Saturday, December 5, 2015

On H.P. Lovecraft and A Review of The Martian Falcon

"The Lord of the Visible World"

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a wordmaster who has left an indelible mark on the literary world. Despite his numerous flaws, he was largely regarded by his childhood friends and adult correspondences as a warm-hearted, good-natured, easy-going fellow who could even be counted on to hold his own in a fight. Either through prejudice, bad research, or misguided competition, Lovecraft has been described by those who consider themselves educated on the matter as a degenerate, racist, sexist recluse who gave birth to a slew of monstrosities that were summarily ripped off, so that he did not even attain relative success in his lifetime. Careless biographers coined him an ""eccentric recluse,"" (Joshi, Schultz Lord of a Visible World Ohio University Press 2000, pg x). The venerable Cat Valente had some choice words for Lovecraft during the on-going scandal when Lovecraft's likeness was removed from the World Fantasy Association's Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time my opinion was no better informed than Ms. Valente's, but in light of my most recent research, I have reason to believe that I was correct as well, but for the wrong reasons. I stand by my original opinion that Lovecraft should never have been the WFA's representative figure, but I am, like so many others, able to look upon him with a softer eye.

I do not mean to say that what Ms. Valente said did not have merit, nor was it at all inaccurate. It was the way with which Ms. Valente gave voice to her opinion, vehemently leveled and patently disingenuous. Of course, there can be no question that Lovecraft's societal opinions and ethnic viewpoints do not align with the Association's own goals and culture, and so to remove him as its symbol is not only logical, but natural. However, to say without hesitation that his prose was was "not that good" (short quote because I can't find her tweets) gives me the impression that Ms. Valente has not yet taken the time to get to know him, as it were. Of his fiction, yes there are better authors out there. Of his prose, there are better writers out there in general, but as a writer of letters, an essayist, a wordsmith, I find it difficult to believe that Lovecraft could have nothing to offer the world as a writer. 

Lovecraft was a unique human being that was loved by as many people as hated him. His talents never fully exercised nor trained, and after a lifetime spent horribly depressed and suffering from anxiety, he languished in poverty, and he died in poverty. His voice survives in his letters, and though he is most fondly remembered for defining contemporary horror and weird fiction, it is his own voice that is the most fascinating part of him. Editors S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz masterfully compiled an autobiography of Lovecraft through his letters that offers us a tantalizing glimpse into the mind and heart of one of literature's most beloved, and most controversial, figures.  

Others and have tried and failed to imitate his fiction. Many fictional outlets have reprised his most exemplary works for table-top gaming, computer gaming, and other media that has guaranteed Mr. Lovecraft's immortality, and many authors have said that they owe their career to Lovecraft and his works, but it is only recently that any real effort was made to bring him back to life as the author, the man, and the master, to let him speak with his own voice, the voice we find in his letters, journalism, and essays, so that we may not know him not only as an author of the macabre, but as an ally, perhaps even someone we would think of as a friend.

Alan K. Baker has given Lovecraft back to us.

May Contain Minor Spoilers:

Lovecraft and Fort: Private Investigators in the The Martian Falcon

Lets leave Lovecraft out for a second and consider the work of Alan K. Baker, a prolific author of six novels, his most recent work, The Martian Falcon, published through Snow Books. 

The Martian Falcon is at first glance a noir. It follows the noir formula and executes it masterfully. Charles Fort is a private investigator in the early Twentieth century, but that is where the conventional noir ends. Fort specializes in supernatural phenomena and dabbles in the magickal arts in the steampunk backdrop of post WWI New York City. It's a pastiche noir, pulling together a slew of familiar characters based on real figures (and ficitional) who must band together to solve the most mysterious of mysteries. Leaving Lovecraft out, I found The Martian Falcon to be refreshing. The Martian Falcon took me back to the four Edgar Allan Poe Mysteries by Harold Schechter, my favorite being The Hum Bug, in which Poe must team up with P.T. Barnum to solve a series of hideous murders at the hands of one of Barnum's sideshow freaks; the Dante Club by Matthew Pearl comes quickest to mind as well, in which four famous New England poets including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow teamed up to stop a string of murders that acted out scenes from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy

I have the Longfellow translation of the Inferno's first lines of Canto 3 tattooed on my right arm because of that book. 

