College Verse of 1931

The first and only volume of Best College Verse was published by Harpers in 1931 as a projected annual anthology. I purchased an inexpensive but unique copy recently, mainly for Donald Wandrei’s poem, “Lyric of Doubt.” Wandrei was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft (who was of course a prolific letter writer). As it happens, several of the contributors had a connection to Lovecraft. Douglas A. Anderson identifies Richard Ely Morse and Winfield Townley Scott. The former was a correspondent and the latter an early critic and admirer.

My copy belonged to a contributor named Alicia K. O’Donnell from the University of Montana. Her bookplate is pasted into the front cover. The contributor’s copies are quite handsome, quarter bound in leather with marbled boards and endpapers, unlike the trade edition.

Miss O’Donnell’s poem is called “Engines”:

There is in the movement of trains
That go silently out from cities
And come silently into cities
Something that is a blend of efficiency,
Manifest in the thoughtless hurry of towns,
And of strength that knows its strength
And is unforced.

And I have read in the eyes of men who sit
Smoking their pipes in cupolas,
Sitting and looking out with still eyes
Over the curving backs of trains,
Something that is not earth’s strength
Nor cities’ eagerness,
A thing blended of both
And greater far.

There is a foreshadowing of Ayn Rand in it, perhaps? Wandrei’s poem by contrast is rather ellegiac and Poe-like. Anderson describes Scott’s contributions as cosmic. The theme of his poem “The Last Man” brings to mind Shelley’s “Ozymandius” with its bitter awe at the vanity and futility of human endeavor. Scott writes:

Slowly and painfully and all alone
He climbs the hill to watch the setting sun;
Sickly and pale and cold as ancient stone
Its final light on this remaining one. 
He watches it; where clouds were thick with rain
A rainbow glimmers—God’s last mockery;
He hears below the dim edge of the plain,
Far off, the gradual stilling of the sea. 

Standing there, bowed before the thin green light,
He looks down were so many million souls
Set banners flying and went beating drums
And tended fires and sped abroad to fight,
All—all for causes over which dust rolls. 
The sun goes out, and the great darkness comes.

I am not sure why subsequent volumes were not published. Anderson suggests that the commencement of the Great Depression must have curtailed the series, but I am not sure why it would have been affected more than any other publishing venture.

C.S. Lewis on Science Fiction

Douglas A. Anderson at A Shiver in the Archive has republished an anecdote about C.S. Lewis originally told by Frank Arnold.

Arnold was one of a group of science fiction writers and fans who met at the Globe Tavern in Holborn in the early 1950s. On one occasion Lewis joined them together with his (future) wife Joy Davidman and his brother Warnie. Apparently Davidman was a regular at these meetings. Arnold writes:

The first distinguished author to call on us at the Globe was no less a man than C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, etc.). One of the great scholars of his time, Professor Lewis was forthright in upholding his own views on all questions of history, literature and theology. If they happened to coincide with fashionable opinion, well and good, but if they did not – well, it was rough luck on fashionable opinion! When he came to the Globe, Lewis did not really know who we were, nor did he need to – enough that here was The Master enjoying an evening off among admiring pupils. What a feast of conversation we had that evening! Lewis hated and loved SF in almost equal measure, and I shall never forget how his eyes lit up when I chanced to mention Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. ‘An evil book,’ he called it, with relish, for he was as strongly devoted to it as I am. So far from sharing A. M. Low’s belief in the blessings of science, Lewis believed that science was the especial gift of Satan – a view which has since been propagated by many much less exalted thinkers and agitators.

Lewis’s moderating cynicism about science and science fiction undoubtedly elevated his own brilliant Space Trilogy, which should be read alongside 1984 and A Brave New World.

The Jamesian Season

M.R. James read his ghost stories to friends in the Chit-Chat Club at Cambridge around Christmastime so December seems like a good season for Jamesian housekeeping.

Castle Imprint, the publisher of my book Victoriana, has an annotated edition of James’s 1913 tale, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” available as a hardcover chapbook. The edition is illustrated with engravings of the Punch and Judy show by George Cruikshank throughout. “Disappearance” is the only one of James’s Christmas ghost stories specifically set at Christmas.

During the pandemic, with live theater scarce, I have been enjoying Robert Lloyd Parry’s regular dramatic readings on YouTube and DVD of weird tales, many by James. They remind me of a series that I wrote about in Victoriana:

Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).

