Lovecraft Annual No. 13 (2019) edited by S. T. Joshi (book review).

June 15, 2022 | By | Reply More

As its name suggests, the ‘Lovecraft Annual’ is published every year and presents a variety of essays from a range of authors. In this 13th issue, there are fourteen in total, covering a variety of topics that explore and criticise Lovecraft’s stories and poems. As with any such pot pourri, the focus shifts wildly, with some essays unpicking his inspirations or themes, while others move closer to our time, and discuss his relevance in modern popular culture.

Still, even if some of the essays are likely to be of more interest than others, they’re all well-written and move the sum total of Lovecraftian scholarship forwards in useful ways. One or two, indeed, set the bar especially high, providing fresh insight into areas that were ripe for study.

The second essay in the collection, ‘Hungry Fer Victuals I Couldn’t Raise Nor Buy’ by Duncan Norris is one such piece. Simply on reading the title, the reader is reminded of the short story ‘The Picture In The House’, where the unnamed narrator encounters an old man who slowly reveals his cannibalistic tendencies. But people being eaten, whether by other people or monsters of various kinds, is actually rather common that that. Norris starts with a historical perspective, describing some of the literary antecedents including Greek mythology and Spanish commentaries on their conquests in the New World. He also draws historical parallels between Lovecraft’s fiction and the real world, for example comparing elements of the ‘The Picture In The House’ with the mass murdered Albert Fish, captured a few years after the story was written. What Norris manages to do is demonstrate the different ways Lovecraft handles anthropophagy, sometimes even as a metaphor for Darwinism (by having the strong literally preying on the weak) or decadence (as with the degenerate and inbred Martense family in the ‘The Lurking Fear’).

Norris has a second remarkable essay in the collection, ‘Aquaman And Lovecraft: An Unlikely Mating’, which this time gives a pop-culture spin on things. Norris outlines ways various Aquaman stories, both in the comics and in film, have certain distinct parallels with some of Lovecraft’s works, such as marriages between terrestrial and undersea races. He also draws together ideas from media as diverse as the 2018 horror film ‘Bird Box’ and the Twitter posts of director James Wan.

Other essays adopt a more conventional approach to the genre, picking over the bones of Lovecraft’s writing in various ways. The essay ‘The Lovecraftian Solar System’ by Fred Lubnow is one of the more accessible, describing something that many readers will already be familiar with. It’s quite well-known that Lovecraft was a keen amateur astronomer and in fact lived through a particularly exciting phase in the history of the subject. Pluto was discovered in 1930 and, while Lovecraft had just finished ‘The Whisperer In The Darkness’ by that point, in his letters he quickly took to identifying the fictional homeworld of the Mi-Go, Yuggoth, with Pluto. Within his fiction and poetry, Lovecraft also liked to use allusions to astronomical objects and ideas. Lubnow shows that all the planets of our solar system get a few mentions, though sometimes in mysterious ways, as with ‘the strange mists of Jupiter’ in ‘Through The Gates Of The Silver Key’.

Ann McCarthy’s essay ‘The Pathos In The Mythos’ is particularly interesting in taking on one of the most widely held ideas about Lovecraft’s fiction: that his characters lack substance and exist only to experience the terrifying truth about the cold, vast and above all, unsympathetic universe. This is, after all, the assumption held by critics like Michel Houellebecq that Lovecraft was essentially a nihilist who saw no value in anything the modern world deemed to be important. But what McCarthy does is to reveal ways in which Lovecraft seems to want the reader to feel sympathy for the protagonists.

Take Charles Dexter Ward for example. The latter part of ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ focuses more on Dr. Willett’s struggle to destroy the Joseph Curwen spirit that has taken over Ward’s body, so it is easy to see Ward as little more than a victim. But the earlier part of the story has moments where Ward’s artistic and historical interests are brought up and, by sympathising with what Ward wanted to do, we better understand how he was brought into Curwen’s orbit.

Scott Meyer makes some equally important points in his essay, ‘Diabolists And Decadents: H.P. Lovecraft As Purveyor, Indulger, And Appraiser Of Puritan Horror Fiction Psychohistory’. It’s hard not to be moved by his observation that, like the Puritans, Lovecraft was not simply a man of his time but more a man out of his time, desperately trying to recapture a mythological time when society was better ordered along more strictly hierarchical lines. Also, like the Puritans, he felt besieged.

Where the Puritan settlers of New England feared disease, starvation and the Native American tribes around their villages, Lovecraft feared change. The loss of regionalism was a particular concern; that is, the loss of the specific New England dialect and traditions he loved so much. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lovecraft described a very particular America that was firmly rooted in a Puritanism that believed that anyone who stepped outside convention would be swiftly and terribly punished.

There’s a lot on this collection of essays to enjoy, from serious literary criticism through to pop culture reviews. For just $15, it’s a bit of a no-brainer if you’re a keen Lovecraftian.

Neale Monks

June 2022

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2019. 198 page paperback. Price: $15.00 (US), £ 6.17 (UK).

ISBN: 978-1-61498-284-5)

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Category: Books, Horror

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