HP Lovecraft: bigger, badder, weirder.

Review of The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1, published by Wordsworth Editions. 


I have been aware of Lovecraft’s name for a long time but had never properly got round to reading any of his stories. Then I came across his story “The Call of Cthulhu” in an anthology of classic American supernatural fiction and I was hooked. The trouble is, there are quite a lot of Lovecraft editions out there, so where to begin?

A central aspect of his work is the “Cthulhu Mythos”, and in this volume Wordsworth Editions get right down to brass tacks by collecting together the main stories that fall into this category.

Downsides to this edition? Well if you like Lovecraft, after reading this you’ll probably render the book redundant as you’ll want to get the collected work. But Wordsworth books cost far less than the price of a packet of cigarettes or even a pint in some places, so this is hardly money wasted. There’s also the fact that the earliest stories in this volume are also among Lovecraft’s earliest work, so they’re not perfect and rehash certain narrative ideas and imagery.

A lot of what I’ve read by Lovecraft so far calls to my mind other writers. These are purely personal associations. I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, and I don’t even know if he read all of these writers. However, Poe is one who seems to loom large over a lot of Lovecraft’s work. He’s even mentioned in “At the Mountains of Madness”. But even simply in terms of being a writer who was unafraid to pitch things at the same high, nerve-wracking level, Lovecraft seems to have seen Poe as someone who threw down the gauntlet.  Little wonder Lovecraft’s work inhabits the same emotional landscape, and then gores even further.

MR James is someone else I like a lot, and who comes to mind when I read Lovecraft. Like James’s, many of Lovecraft’s characters have a scholarly background. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dunwich Horror” share the (M.R.) Jamesian device of scholars and other seekers of arcane knowledge go too far in their pursuits, thereby unleashing terrible forces. Like James as well, Lovecraft seems convinced that it is only the learned and well-versed who are truly capable enough to either a) solve the problem at hand (as in Dunwich) or b) at least make sense of it and to therefore warn others ( as in those ‘mad’ mountains).
H.G. Wells seems somewhere in the mix too, since the ultimate fate of the OLd Ones at the hand of their former slaves, in “At the Mountains of Madness”, has echoes of the future as foretold in “The Time Machine”. Then there’s the whole concept of malevolent forces arriving uncontrollably from outer space, a concept which exploded into the popular consciousness with “The War of the Worlds”.
I’m not at all trying to bring Lovecraft down a peg or two by highlighting what I find similar in the work of others. On the contrary. Whether he consciously borrowed from these men or not is by the by. What I’m trying to illustrate is how he took what already existed in horror/ supernatural fiction before him, and built massively built on those foundations. If Poe ramped up the horror and tension, Lovecraft proved he could go even further up the scale. In like manner, M.R. James’s gentlemen protagonists always seem to be scholars of independent means. If they are full-time academics their alma mater is barely alluded to (though the implicit assumption must be that they are Cambridge men). Lovecraft, however, went one better and created an entirely fictional educational institution, the wonderfully named
Miskatonic University, itself based on Brown University.
Also like James’s characters, Lovecraft’s are often well read and steeped in all manner of arcane lore, but the American weriter again adds a whole new extra dimension to this in his stories. This is by means of consistent reference to the secrets that many characters have learned by reading the dread book The Necronomicon by that “mad arab” Abdul Alhazred, printed in Spain in the sixteenth century, and now only found carefully guarded in a few select libraries. I love everything about this fictional book. There’s the idea f it being written by a demented oriental scholar,and the implicit pun in his name. (If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, total knowledge will drive you mad, it seems to imply.) There’s the book’s contents, which are so terrible that Lovecraft’s narrators can barely even allude to them. Then there’s the notion that the book was printed0 blasphemously so to use a key Lovecraft adverb- in a hostile place at a hostile time, Spain during the era of the inquisition. Then there’s the implication that those brave enough to dare its pages have their minds altered by its contents forever, such are the terrible secrets it tells of…
Great stuff, and just the kind of reading for a cold winter evening.
The supposed existence of The Necronomicon  gives greater weight to the whole cosmology of Lovecraft’s work, the macabre backdrop of the ‘Old Ones’ who were on Earth millions of years before mankind, and who wait patiently for a chance to re-enter our dimension to reclaim and dominate what is rightfully theirs. Such a massive fictional canvas makes ‘The War of the Worlds” in its way look like a little local skirmish.
If there’s a potential downside to all this for me, then it’s the fact that it’s on such a vast scale that it can seem overblown and silly. Yet that’s only if I cease to suspend my disbelief, and if I do that when reading this kind of stuff it’s fatal. I read these things for the thrill, and because ultimately it’s great entertainment. Besides, there’s the whole aspect of adventure and scale to his work. Take “The Call of the Cthulu”. If ther’s one short story that could claim to be epic in theme and setting that’s it.
By entering the gloriously mad fictional world of HP Lovecraft and suspending my disbelief, all I can do is cling on as best I can.

