Low Res Scan: His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Stories About H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S. T. Joshi, 2020.
Joshi’s “Introduction” mostly groups the anthology’s stories by theme and notes that Lovecraft has been a fictional character in other people’s stories since 1921 in Edith Miniter’s “Falco Osssifracus” where he appeared under a fictitious name.
Let’s cover the cheating stories first, those that don’t actually feature a fictional Lovecraft. Sometimes they vaguely refer to places in his stories. In one case, the adjective “eldritch” is about the only link. I’m not convinced by Joshi’s argument that they feature characters “who reveal strikingly Lovecraftian elements”.
W. H. Pugmire’s “A Gentleman of Darkness” is set in the Red Hook district of New York City but, unlike Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook”, in contemporary times. The protagonist, a woman of mixed race, is friend to the sallow-faced Carl Pertwho is troubled by sleepwalking, stange dreams, and a musician neighbor playing a strange horn. The story seems to owe something to Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” and T. E. D. Klein’s “Black Man with a Horn”. It’s a merely adequate story, and I suspect it’s mainly here out of Joshi’s loyalty to his friend Pugmire.
I liked the next two cheats.
Simon Strantzas’ “Captured in Oils” is a tale of obsession. Its protagonist goes from a hobby painter which gives him some kind of inner life unlike the office drones around him. But then he finds himself obsessively drawing strange images during office meetings, soiling his pants, and having fugue states. Soon enough, he’s fired and in constant pain, yet he must continue putting his visions on the canvas. There’s something lurking in the canvas he must capture. Strantzas wraps this one up with some nice phrasing.
“A Meeting Beneath the Moon” from Mark Howard Jones is a strange, mysterious tale about a gardner tending a strange group of plants seeded from the stars, a forboding house in the background. I suppose there may be some vague allusion to the Elder Ones from Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” with some of them. Beside the garden is an ocean of voices. A pipesmoking man named Arthur shows up. I suppose it’s just possible that’s a vague reference to Arthur Machen. This one is a moody piece.
John Shirley’s “The Feverish Stars” combines cosmic and more conventional horror. A young Lovecraft goes with his friend Lemuel Grimpon to do some stargazing at Narragasett Bay. On the way, they see a strange figure Lovecraft dubs the “rhombus man”. Lovecraft starts to feel sick and starts to sense the clockwork universe he believes in is has been poisoned by a “sickness in the void”, and a voice, telling him “Life is a hideous thing”, wants him to be its agent on Earth. Meanwhile, Lemuel goes for help, a stranger offering him a ride, a stranger with a past linking him to the rhombus man. However, while I got the sense Shirley was insinuating that the incidents in the story led to the ideas in Lovecraft’s fiction, he doesn’t develop that notion much. However, its an enjoyable enough story.
A singular story in the anthology, and a charming one, is “Dreams Are Forever” by Scott Wiley. It addresses Lovecraft’s love of cats with the story of Filthy the cat (she does, of course, not refer to herself that wau) and her memories of meeting young Lovecraft one sunny day. It was then, while his overprotective mother was asleep, Lovecraft told her a story of how cats came to be.
But most of the stories center around two motifs.
The first is a dying Lovecraft undergoing various types of “life review.
Richard Gavin’s “How Could It Be Elsewise?” has Lovecraft in the Jane Brown Memorial Hospital. In a vision, he meets, in a cemetery, an old relative he used to visit, Simon Smith. As they walk, with some unseen entity lurking follwing behind, they discuss the unease Lovecraft always felt in his life, vacillating between shrinking from the world and raging against it. That’s because, says Simon, Lovecraft spoke from a book few alive could appreciate.
“Persistance of Memory” from Jason V. Bock is an affectionate and moving story, a combination of visions – some related to Lovecraft’s life, some to his fiction, and some to neither – experienced by a dying Lovecraft.
Darrell Schweitzer’s “The Return of the Night-Gaunts” starts in the same place Mark Samuels’ “Death in All Its Ripeness” (also in the anthology and which I’ve already reviewed) with Lovecraft in the last fall of his life, weakening and sick. The story opens by contrasting Scrooge being whisked through the air by ghosts in Charles Dickens “mawkish” A Christmas Carol and Lovecraft’s boyhood dreams of being whisked over the Cold Wastes of Kadath by Night-Gaunts. One night, Lovecraft actually sees, while awake, a Night-Gaunt at his window. Schweitzer effectively conveys Lovecraft’s growing fatigue and inability to write fiction in his last months. Schweitzer, in Lovecraft’s encounters with the old creatures from his dream, emphasizes Lovecraft’s stoic creed and its demands to accept reality however incredible. It’s one of the better stories in the volume.
