Author Archives: Peter Cannon

Lovecraft’s Ladies: New Books from Hippocampus Press

Peter Cannon -- February 25th, 2014

Hippocampus Press, the world’s leading publisher of books related to horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), has just issued the sixth volume in the Hippocampus Press Library of the Collected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw, edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. Lovecraft had few female correspondents, but these are two of the more notable. Toldridge, a poet living in Washington, D.C., began corresponding with Lovecraft in the 1920s. Poetry and politics were prominent among the topics they discussed, though we have only Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence. Anne Tillery Renshaw, an amateur journalism colleague of Lovecraft’s, is mainly remembered for having commissioned him to work on her treatise on English usage, Well-Bred Speech (1936). This edition publishes for the first time several chapters that Lovecraft wrote for that book that were dropped before publication.

Another recent Hippocampus title is Edith Miniter’s The Village Green and Other Pieces, edited by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., and Sean Donnelly. This follow-up volume to Miniter’s Dead Houses and Other Works (Hippocampus, 2008) collects three unfinished novels, 10 short stories, and two articles, “How to Dress on $40 a Year” (first published in the Boston Sunday Globe in 1891), and “A Rearward Glance,” her affectionate look at her early years in amateur journalism (originally serialized in The Varied Year in 1909–10). Mrs. Miniter (1867–1934) has the distinction of being the first to use Lovecraft as a character in a work of fiction, “Falco Ossifracus,” a parody that appeared in her zine, The Muffin Man, in 1921. One of the characters in the novel fragment The Village Green, a portrait of a literary club patterned on Boston’s Hub Club, is one H. Theobald, Jr., “the man with the long chin.” Fans of S. T. Joshi’s The Assaults of Chaos (Hippocampus, 2013), the latest effort to feature Lovecraft in a work of fiction, will want to check out this early, hitherto unknown appearance of a Lovecraft alter-ego.

Love and Math: The Problem of Presenting a Subject Only Geniuses Can Understand

Peter Cannon -- February 11th, 2014

Math geeks won’t want to miss Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, published in October 2013 by Basic Books. Frenkel, a Russian-born mathematician who teachers at the University of California, Berkeley, invites the reader “to discover the magic hidden universe of mathematics,” but the lay person should be prepared for some highly technical discussion of such things as the Langlands Program, which seeks to unite disparate areas of the field in one grand unified theory. Far more compelling is the author’s personal story, in particular how he managed to surmount the anti-Semitism of the Soviet era that prevented Jews from entering the best universities for the mathematically gifted. He says little about his life in America outside the classroom, though he does invoke Homer Simpson, with his love of donuts, in talking about tori, donut-shaped objects that are important in topology. (Of course, Homer and friends are the stars of Simon Singh’s book about the comedy show and math, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, the subject of my January 14 blog.)

I wish Frenkel (or his editors) had looked to the example of John Derbyshire’s Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (John Henry, 2003). Derbyshire succeeds in presenting the Riemann Hypothesis, a highly complex conjecture that relates to the distribution of prime numbers, in a way to satisfy all readers. In one set of alternating chapters, he gives the history of the hypothesis, beginning with Bernard Riemann, the German mathematician who first formulated it in the 19th century, through the efforts of others to prove it either true or false up to the present day. In the other set of alternating chapters, he supplies the college-level math you need to understand it. Several other books about the Riemann Hypothesis came out around the same time (prompted by the announcement of a $1 million prize to anyone who solved it), but Derbyshire’s is by far the best of the bunch.

Baker Street Irregulars in Print

Peter Cannon -- January 28th, 2014

One of the benefits of attending the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner, as I did on January 17, is receiving a packet of dozens of printed materials related to Sherlock Holmes. These range from the evening’s program and scion society journals to such items as bookmarks and postcards produced by individual BSI members. Here’s a small sampling:

A color folder for the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes, developed by Exhibits Development Group and Geoffrey M. Curley + Associates in collaboration with the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of London. Currently in Portland, Ore., this interactive exhibition displays more than 300 original artifacts, including manuscript pages from The Hound of the Baskervilles and costumes from the TV show Elementary. It will be traveling to the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, next month. For curatorial questions and future bookings, e-mail info@exhibitsdevelopment.com.

A flyer celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the 1939 film adaptation that introduced Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. Limited to 221 copies, this comes with compliments from the Curious Collectors of Baker Street and the Los Angeles Sherlock Holmes Society, among others. (In my view, this movie is quite a faithful version of the classic novel, marred only by the Hollywood ending.)

