Giant Ants

New at Dark Worlds Quarterly, a fun and extensively illustrated survey of the Giant Ants of the Pulps.

Which made me curious about Lovecraft and ants. While alien insects are an occasional thing, the terrestrial ant is hardly made use of by Lovecraft’s imagination. Except in two letters. Here is Lovecraft in a letter of 1916, imagining a “Lovecrafty” ant and the Earth as a giant ant colony in which he resists the rigid conformity of the species…

my point of issue involves the existence of ants which are “Lovecrafty” or crafty in other ways … “Lovecrafty ants” [analogous to himself] do exist on this terrestrial anthill [of the Earth], and suffer keenly from the crude enforcement of orthodoxy.

And later a similar comparison appears when in 1929 he forecasts that man will soon have the instruments to discover “the relation of man and the earth to the solar system and the nearer stars”…

If we can study the relation of a race of ants to a coral atoll or a volcanic islet which has risen and will sink again - and nobody dares deny that we can - then it will be equally possible for us, if we have suitable instruments and methods, to study the relation of man and the earth to the solar system and the nearer stars. The result will, when obtained, be
just as conclusive as that of a study in terrestrial zoology or geology.

One might think that he is suggesting that the ‘new’ cosmic rays and the like will be found to have influenced Earth and thus man’s evolution on Earth. But the context is a long letter to Long seeking to counteract the “popular theological misuse of relativity”. Einstein’s theory of relativity was then a new thing, and was being horribly mangled and twisted in its popular reception. He is here arguing that the physical laws of earth must hold also in space, and thus man’s fleeting and insignificant “relation” to the cosmos will soon be confirmed by scientific measurement. No quasi-spiritualist “trick metaphysics” purveyed by “the Einstein-twisters” will allow us to escape from that conclusion. Thus his imagining of humanity as being akin, in its imperilled existence, to “a race of ants to a coral atoll or a volcanic islet” is an apt one.

More on volcanoes and Lovecraft, on Friday.

The Diversifier in 1977

New on, The Diversifier #21 (July 1977). Has Emil Petaja’s “The Mist”, an old micro-story written “in the throes of sadness at the death of H.P. Lovecraft, and incorporating parts of the letters from Lovecraft to Petaja. Some memoirs of old times by Carl Jacobi, in which Lovecraft’s letters are barely mentioned while a trivial pipe-fire accident gets several paragraphs. The issue also has poems in memory of August Derleth and R.E. Howard.

Added to Open Lovecraft

* A. Sokol and J. Pevcikova, “Animal symbolism in the works of H.P. Lovecraft”, Ars Aeterna, December 2021.

* N.S. Scotuzzi, “Keziah Mason: a bruxa cientista de H.P. Lovecraft”, Literates, Vol. 1, No. 15, December 2021. (In Portuguese. Seeks to show how Lovecraft develops the witch figure in “Witch House”, and the extent to which she incorporates earlier Christian ideas of witches).

* B. Kowalczyk, “The Music of the Abyss: Nature in Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann”, Forum of Poetics, Spring 2021.

My ‘Skip or Watch?’ for the Tom Baker years of Doctor Who

Having binged on the ‘David Tennant years’ for Doctor Who in 2019, I felt the need to re-visit some more Doctor Who. The next natural ‘Doctor destination’ after Tennant is then Tom Baker. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my “Skip or Watch?” list for working through the Tom Baker years in the UK’s long-running Doctor Who series. For a bit of fun during a dull January. I’m currently at the end of Season 13 in my viewing.

It’s fine to skip, as Doctor Who is always notoriously choppy within a season. The Baker era is said to be no different, but perhaps different in another way since it drew even more strongly on horror than on science. Indeed, for most of Baker’s run the science takes rather a back seat. But the horror angle may interest some Tentaclii readers who can tolerate the low production values (by today’s standards, and sometimes even by the standards of 1970s British TV). You’d also need to be able to tolerate some of the British wackiness, irony and eccentricity, from the lead Baker but also from showrunner Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide). Some of the plots and ideas are said to need a sharp ear and sharp mind to fully grasp, in the more downbeat and ‘science re-introducing’ final season of the Baker run.