So whose moveable feast should you partake of? Or two ways to get back to Hemingway’s Paris of the 20’s.

Recently I took another look at Hemingway’s classic late period  memoir of life in 20’s Paris, A Moveable Feast. I’m very fortunate to own a UK first edition- without dust jacket unfortunately- published by Jonathan Cape. This publishing house isn’t particularly cool anymore, having long since been swallowed up by some faceless multinational publisher or other, but I’ve still got a soft spot for it before it went corporate and was one of the THE great UK publishing houses.  Going way back to when I first started trying to read ‘serious’ books, it seemed a lot of the authors whose work I was getting to grips with were on the Cape list. Chief of those was Ernest Hemingway. I distinctly remember reading Fiesta, The Old Man and the Sea and Across the River and Into the Trees in Cape editions from my local library. The dust jackets were beautifully designed. Well the first two were at least. Appropriately enough, for his least essential novel published in his lifetime, Across the River… had a rather dull brownish affair which isn’t as easy to recall as the vivid jackets for Fiesta and The Old Man….

Anyway, I’ve always loved Hemingway, but when it comes to recommending an edition of A Moveable Feast, it’s not out of a sense of personal nostalgia that I suggest you go for a copy of the text as it was first published in 1964, rather than get the more recently published ‘restored’ edition.

The restored version caused something of a stir when it was published a couple of years ago. The author’s grandson, Sean, decided to put the text back to what he claims was its final state, that is to say the condition it was in at the time of Hemingway’s suicide in 1961. This restoration largely consists of removing the ’64 edition’s foreword by Hemingway’s fourth and final wife Mary; altering the wording here and there; substituting a couple of passages from the ’64 text with alternate readings from the draft; and also going for a different chapter order at the end of the book.

Aside from being true to what is perceived as the great man’s final intentions, another key motivation seems to be to soften the overall picture painted in the book of Hemingway’s second wife (Sean’s grandmother) and her role in the author’s first divorce.  However, in comparison with the 1964 text I’m not sure this newer edition is as good a book.

To explain why, allow me to go a little into the work’s composition. Hemingway started work on it in the 1950s, legend has it after he came back into possession of an old trunk  that he’d left in the basement of the Paris Ritz Hotel back in 1930. It contained all manner of things he’d left behind, including working notebooks, and so it was in effect a time capsule. Soon the floodgates of memory opened, inspiring him to produce a draft of  what he originally called his Paris Sketches, which dealt mainly with his early working years in the 20’s, a time of relative poverty and obscurity.  Read the book and you’ll see that the first title is a pretty good, if less poetic, than “A Moveable Feast”, since it consists of a series of vignettes which taken together form a composite picture of his life at that time.

Now according to the Hemingway Estate, their restored version is superior since it reproduces the FINAL draft Hemingway was working on around the time of his suicide in 1961. In their view, this supercedes the original 1964 text and is, in effect, the true version. The estate object to the 1964 book, seeing it as inferior on the grounds that it was put together by Hemingway’s fourth wife Mary alongside Harry Brague, an editor from Hemingway’s US publishers Scribners. The Estate don’t like the way they supposedly made decisions they didn’t think Hemingway himself would have taken.

