Purchase Eyes of the God: The Weird Fiction and Poetry of R.H. Barlow here.
My dear unknown friend,
I feel as if I have been pulled into R. H. Barlow’s alluring orbit like an errant child. First in Peter Levenda’s The Lovecraft Code Barlow played a significant, if slightly off-screen, role in advancing the plot of the novel. The next novel I read, Paul LaForge’s playful and masterful The Night Ocean, placed Barlow front and center within the novel’s quixotic, clockwork construction. R.H. Barlow’s life was already fascinating in and of itself to pique any mortal soul’s interest, plus I have never been one to ignore synchronicity so off I went to seek a collected works of Barlow. As I should have known the fine folks at Hippocampus Press had me covered all along with The Eyes of the God: The Weird Fiction and Poetry of R.H. Barlow.
The book is a handsome paperback volume with an evocative cover design that highlights an illustration by R. Saunders from 1936. It’s an aesthetic choice that grows more apt as one progresses through the collection. By the end of my reading, after several instances of closing the book to stare long moments at the cover lost in contemplation, no other choice could have been made. I feel Barbara Briggs Silbert should be singled out for crafting such a clean yet evocative design. This cover reads from across the room. How many books of weird fiction can claim likewise?
Let me first say this about the contents. It is impossible to separate the facts, and my feelings, of Barlow’s life from the experience of reading his work nor would I ever wish to. Barlow’s short tales fill me with a longing for lands I know to be purely imaginary in a manner I have not experienced since the first time I read Lord Dunsany. Should this be caused by the intermingling of fact and fiction I care not. It is a wondrous effect and one I will always treasure. Yet I strongly feel such is Barlow’s skill that anyone picking up these tales, even if they were unsigned with no credit at all, would find themselves similarly enchanted.
Indeed Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith loom large within this collection, especially within the first series of collected tales. “The Slaying of the Monster”, “Eyes of the God”, “Annals of the Jinns” and “The Hoard of the Wizard-Beast” all bear the unmistakable stamp of both Dunsany, Smith, and also Lovecraft who lent his editorial support to more than a few of the stories in question. That Barlow was between thirteen to fifteen years of age when these stories were written drives home those qualities which Lovecraft wrote so highly of in his letters to others within his circle. Within these very first efforts one can see the first traces of what would make Barlow’s later works so compelling. It must also be noted that immediately after reading “The Hoard of the Wizard Beast” I posted to an old school D&D group I belong to, “Good googly moogly, R.H. Barlow just made a gelatinous cube genuinely creepy. Granted he had the help of H.P. Lovecraft but I do believe he was thirteen when he penned this tale. Respect.”
Then follows “The Battle That Ended the Century,” a story Barlow co-wrote with H.P. Lovecraft in July 1934 when Lovecraft was visiting Barlow and his family in Florida. Thankfully the editors provide footnotes as to the identities of each character called out in this “fistic encounter” between “two renowned champions of the strange-story firmament”. Thank the gods because without them only the most rabid of pulp connoisseurs would be able to piece together what is going on beneath the surface of this odd little tale. Even with the aid of this Rosetta Stone I would still suggest one go back over this story with easy access to the internet. This is an edifying experience, a wondrous way to lose an afternoon and a beautiful way to deepen one’s appreciation for our forerunners in the area of the weird tale.
I love Barlow’s use of time within his stories. Even within his very earliest tales he was already hinting at the effects of deep time yet he is particularly effective when he turns his attention towards what has since come to be known as “Dying Earth” stories. Given Lovecraft’s own views on time -“The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.” H.P. Lovecraft, “Notes on Literary Horror”- it would be interesting indeed to have been privy to the conversations between Barlow and Lovecraft upon their first meeting. “Till A’ the Seas”, written with Lovecraft, is the first story within this collection that caused me to stop, close the book, and gaze at the cover illustration by R. Saunders in long moments of contemplation. Eyes of the God took longer than its slim length would first suggest precisely because of this phenomenon. Much like a finely wrought piece of music Eyes of the God scores most accurately in the silent spaces between the notes.
