Editor Spotlight: Paula Guran

I first encountered the works of H. P. Lovecraft around 1974 on a mantel in Oklahoma City. A friend had the six Ballantine paperbacks—the black ones with John Holmes’s “face” covers—of three Lovecraft collections, the two Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthologies (with stories mostly by other writers), and The Shuttered Room and Other Tales of Horror (supposedly “posthumous collaborations” between Lovecraft and Derleth, but actually authored solely by Derleth—not that I had any knowledge of such perfidy at the time). I don’t recall any other books on that mantel—just those: centered and practically enshrined in a place of honor.

Those books were really weird books, man…

—Paula Guran, introduction to New Cthulhu: the Recent Weird (2011) 9

Perhaps best known for her annual series Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror series (2010- ), Paula Guran is an award-winning editor, anthologist, and reviewer. While she has published my Mythos stories in Year’s Best, Guran’s most prominent credentials in a Lovecraftian vein are the anthologies New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011, Prime), New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird (2015, Prime), and The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016, Running Press).

The arc of Guran’s career in editing Lovecraftian anthologies parallels that of fellow editor Ellen Datlow, with both of them curating three collections between 2009 and 2016, and it is interesting to compare and contrast how these two anthologists approach their subject matter. Both editors felt the need to introduce Lovecraft to their audience, at least briefly; Guran’s introduction to her three books in particular recaps Lovecraft’s biography and a few key points of critical analysis of the man and his work. They also share a consciousness of the effectiveness and limitations of Lovecraft’s style:

Of the hundreds of stories written since 1937 in Lovecraft’s style, or based on his bleak cosmicism, or alien entities, or occult books, or any of the signifiers of a “Lovecraftian” tale—whether based on true elements conceived by HPL or the sometime spurious inventions of others—many were derivative, formulaic, or simply ineffective. Some simply haven’t stood up well over the years. Others have become classics. But this anthology is not about fiction written in H. P. Lovecraft’s day or even in the twentieth century.
—Paula Guran, New Cthulhu 13

Here, the two editors split off on their approach to collecting material: Datlow was specifically looking for variety, including commissioning new fiction, inspired by Lovecraft’s work; Guran’s New Cthulhu and New Cthulhu 2 are explicitly reprint anthologies, with no original or commissioned stories. However, both were still aiming for quality, and there is some overlap between their choices: “The Crevasse” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud, “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips, “Mongoose” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette are both includes in Lovecraft Unbound and New Cthulhu, and aside from those stories they also share stories by authors Caitlín R. Kiernan, Nick Matamas, Laird Barron, Michael Shea, William Browning Spencer, and Marc Laidlaw.

Guran’s selections are more comfortably set in the Mythos than Datlow’s, and she referred to her authors as “New Lovecraftians”:

When considering the theme of this anthology, I chose to use only stories published in the twenty-first century. This was by design, but it also turnout out to be a delight as thee stories are only some of the recent best. Increasing awareness and popularity of H. P. Lovecraft’s writing and the skills and imaginations of current writers have combined for an ever-increasing pool of top-notch fiction.

They do not imitate; they re-imagine, re-energize, renew, re-set, and make Lovecraftian concepts relevant for today. After all, in this era of great unrest, continual change, constant conflict, and increasing vulnerability to natural disasters, it is not hard to believe that the universe doesn’t give a damn and we are doomed, doomed, doomed.

Sometimes, the New Lovecraftians simply have fun with what are now well-established genre themes. More often they take Lovecraft’s view of fragile humans alone in a vast uncaring cosmos where neither a good god nor an evil devil exist, let alone are concerned with them, and devise stunningly effective fiction.
—Paula Guran, New Cthulhu 14

Guran, within those own restrictive guidelines, picked an excellent selection of fiction from the first decade of the twenty-first century, including a few relatively deep cuts like W. H. Pugmire’s “The Fungal Stain.” Four years later she would do so again, with New Cthulhu 2, focused even more narrowly on Mythos fiction published from 2011-2014.

However, in the time between the two anthologies the issue of Lovecraft’s racism had flared into heated debate online, spurred in part by Nnedi Okorafor’s reception of the World Fantasy Award in 2011 and more directly by a petition by Daniel José Older to change the award from a bust of Lovecraft in 2014. It was in this atmosphere that Guran assembled her second Lovecraftian anthology.

The three introductions to Guran’s anthologists share considerable language, so that they can almost be seen as three drafts of the same document—or at least a documented evolution of Paula Guran’s shift in presentation of Lovecraft to her audience. Rather than skirt or ignore the controversy, Guran addresses Okorafor’s remarks directly, and then goes on to add:

Miscegenation, racial purity, ethnic xenophobia, “mental, moral and physical degeneration” due to inbreeding, interbreeding with non-human creatures…these were all integral to the fiction Lovecraft produced. Yes, we must consider the context: Lovecraft lived during what was probably the nadir of race relations and height of white supremacy in the U.S. But whether these were prevalent views of his day is beside the point: H. P. Lovecraft chose to make them “horrors” in his fiction.

