Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mysterious Benedict Society/Riddles in the Dark

So, earlier this week (Tuesday), Janice played a little of the following NPR interview for me, with Trenton Lee Stewart, the author of the MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY books talking about the series. Two great take-aways for me: (1) his hometown is Little Rock, Arkansas, where we lived for a year when I was growing up* -- a great city, but not widely known as a writers' mecca -- and (2) one of his inspirations for the puzzles his four young characters are constantly confronted with and must overcome with their own (considerable) native resources was the chapter "Riddles in the Dark" by JRRT. He also mentions WATERSHIP DOWN (a good sign!) as another example of a book he liked growing up, and about his goal of "finding my way into a big adventure". Here's the link.

So far I've only read the first book and the opening section of the second. First came across them at the Borders in Federal Way (now defunct, alas), and introduced them to Janice (who has also now read and enjoyed them). I particularly like this as a story about oddballs finding family and friendship with other oddballs and because one of the messages of the book is that there's more than one right answer to most questions, more than one right way of dealing with most dilemmas.** One of the four has photographic memory and solves puzzles logically, by working through all the variables. Another uses physical solutions to circumvent roadblocks in her way. Another simply refuses to accept the terms of some loaded offers. The narrator, most ingeniously of all, thinks outside the box, often looking at the literal meaning of the question or direction or challenge and finding ways to side-step what seemed insoluble problems. "The world's not always either/or" is a good message for young adults to learn.

But mainly, of course, these are good because they're enjoyable to read. Recommended!

--John R.

*(at the Georgetown apartments, 1313 Nottingham Road, 'A Charming Place to Live' -- still there, and still looking much the same, the last time I swung by during one of my visits to Little Rock just last year)

**in fact, now that I think about it, the right/wrong choice implied in the very word dilemma runs counter to the message of these books.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

THE HOBBIT on Antiques Roadshow

Many thanks to friend Janice S., rpg editor extraordinaire, for sending me the following link about a copy of THE HOBBIT showing up on a recent episode of ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.

In brief, in the most recent episode (recorded last June, broadcast on Monday [June 26th]), someone brought in a copy of THE HOBBIT. And not just any copy: a signed 1st edition, 1st printing, in mint condition, with an original dust jacket (with the mis-spelling of Lewis Carroll's name corrected by hand).

Their estimate? between $80,000 and $120,000 dollars. That's a pretty good return on the seven shillings and sixpence somebody paid back in 1937 or thereabouts.

The one thing that makes me a little sad is that to be in the condition it's in, this book has hardly been read at all in all those years. Books are to be read as well as preserved, enjoyed as well as treasured.

Here's the story:

--John R.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The first bumblebee

Today I saw the first bumblebee of the year -- a rather large and unusual one, maybe a new queen -- simply sitting on the floor of the balcony, where it'd apparently stopped to rest during a brief shower. I assume it was attracted by the nearby presence of the hummingbird feeders.

Speaking of which, yesterday or the day before I was standing near the feeder when the hummingbird came, and I actually got to see its tongue inside the tube as it lapped up the sugar-water ("hummingbird juice"). Interesting. It didn't seem to approve of my proximity, as it tsked between each sip.

And, just to wrap up sugar-water stories, both Janice and I have recently noticed a chickadee that occasionally visits the hummingbird feeder for a quick peck. I only saw it the one time, first sitting on the dowel and then going over to see what might be in these strange tube-shaped feeders on the opposite end of the balcony from the ones full of finch (and chickadee, & junco, & . . . ) feed; I assumed that, finding it to hold something so foreign and strange to its tastes, I'd had the luck to see its one and only exploration in that direction. But no; when I mentioned it to Janice she said she'd seen it there several times, so it's clearly developed a taste for the stuff. Chickadees hyped up on sugar water; now there's an interesting picture.

Finally, there was the amusing incident of a week or so ago when a finch was sitting on the dowel whose ends both support hummingbird feeders who saw a hummingbird go by, come back and hover briefly to examine this (for it) much larger bird, and then zipped away; the finch was clearly thinking something along the lines of what the blazes was that?

--John R.


So, this morning came the news that our friend Don Willner died at his home in Trout Lake; he was about eighty-three. We'd been planning on going down to see him and Bijee on Thursday, to see if we cd help out any as the end neared, but he just quietly passed away today (Tuesday).

I didn't know him as well as I'd have liked, despite seeing him once or twice a year, but Don was a good guy. A native New Yorker who'd fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest, he was a lifelong advocate for environmentalism and social justice (I remember him once telling us about a committee he'd been on as a young man with Eleanor Roosevelt); despite his age he was still doing pro-bono work as recently as last September, when his final illness set in. He'd held public office (Oregon state senator) and once ran for the U. S. House but found his true niche working behind the scenes, drafting briefs and advising on causes near and dear to him.

He'd been remarkably active up until relatively recently, taking strenuous hikes around the Mt. Adams area until a year or two ago (Janice was with him on what must have been his last climb up to Sleeping Beauty, the year before last) and enjoying tennis (on grass courts whenever possible) even as recently as last fall. The past few months were tough on both him and Bijee. I'll miss not having a chance to say goodbye, but I'll keep many memories of him as a generous host and, as I said, one of the good guys. He'll be missed.

