This Way

The more I get to know myself—pleased to meet you, sir—the more I realize that my childhood was cobbled together from small but repeated exposures to my favorite things.  I knew Dark Shadows from watching a limited number of episodes and reading a limited number of cheap novels.  I knew Alice Cooper from just two of his albums.  And I knew Ray Bradbury from a couple collections of his short stories.  No doubt this is in part because we weren’t exactly affluent and I found my books, by chance, at Goodwill.  I had no way of collecting Bradbury’s oeuvre, and besides, I was trying to get to know Edgar Allan Poe as well.  I knew Bradbury as a short story writer, and that’s still how I primarily think of him.

I felt compelled to read Something Wicked This Way Comes recently.  Since I’m used to Bradbury the short story author, it felt overdrawn to me.  I know this is heresy.  Great horror writers point to this novel as highly influential and inspirational.  Maybe if it were read closer to when I was born, when it was published.  Too many long paragraphs, especially early on, contain almost abstract descriptions without clear actions, leaving me confused.  Once the story got underway it was quite good.  As someone who writes, I know the dilemma of trying to freeze poetry into prose, and to make a coherent story from thousands of separate impulses.  Believe me, I know.  These days such things are edited out and stories become as thin as Bradbury’s Skeleton Man.  I guess I’m just out of practice.

The plot is great, but it feels so 1950s.  So boy/male oriented.  So American.  I suppose I attended my fair share of carnivals as a kid.  We didn’t go often, and I never knew one to settle on the edge of our small town.  And although we were free to ride our bikes or run as far as we cared to, home was never that far away and, I knew, there were scary things in the ubiquitous woods.  Ray Bradbury’s short stories were likely the main source behind my own early attempts at fiction.  Even today I’ll be scribbling along and think, “this is kind of like Bradbury.”  But I always have his short work in mind.  There are some great parts in Something Wicked, and it does build the tension toward the end.  Still, when it’s said and done I’ll be thinking of Bradbury’s short stories and how they formed my own nostalgia, even if only in little fragments.


Pitfalls

While watching Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum, it occurred to me that these movies have improved with age.  The series of American International Pictures’ Corman Poe productions do manage to capture a mood.  One of the reasons, I suppose, is that Vincent Price was an able, often underrated, stage performer.  No, these aren’t like modern movies.  They’re clearly fictional and the backdrops are pretty obviously fake and it always seems to be thunder-storming outside. They are going for a mood, and for those who watch films for the feelings they generate, this can work.  Although based—very loosely—on Edgar Allan Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum was screen-written by Richard Matheson, an able novelist in his own regard.

The Poe story hinges on the terror of the slowly descending pendulum and it has been used and reused in various guises over the years in everything from horror films to James Bond movies.  Corman’s Poe movies often set trends.  For example, in the backstory to Pit and the Pendulum, Nicholas’ (Price) father was a member of the Inquisition.  He kept a personal torture chamber in his basement—well, he lived in a castle, after all.  One of the victims of his father was Nicholas’ mother, an event the young Nicholas witnessed.  A very similar scenario, with even some similar shots, occurs in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.  I’m sure it must occur elsewhere as well, but in making a narrative of the story, this is my own unprofessional observation.

Yes, Corman is often over the top.  His films know they’re for entertainment purposes.  He’s not above camp and gimmicks.  The strange juxtaposition, in my own case, is that movies are meaningful.  Ninety-minutes to a couple of hours relieved from the constantly pressing demands of work and trying to maintain some sort of social life.  (And yard work.)  In ancient times, I suspect, myths served a similar purpose.  They still do.  Our myths have become more Technicolor over the years and have evolved from celluloid to pixels.  Their function has also evolved from escapism to a location of meaning.  On a recent weekend on my own I ended up watching five movies, feeling guilty between times for not painting the porch or doing that plastering that’s requiring attention in the attic.  The movies, however, give meaning to these other more mundane tasks such as work or housekeeping.  They’re not literally true, I know, but we need not disparage Roger Corman for stating the obvious.  Myths entertain as well as inform.


