I just finished William Hope Hodgson‘s The Boats of Glen Carrig, a bizarre novella about the ill-fated adventures of a group of sailors stuck in a boat after their ship sinks. They come across a huge portion of ocean covered in seaweed, and eventually, to their relief, they discover a small island. But there are hideous things among the seaweed–including giant crabs and colossal octopuses–and worse things on the island itself.

I read Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland earlier this year. Hodgson was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s influences, but I have to say, when it comes to inventing disturbing creatures and a genuinely creepy, “weird” atmosphere, I think that, for me, Hodgson actually beats HPL. There are no cosmic explanations for Hodgson’s blasphemies, no ruminations on man’s insignificance in the universe; his heroes are not overthinking intellectuals who end up being driven mad by the implications of what they witness, but normal men and women who, though horrified by what they encounter, simply deal with it and do their best to forget about it later–like most people would do.

And the creatures…! Pasty white swine-things (in The House on the Borderland) and the “Weed-men” of Glen Carrig…I found the narrator’s impressions of the Weed-men to be even more disturbing than Lovecraft’s famous description of the dying Wilbur Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror.”

Hodgson also writes in a far less mannered style than Lovecraft. In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft says of Glen Carrig, “[Hodgson’s] inaccurate and pseudo-romantic attempt to reproduce eighteenth-century prose detracts from the general effect.” I find this comment amusing, since one could very easily say the same of Lovecraft’s own work (though in his case, it’s nineteenth-century prose); and I find his style to be more difficult to get through than Hodgson’s.

Hodgson has also been accused of adding too much of a “romantic” atmosphere to his tales. Being moi, I appreciate this aspect of his writing; God forbid a weird tale from this era acknowledge the existence of women (as anything other than a witch, that is).

I like this William Hope Hodgson. The House on the Borderland is just as weird as Glen Carrig, if not more so, and includes some genuinely stunning (and disturbing) descriptions of horrific and cosmic events. Hodgson isn’t as weighed down by the eccentricities, idiosyncracies, or obsessions that mark–and sometimes mar–Lovecraft’s work. I recommend Glen Carrig–or any of Hodgson’s work–to Lovecraft fans.


I saw Batman Begins over the weekend–my official review will appear on Fungible Convictions in a day or two, but in three words: I liked it.

Be sure to check out FC founder Andy Whitacre’s essay on modern lit magazines–it’s a good read.

More progress made on The Shiver of the Gate this weekend. I also started a short story, featuring some of the same characters as SOTG but set in 1991; since my original idea was to write a book of short stories featuring these characters, I thought this might be a good way to help flesh them out in my head. Titled “The Jetty,” the story is set in Plymouth, Mass., not too far from where I grew up. The idea for it stemmed from some research I did on the Plymouth jetty when I was working as a reporter for the Old Colony Memorial years ago.

I read Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy over the weekend, another book assigned for my class on adapting novels into films. I have to say, though, I’m a little tired of these books narrated by depressing crazy people. Especially when they’re first-person and stream-of-consciousness. 200 pages of that is very wearying. I’m not a fan of long-form first-person narration as it is, and when you add the S.O.C. in, I tend to have a difficult time paying attention.

Was it a good novel? I suppose it is…I’m not inclined to doubt its artistic merit. But the ordeal of reading it reminded me that I am, unquestionably, a writer who tries to entertain (for lack of a better term) as well as create a work of art. This is not the goal of all authors, including (perhaps especially) some of the best. I admire that–truly. But I don’t often find myself seeking out that sort of writer. And I don’t believe such a style is necessary for truly great writing (the “eat your greens” conception of literary appreciation). It’s simply one option among many.


Robert Sheckley, one of science fiction’s most beloved elders, is very ill in Russia, and is having problems with medical insurance. Friends and fans have set up a Paypal donation drive at:


It just goes to show, no matter how great and respected a writer becomes, wealth is never a sure bet (Stephen King notwithstanding).


It’s always fun to learn a new word that means exactly what you were looking for. I was working on a story today and needed to describe an old man’s arm as “leathery.” But I didn’t like the word “leathery”–it seems cliched, and besides, I was already using it enough to describe real leather objects in the story. That, and whenever I read the word “leathery” now, I can’t help but mentally associate it with an essay in Michael J. Nelson’s Mind Over Matters, in which he uses the adjective to refer to the appearance of certain private parts of very old men in gym locker rooms.

