Monday, 19 October 2015

Review: 'The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time' by Nate Pedersen (Editor)

It has always been in the nature of weird fiction (whether we are discussing historical weird fiction, the Lovecraft Mythos, or the Cthulhu Mythos) to treat texts as containers of semantic meaning. That is, texts (usually old, moldering manuscripts written by devotees of forgotten titans) are considered to possess an ontological relationship with the world around them – they both describe things-as-they-are and are those things-as-they-are at the same time, with no necessary distance between “existence” and “sign.” This tradition has persisted over the decades since Robert W. Chambers created the decadent play The King in Yellow and H. P. Lovecraft (however unknowingly) followed up with the awful demonology The Necronomicon. Recently, certain scholars have argued that we should accept the possibility that the dread tomes of weird fiction are not, in fact, containers of semantic meaning, and that there is every possibility that The Necronomicon et al. are incorrect or ill-informed. However, the myth of the malicious manuscript still persists in the fiction – often to our great delight.

It is with that sense of delight that we should receive The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (PS Publishing, 2014), which is perhaps the most unusual anthology of weird fiction I have ever come across. According to the introduction by S. T. Joshi (here represented as a librarian from Miskatonic University), the book is a recently discovered artifact of the Church of Starry Wisdom (created by Lovecraft and used in his 1935 “The Haunter of the Dark”). As the subtitle suggests, the book purports to be the catalogue of an auction organized by the firm of Pent & Serenade in 1877 – the year of the Church’s disbanding. Each section of the anthology maintains that conceit by presenting the catalogue entry for a specific text (such The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New English Canaan, or The Necronomicon itself), separated into bibliographic specifics (written for each by Jonathan Kearns) and a vignette of the history of the text in question (written in a scholarly manner by that entry’s author).

Naturally, the entries within The Starry Wisdom Library are pure fiction, but their success at presenting as close to a real-world catalogue as possible renders it understandable why a casual reader might mistake them for the actual thing. This is not the first volume to make an attempt at a realistic portrayal of such a catalogue – Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici has been well reviewed, but is now a collector’s item – but it is perhaps the most extensive at its deception. It is interesting to note that the various authors do not all approach their subjects in the same manner. Although many (apparently) buy into the conceit that the texts up for their review are containers of semantic meaning, and therefore dangerous to their readers, others take radically new approaches to the concept of the forbidden tome. Nick Mamatas’ entry, for example, brilliantly rejects any reading of The Black Book of the Skull that hinges on the text having a metaphysical or supernatural truth inspiring its writing. This variety in composition compensates for the uniformity of presentation, although it must be said that the presentation will cause many reader’s eyes to glaze over after a prolonged reading session.

Who you gonna call?

A word needs to be said about the physical makeup of The Starry Wisdom Library, which adds a substantial amount to the verisimilitude of the text. An incredible amount of detail was paid to the design of this slim, 176 page volume, which was done by Andrew Leman and complemented with six internal prints by Liv Rainey-Smith. Everything from the language used, to the font deployed, to mock “Conditions of Sale” and “Bid Sheet” auction pages, to the summaries of lots and contributors’ careers, goes towards the convincing aspect of the whole. Not only is the physical makeup realistic, it is also handsome; available in hardcover for £20 directly from PS Publishing ($35 USD on Amazon), The Starry Wisdom Library is cleanly bound, with an attractive dustcover and beautiful faux-marble endpapers. This is one of the most beautifully designed weird fiction anthologies I have ever encountered, and Leman’s work makes the whole a treat to read above and beyond the quality of the contributors’ writing.

Anyone familiar with any of the various strands of weird fiction should be familiar with the trope of the forbidden tome. “Books can be harmful,” the trope tells us, and furthermore, “books are true things.” The Starry Wisdom Library is not true, it is certain, but it points us towards the tragedy of the nature of signs, and argues for a deeper horror than some of the more tired clichés of the Cthulhu Mythos: that there is no understanding anywhere, nor is any possible. The fictitiousness of The Starry Wisdom Library reminds us that the texts within, and thus their status as containers of semantic meaning, are impossibilities. Signs can only refer to other signs (or so the theory goes), and not to an external world. The grimoires, demonologies, philosophic treatises, and holy texts in The Starry Wisdom Library cannot, therefore, point towards anything “real.” They can only remind us that if texts could, we might be unmade by our own acts of reading.

The Starry Wisdom Library is currently available, and has seemingly made shockingly little impact. It deserves to make much more, however, and I heartily encourage bibliophiles, scholars, role-playing game aficionados, and fans of weird fiction to consider ordering a copy. I suspect that an anthology of this kind will not come around again for some time, and even if it does I cannot imagine that it will have the same attention to detail, excellent design, and overall love of subject matter that this one does. Without a doubt, The Starry Wisdom Library will come to be a centerpiece of many a collection, and I would not be surprised to find it listed as a collector’s item in just a few short years.

Dr. Géza A. G. Reilly has been an avid reader and collector of all things Lovecraftian since he was too young to know better.  Géza received his doctorate in English literature in 2015 and is, to his knowledge, the only scholar of weird fiction ever produced by the University of Manitoba.  An expatriate Canadian, he currently lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife, Andrea, and their cat Mim.

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