Monthly Archives: October 2006

Three Magicians

I saw both The Prestige and The Illusionist this past weekend — with two reviews of the former scheduled for the website, I made a point of seeing it Friday evening, and then circumstances invited seeing the latter on Saturday. The Illusionist has been out for a month or so, and I’d considered assigning reviews of it, but timing with the reviewers didn’t work out and I wasn’t sure it was even relevant for a website focused on SF and fantasy.

Both films are worth seeing, though I think The Illusionist is probably better seen first, since it’s a rather simpler, more straightforward, more linear-plotted story about a magician/illusionist than the far more complex Prestige. As for the relevance of The Illusionist to SF/F, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that it would be rather difficult to review, especially in the way it presents magical tricks or illusions (i.e. it uses FX), without revealing whether or not it ‘really’ is fantasy.

I see from comments trickling in to my HP Lovecraft posts that I need to address the topic once again, in terms of ‘reviewing’ the stories, saying what I personally think about them according to my own reviewing standards. I will do so, though in the context of what kind of sense it makes to ‘review’ works that are already part of a literary ‘canon’…

On Reading H.P. Lovecraft for the First Time (Part Two)

I’ve completed my project to read the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, all but 3 or 4 of which I had never read before. (I’m done at least for now; I’ve not read everything — there are additional collaborative ‘revisions’, many poems, and several volumes of letters, essays, etc. But I have read all the stories included in the generally available anthologies of HPL’s works, which for my own tracking I compiled in a table plotting which stories are in which books. I’ve converted the table to html and posted it here.)

So what did I think? There’s little point in my trying to describe HPL’s writing, his style or themes, since he’s obviously one of the most reprinted, read, discussed, and analyzed fantasy/horror writers in history. Between his reputation and the few stories I’d read before this, I knew what I was getting into, so I wasn’t dissuaded by the stylistic excesses, not even at the beginning. To answer a comment to the earlier post, yes I did start from the beginning and read my way chronologically (with only a few excursions) from the earliest stories to the last. It’s fascinating seeing themes recur and combine that way — I had the impression about 2/3 of the way through that HPL made a deliberate decision to combine thematic threads from his various types of stories so that everything interconnected, the dreamscapes and grave-diggers and Cthulhu Mythos histories, in much the way Isaac Asimov did late in his career (to some derision) with his robots and empires. More than just stylistically and temperamentally, all HPL stories are of a piece.

Frankly a couple of the reasons I started the project were pragmatic. At some point I picked up one of the Ballantine collections and read or reread a couple of the stories, and then read a couple more the next day, and so on. All the early stories are quite short — 5 or 12 pages. It was like eating jellybeans. That was good, or at least weird; I’ll have another. A second reason was that the texts of all the stories could be found online (albeit in uncorrected, frequently typo-ridden form), to be read electronically in situations where it wasn’t practical to read a physical book. And a third reason for becoming systematic about this project was that it seemed reasonable to get through everything by HPL within just a few weeks, even for a reader who’s slow or has at best an hour or so per day to read. That is, the HPL corpus is manageable, unlike those of many more prolific or longer-lived authors; all of HPL’s significant stories fit in 3 books. (As for what prompted me to pick up an HPL book in the first place, I’ll mention that in a later entry.)

The attraction of HPL’s stories, even the early ones, is first in the power of the authorial style, with its ornate descriptiveness and the relentlessness of its narrative, of block after block of sturdy paragraphs uninterrupted by dramatic interaction or character dialogue (with rare exceptions). Then there is the obsessive worldview that presupposes the existence of worlds unknown or unperceived by humans, and that experiencing these realms — especially as revealed through methods of science — would drive men insane. That idea of a hidden world, along with the macabre nature of many of the stories, is perhaps what draws the prototypical 12-year-olds to HPL’s works. What strikes me, either due to a differing philosophical temperament, or the fact that I’m a bit past 12 years old, is that this presumption about the nature of reality is so far from the default presumption of much science fiction — which senses wonder about the universe, not horror. (When I was 12, I discovered and read everything I could find by Arthur C. Clarke…)

After finishing the stories I read the introductions to a dozen or so of the currently available collections, as well as Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (which is a short 100-page essay padded out in the book by two HPL stories) and HPL’s own essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, so I have a basic idea of where HPL was coming from and what the consensus among commentators is about how his life and literary development interweave. (A few notes on the commentators below.) After all that I do have what is perhaps an original thought, and it pertains to why HPL is still so popular and now even endorsed by such literary establishments as Joyce Carol Oates and the Library of America.

