When considering the question of who was the most influential author of weird fiction in the 20th century, HP Lovecraft is a strong contender for the title. Although during his lifetime he was only appreciated by the readers of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, however despite this limited exposure HPL was soon forging friendships and corresponding with the likes of Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, Clark Ashton Smith, Carl Jacobi and Frank Belknap Long – a veritable who’s who of the fantastic fiction of the day.
After his death in 1937, his works were reissued in a series of volumes by Arkham House, a small press set up by his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei with the express purpose of publishing Lovecraft in book form. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, Lovecraft began regularly appearing in anthologies of weird fiction, and the ‘60s saw his tales being issued in mass market paperbacks. Much like Tolkien, HPL’s fiction was keenly embraced by the blossoming counter culture; the Cthulhu mythos proving as equally alluring as the legends of Middle Earth, but also his vein of cosmic horror, filled with sanity stretching visions of the infinite struck a chord with the generation who had discovered mind expanding drugs and esoteric practises.
And he has never been out of print since, with many big names; Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Guillermo Del Toro, HR Giger, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore to name but a few, citing Lovecraft as major influence and inspiration. And Lovecraft’s creations are everywhere these days, having inspired countless books, comics, films, records and games. Cthulhu and his kin are seemingly manifesting with increased regularity here, there and anywhere – you can even buy cuddly elder gods now. And even if you’ve never heard his name, if you are into genre fiction then you will certainly seen his influence somewhere, usually in the form of tentacled beasts, malign elder gods being reawakened to wreak havoc, or tales of aliens influencing early man.
However although - what is less well known is Lovecraft’s work as a poet. And in fairness this is largely due to the fact that his poetry lacks the individual flair and imagination that has ensured his stories continue to win ever greater numbers of admirers with each passing year. Indeed much of his poetry has little to do with the strange and fantastic; instead we have political satires, seasonal verses, odes to friends and poems written adopting classical styles – only occasionally did he pen verse that falls under shadow of the weird. And as the Old Gentleman himself observed in later life, poetry was not his true metier; like many us he often wrote poetry for his personal reasons rather than to create great art, and in Lovecraft’s case this was to recreate for himself the atmosphere and ethos of the Georgian period – a time in which he felt he would have been more that home than the early decades of the 20th century. As he wrote in 1929 –
Language, vocabulary, ideas, imagery – everything succumbed to my own intense purpose of thinking & dreaming myself back into the world of periwigs and long s’s which for some odd reason seemed to me the normal world.
(Selected Letters 1925-29 p.314-315)
Although increasingly modern readers do not realise that Lovecraft’s prose was actually somewhat antiquarian in construction for the ‘20s and ‘30s, the bulk of his poetry is clearly archaic, written in forms and styles from the Augustan age, mimicking the verses of Georgian luminaries such as Pope, Goldsmith and Addison.
(Quick aside – it must be noted that this particular era isn’t exactly highly popular among readers of poetry these days; not that the Augustans don’t still have their aficionados or fail to make it into popular anthologies, but they don’t command the same public recognition and affection as the later Romantic Poets. And hence Lovecraft’s adoption of the Georgian styles hasn’t exactly endeared him to poetry readers – many find the original Augustan poets too structured and overly mannered, never mind Lovecraft’s imitations of them.)
Of the poems he produced that don’t hark back to the 18th century, much of the remainder reflect Lovecraft’s other great passion – Edgar Allen Poe. Much of his poetry that may be considered weird verse, echoes of the gothic poetry Poe produced.
However rather tellingly, as his career in prose progresses the less poetry he writes – over three quarters of his poetic output dates from before 1919. Looking at chronoliogies of his writing, it is very clear that as he embraces the short story as a mode of creative expression his poetic output declines sharply. Seemingly as Lovecraft found his own distinctive voice in prose fiction, the need to conjure up in verse the atmosphere of England in the reign of Queen Anne diminishes. And in his stories he was to find a command of imagery and language that his forays into verse rarely achieved. Although his early works clearly show the influence of Poe and another of his favourites Lord Dunsany, he soon develops his own distinctive voice and iconic creations.
