Read Part One here.
As you can probably tell from the previous examples, my own preferences lean toward science fiction and fantasy. Of my favorite authors, New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has had by the far the greatest influence on me, and his connections to other writers (by letters and acquaintance, or by the coincidences of publication) have been a constant thread in searching for stories.
Referring to Lovecraft as a “horror” writer can be a bit misleading: although he considered the cultivation of a frightening atmosphere his primary goal, he mostly eschewed “the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.” Rather, he was a practitioner of “weird fiction,” a catch-all label for nascent science fiction, fantasy, and horror before those genres had clearly defined markets. Most of Lovecraft’s work cultivated a sense of ancient, alien forces intruding into the present day, and although he borrowed a great many elements from the gothic horror of the previous century—books full of suppressed secrets, crumbling old houses, ominous supernatural signs—he married them to a scientific outlook, in which the most frightening truths were not to be found in the evil actions of men but in the indifference of a hostile, uncaring universe. As he wrote in his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.”
I didn’t know much about Lovecraft’s outlook when I started looking for his stories. All I knew was that his reputed blend of science fiction concepts, ooky tentacled monsters and dreamlike air of mystery appealed strongly to me as a budding reader of fantastic fiction. As hard as it may be to believe now, Lovecraft’s work wasn’t easy for me to track down when I was young, even though his name (and that of his creation, “Cthulhu”) was known to me. He was almost mythical, and I think he would have enjoyed the aura surrounding his work, had he still been alive; I knew that his “Cthulhu Mythos” had been included in the first printing of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book Deities & Demigods, but was removed from later printings due to a copyright dispute—or is that what they wanted me to think?* Every detail fueled my interest, until I was finally able to read his work for myself; fortunately, he more than lived up to the hype, at least in my experience. My being at the “golden age” of twelve or thirteen surely didn’t hurt.
My first tastes of his elaborate mythology came from anthologies, a single story by him (or one of his imitators**) included here or there. For a long time, even after I had read all of Lovecraft’s fiction (down to the dire posthumous “collaborations” by his executor August Derleth), I would search tables of contents for his name, not in hopes of finding something new but as a sign that the editor recognized the good stuff and that the rest of the book might be in the same vein. Similarly, anything connected to the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which Lovecraft published most of his work, was a must-have.
That’s how I acquired Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors, edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg. This collection includes one story from each year the magazine was published (in its original incarnation; it has since been revived), from 1923 to 1954. There are some terrific opportunities for juxtaposition: you can leap from the brooding, necrophilia-themed “The Loved Dead” of C. M. Eddy (1924’s entry) to the sophisticated modern ghost story “Legal Rites” by Isaac Asimov and a pseudonymous Frederik Pohl (1950, the pair’s only publication in Weird Tales), or from space opera (Nictzin Dyalhis’ “When the Green Star Waned,” 1925) to sword and sorcery (Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” 1929) to occult detective (Seabury Quinn’s long-running character Jules de Grandin in “Satan’s Stepson,” 1931). There’s also plenty of the “mundanely gruesome,” to be sure: the pulps were known for their often lurid content, and Weird Tales, Lovecraft’s opinions aside, was no exception.
In any case, Lovecraft is included, represented by his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, originally published posthumously over two issues in 1941. Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and variety of authors (including, in addition to those mentioned above, future luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch) gives it the character of history, sampler and tribute all in one, a sort of “This is Your Life” for a long-gone but fondly remembered magazine.
I’ve returned to many of the authors in this anthology over the years and read more of their work when I could find it. Some of the stories I enjoyed, however, have effectively been dead ends until recently: for example, Arthur J. Burks’ 1936 story “The Room of Shadows,” a creepy story about a hotel room haunted by its previous occupant, a “Eurasian” vampire whose conquests are turned into vicious miniature “sleeve-dogs.” It’s the kind of thing that sounds ridiculous when summarized, but that’s true of many fantasy and horror stories, and Burks excels at capturing the main character’s confusion and mounting fear, along with some PG sensuality in the form of a mysterious femme fatale. The editors cite “The Room of Shadows” as “an example of how a talented author uses staple pulp characters and situations to rise above cliché,” and it left me wanting more. Burks published a collection of stories, Black Medicine, in 1966, long out-of-print, expensive, and unavailable. Now, however, a number of his stories are available in e-book editions. I prefer hard copy, but when it comes to hard-to-find stuff like this, I’ll take it in any form I can find it.
A different animal altogether is H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of Horror; it’s edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, but as the cover states, it’s really Lovecraft’s book, compiling Supernatural Horror in Literature along with a number of the stories Lovecraft cited as examples and influences on his own work. Both the essay and the stories are in the public domain and are available in multiple formats, but it’s convenient to have them in one place, and the editors provide a smattering of commentary. Still, it doesn’t hold the place in my heart that 32 Unearthed Terrors does.
In both books, the diversity of styles and concepts is striking: there is room for all of the genres listed above and more; the very concept of the “weird tale” was nebulous enough to allow a variety of approaches, as long as there was something out of the ordinary. Weird Tales was billed as “The Unique Magazine,” and as Robert Bloch writes in his introduction to 32 Unearthed Terrors, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ Weird Tales writer, nor is there a ‘typical’ Weird Tales story.” Yet, the stories are often conservative on the individual level, in the sense that there are generally not more than one or two supernatural elements at play, especially in those set in the modern world. Even those set in the far future, the mythic past, or a “lost world” often feature a single driving narrative to which all the world-building and window-dressing are subordinate. The stories are short, and economy of means is key: pulp writers were paid by the word, not the idea.
The great thing about this tendency is that, whether reading an issue of the magazine or a latter-day anthology, while the reader may be dazzled with the sheer variety of ideas on display, each story is allowed to be itself, undiluted, and allows the reader to observe many of the building blocks of modern fantasy when they were still emerging. Just as Lovecraft and his fellow Weird Tales authors influenced modern writers, so did they draw from previous authors, synthesizing their influences into personal styles, a process that still continues today.
In Part Three, I’ll look at anthologies in a different medium: comics!
* My experience with role-playing games and my search for the “Cthulhu Mythos” printing of Deities & Demigods are subjects for another post.
** I believe the first true Mythos stories I was able to find were by “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard. Lovecraftians will know that the “Cthulhu Mythos” took hold in large part because Lovecraft encouraged his writer friends to make use of his creations in their stories, and he borrowed freely from theirs, creating a “shared world” (at best a collection of themes and premises rather than a tightly-knit continuity) before such things became au courant.