Inside Pulse 12

Book Review: Letters to Lovecraft

Letters to Lovecraft
Publisher: Stone Skin Press
Price: 13.99
Page Count: 290 pages
Release Date: 12/01/2014

In the introduction of the book, the editor collecting this series of stories introduces the reader to H.P. Lovecraft and presents him as a man both known for his accomplishments and contributions to horror fiction and as a person who held some deep prejudices. It’s a good, honest look at the man whose work still resonates to this day that doesn’t seek to condemn his work through his more controversial views or excuse those views because of the influence of his work.

The intro also explains the central theme that all of the stories are written around. It notes that writing is always a dialog with one’s literary predecessors. That struck a chord with me because though I know my own writing is certainly shaped and informed by those I’ve read I never thought of it as a dialog before, and yet the minute I read that like I knew it was true. Every sentence is either an agreement to someone whose style I enjoy or a disagreement to one I do not.

With that idea in mind he asked various authors to write a response to Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. Except instead of writing an essay, letter or story in the style of Lovecraft he asked for the writers to choose lines from the essay and write a story in response to the section that they chose.

I loved the idea described in the intro before I had even read the first story. Before diving into the rest of the book I even went back and read the essay which I think I last read when I was 17.

It’s still an interesting read. What is amusing is that while re-reading the essay I recognized the style of writing. The long slightly obsessive look at a subject, then a detailed criticism of the history of the subject with the self-assured righteousness of his view and how different authors either did or did not live up to his own standards. I’ve encountered several similar pieces in tone online, as blog posts, for nearly every medium. HP Lovecraft was a geek for this subject, maybe one of the original nerds of horror, and I say that with the respect as a horror geek to one of the giants of the medium.

While it’s not required reading to understand this book I highly recommend reading the essay. Since many of the stories are written as a response it’s helpful to understand what they’re responding to otherwise you’re really only reading one side of a larger conversation. The essay can be found online here.

The intro does a great job setting up the theme, but how are the stories? I’m going to try and examine the story through the quote the author chose, how much I enjoyed the tale and if I felt they represented the portion of the essay they used well. I will not go into too many details, because these are short stories and I’d rather not completely ruin them. I’ve never really reviewed a book compilation before so here’s hoping this goes well.

In the first story Past Reno author Brian Evenson chose the selection of the essay that goes:
Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, …it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore…[U]ncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities.

His selection paraphrases a longer paragraph, however the portions he highlighted are the ones that are most important to the story he tells, specifically the last sentence. Past Reno is a subtle tale about the fear that the world you are in isn’t right anymore, that you’ve somehow by accident entered a world that’s similar enough in most ways but is still alien and therefore a world of evil possibilities.

The subtle story is always harder to tell than one that is in your face and graphic. The author does a great job though lending the atmosphere of the story a growing sense of the strange and the quiet desperate struggle of trying to assure yourself that everything is okay. It seems to agree with the quoted selection and if anything magnify it so as to show that even the slightly unknown world can be terrifying.

Also as someone who lived in that part of the world I thought the author did a great job with the description of driving through the empty parts of the Nevada desert. There are times when you start to wonder if you are on any known map and time seems to stretch oddly.

The next story Only Unity Saves The Damned by Nadia Bulkin is in response to this part of the essay:
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain.

Prefacing the story the author says that while there are things that she agrees with Lovecraft on, the idea that outer or unknown forces are the most horrific, that the devil that knows your name is more frightening because it’s more personal. Which I’m a believer of as well.

Her story begins with a small town circle of friends who release a viral video and gain attention from it. Though it’s not a long story the author manages to give it many layers connected together loosely by creative use of description. The way you set roots in a small town that are hard to break free from, the bonds of family or the concerns of genetic inheritance are all some of the many limbs of a greater terrifying force that is more frightening because it’s easy to empathize with some of the struggles the characters have.

It does a great job with responding to the quoted selection of the essay as well as presenting an alternative that’s equally as horrifying.

The story that follows that one doesn’t really seem to have a title, it’s listed as _____ by Paul Tremblay. He uses some of the same quote:
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject… Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.

The quoted selection is similar however he skips a few sentences to focus on the atmosphere of a story rather than the way the brain reacts to unexplainable forces. In his preface he explains further and in many ways agrees with the author of the previous story though from a different point of view. He argues that a weird atmosphere doesn’t make a story horror, but that the source of horror is through a subversion of the commonplace.

His story goes along with this idea in theory. It’s about a man at the beach with his children who is putting up with a pretty stranger who is pretending that she is his wife. He assumes she is crazy, but she’s attractive and goes along with her delusion in order to be polite. As this is a horror story I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say this spirals out of control.

