Back in the day, libraries, like dictionaries, were prescriptive rather than descriptive. Dictionaries, such as Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, told you what words to use and how to use them. Slang, when not excluded entirely, was largely discouraged, grammar just so, and obscenities were verboten.
No longer. Today’s dictionaries are descriptive of all manner of words and how we use them. Slang, obscenities, and incorrect grammar are all welcome. They reflect the language as it is, ever changing, ever evolving, as is the culture from which it grows.
Similarly, libraries, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, recommended the best, and collected that which was considered of historical and cultural significance. Today libraries, like dictionaries, act as virtual cultural mirrors; they reflect who we are, what we do, and what we like (and dislike). Libraries and library collections describe the culture, they don’t dictate it.
Which brings us to the pulps.
Pulp fiction was largely ignored by libraries for the above stated reasons, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was certainly no exception. As the culture changed, so did the libraries. Like many other libraries across the country, the Carnegie has gone back retrospectively and filled in the gaps. Welcome now, with open arms, are Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Philip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Clark Ashton Smith, Erle Stanley Gardner and many, many more.
And, of course, most welcome is the grandaddy of them all, H. P. Lovecraft.
I’ve been a huge Lovecraft fan since my teen years, which coincided with the first resurgance of interest in HPL in the early 60’s, via mass market paperback editions from Ballantine Books. What could be better? They were flat-out horror: lurid, forbidden, suggestive, and, most of all, great fun. Here is a list of my personal top ten favorite stories by Lovecraft:
- At the Mountains of Madness
- The Call of Cthulhu
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
- The Colour Out of Space
- The Dunwich Horror
- Herbert West – Reanimator
- The Lurking Fear
- The Music of Erich Zann
- Pickman’s Model
- The Shadow Over Innsmouth
At the Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are both novellas, both as close to writing a full-length novel as Lovecraft would ever get. Prior to reading At the Mountains of Madness, I would suggest reading his literary mentor Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket . If you do, you’ll be hard put to forget the phrase “Tekeli-li.” The rest of the above list is comprised of short stories which vary only in degree of shock and explicitness; it goes without saying, that compared to today’s splatter horror, they are mild in execution. However, the archetypal elements in Lovecraft’s stories provide a deeper strain of psychological horror that can be hard to shake long after the story is finished.
Ironically, after many years of being ignored, a few pulp authors, including Lovecraft, have found themselves accepted into the canon of contemporary literature by way of publication by The Library of America. Besides Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick have received this cultural imprimatur.
Unlike many a trapped protagonist in their stories, this recognition of the lasting value of pulp fiction is better, much better, late, than never.
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For a modern version of the pulps, see “Penny Dreadful” at http://www.pdreadful.blogspot.com. This blog project is publishing short stories anonymously written under the name Penny Dreadful, the name for 19th-century British pulps.
P.S. Penny Dreadful authors are allowed to announce their works; I’ll share that I wrote “Hands” (July 27th), which features a library circulation clerk.