Part of the joy in reading Eyes of the God is not only watching Barlow emerge as a stylist but to watch the crystallization of his intellect. With pieces such as “The Priest and the Heretic” it gives pause to realize that in his time, and the household within which he was raised, such a piece was a defiant gesture against the religious norms of his day.
Barlow perfectly captures the same compulsion Lovecraft was able to evoke within his own weird tales. As Mark Fisher so elegantly wrote in The Weird and The Eerie, “it is not horror but fascination – albeit a fascination usually mixed with a certain trepidation – that is integral to Lovecraft’s rendition of the weird…the weird cannot only repel, it must also compel our attention.”
“A Memory” reminds me of my teenage years in the eighties when science fiction was still allowed to be strange and alluring. “The Root-Gatherers” is yet another of those sad tales that made me wistfully nostalgic for a lost future. In a way “The Root Gatherers” serves to establish the emotional effects of “A Dim-Remembered Story”. Here the narrator struggles to convey the effects of having been wrenched out of time. The story is that simple. I leave it to you dear heart to immerse yourself in such a simple premise taken seriously, examined closely and written in elegantly poignant prose.
I will leave Barlow’s best known work, “The Night Ocean,” a quiet and deft study of fear and apprehension for you to discover on your own. Its reputation is well-earned and while it may be lighter in tone than many of Lovecraft’s own works its effects linger. As Eugene Thacker wrote in In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, “not only is there no distinction between the natural and supernatural, but that what we sloppily call “supernatural” is simply another kind of nature, but one that lies beyond human comprehension – not in a relative but in an absolute sense. Herein lies the basis of what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror” – the paradoxical realization of the world’s hiddenness as an absolute hiddenness.”
Eyes of the God closes with Barlow’s complete works of poetry. Here the editor’s notes provided by S.T Joshi, Douglas A. Anderson, and David E. Schultz in the introduction to the collection prove illuminating. As they write Barlow’s work falls into two main styles. One formal and traditional, possibly influenced by his association with Lovecraft, the second phase more modern in outlook and execution that began in the autumn of 1939 when Barlow met Lawrence Hart and engaged with the “activist” poetry movement.
I would like to give special thanks to Derrick Hussey of Hippocampus Press for graciously allowing me permission to reprint the following poems from Barlow’s later period to give you a taste of what to expect.
O that frog or flower that stealthily
Snipped from the bone Black Tezcatlipoca’s foot!
Trapped with his hands full of magic, what could he do
But wither a projected sun,
Drop two or three eternities into his purse unwrought,
And leave us to make sacrifices forever?
Mozart’s G. Minor
Sun green and grass gold a hundred birds flake down,
The eye cannot capture every beak, every wing.
The tongue cannot name them.
I found Eyes of the God: The Weird Fiction and Poetry of R.H. Barlow to be a thoroughly enjoyable voyage into the past of our small niche of the world. The pleasure of watching both a stylistic and an intellectual force emerge and take shape provides its own enjoyment. However the jouissance one derives from reading Barlow’s later tales, where he mastered the alchemical marriage of fascination and dread in such exquisite proportions that a single tale keeps his name alive despite the travails inflicted by Derleth and company, well that is a testament to the level of skill Barlow came to possess. Here again I turn to Fisher.
“The strange — not the horrific. The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside.”
I am not sure which of the three editors of Eyes of the God made the following statement yet I agree whole-heartedly, “If Barlow’s collected weird fiction is far lesser in quantity than that of others of the Lovecraft Circle, its consistently high quality should earn it a place of respect as a compact but choice contribution to modern weird fiction.”
Soundtrack for this review:
Purchase Eyes of the God: The Weird Fiction and Poetry of R.H. Barlow here.
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Review written by Acep Hale.