But he never entirely gave up on poetry, and was still producing occasional verse and poems for friends up until his final years. And while I generally concur with Stephen King’s remark in Danse Macabre that “the best we can say about his poetry is that he was a competent enough versifier” – damning with faint praise indeed – it must be said that Lovecraft did produce one epic work of verse that deserves to be remembered and more widely appreciated.
Between December 27th 1929 and January 4th 1930, Lovecraft penned a staggering thirty six sonnets, which he arranged into a cycle which he entitled Fungi From Yuggoth - which can be read here. And this was to be his last major poetical work; the handful of poems he produced in the remaining years of his life are largely brief verses and odes for friends. It would appear that Lovecraft hit something of poetic peak with this great torrent of sonnets. And unlike much of his other poetry, he throws away the Augustan rulebooks and sees him adopt a variety of differing styles and voices. Unusually for a man somewhat obsessed with classical forms, his sonnets don’t follow either of the usual sonnet structures, the Shakesperian and the Petrachian. Equally unusually, unlike a lot of his other weird verse, Fungi From Yuggoth doesn’t read like echoes of Poe; these sonnets are pure Lovecraft in tone and theme.
To begin with I should to clear up some confusions about the title. Firstly it has nothing to do with the trans-Plutonian entities, the Mi-go, detailed in his classic tale The Whisperer in the Darkness written later in 1930. Although the Mi-go are also referred to as ‘fungi from Yuggoth’, the title of this cycle comes lines in Sonnet XIV Star Winds -
This is the hour when moon struck poets know
What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents
And tints of flowers fill Nithon’s continents
Several commentators – Wikipedia included – have alleged that these lines appear to be referring to a place or region, rather than as the Cthulhu Mythos name for Pluto which is how Yuggoth is employed in The Whisperer in Darkness. And this has been held up as evidence in the way that Lovecraft would use the same or similar terms in differing contexts and seemingly to refer to different things in several stories – deliberately building in confusions in his own mythology that mirror the contradictions in real world myth and legend.
And undoubtedly, Lovecraft did play these games with the reader – for example the different references and contexts he attaches to the term ‘Old Ones’ in several of his tales. However in this case, scholars making the case for the reference in Star Winds to be a Yuggoth that is a place rather than a planet, are forgetting that an earlier entry in the poem cycle, Sonnet IV - Recognition, clearly states that “I knew this strange grey world was not my own,/But Yuggoth, past the starry void”, which would suggest that Lovecraft was clearly and consistently thinking of Yuggoth as a world in it’s own right while writing these poems. So having addressed the issues of the title, what of the actual cycle itself?
The first three sonnets form a distinct narrative which tells of a man who discovers a curious tome in an old bookstore, a volume of forgotten lore that details how to open “the hidden way” to experience visions and/or travel to through the interstellar void to other worlds and into other dimensions and times. However after this opening trilogy in verse, the narrative stops and the remaining thirty three poems all stand alone.
We get a variety of styles and tones; many are miniature stories. Some like Sonnets XI - The Well and XXVI - The Familiars, are told in a poetic approximation of colloquial speech, spinning tales redolent of New England folk lore, others employ the same vivid poetic phrasing as his Dreamlands tales (XIII - Hesperia and XVIII -The Gardens of Yin), and of course some invoke the creeping horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos canon (XV - Antarktos and XX - Night-Gaunts).
But also among this exercises in micro weird fiction, we have verses detailing strange visions; some revisit lost dreams (XXIII Mirage) and others melancholy whimsy (XXIX - Nostalgia). And also thrown into the mix are verses of a more philosophical bent; for example sonnets like XXVIII - Expectancy and XXX - Background illustrate Lovecraft’s own reasons for writing.
In the introductions and forewords of many collections and anthologies, the following quote appears –
All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore of legend that this world was at one time inhabited by another ace who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth
However scholars have been unable to find a source for this alleged quote, and currently it is believed that this sound bite was actually created by August Derleth, who incidentally also coined the term ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ to describe the shared background lore of places, books and entities that populate many of Lovecraft’s fictions.