Aging Writers

The fact that V. C. Andrews didn’t have any success as a novelist until her late fifties (a benchmark that has already slipped for me), gives me hope.  Another thing I didn’t realize about Cleo Virginia Andrews is that she was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t want that fact advertised and she didn’t want peoples’ pity.  She wanted to write.  Many of the books published under her name were ideas she had but that were only brought to fruition by others after her death.  She became a legacy.  Writers are fascinating people.  I only recently learned that Anne Rice was transgender.  I had assumed from her public persona something that I had taken for granted.  Gender is a complex thing, no matter how loudly religions shout.  The sheer number of people born intersex should make that obvious.

Writers express the human experience.  Some perspectives aren’t really considered worth pursuing, as I know from personal experience.  But learning about writers’ lives always gives me hope.  There are those whose lives will always contain mystery—was Washington Irving homosexual or just inept with women?  What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore?  Who was Homer, really?  No matter how much those of us inclined to write do so, there are still huge swaths of life that are left off the page.  (Much of it boring, spent at work, or mowing the lawn.  I try to imagine Herman Melville on a riding mower, but I just can’t do it.)  Writing successfully involves a publisher or agent willing to take a chance on you.  But if you’re old enough to be a one-hit wonder (sorry John Kennedy Toole), they don’t see dollar signs down the road, so move on down to the next door, please.

I had a novel under contract a decade and a half ago.  It never materialized, so don’t look for it.  My nepenthe consists of learning about writers, whether one-hit wonders or not.  I can still look to the Frank McCourts, Laura Ingalls Wilders, and Harriet Doerrs of the literary world.  For most writers it’s the story of what happened before success that is the most compelling part.  Especially those who were older and just kept on trying.  Some had to die, ironically, before the world realized they had something important to say.  You can’t blame the world.  The world’s busy.  But the fact is nobody would remember what it was like if somebody hadn’t bothered to write it down.  So we continue to chronicle the human experience.


Lovecraft’s Palace

So, to see Witchfinder General I had to buy a set of Vincent Price movies.  Complex copyright deals mean that not everything can be streamed—there’s a movie I’ve been waiting months to see because Amazon Prime says “not currently available in your area.”  That word “currently” tells you that it’s a rights issue.  In any case, that box of Price movies contained a few goodies I’d never seen and had wanted to.  And one that I hadn’t heard of: The Haunted Palace.  Legendary producer Roger Corman had Price star in a variety of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.  (Witchfinder General wasn’t one of them.)  Corman wanted to make an H. P. Lovecraft movie, but the studio insisted it stay within the identity of this Poe series.  This movie is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” but titled after a Poe poem, “The Haunted Palace.”

Suffice it to say, I knew little of this before I sat down to watch it.  I didn’t know, for example, that this was the first big-time movie based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.  I didn’t realize it would involve the Necronomicon and perhaps the first, blurry—to preserve the sanity of viewers—view of maybe Cthulhu.  The movie doesn’t specify which of the Old Gods is kept in this pit, so it could be Yog-Sothoth instead.  You see, as a child I watched some of the movies in this series.  They would’ve had to have been the ones showing on television, likely on Saturday afternoon.  The one that I clearly recall, and remember thinking “that’s not how it goes!” was The Raven.  And as a child I had never been exposed to H. P. Lovecraft.

Some of us have our own brand of cheap or free entertainment.  The small number of friends I had growing up didn’t care to read.  My family wasn’t literate, and most high school teachers couldn’t suggest much to a kid who’d somehow found Poe and liked what he read.  As I’ve said before, Goodwill was my bookstore.  I discovered Lovecraft on the internet during a lonely stretch of teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.  Like many visionaries, Lovecraft didn’t achieve fame in his lifetime, but is now considered a bizarre American treasure.  The Cthulhu mythos is everywhere.  Even my auto-suggest is quick to fill in his name as I type.  The Haunted Palace isn’t a great movie—this is Roger Corman—but it’s a pretty good movie.  And its history in the cinematography of Lovecraft makes it worth part of a Saturday afternoon.