The general format for each season was that each story had four episodes, and then the finale story had six. Only occasionally was this varied from. This means that you can expect each of these stories to run two hours, expect the finale for the season which should run for three hours. The audio-story inserts in this list vary, from one to nearly three hours. In total: around 70 hours for the following list.

Doctor Who Season 11 - good old Jon Pertwee is the Doctor.

* “Planet of the Spiders” - not a great finale, but it ends with the famous regeneration scene. Some may want to view this final episode, after reading up on the plot.

Doctor Who season 12 - Tom Baker is now the Doctor.

* “Robot” - weak, yet it does ease Baker out of the Pertwee-era UNIT and off Earth.

* “The Ark in Space” - the Tom Baker era properly begins, with a TV sci-fi classic.

* “The Sontaran Experiment” - continuing from “Ark”, an uncharacteristically short two-parter in the middle of the season.

* “Genesis of the Daleks” - good, if a little ‘all around the houses to get back to where we started from’ at times.

“Revenge of the Cybermen” - SKIP, but read up on the plot.

Doctor Who season 13

* “Terror of the Zygons” - not great, but concludes the very loose story-arc begun back in “Ark”. There’s one point where it helps to have seen the ending episode of Season 11, to understand what’s going on. It also helps the viewer new to Doctor Who to have encountered UNIT back in the previous season, in “Robot”.

? Planet of Evil - it could be skipped, but then you would miss an excellent planetary-surface setting in the first half. Some tiresomely histrionic over-acting in the second-half.

* “Pyramids of Mars” - not quite as scintillating as I’d been led to believe, but definitely a ‘watch’.

“The Android Invasion” - SKIP.

* “The Brain of Morbius” - often hilariously ‘over the top’, but a lot of fun.

? “The Seeds of Doom” - this season finale didn’t grab me. Well-made and imaginative, and it starts well and the plot flows along but… it’s a drag. The unusually angry and very shouty Doctor, a surprise-free plot in a long three-hour slog, and a lack of funny jokes (most fall flat) all served to make it fall short of the classic it’s said to be. Feels like someone’s rather distasteful horror-thriller re-purposed as a Doctor Who story. Leaves a ‘bad taste’, all round.

Doctor Who season 14

* “The Masque of Mandragora”.

* “The Hand of Fear” - Assistant Sarah Jane bows out, the middle episodes slump badly.

* “The Deadly Assassin”.

* “The Face of Evil” - not great, but new assistant Leela is introduced.

? “The Robots of Death” - COULD BE SKIPPED, some love it, but has flaws.

* Talons of Weng-Chiang.

> * “The Foe from the Future” (audio, in Fourth Doctor ‘Lost Stories’). This was a series 14 finale that was never made (the writer was sent off to save an ailing soap-opera). “Foe” could be enjoyed here, and Tom Baker’s 2012 voice is apparently spot-on for the 1970s.

> * “Requiem for the Rocket Men” (audio, in Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 3) + “Last of the Colophon”/”Death Match” (audio, in Fourth Doctor Adventures Series 4). “Requiem” apparently helps set up the later “Death Match”. All three are stand-out stories and fit here in the timeline.

Doctor Who season 15

* “Horror of Fang Rock”.

* “The Invisible Enemy” - robot-dog K9 1 introduced.

? “Image of the Fendahl” - COULD BE SKIPPED, but has an ambitious weird-horror atmosphere.

“Sun Makers” - SKIP.

“Underworld” - SKIP, widely said to be the worst episodes ever.

Invasion of Time - SKIP - Assistant Leela and K9 1 depart. Apparently dreadful, but you may want to just see the ‘Leela departure’ bit at the end.

