My Preface to “Lovecraft Alive!”

Hippocampus Press published my collection of Lovecraftian stories, “Lovecraft Alive!” and what follows is the preface I wrote, to set out my experience of HPL, his connection to my life, and the purpose of the story collection.

Prefatory Remarks from John Shirley

I was a mere stripling, an adolescent lad, when I discovered Howard Phillips Lovecraft in a library. He was there, at his desk, in a dark corner of a horror anthology.

Certain qualities drew me to him immediately: the atmospherics, the bravely flowing prolixity, and Lovecraft’s ability to evoke something in the shadows, some half-formed locus of horror that seemed to conform itself to whatever particular fear the reader held dear.

In due course I become the typical young H.P. Lovecraft cultist. I found Arkham House advertised in a fanzine, or perhaps it was the back of Fantastic Magazine, and soon ordered their catalog. I remember being very excited by the prospect of reading Lovecraft’s poetry offered in Arkham House’s edition of Collected Poems: Fungi From Yuggoth and bugged my mother for money to order it.

I wrote a snarling, probably semi-literate letter to Arkham House after six weeks passed and the book didn’t come; they wrote back counselling patience …and eventually the thin but handsome volume appeared. The thirty-six sonnet cycle of Fungi From Yuggoth itself was the delectable cosmic horror I had hoped for, and I reread it numerous times. In my boyish state I was a bit put off by the other poetry filling out the book, for example poems extolling the old neighborhoods of Providence, and I thought him rather a stiffnecked old geezer, after that, though I continued to read his fiction.

Stiff necked old geezer? He was one, in some ways–and proud of it. In other ways he was rather progressive. Still, he was racially biased, to varying degrees of fulmination, for much of his life (L. Sprague de Camp seems to think HPL let go of his racism at the end). He  scowled upon immigrants, and spoke wistfully of having been born too late for an “ideal” time, which he placed, as I recall, somewhere in the colonial-American 18th century. In time the Great Depression showed him that workers need to be able to unionize, when necessary, and that social safety nets are part of a civilized society; he forthrightly declared for them. He was dismissive of religion, and endorsed scientific skepticism. It’s a pity he didn’t apply that skepticism to his racial assumptions.

In bygone days my favorite works by Lovecraft were At the Mountains of Madness–a place I revisit in my short story, The Witness in Darkness –and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The phantasmic fringiness of Dream-Quest caught my attention; the whole concept of a dream-quest enticed me. As tales like The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow out of Time demonstrate, Lovecraft’s fiction was conceptually bold. And that kind of boldness is something I have always admired.

Eventually, as a young man, I went on from Lovecraft to more modern writers. But inevitably I returned to him, as one does. It happened when I was first asked to write for a Lovecraftian anthology. I returned to the fount for inspiration, rediscovered HPL, and found that his best qualities were as powerful as ever. I appreciated him anew, and in new ways. I reread his whole canon, and this led me, quite agreeably, back to many of his contemporaries, like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard. The exotic perfume of the Weird Tales writers drew me back, helpless and fated, into their otherworldly gardens. As Clark Ashton Smith said in The Garden of Adompha, “the growths of that garden were such as no terrestrial sun could have fostered.”

I have revised these stories since their publication but they are essentially the same narratives. I cleave to my own notions of writing Lovecraftian horror. I diverge from Lovecraft, of course: some of these stories are from a woman’s point of view; some are in a very modern, street-inflected voice.

But other stories in Lovecraft Alive I tried to write as if I were trying to sell toWeird Tales itself. In my own weird tales I did not try to mimic Lovecraft’s voice, his writing style itself, but I did try to compose in a way that would not have been out of place in that musty venue. And I wrote those particular stories in a way that would make them dovetail with the stories that inspired them. The Witness in Darkness is set in the world, the very location, of At the Mountains of Madness. But–and I think this is unique to the story–it is written chiefly from the point of view of one of the alien creatures, the apparent horrors, of the Lovecraft tale.

Those Who Come to Dagon was certainly written in a Weird Tales manner, as best I could evoke it, and it is almost entirely composed of ingredients from Lovecraft’s literary recipes…yet I must admit there is one aspect that might have troubled him: It is a kind of anti-racist tale, in a horrific sort of way.

The Rime of the Cosmic Mariner is composed as if scrivened by the famed poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (Coleridge spelled it “rime” as opposed to rhyme, hence my own use of that spelling.)

My Coleridgean venture is in the form of a letter written by Coleridge to Thomas De Quincey. As much like one of Coleridge’s letters as I could make it, and still tell the story in a brisk way, The Rime of the Cosmic Mariner would have fitted fairly well into Weird Tales. It is very much a Lovecraftian tale, about an encounter I imagined for Coleridge with the diabolical entity Nyarlathotep.

The plot of The Holy Grace of Cthulhu could have fit fairly well into Astounding Stories; alien invaders versus an ancient leviathan.

But other tales in the book are “post modern” Lovecraft. When Death Wakes Me To Myself is a hybrid of modern and old-school, for reasons that will become clear when it is read. Since Lovecraft himself is a character in this tale of transmigration and cosmic horror–and since my take on the man pervades it–I thought the story an apt opening for the book.

How Deep the Taste of Love, Buried in the Sky, Windows Underwater, and At Home with Azathoth are all endeavors at fusing the Lovecraftian with the contemporary world or the world of the near future. I’ll just add that Buried in the Sky, as it goes on, reflects my own preoccupation with making the surreal and the real as indistinguishable as possible. And speaking of Weird Tales, Buried in the Sky was first published in the modern version of that publication.

Putting this book together I wondered what Lovecraft would have thought of it, and I found myself imagining Lovecraft traveling in time and reading my stories. Though HPL might need a cultural “translator” for these stories, since they’re all 21st century fare, I think he would at least recognize them as refractions of his work.

I have tried to organize the stories in what would be chronological order in the sense of the chronology of their narratives. Except…the very first story is set in our time, and also in Lovecraft’s time, and outside of time. Hence When Death Wakes Me To Myself is in its own chronological category. The concluding tale, Broken on the Wheel of Time, written specifically and freshly for this book, is set alternately in 1878, in our own time and “above” time–this follows logically since the story works with ideas, references and even characters found in Lovecraft’s The Shadow out of Time, a work that makes time travel a mercurially metaphysical process. (I did not make up the Superfast Laser Pump, by the way; and I described some of its basic possibilities authentically.)

Time inexorably passes; it ruthlessly deconstructs and reconstructs and reimagines reality.

Lovecraft often daydreamed of time travel. If Lovecraft somehow takes a temporal expedition into the 21st century to inspect Lovecraftian fiction, he might be a bit shocked by one or two of these tales. Possibly he might not approve. It might be better for me if H.P. Lovecraft does not engage in time travel, after all.


Tags: ,

Comments are closed.