Various Plagues

At the encouragement of a friend I watched Roger Corman’s version of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  As I’ve mentioned from time to time lately, making short fiction into movies requires padding.  Poe’s tale is easily summarized: Prince Prospero and his wealthy friends attempt to socially distance themselves during the plague of the red death.  During a masquerade, one of the characters is the red death and they all succumb.  Getting about 90 minutes out of this was something to which Corman was well suited.  The interesting thing, and the reason my friend, I suspect, recommended it, is that Corman did so theologically.  Vincent Price’s Prospero is cruel to others to make them face reality.  He’s also, and not unrelatedly, a worshipper of Satan.

When the red death breaks out in a small village, Prospero holes up in his castle where he tries to win over a local girl that has caught his attention.  He’s drawn to her not only for her beauty, but for her faith.  Francesca believes in the goodness of God as strongly as he believes that Satan will welcome him.  The film is further padded out by blending it with Poe’s story “Hop-Frog.”  Despite the Corman hallmarks of quick production and low budget, this adaptation draws much from conflicting religious views.  In fact, this story centers on them.  Granted, this was in the sixties, but the ideas still resonate these decades later.  Rumors of Satanism still spread panic and spark the same kinds of discussions.

Interestingly, the film ends up suggesting that death is stronger than Satan.  And that justice dictates that at least some of the faithful will survive.  Those dedicated to their faith, their family, and their friends make it through alive.  Death specifically lets them go.  Prospero, however, seals his fate by his selfishness.  Apparently his explanations of his motives do him no good.  Death doesn’t condemn him for his devotion to Satan.  The treatment of his fellow humans, it seems, is the ultimate measure used.  Some would argue that theology is best left to theologians, but it seems to me that we all work with the same data.  Philosophers attempt to convince based on the power of their reason.  Theologians try the same, but there’s always something external and unknowable in the equation.  How you know this unknown is on the basis of sacred texts and sacred tradition, as well as reason.  Why does it seem unlikely that writers and directors might have something to add to the conversation?


Falling Usher

Roger Corman is a name well known to film buffs.  The producer of many low-budget, obviously cheaply filmed movies shot over a matter of days, his early career was prolific.  Often working in genre films, he directed horror (among other projects), occasionally drawing on Edgar Allan Poe.  The problem of adapting a short story to a length required for cinema release could be solved in a number of ways, but padding out the story was common.  I had only a few minutes to watch a horror movie over the weekend, so I pulled out a Vincent Price collection I’d bought some time ago.  A number of them are Corman films and I may have seen them when I was younger, but if so the path recall is completely eroded.  I decided to watch The Fall of the House of Usher.

This story by Poe remains my favorite for its sheer moodiness and imagery.  The premise is brief and the action little.  I knew Corman would have had to have changed quite a bit.  It turns out that he’d brought Richard Matheson in as the writer.  Many films can be made or broken by the writer.  While it doesn’t improve on Poe it is certainly a watchable effort that develops a mood in its own right.  The low budget is evident, but despite that the story is a slow build using many of Poe’s famous concerns such as premature burial and isolation in dangerous locations.  While not scary in the same way as modern horror, and stretched out by a dream sequence and overture, it nevertheless works.

Given my particular angle on horror, I noticed the introduced religious aspects.  While identification is difficult due to the lack of focus, there seem to have been two large, iconic Bibles in the story.  Indeed, the Ushers have a private chapel in which Roderick prays over his dead (?) sister.  The curse of the Ushers has to do with family evil that is being punished, causing Philip Winthrop to quote the Bible in his denial of the passing down of divine wrath.  The paintings of the Usher ancestor as Roderick explains this are the scariest part of the movie.  Not all Corman adaptions of Poe work well, but with the ministrations of Matheson and the rich ground for development from the original story, this is an atmospheric contribution to early horror.  And it works if you only have a few minutes on a busy weekend for your favorite avocation.


Quiet Company

Even as a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, some of the most effective horror is that where a reader is kept guessing.  One of the acknowledged masters of this is Henry James, whose The Turn of the Screw is considered a classic.  There are perhaps too many writers active today to predict who will be considered authors of classics a century or two down the road—writing has to take a long view.  Nevertheless Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is, in this reader’s opinion, quite effective.  And ambiguous.  I’m on the constant lookout for gothic novels that work and this is one that surely does.  I’ll try not to give spoilers here, but I do recommend it for those who want a gothic atmosphere.  It is also genuinely scary.  A great deal of this is because the reader is never quite sure what has happened.