Is it because HPL reveals the ‘real’ world — especially via the methods of science, from Crawford Tillinghast’s gizmo in “From Beyond” to the archaeological explorations of the later major stories — as a world that’s a threat to human composure and sanity, a hideous truth inimical to human values? A couple commentators note that HPL’s popularity grew after the World Wars in response to disillusionment about rationality and the consequences of science, and it seems to me the retreat from the real and rational has only increased in recent decades, with progressive distrust and disavowal of scientific results, especially by American religious fundamentalists who find the implications of evolution hideous and evidence of the big bang contrary to scripture. Is this also why HPL’s themes continue to strike a chord in many readers, perhaps even explaining the willingness of the literary establishment, which has always been skeptical about the processes and values of science, to canonize him?

Finally, a few comments about the commentators, mostly in the introductions to in-print HPL editions, for those readers who may not have pursued the various in-print collections even if they’re familiar with HPL’s stories. Robert Bloch’s introduction to the first Arkham House volume, THE DUNWICH HORROR, provides a basic bio, protests too much about Ted White’s dismissal of HPL’s writing as “sick”, and rather embarrassingly forgives HPL’s racism as a product of the time and suggests that HPL has had more influence on other writers than any contemporary except Hemingway. Hmm.

James Turner’s intro to Arkham House #2, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, is considerably more insightful about the “progressive humanization” of HPL’s life, noting also the shift in his political beliefs late in life, and the significance to his life and career of his 2-year stay in NYC.

T.E.D. Klein’s intro to Arkham House volume 3, DAGON, is even more penetrating and suggestive about the influence on HPL of Dunsany, Machen, and others, and very perceptive in the way he traces HPL’s themes even as they changed to return to Dunsany later in his career.

Joyce Carol Oates’ intro to TALES OF H.P. LOVECRAFT persists in calling his stories “gothic tales”. She compares HPL to Poe at length, and stresses his interest in the cosmic and impersonal.

China Mieville’s intro to the Modern Library edition of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (the book also includes HPL’s long essay) is notable for pointing out the influence on HPL of Oswald Spengler, whose historical theory about the rise and fall of cultures greatly influenced some of the later stories. He also discusses how HPL’s racism and politics (of course) are reflected in those stories; e.g., the Shoggoth is depicted as a subway train of myriad eyes, just like a real train of working class multi-racial masses.

I didn’t realize until late in this game that the recent Penguin anthologies edited by S.T. Joshi have lengthy footnotes to all the stories, explaining obscure references and providing background on the writing of each, or I might have followed along with them as I read. The intros tend to focus on details at the expense of general overview, but some of the details are fascinating — e.g., the way “The Shadow Out of Time” responds in part to what HPL thought were flaws in a 1933 film called Berkeley Square.

Andrew Wheeler’s intro to the SFBC collection BLACK SEAS OF INFINITY provides only a brief overview, but the book is notable for including two short HPL essays (a bio and his tips on writing) plus two of HPL’s collaborations not included in any other collection (except for the Arkham House volume of nothing but collaborations and ‘revisions’). I agree with Wheeler that “The Mound” is a major story — a long and fascinating exploration of an alien culture, almost on par with “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time”. (I was less thrilled with “Winged Death”, which struck me as even more predictable and less plausible than most HPL stories.)

Houellebecq’s essay “Against the World, Against Life” wanders through various HPL themes before coming into sharp focus in its last third, as Houellebecq describes how HPL’s racism was exacerbated by his stay in NY, and explaining how nevertheless those strong feelings were transformed and provided the power of his subsequent “great texts” written after his return to Providence. (And if some of the racist passages in his stories seem extreme, his letters, from which Houellebecq quotes, were more so.) Houellebecq says “Every great passion, be it love or hate, will in the end generate an authentic work”, and he makes the case that HPL is a prime example.

Checking in 16 Oct.

