Reanimator Helles LagerProving that while H.P. Lovecraft might be problematic for the World Fantasy Convention the rest of the planet gives exactly zero fucks, Narragansett has released the third offering in its Lovecraft Series, the Reanimator Helles Lager.

“Herbert West — Reanimator” was Lovecraft’s first fiction sale, an episodic story in six parts for which he was paid $5 per installment. They appeared in the magazine Home Brew in 1922. The story follows the titular character and his nameless narrating assistant from their medical-student days at Miskatonic University to a small practice in Bolton, Massachusetts to the French lines of the Great War to an exclusive practice in Boston. All the while, West pursues his obsession with conquering death through science by injecting corpses with a special chemical cocktail. Intentional or not, a fine sense of gallows humor permeates as the pair by turns loot graves and smuggle corpses into West’s lab, only to either run screaming from or be beaten unconscious by the serum’s successes; a recurring joke sees West’s experiments often ending in gunfire, the only way he can return his cadavers to a second death.

The cans, illustrated by Rhode Island artist Aaron Bosworth, reference the story’s third chapter in which West injects a dead boxer with his serum, then prematurely buries the corpse when the juicing apparently fails. The chapter is also the most cringe worthy in the whole tale: the boxer is black, and Lovecraft pulls out the stops describing the character in subhuman terms. I believe Lovecraft’s life can be divided into two periods: the time before his 1926 separation from Sonia Greene (their divorce was never finalized); and the time afterwards, when he returned from New York to Providence, exhausted, starved, and humbled. “Reanimator” is definitely a product of the first period. Lovecraft never held anything that could be considered a regular job until 1920 — when he was 30 years old — and only began regularly traveling outside of Providence two years later. For all his autodidacticism, his views and political opinions were ignorant and provincial. Alas, we live in a season when to be ignorant and provincial in the 1920s is a social crime a hundred years later; when Princeton administrators capitulate and scrub every reference to Woodrow Wilson from the college he once presided over, it is only a matter of time before Brown students take sledgehammers to the Lovecraft plaque outside the John Hay Library or any of the other memorials scattered throughout the city.

Narragansett’s Reanimator is a resurrection of their retired helles bock, richer and denser than their standard lager, and at 6.5-percent ABV, slightly less drunkifying than their other Lovecrafts. It’s already my favorite in the series; I only wish they had offered it over the summer when lagers go better. There are those who may smash the award statues and claim that what someone wrote or said a century ago marginalizes and silences them today, but Cthulhu is indifferent to their complaints — as are brewers, drinkers, publishers, readers, and just about everybody else.

Me on the previous entry in the series, Innsmouth Olde Ale.

The Doom That Came to the WFC

The World Fantasy Convention has decided to redesign their award statuettes in response to a petition complaining about H.P. Lovecraft’s racism. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is none too happy about it. Meanwhile, over at Black Gate I threw some gasoline on the fire debating whether Lovecraft’s racism was more him or his times:

No one will argue that Lovecraft was a well-adjusted individual; from sex to seafood, a psychiatrist would have worn out an IKEA’s worth of sofas itemizing a complete list of the man’s phobias. I contend those same anxieties are precisely what make Lovecraft’s writing so much fun. If his racism was more vile than that of his neighbors and contemporaries, then it originated in that same pool of existential paranoia from which only madmen sip. It was part and parcel with his oversensitivity to smells, his finicky eating habits, and all the rest. H.P. Lovecraft may have been a genius. He was also crazy.

I don’t believe changing the award is the worst thing, and Joshi is certainly overreacting (“I will do everything in my power to urge a boycott of the World Fantasy Convention among my many friends and colleagues”). As Jayn commented on my post, “the definition of ‘fantasy’ nowadays includes Lovecraft’s horror as only a subset.” Let the WFC focus on a broader range of material; with endless homages and entire conventions dedicated to celebrating his work, Lovecraft isn’t going to be swallowed by Lethean lake waters anytime soon.

Read my whole post here.

Short News, Literary Agency Edition

War of the Pamphlets. To promote the publication of a new, two-volume reprint collection of Revolutionary era pamphlets, the Library of America has posted an interview with editor Gordon S. Wood. Self-published luminaries Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and John Dickinson make appearances, as does Thomas Paine:

He was our first public intellectual, and unlike the other pamphleteers, he lived solely by his pen. As such, he aimed at a much broader audience than did the others, one encompassing the middling class of artisans, tradesmen, and tavern-goers. Unlike the elite writers who bolstered their arguments with legal citations and references to the whole of Western culture going back to the ancients, Paine did not expect his readers to know more than the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer.

Run Your Own Race. I love running as a metaphor for writing. There are sprints and long slogs, uphills that burn your quads and downhills that kill your knees, and most of all, the work that no one sees, the runs you put in just to show up. Kristine Kathryn Rusch makes the same analogy, arguing that every writer runs at his or her own pace:

I mentioned New York, which had 50,564 finishers in 2014, which made it the biggest marathon ever. Average “important” marathons usually have 35-40,000 finishers.

