The Washington Post

From Lovecraft to Gary Larson, a summer of endless reading


When I paused my Post book column during July and August, it wasn’t for two months of summery R & R. First, I wanted to finish a draft of my own book about popular fiction in late-19th and early-20th-century Britain. Second, I owed long pieces — about Oscar Wilde and Walter de la Mare — to two different magazines. Third, and not least, my house needed more bookshelve­s or — my beloved spouse’s preferred alternativ­e — fewer books.

As a result, I worked harder than ever during my “vacation,” but with mixed results. For instance, my book “The Great Age of Storytelli­ng” now runs 200,000 words, which means it needs cutting as well as the usual polishing and speeding up. I did acquire five handsome bookcases — a gift from a reader who was downsizing — but they are currently in storage in a neighbor’s garage. Exactly where to fit them into this small brick colonial remains an open question.

Despite my obsessive-compulsive work ethic, there were a few welcome interrupti­ons. My wife, our youngest son and I drove to a nephew’s wedding in Rochester, N.Y., listening en route to Jonathan Cecil perform P.G. Wodehouse’s reliably hilarious “Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.” In fact, the trip left me unexpected­ly hopeful about the future. My nephew is Black, his bride is White, and the evening dinner reception was

largely composed of their friends. As I looked around the noisy room, I noticed that the various tables, which had unassigned seating, presented racially diverse groups of young people at each, laughing and flirting and enjoying one another’s company.

That doesn’t seem like much, but it felt distinctly heartening, a welcome change from my usual mood of “Change and decay all around I see.” Two weeks later, my three grown sons, as well as one daughter-in-law and three of the world’s cutest grandchild­ren, assembled here for the first time since the pandemic began. When not chowing down, we made afternoon excursions to Brookside Gardens, the National Zoo and the Baltimore Aquarium, at one of which — sigh — we all caught covid. But that’s another story.

Most of the time, though, I passed my days haltingly typing sentences, while occasional­ly risking heat stroke to mow the grass or help my gardener-wife in her never-ending battle against weeds and flash flooding. In the evenings, I read “Far Away and Long Ago,” W.H. Hudson’s beautifull­y written 1918 memoir about growing up on the Argentine Pampas in the 1840s, following it up with Mary Kingsley’s 1897 “Travels in West Africa” and H. Rider Haggard’s “She and Allan,” the 1921 novel that brings together the near immortal Ayesha, a.k.a. She-who-must-be- Obeyed, and the big-game hunter Allan Quatermain. At bedtime, Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons soothed an often roiled mind. My current favorite panel shows a car pulled over by the police. There’s a big-nosed dog at the wheel and in the front passenger seat a middle-aged guy, who’s telling the officer, “Hey, I’m not crazy … Sure, I let him drive once in a while, but he’s never, never off the leash for even a second.”

People also gave me books. A retired English professor urged me to finally embark on Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” then stopped by my house with some scholarly works to guide me through it. Two friends, both pillars of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, brought over a long run of the society’s elegant and witty journal, Knight Letter. A fellow member of the Baker Street Irregulars even shipped me several bound volumes of British periodical­s from the early 1900s. Tantalizin­g articles abound. For example, Nash’s Magazine from 1907 features a profile of Maurice Leblanc, creator of the gentlemant­hief Arsene Lupin, and a series on the public’s taste in books, with contributi­ons by H.G. Wells, E. Phillips Oppenheim and other notable authors of the day.

By mid-august, I felt entitled to one purely extravagan­t treat: The stars were right for a quick visit to Providence, R.I., to attend Necronomic­on, that nonpareil celebratio­n of weird fiction. With roughly 2,000 attendees, it’s far more intimate than Washington’s National Book Festival or the comics-focused Awesome Con. There were tours of H.P. Lovecraft’s haunts, B-movie horror films, author readings, a room for gamers, a dealer’s hall (where I bought a medallion inscribed “Cthulhu Waits”) and scores of panels on, for example, the work of Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker and the preservati­on of pulp magazines. On Friday evening, Robert Lloyd Parry, in the guise of M.R. James, took an enthralled audience through the chilling “Count Magnus.” The next night, beautifull­y costumed figures both sexy and grotesque sashayed off to the con’s masquerade ball, this year’s theme being Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Naturally, in between the formal talks and presentati­ons, there was heady conversati­on with numerous friends over clam cakes, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and Guinness. In a swap with one of those friends, I acquired Dubose Heyward’s eerie classic, “The Half-pint Flask,” and two scarce titles by Marjorie Bowen (writing as George R. Preedy), “Lyndley Waters” and “The

Fourth Chamber.” The writerprof­essor Michael Cisco generously offered a copy of his widerangin­g and learned “Weird Fiction: A Genre Study” (Palgrave Macmillan) and Peter Rawlik inscribed “The Eldritch Equations and Other Investigat­ions” (Jackanapes Press), his collection of mystery stories, of sorts, set in Lovecraft’s fictional universe. In the dealers’ room, Hippocampu­s Press — which specialize­s in Lovecraft and his circle — filled a table with its latest publicatio­ns, including David E. Schultz’s carefully annotated edition of the nightmaris­h sonnet sequence “Fungi from Yuggoth.” Best title ever.

Needless to say, Providence’s used bookstores, Paper Nautilus and Cellar Stories, proved irresistib­le, as was the suggestion, from writer and Post reviewer Paul Di Filippo, of an excursion to Connecticu­t’s Niantic Book Barn. Among much else, I unearthed a volume of tributes to the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, Robert Graves and Laura Riding’s “A Pamphlet Against Anthologie­s,” an illustrate­d catalogue devoted to rarities by Jorge Luis Borges and backup copies of such personal favorites as “Collector’s Progress” by Horace Walpole scholar W.S. Lewis and Stanley Elkin’s heavenly comedy, “The Living End.”

Once back home, I brought the summer to a shivery close by listening to a pair of CDS dramatizin­g “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” both from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s old-timey Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. I’m saving their epic, six- CD “Masks of Nyarlathot­ep” for my next long car trip. It should be perfect for late at night, when it’s easy to take the wrong fork on a country road and you suddenly find yourself driving through a lonely and disturbing­ly curious landscape.

Despite my obsessivec­ompulsive work ethic, there were a few welcome interrupti­ons.

 ?? BBC Worldwide ?? Book critic Michael Dirda relished tthe audiobook version of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves” and David E. Schultz’s carefully annotated edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth.”
BBC Worldwide Book critic Michael Dirda relished tthe audiobook version of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves” and David E. Schultz’s carefully annotated edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth.”

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