Haiti was the only place in the world with a widespread belief in zombies. And what the dead need when they return to the world of the living is sea water. In all mythology there is some kernel of truth, otherwise it would not survive. So therefore…
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Innsmouth Cycle: The Taint of the Deep Ones in 13 Tales [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] selected and introduced by Robert M Price, part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.
The Chaosium-published “Cycle” books, as edited by Robert M. Price, generally take a Cthulhu Mythos “entity” and supply a full range of literature for it: the key Lovecraft stories, likely prior influences, and later derivations. In this case, center stage is given to the Deep Ones of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I almost skipped re-reading the Lovecraft story itself, since it is the longest in the book, and I always have other things to read. But I’m glad I didn’t: it’s one of my favorites, and it really held up to the repeat reading, which was further enhanced by some of Price’s remarks in the general introduction, where he discusses the initiatory dimension of the tale. Given the fondness that I have for “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” I thought the other stories might have a hard time measuring up. But I found this collection very strong on the whole.
With the exception of the three poems placed at the end, the contents are arranged roughly chronologically by date of first publication. Price has identified three predecessor stories. The first and least relevant is the brief Dunsany Pegana piece “Of Yoharneth Lahai.” It may be the source of the name Y’ha-nthlei as Price contends, but it contributed no substance to Lovecraft’s Atlantic citadel of the Deep Ones. “The Harbor-Master” was the first Robert W. Chambers story I had read that wasn’t in The King in Yellow, and it was quite good; in fact it may goad me to read the remainder of In Search of the Unknown, the site of its original publication. “Fishhead” by Irvin S. Cobb is an effective little tale also. But in both the Chambers and Cobb stories, the ichthyoid men are isolated freaks of nature, whereas the terribleness of the Lovecraftian Deep Ones has a great deal to do with the extent of their society, or even conspiracy.
That element is played up well in a number of the latter-day tales, most especially “Innsmouth Gold” (Vester), “Custos Sanctorum” (Johnson), “Rapture in Black” (Rainey), “Live Bait” (Sargent), and “Devil Reef” (Glasby). I preferred these 1980s and 90s pieces to the 1960s and 70s work of James Wade and Franklyn Searight, although the Wade stories in particular can be seen as predecessor tales themselves to Alan Moore’s splendid Neonomicon. The majority of the newer stories have very explicit links to the original Lovecraft story, usually mentioning Innsmouth by name and often setting their principal events in the same mythical New England town. Geographic outliers include Big Sur (“The Deep Ones”), Chicago (“Rapture in Black”), and Essex, England (“Custos Sanctorum”).
The high level of inter-textual continuity is surprising, in that none of these stories are mere pastiches. I was profoundly charmed by the mystical “Transition of Zadok Allen” which concludes the prose section of the book. The trio of poems at the end are of mixed value, and they are sequenced by increasing length and greater conformity to the contents of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” The whole collection is quite worthwhile, and I would recommend it to fans of weird horror generally, beyond addicts of Lovecraftiana.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three Impostors and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed. and introduced by S T Joshi, volume 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen, in Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.
This volume contains Machen’s first published story, the notorious yellow-nineties fright “The Great God Pan,” accompanied by “The Inmost Light” with which it was published in its original book form, as well as the short story “The Shining Pyramid” and the full novel The Three Impostors. This last is often cannibalized for its fine component stories, such as “The Novel of the Black Seal.” Overall, the whole collection is a pleasure to read for those whose tastes run to the uncanny and the quietly twisted.
“The Great God Pan” is indispensable for its influence on later writers, including Lovecraft (“The Dunwich Horror”), King (“N”), and Straub (Ghost Story), and — as is actually fairly typical of 19th-century horror literature (think of Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) — it uses a science-fictional innovation to touch off a series of frightful events. In this case, it is brain surgery. “The great god Pan is dead!” has been supposed by centuries of Plutarch’s readers to have meant that the resurrection of Christ was the death-knell of Hellenistic paganism. The identity of horned Pan with the Christian devil is nearly explicit in Machen’s story, with the additional wrinkle that this inhuman evil is a reality against which we are shielded by a little bit of neuroanatomy!
There are two interesting observations to be made about name of the outre femme fatale Helen Vaughan. Helena was the name of the partner of the seminal Gnostic sorcerer/heresiarch Simon Magus, so Helen is a fittingly allusive name for what is really a sort of antichrist figure who reverses the action of Christian salvation. To have her mother — raped by Pan/Satan — named “Mary” is a nice touch. Vaughan seems to have been a name that Machen liked. He uses it again for an unrelated male character in “The Shining Pyramid,” where its Welsh provenance ties in to the setting. It is evocative of the 17th-century Rosicrucian alchemist Thomas Vaughan, and in his invention of Helen Vaughan, Machen may have been a contributor to the later character Diana Vaughan, the high priestess of the alleged Luciferian sex-and-black-magic cult of the Palladium that controlled worldwide Freemasonry, all manner of occult societies, and even major non-Christian religions, according to the conspiracy-monger Leo Taxil. It is entirely in keeping with the perversity of Taxil’s enterprise that he would take the name Vaughan from Machen’s fiction.