A photocopy of a two-page typed letter addressed to the Priory Scholars from a 10-year-old boy expressing interest in joining this New York City scion organization. “My mom gave me a copy of what she called the Cannon [sic] for Christmas this year,” he writes, “and I have already read most of it!” (An insertion in a different font urges: “Make sure to finish!”) The welcoming response at the bottom of the second page is signed: “Canonically yours, The Faculty of Priory Scholars of NYC.”

The text of a song titled “We Never Mention Aunt Clara,” which opens: “She used to sing hymns in the village church choir.” Some amusingly suggestive lyrics follow. According to the woman sitting next to me, this song is a tradition at meetings of the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes (aka ASH), for many years the female counterpart to the BSI back in the old days when Irregulars were all male. Members of both sexes rose and gave a hearty rendition of “Aunt Clara” at this year’s dinner.

“H.P.L., Consulting Detective,” a pamphlet written by Leslie S. Klinger, compiler of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Klinger, whose The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft is due from W.W. Norton in October, comments on the many links between horror writer Lovecraft and Conan Doyle’s creation. He concludes by comparing the famous words of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred found in the Necronomicon—“That is not dead which can eternal lie”—to the line about Holmes and Watson from Vincent Starrett’s poem 221b: “Here dwell together still two men of note who never lived and so can never die.” This astute and original observation bodes well for Klinger’s Lovecraft tome.

Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets: Homer Simpson Does the Math

Peter Cannon -- January 14th, 2014

simpsonsLast month, while browsing in the shop of Manhattan’s National Museum of Mathematics, I discovered Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, recently published by Bloomsbury. As both a Simpsons and a math fan, I suddenly knew what book I wanted for Christmas. Happily, I found it under the family tree on December 25.

Singh, author of a number of popular science books, surveys the many mathematical in-jokes that have appeared over the years in The Simpsons as well as its sister show, Futurama. For example, in one episode, “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” an equation appears on Homer’s blackboard that shows the sum of two distinct four-digit numbers, each raised to the 12th power, equal to a third four-digit number also raised to the 12th power. If true, this would violate Fermat’s famous last theorem, the subject of Singh’s 1997 book, Fermat’s Enigma. In 1995, Andrew Wiles of Princeton University proved Fermat’s centuries-old conjecture that no equation of this form exists for any exponent greater than two. But the left-hand and right-hand sides of Homer’s equation are close, so close that if you do the math on a standard calculator you get equality.

I was pleased, if not surprised, to learn that David S. Cohen, the writer who contributed the blackboard math to “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” and other writers for The Simpsons were fans from an early age of Martin Gardner, whose autobiography, Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, I covered in my blog of November 26, 2013. This isn’t a book for kids, but they may enjoy the easier “joke” exams it contains (e.g., Q: What did the number 0 say to the number 8?; A: Nice belt!).

Chaosium Cleans Up Its Act

Peter Cannon -- December 24th, 2013

On a trip to Paris in 1999, I was surprised while browsing in a bookstore to come across French translations of Lovecraft-themed anthologies published by Chaosium, an American company whose specialty is role-playing games, notably Call of Cthulhu, first released in 1981 and now in its seventh edition. I bought Le Cycle d’Azathoth (The Azathoth Cycle), since it contained two stories of mine. I was also dismayed because no one at Chaosium had informed me (or any other contributors apparently) that the company had sold translation rights to these volumes. Chaosium didn’t even control these rights, since, as I subsequently learned, the company had only an oral understanding in lieu of any written agreement with Robert M. Price, the compiler of many of the anthologies in the Call of Cthulhu fiction series.

To be charitable, the folks at Chaosium back then were mainly guilty of ignorance and ineptitude. When I called this unfortunate matter to the attention of one of their officers, however, I received only vague promises. I wrote a letter of complaint that ran in Hell Notes, the newsletter of the Horror Writers Association, and I had at least some satisfaction in seeing Chaosium curtail its fiction line for a few years. But with the ongoing Lovecraft boom, Chaosium has recently begun to issue new Lovecraft-themed anthologies, and Tom Lynch, a contributor to a couple of them, has assured me that the company wishes to play by the rules. Soon after I told Tom of my long-standing gripe, I received a phone call from game designer Charlie Krank, Chaosium’s president, who apologized for past company misdeeds and offered to make appropriate restitution for those foreign rights sales in the last century. I believe Charlie is acting in good faith, and I’m confident I’ll soon be getting my check in the mail.

