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)

Editor Spotlight: Ellen Datlow

H. P. Lovecraft’s work, and fiction inspired by his entire mythos, continue to sell…and sell…and sell. […] Even though so many reprint and original anthologies continue to be published, the taste for new Lovecraftian fiction seems to be growing rather than fading.
—Ellen Datlow, Lovecraft Unbound (2009), 9

Ellen Datlow is one of the great editors of the late 20th and early 21st century, both in scope and scale of her publications and achievements. Among the over one hundred anthologies that Ellen Datlow has curated, three deal with Lovecraftian fiction: Lovecraft Unbound (2009, Dark Horse), Lovecraft’s Monsters (2014, Tachyon), and Children of Lovecraft (2016, Dark Horse). (She also acquired the Lovecraftian novella The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle for Tor.com, 2015) In assembling these works, Datlow brought her own philosophical approach and understanding regarding both what Lovecraftian fiction is, and what it could be.

Datlow, like many fans of horror and science fiction, came to Lovecraft at a relatively young age:

I read most of Lovecraft’s fiction in my early teens, and even then, although I enjoyed it immensely, I noticed the difference between the wonder and embrace of the unknown in science fiction and the dread of the unknown in Lovecraft’s work. Most of his fiction is characterized by this sense of dread. I’ve also read the multitudes of pastiches in anthologies of work “inspired” by Lovecraft, but most—for me, at least—are too obvious and bring little new to the table.
—Ellen Datlow, Lovecraft Unbound 9

Datlow was born in 1949; unless she lucked upon some Arkham House volumes or old issues of Weird Tale, this suggests her first exposure might have been through the Lancer paperback editions The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963) and The Colour Out of Space (1964), or possibly Derleth-edited anthologies like New Worlds for Old (1963) which occasionally featured Lovecraft & co. There were few other opportunities to get “read up” on Lovecraft as a young teen in the 1960s.

The first real anthology of Mythos fiction, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, would not be published until 1969—the first of the Ballantine paperbacks a couple years later. Tales would set the stage for the bulk of Mythos anthologies to come: book after book of pastiche. The Spawn of Cthulhu (1971, Ballantine) and Disciples of Cthulhu (1976, DAW) paved the way for Lovecraft’s Legacy (1990, Tor), Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos (1992, Fedogan & Bremer), and Chaosium’s long-running Call of Cthulhu fiction anthology series, beginning with The Hastur Cycle (1993). Of this kind of fiction, Datlow observed:

Despite the fact that he’s been dead for over seventy years, and his prose considered purple and overwrought by many, H.P. Lovecraft’s work is still widely read, and has remained influential for generations.
A Cthulhu Christmas

Many of the resulting stories are boring pastiches, bringing nothing new to the original characters or worlds they inhabit. A few talented, ambitious writers build on the originals, creating fresh and interesting work. Which in turn may become playgrounds for other writers.
Ellen Datlow Discusses Women in Horror

One does not have to love the man to appreciate and give credit to his work. For me, it’s the sheer inventiveness of his mythos. The new generation of writers “playing” in his playground are doing very different things. The best have removed many of the trappings, bringing a freshness to the core elements of Mythos fiction. […] I’ve never enjoyed pastiches of his work because they take the worst of it (his use of language), rehashing his plots and characters without adding anything new.
Children of Lovecraft 7-8

One of the characteristics of a great deal of Lovecraftian pastiche is an effort to ape Lovecraft’s particular style of writing; an effort that often fails—not because Lovecraft is inimitable, but because the pasticheurs copy the surface features of the fiction rather than any of the underlying structure, mood, or philosophy. When Datlow finally set out to publish her own Lovecraftian anthology, she wanted to avoid producing yet another interchangeable book of riffs off the same old stories:

First, I took a few of the best under-reprinted subtley Lovecraftian stories I’ve read over the last several years. While I complain about the numerous Lovecraftian pastiches published, there is also a relatively small but solid body of Lovecraftian short fiction that is not pastiche—from those I chose four stories that have not been overexposed by appearing in a lot of other Lovecraftian anthologies (or elsewhere). Second, I commissioned the rest, eager to provide a showcase for writers whose Lovecraftian work I’ve enjoyed […] Third, some of the above suggested other writers with an interest in Lovecraft—a few of whom also submitted new stories that I bought for the anthology.
Lovecraft Unbound 9-10

More specifically, Datlow insisted:

I asked for stories inspired—thematically and possibly—by plot points in Lovecraft’s mythos. What I wanted was variety: in tone, setting, point of view, time. In fact, I’d prefer not to have any direct reference in the story to Lovecraft or his works. No use of the words “eldritch” or “ichor,” and no mentions of Cthulhu or his minions. And especially, no tentacles.
Lovecraft Unbound 10

This was, whether Datlow knew it or not, an almost identical tack to that taken by W. H. Pugmire in his fanzine Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (1986, Cryptic Publications):

I knew that I did not want trendy Cthulhu Mythos fiction. I am not anti-Mythos; but I hate the way it has usurped other forms of Lovecraftian horror. […] The Mythos has been overused, and most of the newer tales bore me, be they by fans or pros. I find very few of them truly “Lovecraftian,” seeming more like the kind of thing Derleth was wont to write. […] Lovecraftian horror conveys mood, atmosphere, and situation that were dear to H. P. Lovecraft and are evident in his own spectral and cosmic fiction. […] Instead of writing formula stories, we can use Lovecraftian themes as a foundation on which to try to build our own unique fiction.