Personally though I had a hard time getting into this story, partly for the reasons that the author is arguing for in his intro to the story. To me a strange woman pretending to be my wife wouldn’t be something I would put up with for more than a few seconds, much less for a long drawn out period of time and later have others also buy into the delusion without question. For me this story wasn’t starting from a position of the mundane, I immediately felt disconnected and questioned the motives of the characters involved. While the story was written to argue with the idea of Lovecraft stating that the atmosphere of the weird is essential it started of strange to my mind and went stranger as it continued. It’s not a bad story by any stretch of the imagination however from my point of view it didn’t seem to make the point it was looking for. It is however interesting how much of a different take he had from an author who used a similar quote.

The next story mixes the mundane and the weird into the truly bizarre. Livia Llewellyn’s Allochthon uses the following quote:
[T]aking definite form toward the middle of the century, comes the revival of romantic feeling—the era of new joy in Nature, and in the radiance of past times, strange scenes, bold deeds, and incredible marvels. We feel it first in the poets, whose utterances take on new qualities of wonder, strangeness, and shuddering.

In this quote the author takes the Nature part of the quote literally. In her story she writes an almost Groundhog’s Day style of story of a 1930’s housewife who trapped in a mundane life that is so mind-numbingly dull that she drifts through it like a soul stuck in purgatory. A trip to a state park for her husband’s work changes things.

The story in many ways feels like a complete rebuke of Lovecraft’s essay while still in agreement with the words he used in the quote. In it the strange and unknown isn’t as frightening as living through another day of the known. If anything the end of the story is a happy ending despite the terrible road it took to get there. Before it the author writes ‘And when, in ways wondrous and strange, we are called home, we have no choice but to go.’ This story absolutely fulfills that sentence.

Doc’s Story by Stephen Graham Jones is one of my favorite in the entire book and not just because I really like werewolf stories. For it he chose this quote from the essay:
Witch, werewolf, vampire, and ghoul brooded ominously on the lips of bard and grandam, and needed but little encouragement to take the final step across the boundary that divides the chanted tale or song from the formal literary composition.

For his story he wrote a story that just doesn’t have werewolves in it, he delves into the stories that werewolves tell each other and much those stories like the creatures that tell them can look normal one moment and monstrous when viewed in another light. I loved that he essentially describes an internal culture where their own tales can shift the same way they do.

This particular story is about the stories a grandson heard from his grandfather. As this story about stories unfolds you begin to almost feel bad for the werewolves that the book describes. For they’re people lie so often about who they are to outsiders that they end up not being able to stop lying about who they are to each other, or even to themselves. It’s a great example of the quoted text from the essay in so many different ways. I really dug it.

The story after that is The Lonely Wood by Tim Lebbon, the title of which is directly derived from the quote he chose to use:
But the sensitive are always with us, and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood.

The story that follows could also be completely summarized by that quote. The author takes the reader through a man who is devotedly not religious and walks us through an experience that he has which is either a religious experience or a mental breakdown. Either way it’s certainly an experience from which the character in question would never be able to rationalize away.

As a story it’s an interesting idea that I thought utilized flashback in order to develop the character a little too much. It was still a fun tale that ended at just the right moment, leaving the character in the middle of a bustling city that might as well be a lonely wood for all the safety it provides from the mysterious.

Help Me by Cameron Pierce is in response to the quote:
Therefore we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point.

This is an interesting sentence to choose since in Help Me I’m unsure if there ever is a mundane point. A fisherman catches more from the ocean then he bargained for and shows that communication with something you don’t understand might not be the best choice no matter how good the intentions behind it are.

Judging this particular story by the emotional level it reaches its most mundane point is difficult since it starts off weird and at the oddest point there is more of a sense of confusion that’s reflected in the main character than horror.

The next story by Asamatsu Ken is called Glimmer in the Darkness. For this tale he uses this quote:
For those who relish speculation regarding the future, the tale of supernatural horror provides an interesting field. Combated by a mounting wave of plodding realism, cynical flippancy, and sophisticated disillusionment, it is yet encouraged by a parallel tide of growing mysticism, as developed both through the fatigued reaction of “occultists” and religious fundamentalists against materialistic discovery and through the stimulation of wonder and fancy by such enlarged vistas and broken barriers as modern science has given us with its intra-atomic chemistry, advancing astrophysics, doctrines of relativity, and probings into biology and human thought.

What follows is an almost X-Files type story that takes place in 1909, where a young Howard Lovecraft meets a swarthy Oriental Man-In-Black type character. The kind that were rumored to appear around UFO sightings and inspired the action-comedy movies that turned them from spooky assassins to goofy characters. In the story a young Howard talks to this man who talks strangely of aeronautics and of things that haven’t taken place yet.