Indeed the above quote is hardly accurate of Lovecraft’s canon, and not even apt for his Mythos stories alone . It’s very applicable for The Dunwich Horror but not so much At The Mountains of Madness where the eldritch threats come from beyond the stars. And although best known for his Cthulhu Mythos tales, not all of his canon fits under this umbrella, for example his Dreamlands tales, are concerned with a fantastical world inspired by the work of Lord Dunsany and although some are horror tales, few feature the usual elder gods arising from an aeons long sleep.
As Ramsey Campbell points out in his introduction to his own collection of Lovecraft-inspired tales Cold Print, a better description comes from one of Lovecraft’s own letters. In 1935, HPL remarked –
Nothing is really typical of my efforts… I’m simply casting about for better ways to crystallise and capture certain strong impressions (involving the elements of time, the unknown, cause and effect, fear, scenic and architectural beauty and other ill assorted things) which persist in clamouring for expression”
In many ways, this sonnet cycle is like a tour through the different aspects of Lovecraft’s fiction, visiting the varied aesthetics and concepts underpinning his stories. As a whole the cycle is like condensed Lovecraft, and although some of his most famous creations, Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth don’t get a name check, the verses do reflect the core ideas and atmosphere of the stories that do feature them.
Structurally the cycle as a whole is often interpreted as a series of visions or encounters the unnamed narrator of the first three sonnets unleashes from the stolen tome. And this approach does make a certain sense; as Fungi From Yuggoth begins as a narrative, it is only natural that readers expect there is some scheme stretching through the rest of the cycle. Others however see the opening linked verses merely as an introduction or framing device for a random selection of poems lumped together as they were written in the same burst of creativity, or alternatively that Lovecraft had begun the cycle with an idea of a narrative thread that he quickly abandoned.
Indeed in A Subtle Magick – The Writings and Philosophy of HP Lovecraft (Wildside Press, 1996) the high priest of Lovecraft scholarship, ST Joshi claims that “it seems difficult to deny that the dominant feature of this sonnet cycle is utter randomness of tone, mood and import” (p.234). He considers the series of visions approach as “very implausible interpretation” and furthermore discounts any claims to a thematic continuity, arguing that there is no real system to the cycle as just because they share common tropes, as the presence of the same shared elements in his stories do not connect all the stories and novels in his canon into one uber-work. Joshi’s concluding assessment is that Fungi From Yuggoth was an attempt to crystallised a plethora of story seeds and fragments in poetic form as “an imaginative house cleaning” and “a versified commonplace book”.
However I have several problems with this conclusion. Firstly, many writers keep a commonplace book - a tome where stray ideas, quotes and other inspirations are noted down – as indeed Lovecraft did. Furthermore HPL’s commonplace books have the origins of many of the sonnets in them. So quite why he would feel the need to note them again in verse form seems a little perplexing. While it may be argued the cycle was an attempt to give these unused ideas some form of creative expression, I find it difficult to believe that Lovecraft would have no other artistic purpose in mind other than releasing some imaginative pressure.
Secondly Lovecraft paid very close attention to the form and structure of his works. He was a master stylist; choice of spelling, length of phrasing and even the placement of every punctuation mark mattered a great deal to him. He was often greatly annoyed by the edits imposed by the pulp magazine editors; seeing the glosses to his texts as ruining his carefully crafted prose. And somewhat unfortunately until ST Joshi began examining the original manuscripts, no one had realised that the texts printed by Arkham House and subsequent publishers were in fact quite corrupt.
Lovecraft has always had something of a reputation for being difficult reading, partly due to his archaic style and dense verbiage, but when corrected texts were published it was apparent that his prose style that some find somewhat torturous to read, was to a degree due to the editorial amendments by the magazines which resulted in clumsy phrasing where the original punctuation had been changed and often where several sentences were compacted into one.
Sadly many of the editions in book shops are still using the old corrupt texts (see here for details) with only the Arkham House editions and the Penguin Books collections featuring the complete corrected versions compiled by Joshi.