Now if I can only persuade Christopher Roden at Canada’s Ash-Tree Press to pay me royalties for the e-book rights I granted him nearly two years ago to my parody, Scream for Jeeves, I’ll have real cause to rejoice this Christmas season!

More Lovecraft for Kids

Peter Cannon -- December 10th, 2013

Three months ago, I blogged about Kenneth Hite’s The Antarctic Express, a mash-up of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express and H.P. Lovecraft’s novel of horror in the Antarctic, At the Mountains of Madness. I have since acquired Hite’s two other Lovecraft mash-ups, Where the Deep Ones Are (which blends “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are) and Cliffourd the Big Red God (a mix of “The Dunwich Horror” and Norman Birdwell’s Clifford the Big Red Dog series). As he did in The Antarctic Express, Hite views Lovecraft’s dark universe through the eye of an innocent child in each of these delightful companion books. Kids not yet ready for Lovecraft can enjoy these mash-ups on their own terms. Older folks familiar with the early 20th-century American master of the macabre can appreciate the sly way the author has transformed Lovecraft’s mind- and soul-shattering monsters into harmless pets.

Aimed at kids in the upper elementary grades is the pseudonymous Charles Gilman’s Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series, which started with Professor Gargoyle and recently concluded with the fourth volume, Substitute Creature. Gilman throws around a few names and concepts taken from Lovecraft’s own stories, but otherwise constructs his plots from generic supernatural elements. If I wasn’t particularly enthralled, my children were. I’ll never forget the wondrous look on the face of my then eight-year-old son when I brought home a copy of Teacher’s Pest, the third entry, months before its pub date (thank you PW’s children’s editor, Diane Roback, for providing). Gilman strikes the perfect balance for kids like my son who like a book to be scary but not too scary.

 

Martin Gardner: Undiluted Hocus-Pocus

Peter Cannon -- November 26th, 2013

In the summer of 2006, for a PW author profile, I interviewed polymath Martin Gardner, who’s probably best known for The Annotated Alice, at his home in Norman, Okla. As a boy, I was a fan of Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column that ran in Scientific American between 1956 and 1981, and over the years I acquired the collections of these columns, as well as Gardner’s dozens of books on such subjects as magic, religion, philosophy, science, and pseudoscience. To spend most of an afternoon and an evening with him talking about these and other topics was a thrill of a lifetime. Gardner, who was then 91, was still working on book projects, still actively corresponding with his many admirers around the world, if via typed letters. (He tried using a computer once, but he gave it up after he decided he was wasting too much time on online chess.) He died in 2010 at age 95.

Last month, while browsing in a Barnes & Noble, I was delighted to discover a new Gardner book—Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, his autobiography, which Princeton University Press published in September. Rambling and anecdotal, this isn’t the place to start for newcomers, but for someone like me it’s valuable for information about his family and early life not available elsewhere. (An important source of Gardner’s philosophical and religious views is his autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, which prompted a letter of praise from John Updike.)  A section of photos of Gardner at various stages of his career is a plus. But when did he write Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, and why was it being published now?

On Oct. 19, at the Museum of Mathematics on Manhattan’s Madison Square, I got some answers. As part of a series of events in celebration of what would have been Gardner’s 99th birthday on Oct. 21, MoMath was hosting a panel discussion that evening on Gardner’s life and work. One of the panelists was Gardner’s son James, an education professor at the University of Oklahoma, whom I had met during my visit to Norman seven years ago. When I asked James about Undiluted Hocus-Pocus, he explained that his father, ever looking to keep busy, wrote it late in life, a couple years of so after my interview. The three years that passed after his father’s death before publication was simply a function of dealing first with a host of more pressing matters related to the estate.

Oct. 19, as it happens, is my birthday, and as a fellow Libra and skeptic, I feel a particular kinship with Martin Gardner, who liked to claim that it’s been astrologically proven that Libras are skeptical of astrology. Did I mention that he was fond of paradoxes and was a great wit?

The Kennedy Assassination: Three Essential Books

Peter Cannon -- November 12th, 2013

9781468307559In History Will Prove Us Right: Inside the Warren Commission Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Howard P. Willens, a lawyer who served on the Warren Commission, provides a straightforward account of the proceedings that serves as a rebuttal to those critics who claim that the committee gave into pressure not to seek and tell the truth. Willens makes a strong case that he and the other lawyers worked hard to do the best job they could, despite the lack of full cooperation from the FBI and CIA, each of whom had reason to withhold evidence. Willens stands by the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone shooter and there was no credible evidence of a conspiracy.

