The Man Who Collected Lovecraft
I heard about “The Man Who Collected Lovecraft” from Jack Chalker sometime in the 1970’s. It was a fascinating story, one that I had always meant to write about but never did. Still, I seem to get around to things eventually, so I am writing it now. After all, it’s only been thirty years! Over time my memory may have fudged some of the details. Jack Chalker is dead now so he can’t correct my account. However I welcome corrections and notes from any of my readers.
The story begins in a New York apartment building. One of the residents, a man named Grill, died. My understanding is that he died in his apartment and was not immediately discovered. Perhaps it is best if we do not speculate as to exactly how his death was discovered. Suffice it to say that the police came and removed the body.
Who was this man, Grill? We do not know. He had no known friends and relatives; all anyone knew was that he was an eccentric recluse living alone in an apartment. As far as I know, Chalker never discovered where Grill came from.
When the police opened up the apartment they not only found a body, they also found an apartment filled with paper. There were piles and piles of books, pamphlets, magazines, and sundry arcana. Since Grill was without heirs the City of New York seized his assets (these being those rooms full of paper) and placed them out to bid. Enter Irving Binkin.
Irving Binkin was a dealer in used books. In those days there were quite a number of used book stores in Brooklyn that had huge inventories and low prices, places where serious book lovers could discover treasures. These places are mostly gone, victims of high rents, corporate greed, and low literacy. Binkin’s stock mostly came from estate sales. The heirs of book lovers seldom are interested in preserving (and certainly not reading) the inherited collections. Usually they want to get rid of unwanted piles of pa[per as quickly as possible without having to concern themselves with its possible value. The city of New York is such an heir.
Binkin had connections. Having connections was part of his business. So it was that he heard about this deceased collector. He came over to the apartment, inspected its contents, and put in a modest bid. In due course (rather quickly one imagines) the contents were his.
When he inspected the contents he noticed something peculiar. It wasn’t a general amassing of books and magazines. Instead everything seemed to be by or about an author named H. P. Lovecraft. Clearly he had something, but what in the deuce it might be was beyond him. However one of the items on top of one of the piles was a bibliography of H.P. Lovecraft that had been published by Mirage Press. Enter Jack Chalker and Mark Owings.
At the time Jack Chalker and Mark Owings were prominent SF Fans. Chalker was a lifelong resident of Maryland and an active member of Baltimore fandom. Owings also was active in Baltimore fandom, but was living in New York at the time of our story. Together they had created Mirage Press, one of the many small presses that come and go in the SF world.
Binkin called Chalker. When Chalker heard about the collection he was mightily intrigued and travelled to Brooklyn to inspect the collection. What he found staggered him.
Grill was the complete Lovecraft collector. He had multiple copies in mint condition of every edition of every book that Lovecraft had ever written. Much of Lovecraft’s work appeared in pulp magazines. Grill had all of the magazines, also in mint condition. This was no simple matter. The old pulp magazines used the rankest, rawest pulp paper that could still take ink. It definitely wasn’t acid free. In time with exposure to air the paper turned yellow and eventually crumbled and disintegrated. Grill kept stuff under pressure to keep the oxygen out. All of his stuff was still white. He had copies of mimeographed fanzines that Lovecraft had published in High School. He had material that Chalker had never seen and didn’t know existed. He had it all. Chalker remarked that Grill would have collected Lovecraft and his coffin if he could have.
So who was Grill and how did he put his fabulous collection together? As I said, we don’t know. Chalker checked with the dealers who specialized in Lovecraft material. They seemed to recall somebody from 15 or 20 years earlier who might have been Grill, but they weren’t sure. In short, we don’t really know if there was a person named Grill. Perhaps, just perhaps, Grill never had a mother or a father, never had a personal existence outside of that fabulous collection. Perhaps he was manufactured. After all, it was a Lovecraft collection.
And what of the collection? Mark Owings and Irving Binkin catalogued it. It was too large for any one buyer to purchase the complete collection, so it was broken up into lots that were acquired by several museums and universities. Binkin offered to take either Owings or Chalker on as partners in his book business but both declined.
Jack Chalker’s website still exists, along with the home page for Mirage Press. The Mirage Press entry reads:
LOVECRAFTIANA: The Grill–Binkin Collection, by Mark Owings & Irving Binkin. Back in the early Seventies a legendary antiquarian book dealer in Brooklyn bid blind on a lot of “Lovecraft material.” Irving Binkin always claimed he thought he was buying a sex library (!) but once he saw what he had he quickly realized it was something else entirely—the largest collection of work by and about the late horror master H.P. Lovecraft in private hands. Quickly calling in Lovecraft bibliographer Jack L. Chalker, whose work he found in the collection, Chalker brought in Mark Owings, his longtime bibliographic partner then living in New York, and from that point Owings and Binkin cataloged the entire collection, which Mirage Press then published in both a sewn trade paperbound and a sewn jacketless clothbound. The collection was eventually divided into several related pieces and sold, almost all to university collections, so this remains the only record of many of these items. Illustrated with photographs of the collection. Clothbound, $15.00; sewn trade paperbound, none left for now; sold out.
The above account of how Binkin acquired the lot does not quite match the version I heard from Chalker. I gather that Binkin had an unofficial preview of the material and that the bid wasn’t all that blind. The Mirage Press book may have more details about Grill and the collection. I wouldn’t know; I don’t have a copy.
This page was last updated September 1, 2006.