M.R.James
M.R. James
The Antiquary himself

M.R. James is perhaps the most reliably frightening author I can think of. Although Montague Rhodes James only published 34 stories over the course of his life, each one is a polished gem of unwise inquiries, lurking supernatural threats and terrible ghostly vengeance. What could be better, with Halloween looming?

Published between  1895 and 1936, James’s ghost stories are slightly stuffy, off-handedly erudite, and almost impossibly creepy–the kind of creepy that makes locking all the doors and looking behind the furniture a rational reaction. His tales were influenced by his scholarly work as a medievalist and antiquarian, with many of them featuring archaic manuscripts and bookish protagonists, with the setting being often a small village or a country estate.

M.R. James also incorporated a subtle humor into his terrors, with side comments about social obligations and domestic disagreements. The contrast between the prosaic and the threatening unknown makes the effect all the more intense and hard to shrug off.

Although there are several collections to choose from, for the full M.R. James experience the Complete Ghost Stories is the way to go. This collection, which has never been out of print, contains all but the four stories he wrote after Complete Ghost Stories was published in 1931.

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Of, course, I have my particular favorites.

M.R. James“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” begins with the discovery of a small flute.

It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” contains a trove of stolen, rare documents.

Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’

M.R. James“The Mezzotint” is a still life that is not so still.

It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Finally, “Lost Hearts”, which I have always found the most tragic of M.R. James’s stories.

His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possess the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

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While M.R. James exerted plenty of influence in the literary world (inspiring H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as John Bellairs, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King), his work had less impact on movies and television. The only full-length film version of one of his tales is the adaptation of  “Casting the Runes”, filmed as Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US) in 1957. James’s stories were adapted for television several times over the years, from a 1951 version of “The Tractate Middoth”, to the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series in the 1970s that used five of James’s works,  to a chilling 2010 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” starring John Hurt.

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M.R. James’s Complete Ghost Stories has no scaly cosmic horrors, no carnage, and precious little blood. What it does have is an undeniably unnerving atmosphere that has held up for over a century. And whatever form you find them in, M.R. James’s stories can be counted on to make you look over your shoulder–just to be sure.

 

H.P. Lovecraft’s output has been thoroughly mined and mulled over, anthologized and, as I’ve mentioned before, annotated. But the popular focus has long been on his Cthulhu Mythos. While “In the Walls of Eryx” has always been one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, it stands apart from that particularly haunted universe. Instead, its universe is a bit closer to home.

The Backstory

In addition to his own distinctive output, H.P. Lovecraft was a frequent collaborator. He lent his particular, disturbing expertise to at least thirty-three collaborative works during his lifetime. Some of his co-authors were famous in their own right, like Harry Houdini, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. Most of the others had more modest writing careers. And some, like Lovecraft’s co-author for the short story “In the Walls of Eryx”, barely made another ripple in the literary world.

Kenneth J. Sterling was a Providence high school student when he approached Lovecraft for assistance in writing “In the Walls of Eryx”. Of course, as with many of his other collaborations, Lovecraft made it his own by writing the vast bulk of the finished story. And as was Lovecraft’s habit, even though the seeds of the story belonged to someone else, he inserted his insidious themes and colored the entire piece. What started as a straightforward, if juvenile, derivative misadventure became complicated with Lovecraft’s hallmark hints of cosmic doom: “I believe we have violated some obscure and mysterious law—some law buried deep in the arcana of the cosmos…”. “Eryx” may not be part of Lovecraft’s sprawling mythos, but it still manages to evoke the same haunting dread.

The Details

Lovecraft’s ventures into science fiction are much like Ray Bradbury’s or Fritz Leiber’s; the tales are science fiction only in setting, not detail, because their authors are fantasists, not scientists. This in no way diminishes the stories, but one should not approach them looking for solidly grounded scientific or technological ideas. Although it is set on Venus and throws about superficially impressive terminology such as flame-pistols, oxygen masks with sponge resevoirs, crystal detectors, N-force, and an alternate Venusian dating system, “In the Walls of Eryx” still hangs entirely on pure human fear, and brings Lovecraft’s beloved tentacles into the mix within the first page. It is a horror story masquerading as science fiction, not a syllable of it contingent on technology.

