The tales from the miska.., p.1
The Tales from the Miskatonic University Library, page 1
TALES FROM THE MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
Darrell Schweitzer & John Ashmead
I first encountered H. P. Lovecraft as an undergraduate at Harvard. One year I worked part-time as an assistant librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library, tracking down books gone walkabout. At that time the stacks were off-limits to students—there was an actual checkpoint—but my staff card let me past the gate gryphons, and into the infinite wonders of the library proper.
According to Lovecraft’s “A History of the Necronomicon”, the Widener has a copy of the seventeenth century edition. But my staff card wasn’t quite powerful enough to get me a look at it. And it is Harvard policy to deny all knowledge of the Necronomicon.
But it was a few years later, when I was a graduate student at Princeton, that I really began to “get” Lovecraft. I was studying—much like Lovecraft’s Walter Gilman—non-Euclidean calculus & quantum physics. Something about Lovecraft’s cosmic horror struck a chord. I enjoyed—I freely confess—the pastiches & the posthumous collaborations, the responses & rebuttals, by Derleth, Lumley, Smith, Howard, and others. But Lovecraft was the pure quill, his visions of a universe not only not made for man but indifferent to man’s existence rang true.
I still have many of my battered paperbacks from that time, especially those with the quietly disturbing covers of John Holmes. A personal favorite: a skull whose bemused eyeballs are turned up in their sockets to see the gas clouds?—brains?—leaking out of its dorsal surface.
And it was notable even then how many pastiches, homages, collaborations, refutations, and further explorations Lovecraft inspired. Part of this was—as I learned later—that Lovecraft was a voluminous correspondent & a helpful friend who enjoyed sharing his growing “Cthulhu mythos” with others.
But much was simply the resonance of the stories themselves. Lovecraft was a master at saying “just enough”. In an early reference to his dread Necronomicon he quotes an elusive passage from page 751, but in later correspondence with one of his many friends observed it was better to let the reader fill in the first 750 pages from imagination than to engage in the tedious exercise of writing them out himself.
This has not kept a large number of others from attempting exactly that. There have been many Necronomicons. In fact, Darrell & I have helped commit Necronomicon: we were both working at Owlswick Press when its late & much lamented owner/publisher George Scithers brought out his own copy of the Al Azif—as the Necronomicon likes to refer to itself—complete with introduction by L. Sprague de Camp. De Camp was a die-hard rationalist; he had much fun in his introduction explaining that all of the mysterious deaths associated with the volume had quite natural explanations really.
Darrell’s & my paths have diverged since then. He has gone on to become an editor, writer, book-tamer, & well-known Lovecraft scholar in his own right. I wound up in the computer business, writing software for everything from a perinatal clinic to a cemetery (my company slogan is “cradle-to-grave” programming). But I kept up my interest in science fiction & in H. P. Lovecraft in particular. Darrell & I have done a number of panels on the Old Gentleman, as Lovecraft liked to call himself.
And I was enough taken by the Necronomicon and the other mysterious tomes—the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Eltdown Shards, The G’harne Fragments, Die Unasusprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt—found in Lovecraft and his followers to start a collection of “imaginary books,” a list of all such titles. I am not alone in this fascination. See for instance Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici, a short, delightful catalog of the holdings of the Miskatonic University Library, who notes with characteristic precision:
“Despite the literary tradition to the contrary, the Necronomicon has never been a ‘rare’ book in the sense that few copies have existed. Many copies have existed; and reasonably complete sections of the whole (the original of which apparently consisted of a sizable number of scrolls) are extant and have been authenticated.”
But if you are going to collect imaginary books you need some way to classify them. Enter the Dewey Decimal system. I found—to my pleasure and surprise—that there are holes in the Dewey Decimal system, some gaps deliberately left for the future expansion, some categories now abandoned, but also some lacunae with no obvious explanations.
And at one SF con a few years back, I mentioned to Darrell that I would like to write the sort of story that fits into the gaps, say “Unclassified Horrors”. Darrell said that first, this would make a good anthology and second, as I had announced it in front of witnesses we would have to share the work & the (if any) revenues. No slithering off into the dark with the idea firmly clenched between his teeth this time.
Life as it so often does intervened, but a few years later Darrell came by saying he had a contract & inviting me to sign on as co-editor. In a weak moment I did, and a few weeks later posted to my blog (Time & Quantum Mechanics), as well as to a few similar blogs & forums1, the following Call to Adventure!
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
The anthology Tales from the Miskatonic Library now soliciting stories for submission. This is an anthology of tales about, found in, inspired by, or stolen from the Miskatonic University Library.
Your editors are Darrell Schweitzer and myself, and we are looking for tales that:
1. Are good stories.
2. Can be included in an anthology titled Tales From the Miskatonic Library without involving us in elaborate explanations.
3. Aren’t “Boy Reads Book; Book Eats Boy.”
So, your chance to have a bit of grim fun:
• What sort of tales might be found in the Miskatonic University Library? Kept perhaps in the secure reading room? Shared by Chief Librarian Henry Armitage over faculty sherry with only a trusted few?
