So, some heavyweight books (literally*) arrived in the mail over the past few days. First there was the two-volume revised-&-expanded edition of S. T. Joshi's biography of H. P. Lovecraft.
This was originally published in 1996, but the manuscript was so long Joshi (the world's foremost Lovecraft scholar) was forced to cut 150,000 words (out of half a million) in order for the publisher to fit it all into one volume. Now he's taking advantage of a switch to a new publisher (Necronomicon Press > Hippocampus Press) to restore the missing material. It also says he did some updates, but a quick spot check shows that a lot of passages have not in fact been updated--for example, a reference to "the latter half of this century" (p. 1034) clearly refers to the one that ended a decade ago, not the one we're in now. The sole reference to Chaosium's CALL OF CTHULHU--probably the single greatest factor in spreading knowledge and appreciation of Lovecraft's work in the last quarter-century--has been expanded from a single sentence then to two sentences now. Of particular interest is Joshi's final judgment of Derleth (p. 1034), who he believes has a mostly negative legacy of having prevented Lovecraft's work from reaching a mainstream audience for decades.
The other book, though unexpected, is v. welcome: Vol. V of a five-volume set of the complete short stories (fantasy) of Clark Ashton Smith (THE LAST HIEROGLYPH, ed. Scott Connors & Ron Hilger), from Night Shade Books. I knew this one wd come eventually, but the timing was unexpected, the first three volumes having arrived in 2007 (January, June, & December) and the fourth in August of last year (2009). The great thing about this series is not only is it complete but the editors used a chronological arrangement, starting with Smith's first short fantasy story (excluding his juvenalia) and ending with his very last. The endnotes discuss their efforts to establish the best possible text and give details about each piece's composition. There have been so many attempts to publish complete collections of CAS's tales, all of which petered out at some point with a significant number of stories left uncollected --most notably the Adult Fantasy Series from Ballantine back in the late sixties/early seventies, but also including the TimeScape series in the early eighties and of course the Arkham House hardcovers from the forties through the seventies. So, well-done, Night Shade Books, for giving the greatest of all the Weird Tales authors a suitable 'Collected Works'.
Finally, and co-incidentally, these arrived while I was reading THE HORROR IN THE MUSEUM AND OTHER REVISIONS,** one of the first books I bought after my arrival in Seattle in Sept 1997 (on my first visit to Borders Books, nr SouthCenter). I started reading it then but bogged down without finishing the book, and despite subsequent dipping from time to time never made it all the way through until now.
It's an interesting read, so long as you don't expect too much. Lovecraft's work really divides into three levels. At the very top, like a pyramid's capstone, are a few really good pieces where he outdoes himself, like "The Strange High House in the Mists" and "The Colour Out of Space". Then below this is the pyramid itself, made up of most of his best-known tales, like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", in which he works out his characteristic concerns in his characteristic mannered prose, with lots of italics. There's not much variation in these, but they've a fun read as he works up what is essentially an alternate reality based around a few firmly-held though contradictory beliefs, a secondary world based on New England in the twenties and thirties. These tales have been hugely influential on any number of writers better than Lovecraft himself, who have looted them for ideas just as Lovecraft pillaged Poe and Dunsany. And then there are the failures, like "The Horror at Red Hook" or "The Picture in the House" or "At the Mountains of Madness", including a few so-bad-it's-almost-good guilty pleasures like the 'Herbert West--Reanimator' series.
And then there's THE HORROR AT THE MUSEUM, the fourth in the three-volume series of Arkham House's complete Lovecraft, the best pieces among which almost rise to the bottommost level of what Lovecraft published under his own name. It's ironic that Lovecraft, a horror writer by avocation, made his living as a ghost writer, 'revising' stories for clients. This book collects together those ghostwritten stories (except for a few, like "Imprisoned Among the Pharaohs", which he wrote for Harry Houdini, that appear in the main three-volume set), dividing them in two lots, 'primary revisions' (in which Lovecraft pretty much wrote the whole story based on an outline or story-idea from a client) and 'secondary revisions' (in which Lovecraft at least had a draft to work from, no matter how drastically he re-wrote the piece).
Reading them, I'm reminded of a passage in Christopher Hitchens' HITCH-22, where he quotes P. G. Wodehouse as saying 'If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'*** Joshi occasionally takes refuge in the claim that Lovecraft stories he particularly dislikes must be intentional self-parodies. I'd say instead that Lovecraft often lapses into unintentional self-parody. A particularly egregious example here is "The Diary of Alonzo Typer", who is actually writing in his diary while being dragged away to the cellar (to suffer an unnamable fate!); the mental image of him desperately holding on for dear life with one hand while jotting down some observations with the other is so comical as to ruin any effect the story might have aimed for (rather better is "The Loved Dead", where the dying suicide reports feeling hellfire already burning him just before the end). Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will find relatively little here, aside from Yig. There are certainly references to other Great Old Ones and strange tomes, but they're relatively minor -- it's always been my belief that Lovecraft inserted them into these tales (which appeared under other authors' names) as a way of signaling to WEIRD TALES fans that HPL himself had actually written them, rather like the Old English poem Cynewulf.
After that, reading a judicious mix of some C.o.C. scenarios (the newest from Miskatonic River Press) and a few CAS tales shd serve as a good pallet cleaner . . .
*When I went to mail to a friend in London the extra set I'd ordered as part of a book exchange, I found each volume weighed 2 lbs. 8 oz.
***one of Wodehouse's stiff-upper-lip quips made when being held in a prisoner of war camp early in WWII, having been captured as an enemy alien during the German invasion of France. For which he was, incidentally, hounded out of England after his release when the propaganda department (including, I think, A. A. Milne) decided to make an example of him for not having said nasty enough things about his captors while locked up -- the main reason Wodehouse left England and lived in America the last thirty years of his long life.