--John R.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lovecraft's Blog

So, recently while reading the Mistakonic River Press volume of Lovecraft criticism, I dug out several pamphlets from Necronomicon Press, to confirm that one of the essays printed inside the M.R.P. volume was a piece I'd read before.* In the process, I came across another such booklet that I'd bought years ago (1996) but never gotten around to reading. The last few days I've remedied that, and it's been an interesting experience.

First off, what we have here is basically Lovecraft's blog. Lovecraft did not start out a short-story writer for the horror pulps; he started out as an essayist and editorialist in an amateur press association. THE CONSERVATIVE was HPL's own apa, printed between 1915 and 1923, in which he tackles issues ranging from prosody and politics to pacifism and prohibition. Joshi, the world's pre-immenent Lovecraft scholar, has selected some representative contents to reprint in this little booklet.

So far as rational discourse goes, it's hard to take Lovecraft seriously here: he's interested less in engaging in a discussion than in demolishing those who hold a contrary opinion to his own. Thus, although I agree with Lovecraft on some points (Temperance) and completely oppose him on others (Pacifism), that's largely moot: neither his support nor his condemnation had any sway on my own views. It's best to view these as polemics, relics from flame wars of nearly a century ago. Hence, my characterization of them as Lovecraft's blog: were he alive today, this is the sort of thing he'd be posting on his website.

At it's best, these essays reveal Lovecraft's gift for pastiche: he deliberately re-creates the sustained invective that characterized Swift's vicious little pieces of some two hundred years before (cf. A TALE OF A TUB). He particularly takes care to make his opening sentence as provocative as possible, to get attention and a rise out of the reader. Here are two particularly telling examples:

"After the degrading debauch of craven pacifism through which our sodden and feminized public has lately floundered, a slight sense of shame seems to be appearing, and the outcries of peace-at-any-price maniacs are less violent than they were a few months ago." ("The Renaissance of Manhood", an anti-pacifist diatribe, p. 15; October 1915)

"Of the various intentional fallacies exhaled like miasmic vapours from the rotting cosmopolitanism of vitiated American politics, and doubly rife during these days of European conflict, none is more disgusting than that contemptible subterfuge of certain foreign elements whereby the legitimate zeal of the genuine native stock for England's cause is denounced and compared to the unpatriotic disaffection of those working in behalf of England's enemies." ("Old England and the 'Hyphen'", p. 18-19; October 1916)

Quite apart from literary quality (or the lack of it), these essays are primarily of interest for what they reveal about Lovecraft. His idealization of Pope's prosody and of the colonial era when England and America were one are palpable, but it was a pleasant surprise to find a phrase or two in praise of natural beauty (something almost altogether absent from his later works, aside from the haunting ending of the DREAM-QUEST) -- e.g. "the playing of the sun with the leaves of green trees" (p.23) as one of the things that sometimes brings happiness, or a wistful allusion to "twilight in an old garden in spring" (p.36). He's also somewhat less anti-Xian here than later, or at least less than his apostles wd have us believe. The best essay, I thought, was "Revolutionary Mythology" (p. 21-22; October 1916), in which he casts doubt on the larger-than-life status accorded what since his day have come to be called 'the Founding Fathers' (a phrase apparently invented by Warren G. Harding's speechwriter): he's a case where consensus history has more or less caught up with him (although most Americans still harbor resentments against the Tories, whom he admires). The worst are those on prosody, esp. the one on free verse, which he was constitutionally incapable of appreciating:** his arguments basically come down to a high-handed but heartfelt plea that for everybody to write just like Alexander Pope and all may yet be well.

One question any reader of these pieces has to ask himself or herself: When is a Conservative a Reactionary? Here we have ideas that were for the most part already outside the mainstream ninety-plus years ago, and the ones that did at least briefly hold center stage -- such as Lovecraft's call for something v. like the Palmer Raids (p. 33; July 1919) -- are uniformly discredited by history. The little volume's editor makes things worse with his introduction in which he rightly argues against judging Lovecraft as if he were our contemporary, but then oversteps so badly as to undercut his entire thesis:

"Lovecraft the racist; Lovecraft the political reactionary; Lovecraft the antiquated litterateur: many [of his admirers] do not like to admit these sides of his character, hence try to explain them away. But there is no need to do so, because he was none of these things" ("Introduction", p. iii; emphasis mine). Joshi's argument is that, having been raised in a different time and milieu, "Lovecraft . . . could not but have believed as he did" (p. iv). Unfortunately for this line of defense, plenty of Lovecraft's contemporaries did not in fact hold such views -- including many of his fellow apa writers. Or, for a more well-known example, take Mark Twain, who died just a few years before Lovecraft launched his apa, and who grew up in a pro-slavery environment but came to utterly reject all arguments in favor of slavery.

The argument that Lovecraft was no racist also comes a purler with the piece "In a Minor Key" (July 1915), in which HPL distinguishes between anti-Semitism ("a religious and social animosity of one white race toward another white and equally intellectual race") and laws against 'miscegenation' ("the natural and scientifically just sentiment which keeps the African black from contaminating the Caucasian population of the United States"), adding "The negro is fundamentally the biological inferior of all White and even Mongolian races, and the Northern people must occasionally be reminded of the danger which they incur in admitting him too freely to the privileges of society and government" (p.9; emphasis mine).

