Monday, April 26, 2010

The Old Gods Waken




Books:

The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (1945): I'm not sure how much Lovecraft is really in this novel -- I'd guess Derleth fleshed out some prose fragments and possibly a short plot outline. In any event, it's steeped in the Cthulhu Mythos, following the ill-fated relocation of a retired British man to his ancestral mansion near the fictitious New England city of Arkham. I think this may be Derleth's strongest work as a writer (his status as a publisher who kept the work of Lovecraft and others in print until it came back into style in the 1960's has never been in doubt; Derleth is an incredibly important figure in American fantasy fiction for that reason alone).

The structure is interesting and effective (three narratives, each picking up where the last one leaves off), and Derleth controls his tendency to over-explain everything to do with Lovecraft's fictional mythology-that-isn't-really-a-mythology (because the gods are really aliens and their powers ultimately derive from vague but potentially explicable sources). The result is an enjoyable novel of doomed genealogy and ancient evil, similar in many ways to Lovecraft's short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, only not as intentionally funny.

As the events of the novel take place near fictional Dunwich and involve the always entertaining Great Old One Yog-Sothoth (both the gatekeeper and the gate to the other-dimensional realms where the Great Old Ones were imprisoned by the relatively benevolent aliens traditionally known as the Elder Gods), the novel also works as a companion piece to Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror," in which Yog-Sothoth gets up to all sorts of shenanigans in the hills surrounding decayed and inbred Dunwich. I can't say as I was ever scared, but I was entertained. Recommended.


Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub (1999): Straub's novella gives us the reminiscences of a former graduate student who, on one fateful night, interviewed a great jazz saxophonist named here only as 'Hat' (for his ubiquitous, eponymous hat) just months before that musician's death. The student, looking back twenty years later in the retrospective narrative mode I always think of as Great Expectations Structure, tells us the disturbing story-within-a-story the saxophonist told of one strange Hallowe'en night in Mississippi when the musician was 11.

One of Straub's great narrative gifts has been to make what should be complex and perhaps distancing narrative structures seem instead organic, natural -- 'non-threatening', if you will. His novels and short stories have always been invested with a wide and deep concern with The Matter of Story, how to tell stories, how to create narrative from existential chaos. But Straub does these often-metafictional things without distancing the reader from the characters or the densely described world they inhabit. It's a hell of an accomplishment, one that most postmodern writers never come close to achieving. Pork Pie Hat is an affecting story about stories in which Hat's Hallowe'en story opens a door onto one of Straub's major thematic concerns -- the Sublime, the wonder and terror of existence, and how the Sublime can arise out of the normative and even the most base human actions. Highly recommended.

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