Baseball has its “seamheads’’ and the auto world its “gearheads,’’ but I don’t suppose there are “noteheads’’ for fans of imaginatively composed annotations, which is a shame in this case.
Leslie Klinger’s efforts on that score have proven something of a wonder with his dogged marginalia in his treatments of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and the complete Sherlock Holmes canon, so it seems fitting that we have this nearly 900-page collection of stories of perhaps our most wondrous local author, the star-crossed, horror pioneer H. P. Lovecraft.
These days, Lovecraft tends to mostly come up on account of the unending charges of racism in his work. He clearly held attitudes that were not wholly uncommon in their time, especially here in New England where the Providence-born Lovecraft (1890-1937) set so many of his tales. But it also would be fair to say that Lovecraft’s views seem to outpace those of your garden-variety 1920s bigot. Essentially, the whiter people tend to be the good guys in Lovecraft, and he never really veers from that thematic position.
Klinger’s notes, which run up and down the margins of nearly every page, could even be read, quite apart from the main text, as a book of its own. In them he refuses to enter into an apologia for this simple reason: Lovecraft could be so good, so imaginative and terrifying, that the salient points, despite the objectionable ones, are what you take away. And those are points of soul-infusing necromancy that haunt a reader post-story, just as they haunt the characters enmeshed in them.
Klinger starts with a history of weird and ghost fiction that gives a nod to Lovecraft’s own minor classic, “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Lovecraft’s crucial maxim, which we see throughout the 22 stories Klinger has selected, is: “The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening.”
That attitude wafts like something from a noisome crypt through the corrupted greensward of “The Dunwich Horror.” “The trees of the frequent forest belts seem too large, and the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions,” Lovecraft writes, with Klinger touching on a host of points: a discussion of Lovecraft’s debt to Milton; a reference to an informing 1821 essay; a fun fact, if you will, that a mountain mentioned in the tale actually does exist, even if the village of Dunwich does not.
Lovecraft the man emerges in the notes too. He was something of a gaunt-faced haunt himself, preferring to not go out at night. His end was mean, dying in penury at 46, never able to make a living with his work, and reduced, at times, to stinting on food so he could afford postage and paper to maintain his various voluminous correspondences. These letters went to writers such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth (the man who founded the press Arkham House — named after the fictionalized Massachusetts town where Lovecraft set so many stories — which gave Lovecraft’s neglected work posthumous life). Those two, along with Lovecraft and many others, would be referred to as the Lovecraft Circle. Klinger traces who used which bit of raw material the master had come up with in his own writing.
Lovecraft’s output was prolix, as his prose could be, so Klinger sticks to what Lovecraftians call the Arkham Cycle, the stories that tap into the Cthulhu Mythos, the world that was to Lovecraft as Yoknapatawpha County was to Faulkner.
Klinger teases out some choice insights for “The Dreams in the Witch House,’’ an uneven North Shore terror tale that, nonetheless, could not have been written by anyone else, a fantastical descent into hyperspace against a backdrop of multiturreted houses. Klinger provides the necessary help for some of the features of this world — “A prolate spheroid is one in which the polar axis is longer than the diameter,” for those keeping score at home — but it is Lovecraft’s eldritch imagination that offers the ebon delights, Klinger toting a flashlight for worthy new glimpses.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss.”