Review: A Commonplace Book of the Weird

Several months back, near the end of 2010, my curiosity was piqued by an offhand mention, on one of my favorite internet haunts, to H.P. Lovecraft’s commonplace book: a list of unused story ideas and inspirations that survived his death. Following the bread-crumb trail of hyperlinks and innuendo, I eventually arrived at the site of one Joseph Fink’s postmodern revival of Lovecraft’s postmortem compendium. Titled A Commonplace Book of the Weird, this anthology tasked writers working in every genre, from text-experimentalists and poets to playwrights and parodists, to finish what Lovecraft started, bringing the deceased antiquarian’s vision into the 21st century.

“That’s cool,” I remember thinking. Then I forgot about it.

When the time came to pitch ideas for the Black Clock blog, though, I remembered Joseph Fink and his uncommon commonplace book. It seemed like the ideal launching pad for all sorts of tantalizing discussion about collaboration and literary legacy. Lovecraft died a virtual unknown, both personally and professionally; now, nearly a century later, he was collaborating across generations and through the grave-soil itself with these hip young artists from all walks of life. At the same time, though the authors were told they must include every element of the original prompt, the stories would unquestionably be unlike those Lovecraft had envisioned. Even if a new Lovecraft had been born unto the Information Age, the stories wouldn’t be the same. And many of them were merely hastily jotted responses to something Lovecraft read in the morning paper or evening research journal; a further step in the curious birth of a story. It spoke of an authorship that can only survive by being relinquished, identities that could only thrive by being blurred.

So I e-mailed Mr. Fink asking for a review copy. Fate, however, is a tricky bitch: no sooner had the book arrived than I was informed that a story of my own was to be included (in subsequent print runs, of course). I reluctantly passed the review on to colleague and friend Patricia Cram–just another example of unexpected collaboration on a single idea. Patricia, it should be mentioned, handled the task fairly well.

However, I still had that review I was itching to write. Things being what they are, it’s taken me until now to read my copy of Commonplace Book cover to cover. With that pleasurable task complete, I think it only fair I finally take a shot at describing the singular oddity known as A Commonplace Book of the Weird.

First off, the anthology as a whole is far less “Lovecraftian” than the title might lead one to believe–the Man from Providence himself even graces the cover. It’s certainly less instantly recognizable than the work of those who have proudly adopted the Mythos mantle following their master’s demise.

The better of the stories willfully subvert the author’s original intent: Dan McCoy’s “Dissipation?” simultaneously adopts and pokes fun at idea 67’s fragmentary nature: “An impression–city in peril–dead city–equestrian statue–men in closed room–clattering of hooves heard from outside–marvel disclosed on looking out–doubtful ending” become evocative section titles rather than the plot markers intended. Gary Belsky’s “Tea And Pie, Don’t Pass Me By” is a wholly unsupernatural response to Idea 149’s “Evil alley or enclosed court in ancient city”; the city in question is Jerusalem, which, the narrator is quick to point out, has no shortage of hidden alleys and courtyards. In any other setting, it could pass for memoir. Other stories make creative transgressions into humor (Rob Neill’s “KPZ Straz Hyphen Stars”, ennui (Hannah Lott-Schwartz’s “Exorcise Love,” or postmodern ranting (Meg Bashwiner’s “Vampire Dogs (or What Came Out)”). Things don’t get truly scary until after the mid-way point, which might scare off readers drawn in by the gaunt mugshot on the cover.

Which isn’t to say that the stories are disappointing. Far from it; although there were some duds for me–the aforementioned rant among them–the book’s high points stand out like those cyclopean ruins Lovecraft was always going on about…you know, the ones glimpsed atop Antarctic mountain ranges and long-dead volcanoes and the like. Atop one of the book’s most dizzying zeniths perches Mark Farr’s “Levittown (36. Disintegration),” in which Idea 36–“Disintegration of all matter to electrons and finally empty space assured, just as devolution of energy to radiant heat is known. Case of acceleration–man passes into space”–evanesces into a clockwork lunar odyssey via Octo-ploid trebuchet and a tele-o-phone suit, reminiscent of Pynchon in his less lucid moments…and yes, that’s a compliment. Other stories shine with a more subtle glimmer, such as Zack Parsons’ “The Horror on the Ebon Stair,” which slyly mocks Lovecraft’s bombastic prose through the first-person narration of one of a “Race of immortal pharaohs dwelling beneath pyramids in vast subterranean halls down black staircases,” courtesy of Idea 45.

Each of the hand-picked batch of artists was randomly matched with an idea, so a few of the authors had their work pretty much cut out for them–these are the ones, you will notice, who expended extra effort not to let the idea overwhelm its master. On the other hand, you have the admire the tenacity of writers like Justin Marquis, who weaved Idea 174–“Migration of Lemmings–Atlantis”–into the most chilling tale in the entire anthology. With competition like Brian James Polak’s Kafka-esque “Story of the Faceless Man” and F. Omar Telan’s classic hair-raiser “Vacancy at the Fenrick Inn,” that’s no small feat. Even Fink himself gets in on the action with “Relative Damnation,” which isn’t kidding when it bills itself as “A Very Short Novel.” All that’s missing is a posthumous appearance by the Master of Mythos himself.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is anything but a “Commonplace Book.” As fascinating to read as it is to think about, it is an exercise in creative collaboration, a living body of work that survives even death itself. There is a peculiar analogy to be made here, with the dead yet puissant lexicons central to Lovecraft’s work, but that will have to wait for another day. By my calculation, there are at least 200 potential Lovecraft stories yet unwritten…and who’s going to write them, if not we?