The story combines both the ideas of rapid scientific discovery, plodding realism and growing mysticism into a tale that demonstrates the era Lovecraft was living while also speculating on the possible influences that culture had on the writer from a unique perspective. As a story it’s interesting and different from all of the other stories in the book and makes its point well.

After that is The Order of the Haunted Wood by Jeffrey Ford. He uses this quote:
Much of the power of Western horror-lore was undoubtedly due to the hidden but often suspected presence of a hideous cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs—descended from pre-Aryan and pre-agricultural times when a squat race of Mongoloids roved over Europe with their flocks and herds—were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity.

While others chose to focus on some of the language in this quote Jeffrey Ford instead focuses instead of the fertility rite portion of the selected text. The story that follows draws parallels between an old cult rite and ads for fertility drugs. This story is well paired with the prior story as they both feel like they’re reporting on fictional subjects as though they’re real and blur the line between fantasy and belief.

This story is written as an academic analysis comparing advertisements of erectile dysfunction medication to the rites of The Order of the Haunted Wood, connecting the symbols used in the commercial to the old rite and giving a frame by frame breakdown of the significance of each moment of the commercial. It’s written with such conviction I keep expecting to see the commercial described on TV. It’s a good story and a fantastic example of the quoted part of the essay taken from a very creative point of view.

Only the Dead and the Moonstruck by Angela Slatter addresses the following quote:
Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

With inspiration from that quote she created a story with the idea that children are afraid of the dark and are more sensitive to those hidden and fathomless worlds, but that it is a good thing sometimes as they’re more perceptive to the danger that adults might try and explain away.

Her story focuses on a family still grieving over the loss of a son and brother, where a young daughter has to be essentially the adult of the household and yet still has that sensitivity to things that go bump in the night in part because she has had a personal experience with it. The story does a great job addressing person horrors, such as grief of a family member and survivor’s guilt, while also building up an otherworldly threat that’s preying on them and other children that are on the cusp of adulthood. The end manages to provide a sense of closure for all of these fears.

I like the story a lot, and it did a good job showing her point about how children experience magic and danger while adults are rationalizing it away. I would’ve like to have had a little more about how the adults weren’t able to sense the same danger the children in the story to really hammer her example home, but that’s a personal nitpick of an otherwise fun tale.

The next story is That Place by Gemma Files. The part of the essay she chose was:
Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself. Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

As you can see the last part of that paragraph is the selection that was used for the story before. It’s interesting to see Gemma Files choosing the overall selection instead of just that part, especially since that first line about ‘remembering pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure’ is something that I kind of think is evident in her horror work outside of this collection. This story works well thematically with the previous story because she too writes a story about the hidden worlds children can see but adults rationalize away.

In this story it’s about a pair of twins who return to the home they grew up in to settle the family estate with their brother after their parents pass away. The twins used to play a game where they’d visit alternate worlds and leave their brother behind. Once they disappeared for several days panicking everyone. Now they’re back and have found the instructions to the game they played as children. It’s similar to many stories inspired by C.S. Lewis, I just read one in a similar anthology earlier this year, but it’s still a fun story to read and Gemma Files adds a raw directness to any story tells. This story is one that embraces many of the qualities of Lovecraft’s essay overall, in weird atmosphere, the threat of the Other, and so on, just told in a different voice than his.

Horror at the Castle of the Cumberland by Chesya Burke uses the quote:
Much of the power of Western horror-lore was undoubtedly due to the hidden but often suspected presence of a hideous cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs—descended from pre-Aryan and pre-agricultural times when a squat race of Mongoloids roved over Europe with their flocks and herds—were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity.

Speaking of Lovecraft and the fear of The Other, this story is a bold one. Lovecraft held prejudiced views of other races, of people who were different than him that he didn’t understand, and that fear of the Other is obvious in his writing. Chesya Burke didn’t shy away from writing a story about this subject, writing from the perspective of a white character who rationalizes away discrimination. This must’ve been hard to write because writing any character is an act of understanding their motivations and when they’re so counter to your own it’s…rough. The story tackles someone who mentally justifies their bigotry even when it’s a matter of life and death and is probably one of the scariest stories in the book because while fictional there are examples of this actually happening both in the past and to this very day.

Good story, boldly written and well told, and both an attempt to understand while absolutely refuting the kind of mentality shown within it.

Lovecrafting by Orrin Gray uses the quote:
The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from every-day life.

My wife was initially disappointed because she love crafts and thought that this would be a story about supernatural knitting or something. That would be cool as well but that’s not what this story is about. The author wrote about how he read the essay and came to the conclusion that Lovecraft was sort of a proto-geek, which is the same feeling I got re-reading it as well. He uses this quote to focus on the idea that there’s something unique and special about the type of person who enjoys a supernatural tale.

