Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Shadow Out of Providence

The Shadow Out of ProvidenceThe Shadow Out of Providence by Ezra Claverie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lovecraft afficionados: Pay attention! This is unlike any other Lovecraft-inspired book you've laid eyes on. It is unique for its quirkiness, its aims, and its presentation. There really is nothing like it "out there". When I heard about the project from author Ezra Claverie, I agreed to do an honest review, as I felt the premise was inspired: A metatextual critique of Lovecraft's racism, predeliction for the superiority of the aristocratic class (from which he was derived), and his baroque language.

The Artifact:

The Shadow Out of Providence is a short volume, 85 pages long. It is, however, packed with content for a book of its size. The cover is a genuine cloth cover (when's the last time you saw that?) imprinted with the design portrayed in the cover photo of this review: A black silhouetted city with tentacles thrust "underground" into the blue background, with silver lettering (and a silver moon on the top center binding). spread out, the cover looks like some sort of sinister piece of art nouveau. In other words, it's beautiful, the sort of book collectors drool over. The pages are substantial, so unlike the flimsy tissue floating around so much of the publishing industry today. This thing has weight. The interior is lavishly (and I don't use the word lightly) illustrated by Timothy Hutchings, Dan Zettwoch, and Erol Otus - yes, that Erol Otus, you roleplaying geek, you. The one whose paintings and drawings you grew up with in your basement with your friends late at night over cold pizza and a bunch of polyhedral dice. But please, keep the pizza away from this one. It's gorgeous - you don't want to stain it! My copy came with a postcard illustrated by Otus showing a Shoggoth surrounded by flying Elder Things (more on this later), an ex-libris bookplate illustrated by the same (his telltale sigil can be seen in the open book beneath an amorphous something - probably another Shoggoth - which is reaching up to apprehend a bat in mid-flight), and possibly the most unique bookmark I've ever seen: a clear acetate bookmark, hand-painted on one side with a representation of drilling occurring at the Soviet research base Vostok Station, wherein an immense drill is being sent down through the 420,000 year-old ice sheet into Lake Vostok below. Flip the bookmark over and you find - surprise! - a burbling Shoggoth, all eyes, tentacles, and pseudopods, bursting up toward the surface.

If you aren't convinced that you need this already, please, let me continue . . .

Part 1: Diving to Dunwich:

This bit of short fiction fairly erases the line between fact and fiction. I consider myself pretty knowledgable about Lovecraft and his historical milieu, and I must admit that, while reading this piece, I found myself, again and again, looking up names, places, and dates of events that may or may not have happened, either in Lovecraft's fiction or in "factual" history.

The title, "Diving to Dunwich," is to be taken literally - this story begins with the account of a dive by the author with his companion, multimedia artist Timothy Hutchings, below the waters of the Quabbin Reservoir, to the underwater ruins of Dunwich, Massachussets, in order for Hutchings to create more material for his video installation "The Persistence of Dunwich". As any interesting commentary does, this narrative soon wanders into a strange alternate reality in which Lovecraft lived until 1959, married one Comity Archdale, and enjoyed commercial success with his writing to the point where Directors Peter Jackson and David Lynch both made movie adaptions of his work. There is much more in this pseudobiography, conflating timelines and causing the most erudite Lovecraft scholar (which I am not) to go scrambling for the books. It is a convincing treatise of what might have been, or what might be, in some dimension just sideways of our own. I would not be surprised to see some of these "facts" show up on Wikipedia at some future date. You just wait and see . . .

Part 2: Facts Concerning the Late Eadward Thurston and His Family:

What exactly is a metatextual critique? Good question. I don't know that I have a good answer. But I think the answer might lie somewhere in this second piece, a play, replete with stage directions, and illustrated with watercolors by Dan Zettwoch showing how certain costumes are to be constructed and providing some storyboard illustrations, as well. The play was presumably written by Albert Jermyn in 1962. The biography of Jermyn, included in a preface to the play, indicates that Jermyn was the illegitimate son of a white travelling salesman by the name of Winfield Lovecraft, and Eulalia Jermyn, a black housekeeper of New Bedford, Massachussets. Winfield was later to marry Sarah Phillips, with whom he would father Howard Phillips Lovecraft. A series of letters from Howard to his wife, Sonia Greene, reveal a veritable soap opera of accusations and confrontations which end in Sarah declaring that "the black brat looked more like Winfield than poor Howard does."

