Filler content with great old ones

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #5:-

THE GREAT OLD ONES

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (Gollancz hardback, 886pp, £20) is described as a ‘Commemorative Edition’, though nobody actually pins down exactly what it is that’s being commemorated. My cynical side opines that it’s the 70th anniversary of HPL’s death, post which his works have now all passed into the public domain, and my acquisitive nature forgets for a moment that reviewers get free copies and rubs its metaphorical hands in glee at the prospect of such a beautiful book with a ‘non-collector’s item’ price tag.

Chances are anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with supernatural fiction will recognise the name H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) and know of his work. He was arguably the most important genre writer of the last century and, while some critics have mocked his occasionally verbose and unwieldy style, the man’s influence on the genre and subsequent writers cannot be doubted. The back cover quote from Stephen King is apposite – “Lovecraft opened the way for me, as he had done for others before me.” Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Brian Lumley and Ramsey Campbell are just some of the main beneficiaries of Lovecraft’s legacy.

Lovecraft’s great contribution to supernatural horror lies in a shift away from a universe centred on the concerns of mankind, be they spiritual or materialistic, and to a cosmos in which we bipeds are creatures of little consequence. He was not a prolific writer of fiction, but in the dozen or so tales that make up the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ (a term coined by August Derleth) Lovecraft constructed a new template for the weird tale. Cthulhu was one of the Great Old Ones, fearsome creatures of monstrous size and unfathomable abilities, who ruled the Earth in a time before recorded history and were driven away by Elder Gods. But these creatures remain, biding their time and waiting for the moment of their return. Mankind means nothing to them, though some humans, scholars of arcane law who have learned too much for their own good or genetic throwbacks to an earlier time, serve the Great Old Ones or conspire to bring forward the date of their return. Written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon from which this volume takes its name was a treatise on these Great Old Ones, an invention of Lovecraft’s to add depth to his works’ back story, which has since been the subject of several literary hoaxes and taken by many to be genuine.

But enough of what everybody probably knows already and to the book at hand, which is certainly a handsome volume. It’s leather-bound in an attempt to mimic the ancient tomes of which HPL was so fond, with a wealth of aptly weird and weirdly apt illustrations by talented artist Les Edwards to complement the text. The front and end pages have a street map of Arkham, the ghost haunted New England town which was so often the setting for HPL’s stories. There are two ‘book end’ poems by HPL and a sample page of text in his own handwriting. Stephen Jones, who edited this volume, also contributes a 40+ page afterword, “A Gentleman of Providence”, in which he discusses Lovecraft’s life and career, both pre and post-mortem (largely unknown during his lifetime, HPL’s literary reputation blossomed after his death, thanks in large part to the efforts of August Derleth), complete with quotes from a host of genre worthies acknowledging their debt to Lovecraft and plentiful photographs of the writer, publications in which his stories appeared etc. Jones’ role is to catalogue Lovecraft not to criticise him – there is little discussion of his shortcomings as a writer or attempt to address the racism that informed some of his work – but perhaps such comments don’t belong in a ‘commemorative edition’ and for those interested there is a wealth of criticism available.

The bulk of this book consists of thirty four stories, some two thirds of Lovecraft’s solo fictional output, though in practical terms the inclusion of longer works, such as “At the Mountains of Madness”, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, means that it represents much more of his oeuvre. All the important stories are there, including those attached to Lovecraft’s mythos, beginning with “The Call of Cthulhu” and continuing on through “The Dunwich Horror”, The Whisperer in Darkness”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Haunter of the Dark” (in which Lovecraft’s protagonist Robert Blake is named after Robert Bloch, with whom HPL corresponded). There are also earlier stories, such as Lovecraft’s very first publishing credit, “Dagon”, Dunsany influenced tales such as “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” and my personal favourite from Lovecraft’s oeuvre, his account of a hideous alien intrusion, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Lovecraft’s work is a part of my personal history with the genre I love. I’ve read all of these stories at least twice over the years, sometimes more than that, and they are meant to be savoured, not gulped down wholesale by a reviewer with a deadline to meet. And besides, to essay an in-depth review of the fiction in this book, even if I had the time, is hardly necessary: Lovecraft’s record speaks for itself as to the quality of his work, and regardless of how you feel about his place in the horror pantheon, any aficionado of supernatural fiction with a cosmic bent is going to want to have his work on their shelves. The chance to acquire the cream of his stories in a beautiful volume such as this, which provides limited edition quality at only a quarter of the price, is simply too good to be missed.