So I checked the thesaurus and came up with “coriaceous.” It’s worth noting that this word is so obscure that Microsoft Word didn’t recognize it, though any dictionary I consulted had it. So I went with it. Yes, it will probably send more than one reader looking for their dictionary, but as a reader I always enjoy meeting a new word (I picked up “coolth” from Fritz Leiber, who used it as an alternative to “warmth”), so hopefully my readers will feel the same. It doesn’t evoke quite the same immediate visual imagery as “leathery,” but I’m not too concerned about that in this particular description.

The story I’m working on is a short fantasy tale for a contest. The characters in it are new, but I haven’t yet decided whether it’s set in Atreval or not. If I do decide to set it in Atreval, I may set in a period before the events in Tales of Atreval–perhaps long before. But as of now, I’m thinking I’ll leave it ambiguous in this particular story and make the decision later.

This has made me realize that I need to flesh Atreval out even more. I’ve been thinking I could get away with minimal world-building, as Leiber did with Nehwon in his Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories. But he wrote his stories for individual publication in the 1950s and ’60s, before huge fantasy novels became the norm in the post-Tolkien era.

The first thing is a map. A friend of mine drew one years ago, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on it, so it looks like I’m going to have to put pen to paper myself.

What I’m reading: I finished reading the first three stories in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, the first volume in Del Rey’s excellent collection of Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales. I’ve picked up the style of them, as I needed to, and I may take a break and move on to something a bit longer that I haven’t read before–perhaps Gene Wolfe’s Shadow and Claw, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. I’ve recently started taking suggestions from posters on the discussion forums at SwordandSorcery.org. I’ve heard good things about Steven Erikson’s “Malazon Book of the Fallen” series, though I’m hesitant to start another epic until I’ve at least finished the published volumes of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” books.

It’s also quite possible I may just re-read E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros.


I finished re-reading The Hobbit. It’s as good a read as it was when I was seven and my father read it to me aloud. As a book that was clearly written for young children, it’s always been an easier read than Lord of the Rings, particularly for non-Tolkien fans (though I recently came across an online discussion between Tolkien fans who said they didn’t like reading The Hobbit).

Whenever I re-read a beloved book, I tend to focus on things I paid less attention to in previous reads. This time around, I paid close attention to the development of the plot and Bilbo’s character. It really is an excellent children’s book, as the child-like Bilbo, who prefers to hide from the world in his little hole, goes out into the Wild and learns how to take care of himself. On that level, it works as well as anything by C.S. Lewis or Roald Dahl (or J.K. Rowling).

After writing Lord of the Rings–a novel ultimately geared more toward adults than young children–Tolkien went back and revised The Hobbit to better fit with the mythology he’d created. I suspect that when he first wrote The Hobbit in 1937, he thought of Gandalf as a traditional wizard–that is, an old (human) man with some magical powers. As The Hobbit is essentially an extended fairy tale, it makes sense that Gandalf’s role is primarily to get the hero out the door and meddle here and there when needed, but no more; it’s Bilbo’s adventure, not Gandalf’s.

Gandalf plays a somewhat similar role in Lord of the Rings, but he’s much more active. During this re-reading of The Hobbit, I couldn’t help but view the story from the perspective of the characters as I knew them from LR. From that viewpoint…what the hell did Gandalf think he was doing? He knows how dangerous Smaug is; Smaug is arguably more dangerous (perhaps much more dangerous) than any balrog, and yet Gandalf allows thirteen Dwarves and a hobbit wander blindly into the dragon’s lair?

There are really only two ways to view the situation. First, you can think of it in terms of Lord of the Rings, in which case Gandalf is apparently a rather cold (and sardonic) individual who thinks little of sending a few Dwarves and a hobbit to their doom. Or (and this is my interpretation) you accept that “the tale grew in the telling” of Lord of the Rings, and that The Hobbit has to be evaluated on its own as a children’s book, and not a true precursor of LR. The Hobbit is a fairy tale, while Lord of the Rings is an epic.

Okay, so those aren’t exactly new observations. But I found it amusing trying to figure out a way for the Gandalf of LR to have sent Thorin and Company on their way without seeming like a stone cold bastard. (Yes, I know he had pressing business with helping boot Sauron from Mirkwood, but it’s still awfully convenient, in terms of plot, for getting the all-powerful wizard out of the party.)

I was going to move on to reading LR next, but I need to re-read some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories first, for writing purposes. After that, I have a class, so no more pleasure reading until July…and at that point, I don’t know. I’ve been wanting to re-read E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (which I highly recommend to high fantasy fans, though be warned, the diction is almost Middle English), or read the second book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. Who knows? I’ve also got a book of Karl Wagner’s Kane stories I haven’t read yet…


I’m taking an independent study course, which means I determine the syllabus and reading list and just meet with a professor once every other week to talk about it. The course is on early horror fiction, and the syllabus was inspired by my desire to read some of the authors who preceded and influenced H.P. Lovecraft. The list includes E.T.A. Hoffman, Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and other authors that are revered in horror circles but forgotten in most others.