Scenes from a swamp
Scenes from a swamp

Lovecraft’s conception of Venus in “In the Walls of Eryx” is in keeping with how the planet was often imagined in the early twentieth century. Venus was pictured as a soggy place, swampy and hot and overgrown, and the jungles of Venus were a popular setting for a number of early fantasy and science fiction authors. Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury all painted Venus as wet and steamy—Lovecraft was in very good company.

In addition to his take on the swamps of Venus, Lovecraft also provides some vivid if not particularly active aliens for us to revile. The natives are described throughout the story as damnable, skulking, slinking, detestable, scaly wretches; man-lizards with “green, slimy, frog-like skin”, and an “accidental physical resemblance to terrestrial man.” The human narrator is disgusted by them but sees them as more nuisance than threat since they are so clearly lesser beings. I can only wonder if Kenneth Sterling had any say in them at all, since the creatures seem as much Innsmouth as Venus.

Tentacles
And some tentacles

In Lovecraft’s hands, the imaginary technology, grossly inferior aliens and gloomy Venusian swamps still produce an undeniably eldritch effect. This story is scary in the creeping, unclean way that all Lovecraft’s stories are scary. The marvelous, sticky dread Lovecraft weaves through all his work is in full bloom, here. He builds his mood with carefully chosen imagery rather that evokes huge off-page events, and the end result is his hallmark bleak despair.

The inherent uncleanness of “In the Walls of Eryx” does not lie in the farnoth flies or the slimy mud, the random dead body or the spongy vines. It is instead generated by the absolute hopelessness of the narrator’s situation. He has wandered into an invisible maze with twenty foot high walls, and he cannot find his way out. There is paranoia to be found here, and enforced helplessness. Like so much other work that Lovecraft left his fingerprints on, the end can only be grim for our protagonist.

Some Possibilities?

Part of Lovecraft’s appeal here is in how he builds up the creep-factor through repetitions of the character’s experiences, ratcheting up the intensity as he deals with a recurring yet progressively worsening scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” is twelve thousand words of a man trying and failing, repeatedly, to escape from an invisible maze. That is the summary of both plot and action—but it still manages to leave the reader with a grim tension not quite dispelled at the end.

That lingering tension is why I think this story could easily be expanded into a nerve-wracking film. While it doesn’t have the somewhat more action-driven plot as the famous, cult-movie inspiring Herbert West, Re-Animator (see our Mort Delciver’s reviews of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator for details), “In the Walls of Eryx” has potential. Its claustrophobia is a familiar horror trope.  The lurking aliens, the unsee-able maze, the utter aloneness of the narrator, all point to a creepy little film, should anyone wish to make it.

maze_wikimedia_commons
What maze?

It also provides an excellent gaming scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” did inspire a very simple browser video game a few years ago, but the premise can be exploited for so much more. Most Lovecraftian video games focus on the mythos. The tabletop games as well, dominated by Call of Cthulhu, do not stray very far afield. Certainly not as far as Venus.

Unfortunately, since the story isn’t part of Lovecraft’s main mythos, it tends to get shunted to the side (and I may certainly have missed something). But from the swampy landscape thick with carnivorous plants to the tentacled lizard-men, from the potential conflicts of a human commercial outpost on Venus to the starkly simple threat of an alien invisible maze, there is an entire extended narrative to be built from this. August Derleth had his shot. This one is ours.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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annotated-lovecraftThe New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. By H.P. Lovecraft, Edited with a Foreword and Notes by Leslie S. Klinger, Introduction by Alan Moore. New York, NY: Liveright; 13 October 2014; ISBN 978-0-87140-453-4; 922 pages; hardcover.

 

The thing about Lovecraft (or about any iconic writer, really), is that you get used to the pastiches, the tributes, the imitations and derivations. It is a necessity, then, to return to the source at intervals and remind yourself exactly why this author has inspired so many people over so many years to try to tap into the rich, dark, cryptic world he created.

Sometimes it seems as if every writer banging away out there has tapped into the shadowy world Lovecraft seeded for us. Sometimes it feels a little cheap, as if we should come up with our own monsters. But in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, Leslie S. Klinger makes Lovecraft’s intentions about the use of his ideas abundantly clear: “The more these synthetic demons are mutually written up by different authors, the better they become as general background material. I like to have others use my Azathoths and Nyarlathoteps–& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran” (lxiii).