Edited by Peter Normanton, The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics (Robinson paperback, 544pp, £12.99) is both a history and a celebration of its eponymous subject matter (graphic novels, for the more po-faced). Normanton casts his net wide and hauls in a bumper catch, with forty eight stories (the cover blurb lays claim to “over 50”, but that’s a slight exaggeration), the earliest having seen print in 1944 and the very latest in 2004. He groups the material in three double decades for convenience (the 40s &50s etc) and adds a final grouping for the new millennium, prefacing each section with a brief essay setting out important developments, both commercial and cultural, in the history of the horror comics. Similarly, each strip comes with a short note on the comic in which it appeared and the creator(s), making the book informative but with a chatty style. You never doubt that for Normanton this is very much a labour of love.

I have one complaint about this book, and that has to do with the size. While slightly larger than your standard trade paperback it doesn’t have the surface area of the comics in which these strips originally appeared, and so the artwork is necessarily reduced from the scale at which it was intended to be seen. As a result, the illustrations occasionally look cramped and in a couple of places I had to reach for a magnifying glass to read the text. Still, my eyes are older than almost all of these comics and chances are most readers won’t have any problem.

The list of contributors reads like a who’s who of comic book artists, with such familiar names as Igor Studios, Jack Katz, Tom Sutton, Mike Ploog, Arthur Suydam, Michael T. Gilbert, Steve Niles and John Coulthart just the tip of an iceberg of talent. Most of the stories are written by the artists, though there are adaptations of classic work by the likes of Poe, Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft, and in the latter regard Coulthart’s sumptuous rendition of “The Dunwich Horror” is one of the undoubted highlights of this collection.

Given the book’s size and scope it’s possible to trace the development of the form, with early stories largely vengeance based or sting in the tail pieces, and more serious themes emerging later, as the creators become aware of the potential of this medium and stretch their muscles. Similarly the storytelling moves away from realistic drawings in carefully demarcated panels with complementary text boxes, and towards freer, looser formats, with illustrations and dialogue used more directly to tell the story. Another development takes place in the area of continuity, with a shift away from self-contained stories and on to greater narrative arcs, such as Gilbert’s “Mr Monster” series or zombie comic “Dead World”, these changes going hand in glove with the rise of smaller companies and creator owned titles.

“The Monster of Dread End”, a John Stanley strip from 1962, is a good example of what this book demonstrates so well. An urban community is devastated by the disappearance of its children one after the other. Families moves away leaving behind deserted buildings, and then one day a young boy returns and lures out the horrendous monster that lives in the sewers. He looks set to die, but out pop the police with heavy armaments to blast the monster; they have been lying in wait all this time. It’s a gripping tale, and representative of its time, with the usual panels and text boxes, the carefully drawn and meticulously detailed illustrations. The tale was read by a young Pete Von Sholly, and it ‘scared the living daylights out of him’, who as an adult in 2004 produced his own version of the story, “Dread End”. Von Sholly starts closer in to the action, with the boy walking the abandoned streets and back story filled in as we go. The rescue, when it comes, is by the military, not the police, and instead of the closure we got from Stanley’s tale, there’s a final scene which suggests even more horrors to come. Von Sholly sticks with panels for his artwork, but instead of drawings he tells the story by means of photo-montage, with minimum text superimposed on the art in lieu of the caption boxes, speech and thought bubbles of Stanley’s day.

For me, one of the pleasures on offer from this book was to finally get to read some of the old E C Comics, a chance to see what all the fuss was about (they were regarded as shocking in their time and contributed to the introduction of the Comics Code). Alas, in the post video-nasty age these titles seem very tame indeed, which is not to denigrate their value as pure horror hokum, but in the main hokum is all they are, not the disgusting texts of legend.

This book was a great read, both entertaining and informative, with enough chills and thrills to guarantee that I will return to its pages many times in the years ahead. Besides, at only £12.99 it’s a real bargain and, for those who wish to read rather than collect, a more economical way to sample the gory treats offered by the horror comics than tracking down the original titles.

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