And Joshi himself has a dying Lovecraft in “In His Own Handwriting”. Besides being a play on the conclusion of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time” with its amnesiac narrator discovering his own writing, Joshi uses one of the hoariest cliches in fantastic fiction, the bane of slush pile editors: a would-be writer getting their hands on, through fantastical means, completed works they can pass on as their own. This story has Lovecraft encountering, at various points in his life, the “roly poly man” who points out scrapbooks with stories Lovecraft only has to type up and submit to a publisher. And he does. But his conscience is uneasy. And the roly-poly man will visit Lovecraft one more time on his deathbed. Hoary cliches can sometimes work, and Joshi’s use of this one does suceed.
It would be asking a lot for the writers here to ignore an obvious possibility: another pairing of Lovecraft and Harry Houdini beyond the one we have from documented history.
Harry Houdini reveals himself to not be quite the diehard skeptic he seems in Donald Tyson’s “Witch’s Ladder” when he enlists Lovecraft and his friend Clifford Eddy to get back a magical relic, held by a nasty German sea captain, that threatens the life of Houdini’s wife. This is the most action filled story in the book and enjoyable.
I’m not sure I quite followed the entire plot of Jonathan Thomas’ “Avenging Angela”. Lovecraft joins Houdini to investigate a locked room mystery. The mistress, Angela, of an artist named Burleigh committed suicide in his studio, and now someone is moving his mannequins about and leaving strange messages on a blackboard. Is it the ghost of Angela? Thomas works in a connection to Ireland in the story and provides an inspiration for “The Call of Cthulhu” right in Providence. But the main element I liked was the interplay between the two men, particularly Houdini’s impressions of the eccentric Lovecraft.
Another minor theme in the collection, not surprisingly given Lovecraft’s use of the idea, is bodyswitching.
Donald Burleson’s “Worlds Apart” uses – maybe, it’s one explanation given – the idea of multiple worlds in a story of how elements of Lovecraft’s life begin to bleed into the consciousness of a worker at an insurance company in a small Ohio town. It also offers an explanation as to how one particular Lovecraft tale came to be.
And another story uses that theme, the standout story of the anthology along with David Hambling’s “The Basilisk”. That’s Stephen Woodworth’s audacious and sometimes mean-spirited “The Gilman Woman”. It’s a secret history and something of a feminist story with not just Lovecraft but another famous writer of weird fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman, after Lovecraft favorably mentions her in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, meets Lovecraft in Providence in 1927. Ostensibly, it’s to get Lovecraft’s help writing her biography. But Gilman has a talent she’s nurtured for years – she can switch consciousness with people. She’s long chafed under the social limitations of being a woman. She wants to be a man. She wants Lovecraft’s body.
And she makes the switch. We see how each writer fares in their new body. Gilman continues in Lovecraft’s vein, but, dismissive of “Himland” as she dubs his fiction (Gilman wrote a feminist utopia called Herland), she introduces females into “Lovecraft’s” stories and names hinting at her true identity. Lovecraft takes to studying Gilman’s work, particularly her non-fiction. And then there’s the matter of sex. Gilman’s husband expects his conjugal dues, and Gilman, in her new body, is shocked by the homosexual attraction Lovecraft’s friend Robert Barlow has for it. The story may start out with us sympathetic to Gilman, but Lovecraft and his stoicism seems, in the end, to have the best of things.
There’s a fair number of so-so stories in this volume, but the outstanding work of Hambling, Woodworth, and Schweitzer makes it worth picking up if you are a Lovecraft fan.
Additional Thoughts (with spoilers)
The mean-spiritedness of Woodworth’s tale is mostly at Lovecraft’s expense. Woodworth makes a funny, but Freudian point on male sexual organs and the tentacles Lovecraft was fond of. The asexual Lovecraft perhaps comes to enjoy sex. But Gilman, who so wanted to escape the life of a woman, comes to regret that sexually when the Barlow incident happens.
At story’s end, Gilman also comes to rather regret hijacking Lovecraft’s body and the poverty of his life. Lovecraft, on the other hand, comes to accept that he is trapped in Gilman’s body and makes the best of it.
Despite the tentacle-penis connection, I liked that story a lot. And Woodworth is quite clever in detailing the effects of Gilman on “Lovecraft’s” later work. That includes the near “confession” of “The Thing on the Doorstep”, numerous female characters, and her own name and that of her two husbands in some of the character names.
Both writers die of cancer about a couple of years apart.
I’m surprised, of all people, Gillman picked Lovecraft.
I mean of all the authors, he’d be my last option.
Well, as far as I know, that’s entirely Woodworth’s conceit and has no basis in reality. Lovecraft could submerge his ego in his ghostwriting work. As I recall, his highest paying client was a Christian minister.