However to get back to Fungi From Yuggoth, the point is I find it difficult to credit that such a meticulous literary craftsman as Lovecraft would just collect together thirty six sonnets without any thought to structural arrangement. Personally I have always favoured the interpretation that after the opening trilogy the rest of the cycle is a kaleidoscope of visions from beyond conjured by the cobwebbed tome. Furthermore I believe there is a definite scheme of links in the arrangement of the verses. If one looks closely at the order of the poems and carefully examine their content – the tone, imagery, and themes featured, it would appear that this trip through Lovecraft’s universe is not quite as random as many have thought it is.
And I shall be looking in depth at this seemingly so far unnoticed continuity in the cycle in a second article. So in the mean time, do read the poems yourself and see what conclusions you can come up with. Is there links betweens the sonnets or it just a wild random ride through Mr Lovecraft’s imagination?
But while the scholars of weird fiction have much debated the orchestration of Fungi From Yuggoth, it would appear that there is something to this arrangement of sonnets that appeals to musicians. As early as 1932, Harold E Farnese, dean of the Los Angeles Institute of Musical Art, wrote to Lovecraft proposing they collaborate on a one act Cthulhoid operetta to be named Fen River and set on Yuggoth. Fungi From Yuggoth had apparently inspired this proposed project, and Farnese have already set two of the sonnets, Mirage (XXIII) and The Elder Pharos (XXVII) to music. Unfortunately this collaboration never happened, and sadly the two compositions Farnese’s wrote appear to have vanished into the ether too.
With the boom of interest in Lovecraft in the ‘60s and ‘70s, unsurprisingly Lovecraft inspired songs and titles began to regular appear, with even folk/psychedelic outfit naming themselves HP Lovecraft. However it wasn’t until the late ‘80s that any of the sonnets from Fungi From Yuggoth appeared in musical form. In 1989, small press publishers Fedogan & Bremer issued a cassette of the complete cycle set to music, and this version of the cycle is easily my favourite of all the many readings of this work available. The narrator John Arthur gives a fantastic performance, adopting different voices and intonations for the readings and the music by Mike Olsen is atmospheric, eerie and beautiful. Although reissued on CD some years later, sadly this work is now out of print, and as Fedogan and Bremer seem to be lost in some administrative limbo it seem unlikely we’ll see it released again any time soon. However you can hear the complete cycle in several parts on Youtube here, and although the sound quality isn’t as high as you’d hope (but it’s better than my oft played and now wobbly sounding cassette*), at least you can hear it. Perhaps we could all write to Arkham House, F&B’s partners and ask for digital download to be made available as it is a real shame this masterful production is languishing in the OOP void.
More recently Jim Clark has recorded another reading of the cycle set to music. Again this can be found on Youtube (here) with some quite strange animations of Lovecraft ‘performing’ the vocals. Also Colin Timothy Gagnon has done a reading set to his own compositions which is available for download here. Plus Greek composer Dionysis Boukouvalas has an ongoing project to set the cycle to music.
More recently though Rhea Tucanae (one of the aliases of electronic artist Dan Söderqvist) has teamed up with Pixyblink to adapt eleven of the sonnets into musical pieces. And the results are quite stunning – after many years the Arthur/Olsen version finally has a rival for my affections. Dark and very evocative, this is a superb LP which had me reaching for the credit card as soon as I heard it - you can hear samples for yourself here. The only downside is that it only comprises of a small portion of the cycle and naturally some favourites aren’t included. But nevertheless this is a fine piece of work and I can only hope a second volume will appear at some point.
I think one of the reasons Fungi from Yuggoth has proved to be so popular with musicians and readers is that there is great variety in the sonnets themselves; they other a diversity of voices and language which inspires performances. Of course there is also the fact that the cycle is a marvellous piece of writing.
And while it’s unlikely anyone is going rank Fungi From Yuggoth above classic works by Keats or T.S. Eliot, it is a very pleasurably read. The simplicity of many of the verse echo in the mind and its gentler verses show a lighter, less doom-laden side to Lovecraft. He may have never had the talent to be regarded a great poet but with Fungi From Yuggoth he did produce a remarkable work of verse. Poetically speaking, the sonnets may be simply, even naively, constructed but that does not detract from the beauty, imagination and atmosphere they conjure.
* If anyone out there can point me in the direction of the CD or a decent rip of it I’d be profoundly grateful!
JIM MOON, 23rd September 2010