The story itself is a mix of jumping back and forth during a specific time period to explain what a pair of grave robbers are doing and why they’re getting ready to dig someone up. While the story itself leaves room for mystery at the end it certainly pushes the idea that there’s something special about people who enjoy horror and why they’d be able to manage a detachment from everyday life. The story gets the point across and would also be one of those great stories to tell around a fire.

One Last Meal, Before The End by David Yale Ardanuy takes this quote:
Another amazingly potent though less artistically finished tale is “The Wendigo”, where we are confronted by horrible evidences of a vast forest daemon about which North Woods lumbermen whisper at evening. The manner in which certain footprints tell certain unbelievable things is really a marked triumph in craftsmanship.

David Ardanuy uses Lovecraft’s criticism of Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” to write a story about the myth as he felt that Lovecraft didn’t appreciate the full scope of the tales that Blackwood’s story is based on and that the actual Native American tales of the windigo are an example concentrated horror. The story he follows that up with certainly holds true to that statement. I’ve always loved reading windigo stories when I was younger and my tastes haven’t apparently evolved that much, or maybe I have a little too much of that uniqueness described in the prior story. Either way I really dug this story of monstrous transformations, cannibalism and a never satiated hunger.

Honestly I’m still not sure what to make of Kirsten Alene’s There Has Been A Fire, which uses the quote:
Just as all fiction first found extensive embodiment in poetry, so is it in poetry that we first encounter the permanent entry of the weird into standard literature.

The story is about random fires that are started around a campus by possibly a student told through the perspective of a teacher who literally has bats in her belfry and visits with them. In the story this teacher says that through poetry comes the first real rhetoric of alienation, which I believe is the core of this story that in itself reads almost like a poem with disjointed imagery and no sense of time or space to it. It was not the kind of story I enjoy.

After that comes The Trees by Robin D. Laws which is one of my favorite. It uses this quote:
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Robin argues against the idea that horror is always invasive, that it’s The Other or something from Outside. Instead he says in his preface that an alternative view on horror would not be something from the outside but from within, and would be what we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves. From that point of view he writes a fantastic story about a sea voyage where the most frightening thing is what people are willing to do for their own self-satisfaction. It perfectly demonstrates his point while at the same time being just a great story.

Food from the Clouds by Molly Tanzer takes this part of the essay:
[M]uch of the choicest weird work is unconscious; appearing in memorable fragments scattered through material whose massed effect may be of a very different cast.

The story that follows feels inspired by this and another work mentioned in the intro to the story rather than a direct agreement or argument against what was selected. What’s told is about a dystopian future in London after a meteor strike and takes us along one man’s ability to survive by hunting and poaching food. In the story he teams with another to pull off a big score and yet still feels unsatisfied by the whole endeavor. If you’ve ever done something risky and were disappointed after by how easy it all was then you might understand that feeling. So he decided to talk his partner into the riskiest score possible. I enjoyed this story, the author quickly establishes the world than setting that these characters live and move around in. Once everything is established the plot moves at a fast pace all the way through the end. I enjoyed the story and setting a lot.

Finally, the last story is called The Semi-Finished Basement by Nick Mamatas who uses one of the shortest quotes:
[D]iluted product can never achieve the intensity of a concentrated essence.

The author says he thought about writing a story about those fuzzy Cthulhu slippers some fans get all bent out of shape about (I personally have a Cthulhu plushie on my car dashboard that my wife named Car-thulhu) and instead wrote a story about a phrase he hates ‘everything happens for a reason’ and also about concentrated evil instead. It’s a story about a conspiracy group meeting in a basement to discuss ‘the change’. About how a change has happened that has made it easier for people to do downright crazy things and that there are echoes of this change evident everywhere. Though they don’t realize that they might not only be right, but that the threat may be closer than it appears.

The story feels kind of incoherent though (probably intentionally so), like a mad man’s paranoid summary of why aliens decided to probe him , it’s a little all over the place and lacks focus and then the end is just there. While it does make the point it’s trying for it’s not a story I personally enjoyed.

Overall I found it to be a very good collection of stories with only a couple I didn’t care for. I give a lot of credit as well to the editor Jesse Bullington, not just for a thoughtful introduction but how he chose to put these stories together. There are several that complement each other well by sheer position of their story in the collection and he did a fantastic job just pulling them all together. I would absolutely recommend this to horror fans regardless of if they like Lovecraft or not, there are several stories in this collection that go to great lengths to argue against Lovecraft’s specific ideas about what horror is. If you’re a fan of horror fiction it’s just a fun ride from beginning to end.