Just because we recognize H. P. Lovecraft’s racism does not mean we must deny his influence or reject his work. We might even understand it better if we acknowledge it.

We can be cognizant of and discuss Lovecraft’s prejudices, even condemn him for them. But many authors are doing a great deal more. They are taking inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft and using it to write stories that often intentionally subvert his bigotry.
—Paula Guran, New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird 14

While Guran explicitly says she was not looking for pieces that subverted Lovecraft, her trawl through Lovecraftian fiction hit upon a period when specifically such works were being published and receiving some prominent attention. The most notable such piece in New Cthulhu 2 is probably “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys. Intentionally or not, Guran captured a piece of the zeitgeist.

2016’s The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, part of the Mammoth Book series, was a departure for Guran in featuring almost entirely new stories rather than reprints. While the fiction is new, many of the names are familiars from previous volumes (as well as having considerable crossover with Datlow’s anthologies), including Kiernan, Emrys, Barron, Langan, Shea, John Shirley, Simon Strantzas, W. H. Pugmire, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Lois H. Gresh. Guran’s motivation for this anthology was straightforward:

This anthology has little to do specifically with Cthulhu and everything to do with “new Lovecraftian fiction.” But Cthulhu and the “Cthulhu Mythos” (more properly the “Lovecraft Mythos”) has become a brand name recognizable far beyond genre in every facet of popular culture: mainstream literature, gaming, television, film, art, music; even crochet patterns, clothing, jewelry, toys, children’s books, and endless other tentacled products…so one does what one can to sell books!
—Paula Guran, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu ix

The last sentence could be stamped on any single Mythos or Lovecraftian anthology without hesitation: it should never be forgotten that whatever artistic vision goes into the stories or editorial philosophy collects and sorts them for publishing, nearly every such anthology is published with the hope of selling books and making money. Guran does, however, feel the need to expand slightly on the appeal of Lovecraft and the Mythos:

H. P. Lovecraft was probably the first author to create what we would not term an open-source fictional universe that any writer could make use of.  […] Lovecraft’s survival, current popularity, and the subgenre of “Lovecraftian fiction” is due in great part to his willingness to share his creations. His concepts were interesting, attracted other writers, and ultimately other artists.
—Paula Guran, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu xii-xiii

In this recension of her introduction, however, Guran repeated her comments on Lovecraft’s racism et al., prefacing those comments with “Bigotry is part of Lovecraft’s fiction.” (xvi) This, coming during the online tumult over the World Fantasy Award and the argument over Lovecraft’s racism, prompted a rather lengthy comment from S. T. Joshi, “Paula Guran on Lovecraft” (7 Aug 2016). Joshi in The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos (2015) declared New Cthulhu a “creditable anthology” (360) (a few of the stories had been reprinted from Joshi’s own Black Wings of Cthulhu anthologies), and he was careful to denote at the end:

I am not singling out Paula Guran for specific censure; the flaws in her introduction are representative of the flaws in the thinking of many commentators who are forced to rely on second-hand sources for their understanding of Lovecraft. They find the same opinions expressed by a multitude of critics (who are themselves not specialists on Lovecraft), and therefore assume that such views have become self-evident truisms. Because they are not specialists, they do not have the time or resources to conduct original research to verify whether these views are actually sound. That is why so many lies and half-truths and canards about Lovecraft are now abroad. And Lovecraft is not alone in being treated in this fashion; one could just as plausibly maintain that the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s work is defaced by anti-Semitism, or that the entirety of Jack London’s work is defaced by prejudice against Asians, or that the entirety of Roald Dahl’s work is defaced by both racism and anti-Semitism.

Paula Guran never set out to be a provocateur in writing the introduction to The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, nor has she ever shown much inclination as a scholar of Lovecraft’s life or his Mythos—but then, her focus is not so much on the man’s life or his work but of his contemporary legacy, a legacy which at the time (and today) continues to change, evolve, and be hotly debated. That above all else is the philosophy which Paula Guran has brought to her anthologizing: not to promote any specific theme or interpretation, but to sift the freshest material and find the cream of the crop. As she put it in New Cthulhu back in 2011:

If the strange gentleman from Providence were to appear among us today, he would, no doubt, disapprove of some of the stories his idea have inspired. We’d certainly not accept his racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry. But literature is an ongoing conversation and one hopes HPL would join in.
—Paula Guran, New Cthulhu 14

Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s