The Horror in the Card Catalog

DARRELL SCHWEITZER and JOHN ASHMEAD, ed. Tales from the Miskatonic University Library. Hornsea, UK: PS Publishing, 2017. xv, 201 pp. £40 (signed/limited hc), £20 (trade hc).

The “forbidden book” is a well-worn theme in H. P. Lovecraft’s work, and it can be found in his earliest as well as his latest tales. The Pnakotic Manuscripts were cited so early as “Polaris” (1918), while the genesis of his most celebrated imaginary tome, the Necronomicon, can be traced to the passing mention of Abdul Alhazred and his “unexplainable couplet” in “The Nameless City” (1921), and then to the citation of the actual volume in “The Hound” (1922). The idea is a complex and variegated one in Lovecraft, perhaps suggesting this lifelong bookworm’s pensive hope that the secrets of the universe were to be dug out of rare and obscure books if one could only find them. These books contain such dreadful truths about our own tenuous place in the universe that we explore them only at our peril.

But even in Lovecraft’s day—and especially as his literary colleagues began adding their own fanciful titles to the ever-growing library of arcane treatises—the notion became something of a shtick. Lovecraft himself made the aging Henry Armitage, the librarian at Miskatonic University, an implausible hero in “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), defeating the Whateley clan’s plans to let in the Old Ones; but thereafter, the whole “forbidden book” motif began to lose its power through sheer overuse. When, in the late story “The Haunter of the Dark” (1935), we encounter such a passage as this—“He had himself read many of them—a Latin version of the abhorred ‘Necronomicon’, the sinister ‘Liber Ivonis’, the infamous ‘Cultes des Goules’ of Comte d’Erlette, the ‘Unaussprechlichen Kulten’ of von Junzt, and old Ludvig Prinn’s hellish ‘De Vermis Mysteriis’”—we simply gloss over the farrago of citations and wait impatiently for the actual story to gain momentum.

In the first several decades after Lovecraft’s death, the Cthulhu Mythos increasingly became a source of derision—in large part because its devotees, most notably August Derleth, seemed to believe it was sufficient to “add” a tale to the Mythos merely by inventing some new book or god or town (usually in New England, or maybe in the Southwest or even in England). This is why readers were afflicted with such ludicrous abominations as Cthaat Aquadingen or The Ponape Scriptures.

And yet, as Lovecraft scholarship advanced and showed that the Mythos (and Lovecraft’s work in general) really wasn’t just about imaginary tomes or outlandish gods, but was instead an expression of a bleak, unflinching comprehension of the insignificance of humanity and of all earth life, some writers chose to use the “forbidden book” topos in a more serious way. Thomas Ligotti’s “Vasterien” seems on the surface to be nothing but a hackneyed expression of a standard Lovecraftian motif—a man finds a book and it drives him mad—but what a wealth of dense imagery and intellectual substance lies behind this simple notion! For the book in question seems to embody “the summit or abyss of the unreal, that paradise of exhaustion, confusion, and debris where reality ends and where one may dwell among its ruins.” Fred Chappell’s “The Adder” presents the terrifying image of the original Arabic version of the Necronomicon, titled Al Azif, wiping out the texts of other books with which it comes into contact—a potent symbol of the intellectual nihilism of “forbidden” knowledge.

Which brings us at last to Tales from the Miskatonic Library. This slim original anthology seeks to reinvest the “forbidden book” motif with new terror and imaginative vigor, but it does so with only middling success. The editors do bring impressive credentials to their task. They were responsible, decades ago, for the delightful hoax Necronomicon that emerged in 1973 from Owlswick Press: it purported to present the original Arabic text (although it apparently repeats a limited number of pages over and over again), with an owlish introduction by L. Sprague de Camp. And Schweitzer has gone on to edit a number of successful Lovecraftian anthologies, including Cthulhu’s Reign (2010) and That Is Not Dead (2015). And given that PS Publishing recently issued its own exquisite hoax book catalog, Nate Pedersen’s The Starry Wisdom Library (2014), it was the logical publisher for this book.

The thirteen stories in this book range widely in tone, impact, and quality. Some authors simply resign themselves to the inevitable and write openly comic or parodic stories, not entirely without success. Marilyn “Mattie” Braden’s “The Way to a Man’s Heart” tells of a wife, frustrated by a lack of attention (especially between the sheets) from her husband, a professor at Miskatonic, finds a copy of the Gastronomicon and whips up a shoggoth soufflé—with predictable, or perhaps not so predictable, results. Alex Shvartsman’s “Recall Notice” is a short epistolary tale in which the librarian Blaine Armitage demands that H. W. P. Lovecraft III (great-great-grandson of Lovecraft—a neat trick, since Lovecraft had no offspring) return the books he has checked out from the library. Instead, a world cataclysm ensues, and at the end we find that one Ian Whateley has replaced Armitage as librarian.

Few stories, indeed, are able to escape an undercurrent—intentional or otherwise—of the comic, even when telling of apocalyptic horrors engulfing the world. Don Webb’s “Slowly Ticking Time Bomb” has all manner of in-jokes—on the first page we learn of an event called “MoundCon in Binger, Oklahoma,” a reference to Lovecraft’s ghostwritten novella “The Mound”—but otherwise it tells the tale of a book dealer who reads something called the Ool Athog Chronicles, tries one of its spells, and manages to cure his mother of cancer. Far more baleful results soon follow, but the story cannot quite escape a suspicion of bland self-parody.