Doctor Who season 16

* “The Ribos Operation” - sets up the Key to Time arc. Assistant Romana 1 and K9 2 appear.

“The Pirate Planet” - SKIP

* “The Stones of Blood”.

* “The Androids of Tara” - progresses the Key to Time arc.

“The Power of Kroll” - SKIP

* “Armageddon Factor” - finishes the Key to Time arc. Six episodes, apparently drags a bit.

Doctor Who season 17

“Destiny of the Daleks” - SKIP, apparently abysmal. Just assume that Romana 1 regenerates to Romana 2.

* “City of Death” - an all-time classic gem amid a rough season.

“The Creature from the Pit” - SKIP

“Nightmare of Eden” - SKIP

“The Horns of Nimon” - SKIP

* “Shada” - incomplete TV episodes for the six-episode season finale, cancelled and the ending was never broadcast due to leftist strike action at the BBC. Complete version eventually released in 2017, with missing fill-in dialogue from the original cast. Then a further enhanced Blu-ray version with animation. Also available as an unabridged 12-hour audiobook novel from 2012. Note that there is also a “Big Finish cast audio version of Shada”, but this “features the Eighth Doctor [Paul McGann] instead of the Fourth”.

> * “The Trouble with Drax” (audio, in Fourth Doctor Adventures: Series 5). Said to be excellent, sound fun and fits here.

Doctor Who season 18 - Douglas Adams has now left as showrunner, his humour-filled scripts are thrown out. It’s the early Thatcher years at the BBC, and dour and sombre is ‘in’.

“The Leisure Hive” - SKIP

“Meglos” - SKIP

* “Full Circle” - begins the e-Space trilogy. Boy assistant Adric appears.

* “State of Decay” - develops e-Space trilogy.

> * “Chase the Night” (audio, in the Fourth Doctor Adventures: Ninth Series). Fits here, adds background for “Warrior’s Gate”.

* “Warrior’s Gate” - concludes the e-Space trilogy. Romana II and K9 2 depart.

? “The Keeper of Traken” - COULD BE SKIPPED, but apparently sets up the finale.

* “Logopolis” - Tom Baker departs as the Doctor, in what is said to be an intellectual and moody and rather loose story.

Doctor Who season 19 - Peter Davidson is now the new and rather different Doctor. He’s well-liked but has a short run, 1981-84.

So, overall: skip perhaps 12 stories and watch 29, saving yourself several days and nights of tedium and cringe. Possibly also add six of the Big Finish stories, at the points indicated above. Be warned that Big Finish’s audio marketing blurbs ‘spread the spoilers on’ rather thickly.

‘Picture postals’ from Lovecraft: the almanacs

As we move into the New Year, it seems apt to take a look at the annual almanacs which H.P. Lovecraft cherished. Not quite postcards, of course, but still pictorial.

He inherited, and then further developed, a substantial collection of such old country almanacs. He writes in a letter that this family collection, when first passed down to him…

went back solidly only to 1877, with scattering copies back to 1815

Trying to complete this set eventually became a keen occasional hobby, though he had some luck there. He was allowed to root among the home storage attic of his sometime-friend Eddy’s book-selling uncle, and he descended the ladder with many a rare old copy. Which Uncle Eddy then sold him at a very affordable price. This haul appears to have spurred his ambitions, and he wrote…

I am now trying to complete my family file of the Old Farmer’s Almanack

Here we see Lovecraft’s collecting ‘wants list’, as he tried to complete the set…

What, exactly, was this publication? now has a small selection of scans of this Old Farmer’s Almanack, and thus we can get a better idea of what Lovecraft found between the pages. To be specific, he inherited and collected old copies of the Old Farmer’s Almanack edited by Robert B. Thomas. (It can’t be linked, as the URL is malformed, but if you paste this into the search-box you should get it: creator:”Thomas, Robert Bailey, 1766-1846″ )

