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Excerpt from an essay on Seabury Quinn's Roads

Tuesday 9/10/19

I'll just put this up. I've written it today. It's part of an essay I'll sell--which is also being repurposed for and incorporated into Saving Angles--on Seabury Quinn and his 1948 novel, Roads. The novel presents an entirely new--and shocking and awesome--origin story for Santa Claus. It's one of the great works of American literature--though few people know it--and the finest seasonal novel produced thus far in this country. Is this not good? I did this very quickly. I haven't even read it back, this is just how it comes out. There can be a mistake or two on here, it's not like it has been published yet.


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As we descend lower into what I think of as the inveigle age—and we must be down around the catacombs by now—I increasingly esteem things I used to take for granted, or certainly did not rate as rarer than high-grade emerald. Consistency for one, candor sans artifice, for another; legitimacy, the courage to be one’s self on account of the richness inherent in that endeavor, a disavowal of role-playing merely to curry favor and a cheap, ephemeral form of favor at that.


Each of these qualities fall under the auspices of self-determination, that throwback virtue—alas—of putting hand over hand and ascending rope, decamping from mirk and moving towards light. Or, decamping from murk and banging a left to explore a darkling grove, prior to resuming that ascent, better prepped to grapple with what the altitude or the elements might muster by way of challenge.


Arkham House, and one book it put out in particular, an American holiday masterpiece that could tussle ably with the likes of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, has long symbolized to me that form of climb marked by an exploratory foray into the moody glen. It was a press with an ethos of high functionality, and what we can take now as wise counsel in our inveigle age where if flattery doesn’t get you everywhere, one need only cite victim status to make up the difference for the rest of the ride.


Founded in 1939, Arkham House, in its eldritch heyday, specialized in some of the darkest pockets of American fiction. Based in Sauk City, Wisconsin, the press was established up by two friends of H.P Lovecraft—August Derleth and Donald Wondrei—with the aim of providing a Lovecraftian stables for that epoch-rattling—and epoch-traversing—manner of strange fiction, while safeguarding—some might say spearheading, too—Lovecraft’s own legacy.

Arkham titles were issued in low print runs of random numbers which also conjured a diaphanous, spectral feel at the book-keeping/counting level, the natural order of ordinary business made somewhat less natural, too. Spooky math. Lovecraft had died two years prior, but conceivably no other American writer has spawned so many acolytes, believers and expanders of a fictional universe functioning like psychical amanuenses who were also self-starters writing their own material within the established vein.


Some of that has to do with Lovecraft being a man who would correspond with just about anyone. When his name comes up now, it’s usually in connection with the putridity of his thoughts on race, which were given ample airing in those letters. His imagination, though, also doubled as an incubation center for a certain kind of loyalty familiar to horror writers, perhaps because to compose horror—or what was once wonderfully called weird fiction—involves a certain breakaway spirit. One must depart from traditional planes, those that are congruous with everyday experience, and serve up a penumbra world instead. This involves formal risk, within the construction of these narratives, plus a willingness to inhabit terror zones such that stories might be imbued with something of the same stuff. You’re kind of like a Marine in the unmapped territory of the human psyche’s shadow realm. Hence, I think, a degree of flocking together, black-plumed birds of the night.


Arkham restored to print classics that might not have become classics without Arkham assistance, from the likes of Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Sheridan Le Fanu, Derleth himself was a fascinating writer, who created the ultimate Sherlock Holmes pastiche with his Solar Pons detective character, while being a veritable one-man-library, shelves buckling under his prodigious output. He composed stories in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos cycle, innumerable works of what was then termed—in another wonderful coinage—Cosmic Horror, plus biography, locked room mysteries, science fiction, poetry, historical fiction, naturalism, and sheaths and sheaths of letters.


Arkham writers, as a trend, went out and got things, debated, argued, created, all but sweated strange and macabre prose, lived well weirdly, we might say, if by “lived” we mean composed, which was essentially life to an Arkhamian. The books from that vintage run, as you might imagine, command huge dollar figures among collectors. They are beautiful living artifacts, too, solid—no other press’s books feel so much to me like formidable clay bricks you can transport in pocket—and with evocative covers art-directed, it would seem, for the purpose of tingling brain crannies where fear and delight find fruitful union.


But what if one were to say that the greatest work of Christmas fiction produced in this country stemmed from this small press, with its tiny print runs? Would that be grounds for incredulity? Because we would have to assume that this would not be a happy Christmas tale of corrective spirits, or a corpulent elf descending down a chimney with toy train set rarin’ to go. And yet, we do have a tale of the origins of Santa Claus, with Seabury Quinn’s Roads, a certifiable Arkham doozy, America’s literary answer to Dickens tale of Scrooge, via a tale of a centurion.


We might say that Quinn was a Christmas person from birth, until death. He was born—we are not sure the date—in December 1889, and died on Christmas Eve, 1969. Upon serving in WWI, he became a government lawyer who also wrote for the pulps. As with Derleth, he went the detective route, creating the sleuthing Jules de Grandin—the surname coming from Quinn’s own middle name—and penned horror work suggestive of Maupassant. These early efforts immediately following from the Great War were vertiginous, disorienting, what might be termed, several decades later, the reading version of a bad trip, man. There was no shortage of Quinn material, as he composed more than 500 short stories, while launching trade magazines and disseminating his legal advice.


We have to keep in mind that for quite a while, weird fiction, as well as science fiction, was viewed as the remit of the plebian, the knuckle-dragger, the sort of adult who still rode a bike with baseball cards stuck in the spokes. The irony is that the best of this material, from this era, numbers among the most imaginative literature ever produced in this country. Arkham House was tough to beat for straight-up invention. Reading the best of Quinn and the Arkham writers, you have the feeling that anyone could do so-called social realism—yawn—but the siring of worlds, which in effect is what this form of writing was—not that it was limited to a single or prevailing form—was where the rubber of genius met the sweet, sun-glazed asphalt of, well, the road. Which brings us to Roads, Quinn’s first full-scale book.


It was also Arkham House’s first illustrated title, Virgil Finlay’s pen and ink drawings reminiscent, with their fine-grain filigree and cross-hatching, of the sketches Van Gogh would make in the margins of his letters to brother Theo. Roads had already appeared in Weird Tales Magazine way back in January 1938. The decade-long gap was such, and magazines disposable enough—there were, of course, no digital records—that Quinn’s origin tale for Santa Claus would have been new to any prospective reader at the tale end of the 1940s.

Weird fiction—which this decidedly, gloriously, is—didn’t have to be set in space, or involve ghosts. The dead needn’t come back to life. The invention quota had to be high, and the material could never make allowances for itself. That is, there would be no disclaimers that you needed to accept a certain set of rules divorced from the reality we know, as that would undercut the potency. That’s the trick with weird fiction: the writer treats his subject as the way things are, a given, no questions asked. As you read, you start to think that maybe this is how things are, only we’re not cognizant of that in our daily lives, that maybe our modes of perception are failing us. Weird fiction instructs that there are all kinds of ways to see the world, and, frankly, the way any of us see the world is probably not anywhere close to what the world actually is. So try this on.


The weird fiction writers pulled off quite the paradox. The prose tends to be very plummy. Plummy trending to purple. And yet, it’s never pretentious. I like that kind of legerdemain, which dovetails, often, with the magic—though wonder might be a better word—central to the various fictional constructions.