And as if this were not bad enough, Lovecraft devotes his next paragraph to a gushing defense of the Ku-Klux-Klan: "that noble but much maligned band of Southerners who saved half of our country from destruction at the close of the Civil War" (ibid). Although he'd not yet seen BIRTH OF A NATION, the controversy over which had sparked this discussion, he mentions having both read and seen a stage play based on THE KLANSMAN, the book of which NATION was the film adaptation. Furthermore, he asserts his authority on the subject, boasting that he "has . . . made a close historical study of the Ku-Klux-Klan, finding as a result of his [i.e., HPL's] research nothing but Honour, Chivalry, and Patriotism in the activities of the Invisible Empire. The Klan merely did for the people what the law refused to do, removing the ballot from unfit hands . . ." (p. 9; ibid). He concludes: "Race prejudice is a gift of Nature".

Granted, it's interesting to see Lovecraft grant a middle status to those who, while white, do not belong to "the real American people, the descendants of Virginian and New England Christian Protestant colonists" ("The Crime of the Century",*** p. 10; April 1915). Here he sounds remarkably like Pat Buchanan. Elsewhere he accepts assimilation so long as the immigrants are of "Teutonic stock" and forsake old-world alliances, but he indignantly and explicitly rejects the concept of "America as a composite nation whose civilisation is a compound of all existing cultures; a melting-pot of mongrelism wherein it is a crime for a man to know his own grandfather's name" ("Old England and the 'Hyphen'", p. 20; October 1916).

So, an interesting read, yes. Edifying, no. Maybe the most horrifying thing about Lovecraft's stories in the end is the realization that he toned down his racism, phobias, and hatreds in his fiction. Didn't see that coming.


*Mariconda's, with its v. useful (albeit incomplete) chart listing Cth. elements in Lovecraft's stories, set out in chronological form.

**but then, you'd expect him to utterly reject anything called Modernism, and he does, whether in poetry or music or art (e.g., cf. p.25)

***i.e., the 'crime', for Lovecraft, being that fellow-Aryans were at war with each other.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gauguin in Seattle

So, yesterday Janice and I made it down to the Seattle Art Museum to spend the afternoon wandering around in the Gauguin exhibit. I don' t know that much about Gauguin (Van Gough is more what I like in a Post-Impressionist), but it was a good chance to learn more. The results was interesting: relatively few of the pieces fitted my preconception of his art, being in bright, primary colors. Most were in subdued, washed out colors -- though it's unclear to me whether this was by intent or due to the materials available to him (he ran out of canvas early on during his first sojourn in Tahiti and had to make do with substitutes). Many could have been painted in tidewater Mississippi or along the Carolina coast. Another surprise was finding that (a) he almost always included an animal in each painting, and that (b) he was really good at plants -- often the most interesting thing about a picture wd be the snaky plants along one border, or features in the background, or the like.

But my favorite part, I have to admit, was the discovery that this exhibit was only about half by Gauguin: the other half were Polynesian artifacts -- wood carvings from Rapanui, stone tikis from the Marquesas, intricately carved bowls from Tahiti. The archeologist or paleontologist in me trumps the art appreciator any day, so these really made the exhibit memorable for me.

Best of all was getting to see a rongorongo tablet. Somehow I'd gotten the idea that there were only three of these in the world; turns out there are just over two dozen, but only a very few (three or four) with large amounts of text. No one has ever succeeded in translating rongorongo; it's the orphaned remnant of a destroyed culture. I've seen one of the huge Easter Island heads, or moai (in 2007, in the British Museum), but in a way this little dark piece of wood as just as intriguing. When we'd gotten all the way to the end of the exhibit, Janice indulged me and we went back against the current to see this one item again. Well worth it.

So, if you're in the Seattle area, and have an interest in Gauguin, in Post-Impressionists, in artists behaving badly, or in Polynesia, this exhibit is definitely worth checking out. Esp. since they've brought together items from museums around the world: you'd have to visit a lot of places to see all the things in this exhibit. Enjoy!

--John R.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tolkien vs. the Nazis

So, the story has been making the rounds this past week about how back in 1938 JRRT told off his would-be German publisher over their nation's anti-Semitic laws. This is something Tolkienists have known about for years, since the relevant letter appears in LETTERS OF JRRT [1981]. It's only now getting out into general circulation, thanks to articles like the following (thanks to Shelly for the link, and to Steven S. for making sure I heard the news):

This is one of those times when you can genuinely feel proud of an author you like turning out to be a thoroughly decent human being (and believe me, there are admirers of some authors' works who don't get to feel that v. often -- e.g. the Joyceans). Of course, nobody's perfect, and Tolkien did occasionally make regrettable remarks displaying casual racism typical of his time. And there's also the matter of his sympathy for Franco, whom he saw rather as Defender of the Church than the fascist tyrant he was. But when it really mattered, JRRT's firm stance against the Nazi's veneration of 'Aryan purity' and his specific denunciation of their anti-Semitism was uncompromising -- and all the more welcome in that he was willing to risk something (royalties from the German translation under negotiation) rather than silently acquiesce. Yay, Tolkien.

For a good contrast, compare Tolkien with his contemporaries, novelist Evelyn Waugh (who wrote a book supporting Mussolini's war on Abyssinia) or poet Roy Campbell, a starkly homophobic, misogynist anti-Semitic who enthusiastically praised Hitler and even more enthusiastically backed Franco.

And then of course there's H. P. Lovecraft, who is so notorious a racist that one World Fantasy Award winner posted a piece not that long ago about her qualms in displaying an award shaped in his image (warning: the following link contains some offensive language on HPL's part):

I may be more attuned to this issue right now partly because I'm getting ready to run a C.o.C. adventure based on HPL's most overtly racist story, "The Horror at Red Hook" [circa 1925] (naturally, I'll be taking out the offensive parts, wh. aren't essential). The other contributing factor is that while digging out my copy of THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH (his Mythos sonnet cycle, wh. is actually quite good) I've just recently come across the chapbook that reprints pieces from his apa, THE CONSERVATIVE [1915-1923]. I'll probably devote a separate blog post to this work, so for now I'll just say that while the editor insists Lovecraft was no racist, Lovecraft's own words in this very booklet emphatically prove him wrong.

More later.

--John R.
current reading: ORTHODOXY (GKC), THE CONSERVATIVE (HPL), THE BRIDGE OF BIRDS original draft (Hughart)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Screwtape, on stage

So, Saturday Janice and I took the 'Link' into downtown Seattle, where after a fine meal at Wild Ginger (a great restaurant that friends Sig & Anne introduced us to and to which we get maybe once a year or so) we walked to the Paramount Theater for a four o'clock live show, a two-person adaptation of C. S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS.

Now, this is the book that made C. S. Lewis famous, got him on the cover of TIME magazine, and in general changed him from an academic who cdn't get a professorship into a popular author. In recent years THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA have replaced SCREWTAPE as Lewis's best known writings (unfortunately so, in my opinion), but for a long time this was the book CSL was known by more than any other. And it's still one of the very best.

It was also one of the first books by C. S. Lewis I ever read,* while I was still in high school. And the one he dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, which made it a great starting point.

I'd heard about this adaptation for a while, so I had a good idea of what to expect. I have to say that on the whole I enjoyed it. McLean, the actor playing Screwtape is no John Cleese, but then who is? I wd have preferred Cleese's acerbic academic bite, but McLean's flamboyance worked well enough. I'm certainly glad we went, and I'd recommend it to fans of the book who are curious to see how they cd dramatize what is essentially a correspondence, and a one-sided correspondence at that.

In essence this is a one-man show, except with two characters on stage. Only one has dialogue, though; the other is to writhe, contort, fetch and carry, and generally act out while the other pontificates.** David Bratman compared this second figure (Toadpipe, Screwtape's secretary in the book, his factotum in the stage play) to Sirkis's Gollum, which isn't far from the mark (except that it's a largely silent 'gollum', speaking only the occasional gibberish).

As for Screwtape himself, he reminded me more of a Ringmaster than infernal bureaucrat, partly from his flamboyant outfit (a gaudy dressing gown) and partly for his doing a fair amount of gesturing while holding forth dramatically as he airs his opinions. I understand entirely why they decided to make this a two-person show, so there'd be something for the audience to see, but for my money they wd have done better to just have a one-man show: Screwtape has the moxie to carry it off, and the self-absorption of a highly opinionated senior demon (sorry: devil) wd come across even more strongly that way, I think.

In any case, the show starts with Lewis's later piece, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", then segues into the main story; the whole only takes up about ninety minutes. Here's a link to the group putting on this adaptation, whose explicit goal is to create quality Xian drama;*** the website has a lot more about the production, and includes a good picture of the actor/playwright in costume.

I am curious about one point: the credits in the little program book say that this play was adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean (who plays Screwtape himself), but the full listing of cast and crew later on (p.7) includes a note that this play was "Inspired by Tony Lawton's stage adaptation". If anyone out there has seen Lawton's version, how does it differ from this?

Oh, and for those interested: they announced that their next project is a similar stage adaptation of THE GREAT DIVORCE. Now that shd be interesting . . .

--John R.

*I originally wrote here "the first book by CSL I ever read", but checking my Reading List I find that I actually read the space trilogy first (I.8, I.9, I.10, from Sept 4th thr Sept 10th, 1975), while I didn't read Screwtape until two months later (I.34, circa Sept 17th or 18th, 1975). And another two years passed after that before I read another, The Great Divorce (I.157; Tues. Oct 18th 1977), shortly before I read my first Ch. Wms, All Hallows' Eve --this being the only Wms book in the local university library (I.167; Tues, Nov 15th-Th. 24th, 1977); the first Barfield came a year later, during my summer at Fayetteville, when I gained access both to campus and off-campus bookstores and the excellent Univ. of Arkansas library: Worlds Apart (I.221; July 10th-15th, 1978), quickly followed by Unancestral Voice (I.228; July 25th thr Aug 1st, 1978). From that point on, the Inklings' books come thick and fast.

