Category Archives: Literature

Lovecraft Legacies

Although long fascinated by popular culture, I’ve not really been part of any fandom. I suppose this is because my interests tend to be quite broad, and finding one piece of pop culture over which to obsess is difficult. I might miss something somewhere else! While not really a “fan” of H. P. Lovecraft, I’ve read much of his writing and I’m amazed at how pervasive his cultural influence has been and continues to be. W. Scott Poole, who’s taken us into realms historians often shun, has done a great service to those interested in Providence’s most famous son. In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft is a thoughtful, honest, and in-depth consideration of both the man and his fiction. The basics of Lovecraft’s life are easily accessed, but the probing questions Poole puts to the evidence are thought-provoking and, in many respects, revelatory.

Perhaps the largest Lovecraft demon that Poole tackles is H. P.’s racism. There’s no secret about this, but fans often find ways of excusing it or explaining it away as being a product of his time. Those of us who write can understand that Lovecraft didn’t get out much. When he did get out he preferred it to be among people like himself. (Male, white, and gentrified.) It’s difficult to say what the origins of prejudice are, beyond the natural tendency to fear those who are different. Still, intelligent people can generally figure out that such biases are based on lack of experience or willingness to learn about other cultures. There are many, many cultures in the world and it’s often hard to think that yours isn’t the best. A large part of today’s political turmoil is based on this very thing.

An added benefit to reading Poole’s book was the realization that although Lovecraft really didn’t travel much (he didn’t live very long either, and the two are at least partially related) he did at one time visit the small town in New Jersey where I live. That came as a bit of a surprise. The last time I visited Providence, there wasn’t much in the way of signage or plaques to mark where Lovecraft had left his stamp. That may have changed in recent years as his literary star has continued to ascend. Still, to find out that he’d passed this way once upon a time was a nice little bonus in the investigation into who this man was. There’s a lot more to dig out of Poole’s book, and fan or not, if you’re interested in Lovecraft this is a must read.

Might As Well Read

During my recent travels I had a layover at Sea-Tac Airport. Since I don’t get out much, I always find a walk through the airport a way of measuring what other people find important. At least in a circumscribed way. When you’re traveling you’re limited in your options. Most airlines have addressed passenger ennui by offering devices with electronic entertainment. Instead of an in-flight movie, you’ll have choices of what you want to do, courtesy of the endless magic of in-flight wifi. So the thinking goes. Airports, it would stand to reason, will offer plenty of travel-size diversions. The kinds of things you’re allowed to take onto a plane but which won’t or can’t be used to harm others. A sign at Sea-Tac reads “Books. Food. And yes, beer. Just ahead.” An interesting choice of offerings.

I was strangely heartened by the pride of place given to books. Yes, people still find the book on a plane satisfying. Stories have a way of drawing us in. Making us forget that we’re in a cramped space filled with strangers and recirculated, pressurized air. Books have the ability to take us far away. It’s a magic that movies can’t always achieve. Books leave more to the imagination. I recently rediscovered this on a solo trip across the Atlantic. I used the opportunity to read a novel cover-to-cover. The impact was incredible. For those six hours I was on the ground, following the adventures of young people caught up in the liminal zone of adventure and love. It was a powerful experience.

On my daily commute I tend to read non-fiction. Perhaps it’s the result of earning a doctorate, or perhaps it’s the stigma of enjoyable reading being “fluff.” The great majority of books I read this way teach me a lot. I read about many different subjects, and have recently learned to make commuting time a type of research exercise. But then, a cross-country plane ride is different. While an evening commute from New York City can stretch to three hours or more, that’s fairly rare. Instead, air time is unbroken time. I look forward to it with the prospect of a good novel. Airports are one place where hoi polloi don’t mind hanging out in a bookstore. Yes, the fare will be mostly bestsellers, but anything that gets people to read is a good thing. And, of course, if that doesn’t work for you there’s always beer. Just ahead.

Making Lovecraft

Perhaps it’s all just coincidence, but once in a while a number of unexpected things come together. Since I do a lot of reading this often happens in the context of books. The current case begins with my first noticing Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I saw a review online, and since I enjoy contemporary novels that build on the worlds created by H. P., I added it to my reading list. The first coincidental aspect of it was that I found in Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. Like most independent bookstores, it’s not huge, so the selection of books that cater to my odd tastes is always adventitious. I found it on the staff recommendation shelf and recalled that it was on my reading list. A second coincidence came in finding Neal Stephenson’s name under a cover blurb. My brother-in-law’s name is enough to get a book onto the bestseller’s lists, but I had no idea this kind of book would be to his tastes as well.

I began reading it right away. The third happenstance is that Ruff crafted a biblically literate story here. In a day when those of us associated with the Bible are definitively passé, it is nice to see popular fiction fighting back a little bit. Not that Ruff is advocating or proselytizing, but his finely tuned story is definitely enhanced with a bit of biblical knowledge. He’s unapologetic about it. In our religion-critical outlook these days we sometimes forget that the Bible has several stories that maintain, and even reward, contemporary interest. The most obvious example in Lovecraft Country is the story of Cain. There are plenty of others that can be dug out as well, and Ruff even leaves some on the surface so that they aren’t hard to find. Not that this is a religious book. It’s just not afraid of religion.