Through a long series of events, Albert ended up taking a teaching position in Senegal, where he wrote the play. In that process, he found himself in the midst of a turbulent intellectual exploration of communism that left him disillusioned.

Now, you might think you could imagine what kind of a play a person with such a background would write.

You can't . . .

You can't even begin to imagine. Keep in mind that the actors would be Senegalese or of other West African descent. Jermyn couldn't help but write a critique of aristocratic structures into the text, though it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what he thinks of socialism. Add to this the relationship between the main protagonist (or is it antagonist - again, these roles are difficult to establish) and his dead, but recently reanimated father. Now, now you can start to imagine. In essence, we have the skeleton of Hamlet hung with the skin of Lovecraft, filled with organs of soviet social revolution, animated by waves of self-love, self-loathing, and revenge. A strange, absolutely brilliant piece of metafiction that would make Lovecraft turn over like a roto-tiller in his grave.

Part 3: From the Game Designer, etc:

The last section of the book is composed of several disparate pieces, a dossier for use in a role-playing game. The bulk of this section is taken up by the short story "Beyond the Far Islands". Now this is a piece that took me a while to figure out. The voice used herein is intentionally simple, sounding a lot like a young teenager. It is the Anti-Lovecraft voice, and yet, it does well to convey the horror felt by the narrator who is . . . well, I don't think I'm going to tell you! This character was absolutely NOT what I thought, at first. I was deceived by the voice, truth be told. As I discovered who it was that was talking, and continued to read, a smile grew on my face that never quite left. That said, this is no mere lampooning of Lovecraft. There is a sense of dread conveyed, a sense of cosmic dread, but it is conveyed in a way that Lovecraft would not, perhaps could not write. After spinning Lovecraft over in his grave, Claverie and company then flip the body on its head . . . and with style, I might add. Erol Otus's illustrations here are fantastic, among the best work I've seen of his, and I've seen a lot. The subject matter lends itself to many amorphous, non-humanoid illustrations reminiscent of the old Konny and Czu comics (among my favorite comics of all time) or the cartoons of Stepan Chapman.

A Note from Forrest Aguirre on the Mutation of Capitalism

While I think that the End of Capitalism is a bit oversold, I do want to pause here a moment and note that this book was initially funded as a successful Kickstarter project. Without Kickstarter, this book would have never seen the light of day. It is a work that could only have been produced and reached a wide audience with the internet. No publisher would have taken it. And that's part of the appeal to me. Yes, my own work has been published by a third party publisher, but I've also had a few things that I've published independently, outside the bounds of the "normal" publishing industry. The more I look into works published in this way, the more I like. Yes, there are problems, especially in the vetting of quality that a professional editor normaly provides through the publication process. Then again, there are some wild successes, some books that otherwise never would have seen the light of day. I'm also discovering the many wonderful podcasts available and have even funded a few using the patreon website. Between the various nodes of commerce available on the internet, including paypal, amazon, smashwords, kickstarter, indiegogo, and patreon (among others), there is a tool-set that is slowly changing the face of commerce and capitalism as we know it. I laud those who are pushing the frontiers of creativity for the simple reason that they can. There are some duds, there always will be, but this book is an example of everything that can go right with the new economic paradigm that seems to be emerging. These are exciting times! Embrace the mutation of capitalism!

. . . pedantic cheerleading over . . .

Where do I procure this bizzare congerie of eldritch metatextual critiques?

Right here, right now! If you don't get one for yourself, get one for that Lovecraft-lover in your life, or even that Lovecraft-hater! I can think of a lot worse gifts, and not many better for collectors of all things - or anything - inspired by the creator of Cthulhu.

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