**or whatever the infernal inverse of that wd be.

***shades of George MacDonald!

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Thank God for Mississippi"

So, we have a saying in Arkansas: "thank God for Mississippi". The reason behind it being that, as far behind the rest of the country as we may be in Arkansas (48th or 49th in things like education, poverty, &c), things were usually reliably slightly worse on the wrong (east) side of the Mississippi. I've been away now for a long time, first having gone to live up in Yankeeland (Wisconsin) and now the West Coast, but I see from today's news that some things never change. Here's the quote:

Interracial marriage laws were overturned by the Supreme Court
in 1967, but a significant minority of Mississippi and Alabama
apparently still long for their return, or are at least ambivalent
about the idea. In Alabama, 67 percent of respondents said interracial
marriage should be allowed, but 21 percent said it should
be illegal and another 12 percent were not sure.
Mississippi Republican voters were even more divided:
Only 52 percent said such marriages should be legal,
versus 29 percent who said they should be banned
and 17 percent who were unsure.

Of course it cd be worse: it's better to have just over half of the Mississippians to be on the right side of history than the other way around. But looks like it's going to be a long time before they're ready to join the rest of us in the twenty-first century.

Here's the link for the full article:

And, just to show we've got problems of our own, just today came the news that there will be not one but two 'initiatives' for the fall trying to ban gay marriage. There may turn out to be an many homophobics in Washington state as there are racists in Mississippi. We'll see.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Derleth and the Mythos

So, one of the books I've been reading recently is DISSECTING CTHULHU: ESSAYS ON THE CTHULHU MYTHOS, ed. S. T. Joshi (2011, Miskatonic River Press). A loan from friend Jeff G. (thanks, Jeff), this is the first scholarly work from a relatively new publisher of some quality 'old school' CALL OF CTHULHU rpg adventure anthologies (NEW TALES OF THE MISKATONIC VALLEY [2008] and MORE ADVENTURES IN ARKHAM COUNTRY [2010]), which I used to run a C.o.C. campaign off and on for about a year and a half.* Now they're branching out into both Mythos fiction and, more significantly, scholarship.

This present collection is devoted not just to denouncing August Derleth, who certainly deserves it, but to attempting to debunk the idea that there ever was a Cthluhu Mythos anywhere outside Derleth's imagination. There's a lot of baby with the bathwater here; the anti-Derlethians are right that (a) Derleth's ideas were markedly unlike Lovecraft's on key points (e.g., the Xian gloss he applied -- ludicrously so, given that Lovecraft was a stark atheist) and (b) Derleth indulged himself in a good deal of fraud to pass off his ideas as Lovecraft's own.** But in trying to expunge these accretions some go so far as to deny Lovecraft's own contributions: contrary to their claims, most of 'the Cthulhu Mythos' as we know it today derives directly from H.P.L.'s writings, extrapolated from works like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Dunwich Horror" and THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH. And the evolved form it now has owes less to Derleth (whose take on the Mythos now seems distinctly quaint) than to Sandy Petersen and his peers, and the form they gave it (which in turn builds directly on Lovecraft's own practice in his treatment of material from earlier writers like Chambers and Dunsany). Today most people first encounter Lovecraft's work not through Derleth's essays and introductions dating back to forty-plus years ago but through the CALL OF CTHULHU roleplaying game.

Stripped of their smugness and absolute self-certainty (reading the first half of this book is like skimming through a year's worth of issues of THE SKEPTICAL INQUIRER all in one sitting), the essays here range from claims that the Mythos can be restricted to as few as three stories to more general approaches that it might include as much as a dozen or so. Generally, as the volume's editor notes, attempts to define the Mythos center in on three or four elements:

(1) eldritch tomes, like THE NECRONOMICON. If every story by Lovecraft and others in his circle that mentions one of these tomes is a 'Mythos story' (as most of us implicitly accept), then the Mythos is pervasive throughout much of HPL's fiction AND poetry (e.g. the sonnet sequence THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH) AND a considerable portion of his correspondence as well. Several of the critics included here consider this just window dressing and so don't take it into account, but I'm wary of arguments that can only make their point by excluding great blocks of evidence.

(2) the gods. Lovecraft may not have come up with the term 'The Great Old Ones", but like Tolkien's "A Mythology for England" it's useful & distinctive shorthand for another of the most characteristic features of his work. Is it only a Cthulhu Mythos story if it directly involves Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep or Yog-Sothoth as a character who actually appears, in person, in the narrative? That line of thought wd lead to the conclusion that v. few stories indeed qualify. Or is mentioning one of the Other Gods enough?-- wh. vastly expands the field. How about the Elder Ones (wh. seems to have been Lovecraft's name for the Titans), like Nodens? Or the Greek gods (whom he called "the Great Ones"), who figure in passing in THE DREAM-QUEST?

(3) Arkham Country. Lovecraft set some stories in Providence or other real New England towns, but many take place in imaginary towns like Arkham, Dunwich, and Innsmouth, or along the Miskatonic River, or feature some doomed professor from Miskatonic University. This is one of the most distinctive features of Lovecraft's work: it's often been observed that landscape almost approaches the status of a character in his tales. But is this subcreated world part of the Mythos, or independent of it?