The Lee series is hard to find these days. All the episodes were once on YouTube, but not anymore. I have a box set of BBC ghost story adaptations on DVD. Three of the four episodes with Lee are included. However, “The Ash-Tree” is missing for some reason. The only format in which I can find all the episodes is an audiobook. The series is packaged as Ghost Stories with Christopher Lee on Audible, et al. Much of the charm is retained, including Burgon’s music. But if anyone knows where I can find “The Ash-Tree,” do tell.

The Electro-Machine Age

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the English novelist Dennis Wheatley feared the triumph of Communism was likely, not only on the Continent, but in Britain, where the Labour government was pursuing a socialist agenda marked by harsh austerity.

Wheatley was famous for his espionage and black-magic themed thrillers. His 1934 novel The Devil Rides Out is the subject of a long article on this blog. Wheatley had served in military intelligence during the war, as a member of the London Controlling Section, which planned the Normandy Invasion. His most famous novels blended the threats of dark political forces with the occult.

Wheatley’s horror at the prospect of a Communist coup in Britain led to his writing a remarkable document, which he titled, “A Letter to Posterity.” He composed it on November 20, 1947, the day Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece. Wheatley looked back at the extraordinary technological changes that had taken place since his birth in 1897, and how these changes had ushered in mass politics and Orwellian repression.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, communication technology serves as a lever of both political and occult power in Wheatley’s description. He was writing before television, the internet, or social media, but the trajectory of his critique aims directly at them.

Wheatley buried the letter on the grounds of his estate, Grove Place, Hampshire, where it was discovered after he moved out in 1968. He writes:

When I was born electricity had been discovered but not yet adapted to practical every-day usage. London had no electric light or telephone system. Wireless, radio recording, broadcasting and gramophones were still unknown, and the petrol engine was still in its infancy. There were no motorcars; on the streets all vehicles were still horse-drawn, and for travelling further afield, the steam train as yet without corridor coaches, was the only means of transport. Liners and warships were generally steam propelled but a great part of the world’s sea-borne commerce was still carried in sailing ships; and the idea of travelling by air was as remote and unreal with us as it was with the Romans.

The electric age, having its infancy while I was a schoolboy, reaching maturity during the First World War, and becoming a dominant factor in all our lives from then on, has revolutionised thought wherever it has penetrated.

In the early years of the century the vast majority of the people of Europe and the United States—and even more so those of the less progressive areas of the world—formed their opinions from personal contact with their fellows. The more advanced among them were neither lacking in intelligence or political consciousness, but their attitude towards their rulers was governed in the main by (1) any new laws which affected their personal well-being and (2) the discussion of events at the centres of government—declarations of war, treaties of alliance, court scandals, royal marriages etc. these were often belatedly reported but formed the staple talk wherever men were gathered together; in the towns, in clubs and taverns, in the country, in public halls and inns. Thus, in those days, the ‘voice of the people’ was in fact the consensus of opinion arrived at after a vast number of free debates had taken place at every level of society and in all parts of the country, concerned.

This ‘voice’ was rarely raised; but when it was, rulers had good cause to tremble, and almost invariably, the result was a cessation of repression or a change of government; as the ‘voice’ was usually pregnant with both justice and commonsense.

But the ‘voice’ was stilled by the coming of the electro-machine age, as the new inventions enabled the professional politicians of all parties to get into direct touch with every community, however remote. First came the electric press, enabling a million or more copies of a newspaper to be run off in a single night—and enormously improved arrangements for distribution. Then came the wireless telegraph—which swiftly developed into radio, with a five times a day news service which, by means of a cheap receiving set, could be picked up in every home. And these were followed by the cinematograph which soon became one of the most insidious weapons for political propaganda.

The result was that instead of forming their opinions by quiet thought and reasoned discussion, the bulk of the people took them ready made (from so called ‘informed’ sources) and, in consequence, in the short space of the first two decades of the 20th century an almost unbelievable change took place in the mental attitude of the masses all over the world. The immense speeding up of means of communication brought the national and international picture so swiftly before them that it filled their thoughts to the exclusion of local conditions and the well-being of their own communities; political ideologies and abstract theories of government usurped in their minds the place which had previously been occupied by the selective prosperity of local industries and the prospects of crops. Worst of all, the masses came under the immediate influence of the political demagogues who labelled themselves as the ‘representatives of the people’, who held that ‘all men being equal’ all power should be vested in the majority rather than in the intelligent minority, as had been the case in the past.

