Review: A Commonplace Book of the Weird

Several months back, near the end of 2010, my curiosity was piqued by an offhand mention, on one of my favorite internet haunts, to H.P. Lovecraft’s commonplace book: a list of unused story ideas and inspirations that survived his death. Following the bread-crumb trail of hyperlinks and innuendo, I eventually arrived at the site of one Joseph Fink’s postmodern revival of Lovecraft’s postmortem compendium. Titled A Commonplace Book of the Weird, this anthology tasked writers working in every genre, from text-experimentalists and poets to playwrights and parodists, to finish what Lovecraft started, bringing the deceased antiquarian’s vision into the 21st century.

“That’s cool,” I remember thinking. Then I forgot about it.

When the time came to pitch ideas for the Black Clock blog, though, I remembered Joseph Fink and his uncommon commonplace book. It seemed like the ideal launching pad for all sorts of tantalizing discussion about collaboration and literary legacy. Lovecraft died a virtual unknown, both personally and professionally; now, nearly a century later, he was collaborating across generations and through the grave-soil itself with these hip young artists from all walks of life. At the same time, though the authors were told they must include every element of the original prompt, the stories would unquestionably be unlike those Lovecraft had envisioned. Even if a new Lovecraft had been born unto the Information Age, the stories wouldn’t be the same. And many of them were merely hastily jotted responses to something Lovecraft read in the morning paper or evening research journal; a further step in the curious birth of a story. It spoke of an authorship that can only survive by being relinquished, identities that could only thrive by being blurred.

So I e-mailed Mr. Fink asking for a review copy. Fate, however, is a tricky bitch: no sooner had the book arrived than I was informed that a story of my own was to be included (in subsequent print runs, of course). I reluctantly passed the review on to colleague and friend Patricia Cram–just another example of unexpected collaboration on a single idea. Patricia, it should be mentioned, handled the task fairly well.

However, I still had that review I was itching to write. Things being what they are, it’s taken me until now to read my copy of Commonplace Book cover to cover. With that pleasurable task complete, I think it only fair I finally take a shot at describing the singular oddity known as A Commonplace Book of the Weird.

First off, the anthology as a whole is far less “Lovecraftian” than the title might lead one to believe–the Man from Providence himself even graces the cover. It’s certainly less instantly recognizable than the work of those who have proudly adopted the Mythos mantle following their master’s demise.

The better of the stories willfully subvert the author’s original intent: Dan McCoy’s “Dissipation?” simultaneously adopts and pokes fun at idea 67’s fragmentary nature: “An impression–city in peril–dead city–equestrian statue–men in closed room–clattering of hooves heard from outside–marvel disclosed on looking out–doubtful ending” become evocative section titles rather than the plot markers intended. Gary Belsky’s “Tea And Pie, Don’t Pass Me By” is a wholly unsupernatural response to Idea 149’s “Evil alley or enclosed court in ancient city”; the city in question is Jerusalem, which, the narrator is quick to point out, has no shortage of hidden alleys and courtyards. In any other setting, it could pass for memoir. Other stories make creative transgressions into humor (Rob Neill’s “KPZ Straz Hyphen Stars”, ennui (Hannah Lott-Schwartz’s “Exorcise Love,” or postmodern ranting (Meg Bashwiner’s “Vampire Dogs (or What Came Out)”). Things don’t get truly scary until after the mid-way point, which might scare off readers drawn in by the gaunt mugshot on the cover.

Which isn’t to say that the stories are disappointing. Far from it; although there were some duds for me–the aforementioned rant among them–the book’s high points stand out like those cyclopean ruins Lovecraft was always going on about…you know, the ones glimpsed atop Antarctic mountain ranges and long-dead volcanoes and the like. Atop one of the book’s most dizzying zeniths perches Mark Farr’s “Levittown (36. Disintegration),” in which Idea 36–“Disintegration of all matter to electrons and finally empty space assured, just as devolution of energy to radiant heat is known. Case of acceleration–man passes into space”–evanesces into a clockwork lunar odyssey via Octo-ploid trebuchet and a tele-o-phone suit, reminiscent of Pynchon in his less lucid moments…and yes, that’s a compliment. Other stories shine with a more subtle glimmer, such as Zack Parsons’ “The Horror on the Ebon Stair,” which slyly mocks Lovecraft’s bombastic prose through the first-person narration of one of a “Race of immortal pharaohs dwelling beneath pyramids in vast subterranean halls down black staircases,” courtesy of Idea 45.

Each of the hand-picked batch of artists was randomly matched with an idea, so a few of the authors had their work pretty much cut out for them–these are the ones, you will notice, who expended extra effort not to let the idea overwhelm its master. On the other hand, you have the admire the tenacity of writers like Justin Marquis, who weaved Idea 174–“Migration of Lemmings–Atlantis”–into the most chilling tale in the entire anthology. With competition like Brian James Polak’s Kafka-esque “Story of the Faceless Man” and F. Omar Telan’s classic hair-raiser “Vacancy at the Fenrick Inn,” that’s no small feat. Even Fink himself gets in on the action with “Relative Damnation,” which isn’t kidding when it bills itself as “A Very Short Novel.” All that’s missing is a posthumous appearance by the Master of Mythos himself.

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is anything but a “Commonplace Book.” As fascinating to read as it is to think about, it is an exercise in creative collaboration, a living body of work that survives even death itself. There is a peculiar analogy to be made here, with the dead yet puissant lexicons central to Lovecraft’s work, but that will have to wait for another day. By my calculation, there are at least 200 potential Lovecraft stories yet unwritten…and who’s going to write them, if not we?

Postscript: A Commonplace Book of the Weird can be purchased here. I hear that the Kindle and Nook versions come with my story already included; otherwise you’ll have to clip it out and sort of paste it in. For a different take on Lovecraft’s unused ideas, see The Commonplace Book Project, an exhibit of interactive fiction and graphical works, as well as these images from the earlier Exhibition of Unspeakable Things.

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