That’s a lot of runners, most of whom have no hope of crossing the finish line first.

Note I didn’t mention “winning,” because runners are very clear about the varied definitions of winning. Winning for a non-elite athlete might be a personal best.

Affordable Smith. Remember back in 2010 when I complained that inexpensive editions of Clark Ashton Smith’s work were largely unavailable to casual readers interested in learning more about him? Well, after years of financial troubles and improprieties — which finally ended with the company being bought by another publisher — Night Shade Books has begun releasing its five-volume collection of Smith’s work in paperback and for Kindle. Volume One is already out, with the next to appear in January.

NecronomiCon 2015

On Sunday I did something I swore I would never do: I attended a writerly convention.

I’ve mulled attending writers’ cons before but the programming — forums on television shows or movies I’ve never seen or academic panels hashing obtuse literary points — never appealed to me, and the current radioactive climate of genre writing is not an invitation to reconsider my apprehension. But when I learned of NecronomiCon 2015, a celebration of all things H.P. Lovecraft located in Providence, Rhode Island, just two hours up the highway from me, I was tempted. And when I realized NecronomiCon only happens every two years, and moreover 2015 was the 125th anniversary of HPL’s birth, I threw down $30 for a day pass and put gas in the car.

I don’t regret it. A panel on Clark Ashton Smith provided a wealth of biographical details I hadn’t known beforehand, and a later discussion on Lovecraft and philosophy, which ranged from existentialism to the Kantian sublime to Schopenhauer, was a hilarious high point of the day. Because a sure way to make a cynic laugh is to point out that Lovecraft’s monster-worshipping cultists were just millennialist Christians in bathrobes: the Rapture is great for them but a horror story for the rest of us.

Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and ST Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith's love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.
Left to right: Jack Haringa, Phillip Gelatt, Scott Connors, and S.T. Joshi discuss Clark Ashton Smith’s love of strange. And I mean that in the Urban Dictionary sense.

Over at the marketplace in the convention center, I met the super-nice artist Jason C. Eckhardt, who has done work for Chaosium as well as the illustration for the cans of Innsmouth Olde Ale. He said he had received enormous positive feedback at the con and was considering making prints of the Olde Ale artwork. Narragansett Beer also had a booth; their next offerings in the Lovecraft Series will be the Reanimator — a modification of their helles bock — and, in the winter, the I Am Providence stout. I bought some books and a T-shirt, which I suppose are connish things to do.

Reanimator Helles Lager

Yes, Lovecraft has his issues. But you know what else he has? Fun. As H.L. Mencken wrote,

The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.

I love Lovecraft’s incredible descriptions of New England landscapes, I love his globetrotting mysteries, I love his Jazz Age atmospherics. Decades after first discovering him, I can crack open a Lovecraft story and still thrill as ordinary men become detectives, drawn to uncover dark secrets and cosmic conspiracies at the cost of their lives and sanity. There’s something powerful there, and it was worth $30 and a two-hour drive to reflect upon it for a day.

Democracy on Deck

So the Treasure Was Divided by Howard Pyle, 1905Just because major finds like Whydah and the Queen Anne’s Revenge have been uncovered doesn’t mean there aren’t any more famous ships from the Golden Age of Piracy to track down. Case in point: Joseph Bannister’s Golden Fleece, the search for which is detailed in Robert Kurson’s new book, Pirate Hunters:

Bannister’s story was the catalyst for Messrs. Bowden, Chatterton, and Mattera’s determination to find the Golden Fleece, a quest smoothly described in “Pirate Hunters.” It would be churlish of me to disclose the result, but I can say that the three men become furious with one another, pore over time-worn archives in the U.S. and Europe, and confront armed robbers, money worries, rival divers, a mean barracuda and, perhaps most ominously, changing attitudes toward underwater treasure seekers.

Alas, WSJ reviewer Howard Schneider apparently felt a little dirty enjoying a summer read about high-seas criminality, scolding one of the wreck hunters for glamorizing the Long John Silver lifestyle:

Also problematic are Mr. Mattera’s belief that pirate ships operated on democratic principles. “The captain would exercise absolute authority only in battle,” Mr. Kurson summarizes. “At other times, he would guide the ship according to the pleasure of the crew.” For Mr. Mattera, Bannister “was a man enthralled by democracy,” and his metamorphosis into a pirate was occasioned by egalitarian idealism.

“[L]et’s not romanticize Joseph Bannister,” Schneider concludes, “Or pirates in general.” Full review here, behind the paywall.