As an added bonus, Baker's work is a steampunk masterpiece. It's difficult to find good steampunk fiction. Our choices aren't exactly limited if one has no objection to overlooking plot and world building and one is purely interested in the steampunk. Mark Hodder and Scott Westerfeld come quickest to my mind, one being an exemplar of good steampunk writing and the other not so much. I leave you to figure out which is which, but I'll give you a hint: I almost put Spring-Heeled Jack down like five times. 

Baker's characters meld beautifully with the steampunk backdrop. The entire alternate universe is crafted seamlessly, even bringing in real-life scientist Nikola Tesla, who meshes perfectly in this setting; so many steampunk die-hards consider him at odds with the movement, as he is not a Victorian character. Baker's choice to set this story in 1925 New York was bold, and well-executed. Real life gangster Al Capone of Chicago becomes the "Diesel Powered Gangster" who squares off with his New York rival, the vampire Johnny Sanguine, who tries to set Capone up for the theft of a Martian artifact. Each character plays well into the stereotype before being completely ripped out of it and cast in an original characterization that functions without flaw against the backdrop. For a short read, each character is well-developed and has a unique voice. I love Carmine, Johnny Sanguine's right hand man, and Capone's zombie lackeys. The lackeys get about two lines each (maybe a few more for Carmine) and each is so beautifully predictable and acceptable in a noir pastiche that I literally have no complaint.  

Then there's the "Lovecraftian" aspect of the story, the overarching story that at once encompasses the novel and reminds humanity of its minuscule place in the larger universe. Authors: choose your side! Your protagonists can cower before the might of the Great Old Ones as your predecessor's did, or they can fight back! Where Lovecraft was stalwart in his opinion that our moment in the universe is brief and meaningless and that there are some parts of the universe we were never meant to explore, Baker's characters (like Titus Crow from Brian Lumely) are not prepared to give up so easily in the face of Lovecraft's own primary theme: the threat of utter annihilation. Neither is Baker's incarnation of Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself, who does not shrink from the fight against creatures who, in this reality, are real and terrifying, and not of his creation. He joins it readily, glancing nervously at his weapon, but never hesitating to use it.

I suppose we can talk about Lovecraft now.

As I stated above, nothing is more fascinating when reading Lovecraft than reading his own words, words he wrote not for himself to satisfy his own ego, but what he wrote to friends and colleagues, in journals and publications. It is this voice that has received so little attention in the fantasy and horror genres of our time. Baker does not relegate his understanding of Lovecraft's voice to his fiction, but proves he's done his homework. The Lovecraft the reader meets in The Martian Falcon does not vary at all from the Lovecraft of reality. His voice is entirely accurate, scathing when it has to be, flamboyantly verbose, purposefully archaic, and even rhythmically accurate. Lovecraft is a man quite out of his time, the soul of an Eighteenth-Century gentleman trapped in the Twentieth while at the same time fascinated and at one with the natural world. Some of Lovecraft's most humorous and witty (I doubt he would have described himself as "funny") moments are short and sweet. Lovecraft sometimes ended a long-winded rant with a very short phrase like, "I'm a done with Dunn!" (Joshi, Schultz, 45), which is clearly a pun. He ended a beautiful description of the vacant lot beside his family's new home with a elegiac shake of his head, "Adulthood is Hell," (Joshi, Schultz, 26). Baker captures this aspect of Lovecraft's short bursts of wit in the scene in which Fort, our boy Lovecraft (who has been recruited by Fort to solve the caper of the missing Martian Falcon), and Capone must escape Johnny Sanguine's angry cohorts. Capone teases Lovecraft.

""And what might that be?" asked Lovecraft hanging on to his own hand-grip as the car swerved this way and that, braking and accelerating in quick succession as Tony tried to shake their pursuers.