The eponymous companions are decorative curios purchased to impress royal visitors in the seventeenth century.  Life-like cutouts of people, they are silent.  Throw in an old, sprawling house in need of repair and a widow who had abusive parents and who’s inherited resentful servants and you’ve got a recipe for an eerie atmosphere.  The novel splits its time between the nineteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on the former.  Elsie Bainbridge is a protagonist with many secrets, and not a few skeletons in her closet.  The house she inherited also has a past that included accusations of witchcraft and cruel masters interested in self-promotion.  Told from the point-of-view of the women in a patriarchal society, there is an authenticity to the victimhood even of strong women.

It would be difficult to tell too much of the plot without giving away some of the creepier moments.  There’s a lot going on here and although it’s not a short book it doesn’t drag the reader down with filling too many gaps.  It’s also a novel that allows imagination to outstrip rationality.  Good speculative fiction will do that.  Even some of Poe’s work makes the reader wonder just what is happening—is this in the mind of the observer or is it objectively real?  Think “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Literature takes us into such places and gothic literature does so with more shadows and ambiguity.  Throw in some betrayals, and keep a few well-placed secrets and the recipe is in place for a creepy novel that will keep you reading.


Sacred Sites

The sacred is hard to define.  Calling it “holy”is only to pass the buck, and I can’t get beyond the feeling that we need something more up-to-date than Rudolf Otto.  Something that takes into account what the religious world looks like in the next century.  No matter which direction we turn we run into undefinable words—numinous, heightened, transcendent.  Wonderful words that fail to capture the essence of the experience.  This has been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about sacred spaces.  No matter how secular we may be, we all know such places exist.  They may be places significant to large numbers of people, or to a set of one.  Perhaps there are many kinds of sacred spaces and many ways that they may be made so.

The place where a significant event in life took place, for good, is recorded in that way our brains have of switching into slow-motion, high-attention mode.  Were we not so secular we might say something spiritual was going on.  Pilgrimage sites worldwide are often associated with what’s interpreted as a religious event.  Those of us who weren’t there at the time feel compelled to visit.  To breathe the air of that place.  To linger in wonder.  Is there something still there?  I tried desperately to feel this when I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  It was difficult with so very many other people there.  I went alone and I was thinking maybe something might happen.  Like what happened to me at the Church of All Nations next to Gethsemane.

As I was pondering this, many such sites came to mind.  The birthplaces or living spaces of great writers have always drawn me into such a reverie.  Standing in Poe’s house in Philadelphia, knowing that one of the world’s iconic writers saw these same walls, walked these same floors, but for him it was likely ordinary.  For the rest of us it’s something more.  Yet I’m no closer to defining it.  Thinkers like Otto had professions that included unstructured thinking time.  Many of us don’t have that luxury.  We feel the urge but the clock for our 925 keeps inexorably ticking, like the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards that make a place sacred.  Many of these places are far too personal to write about in a public place.  They await someone with the time and inclination to think on these things to give us to words to define them.


Nightmares with Poe

A review of Nightmares with the Bible recently appeared in which the reviewer said he didn’t get the Poe references.  Indeed, the anonymous reviewer said the same thing.  What neither of them understood is that Edgar Allan Poe has been formative for my life and that book was a tribute to him.  Did Poe write about demons?  Not really.  Did he once claim that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetic theme?  Yes.  I saw the opportunity, in discussing possession movies, to draw Poe’s observation into the conversation.  Could the book have been written without it?  Yes and no.  Yes, I could’ve written a book on demons without mentioning Poe.  No, I would likely not be writing books at all were it not for Poe.

Today is Poe’s birthday.  What is this strange attraction I have for him?  It began, as most things do for me, with growing up poor.  We couldn’t afford bookstore prices, and that’s even assuming there was a bookstore nearby (there wasn’t).  I found the majority of my reading material at Goodwill in Seneca, Pennsylvania.  The shop had a book bin or two with prices I could afford (books were a quarter, if I recall).  I found a copy of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror there.  I probably heard about Poe from my big brother—he’s a good source for scary information.  Reading Poe, I wanted to read more.  We couldn’t afford Scholastic school fare rates, but I did find a four-or-five volume collection of Poe’s writings at Goodwill.  Foolishly, I bought only two—those with his stories.

