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BOOK REVIEW

The Library of America scares up a collection of Lovecraft's local lore

There are places in New England, even in the center of Boston, where one goes warily -- all because of the weird tales of H.P. Lovecraft.

How can a trip on the T's Green Line be anything but an occasion for apprehension once one has read his short story "Pickman's Model"?

"Gad, how that man could paint!" a character in the story remarks, recounting a visit to Pickman's studio at the end of a deserted alley in the North End. "There was a study called 'Subway Accident,' in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston Street subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform."

That ability to suggest a frightful, hideous world that might exist in familiar places is the genius of Lovecraft.

Born in Providence of old Yankee stock in 1890, Lovecraft emerged from a sickly and reclusive childhood -- he never graduated from high school -- to become a freelance journalist. His early interest in the Grimms' fairy tales, the "Arabian Nights," and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe -- and astronomy -- led eventually to the writing of weird tales for pulp magazines.

In all, Lovecraft wrote some 60 tales, 22 of which are now collected in one of the Library of America's handsomely uniform editions.

During the 1920s, Lovecraft lived in New York, where he had an unsettled marriage, but traveled throughout New England, visiting places that would be his settings. He returned permanently to Providence in 1926, and died there in 1937.

Lovecraft's New England settings -- there are several tales set further afield, in the Antarctic and Australia -- are either clearly identifiable, even to street names and buildings, such as the Marblehead of "The Festival," or his native Providence of "The Haunter of the Dark," or suggestive, such as the "decayed" seaport that could be the Newburyport of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," or the north central Massachusetts of "The Dunwich Horror."

In addition to the fictionalized New England settings, Lovecraft's tales are marked by a highly developed personal mythology based on what his biographer, S.T. Joshi, described as " 'the supernormal,' that is, incidents [that] no longer defy natural law, but merely our imperfect conceptions of natural law."

They are also marked, writes Joshi in his introduction to a Penguin Books edition of Lovecraft's tales, by "plot devices" that include "a wide array of extraterrestrials" known variously as "the Great Ones" or "the Old Ones," hideously described, and headed by a being known as Cthulhu -- a "hellish entity," in Lovecraft's words, who "lies dreaming" in some underworld space waiting to be unleashed by his followers upon the world.

Lovecraft also created "an entire library of mythical books containing the 'forbidden' truths about these 'gods,' " copies of which were to be found at the fictionalized Miskatonic University -- and, in "The Dunwich Horror," at Harvard's Widener Library.

And what will strike the reader at once is the particular vocabulary that Lovecraft developed for his tales, one that utilized words such as "furtive," "shunned," and "shambling"; and phrases such as "hoarsely doubtful noises," "nameless rites," "queer old tales," and "shadow blighted ways" to convey a sense of unease, of dread -- and ultimately of horror.

The Lovecraft "Tales" is the 155th volume in the Library of America's series, begun in 1982 to establish a canon of American literature. Early volumes were devoted to the recognized giants, Melville, Hawthorne, and Henry James, and included particularly valuable editions of Francis Parkman's histories.

Over the ensuing 23 years, the Library has published the work of more contemporary writers such as James Baldwin, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, and anthologies of reporting on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

But there has been nothing so far from the accepted canon as Lovecraft. Heretofore -- except for occasional mainstream appearances, as in the Penguin edition previously cited -- readers seeking Lovecraft's tales would have to search the science-fiction shelves of libraries and bookstores. Those readers have made Lovecraft into somewhat of a cult -- the imagined Miskatonic University not only has a website, but boasts an alumni association.

For the readers for whom this will be their first encounter with Lovecraft, the Library of America's introductionless approach will leave them to experience the chill of discovery on their own -- and to decide whether Lovecraft is as much canon as cult.

What that decision may come down to is the fearsomeness of a New England in which Lovecraft sensed -- and brought to realization -- a horror that could be lurking anywhere. A horror to be encountered by people living along the West River in Vermont who "built houses too close to certain valleys or too high up on certain mountains," and by riders on the Green Line as it passes through the Boylston Street T station.

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