Postscript: A Commonplace Book of the Weird can be purchased here. I hear that the Kindle and Nook versions come with my story already included; otherwise you’ll have to clip it out and sort of paste it in. For a different take on Lovecraft’s unused ideas, see The Commonplace Book Project, an exhibit of interactive fiction and graphical works, as well as these images from the earlier Exhibition of Unspeakable Things.

On Ghoulies, Feelies, and Creepy-Crawlies

I’ve always liked the concept of “feelies”—extra-diagetic, multi-media extras packaged with a game, film, or book. I still cherish my pewter Rincewind figurine (complete with “WIZZARD” hat) that came with my copy of Discworld for the PC, even if I can’t quite remember where it is at the moment. But feelies can be more than just keepsakes: done right, they function almost like the hronir of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertias,” intrusions from a secondary reality that bolster its palpability while undermining that of our own. The audio CD packaged with Shivers 2 was a step in this direction, as are the ARG (alternate reality games) that crop up from time to time, but I would like to see this idea taken to its extreme: a subcreation that exists simultaneously in every form of media imaginable, to the extent that nobody can say with any certainty whether the novel, the film, the audio tape, the website, the computer game, or the plush doll is the primary creation.

As it stands now, nobody knows feelies like Infocom, the interactive fiction fallen giant who coined the term. Their adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1984 came with a “Don’t Panic!” button, Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, a Microscopic Space Fleet, official orders for the destruction of both Arthur Dent’s home and the planet Earth, some pocket fluff, and no tea. That’s why I was thrilled to review The Lurking Horror, Infocom’s first and only horror game, which came with its own robust collection of feelies. Sure, I couldn’t actually get my hands on any of them without paying through the nose for vintage editions of the 1987 game, but history has preserved them for antiquity, so I could at least pretend to feel them. When I finished my review, the Innsmouth Free Press was kind enough to publish it. Here’s a sample:

It feels especially appropriate to play a Lovecraftian adventure in a dinosaurian form such as IF, and not just because they’re both widely considered obscure and old-fashioned … there’s a way in which IF’s very obsoleteness contributes to the Lovecraftian atmosphere in a way Lebling couldn’t have anticipated when he wrote the game. Lovecraft was obsessed with the archaic, stylistically and technologically, as much as the arcane. Even the eldritch manuscripts that were often the bread and butter of his stories can be viewed as forgotten technologies, much like the time-obscured words on Lebling’s DOS program. Imagine discovering an unlabeled floppy disc in your grandfather’s attic, buried underneath a pile of junk and dot-matrix printouts. Imagine inserting that floppy into an equally ancient computer and watching the strange words fill your screen. It would be something akin to glimpsing a page from the Necronomicon for the first time.

Read the full review here.

Interview with a Rather Handsome Fellow

The intrepid journalists over at Innsmouth Free Press have seen fit to publish a four-question micro-interview with yours truly in their virtual fish wrap. It even includes a headshot in which your humble author is effectually indistinguishable from the various zoological specimens visible in the background. As you ponder my immeasurably profound responses, see if you can identify which of the hideous creatures pictured therein have made a terminal visit to the formaldehyde day spa, and which yet live.

New Fiction: “On The Generation of Insects”

With the dry heat of summer, all sorts of creepy (not to mention itchy and stingy) crawlies tend to spawn, seemingly out of the warmed-over ether. Looks like the solstice is officially set for June 21st this year, but that’s not going to stop our insidious little friends. In portside Innsmouth, where the mounting heat has made the pervasive fragrance of rotting fish carcasses more pungent than ever, the insects have already landed and begun their morbid feast.

“On The Generation of Insects,” my Lovecraftian take on historical fiction and antiquated medicine published by the Innsmouth Free Press, has finally been exposed to the sweltering light of day, alongside stories by W.H. Pugmire, Don Webb, Stephen Woodworth, Melissa Sorensten, and Regina Glei. You can find them all in Issue 7 of the Innsmouth Free Press. There’s even a prettied-up PDF version for those of you who like pictures and pull quotes.

There are some quite established writers in there, and I’m thrilled to appear alongside them. Stay tuned for a future post breaking down the fictive offerings in more detail. In the meantime, throw the windows wide, pitch a tent on the lawn, and enjoy the buzzing, churning symphony of the season!

(Nematode image courtesy of My Chesapeake Bay)

Ron Weasley’s Snot & Urine

Did you know that Clock Tower 3 was the first video game to realistically address the horrors of Ron Weasley? Here’s a behind the scenes clip. Bloody hell. It looks more like a pig with hair if you ask me.

Luckily, the review I’m about to introduce doesn’t cover Ron Weasley or Clock Tower 3. That would be too horrifying even for me. No, this is a review of Clock Tower…just plain old Clock Tower. The one you have to import a Japanese SNES or participate in some illicit activities to play, because it’s just that good. As usual, those poor fools at the Innsmouth Free Press picked up the review, bless them. Here’s a clip (clipped with a genuine cyber-replica of Scissorman’s giant honking scissors, and pasted with Ron Weasley’s snot and urine):

Sibling rivalry is, unfortunately, a common source of familial strife. Things can get particularly strained when one of the siblings is newly adopted, like 14-year-old Jennifer Simpson, and the other is a 9-year-old, half-demon serial killer with an unusual fondness for garden shears.

Read the full review here.