Wheatley died in 1977 so he did not live to see the end of the Cold War. He would have been gratified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But mass media is no less powerful a weapon today—and humans no less susceptible to it.

Scans of the original manuscript can be read on the website of the Dennis Wheatley Collection. See also: The Devil Rides Out.

Tentaclii Has Moved

For scholarship of weird fiction generally, and Lovecraft’s fiction specifically, there is no greater resource than David Haden’s Tentaclii blog.

Shortly before Halloween the entire site disappeared from WordPress, replaced by the cryptic announcement, “This blog has been archived or suspended in accordance with our Terms of Service.” Haden writes,

Due to high-handed and unannounced censorship at WordPress — about what they don’t say, so I can’t fix it — my Tentaclii blog (about the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft) is now abruptly suspended there. I have now re-located the blog to http://www.jurn.org/tentaclii/ [See below—N.L.] Please update your links. The blog works as before, though some older images are at present missing. If anyone has a full local archive of Tentaclii on their PC, I would appreciate a Dropbox .ZIP with just the site’s images…

Those who were WordPress subscribers to the old site will now need to subscribe to the new one, which will be continuing as normal.

I have updated the link in my “Sites of Interest” section.

Update (11 April, 2022): Tentaclii has moved again! The current URL is https://jurn.link/tentaclii/.

Maps of Arkham

The fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts appears in more than a dozen stories by H. P. Lovecraft, beginning with “The Picture in the House,” published in 1921. The city’s (Ivy League?) institution, Miskatonic University, sponsors ill-fated expeditions in At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time, both published in 1936.

Given the centrality of Arkham to Lovecraft’s New England setting, what S. T. Joshi calls the Miskatonic region, after its river and university, there is no wonder that Lovecraft mapped out the city in great detail.

The street plan below was drawn by the author in 1934. He wrote to Donald Wandrei in March of that year, “One thing I did lately was to construct a Map of Arkham, so that allusions in any future tale I may write may be consistent.”

The map is in the collection of Brown University Library.

The Art of Fu Manchu

Sax Rohmer, writing in The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu (1913):

Imagine a person tall, lean and feline, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect. Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu.

Rohmer’s yellow peril tales were regularly serialized in America by Collier’s Weekly beginning in the 1910s. These editions were visualized by Collier’s excellent team of in-house illustrators: first Joseph Clement Coll, then John R. Flanagan. Both artists worked in pen and ink, delineating the lurid stories in a style somehow reminiscent of J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow shirt collar advertisements as well as the future genre of comic book superheroes.

Coll’s illustrations appear above, Flanagan’s below.

Lovecraft at the Met

John Coulthart has reprinted a suitably weird anecdote about Lovecraft told by Frank Belknap Long. It was originally published in a 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine. An interviewer asked Long about a visit he and H. P. Lovecraft made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York some six decades earlier.

Frank Belknap Long: You mean the time we visited the Egyptian tomb? Well, the Metropolitan apparently still has it. This was way back in the 1920s. The tomb was on the main floor in the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and we both went inside to the inner burial chamber. Howard was fascinated by the somberness of the whole thing. He put his hand against the corrugated stone wall, just casually, and the next day he developed a pronounced but not too serious inflammation. There was no great pain involved, and the swelling went down in two or three days. But it seems as if some malign, supernatural influence still lingered in the burial chamber—The Curse of the Pharaohs—as if they resented the fact that Howard had entered this tomb and touched the wall. Perhaps they had singled him out because of his stories and feared he was getting too close to the Ancient Mysteries.

The chamber in question is the Tomb of Perneb, which is of course still on display at the Met. It had opened to the public in 1916, roughly a decade before Lovecraft and Long visited. Met archaeologist Caroline Ransom Williams wrote of the unveiling:

People were formed in line two abreast all the way back to the Fifth avenue entrance to get into the chambers. Glass positions electrically lighted illustrate the former position and the taking down of the tomb. There are two cases of the objects found in the course of the excavations including the greater part of Perneb’s skull. A model of the entire tomb makes clear the position of the burial chamber.

Lovecraft had just finished writing “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” around this time. It was the last story he wrote in Providence before moving to New York in 1924, where he lived for two years. The story was ghost-written for Harry Houdini and published under Houdini’s byline in the May 1924 edition of Weird Tales.

Edward Gorey on Cape Cod

In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.

In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.

At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.) 

In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.

His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.

The Edward Gorey House is open April through December at 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port Common.