24 August 2012


Bob Curran. A Haunted Mind: Inside the Dark, Twisted World of H.P. Lovecraft. New Page Books, 2012.

This is really a book which I wish our late colleague Roger Sandell had been able to review. Roger appeared, many years ago, on the popular TV quiz show Mastermind, answering questions on the life and work of H. P. Lovecraft and in the process scoring a near record-breaking 38 points.
The questions caused considerable annoyance to the show's host, the genial Magnus Magnusson, as the Icelandic inquisitor was infuriated by having to read out questions which contained jaw-breaking Lovecraftian names consisting almost entirely of random consonants and apostrophes.

One of the imaginary grimoires in Lovecraft's library of horror along with the Necronomicon, was entitled Unaussprechlichen Culten, supposedly meaning 'Unspeakable (i.e. Horrific) Cults.' However certain German speakers suggest that a more accurate translation might be 'Unpronounceable Cults' which also seems perfectly appropriate. But now here is Bob Curran to guide us through these linguistic nightmares.

He starts with a brief outline of Lovecraft's life, which in itself justifies the book sub-title 'Dark and Twisted World'. Besides being an outrageous racist, even I think by the standards of his own time, he was totally self-centred, most particularly in regard to his wife during their short marriage. Completely incapable of organising his own life he relied almost entirely on his family and others. Perhaps the only thing which made him tolerable as an acquaintance was that generally he seemed to avoid meeting others face-to-face, and most of his contact with other people was through postal correspondence.

But he corresponded at great length, and in so doing he drew many others into his literary creation, some, it must be said, rather better writers than he. This means that the book discusses a great deal more material than is contained in the original texts and includes modern contributions by a variety of writers, even taking in computer and role-playing games. The bulk of the book is an examination of the creatures and locations that Lovecraft and his circle created, from his original works in the pulp magazines of the 1920s to writers who are still developing the so-called 'Cthulu Mythos'.
Curran describes the various horrific creations of the Mythos writers and suggests possible inspiration for them in history, legend, folklore and the works of earlier writers. This provides a series of excursions into some quite obscure, and sometimes quite disturbing byways of 'vision and belief', as we say here at Magonia. His exegesis of the various black books in the Lovecraftian collection leads us from Classical and Mediaeval grimoires, through early modern almanacs and religious tracts, and the opiate-imbued vaporings of fin-de-siecle Decadents. His speculation on the origins of the Mythos’s gods and demons roams through the world's mythologies, and his journeys to identify the locations which inspired the geography of Lovecraft's nightmare world take us from Hyperborea to Norfolk, via the South Pacific.

I'm glad to see that in moving away from the New England of Arkham and Innsmouth where Lovecraft spent most of his life, to more modern writers in the Mythos, Curran discusses the English Lovecraftian landscape of Brichester and the Severn Valley which is the creation of Ramsey Campbell, an old librarian colleague of mine. On the other hand I'm a little disappointed that Curran does not move on from this imaginary rural landscape of Campbell's earlier work, to discuss the Lovecraftian terror that Ramsey was able to bring to the solid bricks and stones of our native Liverpool!

All in all then, an entertaining look at the work of a writer who provokes extreme reactions from critics and other writers, but a book which would probably have enraged Magnus Magnusson even more with its 'Unaussprechlichen' nomenclature, and must have been a considerable challenge to the proofreaders! -- John Rimmer

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