Monday, August 30, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Strange Eons

One of the dangers of reading an older work is failing to take into account the time in which it was written. By this I mean that it's very easy, from the vantage point of the future, to look at a book – or indeed any cultural artifact – produced in the past and misunderstand its purpose or simply fail to appreciate how it would have been viewed in its own time. For example, I recalled my parents talking about how funny the TV show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, was. When I finally saw an episode of it, many years later, I couldn't fathom what they found so remarkable about it, in large part, I suspect, because I was watching it in the aftermath of its own pop cultural success, when its genuinely clever or original aspects had become so imitated and indeed commonplace that they failed to have any impact on me. 

I bring all this up as a prelude to discussing Robert Bloch's novel, Strange Eons. Originally published as a hardcover in 1978 and then, in 1979, as a paperback (the cover of the latter appearing here), the book opens with the following:
This book is dedicated to
who dedicated himself to
other outsiders and gave
to them a silver key.

Today, Robert Bloch is probably best known as the author of the 1959 novel, Psycho, on which the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name is based. For present purposes, we should remember that Bloch was a correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories he devoured in the pages of Weird Tales. Starting at 1933, when Bloch was fifteen, he wrote regularly to Lovecraft, who not only offered him advice on the craft of writing but also introduced him to other members of his literary circle, such as Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth. Bloch considered Lovecraft not just his mentor but his friend and was profoundly affected by HPL's death in 1937. In his acceptance speech upon receiving a lifetime achievement award at the First World Fantasy Awards in 1977, Bloch famously talked about this, saying:

"Part of me died with him, I guess, not only because he was not a god, he was mortal, that is true, but because he had so little recognition in his own lifetime. There were no novels or collections published, no great realization, even here in Providence, of what was lost."

This is the context in which one should understand Strange Eons. Bloch felt an immense debt to Lovecraft and his ideas, which, at the time this novel was published, were still not well known outside horror circles. This is in stark contrast to today, when Lovecraft is, if not exactly a household name, better known, his ideas and creations even more so. Strange Eons is, then, a labor of love intended to honor his deceased mentor and popularize some of his themes.

Sadly, Strange Eons is not a very good novel. It is, after a fashion, an intermittently enjoyable one, but it's not one of Bloch's best efforts and, even as an attempt at pulpy popularization of Lovecraftian ideas, it's nothing special. Partly, I think, it's because Bloch indulges in one of the more tired conceits associated with post-Lovecraft Lovecraftian fiction: that HPL's stories were true – or at least based on true events. Bloch wasn't the first (or, sadly, the last) author to make use of this notion, but it's always struck me as equal parts lazy and absurd. It's true that one of the foundations of Lovecraftian cosmic horror is its attempted realism, the suggestion that the events its stories describe occur in our rational, scientific world rather than in some fantasy fairyland. However, that's a far cry from claiming that those same events are, literally, real. I realize that not everyone is as bothered by this conceit as I, but the fact remains that I am and I think this undermines the plot of Strange Eons.

The novel is divided into three sections, all of which ultimately relate to one another and the central mystery of the novel. The first section concerns an art collector named Albert Keith, who comes upon a bizarre painting that turns out to be the painting from "Pickman's Model." Keith has never heard of this story but his friend, Simon Waverly, has and he tells him all about it. Naturally, Keith doesn't believe in ghouls, let alone the idea that an obscure pulp writer from the Depression had written a story about this very painting he'd just purchased. This leads to a disagreement between the two men, a disagreement that reiterates my points above about the nature of this novel.

"Then there's only one answer. The work was an artist's homage, a sincere tribute. The painting was inspired by Lovecraft's story."

"Suppose it was the other way around." Waverly spoke slowly, softly. "Suppose Lovecraft's story was inspired by the painting?"

Over time, Keith starts to become more convinced that there's something to Waverly's hypothesis, as the two of them become embroiled in the activities of a secretive group who want the painting and are willing to go to any length to acquire it, including murder. Or multiple murders, as it turns out, with many of them staged in such a way as to evoke the events of other stories by Lovecraft, such as "The Lurking Fear." As Keith slowly comes round to Waverly's way of thinking, this affords Bloch the chance to hold forth on Lovecraft's life, personality, interest, and the subject of his stories – all things most readers today would know well but that a reader in 1978 might not. The result is forced and clunky, however affectionately meant, and it slows down the pacing of the first section considerably.

The second section is the longest and takes place six months after the first one and focuses on Kay Keith, Albert's ex-wife, who works as a model. She gets an offer to do some work for the Starry Wisdom Temple, which has now established itself in Los Angeles. The Temple is led by a Reverend Nye, a dark-skinned man with a strange accent Kay can't place. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, even in context, and it only becomes more so as Bloch once again launches into long disquisitions on Lovecraft's life, the Cthulhu Mythos, and innumerable 1970s pop occultism themes, like ancient astronauts, pyramid power, and the like. Section three takes place thirty years in the future and concerns the events leading up to the coming of Cthulhu and the end of the world. 

As I said, Strange Eons is not a good novel by most definitions but it does evince a lurid glee that some might nevertheless find appealing. Even so, I find it hard to speak badly of it, because it's very clear that Robert Bloch wrote it out of respect and admiration for H.P. Lovecraft, to whom, even four decades after his death, he owed a great debt. He no doubt intended Strange Eons as a gateway drug for those who hadn't yet encountered the work of his master, which, in 1978, would have been a great many people indeed. I find that genuinely praiseworthy; it's just a pity the novel doesn't live up to its high goal.


  1. Wow. Sounds like the plot of Alan Moore's comic, Neonomicon. Minus the obligatory Alan Moore rape scene, of course. :)

    Thanks for the review.

  2. I’ve read a lot of Bloch’s “Mythos” fiction now, including Strange Eons; the only story of his I really admire a lot is Notebook Found in a Deserted House. Not sure why, but writing Lovecraftian horror must be pretty difficult to do well. I like quite a few stories of Lovecraft and Smith, and Howard’s Black Stone, but that’s about it. I haven’t tried Ramsey Campbell though; I’ve heard he’s good, so I think he’s next after Bloch.

    1. "Notebook" is far and away his best Lovecraftain story, and packs a terrific punch.

  3. I know Bloch primarily as a Star Trek original series writer (he penned 3 episodes).

    Reference viewing a piece of work from the vantage point of the present....I love the Marx Brothers. Their humor was original and unique for their time. Warner Brothers adapted a lot of their humor in their own Looney Tunes cartoons. So my wife and kids, who know Looney Tunes, got all the jokes before they punched and didn't think much of the Marx Bros.

    1. like the stooges, it really seems Marx brothers is a male thing. Guys laugh, wives roll their eyes

  4. I would like to recommend Mysteries of the Worm, the collection from chaosium of Bloch's mythos work (notably around that one grimoire. I enjoyed it greatly.

    Bloch also wrote a ton of decent mysteries for the pulps, that is what got him to hollywood, and writing for Thriller (highly recommended) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (also highly recommended). His puns, dark humor, and of course, murder, got him into Hitchcock's abused writing circle.

  5. Bloch's best stories, for my money, were collected as "The Early Fears", which includes some Lovecraftian stories as well as many others dealing supernatural events, crime and revenge. Many were adapted for the classic TV series "Thriller".