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From The Pest Zone: Stories From New York by H.P. Lovecraft
edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz
Hippocampus Press, 150 pages

Sean Madden
From The Pest Zone: Stories From New York
S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz
S.T. Joshi was born in Poona, India, in 1958. In 1963, his parents moved to the USA settling in Urbana, Illinois. At 13, Joshi discovered H.P. Lovecraft in the public library. This interest in Lovecraft led him to choose Brown University for its holdings of Lovecraft's manuscripts and papers. Joshi, meanwhile, had graduated from Brown University in 1980 (in the department of classics) and had gained a master's degree from Brown in 1982. He has written several scholarly works and compilations including An Index to the Selected Letters of H.P. Lovecraft (1980) and Selected Papers on Lovecraft (1989). With David E. Schultz, he edited an anthology of original essays on Lovecraft to commemorate the H.P. Lovecraft Centennial, An Epicure in the Terrible (1991). Since 1990, Joshi has worked closely with Schultz in an effort to transfer every word written by Lovecraft into electronic form.

ISFDB Bibliography: S.T. Joshi
ISFDB Bibliography: David E. Schultz

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Gabe Mesa

In From the Pest Zone, a recent offering from Hippocampus Press, H.P. Lovecraft scholars S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz collect the five stories Lovecraft wrote during the two year stint in New York City that he would later refer to as his "New York exile." Lovecraft arrived in New York from his beloved Providence in 1924 with high hopes for his new marriage and his future as a writer. He left the city two years later, wifeless, penniless and filled with an abiding loathing for the metropolis that would accompany him the rest of his short life.

"To the very end of his days," his friend W. Paul Cook would write, "he hated New York with a consuming passion." The source of Lovecraft's hatred, however, appears to have been rooted in more than the simple fact that the city was the setting for his financial and marital misfortunes. Prior to moving to New York, on the basis of previous short visits, Lovecraft would proclaim its skyline to possess a Dunsanian "ethereal beauty," and divide the city, according to his own personal aesthetics, into the "Georgian New York of the ground" and the "elfin, heaven-scaling New York of the air."

Once Lovecraft moved to the city, however, he was disappointed to find that the XIXth century architectural elements that so moved his antiquarian soul were rapidly disappearing, victims of a philosophy of progress that cared little for preserving the past. New York also brought Lovecraft into contact with the phenomenon of mass immigration, to which he developed a near phobia. Although Lovecraft's views would become more progressive toward the end of his life, for most of it he was a keen believer in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. The contrast between Lovecraft's white, genteel Providence and modern New York, teeming with hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals from all corners of the Earth could not have been more pronounced, and traces of the psychic dislocation it produced can be documented from his letters and stories of this period -- a reference to New York as a "dead city of squinting alienage" is typical.

The five stories collected in the volume were all written while Lovecraft lived in New York, but only three of them are set in the city. The remaining two, "The Shunned House" and "In the Vault," take place in the author's native New England. "The Shunned House" is a haunted house tale which begins with a steady accumulation of historical evidence about the peculiarly high mortality rate among the structure's dwellers. The buildup works to create a convincing atmosphere of anxiety and impending misfortune, but the story's later revelations are unconvincing, involving a strained attempt to add vampire and werewolf elements into what might have otherwise remained a perfectly adequate ghost story. (The editors note dryly that "[i]t does not appear to have troubled HPL that an apparent werewolf would be the ancestor of a vampire.") In addition, the story's ending, which involves the narrator's triumph over the malignant entity by means of "ether radiations" from a "Crookes tube," a scientific device which the editors inform us involves "an electrical discharge between two electrodes," seems by today's standards contrived, if not a tad hokey. Nevertheless, there remain sufficient suspenseful elements in "The Shunned House" to make it a worthwhile read and, together with Lovecraft's mastery of style, to make it an enjoyable one.

The other tale set outside New York, "In the Vault," is the story of a careless undertaker on whom one of his former clients takes revenge when he becomes locked in a cemetery vault. It's a clever and gruesomely ironic tale of supernatural vengeance with more than a hint of the French conte cruel. Although frequently anthologized, it is not particularly representative of Lovecraft's broader style and themes.

The editors call "Cool Air," one of the three stories set in New York, Lovecraft's "best realized New York tale." The story is set in a boarding house on West 14th Street where the narrator meets a Spanish doctor who requires that his living quarters be kept at artificially low temperatures for mysterious reasons that become apparent only when the cooling equipment malfunctions. It's a story that on first reading appears to owe a great deal to Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," but it is a well structured and suspenseful tale in its own right.

