Review: The Starry Wisdom

The Starry Wisdom: A Tribute to H.P. Lovecraft

Review by Amy Harlib

The Starry Wisdom : A Tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. Edited by D.M. Mitchell. (Creation Books International, London, UK; A.K. Distribution, PO Box 40682, San Francisco, CA, USA 94140-0682; third expanded edition, Dec. 2003, $19.95, trade paperback, ISBN#: 1-840-68087-3).

British editor and doyen of dark fantasy, D. M. Mitchell, gathers 23 contemporary stories in an attractively-covered trade paperback – The Starry Wisdom : A Tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. The book’s contents–fresh, new and heretofore mostly unpublished (with a few reprints)–consists of prose and graphic narrative pieces from a distinguished line-up of contributors. Their output comes mostly inspired directly by Lovecraftian themes and ideas, with a few items more divergent but still in the same territory.

Mitchell’s choices eschew superficial imitation and instead access the deeper strata of archetype and inspiration associated with Lovecraft where, beneath the rational, the conscious and the mundane view of the world, occult symbols and shamanic icons lurk – echoes of primal sentient power – chaotic, seething, fecund with potential. These forces paradoxically can be both “disruptive and ultimately redeeming”, inspiring “visions of cosmic alienation, metaphoric desire, mutating sexuality” – all directly or indirectly based on the Gentleman from Providence’s vision.

Most of the offerings in The Starry Wisdom succeed in achieving Mitchell’s desire to depict eldritch frissons of myth and magick creeping into quotidian existence and into a post-modern environ of social decay, ethnic conflicts, genetic engineering and threats of nuclear annihilation – chilling prospects that Lovecraft foreshadowed in his pulp-era heyday. Mitchell encouraged his writer-participants to make explicit the undercurrents of sexual and ecological disruption which formed such grippingly-powerful subtexts in Lovecraft’s work, showing how his visions remain continually relevant.

Highlights of the anthology include John Coulhart’s gorgeous graphic narrative retelling of Lovecraft’s own “The Call of Cthulhu”, with visuals so detailed and perfectly evocative that they are breathtaking – worth the price of admission alone and definitely the best of the bunch. Also quite worthwhile, “Lovecraft in Heaven” by Grant Morrison features “our man” himself on his deathbed experiencing visions in which he confronts his fear of his wife Sonia’s sexuality and in which he discovers that everything he thought he was imagining as fiction in his weird tales turns out to be all too real and his seemingly invented creatures are coming for his soul.

In the excellent “A Thousand Young” by Robert M. Price, the unnamed graduate-student protagonist, seeking ultimate spiritual bliss through outré carnal pleasures of the most extreme sort, at long last discovers a cult whose orgiastic forms of pagan-like worship seem to offer the fulfillment of his desires. The twist at the end when the quester uncovers the true nature of Shub Niggurath’s followers’ rituals, provides a startling and plausible reinterpretation of Lovecraft’s version of a perverse fertility deity. Brian Lumley, famous for his fine Lovecraft homages, comes up with another winning one, “The Night the Sea Maid Went Down”. This epistolary yarn of resignation by worker Jordan, recounts how his place of employment, the eponymous North Sea deep-drilling oil rig, during severe weather strikes a mysterious SOMETHING in the depths that creates a destructive maelstrom of unprecedented proportions. This, and evidence that the wreck was caused by what no one ever expected to encounter, caused the traumatized narrator to be amazed he lived to tell the tale.

In an evocative vignette by well-known speculative fiction writer J.G. Ballard, a school-master idling on a British sea-coast finds a peculiar, ancient-looking, possibly fossilized seashell millions of years old, and also encounters an enigmatic woman whose queries about the protagonist, and his discovery, shake his belief systems to their very core. The ingenious variation on a Lovecraftian theme by David Conway, “Black Static”, concerns the resurrection of the “Hyperbreed”. Bracketed by the phantasmagorical and bizarre viewpoint of one of these beings, also the narrator of the flashback segment between, the story describes a chief technical/scientific advisor’s mission to investigate the disruption of the Copernicus research project on a remote South Pacific island. There, all the personnel involved were killed in an apparent mass-suicide caused by the answer to their advanced SETI signals, an answer from entities from an arcane extra-dimensional continuum bent on re-awakening their kind hidden on earth. The description of the cosmic, mind-bending, body-blasting revivifying process and the build-up to this climax – updates a familiar plot in a creatively cool manner using current, esoteric physics concepts.

“Potential” by Ramsey Campbell, with a refreshing pop sensibility, portrays how Charles, a middle-aged, staid office-worker looking for thrills at a rave-like concert for youths, finds more than he bargained for when the event turns out to be a front for a certain kind of secret cult. Simon Whitechapel’s “Walpurgisnachtmusik” cleverly connects outré, avant-garde music purposely designed to arouse male lust as the way that clandestine, occult THINGS attract and then trap their victims.

The wryly ironic “The Sound of a Door Opening” by Don Webb details the fate of a trio of IT workers as the narrator (coincidentally?) named Don tells what happened when a prank, based on the Cthulhu Mythos they pulled on the Internet, [A word seems to be missing here. What did they pull on the Internet?] took on a life and energy of its own far greater and deadlier than expected. Recounted in a hip, contemporary voice, Alan Moore’s “The Courtyard” depicts what befalls an undercover detective investigating drug use and bizarre behavior among the followers of a Brooklyn-based, underground hard-rock group “The Ulthar Cats”. They perform regularly at the “Club Zothique” in a Lovecraft reference-packed yarn that ends rather predictably, but the fun of the contemporary setting and tone makes up for it. Psychiatric “Ward 23” by D.M. Mitchell becomes the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm in this amusingly warped tale told by the chief resident who, along with his staff and the patients, experiences strange physical and behavioral transformations. This makes the hospital routine turn chaotic as the personnel get involved in odd, compulsive rituals of summoning unlike anything known before. According to news reports, similar peculiar changes are simultaneously happening all over the world to apocalyptic effect while whatever the ceremonies are calling seems to be ready for rebirth right there in the institution, apparently an epicenter. “Ward 23” contains many Lovecraftian references – even solipsistic mentions of The Starry Wisdom!

Finally, an appendix contains three deliciously detailed, and dense but fascinating, essays. “Cthulhu Madness” by Phil Hine is about how the Mythos arouses feelings of spiritual awe the way any other esoteric belief system does. “Reluctant Prophet” by Stephen Sennitt analyses how Lovecraft’s Mythos concepts foreshadowed many current “New Age” and “neo-Pagan” and occult social movements and attitudes. “Fractals, Stars and Nyalarthotep” by John Beal thoroughly examines the significance and symbolism of stellar astronomical bodies in the Cthulhu Mythos.

The Starry Wisdom‘s contents (with a few below-par exceptions), brings updated, au courant perspectives to Lovecraftian lore and his outré imaginings. The book definitely deserves to be enjoyed by aficionados and all lovers of science fiction, fantasy and horror genre fiction and art, especially those who welcome innovation and material that stretches boundaries and challenges the mind. Lovecraft, with his own eccentric wisdom, effectively expressed his daring and bizarre visions in his time – likewise, the themes and variations of the illuminations in The Starry Wisdom, following in his worthy wake, do so in our day.