Though the focus here is on early twentieth century horror, fantasy, and science fiction, it is fascinating now and then to sample contemporary fiction modelled on the work of Lovecraft, Smith, Howard and others in their circle. What became of Lovecraft’s Mythos, Smith’s Zothique, or Howard’s various barbarian heroes as the decades rolled by? Or more sociologically: what became of their racism, xenophobia and misogyny as American society struggled to become a multicultural nation while remaining true to its founders’ ideals?
I have begun reading an impressive collection of novellas and short stories by Ross Smeltzer, a new author who recently published his first book, The Mark of the Shadow Grove, (2016). Smeltzer describes his fiction as “often tinted with shades of Lovecraftian horror” and “my homage to authors who have inspired me to write, including Lovecraft and his predecessors.” But this seems too modest an appraisal. Smeltzer makes subtle and clever use of Lovecraftian motifs in a way that is respectful, affectionate and incisive.
The Mark of the Shadow Grove shows that the author has mastered and incorporated Lovecraft’s ideas and transmuted them into fiction that addresses contemporary anxieties. The first offering in the collection, “The Witch of Kinderhook”, examines the relationships of power between men and women, and humankind’s problematic interaction with Nature, which the author suggests are really two aspects of the same underlying problem: whether to regard women and the natural world as equal partners in life or as mere resources to dominate and compartmentalize in a quest to shore up the masculine ego and will to power.
The occult emphasis on the eternal feminine is pervasive in this novella, and suggests a cure—probably an “herbal” one—that Ebenezer Carver, the principal villain, is incapable of receiving. Carver is a necromancer, likely a colleague of Joseph Curwen, the evil ancestor in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, (1941) and about as reputable. Carver’s foil is the mysterious and powerful Katrina Schermerhorn, an Earth Mother and witch, an arendiwanen in local Mohawk parlance.
While Carver works his day job as coroner for the City of New York (circa the 1820s), Schermerhorn labors on her farm and in the nearby woods, applying her vast and ancient knowledge of herbal pharmacopeia. Carver wants the witch’s expertise about obscure hallucinogenic fungi to help with his “scientific” experiments in necromancy; this leads to a fateful confrontation which is also emblematic of the classic struggle between science and the supernatural, man and nature, masculine and feminine.
A recurring observation in the text is that ‘the way of things’ is towards death, decay and a kind of vegetable regeneration. The author’s description of the surrounding countryside, of crumbling stone fences and farmhouses succumbing to vines, moss and fungi emphasizes this theme of decay, the passage of time, and the impermanence of human ambition. It is a perspective that clearly favors Nature and those who in wisdom would submit to Her.
Documenting this meeting of dialectically opposed forces is the necromancer’s apprentice Tom, who is the narrator of “The Witch of Kinderhook”. Smeltzer initially portrays Tom’s relationship with his master as a duplicate of the one between Randolph Carter and Harley Warren in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920)—“Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him”. This type of relationship appears in numerous Lovecraftian bromances.
However, by the end of the novella, Tom is decisive and no longer passively accepting of his master’s abuse and direction. He has observed and considered both sides—personified by the megalomaniacal necromancer and the mysterious Earth Mother—of what amounts to a philosophical, even a moral debate. In the end, he makes a terrifying choice. However, the climax of the story seems as though it could be the opening of a much larger, more elaborate story.
Lovecraft fans will enjoy finding several allusions to well-known stories like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941) and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) among others. Smeltzer also manages to incorporate autobiographical material about his mentor: Lovecraft’s hatred of New York, his fascination with colonial architecture, his disdain for sea food, and his reverence for the antiquarian books that comprise a bibliography of doom. Smeltzer also makes an insightful comment about Ebenezer Carver that seems intended for Lovecraft: one character opines that Carver “is a mystic, but he yearns to be a man of reason.” It is assumed that these two modes of apprehending the world are irreconcilable, leading to inevitable conflict—a grim, fatalistic observation and one certainly applicable to Lovecraft.
In “The Witch of Kinderhook” the author endeavors to use period terminology and grammatical forms in creating the early nineteenth century setting, and is mostly effective and consistent without encumbering the reader with too much obscure vocabulary. However, there are a few jarring anachronisms. The Lovecraftian term eldritch appears twice, at the beginning and near the end, probably to signal the author’s respect for the origin of some of the motifs he uses. This is permissible.
But at one point, the narrator labels the witch’s explanation of her ancestry as “Sphynx-speak”, a locution probably derived from George Orwell’s 1984 and unlikely to occur in the early 1800s. The witch at one point describes the earth-wisdom she has received from her mentor as being “gifted” to her. This particular use of the word gift as a verb did not infest our language significantly until after the early 1930s, and is probably impossible to eradicate now.
These are minor quibbles though, probably more upsetting to verbal obsessives than anyone else. (An occupational hazard—your humble blogger is a speech language pathologist by training.) One anachronism was interesting to find though: on the witch’s bookshelf, among various esoteric texts, is a copy of The Book of Simon the Magician. Contemporary occultists may have read this book or a similar one by “Simon”. This is the pseudonym of an author who actually published a version of the Necronomicon in 1977. Simon linked the entities described in the Necronomicon to the mythology and religious practices of the ancient Sumerian civilization. Is this book also on Smeltzer’s bookshelf?
“The Witch of Kinderhook” is a coming-of-age story, a New Age spiritual treatise and an homage to Lovecraft. It also manages to weave in a synopsis of Odysseus’ encounter with the witch Circe in Homer’s Odyssey, and provide a brief overview of Native American spiritual beliefs! The story works both as an effective horror tale and a fictional presentation of some perennial philosophical and psychological questions.
I especially liked the character of Doctor Knyphausen, the professor with the “Innsmouth look” who appeared too briefly early in the story. It would be great if he showed up in a subsequent work, perhaps in continuation of Tom’s adventures with the Witch of Kinderhook.
“The Witch of Kinderhook” appears in the collection The Mark of the Shadow Grove (2016) published by
Fantasy Works Publishing, Fordsville, Kentucky USA. (http://www.fantasyworkspublishing.com)