I’ve finished reading HPL, for now, having read all the solo works, the collaborative/revision works included in the major collections, and the introductions by various writers to numerous in-print editions of his works. (I’ve not yet read the other ‘revisions’ in The Horror in the Museum.) I’ll post a follow-up entry with my 2-cents worth reactions to this reading project in the next couple days.

I’m falling behind with new books to list on the website, due to schedule constraints (not dissimilar to my friend whose employer has blocked his internet access), on and off flu, and a seasonal surge in new books published. At the moment I have 40 new titles seen or received to list on the site. I’ll work on them tonight and tomorrow, and post some of them by tomorrow night, then try to catch up with the rest by the weekend, though in the long term I’m not sure I can maintain the rate of book listings on the site that I’ve been doing for several years…

Coming up this weekend, if all goes according to plan: not one but two reviews of The Prestige.

Lost s3/e1

Lost is still very cool. The third season premiere was last night, Wednesday. (In fact, the whole episode can be watched for free at http://abc.go.com/primetime/lost/index.) The cleverest part, actually, is the opening teaser, the first two minutes: it opens with a close-up of an eye, as did many of the first season episodes, then proceeds to a scene in which a woman selects a CD and puts it into a player, in an updated version of the season 2 opener, in which the guy in the bunker was seen playing an LP in his ’60s style pad (and in this new scene she plays ’60s hit “Downtown”). After some business about burned muffins in an oven (what is this about?), we see a book club meeting in which members argue over some unrevealed Stephen King title — one member complains “it’s not even literature; there’s no metaphor; it’s by-the-number hokum-pokum; it’s science fiction”. Though we never see exactly which Stephen King book it is. Still — presumably this an homage/reply to King’s friendly criticisms of the show in his periodic Entertainment Weekly columns?… ;) And one can’t help but think that things like eyes and muffins in this story *are* intended as metaphors by the show’s producers… even if we can’t yet figure out of what.

Then there’s an apparent quake, everyone runs outside, and we see — Henry Gale, and another familiar face; and we see — a jet airliner overhead, as it breaks apart, the tail section veering there, the front end heading there… We’re replaying the very opening, from the first season, of Oceanic Flight 815‘s breakup and crash, viewed from the ground, from those already on the island. And then we pan back, abruptly, and see this small town village, this village of the dreaded Others, nestled in the coastal hills of the Island, as if there for years, now nestled along the shore where smoke rises from pieces of wreckage in the distance…

It’s easy to nit-pick; surely we previously were given the impression that Flight 815 broke up during normal flight, at cruising altitude — while this clip visualizes the plane at a much lower altitude. (Not to mention the implausiblity of anyone surviving such an airplane crash at all; cf. the crash in Brazil a couple weeks ago.) Still– there are fascinating surprises here, new revelations, and despite the cynical premonitions of how ongoing series like this can erode and self-destruct, I have hopes, hope that the producers have developed an over-arching story that really will explain everything in the end. Surely it can be done. The failures to do so in the past (e.g. Twin Peaks) are known by the producers… as are the priorities of network execs, who understandably want to milk a hit for as long as they can. But surely it can be done…

ISBN Update

To follow up on my earlier post Rules of ISBN, I discovered today that I’ve had not one but two problems related to ISBNs on the website and in my database. First, as I described earlier, newly expanded 13-digit ISBNs are coming into use, and though at a glance the ISBN-13 for most books appears to be the traditional ISBN-10 with ’987-’ tacked on to the front (for US publishers at least), in fact the other difference between the two is that the final digit, the checksum, is different. I hadn’t noticed that and had been truncating 13s to make 10s, not realizing that the links to Amazon on the website weren’t working because of the wrong checksum digits…

Second, which I just realized today, as far as I can tell Amazon does not yet recognize ISBN-13s at all. Some of the Amazon links I’d generated with the expanded numbers don’t work, even though they have the correct checksum digits. I’ve written to Amazon to ask them about this.

So today I did my best to audit all the ISBNs with possibly incorrect checksum digits, and all the ISBN-13s, and check them against what Amazon says is the ISBN for each title. In practice, whatever they say is what I use. I hope I caught most of them, though if anyone clicks on an Amazon link and gets a 404, please let me know and I’ll get it fixed.