9780805094206_p0_v2_s600Philip Shenon in effect expands on Willens in A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination. Besides exploring the conflicts, rivalries, and misbehavior among the members of the Warren Commission, Shenon goes into far more depth than Willens to reveal the full extent of FBI and CIA obstruction. In particular, he has unearthed new information about Oswald during the five days he spent in Mexico City in late September and early October 1963, when he tried unsuccessfully to obtain travel visas from the Cuban and Soviet consulates. According to several people in the know, Oswald had an affair with an employee at the Cuban consulate, Sylvia Duran, and attended a “twist” party in the company of two other Americans. Might anti-American Cubans at the party have urged him to kill Kennedy in retaliation for the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro? Duran, who’s still alive, denies that she met with Oswald outside the Cuban consulate. As Shenon reluctantly concedes, none of these allegations poses a serious challenge to the basic findings of the Warren Commission.

marina_and_leeFor anyone who wants to understand how and why Oswald shot the president without help or encouragement from anyone else, I recommend Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. This detailed, psychological portrait of Oswald, based largely on interviews with his widow, Marina, wasn’t well received when it was first published in 1977, when skepticism was running high about our government, but today only diehard conspiracy believers will find its arguments unpersuasive.

PW Best Books 2013: ‘Murder as a Fine Art” by David Morrell

Peter Cannon -- October 29th, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art

Leading up to the November 1st publication of PW’s Best Books of 2013, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:

At the first ThrillerFest, held in Phoenix, Ariz., in the summer of 2006, I had a long conversation with a David Morrell fan. This young enthusiast spoke highly of Rambo’s creator, who received his Ph.D. in American literature from Penn State and taught for many years as an English professor at the University of Iowa before turning to writing full time. He persuaded me that the author of First Blood was worth a serious look.

At the ThrillerFest held in New York in 2009, Morrell received the ThrillerMaster Award from the International Thriller Writers. In his acceptance speech, the author made a cogent case for the contribution of Rambo—as incarnated by Sylvester Stallone on the movie screen—to the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Smuggled Rambo films helped inspire Solidarity in Poland, Morrell said, adding that “Rambo” was inscribed on the Berlin Wall as it fell. Rambo, I was interested to hear, was one of five fictional characters with worldwide recognition; the others are Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, James Bond, and Harry Potter.

I have yet to read a Rambo novel or see a Rambo film, but this summer I couldn’t resist Morrell’s Victorian thriller, Murder as a Fine Art, in which Thomas De Quincy (1785-1859), who wrote a controversial essay entitled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” plays detective. Aided by his grown daughter, De Quincy investigates the slaughter of a family and their servant that duplicates the brutal murders of the members of a London household decades earlier. A distinctive lead character, an ingenious plot, and plenty of atmospheric period detail help make this book, as the PW reviewer noted, “an epitome of the intelligent page-turner.”

Ryan McIlvain’s Elders: Mormon Innocents Abroad

Peter Cannon -- October 8th, 2013

According to a story in Saturday’s New York Times, a top Mormon leader, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, acknowledged at the 183rd semiannual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the church has “made mistakes.” Uchtdorf offered no examples of those mistakes.

Two well-meaning Mormon missionaries make mistakes in Ryan McIlvain’s autobiographical first novel, Elders (Hogarth). A worthy addition to the growing shelf of Mormon-themed novels that includes David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, it focuses on the relationship between Elder McLeod, an American nearing the end of his mission in Brazil, and his more senior Brazilian partner, Elder Passos. Unlike the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, this is no affectionate sendup of the church, but an insider’s sober look at what can go wrong in the life of a Mormon missionary. Raised as a Mormon, McIlvain has since left the church.

A dispute over doctrine between Elder McLeod and Elder Passos includes this surprising bit of history: “In July of 1899, in a solemn assembly in the Salt Lake City Temple, Apostle George Q. Cannon proclaimed: ‘There are those in this audience who are descendants of the Lord’s Twelve Apostles—and, shall I say it?—yes, of the Savior Himself. His seed is represented in the bodies of these men.’” No doubt today the Mormon church regards the claim that Jesus had descendants as “a mistake.” Still, I can’t help feeling some pride that my great-great-granduncle anticipated the premise of The Da Vinci Code a hundred years before Dan Brown.