to, well, cyclopean proportions, so... fuck it, yes one can. 

After an introduction by Robert Bloch, who as a teen corresponded with HPL (but you knew that), Mort Castle roars out of the gate with with the excellent "A Secret of the Heart," the narrator of which relates how he's made himself immortal thanks to the "Other Gods" revealed to him by his physician father over 100 years before. When the family's beloved adopted daughter succumbs to a gruesome painful death aged only 11, the father resorts to drinking and traveling far and wide, dabbling in black arts to ease his grief. Castle wrote one of my favorite horror stories, Still Dead's "Old Man and the Dead", and "Secret of the Heart" features the same kind of literary in-joke. What Castle does when he links a character to another fiction is especially apt and unexpected; the circle is complete, a circle I think Lovecraft would've been too humble to include himself in.


What about mixing up the highest of Elizabethan high culture with works almost forgotten in the grotty pulps of pre-WWII era? The reliable Graham Masterton presents us with "Will," a terrific little mashup of the Bard of Avon and the Gentleman from Providence: it seemed as if Shakespeare had achieved his huge success as a playwright by striking a bargain with 'Y'g Southothe,' which was some kind of primeval life force 'from a time when God was not.'" You can bet this reward comes at a price. Masterton's uses real Shakespeare history, of course, and some bold imaginative origins for the Globe Theater and the fire that destroyed it to create one of Lovecraft's Legacy best stories.

A highly-respected author of literate and challenging science fiction, Gene Wolfe (pictured) contributes "Lord of the Land," which contains some startling imagery deployed in a Faulkner-esque piece about a scholar's interview of a country patriarch for stories about the mythic "soul-sucker." What connection does it have to pre-Greek gods and rites? Hungry jackals, moonlit cities, starry alien skies, and mouthfuls of worms lend their welcome Lovecraftian flavor. The science fiction of Brian Lumley's "Big 'C'" brings to mind the Quatermass stories of the '50s and '60s and conflates one big C—cancer—with another you can probably guess. Not too bad, as Lumley has a hale, chummy style, and gets the humor in his gross, somewhat silly apocalyptic scenario.

Chet Williamson's "From the Papers of Helmut Hecker" is an epistolary piece about a snobby literary writer whose work keeps getting compared to Lovecraft's, which enrages him; he's the heir to Kafka and Borges, winner of the Booker Prize and Faulkner Award! Poor guy gets what's coming to him. "The Blade and the Claw" from Hugh B. Cave is set in Haiti, so it's nice to get out of the usual environs, but I found the story lacking in Lovecraftiana, and its happy ending dampens the horror. 

"Meryphillia" was easily my favorite tale in Lovecraft's Legacy. She is "the least typical ghoul in the graveyard," pining for a poet who visits this charnel yard to sing odes to his unrequited love. It's a tale of love and glory, of midnight feasts and the stench of decay; Brian McNaughton (above) writes with a noxious, devilish wit, regaling the reader with a Clark Ashton Smith-style bit of grave and grue, recalling HPL's own "The Hound" or "The Tomb." It's sweet, funny, gross, completely satisfying. I must have more McNaughton! And I kinda hope there are more stories of Meryphillia and her "coffin-cracking jaws."

Gahan Wilson's "H.P.L." is the most affectionate story included, a charming trifle of the writer still alive at nearly 100 and how he got that way. A fellow pulp scribbler visits Lovecraft at his home in Providence, and today he's a successful author living in his upkept childhood home that boasts an enormous two-story library. Wish-fulfillment at its finest—what HPL fan would not want to peruse that man's book collection? You'll be able to tell where Wilson's going but it's a worthwhile trip just the same.

Crime writer Ed Gorman delivers a killer serial killer tale, "The Order of Things Unknown," written in  no-nonsense prose and tersely invoking a "vile god" and a burial ground for sacrificial victims. Quite good; I'm gonna have to look into Gorman's crime novels I think.
He stood as if naked in the moonlight and looked up and saw the moon and the stars and sensed for the first time that beyond them, somehow, there was another reality, one few ever glimpsed, one that filled early graves and asylums alike. 
When he put the girl in the trunk, he was careful to set her on the tarpaulin. She had begun to leak.
The anthology closes with F. Paul Wilson's "The Barrens." Wilson wisely utilized the mysterious wilderness of his native New Jersey's Pine Barrens, into which the narrator and an old college friend venture so the latter can explore the legends of the Jersey Devil, and perhaps more. Strongly in "Colour out of Space" mode with a welcome lack of garbled phonetics, Wilson's rather pedestrian prose isn't up to the task of imbuing those dark forests and empty landscapes with dread or weirdness. He reaches for it, it's a good story, but it didn't quite get there for me; no frisson of Lovecraftian (or Blackwoodian) menace. Obviously the editors thought highly of it, and I've seen it referenced elsewhere. Maybe it's just me...

Lovecraft's Legacy is an easy recommendation: only a small number of stories are below par; a solid many are quite good, and three or four are terrific and deserve to be included in future Lovecraft anthologies not consisting of original material. Mythos fans probably already have a copy but if not, go for it. I got the hardcover as an Xmas gift back in the godforsaken year of 1990 and had only ever read a couple stories in it. Never got rid of it and so this scary solstice season I'm glad I finally went back!

6 comments:

Jack Tripper said...

Excellent review. And I agree, McNaughton's great, and his THRONE OF BONES from '97 is indispensable, an entire collection of twisted, inter-related ghoul stories, including "Meryphillia." His Satan-themed novels from the 80s are decent (reissued in the early 2000s with restored text and different titles), but THRONE OF BONES is top-notch stuff.

AndyDecker said...

What Jack said. THRONE OF BONES is wonderful.

Michael Carter said...

Excellent review. I've been a Lovecraftian for 20 years but haven't read this collection yet, though I have read a few of the stories. Great review.

Adam said...

So, I've had this book for over ten years and your review made me realize that I've somehow never really cracked it open and read much of it. Corrected that starting tonight.

"The Big 'C'" was exactly what I want out of a tribute to the Old Gent. It didn't pander to the themes, it didn't use any of the names, it worked on contemporary terms rather than trading on the gothic rules, and, probably most importantly to me, it didn't try to "out word" H.P. The Quatermass comparison was totally apt and I was endlessly delighted in Lumley still managing to pull out a very British "Quaint Apocalypse" in the middle of Florida. The ending was a bit abrupt and it leans hard on the flashback structure and, as always, he loves his exclamation points but that's looking for things to kick. It ain't a steak but it's a damn fine roast beef.

Lumley runs a little hot and cold for me (mostly hot though, truth be told) but he's about the closest we've ever gotten to having John Wyndham: Pulp Horror Writer. I don't love his fantasy works but I think the Necroscope series is rather impressive as a whole and he writes clear and weighty action set-pieces which elude a lot of horror authors.

In fact, I'd add him to my internal list of authors that need to deserve a little more literary appreciation but probably won't get it because he's never been a barn-burning iconoclast or provocateur; he just churns out immediately readable work with a distinct verve and almost always one or two clever concepts.

Gonna dig into some more and your words on McNaughton's story have me curious. I can't say I've ever read any of his works.

Lincoln Brown said...

The label on the jar, on the dust jacket, was originally 'Arkham University', but had to be changed to 'Miskatonic University' due to copyright infringement. Copies of the withdrawn dj are extremely rare.

Cactus Smasher said...

"She had begun to leak."

God that's good! I really need to track this collection down.