Setting aside Bannister’s precise motivations, Schneider needn’t be so skeptical about Mattera’s claims; the fact that many buccaneer vessels were floating republics has been well documented. The command structure was exactly as Mattera described, and pirate constitutions included workers’ compensation and equitable sharing of prizes, with officers and skilled craftsmen earning more than common sailors but not enough to incite jealousy. The system was so successful it was still used among privateers during the Revolution. From Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer (pp. 91-92):

It is remarkable what little difference stands between Smedley’s covenant with his sailors and those from the golden age of piracy. Loss of an arm or leg, “or be otherwise so disabled as not to earn his Bread,” was compensated with £1,000 onboard Hibernia. Under his English letter of marque, Henry Morgan granted “six hundred pieces of eight or six slaves” for a lost leg or hand. With Smedley, “[W]hoever shall first enter an Enemy’s Ship, after orders for boarding is issued, he shall receive three hundred pounds as a Recompense for his Valour.” Morgan rewarded the same with 50 pieces of eight. And, as captain, Smedley was entitled to eight shares of the half-prize awarded to officers and crew — the exact same portion given to captains sailing under Morgan’s flag a century prior.

Recognition that 17th- and early 18th-century pirate vessels were islands of democracy in a sea of autocratic empire explains why pirates had such an easy time recruiting sailors. A poor young man standing on the docks of London or another European port didn’t have many options. He could toil in the fields or streets living hand to mouth; or sell himself into indentured servitude in the colonies. Either way he had almost no chance of ever accruing enough capital to buy land or start a business, which were the only real paths to bettering himself. Many opted for the relative security of three hots and a berth onboard a ship but then had to suffer the sadistic discipline of the navy or, worse, the sadistic discipline and starvation rations of the merchant marine. Admiralty archives burst with transcripts of those who leapt to join pirate crews when overtaken, and pirates devised cunning ways to disguise this volunteerism in case they should later be apprehended and tried in court. As Peter Leeson observes in The Invisible Hook (pp. 154-155):

Contrary to popular perception, most pirates were volunteers, not conscripts. Pirates sought willing companions instead of forced men because of simple cost-benefit considerations, not because of a principled objection to using force to get what they wanted. On the one hand, in many cases pirates simply didn’t have to resort to coercion to increase their numbers. The better treatment and opportunity for vastly superior pay on pirate ships was plenty incentive for many sailors to sign on under the black flag when given the opportunity. The benefit of conscripting ordinary sailors was therefore quite low. On the other hand, the costs of pressing sailors could be very large. … They could escape, informing authorities, or leaving the remaining crew too small to take advantage of the ship. Even if conscripts didn’t manage to escape, a crew with a sizable portion of forced men was less likely to succeed since conscripts didn’t have the same incentive to participate as volunteers.

Often only surgeons and skilled craftsmen were pressed into pirate service and that was because their incomes were already secure; they had more to lose than gain by going on the account. But the exact opposite was true for common sailors.

So Mr. Schneider, the next time you pull up your skirts and stand on a chair at the sight of someone extolling the benefits of fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, imagine this scenario:

You are at your bullpen desk, tapping away at your latest review, when a group of Rikers Island inmates bursts in, clad in orange jumpsuits, tattooed and pierced and armed six ways to Wednesday. Some are murderers and rapists but all are thieves as they proceed to loot the Journal offices. This done, they then ask for volunteers — and to your marveling eyes, interns and receptionists and copy boys and Starbucks runners scramble to join. And why? Because the lives of these people you’ve ignored and mistreated are so awful that running off with a gang of thugs is an improvement for them.

That’s the Golden Age of Piracy in a nutshell. To acknowledge good things about Bellamy and Blackbeard isn’t to praise pirates — it’s to condemn the world that fashioned them.

Top image: So the Treasure Was Divided by the inimitable Howard Pyle, 1905.

Short News, Literary Pretensions Edition

The Enlightenment or GTFO. At Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz comments on the PEN American Center shenanigans but might as well be talking about certain parties angry at this year’s Hugo nominations or those advocating avoidance of straight white male writers:

Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard.

It’s bad enough the PEN refuseniks seem so intent in slandering the dead for being what they were not or rationalize some speech as more equal than others with greater contortionism than Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What’s worse is their relativist hand-wringing tacitly justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker said, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.” But I’m sure these days advocating the superiority of Enlightenment principles is punching down.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a lot to love in this WSJ interview with the Nigerian author, from her criticism of American grocery stores to her observation that “When we talk about the developing world, there’s this idea that everybody should be fighting for the poor” (why is it we so often imagine Africans as existing solely in two groups — either impoverished shack dwellers or jungle rebels — and never consider the possibility of an African middle class?). But what struck me most was this:

She does, however, experience bouts of depression, “the crazy writer illness” that she thinks is common in her field. “There’s something comforting about that, because you feel you’re not alone,” she says.

Some days she writes for 12 hours straight; other days she can’t bring herself to write at all.

“I wish I could write every day, but I don’t,” she says. “When it goes well, I ignore things like family and hygiene, but other days, when it’s not going well, I read the books I love to remind myself of how beautiful and essential and nurturing words can be, and I hope that doing that will bring my own words back.”

Adichie seems like such a — well, like such a real writer.