Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Horror in the Museum by H.P. Lovecraft & Others (1970): Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

Can you believe I'm only getting around to reading The Horror in the Museum this month? It's true. Despite being pretty Lovecraft-obsessed since I was 15, I've always skipped over these stories which he'd ghost-written for people whose names dropped right off even horror/pulp fiction's radar. Figured there was no way they could be as weird, as unsettling, as wonderful as HPL's own. Aaaand... yes, okay, I was right, but still the best stories here, which HPL revised for other pulp writers throughout his career - yes, to detriment of his own original works - are welcome additions to Lovecraft's oeuvre. All the stories in Horror were published through the '20s, '30s and '40s in Weird Tales magazine.

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.

Horror ends with with a whimper and not a bang - but what a whimper. "The Night Ocean," a revision of 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.

Panther Books UK, 1975, cover art by Bob Fowke

As for all these covers, the Panther UK ones are easily my faves (I find Gahan Wilson's work entirely too whimsical for Lovecraft), and the October 1971 edition from Beagle Books at top features a monstrous kaleidoscope by Victor Valla. While I found Horror in the Museum a worthy read, as a dedicated horror-fiction fan I couldn't help but wish old HPL had devoted those countless hours not to other, lesser writers but to giving us even more of his own still-unsurpassed weird tales.


lazlo azavaar said...

Yeah, I really need to get this book.

Kevin said...

Read the 91 edition in the library when it first came out. First ever time I had heard of JK Potter!

You were right to skip out on "Medusa's Coil". It might be one of the most racist things HPL ever wrote, because the most horrifying twist according to the narrator isn't the realization that a character is an immortal soul-eating witch, but that she is an African-American passing for white (!)

This is especially aggravating because his other collaboration with Zealia Bishop, "The Mound", is one of the best things Lovecraft ever wrote...

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

I saw a really cool short film adapation of The Curse of Yig at a horror film fest.

Doug said...

"The Mound" is one of my all time favorite HPL stories. The only thing that bishop contributed was the following suggestion...""There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman."

Everything else in the story is pure HPL at his wonkiest.
Underground empires,Super Science, Cannibalism, reanimated corpses, nether regions, perversions, torture, arena battles, human hybrid steeds, ect. ect.
God, I love this story!

Take care.
The Tinkleman cover is Ballantine.

Jonathan said...

Although HPL's revisions are uneven, I'd rank some of them higher than yourself -- The Mound is wonderful, and others such as The Horror in the Museum have some potent and original ideas. I read the ghost-written stuff at a young age, along with HPL's other work, so maybe I'm biased! You're right, the Night Ocean is a standout -- a tremendously subtle and rarefied atmospheric study, the hand like object at the surf's edge...

bluerosekiller said...

Well damn, Will. I'm mildly gutted that you chose not to mention my personal favorite tale from the collection in discussion. The enigmatic, rather obscure THE DIARY OF ALONZO TYPER. A story that I've been fairly obsessed with, ever since I first read it in the '76 Ballantine paperback that my uncle gave me back when I was a kid.
Although I'd love it regardless of it's setting, because I'm a HUGE sucker for anything that features an old/ancient isolated dwelling with a mysterious past & lots & LOTS of atmosphere. But, the fact that the tale takes place in a small town only about a half hour or so away from me & that the mysterious author William Lumley was apparently a Buffalo native like myself, has always intrigued the hell out of me.
Unfortunately, from what I've seen, there's next to no info out there about Mr. Lumley & no other work attributed to him either. Which makes me suspect that he may not have existed outside of HPL's & some other author's imagination. Though, I do hold out some small hope that he did, in fact, actually exist

Unknown said...

The 1970 hardcover is the first HP I ever read. Memories :)

Paul Pratt said...

Hi Will - sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to this!

In response to your wish that HPL had spent more time on his own work and less on revisions, it is probably worth reading S.T Joshi’s excellent biography of HPL to get an idea of how dire his financial circumstances were for most of his adult life. He really was living hand to mouth, and payment from revision work was about his only source of income (and means of paying for food) while waiting for payment from his own writings. At one point, Joshi quotes from a diary entry in which HPL celebrates receiving a cheque that will enable him to pay for gas to cook his tinned food - he had evidently been eating it cold for some time beforehand!
The fact that HPL died at 46 from a form of cancer generally acknowledged to have been brought about by malnutrition is an utter tragedy, and we can only lament what classics such a great imagination might have gone on to produce had things been otherwise. That, and appreciate the superlative work he gave us - some of which is indeed in his revision work, not least “The Night Ocean”, your high praise of which story I concur with entirely (Joshi reckons the Barlow collaboration- rightly, IMHO- to be equal to the best of HPL’s own work).

As to the comment above about William Lumley, there is some detail on this curious individual in Joshi’s biography. He was indeed a Buffalo, NY native, and apparently genuinely believed HPL’s works to be factual accounts which HPL had succeeded in fooling his readers into believing were fictions! HPL found this all most amusing, and agreed to revise “...Alonso Typer” free of charge(Lumley’s original was later unearthed and published in CRYPT OF CTHULU magazine- I’ve not read it, but according to Joshi, it is incomprehensible and almost illiterate, so this presumably involved no little effort on HPL’s part).