There were other publications of the same or similar title, but Old Farmer’s Almanack was Lovecraft’s mainstay. Which is not say he wasn’t delighted to discover that other similar almanacs were still publishing, out in the countryside…

It sure did give me a kick to find Dudley Leavitt’s Farmer’s Almanack [Leavitt’s Farmer’s Almanack, improved] still going after all these years. The last previous copy I had seen was of the Civil War period. But of course my main standby is Robt. B. Thomas’s [Almanack]

Thomas’s Old Farmer’s Almanack had begun publication in 1793. As we can see from the above list, Lovecraft was especially keen to get hold of anything before 1805 and in any condition. Many of these used the old long-S in the text…

I can dream a whole cycle of colonial life from merely gazing on a tattered old book or almanack with the long S.

This dream had first occurred very early in his life, and at age five the family Almanack had made a lasting impression…

my earliest memories — a picture, a library table, an 1895 Farmer’s Almanack, a small music-box

Evidently then this annual was taken and consulted in his home at that time. Also cherished and kept, since we know he was able to read the entire set…

[As a boy] I read them all through from 1815 to the present, & came early to think of every turn & season of the year in terms of the crops, the zodiac, the moon, the ploughing & [harvest] reaping, the face of the landscape, & all the other primeval guideposts which have been familiar to mankind since the first accidental discovery of agriculture in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

Nor did he overlook the rustic pictures…

I am always fond of seasonal pictures, & dote on the little ovals on the cover of the ancient Farmer’s Almanack — spring , summer, autumn, & winter

On his travels he later found places where the homely traditions and moon and star-lore of the Farmer’s Almanack were still followed, such places as Vermont…

That Arcadian world which we see faintly reflected in the Farmer’s Almanack is here a vital & vivid actuality [in rural Vermont]

The publication was indeed a useful one. For instance it enabled Lovecraft to anticipate with ease the year’s lesser heavenly events…

Sun crosses the equinox next Wednesday at 7:24 p.m. according to the Old Farmer’s Almanack — which we have had in our family, I fancy, ever since its founding in 1793.

The weather predictions found in its pages were perhaps of less use. Or at least, they had become so by the late 1970s. In 1981 Weatherwise magazine made a tally of sixty forecasts across five years. They found the month-by-month Almanack forecast to be little better than chance by then. How accurate the monthly weather forecasts might have been in the 1895-1935 period and in Providence remains to be determined. It might be quite interesting to tally that, with perhaps a leeway of two days. But to do so one would likely need to go back to the original journal / newspaper summaries of the month’s actual weather, rather than trust any recently ‘rectified’ computer-created data-series.

The Almanacks also contained a wealth of rather more reliable factual information. Such as the dates of the year’s key elections, court days, festival and saint’s days, tides, recurring natural events (usual time of lambing, bringing in cows for the winter etc), anniversary dates for sundry historical events, lists of Presidents, the standard weights and measures, distances, nutritional values of various crops and fodder, together with small amusements such as riddles and poetry. Short articles could also be present. Most importantly for Lovecraft’s huge flow of parcels and letters, the little booklets also appear to have given the latest postal regulations in a concise form.

In format they were rather like Lovecraft’s stories, then. A whole lot of sound facts garnished with a few slivers of delicious speculation (meaning the weather forecasts, rather than monsters and cults). Indeed, one might see something of the ‘carnivalesque’ at work in such publications. The use of a small inversion, that by its amusing ridiculousness serves to bolster the belief in the facticity of the rest of the structure.

The latest annual Almanack was also ever-present in Lovecraft’s own study, as he wrote to Galpin in 1933…

You may be assur’d, that my colonial study mantel has swinging from it the undying Farmer’s Almanack of Robert B. Thomas (now in its 141st year) which has swung beside the kindred mantels of all my New-England forbears for near a century & a half: that almanack without which my grandfather wou’d never permit himself to be, & of which a family file extending unbrokenly back to 1836 & scatteringly to 1805 still reposes in the lower drawer of my library table [evidently Lovecraft had by this time added 1876-1836 to the “family file”] … which was likewise my grandfather’s library table. A real civilisation, Sir, can never depart far from the state of a people’s rootedness in the soil, & their adherence to the landskip & phaenomena & methods which from a primitive antiquity shap’d them to their particular set of manners & institutions & perspectives.