• And how did Dr. Henry Armitage acquire his position as Chief Librarian? And what of his successor(s)?
• What unexpected problems might be faced by an acquisitions librarian at Miskatonic University? Or a cataloger? Is the Necronomicon quite as rare as it is made out to be?
• What is the real explanation for the curious gaps in the Dewey Decimal System?
• What might it take to see the unexpurgated account of the Pabodie’s 1930 expedition to The Mountains of Madness? Together with their troubling cross-correlations with Shackleton’s private diary? The US Treasury Department’s internal report on the incident at Devil Reef off Innsmouth?
• Why are no students allowed within the stacks? Are rumors of non-Euclidean spaces within merely rumors? Why was Einstein called in for a consult in 1944? And his frequent correspondent Schrödinger brought over secretly from Ireland that same year?
• And are series like Warehouse 13 or The Librarian or Charlie Stross’s The Laundry really just cover stories for the Miskatonic University Library?—precautions taken to make sure if a bit of the truth gets out, it will be seen as merely a publicity stunt?
And if even if you don’t have a Tale from the Miskatonic Library bubbling up inside you, perhaps a friend does. Please pass this link along to any who might be interested. Word of tentacle is our best advertisement!
Darrell had already been soliciting stories from his friends & connections; I did some networking as well. Stories came in, some worked for the Tales, others, perhaps equally good, were just not the right fit.
As events would have i
But eventually we had to close the books—as it were—on the anthology and wound up with a total of thirteen (total coincidence that!) stories which met our criteria & indeed even went past them. Grimly gratifying.
So to our collection of hitherto unclassified horrors. Some of the contributors took off from our announcements & suggestions, others surprised us (& themselves). We here present the stories in roughly the order in which they arrived:
Don Webb. “Slowly Ticking Bomb”. Two Guys from Oklahoma, three archaeologists in Uganda, & one critical question. This one isn’t specifically about the Miskatonic University library, but about a book which could and possibly does by now (assuming it regenerated itself) belong in the special collection there. It sets the tone very nicely.
Adrian Cole. “Third Movement”. In which we discover—once again—that it is a mistake to underestimate the craftiness of book dealers, and that there is a necessary distinction to be made between the keys to a book and the book itself.
Dirk Flinthart. “To be In Ulthar”. The Old Gentleman, as Lovecraft liked to style himself, had a great fondness for the feline. Mr. Flinthart builds on that tradition, with a tale of cats of both the four-legged & two legged kinds.
Harry Turtledove. “Interlibrary Loan”. The interlibrary loan system is sacred. And nearly as sacred is the requirement to take great care in pronunciation & grammar, whether the text is the blessed Qur’an or the damnable Necronomicon.
Will Murray. “A Trillion Young”. Anyone who has used a spell checker on a smart phone has at one time or another been embarrassed by unexpected results. Mr. Murray shows that the ‘unexpected results’ can take one well past embarrassment & gives a new meaning to “internet buzz”.
A. C. Wise. “The Paradox Collection”. Alive, dead, both, neither—AC Wise blends quantum mechanics & the multiverse into one seamless whole.
Mattie Brahen. “The Way to a Man’s Heart”. A charming little morsel of a tale, combining gastronomy & gastropods in just proportion (with a bit of Shoggoth spice).
Douglas Wynne. “The White Door”. You can never step into the same book twice, because it is never the same book, and you are never the same person.
P. D. Cacek. “One Small Change”. Our librarian heroine stutters a bit at first, but has a very soft, smooth finish.
Alex Shvartsman. “Recall Notice”. At last, a librarian who wants to make sure that the volumes get some welcome exposure. But welcome to whom?
Jason Van Pelt. “The Children’s Collection”. A touching example of interspecies cooperation. We are all children at heart. Or were once.
Darrell Schweitzer. “Not in the Card Catalog”. My esteemed co-editor contributes a troubling work which raises the question ‘when does the handoff between man & book take place?’
Robert M. Price. “The Bonfire of the Blasphemies”. We finish, like the scorpion, with a bit of a stinger. We can say no more.
1 most notably the Lovecraft E-Zine (hosted by Mike Davis, http://lovecraftzine.com, very highly recommended!)
There is not much more to be said….which sounds like the conclusion, or perhaps opening, to an eldritch horror story. My colleague speaks the truth. This anthology did have its origins on a convention panel, at, I believe, a Capclave. He proposed what was essentially the idea for this book and, having already turned in That Is Not Dead, a volume of historical Cthulhu Mythos fiction to our wise and noble publisher, I said, “You know, I think I could sell that.” But there were indeed too many witnesses…and anyone working on a practical time machine (see John’s bio note at the end of this book) is not to be trifled with.