(4) Joshi, the volume's editor, stresses a philosophical element: does the story center on 'cosmicism', Lovecraft's own personal brand of nihilism? Certainly there's a sense of threat from vast cosmic forces in the best of his tales, but for me there's v. much a sense of an author's reach exceeding his grasp: Great Cthulhu, whose advent is supposed to spell doom for the entire world, is defeated by being rammed by a yacht. The half-god prophet Wilbur Whateley's apocalyptic schemes end when he's eaten by a watchdog. His brother, an unstoppable massive engine of destruction, spends most of his time flattening barns and eating cows. The gap between conception and execution cd hardly be more ludicrously large. More to the point, the gods of the Mythos are supposed to evoke terror in us by representing our exposure to vast, inconceivable forces who are utterly indifferent to us, yet when they show up in the tales they act that ordinary boogiemen who delight in stalking and devouring the mere mortals whose existence they're supposed to be supremely unaware of. The core point of Lovecraft's credo -- that we wd be driven mad and instantly destroyed were we to become aware of the vastness of the cosmos and our insignificance within it -- is conveyed better by Douglas Adams' Total Perspective Vortex than by anything in any of Lovecraft's tales; the closest Lovecraft comes to dealing with the theme directly is in the story "From Beyond" -- far from his best, but the only real 'Mythos story' he ever wrote by that standard.

Taken altogether, the presence of at least one of these elements marks most of Lovecraft's work. So, if you consider each an element of the Mythos, it follows that 'Lovecraftian' and 'Cthulhu Mythos' are effectively synonyms. That's the conclusion Chaosium reached, meaning that any story by Lovecraft cd be considered authoritative and drawn on for a Mythos adventure. Personally, I find Chaosium releases like THE MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP, SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH, and DAY OF THE BEAST truer to the pulp stories Lovecraft actually wrote than anything that anything that might correspond to an idealized image of Lovecraft as conveyed by the strictures set down in this collection.

Two small take aways that made me glad I read this book: the short essay by Will Murray on Nug & Yeb, two v. minor Great Old Ones who never play any significant role in any story. Murray shows that they're referred to with surprising frequency in HPL's letters, and collects those references to show that Lovecraft had some well-thought out ideas regard even v. minor Mythos beings. I remember Dr. Humphrey Havard telling me much the same re. Tolkien: that he only had about 10% of what he knew about any given character in his legendarium written down, and cd expound at length about any of them.

Even better is another piece by Murray about the town of Foxfield. I'd been rather annoyed when the Miskatonic River Press adventure collections each included a scenario set in a 'Lovecraft Country' town they'd made up themselves: the little village of Foxfield, Mass. Well, it turns out this is a creation of Lovecraft himself; Murray's piece tells how S. T. Joshi, back in 1994, found a hand-drawn map HPL had created of the town, which he obviously planned to use as the setting of a story. We don't have the story, nor any indication of what it might have been, and so can extrapolate only from the details of what sites Lovecraft chose to include and label on the map (rather like scholars trying to work out the conclusion of EDWIN DROOD from the illustrations Dickens commissioned for the unwritten chapters). This is a great little piece of research; highly recommended.

--John R.

current reading: A MOUSE & HIS CHILD by Hoban; ORTHODOXY by GKC
current audiobook: OVER SEA, UNDER STONE by Cooper.


*which unfortunately now seem to have run its course.

**On a personal level, which they don't go into here, Derleth's behavior is much more reprehensible, both in his persecution of HPL's chosen executor, Barlow, whom Derleth slandered and drove from fandom and publishing circles, and in his pretense that he represented 'the Lovecraft estate', a self-appointed role which he exploited to collect royalties he had no legal right to and to veto projects he shd have had no say over. Not to mention, of course, his occasional forgeries. Of course, on the positive side, Derleth does deserve credit for rescuing the 'Weird Tales' school of pulp horror writers from oblivion. The argument has been made, rather unconvincingly, that Derleth ghettoized Lovecraft and held him back from mass popularity and literary acceptance; even if we grant this dubious claim, there's no doubt that Derleth promoted Clark Ashton Smith, the greatest writer in that group by far, bringing new volumes into print over the decades even though Smith's books sold poorly. And he was responsible for one of Dunsany's late books having an American edition, for which he made sure to pay Dunsany a royalty, so that's to his credit as well. --JDR

Closing in on a Millennium (The Reading List)

So, so far this week has been a good week for reading. I've finished three books in the last three days, one per night. I'll see if I can't get around to making posts on all three, but quite apart from enjoying them for their own sake, they've also made me v. aware of the passage of time. That's because they're numbers II.2984, II.2985, and II.2986 respectively of my Reading List. So, just another fourteen books to go before I reach the three thousandth book I've read all the way through since beginning the list in August 1981. I keep going back and forth over whether I shd pick out some special book --say, LotR--to mark the occasion, or simply let the count fall where it may, like an odometer rolling over. Guess we'll soon see, prob. sometime this summer.