This mantel-hanging had been a long-standing practice. For instance it was noted by his earliest visitor, when Lovecraft was emerging from his hermit phase. Rheinhart Kleiner recalled of his curious visit to the darkened room that…

An almanac hung against the wall directly over his desk, and I think he said it was the Farmers’ Almanac.

Lovecraft even kept up the tradition during the hectic New York years, writing in late 1924…

the Old Farmer’s Almanack … of which I am monstrous eager to get the 1925 issue

In that era the Almanacks were very often personalised and annotated quite heavily by their users, and a rural man’s personal collection grew to form a sort of natural diary and personal time-series for useful farm data. In 1900 40% of the American people still worked on the land, so such things were vital.

So far as I’m aware we have none of Lovecraft’s own copies today, so we don’t know if he also marked and noted them in various ways. Or if he had inherited copies that had been so marked by his relatives.

He also hints at being aware of and valuing another such publication. For instance, when he remarked on the discovery of the planet Pluto he wrote…

the discovery of the new trans-Neptunian planet …. I have always wished I could live to see such a thing come to light — & here it is! …. One wonders what it is like, & what dim-litten fungi may sprout coldly on its frozen surface! I think I shall suggest its being named Yuggoth! …. I shall await its ephemerides & elements with interest. Probably it will receive a symbol & be treated of in the Nautical Almanack — I wonder whether it will get into the popular almanacks as well?

In his early newspaper columns on astronomy he also appears to refer to this same publication…

The motions of these satellites, their eclipses, occultations, and transits, form a pleasing picture of celestial activity to the diligent astronomer; and are predicted with great accuracy in the National Almanack. [I assume here a mis-transcription by the newspaper editor of “National” for “Nautical”, or perhaps a correction to its shorthand name in the district].

Indeed, both Almanacks feature in Lovecraft’s “Principal Astronomical Work” list, among the vital accessories needed for a study of the night-sky…


Lunar Map by Wright.
Year Book — Farmer’s Almanack.
Planispheres — Whitaker & Barrett-Serviss.
Atlas by Upton — Library.
Opera glasses — Prism Binoculars.
Am. Exh. & Want Almanac. [meaning the American Ephemeris & Nautical Almanac, as “Exh.” is “Eph.” and “Want” should be “Naut”]

This Nautical Almanac is also on, so we can peep inside a copy of that from 1910. Forthcoming eclipses were noted over several pages. Here, for instance we see all the details needed to observe a total eclipse of the Moon in November 1910, the beginning visible from “eastern North America”. I think we have a hint here about what Lovecraft was likely to have been doing in the late evening of 16th November 1910… also has The Old Farmer and his Almanack, a 1920 book which surveyed the topic with erudition. Lovecraft was heartily pleased to discover and read it shortly after publication.

Almanacks occur only once (and very trivially) in Lovecraft’s poetry. The one use in his fiction is more intriguing. In “The Picture in the House” (December 1920) a book is noted…

a Pilgrim’s Progress of like period, illustrated with grotesque woodcuts and printed by the almanack-maker Isaiah Thomas

The sharp-eyed will have spotted that Lovecraft might have meant to imply that this “Thomas” could have been the ancestor of the Robert B. Thomas of Old Farmer’s Almanack fame. That might be how some savvy bookmen took it at the time, but it is not so. For Lovecraft would have known that there was a real “almanack-maker Isaiah Thomas” and that he was no relation. Robert B. Thomas himself tells us this fact, in recalling his early years of trying to get a start in publishing almanacks…

I wanted practical knowledge of the calculations of an Almanack. In September, I journeyed into Vermont to see the then-famous Dr. S. Sternes, who for many years calculated Isaiah Thomas’s Almanack, but failed to see him. … In the fall, I called on Isaiah Thomas of Worcester (no relation) to purchase 100 of his Almanacks in sheets, but he refused to let me have them. I was mortified and came home with a determination to have an Almanack of my own.