By high school I was checking out biographies of Poe from the library.  Perhaps as the child of an alcoholic I identified with a man who seemed so tormented.  I count his stories still among my favorites.  My favorite short story is, I believe, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  It has come back to me at several points in my life and I find myself thinking about that gloomy house.  Particularly the narrator’s arrival there.  So full of possibilities.  So much potential fear.  Those of us who consume horror have a gateway to it—some event, or influence, or person who introduced the aesthetic of fear to us.  For me it was Edgar A. Poe.  Nightmares with the Bible is of a piece with Holy Horror.  To leave Poe out of it would’ve been the worst kind of sacrilege.


Kindred Spirit?

Possession stories have a poignancy to them that perhaps other horror stories lack.  The loss of self-control is a frightful thing.  Lisa Tuttle sets this up well in her novel Familiar Spirit, a tale that has recently been reissued.  The threat against a young women—the usual target of possession—leads to some scary moments here.  As the story unfolds Sarah has to deal with personal loss as she learns that the house she’s just rented is inhabited by an unfriendly spirit that seems to be a demon.  This is a haunting story that features a strong protagonist who ultimately has to decide what she really values most.  It’s a book that stays with you.

I discovered Tuttle by reading a book on female horror writers some time ago.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that female victims of possession match Poe’s dictum about the most poetic topic being the death of a beautiful woman.  That may sound sexist to modern ears, but Poe was a product of his time and he was a keen observer of what made stories memorable.  Possession has largely become a female phenomenon over the centuries.  The biblical stories about possession tend to have male victims, but by the Middle Ages the balance had shifted.  That gender imbalance continues today.  A friend recently asked whether shifting awareness of the gender as not strictly binary might change this in the future.  It’s a fascinating question, especially since we really don’t know what demons are.

Possession is a clash of the unknowns, which is fertile ground for fear of the unknown.  Feminist studies have begun to share space with studies of masculinity and both have been joined by analysts who study gender as nonbinary.  I suspect many of us really didn’t know about such things before the internet began to bring them to our attention.  Many people don’t want to accept such facts.  The world is easier to live in when everything is black or white, male or female, this or that.  Most things, we’re beginning to learn, are on a scale.  Human society, as it takes this into account, will inevitably, if slowly, change.  The old guard (angry white men, mostly) refuse to accept facts, trying to equate them with the person with the loudest voice.  This too is a kind of possession.  I don’t want to give too many spoilers for Familiar Spirit, but if you’re like me it’ll give you many things to think about.


Early Literature

In a recent discussion I was asked what piece of literature that I first recollected as being superior.  A couple of provisos here: I’ve got a few decades to reach back and memory may not be as sharp as it once was, and as a child I didn’t have a ton of reading choices.  (There were no local bookstores, for which we didn’t have money anyway, and I had to be driven to get to a library.)  The first piece of writing that, apart from the Bible, I came up with was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  It’s still my favorite short story.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  While not a national holiday, it is a literary one.  Poe was one of the early experimenters in trying to make a living from his pen alone.  His fame was primarily posthumous.

I don’t recall how I learned about Poe.  I know that I picked up a book of his stories at Woolworth’s in Oil City (you see what I mean by no bookstores) for something like a quarter.  It was a cheap, large-print edition with a strange selection of stories, but the first one was Usher.  Such an impact was rare in my young literary experience.  Many years later, riding a horse as a counselor at horse camp, the initial scene of Usher was the one that kept coming to my mind although I hadn’t read the story for a very long time.  I ended up writing one of my first high school English papers on Poe.  By this time I had a good library I could access, even if I couldn’t drive myself there.  While sometimes submerged for years at a time, my appreciation for Poe always eventually resurfaces.