By the way, the 'II' is to indicate that this is the start of a new count, there having been a break in the continuity when I lost the notebook containing the original list of some six hundred titles which I'd started in August 1975 (I accidently left it on the Underground during my first visit to England). I was able to re-construct all but the last twenty or so entries, but still decided it was better to start over than to never get the tally right again. So, like the Mayan Long Count calendar will do this winter, I simply started over from a new number 1. One of these days I'm going to get the whole thing typed up; it'll be interesting to see how often I re-read some old favorites, how long it's been since I read some things, and how long ago some books became important to me.

The count does not include audiobooks, or any book I don't finish, though occasionally I'll group several short items into a single entry. I've recently (Jan.2010) started keeping a more informal list of audiobooks, which now stands at 35 entries --though to be fair, one of those entries is the entire FAERIE QUEENE (or rather as much as of it as Spenser wrote), and another the OLD TESTAMENT, both of wh. kept me going for months. It also leaves out manga, most rpg material, and almost everything I read on the computer -- so even at 2986 the tally only represents a selective portion of what all I read.


Just read: DISSECTING CTHULHU: ESSAYS ON THE CTHULHU MYTHOS, ed. Joshi (finished Tuesday); THE LACQUER SCREEN, a Judge Dee novel by Rbt van Gulik (finished Wednesday); MY FIVE TIGERS, by Lloyd Alexander (finished last night).
Currently reading: Arne Zettersten's memoir/biography of Tolkien (begun Wend.), GKC's ORTHODOXY (begun last night, on the Kindle), and JUDGE DEE AT WORK (this morning over breakfast)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Wobbit

So, one of the things I read on the Kindle while on my recent trip to Arkansas was neither a book by nor about Tolkien but a parody thereof: THE WOBBIT, by Paul A. Erickson [2011]. So far as I can tell, this is apparently only available as an e-book (, not in print form.

Earlier parodies of Tolkien's work, like the mysteriously popular Harvard Lampoon BORED OF THE RINGS (which I thought had overstayed its welcome thirty+ years ago) and John Ellison's wonderful re-write of THE HOBBIT as a Jeeves-and-Wooster story, have tended to be relatively short. The same is true of pieces like "The Picnic" (published I think in an early issue of ORCRIST) and the online-only VERY SECRET DIARIES, suggesting that, where Tolkien is concerned, brevity is the essence of comedy.

This makes THE WOBBIT all the more unusual, in that while shorter than the book it parodies, it's still pretty long, and re-writes THE HOBBIT chapter by chapter, often paragraph by paragraph (e.g., cf. Chapter 7: Queer Lodgings for a Straight Wobbit). Erickson's humor comes from three sources:

(1) re-casting the plot of THE HOBBIT into terms of the recent fiscal meltdown, with the Chairman of the Board and board of directors of SmithiBank replacing 'Thorin & Co.' Thus, in what' probably THE WOBBIT's funniest line, Smaug's attack on the Lonely Mt & environs is described as a hostile takeover:

"As happens from time to time, a dragon showed up
& adjusted the market . . . [Smaug's arrival caused]
a huge loss of equity, & then Lake City property devalued.
Investor confidence failed . . . "

Similarly, Bilbo is hired to do "a quick bit of consulting", the Mayor of Lake City is

". . . v. excited w. the prospect of reducing unemployment,
stimulating the downtown business area & rebuilding his tax base",

and the human/elf siege of the Mt is viewed by the dwarves as a run on the bank:

"I suppose we cd fortify the entrance
& kill anyone who tries to close their account . . .
Paperwork & delay may yet win the day".

(2) having his version of Tolkien's characters talk like cartoons, comic book characters, personalities, and the like. Here's a not-quite-complete listing (I forget which character talks like Foghorn Leghorn):

--The trolls (Wm, Tom, Burt) = The Three Stoogies, with 'Joe, Harry, & Shirley' in place of Moe, Larry, & Curly.

--Gollum = Lady Ga-Ga (talk about a cultural reference with a ten-minute expiration date)

--the wargs = Scooby-Doo

--Beorn = the Incredible Hulk

--the first Mirkwood Spider = Charlotte (from CHARLOTTE'S WEB)

--The Elvenking = Schwarzenegger

--Bard = Dirty Harry

(3) Finally, the whole is written in a sarcastic style that's sometimes grating but once in a while throws off an effective line, as when the river-barrel stream exit to the Elvenking's Halls is described as

"a sort of riparian service drive"

Other examples include

. . . a fortnight, wh is what they call two weeks in Lake City . . .

the characters leave at 1st light and return at 1st dark

or the following line about Gollum:

"I don't know where he came from, or who or what he was,
but I'll try to make something up if I write a sequel."

My initial evaluation of this book was twofold:

(1) 'I read this book so you won't have to.'


(2) Erickson is no Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams;
he's not even a Tom Holt!*

Mulling it over a month later, I now think that's too harsh. I certainly don't think this book is a successful effort -- but then I'm a hard sell, and others might get more (or less) out of it than I did. And there were a few funny lines; it's just a matter of whether you personally find it worth reading through to find them.

--John R.

*I'm thinking here of Holt's later works, like FLYING DUTCH, in which he lapsed into flaccid faux-Pratchett self-parody, not his early EXPECTING SOMEONE TALLER and WHO'S AFRAID OF BEOWULF, which are really quite good (esp. the latter). The man has talent -- his GOATSONG is quite possibly the best historical novels I've ever read -- which makes it all the more annoying that he apparently made a deliberate decision not to use it.