"Probably try to run us off the road and use their strength to rip open the doors..."

Lovecraft ratcheted up the look of horror on his face by several notches. "And then?"

"They'll probably rip your heads off and beat me to death with them."

"Charles," said Lovecraft.

"Yes, Howard?"

"I resign."" 

--Capone, Lovecraft, and Fort, Alan Baker's The Martian Falcon

Baker's Lovecraft reminds the reader that there was a man behind the stories, the gentle life of a man who loved beans and coffee. Behind the shadows of the macabre was a voice that Lovecraft himself feared would only ever be heard in one single, paltry volume and a few pieces of publication he spearheaded himself, a fear of failure and dejection that sent him into years of depression and landed him in lifelong poverty, though he eventually comforted himself with the thought that all success is eventually equivocated by the grave. A moment of rebelliousness led him to an ill advised marriage that ended in failure, which he picked himself up from and soldiered on.Yet this is not a man deeply sunk into the shadows and wasting away, quaking at sudden movements. Baker's Lovecraft captures the man's original spirit of adventure, his pragmatism, his outright conservatism (that borders on fascism), his search for meaning and purpose in life, the near childlike youthfulness and innocence of his character and the wisdom of his old soul.

I'm not sure yet if I should thank Baker for leaving out Lovecraft's blatant racism or not. In the end, I think it was a good move; I always admired the way Dan Simmons chose to paint Charles Dickens as more of the horrible person he was rather than the lovable public figure he purported himself to be in Drood, and so Baker does more justice to Lovecraft by not drawing attention to the fuel that fired so much of Lovecraft's fiction and is present in his daily life (and gradually got worse with age). It had little to do with the story and the setting, and so does not bear scrutiny. Nevertheless, when it comes to craft, much can be gleaned from what isn't said as well as what is left in. There are many who would like to gloss over Lovecraft's xenophobia, but I cannot, nor will I gloss over his either blatant distaste for women or his fear of them. Unlike Poe's weird relationship and marriage to his cousin in Schechter's novels, Baker places Lovecraft in his novel just after his wife's exhibition to the mid-west and forcible divorce, but before his recall home to Providence by his aunts from "exile." I make no assumptions about this particular plot choice, but since it fits the character and there probably wouldn't have been much room for her anyway, I can safely assuage Lovecraft's harsher critics by saying I would not read too much into it. 


Lovecraft has received wide post-humus acclaim for his works, though he received little more than a pat on the back and an author's copy for his trouble during his lifetime. He will always be held in high regard by myself and the more than 43,000 adoring fans he has on the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's Facebook page, although were he alive today, he probably would not partake in our usual tet-a-tets over what "Lovecraftian" means; rather I think he would sit back and watch us squabble, sipping very sweet coffee and admiring the more conservative his fans and shaking his head at the more liberal minded. He would blog, review books, and have a very active Twitter account. His email list would have thousands of followers, and he would never want for backers on his Patreon. 

Lovecraft's fiction and his work have been immortalized by hundreds of publishers, and his praises sung by hundreds of authors. It is Alan K. Baker who has given Lovecraft pulsing life once more, but it is not the life his adoring fans know him for, but the sharp wit and gentle self-indulgence of the man his friends and colleagues knew him as, the type of man I would not have been ashamed to know myself. Baker and his P.I. character Fort gave Lovecraft what so few people in his own time had given him, a chance to prove his worth. Perhaps in Baker's alternate universe, Lovecraft would not die of cancer alone in his bed, nor would he die relegated to the annals of history as an "eccentric recluse", nor as a man who held no gainful employment and had some of the strangest prose fiction to ever come out of the early science fiction and fantasy genre. We can hope so. 

Alan Baker is a prolific author who deserves a very wide, mainstream readership. You can find his works for sale from Snow Books from his official publisher's site and you can find him on Twitter at @AlanKBaker. Look for his next Lovecraft and Fort adventure from Snow Books, Dial M for Mi-Go. I can't wait.

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