The class has made me examine my fondness for Lovecraft. Coincidentally, Salon magazine recently published an article on Lovecraft in honor of his induction into the Library of America. While I respect the author, Laura Miller, the article rather damns him with faint praise (the subheading, which probably wasn’t written by Miller, calls Lovecraft “America’s greatest bad writer”).1

Miller rehashes a lot of armchair psychoanalysis regarding Lovecraft and his work. This surprises me a bit, since the current lit-crit establishment, while being very interested in the historical context of a work, seems to be maintaining its New Criticism aversion to allowing an author’s life to reflect (in a significant degree) on his work. Lovecraft was an odd duck, no question. But the tendency to view his work in a biographical context (Freud is often mentioned) seems have become a bit ghoulish.

Fortunately, Lovecraft’s supporters raise a spirited defense. One letter-writer, Tom Grant, gets in a good shot: “[W]ithout any sense of irony, Salon has printed article after article about the presumed genius of J.R.R. Tolkien.” I’d argue that many of those articles did have irony–few so-called intellectuals (myself included) will defend their penchant for something popular without qualification–but Grant makes a good point.

While the article is ambiguous in its assessment of Lovecraft, Miller does touch on one thing about Lovecraft that I’ve been thinking about lately: his stories aren’t scary.

I recently came across a transcript of a symposium on Lovecraft from the early sixties. The panel members included Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch. At one point, someone asked whether Lovecraft actually scared anyone. A few people said he did (Leiber, for one) but the general consensus was no, Lovecraft wasn’t scary.

I agree. For one thing, he’s always giving away his endings through his use of the “as if” or “seemed like” clauses.2 Once you know the ending of a Lovecraft story, it loses most of its suspense, and Lovecraft constantly spoils his own plot. Here’s an example from “The Dunwich Horror”:

Dr. Armitage, associating what he was reading with what he had heard of Dunwich and its brooding presences, and of Wilbur Whateley and his dim, hideous aura that stretched from a dubious birth to a cloud of probable matricide, felt a wave of fright as tangible as a draught of the tomb’s cold clamminess. The bent, goatish giant [i.e., Whateley–JFCC] before him seemed like the spawn of another planet or dimension; like something only partly of mankind, and linked to black gulfs of essence and entity that stretch like titan phantasms beyond all spheres of force and matter, space and time.

Naturally, all of Dr. Armitage’s wild speculation turns out to be accurate.

But this isn’t Lovecraft’s only problem. As Miller points out, piling on the obscure Anglophone adjectives doesn’t a creepy story make. But I think the real problem is regarding Lovecraft as a “horror” writer at all.

As a writer of horror stories, Lovecraft never impressed me; but as a science fiction writer, his influence is strong. Lovecraft bridged the gap–or perhaps found the middle ground–between Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells, with a little Arthur C. Clarke thrown in. All his beasties–Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, the Elder Things–are technically extradimensional creatures or space aliens, not supernatural demons. Whereas Poe, Bierce and HPL’s other predecessors confined themselves to the psychological and (less often) supernatural in their horror tales, it was Lovecraft who pioneered the realm of “science horror.” Without Lovecraft, there might be no Alien.

My attempts to write like Lovecraft3 have been pretty unsuccessful. He can be parodied (as I intend to do, lovingly, in Tales of Atreval), but not imitated. He’s too intellectually and philosophically idiosyncratic. His writing does tend to be overwrought. To my admittedly inexperienced writerly eye, he seems to have approached the craft of fiction writing from a theoretical, almost scientific standpoint–reading the stories of his favorite authors and then mixing and matching their stylistic templates to build his own. Lovecraft designed his stories carefully (if not always sucessfully) to achieve particular “effects,” but his thin characters, dense prose, and general paucity of dialogue can become wearisome–to write, at least; I have a much better tolerance for reading his work than trying to write like it.

I admire Lovecraft for the way he struggled with modernity, for his pained depiction of a universe in which humanity has little or no significance, but most of all, for his marvelously imaginative cosmogony. How can I not love the creator of such a bizarre pantheon of alien demigods, with names like Great Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, and the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep? Lovecraft is deserving of his legacy, in all its dichotomous glory.

1 I object! I think Lovecraft at least deserves to be called America’s worst good writer.
2 Tzvetan Todorov discusses this weird tale tradition in depth in The Fantastic.
3 In addition to the recently-shelved “Advanced Operators,” those would be “The Black Cloth” and “The Burying Ground” for you future biographers.

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