Thus my feeling is that Lovecraft knew of these snubs and also, probably while reading his The Old Farmer and his Almanack (1920), had learned that Isaiah Thomas had sustained a sideline in publishing booklets containing the worst sorts of “astrology, palmistry, and physiognomy”. Thus, later that same year Lovecraft gave curmudgeonly old Isaiah Thomas a small poke in his fiction, by implying that Isaiah had marred a classic book with “grotesque” pictures — so “grotesque” that the resulting book ended up resting next to Pigafetta’s account of the Congo and its cannibals.

All aboard the Trans-Europe Express…

Eldritch-con 2023: A Horror and Fantasy Game Writers’ Convention. In November 2023, including the possibility of…

a unique, luxury pre-convention travel package - a rail journey from Paris, France to Bucharest, Romania upon the Venice Simplon Orient Express [including] a live-action role-playing experience created by Sean Branney / the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

McNeil as photographer

I’ve found a little more evidence that Lovecraft’s friend Everett McNeil was rather a good cameraman, at least with still subjects. I spotted that he won $5 in a Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly photography contest for August 1909. $5 was a healthy amount in 1909. This was about the time he was successfully entering the movie-making business, then located in New York City. He was a few years into having ‘made it’ in New York City, and to be able to make good pictures like this one imagines he might have then invested in a better camera and developing equipment. He appears to have often entered prize contests in writing, probably influenced by his farming father David McNeil who had been a regular winner of most of his district’s agricultural produce prizes. Now we know that his son also entered photographic contests.

The Lovecraft circle knew that McNeil had ‘walked to New York’ circa 1894, and I rather suspect he earned his way as a travelling photographic portraitist. Possibly going from his home in Wisconsin to Quebec and then down the Hudson Valley to reach New York. In a letter Lovecraft indicates that McNeil had known the city of Quebec well at some point, and the life of a young itinerant photographer was realistically depicted in his story “The Photographing of Billy Oreamnos” (1909). In this a young man travels in rural Canada with his camera and gear…

… in search of Canadian dollars and dimes in exchange for more or less artistic photographs of the natives.

In 1912 a magazine published McNeil’s professional-quality architectural pictures of General Knox’s headquarters. McNeil’s later fine self-portrait with his New York City room as surrounding background (see my book on him) also shows a professional’s skill in composition and lighting.

I can’t be more certain than that about a possible early career in photography. But these fragments of evidence do seem to point that way. He was around age 32 when he left for his long walk to New York, and it was likely a ‘now or never’ try at reaching and ‘sticking’ in the big city. A photographic skill would be a natural method by which to pay one’s way, and the civilised English-speaking parts of what is now eastern Ontario might have offered good prospects — better than the stolid monotony of the Ohio farmlands and then the hillybilly backroads of the Pennsylvania mountains.

A likely route to New York

Encyclopaedia Britannica 1926

Newly liberated into the public domain, the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1926 supplement in three chunky volumes. They form “an entirely new survey of the march of events”, as the Preface has it.

These became the latest supplement to the 11th edition, and they provide a useful updating and snapshot of various emerging fields as they were understood in the ‘prime Lovecraft years’ of 1910-1926 (the dates given in the Preface). Lovecraft owned the 9th edition (1875-89), and its “A Guide to Systematic Reading In…”, the 9th edition being especially revered for its very high standards of scholarship. The dates of the 9th may seen antediluvian to us, but on most matters he was only about 20-25 years behind the current volumes… until 1926. Presumably for more modern topics he was able to consult the latest edition, and its most recent supplements, at the Public Library in Providence or New York City.