There is a decided vein of misogyny running through the stories in this book, paired with a horror of sex that is positively stunning. Despite these Victorian failings, Machen really delivers a sense of the supernatural, expressing the philosophical position that he puts in the mouth of one of his characters: “I have told you I was of sceptical habit; but though I understood little or nothing, I began to dread, vainly proposing to myself the iterated dogmas of science that all life is material, and that in the system of things there is no undiscovered land, even beyond the remotest stars, where the supernatural can find a footing. Yet there struck in on this the thought that matter is as really awful and unknown as spirit, that science itself but dallies on the threshold, scarcely gaining more than a glimpse of the wonders of the inner place.” (154-155)
Many of the characters are medical doctors or authors. The former help to brighten the line between the quotidian and the monstrous, while the latter serve as speakers and foils for Machen’s aesthetic agenda. “[P]erhaps you are aware that no Carthusian monk can emulate the cloistral seclusion in which a realistic novelist secludes himself. It is his way of observing human nature,” (195) jibes the writer Dyson, a continuing protagonist of several of the stories in this volume.
Machen (like Dyson) was certainly no realist. His fiction is abundantly open to the charge that the plots rest on coincidental events of such improbability as to remove them entirely from the believable. And yet, they hold together if the reader is led to infer some fatalistic, supernatural influence driving the experiences of the protagonists. “The whole universe, my friend, is a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by an outward form of matter; and man, and the sun and the other stars, and the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working.” (209)
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews What the Hell Did I Just Read [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Wong (now revealed as a pseudonym of Jason Pargin), book 3 of the John Dies at the End series.
The third “John and Dave” cosmic horror-comedy novel is a little closer in spirit to the first than the second, I think. The central cast of Dave, John, and Amy is unchanged. The setting in the small Midwestern US city of “[Undisclosed]” this time features riparian flooding as a difficulty (unremarkable climate change and infrastructural neglect) incidental and basically unrelated to the main threat of invasion by mind-controlling entities from another dimension.
This volume’s slightly lower overall count of dick jokes is more than compensated by a correspondingly higher number of ass jokes. It reads at a hectic pace. Readers who enjoyed the previous books should appreciate this one too, and while This Book Is Full of Spiders is certainly worth reading, it would be possible to read this third book directly after John Dies at the End with no greater sense of disorientation than the books deliberately offer in their published sequence.
In an afterword in his own voice, writer Jason Pargin sets aside his David Wong character to remark that he doesn’t view the three books as a completed trilogy, and to offer some earnest words about mental health, lest anyone take the wrong lesson from his stories of flawed reality-testing–as he seems to think that certain of his correspondents have done.
All Hallow’s Eve was the last of Charles Williams’ completed novels, first published in the year of his death, 1945. It begins just after the deaths of two young women, and follows their persisting consciousnesses through “the City” (which is London only as a phantom skin of a mystical heavenly Jerusalem) throughout the book. At the same time as the novel elaborates this perspective of the deceased, it supplies a parallel narrative among their survivors: one’s husband who is a diplomatic functionary, his friend an art painter, and the painter’s fiancee–a former schoolmate of the two dead characters.
The central plot tension of the book is constructed around Simon the Clerk, an aspiring antichrist of impressive talents and no sympathy whatsoever. The villain’s “Jewishness” is emphasized in ways that gave me a wince or two, but were doubtless theologically important to Williams. Like the other “Aspects of Power” novels, this one is an urban fantasy that predates the genre, and it features the kind of fell sorcery that crops up in the earlier books. It clothes supernatural events in the sort of finely-crafted impressionistic prose the author had deployed in Descent Into Hell.
The Eerdmans edition I read had a testimonial introduction by T.S. Eliot, in which he extolled Williams’ personal virtues, and briefly discussed the mystical doctrine and psychological insight in Williams’ works. There is enough reference to the contents of the novel as if the reader were familiar with it that the Eliot intro might be better enjoyed after reading the book–not for any worry of spoilers, but just for its own appreciation.
By curious chance (?) I read All Hallow’s Eve just a few weeks after The Third Policeman. Now I may need to go re-read UBIK. It seems like somebody is trying to tell me something. Did I actually not survive my recent bicycle crash? Maybe it’s just that time of year. After all, everybody’s going to die, and we’re all of us just stories anyway.