Although "Cool Air" takes place in New York, the setting is not particularly vital to the story and (assuming the narrator's difficulty in locating a plumber in an emergency are universal) it could likely have been set in any large city. Not so with the two remaining stories, "He" and "The Horror at Red Hook," in which New York City is an organic presence. In "He" the narrator wanders through the nocturnal dreamscape of a Greenwich Village in search of the few remaining examples of an older historical New York until he encounters a seemingly immortal magus who vouchsafes him glimpses of the past and future of the city. The story ends with the magus pursued and overtaken by the spirits of local natives he originally cheated in his attempt to gain immortality. Unlike the other stories in the volume and despite the rather violent ending, it is not plot-driven but more of an oneiric mood piece, containing strong personal elements. The narrator is clearly a stand-in for Lovecraft himself, the peripatetic lover of old architecture who spent his nights wandering through the city in search of any surviving niches of the past. In a letter to Lillian Clark, Lovecraft speaks of the narrator of "He" as one who comes to New-York "as to a faery flower of stone & marble, yet finds only a verminous corpse," a phrase that could just as easily have applied to Lovecraft himself. Moreover, the images revealed to the narrator correspond to Lovecraft's own feelings and fears. At one point the magus shows to the narrator a vision of New York's far future, an opportunity which Lovecraft employs to take literary revenge on the city by spinning one of his trademark images of pithy bizarrerie:

"I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aerial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, and the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen."
(Pretty much a typical Saturday night in my Brooklyn neighborhood...)

The last story in the volume is "Horror at Red Hook." Gentrification is the current horror at Red Hook, a neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront which is in something of an economic transition, but which at the time of Lovecraft's writing was a slum. The story concerns a police detective who leaves New York for Rhode Island (yearnings of Lovecraft himself?) after suffering a nervous breakdown during his investigation of the murderous doings of an infernal cult of evil worshippers centered in Red Hook and led by a member of New York high society.

"Horror at Red Hook" is not a great story. Characterization is minimal, the plot is confused and it includes crude racial commentary which is offensive to a modern audience. For the Lovecraft enthusiast, however, it may be the most interesting piece in the volume. For one thing, it contains a number of elements that presage many of the tropes of Lovecraft's later classic Mythos tales such as "The Call of Cthulhu," including the mysterious cult which is "older than mankind," the evil conspiracy which is eerily hinted to encompass even more than is revealed in the story, and the gradual buildup of tension on the basis of a steady accumulation of detail which appears random on one level but ominously prefigured on another. In addition, whether despite or because its flaws, "Horror at Red Hook" (like "He") remains one of Lovecraft's most personal stories. Lovecraft's hatred of New York and his reactionary fear of immigration are palpable, and although the pathos in the story does not excuse its more objectionable aspects, it does help to fill in a more complex portrait of the writer, warts and all, during one of the most trying periods of his life.

The stories in From The Pest Zone have been often reprinted, so the virtue of Hippocampus is not just to bring us the stories, but to package them in an edition that is exhaustively annotated by Joshi and Schultz and that comes with an introduction by the editors. The introduction is a very helpful piece, putting Lovecraft's New York stories into context and quoting extensively from his letters of the period. Most of the fun for the Lovecraft aficionado, however, will come from the annotations, which provide a wealth of detail that add depth to the stories. In some cases the notes fill in the story's background, such as by noting the local folk tales that may have served as the basis for some of the story ideas in "The Shunned House." The notes also act as a textual aid, defining certain archaic words that Lovecraft was fond of using and those geographical references that might not be obvious to the modern reader. (Although at times the editors go a bit too far, as when they feel the need to define "anomalous" or to remind us that Barcelona is "a city on the Spanish coast.") When relevant, the notes also tie the events in the stories to events in Lovecraft's life. We learn that the address of the boarding house in "Cool Air" was not invented, for example, but that it was actually the home for Lovecraft's bookselling friend George Willard Kirk. Finally, the notes add a level of resonance to the stories by referring to other tales featuring similar images or ideas, whether by Lovecraft or by other authors who may have acted as an influence.

As the editors note, it was only after Lovecraft returned to Providence that "[his] shift from a macabre to a cosmic point of view become complete." Accordingly, the stories in From The Pest Zone do not serve as a particularly good introduction to Lovecraft's brand of "cosmic horror," and the neophyte may be better served by obtaining any of the now widely available anthologies of Lovecraft's best work, some edited by Joshi himself. For the true Lovecraft enthusiasts, however, Hippocampus has done us a service, providing us with a new and affordable edition of Lovecraft's New York stories with professional annotations that shed light on some of the author's most difficult years.

Copyright © 2003 Gabe Mesa

Gabe Mesa is the assistant editor at s1ngularity. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter and 4,000 books.

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