For anyone who’s read Nightmares with the Bible the appreciation of Poe should be obvious.  One of the peer reviewers suggested I should remove the Poe references since he didn’t write about demons.  Struggling against demons, to my way of thinking, counts.  In fact, Poe is largely the thread that holds the book together.  I’m aware that at its price point the book will be little read.  Still, having a literary tribute must be a form of consolation.  Mine is but one of many, I know.  As we stand on the cusp of an unknown future, hoping the maelstrom is truly behind us, I gladly acknowledge that Poe has helped me get this far.  And like the Raven, let us hope it is truly nevermore.


Horse Senses

Chief was a smart horse.  The horse camp instructor told us that horses sometimes distended their midsections when a rider was strapping on the billet because they knew the strap would be tight.  The billet goes underneath the horse and is essentially what holds the saddle on.  The instructor told us to be firm about this—we weren’t going to hurt the horse by tightening the strap as much as possible.  Now, this was United Methodist Church camp, and I am someone who tries hard not to hurt anyone.  Besides, I’m not one of the larger specimens of the species and Chief was quite a large horse.  I can swear he had a knowing, laughing look in his eye that day as I pulled the billet tight.  Or so I thought.

As a camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, you were assigned to a set of camps with no say in the matter, and I had been assigned four weeks of horse camp.  I wasn’t a kid who grew up wanting to ride or own a pony.  I was just doing my job.  Sitting atop a horse, I felt like some combination of John Wesley and Edgar Allan Poe heading for the house of Usher.  It was the first day of the first week of camp and my first time riding.  It was going fine until the instructor told us to canter, the speed between a trot and a gallop.  It was then that I felt the saddle starting to slip and I knew that Chief had used the old horse trick of distending his middle while I’d tightened the strap.  I felt the saddle begin to slip to the right (the wrong side for mounting or dismounting).  So I fell off a cantering horse.

Although the instructor yelled at me for not putting the reins over the pommel before I hit the ground, what stayed with me was how smart that horse was.  Chief, knowing the disparity of our relative sizes and weights, once stepped on my foot.  He was an intimidating horse with an attitude.  After the end of four weeks I’d gone on to the point where we spent an overnight in tents with our horses curried and tethered outside for the night.  What those days taught me was just how intelligent animals are.  I was reassigned from Chief to a more gentle horse for the remaining three weeks when the instructor realized she was stuck with me for a while.  But the horses, they knew me even better.


Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.


Live Long and

Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor H. P. Lovecraft lived to see fifty.  I began the task of trying to publish fiction when I was a year beyond Lovecraft’s demise.  I’ve kept up a more or less steady trickle since then, and I wonder, from my perspective of advanced age from either of their perspectives, what their stories would’ve been like had they lived to tell the tale.  Many of us grow up with grim imaginations.  Perhaps because we no longer have to flee predators (apart from the occasional bear in the neighborhood) our minds periodically revisit that unfinished business of natural terror.  As we get older, however, life begins to wear on you.  It wore pretty heavily on both Poe and Lovecraft, of course, without getting to advanced age.  But what if they had?

Lovecraft was born just five years before my grandfather.  Had he lived to my grandfather’s age, with that additional five years, we would’ve overlapped.  I probably still wouldn’t have discovered him then, however, unless one of those weird tricks of life occurred when someone messes with the space-time continuum.  I wonder what kinds of tales an older Poe or Lovecraft would’ve written.  I know this is mere speculation, but considering the impact of their respective oeuvres, it is worth wondering.  Of course, it could have been some kind of personal hidden knowledge that they wouldn’t live long that led to their performance.  I wouldn’t make bold to compare myself to either of them, but I know the pressures of limited time before the daily commute often produced some good work for me.  Knowing time is limited seems to be the key.

The traditional advice for writers is to put your protagonists on the edge of a cliff.  Then throw rocks at them.  Perhaps this is because human experience so often feels like a challenge.  Most of us have been living under extreme stress since 2016.  The coronavirus has added to that stress, and the senseless killing of African-Americans just for being people has raised the tension even more.  I would hope that, apart from a truer sense of justice, that some good writing will have emerged from all of this.  None of it will be from Poe or Lovecraft, of course, but they may have shown us the way regardless.  I am curious how they would have responded to this internet-tied world filled with showy, inept politicians and the heartless treatment of human beings in the midst of a pandemic.  It sounds like a world from which they might’ve produced some strange fiction indeed.


Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.