Fungi From Yuggoth — An Annotated Edition by H P Lovecraft and illustrations by Jason C. Eckhardt (book review).

March 15, 2022 | By | 1 Reply More

While Lovecraft isn’t today well-known as a poet, in his time he wrote a great deal of verse in a variety of styles. Initially drawn to the Augustan style popular in 18th century England, he eventually tried out other, more modern forms. These poems are frequently regarded as self-conscious rather than inspired, lacking the uniqueness of his fiction and, as such, are little read today.

But at least one cycle of poems, ‘ Fungi From Yuggoth’ , is quite well-known, perhaps because it comes closest to his fiction in style and originality. Consisting of 36 sonnets in a mixture of Shakespearian and Petrarchan styles, it’s usually described as a ‘cycle’ but only the first three sonnets form a continuous narrative. The remain seem to jump around, almost like vignettes. Some tell complete, if brief, stories, others allude to more general feelings of melancholy or cosmic fear.

Given that the entire sonnet cycle was written within a few days, it’s tempting to assume that there is some sort of over-arching theme that links them altogether. In 1980, R Boerem argued that it isn’t just the first three sonnets that form a single part, but that the subsequent poems can be grouped together into similar clutches, identifying seven such parts in total. The first is obviously an introduction, the narrator or subject of the poem describing how he obtained a book of elder lore. The next three poems form a sort of transition, with the narrator entering a dream-like state, the next six a series of unearthly or dreadful experiences and so on.

Phillip Ellis, in 2007, argued that this attempt to find a unifying narrative was interesting but ultimately unconvincing. He argued that the simplest explanation is the one evident at face value: Lovecraft may have intended the first three sonnets to tell a story, but he dropped that idea and the remainder of ‘Fungi From Yuggoth’ may share some ideas and tones, but are others unconnected.

In the present volume, editor David E Schultz doesn’t try to present ‘Fungi From Yuggoth’ as a single, unified story, but does argue that Lovecraft arranged the poems carefully, selecting or rejecting different verses to heighten the cycle’ s overall effect. He reminds the reader that jumping between different moments in time, locations or even states of consciousness was something Lovecraft did with his fiction. Consequently, when we read ‘Fungi From Yuggoth’ and find ourselves having to deal with a non-linear narrative, we shouldn’t be altogether surprised. Even so, Schultz argues, Lovecraft wasn’t really trying to tell a single story, but rather to conjure up a series of images and experiences unified by their mood rather than plot.

That is, perhaps, why ‘Fungi From Yuggoth’ works so well. As a sonnet cycle, it crystallises all the different facets of Lovecraft’s fiction and philosophy in its purest form. Indeed, unlike much of his fiction, it does it with a remarkable degree of sensitivity, even poignancy. It’s hard not to read ‘XIV: Star-Winds’ without imagining the connection between the earthly and the cosmic or ‘XXXVI: Continuity’ without sharing Lovecraft’s almost desperate longing for a connection with the ancient past.

The sonnet cycle itself takes up about 70 or so pages of the book, with each sonnet accompanied by original and excellent artwork by Jason Eckhardt. Facsimiles of the handwritten manuscript are present on the next 21 pages and while these are difficult to read, they are an attractive addition to the volume. A 50-page essay called ‘ Dim Essences’  comes next, describing in detail how the sonnet cycle was put together, not just when it was written and why, but also its poetical antecedents and the subsequent rearrangements of the sonnets and verses. Notes across the next 70 pages include details on each of the sonnets, covering things like allusions and links to Lovecraft’s other works. The remainder of the book includes various appendices and additions, the most remarkable of which is a musical score composed by Harold Farnese in 1932 intended to go along with the first few sonnets.

While a collection of 36 short poems mightn’t justify a $20 cover price, the fact is that this book actually represents astonishing value. There’s tons here to appeal to even the most casual Lovecraft fan, let alone the more serious student of weird fiction or 20th century poetry. ‘Fungi From Yuggoth’ is an astonishingly beautiful sonnet cycle and Schultz has done a stellar job here providing its complete context. If he isn’t as imaginative as Boerem in seeing the cycle as a unified narrative, he does go a step further than Ellis, which analysis of the manuscript and its subsequent editing would seem to support.

As such, this annotated edition of ‘Fungi From Yuggoth’ provides readers with a fresh take on the cycle, alongside more than enough background detail to thoroughly appreciate what Lovecraft was trying to do. Highly recommended.

Neale Monks

March 2022

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2022. 288 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $20.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-9721644-7-4)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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