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Wodehouse, Lovecraft and yes, Gary Larson: This summer, I read widely

At season’s end, a look back at the books and literary events that delighted me


When I paused my Post book column during July and August, it wasn’t for two months of summery R & R. First, I wanted to finish a draft of my own book about popular fiction in late 19th and early 20th-century Britain. Second, I owed long pieces — about Oscar Wilde and Walter de la Mare — to two different magazines. Third, and not least, my house needed more bookshelves or — my beloved spouse’s preferred alternative — fewer books.

As a result, I worked harder than ever during my “vacation,” but with mixed results. For instance, my book “The Great Age of Storytelling” now runs 200,000 words, which means it needs cutting as well as the usual polishing and speeding up. I did acquire five handsome bookcases — a gift from a reader who was downsizing — but they are currently in storage in a neighbor’s garage. Exactly where to fit them into this small brick colonial remains an open question.

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Despite my obsessive-compulsive work ethic, there were a few welcome interruptions. My wife, our youngest son and I drove to a nephew’s wedding in Rochester, N.Y., listening en route to Jonathan Cecil perform P.G. Wodehouse’s reliably hilarious “Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.” In fact, the trip left me unexpectedly hopeful about the future. My nephew is Black, his bride is White, and the evening dinner reception was largely composed of their friends. As I looked around the noisy room, I noticed that the various tables, which had unassigned seating, presented racially diverse groups of young people at each, laughing and flirting and enjoying one another’s company.

That doesn’t seem like much, but it felt distinctly heartening, a welcome change from my usual mood of “Change and decay all around I see.” Two weeks later, my three grown sons, as well as one daughter-in-law and three of the world’s cutest grandchildren assembled here for the first time since the pandemic began. When not chowing down, we made afternoon excursions to Brookside Gardens, the National Zoo and the Baltimore Aquarium, at one of which — sigh — we all caught covid. But that’s another story.

Most of the time, though, I passed my days haltingly typing sentences, while occasionally risking heat stroke to mow the grass or help my gardener-wife in her never-ending battle against weeds and flash flooding. In the evenings, I read “Far Away and Long Ago,” W.H. Hudson’s beautifully written 1918 memoir about growing up on the Argentine Pampas in the 1840s, following it up with Mary Kingsley’s 1897 “Travels in West Africa” and H. Rider Haggard’s “She and Allan,” the 1921 novel that brings together the near immortal Ayesha, a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and the big-game hunter Allan Quatermain. At bedtime, Gary Larson’s “Far Side” cartoons soothed an often roiled mind. My current favorite panel shows a car pulled over by the police. There’s a big-nosed dog at the wheel and in the front passenger seat a middle-aged guy, who’s telling the officer, “Hey, I’m not crazy … Sure, I let him drive once in a while, but he’s never, never off the leash for even a second.”

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People also gave me books. A retired English professor urged me to finally embark on Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” then stopped by my house with some scholarly works to guide me through it. Two friends, both pillars of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, brought over a long run of the society’s elegant and witty journal, Knight Letter. A fellow member of the Baker Street Irregulars even shipped me several bound volumes of British periodicals from the early 1900s. Tantalizing articles abound. For example, Nash’s Magazine from 1907 features a profile of Maurice Leblanc, creator of the gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin, and a series on the public’s taste in books, with contributions by H.G. Wells, E. Phillips Oppenheim and other notable authors of the day.

By mid-August, I felt entitled to one purely extravagant treat: The stars were right for a quick visit to Providence, R.I., to attend NecronomiCon, that nonpareil celebration of weird fiction. With roughly 2,000 attendees, it’s far more intimate than Washington’s National Book Festival or the comics-focused Awesome Con. There were tours of H.P. Lovecraft’s haunts, B-movie horror films, author readings, a room for gamers, a dealer’s hall (where I bought a medallion inscribed “Cthulhu Waits”), and scores of panels on, for example, the work of Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker and the preservation of pulp magazines. On Friday evening, Robert Lloyd Parry, in the guise of M.R. James, took an enthralled audience through the chilling “Count Magnus.” The next night, beautifully costumed figures both sexy and grotesque sashayed off to the con’s masquerade ball, this year’s theme being Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Naturally, in between the formal talks and presentations, there was heady conversation with numerous friends over clam cakes, fish-and-chips, shepherd’s pie and Guinness. In a swap with one of those friends, I acquired DuBose Heyward’s eerie classic, “The Half-Pint Flask,” and two scarce titles by Marjorie Bowen (writing as George R. Preedy), “Lyndley Waters” and “The Fourth Chamber.” The writer-professor Michael Cisco generously offered a copy of his wide-ranging and learned “Weird Fiction: A Genre Study” (Palgrave Macmillan) and Peter Rawlik inscribed “The Eldritch Equations and Other Investigations” (Jackanapes Press), his collection of mystery stories, of sorts, set in Lovecraft’s fictional universe. In the dealers’ room, Hippocampus Press — which specializes in Lovecraft and his circle — filled a table with its latest publications, including David E. Schultz’s carefully annotated edition of the nightmarish sonnet sequence “Fungi from Yuggoth.” Best title ever.

Needless to say, Providence’s used bookstores, Paper Nautilus and Cellar Stories, proved irresistible, as was the suggestion, from writer and Post reviewer Paul Di Filippo, of an excursion to Connecticut’s Niantic Book Barn. Among much else, I unearthed a volume of tributes to the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, Robert Graves and Laura Riding’s “A Pamphlet Against Anthologies,” an illustrated catalogue devoted to rarities by Jorge Luis Borges and backup copies of such personal favorites as “Collector’s Progress” by Horace Walpole scholar W.S. Lewis and Stanley Elkin’s heavenly comedy, “The Living End.”

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Once back home, I brought the summer to a shivery close by listening to a pair of CDs dramatizing “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” both from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s old-timey Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. I’m saving their epic, six-CD “Masks of Nyarlathotep” for my next long car trip. It should be perfect for late at night, when it’s easy to take the wrong fork on a country road and you suddenly find yourself driving through a lonely and disturbingly curious landscape.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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