UPDATE( 3/9-12)
I've gone back in and corrected the spelling of "riparian" (from 'reparian'), as per David's comment; the error was entirely mine, not the author being quoted. So too with the abbreviations, which reflect my usage, not his. Generally I wdn't use abbreviations in direct quotes; in this case I was transcribing pencilled notes from my pocket notebook, not citing directly from the e-book source. I shd have taken more care to make that clear. --JDR

Monday, March 5, 2012

The New Arrival: GREEN SUNS

So, last week (Tuesday) brought my copy of Verlyn's latest book, GREEN SUNS AND FAERIE: ESSAYS ON J. R. R. TOLKIEN. I'd had this on order from for months last year, until they finally cancelled; you'd think they'd have added it back in on my 'recommended' list when it finally became available. Apparently not. Given that, once I heard from the MythSoc list (for which thanks) that it was now out, I decided to order it directly from Kent State.

Wow what a book. Haven't had time to read it yet, but I already know a number of these pieces from having heard Verlyn present them at conferences and workshops over the years (some of them dating back to when we first met, over twenty-eight years ago now!) For some reason, the entry seems to lack a Table of Contents, so here's what all's in this book [N.B.: the essay numbering is not in the original, being added by me here to help differentiate between the sometimes-lengthy essay titles*]:

1. Fantasy and Reality: JRRT's World and the Fairy-story Essay
2. The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth
3. Tolkien and the Idea of the Book
4. Tolkien on Tolkien: OFS, THE HOBBIT, and LotR
5. When Is a Fairy Story a Faerie Story?: SWM
6. The Footsteps of AElfwine
7. The Curious Incident of the Dream at the Barrow: Memory and Reincarnation in Middle-earth
8. Whose Myth Is It?

9. Tolkien's Wild Men from Medieval to Modern
10. Tolkien and the Matter of Britain
11. Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero
12. Bilbo's Neck Riddle
13. Allegory Versus Bounce: Tolkien's SWM [Flieger vs. Shippey]
14. A Mythology for Finland: Tolkien and Lonnrot as Mythmakers
15. Tolkien, KALEVALA, and 'The Story of Kullervo'
16. Brittany and Wales in Middle-earth
17. The Green Knight, the Green Man, and Treebeard: Scholarship and Invention in Tolkien's Fiction
18. Missing Person

19. A Cautionary Tale: Tolkien's Mythology for England
20. The Mind, the Tongue, and the Tale
21. A Post-modern Medievalist
22.Taking the Part of Trees: Eco-conflict in Middle-earth
23. Gilson, Smith, and Baggins
24. The Body in Question: The Unhealed Wounds of Frodo Baggins
25. A Distant Mirror: Tolkien and Jackson in the Looking-glass

I also found it interesting that when I read the blurbs on the back cover, for once I didn't think they exaggerated at all. Here are a few representative snippets:

"No one knows Tolkien's oeuvre better than Flieger,
or presents it more accessibly"
--Tom Shippey

"It is not often that a new book makes me want
to stand up and shout 'Hallelujah!'"
--Diana Pavlac Glyer

"essential reading, not just for scholars but for all readers
who want to understand Middle-earth and its development"
--Michael Drout

"a book of insights and delights"
--Marjorie Burns

and finally my personal favorite, the one that says it all:

"these essays track a major scholar's deepening understanding
of the work of the master of fantasy"

--I know that, for my part, I'm going to be savoring these, one at a time, for weeks to come.

*many of these's topics are self-evident from their titles, although this is not the case with some ("Whose Myth Is It?" being about the Athrabeth while "Missing Person" suggests no Christ is coming to Middle-earth).

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Writing Reviews

So, I haven't been posting much the last week or two, mainly because I've been playing catch-up after my two unplanned trips so far this year. One thing that's kept me busy the last week and a half of February was a book review. Normally this wdn't be a problem, except that after having arranged to do the review last May, I completely forgot about it until asked how it was coming, just before its deadline. I've now read the book, completed the review, sent it off, and gotten a provisional 'looks okay' -- so that's done, barring any changes that might need to be done at the proofing stage. But it's got me thinking about reviews in general.

For me, it's always easier to review a good book (this is great! you shd rush out and buy it!) or a bad book (stay away from this one, folks) than a so-so book (not terrible, not great; pick it up if you're particularly interested in its subject, otherwise check out a library copy). This particular book fell mostly in this third category. I'm also more self-conscious of what I write just now, since I recently discovered there's an 'Open Letter' posted on the website of one author whose work I reviewed last year, protesting against my incompetence and malice. I don't think I'm either, actually; I just happened not to think much of his book, and said so, and explained why, as clearly as I cd. I'm not surprised he's annoyed, though; no one likes a negative review.

Having just been asked to write yet another review, this time a much shorter one of a book I'm predisposed to like, I've been mulling over the problem and realized I cd avoid such trouble in the future by only reviewing books I like, and boiling my review of said books down into seven words:

Scholar like books.
This book.
Scholar like!

--John R.