Rather more successful is Adrian Cole’s “The Third Movement,” which appears to be set in the New York of several decades ago, as it narrates a story alternating between supernatural horror and hard-boiled crime fiction. Here the tome in question is the Malleus Tenebrarum (Hammer of Darkness), which a mysterious figure named Vermilion is seeking. The tale becomes increasingly grim and foreboding as it takes us into an unknown underground cavern where the book and its “guardian” are found. A. C. Wise’s “The Paradox Collection” fuses terror and pathos in its account of a slim pamphlet titled Sexing the Weird, by one C. S. Bryant—who proves to be a woman whose ghost a young librarian at Miskatonic encounters in the library. Douglas Wynne’s “The White Door” is a brief and chilling story of a book, The White Death, that “reveals a true account of the realms beyond death.” But the trick is that it tells a different story to every reader: can it be that the book reveals the manner of each person’s death?

One of the best stories in the book is P. D. Cacek’s “One Small Change.” Here a middle-aged librarian, Eleanor McCormack, afflicted both with a stutter and with a young boss, Taylor Dickson, who habitually torments her, finds herself having to deal with an interlibrary loan request by a professor, R. E. Bennett. He wants to take the book out of the library, but the book—which had come from Miskatonic—is not permitted to leave the building. McCormack herself takes the book home—and interesting results follow.

Schweitzer’s own tale, “Not in the Card Catalog,” features a work called The Book of Undying Hands. Not only is the book “older than time, older than mankind on this planet,” but it is still being written—and every new “contributor” to the book finds his or her essence absorbed into the book, with their hands holding its covers closed. This grisly premise is the trigger for an action-packed tale whose numerous twists and turns leave the reader breathless. Not as successful is James Van Pelt’s “The Children’s Collection,” where a man hired to run the children’s collection at the Kingsport Public Library learns of a secret “children’s special collections” room stocked with books by local authors, and accessible only by the older residents of the town. The story resolves itself a bit too quickly—further development would have been beneficial.

Some authors resort to the tried-and-true Necronomicon as the springboard for their tales. Harry Turtledove, who seems of late to have gained a taste for Lovecraftian fiction (he contributed a piquant story to my Madness of Cthulhu anthology), tells of a sinister Arab who wants to borrow the Necronomicon and take it back to a professor in Egypt (who in fact is allied with the Islamic State). At the end of the story we learn that reading a spell from the book not unexpectedly leads to disaster (“slime and tentacles and darkness overwhelmed them”). Will Murray’s novelette “A Trillion Young” focuses on Olaus Wormius’s Latin translation of the Necronomicon, even though he (perhaps deliberately) refers to Olaus’s Danish name as Ole Worm (actually Ole Wurm). Let it also pass that Murray presents yet another faulty translation of the word Necronomicon—“The Laws of the Book of the Dead,” a variant of the equally erroneous “Book of the Laws of the Dead.” It is tiresome that so many people without the slightest knowledge of Greek etymology have so confidently propounded ridiculous translation of this term, which simply means “Book about the Dead” (or possibly “Book Classifying the Dead”). In any case, in this story world cataclysm also results, although the emphasis is on both biological and computer viruses.

But the best story in the book, unexpectedly, is “To Be in Ulthar on a Summer Afternoon,” by the Tasmanian writer Dirk Flinthart. It is extremely difficult to write a successful story set in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, but Flinthart has turned the trick in his account of a book called The Dream Journal of Arpan the Elder. The narrator, a man named Bill Drake, has ventured to Ulthar because the book is overdue from the Miskatonic University Library! This is only the beginning of a narrative that melds the perfumed delicacy of Dunsanian fantasy with an underlying grimness that is only manifested in the tale’s cheerless conclusion.

Robert M. Price’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” seeks to wipe all its predecessors out by postulating that the entire Special Collections department of Miskatonic has been destroyed by a fire, evidently set by a Christian fundamentalist. This causes the elderly librarian Ezra Pepperidge to engage upon a long quest to restore the choicest titles from the collection, including the Book of Eibon, von Junzt’s Nameless Cults, Prinn’s Mysteries of the Worm, and of course the Necronomicon. How Pepperidge sets about his arduous task, and what its upshot proves to be, must not be told here.

I would not say that there are any transcendentally brilliant tales—analogous to the Ligotti and Chappell stories I cited earlier—in this book, but it is an enjoyable and occasionally powerful anthology that shows that some mileage is still left in the “forbidden book” motif, as in Lovecraftian fiction generally.

I am forced to remark that the copyediting of this book leaves a great deal to be desired. Ordinarily I would not comment on poor or non-existent copyediting, because these features are (especially in the small press) now the norm rather than the exception. But here the shoddiness exceeds all bounds of tolerance. Why does one writer spell the name of a celebrated character in “The Dunwich Horror” as “Lavinia Whatley,” but another (correctly) as “Lavinia Whateley”? How does Will Murray get away omitting the diaeresis (umlaut) on the well-known exclamation “Iä!”? In Cacek’s story, the central character is named Bennet early in the text but Bennett later on. Don Webb’s story is nearly illegible, with a plethora of ridiculous grammatical and stylistic errors, including that erstwhile bane of the grammarian, “it’s” for “its.” And so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. What will it take for presses large and small to hire capable copyeditors and proofreaders? More terrifying still, are there any such persons left in the world?