The book itself encourages that sharing. It makes a reader want to pick it up, feel it, and weigh what might be inside. The first thing to notice about it is that it is a truly handsome edition, with heavy pages and a cover laced with tentacles. Physically, it is a striking representation of its content. Lovecraft is dense and dark. This book is, too, with the ivory paper mimicking aged parchment and lending a sepia tint to the illustrations. The blurbs are from a selection of heavy-hitters in the field of weird fiction such as Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Peter Straub, and Joyce Carol Oates (as much as I find Oates’s novels draining, her short, macabre pieces are chilling).

Rather than taking on the entirety of Lovecraft’s work (which has been done before and often), Klinger instead looks closely at twenty-two stories and novels. This volume covers the instantly recognizable titles like The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth to the less immediately known but still resonant The Festival and The Silver Key.

The annotations are thorough, and liberally sprinkled through with original magazine covers and illustrations, examples of handwritten drafts, and photographs of many of the places referenced in the stories. Klinger does a remarkable job of recreating the environment in which Lovecraft worked, showing his readers the prosaic structures and neighborhoods that Lovecraft twisted into his own world.

The appendices are a treasure. Appendix 1 is a chronological table of events in Lovecraft’s works, beginning with the 1771 death of Joseph Curwen in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward to the 1935 storm over Providence in “The Haunter of the Dark”. Appendix 2 is a partial list of the faculty of Miskatonic University, including each one’s position and the story in which he appeared. Three is Lovecraft’s own outlined history of the Necronomicon, itself footnoted by Klinger and including a reproduction of Lovecraft’s original version written on and around a letter he received from the director of the Park Museum in Providence. Four is the genealogy of the Elder Races as laid out by their creator, five a list of Lovecraft’s solo fiction output with dates of writing and publication, again with a reproduction of Lovecraft’s own handwritten list, and six a list of his collaborations (whether openly or as ghostwriter), which include such figures as C.L. Moore, Robert E. Howard, and Harry Houdini. Appendix seven is a compact overview of Lovecraft’s influence in popular culture that focuses primarily on the films he inspired.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The appendices bring us to the end of the physical book, but the beginning is really where the challenge still waits. Alan Moore’s introduction foreshadows the literary criticisms that will follow in the foreword and annotations, honing in on the substantial baggage Lovecraft carries with him across the decades. He describes the struggle to create a literary legitimacy for Lovecraft’s works after his death, a task that “…has undeniably been hindered by his problematic stance on most contemporary issues, with his racism, alleged misogyny, class prejudice, dislike of homosexuality, and anti-Semitism needing to be both acknowledged and addressed before a serious appraisal of his work could be commenced” (xi). Moore himself is dealing with it in his own way, through a gay, Jewish character in his series Providence. And he still describes the interest in and appreciation of Lovecraft’s craft as a “posthumous trajectory from pulp to academia that is perhaps unique in modern letters” (xi).

Klinger’s foreword provides a brief biographical summary that also does not shy away from the increasingly inevitable, uncomfortable topic of Lovecraft’s racism and how it manifested in his actual life and as part of his tangled cosmology:

Although his attitudes may be dismissed as products of the times, his words do not display casual racism…It seems that Lovecraft’s peculiar upbringing, combined with his family’s tenuous social position in Rhode Island society, grafted onto his consciousness a hostility to virtually all who were not white New Englanders…Although the times changed, and the “scientific” bases for racism and eugenics that he embraced eroded over his lifetime, Lovecraft remained static and unbending. Worst of all, his beliefs may be seen as essential to several of his stories, such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” which imagines the horror of interspecies breeding (lxvi).

Unfortunately, the flaws in Lovecraft’s morality set up questions for the morality of his modern readers. Are we justified in enjoying his works, revering them, even though we know that the author held some execrable beliefs that informed some of his best-known and most admired work? Is it acceptable to separate an artist from his art, and treat the creator and the creation as two independent entities?

Moore, in his introduction, felt that the art transcended the man. Not all would agree, but we read on, just the same.