Things may not be as simple as all that, however. According to Hemingway’s friend A.E. Hotchner, around the end of 1959 Hemingway entrusted him with a draft of Feast to deliver to the publishers in New York. In  Hotchner’s view that draft was effectively what was finally published,  give or take a few details (mainly the lack of an introductory note and a title, the working version of which was, as mentioned, Paris Sketches). According to Hotchner, writing in the New York Times in 2009 “What I read on the plane coming back from Cuba was essentially what was published. There was no extra chapter created by Mary.”

On balance of probability it seems to me that the Hemingway estate’s restored version is that first draft, plus a few alterations derived from the working notes (a chapter removed here, a few rewordings of passages there) that Hemingway might have been tinkering with. It could well have been that these were second thoughts that date to his final two years of life. The trouble with printing this ‘restored’ version, however, is that he was an ill man for a lot of that time.  To put it bluntly, it seems that he didn’t know whether he was coming or going a lot of the time towards the end of his life. Personally I think that after his death his original editors did a fine job in getting Feast into shape and presenting it to the world as a fitting final work.  If you want any evidence as to the kind of trouble the old man was in when trying to rework this book, then look at the ‘Fragments’ included by his family at the end of the restored version. They consist of attempts to hammer out an introduction and an ending to the work, and have a pretty desperate tone to them to my mind, as if the poor man couldn’t fix his words on the page. I know writing is a hard business sometimes, and the best of us have days when the right words just will not come. However, to print Hemingway’s repeated attempts to produce a short introductory note to the book induce nothing in me other than pity. God knows what state his mind was in at the time. I don’t think the inclusion of such material helps illuminate anything except his suffering.

Overall, a look through this manuscript material made me realise what a good job his 1964 editors did in taking these fragments and assembling a brief intro and a fitting final chapter. Yes they had to make an executive decision without Hemingway’s input. Conceivably they went against his own thoughts at the time of his death. But I think they made sound judgements about what would make a better book, clearly things Hemingway might not have been able to judge clearly for himself.

The 1964 book, then, is leaner, sharper and more focussed: precisely the kind of tightly constructed work that would have emerged had Hemingway lived to discuss it properly with his editors. In contrast, the Estate’s restored version goes with Hemingway’s final chapter order. This isn’t as effective, since this book now closes- rather bathetically- with the chapter about Scott Fitzgerald’s concerns over the size of his manhood, rather than the original’s closing chapter which takes place in the mountains during skiing trips and deals with Hemingway’s infidelity that led to the break up of his first marriage. Another new editorial change I’d take issue with is the beginning of the chapter entitled “Scott Fitzgerald”. In the 1964 text went with a passage from the draft material that takes a negative tone in summing up that author’s character. In this restored version Sean Hemingway uses a later draft that is more positive about Fitzgerald. The trouble is, the chapter gives a pretty negative portrayal of Fitzgerald. It’s clear that Hemingway respected him as an artist but found his human flaws got in the way.  The original editors’ choice of intro, which sets that negative tone from the start,  seems to me the more fitting.

If there’s a saving grace to the restored version the extra material taken from the manuscript, given as appendices, is interesting and allows us to play the amateur textual critic if we wish. It also prints some pictures of the manuscripts and of the main protagonists. But ultimately, by going with Hemingway’s second thoughts on the book from a time when writing anything was clearly so difficult, and in trying to present a kinder picture of his Grandma, Sean Hemingway ultimately hasn’t done Ernest Hemingway any favours.

In his introduction, Sean writes quite dismissively of fourth wife Mary Hemingway’s editing of the original version, as if his book is the final settling of an old score. But if we believe A.E. Hotchner  again, Mary was less involved with editing the book than Harry Brague was. Either way, I think the 64 text is your own best way of getting back to the wonders of Paris in the 20s.