Some may find that odd in a homage to the noted atheist Lovecraft. What they may not see is that the master himself used religion from time to time in his tales of horror. Also, for those who are willing to be honest, we know that an unsavory racism resided in Lovecraft’s outlook. Ruff, like other writers who see the positive side of this author’s work, tells a story of African-American struggles in the “idyllic” 1950s. The protagonists, dropped into a world of real Lovecraftian magic—and in a very self-aware way—are all a close-knit black family and their friends. Which led to another coincidence. Quite unconnectedly, I’d been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This plays an important part in the story as well. Sometimes reading itself can lead to a cascading set of coincidences. Lovecraft Country is one instance where it happened, but that may just be my unusual taste in books.

No Place to Hyde

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?

Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?

Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.

Any Means Necessary

As one of his first acts as governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie cut the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project. This was before he closed the state-run beaches so that he and his family to have one for themselves without Independence Day crowds bothering him. Liberty means something new these days, I guess. The ARC tunnel project was meant to ease some of the burden on those hapless zombies known as commuters. As a member of this undead class myself, I often think of the relief that never was as we sit, unmoving, just meters away from the Lincoln Tunnel, looking nervously at our watches wondering just how late we’ll be to work this time. Our elected “representative” leaders have no idea about the life of the average person. Having lived sequestered away among the rich and axle-greasers for so long they have forgotten that real wheels need to roll. Their bottom line is at risk.

Trump, apparently aware that torture and public transit go together, has nominated Steven Bradbury, the Bush-era policy architect, as his general counsel of the Department of Transportation. Known for his “torture memos” Bradbury has none of the charm of the sometimes macabre other Bradbury who had the courtesy of keeping his frights restricted to fiction. The most disturbing part of all of this is just how little our elected officials care about the people who keep this country going. Populism, still poorly understood, is what happens when people get fed up with business as usual. Easily duped, the average citizen can’t tell an “entertainer” from a genuine leader. The era of “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” has grown up and become truth. Doogie Howser where are you when we need you? It might be helpful to have Rex Morgan on hand after a session in the torture chamber.

Government has become a joke. Comic strip presidents gather the assorted nuts and dolts required build up a representative democracy, it seems. I used to tell my wife, back in January when things were bleaker than Poe’s December, that we could expect no less than outrage after outrage from a man whose sole motivation is to get people to look at him. We all knew jerks motivated by that in high school. The difference is that now they’re easily voted into office. Selfish men who will close down public parks so they can take the whole thing for themselves. They have no idea what governing is because they can’t understand that other people have wants and needs as well. Other people are for torturing when you’re bored. Sounds like a visit to October Country may be in order yet.

Literary License

Whenever I orient myself to a new place, I tend to do so by the writers who’ve lived there. As a family we used to take “literary trips” to visit locations associated with famous writers. While in the Midwest it was often Laura Ingalls Wilder, and once, Mark Twain. Here in the east there has been considerable diversity. Several locations associated with Edgar Allan Poe have informed our travel plans. H. P. Lovecraft (although, to be honest, we always had other reasons to be in Providence) naturally followed on from Poe. We visited the property of Edna St Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, and later in the same trip Sleepy Hollow, to find the haunts of Washington Irving. Famous writers can be found in just about any major city and many small towns. Now that Ithaca is in our regular orbit, I’ve begun to consider the implications.

Carl Sagan is probably the most well-known of the city’s past celebrities. His premature death added an almost Gothic element to his fame. Certainly among the sphere of his fellow academics known for fiction is Vladimir Nabokov. An entomologist by trade, Nabokov turned to writing and teaching. His lasting renown in this field was for the novel he tried to burn before it was published, Lolita. Before I knew Ithaca would be in my future, and indeed, before I knew that Nabokov was either a former resident or an entomologist, I read the novel. It’s a challenging book. Humbert Humbert is as flawed a protagonist as one might find, and any character guilty of child molestation is difficult to read even in the protection of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the novel won such acclaim. The experience of men and women who read it, I suspect, is very different. It’s a novel of moral urgency.

In perhaps a more innocent time, E. B. White attended Cornell. Apart from The Elements of Style, his book-length oeuvre was mostly in the realm of literature for children. This brings the the focus back to youth. Our childhoods—whether we acquiesce to what fate seems to demand or challenge our lot hoping to improve it—make us who we are. As the years increase in number the memories become more fiction and less fact, they nevertheless remain the touchstone for anchoring our understanding of self. Some of us constantly measure ourselves against the future we clawed for as a child, like those pencil marks on the doorpost showing our physical progress. Having been unable to afford the luxuries of travel when I was young, I add a notch to my literary belt every time I travel to Ithaca, knowing full well that only the slimmest of minorities could find my very obscure hometown on a map. If I remember correctly.

Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.