Lovecraft legacy goes on and on, doesn’t it? There are already book-length bibliographies of “Lovecraftian” fiction, and I am sure no one has ever managed to catalogue all the stories, poems, manga, t-shirts, bobble-head toys, board games, and other products inspired by his fevered imaginings. Some might be left in the category of “unmentionables,” but when it was brought to my attention, I did a cursory examination of a particular website and discovered that, yes, there really are Lovecraftian sex toys. I have a tin of Cthulhu Breath Mints, still sealed. I dare not find out what R’lyeh breath actually smells like, much less what it would do to my friendships or marriage.
Seriously, Lovecraft is a major figure, not only in world literature, but world culture. The late David Hartwell remarked that his children, when they were small, already knew the difference between a shoggoth and an old one well before they could read. They’d learned this from their stuffed toys. This is quite a long way from the oblivion Lovecraft doubtless thought would engulf his writings after his death. (Think of Keats’ despairing, “Here is a name written on water.” Keats was wrong about himself too.) John Ashmead and I have indeed been on more than one convention panel (and one television interview) on this very topic: the persistence of Lovecraft. I think the short answer to this is that Lovecraft’s work created or embodied the central mythic perception of our time. Fascinated by astronomy from an early age, he really gazed into the infinite depths between the stars and felt the implications of what those depths mean, i.e. that the place of mankind in the overall scheme of things must be a very small one, and that if intelligences lurk out there in the dark, they neither know nor care about us. Hence Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, the whole basis of his thought and art. Furthermore, he was alive and writing at the very time (the 1920s) when astronomers finally realized that those swirly “nebulae” they had been seeing were not just clouds of gas, but galaxies of billions of stars, far beyond our own, and suddenly the universe got larger by many orders of magnitude. One can just imagine how HPL would have reacted if he’d lived to see photographs from billions of years back in time, from the Hubble telescope, or to know for certain, as we do now (and quite contrary to the scientific theory of his day) that planets are common, that most stars have them, and there must therefore be literally countless alien worlds in our galaxy alone, let alone in the others we can see. And this might not be the only “universe” that exists. It might be one bubble in an endless wave of foam. Even Cthulhu would feel overwhelmed.
This cosmicism pervades everything that we call “Lovecraftian,” even an anthology like this one, which centers on the doings of a small university library in Massachusetts. Lovecraft’s “demons” are cosmic beings. The “forbidden lore” in the mind-blasting tomes his characters foolishly look into has to do with far more than “blasphemy” in ay conventional, religious sense, or the doings of human-imagined demons. He doesn’t write of Heaven or Hell. His “gods” have no more concern with the salvation of our “souls” (a word which to Lovecraft could only be the basis of an outmoded metaphor) than we do for the psychological wellbeing of ants or cockroaches. That Miskatonic University’s rare books contain actual revelations of this awful truth places upon its custodians an awesome responsibility. How they cope with that responsibility is a good deal of what this anthology is about.
It has always been my contention (something I insisted on while co-editing Weird Tales) that a good Cthulhu Mythos story should work even for people who have never heard of Lovecraft. It has to be a human (or maybe inhuman) story first and foremost, and touch the reader’s emotions. If it is intended as a horror story (note that there are two actual comedies in this book) it must be scary. It must do more than just make the reader smile and fondly remember other stories.
Admittedly, I think it unlikely that many of you have gotten this far without having heard of Lovecraft. I would certainly recommend that if you have not read “The Dunwich Horror,” you drop everything and do so immediately. That is the one story that tells us t
My thanks are due to Lee Weinstein, a real, actual librarian, who looked over my own story in this book to make sure I had not committed any gross errors of librarianship. All of us are grateful to Dr. Henry Armitage of Arkham, Massachusetts, whose efforts as guardian the secrets of the Miskatonic University Library may be a good deal of the reason why mankind still dwells on this planet. Things tend to happen there, and you can never be too careful.
And we owe everything to H.P. Lovecraft, of course.
SLOWLY TICKING TIME BOMB
I knew James Grady for sixteen years. During the last ten the Ool Athog Chronicles was able to kill him. The book is mine now, and I have to decide my destiny.
James and I began our association in a moment of geek recognition. My wife had told me that I had better sell some books or she would write me in as a candidate for a hoarding reality show. So I bought a table at the local SF con—MoundCon in Binger, Oklahoma. James bought a dozen paperback anthologies. We talked. He was my age and literally living in his mom’s basement after two failed marriages. He joked he should be selling not buying. So by the next Con, we were Two Guys from Oklahoma. Business was good. After a couple of years we began buying trips to tiny Oklahoma. In those days before scanners and Apps dominated the used/rare book market knowledge plus luck could really pay off. James knew nineteenth century fantasy and I knew pre-Golden Age SF. But you would find other stuff, too. A couple of first edition Dickens. Ca-ching! One day James spotted a first edition of Finnegans Wake. Joyce had been able to sign almost no copies before his death, and since he was blind his signature looked a serial murderer’s scrawl. A small note by his secretary Samuel Beckett was underneath attesting to his master’s Word. The little thrift store had no idea what they had—heck they didn’t even think the book was in English.
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