Thursday, July 31, 2008

This Old House

When I got to Dr. No's last night I had a couple of packages waiting. One contained four old and eclectic sword and sorcery paperbacks and the other a book from Arkham House called Book of the Dead. I mentioned to Cliff that there's just something about a book from Arkham House. If you're not familiar with them, Arkham is a small publishing house originally created in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei for the purpose of keeping the works of the then recently deceased H.P. Lovecraft in print. Little did either man realize that the publication of The Outsiders and Others in 39 would lead to many other books and to the publishing house becoming something of a legend.
The early AH titles were works of art, printed on heavy paper and sturdily bound in thick covers. The old books have a heft to them, a solidity missing in today's mass produced volumes. The dust jackets were printed on heavy matte finish paper. I can remember years ago when I first ordered a couple of volumes of the Letters of H.P Lovecraft from AH being amazed and how heavy the small books were. And later, when Cliff loaned me other AH titles, I marveled at the quality of the books. Someone who truly loves books will know what I mean.
But there's more than that. Arkham House was such a small operation and their books of such a macabre nature that the publisher themselves somehow seemed tied to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. To me Arkham books felt like part of that mythos, almost as if they had published the Necronomicon, Mysteries of the Worm, and the Black Book of Von Juntz before settling down to turn out volumes of Horror fiction. The company didn't do anything to dispel such a connection. Back in the late 1980s if you called Arkham House you would get a terse message, something like, "You have reached the offices of Arkham House. If you would like to receive a catalog leave your name and address." Nothing more. You either knew what Arkham House was or you didn't and they didn't much care.
Over time the older books from Arkham have also become legendary. Books like Dark Carnival by Ray Bradbury, Skullface and Others by Robert E. Howard, Night's Black Agents by Fritz Leiber, Out of Space and Time by Clark Ashton Smith, The Hounds of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long, and The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft. Author and book names to conjure with. Most of these books are very collectible and very expensive these days.
There was a period in the mid 1970s, after the death of August Derleth, when Arkham House seemed to lose their focus and made a move toward publishing more science fiction and less of the macabre fiction that had once been their primary material. In fact from then right up to the 1990s it often seemed that AH was trying to distance itself from the kinds of books that put them on the map. Volumes by and about Lovecraft and his circle trickled out, but there wasn't anything like the old days. The quality of the books began to diminish as well and though still very nice volumes, they didn't have the look and feel of the old books.
But now and again an old style AH classic still shows up. In the last decade or so I've bought Miscellaneous Writings by H.P. Lovecraft, Lovecraft Remembered by Peter Cannon, Alone With the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell, and now Book of the Dead by E. Hoffman Price. Book of the Dead isn't as heavy or as well made as the older books but it's still a quality volume and it still has the familiar AH logo on the cover. And you know, there's still something about a book from Arkham House.

No comments: