Saturday, September 6, 2014

Four Stories from 1996's The New Lovecraft Circle

Finding myself in Des Moines this week, I visited the Central Branch of the Public Library and put a pile of anthologies in the trunk of the old Toyota Corolla.  Feeling in the mood for some sincere and serious Lovecraftian horror, yesterday I scrutinized the table of contents of the 2004 edition of Robert M. Price's The New Lovecraft Circle, hoping to weed out any juvenile pastiches or parodies and identify the gems of cosmic horror via my spider sense.   

"I've Come to Talk to You Again" by Karl Edward Wagner (1996)

I think Wagner's 1974 "Sticks" is terrific.  It won the British Fantasy Award and has been anthologized all over the place, with good reason, because it is great, one of my favorite horror stories.  So I eagerly started "I've Come to Talk to You Again," Wagner's last published story.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed in this five page story; it is good, but it is no "Sticks."  American writer of Lovercraftian tales Holsten travels to London every year to hang out with fellow horror writers, and has done so for some twenty years.  The Yank is a healthy 60 or so, his friends are mostly younger, but in poor shape.  (This story is largely about the horror of growing old, and Wagner goes on and on about each of the half dozen British writers' medical issues: diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, drug addiction, etc.  We also get some of the complaining old people do about young people's tastes in music and literature.)

It becomes clear that Holsten, years ago in New York, discovered an ancient text that put him into contact with some kind of supernatural being or alien god, and that creature drains the life of Holsten's friends and invigorates Holsten.  Holsten's old friends are dying off, so on this trip he is not only meeting them, but cultivating a new younger set of cronies from whom to feed for the next twenty years.

There are references to Oscar Wilde, the Beatles, and to Robert W. Chambers.  I haven't read The King in Yellow, though I have been intending to for years, and I suspect I may have missed some nuances of this story as a result.

The more I think about this story the more I like it; my expectations were set very high, unfairly high, by my attachment to "Sticks," so I was initially judging this one too harshly.

"Vastarien" by Thomas Ligotti (1987)

This is the kind of story I was hoping to find when I picked up The New Lovecraft Circle.  It doesn't directly refer to Lovecraft in any way I can see, but it achieves a tone and conjures images that inspire a powerful feeling not unlike that of some of Lovecraft's work.  I enjoyed this 14-page story so much I read it on Thursday and again on Friday.

"Vastarien" first appeared in
Crypt of Cthulhu # 48
All his life Victor Keirion has been dissatisfied with the real world, and wished to examine and inhabit an unreal world that exists at the edge of reality and the limits of time, a sort of ruin which hinted at all possibilities, "where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world."  After a lifetime of searching book shops and libraries for clues about this unreal world, Keirion encounters a strange little man (he reminds those who see him of a crow) in a queer bookshop who puts into Keirion's hands a volume for whom Keirion is the only possible reader.  To others, the pages of the book appear blank, but to Keirion the book is a guide to the unreal world he has so long sought; in a strange way the book actually is that world, called Vastarien.  During the days Keirion studies the book, and through the nights, in his dreams, he explores the horrible but fascinating depository of the ruins of reality that is Vastarien, a "paradise of exhaustion, confusion and debris...."

Keirion is the sole person who can read the book of Vastarien, but it turns out he is not the only man who has pursued Vastarien.  Once Keirion has mastered the geography of Vastarien (which Ligotti vividly describes as a huge dark city of winding streets and teetering towers) the crow man begins invading his mind and stealing his dreams.  Each night Vastarien grows smaller while a colossal apparition of the crow man grows larger, until Keirion tracks down and murders the crow man, a crime which lands him in an insane asylum.

I love everything about this story, the plot, the style, the tone, the images.  Five of five stars!

"The Keeper of Dark Point" by John Glasby (1967)

I'd never heard of John Glasby before; apparently he was a British scientist who wrote tons of genre fiction under numerous pseudonyms, including westerns and romance novels.  "The Keeper of Dark Point" first appeared in issue 107 of the magazine Supernatural Stories; the isfdb record for the issue indicates that Glasby wrote every story in the entire 160 page magazine!

"The Keeper of Dark Point" is a mediocre, pedestrian, by-the-numbers Lovecraftian pastiche.  I'd have to say it is a just barely acceptable entertainment; there is nothing original about it, and it lacks an admirable style, arresting images and any sort of deep feeling.  The plot consists of a bunch of Lovecraftian elements jammed together like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together.

