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The plan had been to write her next book about Edgar Allan Poe. Not a biography – there are plenty of those – but a fictionalized take.
But then author Jacqueline Baker discovered that a biopic was in the works based on Poe’s life. She wasn’t keen on the idea of her book appearing around the same time as a potential Hollywood blockbuster. In the search for a new idea, and after a discussion with like-minded horror-fiction fans, Baker – who had previously published an award-winning short story collection, A Hard Witching, and a novel, The Horseman’s Graves – settled on a different master of the macabre, H.P. Lovecraft.
Growing up in rural Saskatchewan, Baker read a lot of horror as a kid. Lovecraft was on her radar, but she didn’t know much about him. Once her interest was piqued, a Google search took her down a Lovecraft rabbit hole that felt full of potential.
“It was like his life was a novel waiting to be put down,” Baker says.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, R.I. in 1890 and became a writer of what’s known as weird fiction – a blend of speculative, horror, fantasy and magical realism, which involves phenomena beyond human comprehension. Think: creepy. Lovecraft himself defined it as something more than “secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains.” Lovecraft died of cancer at 46, in poverty and virtual obscurity. But his writing has endured, and he’s today considered one of the most significant authors in the genre. Lovecraftian horror, or Lovecraft’s cosmicism, as it is sometimes called, is concerned with the unknown and the unexplained – things we cannot see that exist around us. He is probably best known for his short story The Call of Cthulhu.
In The Broken Hours – The Globe and Mail Book Club’s next selection – Baker imagines, with the use of deep research, the last year of H.P. Lovecraft’s life, from the perspective of a fictional character. Arthor Crandle has fallen on hard times and accepts a job with room and board working for a mysterious writer he has yet to meet. Then things really get weird.
“I wanted very much to stay true to the history of [Lovecraft], as I found him in his letters. But I also wanted to take those opportunities where there were holes or blank spots where I could enter as a writer and fill in those blanks,” says Baker, who did not change any actual facts.
“I took liberties. It’s a ghost story after all. I made some stuff up. But remarkably so much of it is actually true to the life of the man. It kind of made my job easy.”
The novel was written during an intense, concentrated whirlwind of inspiration, in the remote log cabin on an acreage where Baker then lived with her family, writing sometimes 12 hours a day – while her daughters were at school or asleep. This was followed by months of revisions. When it was done, Baker felt certain she had never written a better book, and perhaps would never write a better book. The Broken Hours was published in 2014.
And then “it sort of just quietly disappeared, faded off,” says Baker, now 52. “It sort of faded off into the stairwell like a ghost.”
Now, like a ghost – or a Lovecraftian creation – the book has risen from the obscure shadows and has been given another shot at haunting readers, having been selected by two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan as the next pick for The Globe Book Club.
The news blindsided Baker. “It could have been any book, any writer, and I feel fortunate that it was this book.”
Baker was born in Edmonton and raised in Saskatchewan. She studied journalism at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and her first job out of SAIT was editing a trade magazine for the funeral industry. She later jumped ship to corporate communications for a funeral-home conglomerate. Then living in the U.S., she left the PR world to return to school, first in Kentucky and then at the University of Victoria. That’s where she met Edugyan; they were fellow students in the undergraduate creative writing program. When Baker began her graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Alberta, she was visibly pregnant. She gave birth over the Christmas holidays and was back in class – with her newborn – a week later. (Talk about horror stories.)
Her daughters are now in their late teens, and Baker teaches creative writing at MacEwan University. A single parent with a paucity of free time, Baker has been trying to work on her next book, writing and rewriting the first chapter again and again – for three years. Now on sabbatical, she feels she can finally focus on it.
Having her previous novel selected by Edugyan for the Globe Book Club has given her a welcome boost.
“You put your book out into the world and you really hope for the best. Because you’ve done your best with it,” says Baker. “What are the chances that it will find its home or find its footing somewhere? Well they’re unlikely because there are a lot of books published every year and a lot of them are really good. So the fact that this has come my way, I feel completely blessed.”
Jacqueline Baker’s books
A Hard Witching & Other Stories (2003): Set in the Sand Hills region of Saskatchewan, Baker’s literary debut began with a splash, earning a nomination for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. “Comparisons between Baker and Alice Munro are inevitable, and in some ways justified,” wrote Fiona Foster in The Globe and Mail. “Baker subscribes to the formal approach of which Munro is so often called a master....for Baker, the human tumbling of emotion and perception are more important than nailing down a story line, and she stops short of the airtight structures that make some of Munro’s later work feel coffin-like.”
The Horseman’s Graves (2007): A bold, unsparing examination of German immigrants living in the Prairies – poetic, nihilistic anti-Waltons – the novel was listed among Maclean’s Top 10 Books of the Year. “Though the geographical, cultural and temporal setting of The Horseman’s Graves might generate comparisons to early 20th-century practitioners of ‘prairie realism,’ Baker displays little of their inclination to romance, nor does she set up the prairie landscape and community to represent oppressive forces to be succumbed to or transcended,” wrote Karen Solie in this paper. “Her judicious plotting avoids parable and object lesson, and insists that the story of these people in this place is worth telling for its own sake.”
The Broken Hours (2014): Baker’s sharp, spectral visit to the home of H.P. Lovecraft is a literary effort worthy of an author whose first job out of journalism school was editor of the Calgary-based monthly Canadian Funeral News, and later the PR department of the former funeral home giant Loewen Group. Publishers Weekly observed that Baker “writes with the conviction of a fan, adeptly evoking the shadowy melancholy of Lovecraft’s world while always keeping the narrative’s momentum moving.” – Staff
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