Datlow may not have written that, but her editorial voice in assembling her Lovecraftian anthologies (at least Lovecraft Unbound and Children of Lovecraft) was within the same general ethos…with the occasional slip:

As with most original theme anthologies, sometime a story slips in with elements that go against the guidelines; so, yes, there are a few tentacles; and yes, there might even be some other overtly Lovecraftian trappings—and at least one story that uses them in a subversive celebration of H. P. Lovecraft’s amazingly resilient universe.
Lovecraft Unbound 10

This approach to Lovecraftian fiction is not without its detractors. One reviewer of Children of Lovecraft noted:

There are four types of stories in this book: (a) poor stories that have little or nothing to do with Lovecraft; (b) poor stories that are derived from Lovecraft’s ideas; (c) reasonably good stories that have little or nothing to do with Lovecraft; and (d) very good stories that are genuine adaptations or elaborations upon Lovecraftian motifs. I wish that that fourth category were larger, but it isn’t; instead, a distressing number of stories fall into the first category.
—S. T. Joshi, What Makes A Lovecraftian Story?

Leaving aside subjective evaluation of whether a story is good or poor, Joshi’s essential division here is between those stories that have something to do with Lovecraft and those that do not—something he has written extensively about in The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos (2015). As Pugmire pointed out, you don’t need to write a Mythos story for a story to be Lovecraftian; Datlow’s stipulation against mentioning Cthulhu should not by itself mean that a story is not Lovecraftian, provided it is suitably Lovecraftian in other ways.

A case in point might be “Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates, which appeared in Lovecraft Unbound, owes nothing directly to any of the settings or characters of Lovecraft’s stories, but is certainly a thematic descendant of Lovecraft’s tropes and themes. Joshi actually addresses this story briefly in a summary criticism of Lovecraft Unbound:

How this is in any way a Lovecraftian (or even a respectable) story is beyond my imagining, and Oates’s brief author’s note provides no elucidation.
—S. T. Joshi, The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos 362

The difference of opinion between Joshi and Datlow on the definition of “Lovecraftian” is a gulf which may never be crossed, and readers with a preference for the kind of pastiche and Mythos fiction that Datlow largely eschews in her anthologies might face a similar divide: whether or not you like the stories individually, you may not find them all Lovecraftian. Quality aside, this appears to be the crux of the matter with Datlow’s editing as far as Joshi is concerned:

But on the whole, I am forced to conclude that Ellen Datlow does not have any real sense of what is truly “Lovecraftian” in contemporary writing. It is as if she is using Lovecraft’s name to assemble an anthology that would otherwise have no particular reason for existence. This volume might just as well have been called Children of Weird Fiction.
—S. T. Joshi, What Makes A Lovecraftian Story?

The criticism that Datlow misses the mark of what is “truly Lovecratian” has to be measured against how Datlow defines her approach as an editor:

I’m far more impressed and often surprised by writers who use the mythos in ways that its creator never dreamed of (and might indeed have him spinning in his grave). […] As readers familiar with my theme anthologies know, I always attempt to push thematic boundaries to the breaking point: that is, if I can’t justify to myself that a story I encounter (by commissioning originals, or by researching and listening to suggestion for reprints) fits within the theme of my book, and I love that story, I’ll acquire and publish it. […] I wanted to showcase Lovecraftian-influenced stories by at least some authors not known for that kind of story.
Lovecraft’s Monsters 13-14

Innovation is the key to Datlow’s approach to Lovecraft as an editor—having read Lovecraft and his many imitators, being familiar with the dozens of Mythos anthologies already produced, her approach with these anthologies was explicitly to do something different. In striving to push the boundaries of what is Lovecraftian, she engaged authors that pushed it beyond what Joshi recognized as being related to Lovecraft—but that still expands the conceptual space of stories you can tell and remain “Lovecraftian.”

Beyond reprinting relatively obscure stories or the individual publishing afterlife of a given anthologized tale, Datlow’s philosophic attitude that something new can be done with Lovecraft, and should be—that the future of Lovecraftian fiction relies in something else, beyond the Mythos and pastiche, or the same familiar names in anthology after anthology. Fresh voices, fresh takes. That may be Ellen Datlow’s most substantial impact on Lovecraftian fiction as an editor.

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