Stephen Delmore Ashton (his name presumably an homage to writer and artist Clark Ashton Smith, one of H. P. Lovecraft's friends) is an Englishman who can trace his maternal family's line back almost 2000 years.  This family, the Trewallens, have always been held in suspicion by the villagers who live near their manor on the coast of Cornwall, and in the 1920s the villagers attack the place, burning it down and killing most of the family.  Young Ashton is (apparently) the only survivor.

Our story takes place in 1936, and is narrated by one of Ashton's friends.  By exploring smelly tunnels under the ruins of the burnt manor and deciphering ancient books found there, as well as a note from Ashton's mother, it becomes apparent that the Trewallen family has had, since the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, the duty of keeping an eye on a gate between universes located in a lighthouse nearby.  In three days the stars will be aligned and monsters can come through the gate and wreak havoc on the Earth.  Ashton memorizes an incantation and at the appointed hour he is at the weird lighthouse, where he meets his mother, who is not dead after all, but is now a scaly green piscine ogrish creature (but with a recognizably human face.)  Our narrator, at a safe distance, watches through a pair of binoculars as the climax unfolds.  A darkness in the sky blots out the stars, a bolt of lightning strikes the lighthouse, Ashton recites the spell, and the portal is closed and the Earth is saved, but as the portal closes Ashton and his mother, the last of the Trewallen line, are sucked up into the sky and out of our universe.

The plot is serviceable, and with some polishing this might have been a good story, but when you are regularly writing entire magazines I guess you don't have time to smooth out the plot holes, generate atmosphere, make sure all the sentences are clear, and that sort of thing.

"The Black Mirror" by John Glasby (1967)

Two issues of Supernatural Stories were offered to the British consumer in 1967, 107 and 109 (108 never appeared, it seems) and John Glasby penned the entire contents of both of them.  "The Black Mirror" was included in issue 109.

Phillip Ashmore Smith (another evocative and/or derivative name; we all know what the P. in H. P. Lovecraft stands for!) is a young Englishman interested in the occult.  His world travels, including visits to Tibetan and Indian gurus and the exploration of a Transylvannian castle, have yielded to him knowledge of Cthugha, the evil firegod.  Cthugha has been imprisoned in the star Korvaz, visible in the southern sky near Fomalhaut, for millions of years, but the time of his liberation is nigh!  Through the medium of the Black Mirror, Cthugha can be brought to Earth on the night that Korvaz waxes brilliant.  And what will Cthugha do when he reaches the Earth?  Burn up the entire globe, exterminating all terrestrial life!  You remember the Great Fire of London in 1666?  That was the year the necromancer Zegrembi used the Black Mirror to summon to Earth one of Cthugha's lowliest servants!

If you are like me, or like Alexander Morton, the country doctor, you are thinking that you'll be sleeping a little easier when you know that this Black Mirror has been thrown down an abandoned mine shaft and smashed into little bits.  But if you are like Phillip Ashmore Smith your mind has already been infiltrated by Cthugha's agents and you will be spending the year 1937 moving into Zegrembi's old farmhouse in the English countryside, where you will watch the star Korvaz through a telescope all night and decipher manuscripts all day, trying to find out where that sweet Black Mirror is!

Luckily for all of us, after P. A. Smith finds the mirror and gets killed by a fire creature that emerges from it, the intrepid Dr. Morton snatches up the mirror and heaves it down the aforementioned mine shaft before Zegrembi, who is still alive and leading the Cthugha sympathizer movement in England, can get his hands on it.

Like "The Keeper of Dark Point," this story would have benefited from some editing and polishing to make the plot hang together better and to tidy up some confusing and ugly sentences.  It is not clear in "The Keeper of Dark Point" how or why Ashton's mother became a monster, and in "The Black Mirror" it is not clear why Zegrembi doesn't just get the mirror himself.  Zegrembi knows where the mirror is because he put it there.  Also, why go through the rigmarole of giving Smith hints that help him translate old manuscripts (that Zegrembi himself wrote in the 17th century) so Smith can figure out where the mirror is?  Just tell him!

****************

I'm in love with Thomas Ligotti's "Vastarien," and Karl Edward Wagner's "I've Come to Talk to You Again" is good enough.  As for the Glasby stories, they deserve a barely passing grade.  I can't recommend them, but they are not offensively bad, and it is interesting to read a new author and explore a corner of the genre fiction universe, Badger Books, which I was unfamiliar with.  So my experience with Robert Price's The New Lovecraft Circle has been a good one, and this week I plan to read more from it.

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