Contrariwise

When you set out to research a topic, reading is the first step.  These days you can’t possibly keep up with everything that’s written—particularly on the internet with its endless iterations and reiterations, and incipient plagiarism.  Even books often come at you in great numbers, from angles you don’t expect.  Apart from holidays, daily life doesn’t give much time for reading.  So how does one get a handle on H. P. Lovecraft?  I’d been aware of Michel Houellebecq’s essay, H. P. Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life for some time, but as always, finding time is the trick.  This short book, however, is profoundly insightful.  Not a biography and not literary criticism, it is more an appreciation of a misanthrope.  One of the things that Houellebecq makes clear is that Lovecraft was a man out of his time.

Continuing the tradition of French writers appreciating the more macabre of American writers (Poe was celebrated more in France than his native country), Houellebecq pays tribute, but doesn’t fawn over, Lovecraft.  In this series of brief essays he manages to highlight much that might remain hidden to those who know H. P. from either only his writing or from the somewhat small circle of experts on him.  Sometimes it helps to break away from the experts to get a fresh view.  I’ve read quite a lot of Lovecraft’s fiction, and when you do this you tend to think you know the author.  You may or you may not.  To know is to delve.  And delve Houellebecq does.  

Serious reflection is too often considered a luxury.  With the exception of a few privileged occupations, think of what would happen at work if you took to reflecting while on the clock.  Those who dole out the lucre prefer to see signs of busyness—fingers clacking keyboards and numbers being lined up, preferably in the black.  Time thinking, so capitalist thought goes, is time wasted.  If you can sell enough copies of your book to afford a little time off for reflection you can make connections, I presume.  You can see things that those who are too busy cannot.  There are many astute observations in this slim volume.  While not making excuses for Lovecraft’s faults, Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to correct him either.  That’s difficult to do with a person, if the author is correct, who hated life itself.  Books like this also demonstrate that a huge word count isn’t necessary for erudition.  And it is still possible to learn, even with limited time.

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.

Tentacly Fun

Anyone who has spent time amid scholarly religion tomes knows how cases used to be made for connections.  Similarities were seen as parallels, and it wasn’t unusual for the learned to assert that ideas were organically related.  This same style (now much out of date) was borrowed by writers proposing that what we now call “ancient astronauts” visited the earth and helped with things like the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge.  Jason Colavito knows how to parody such writing as he demonstrates in his Cthulhu in World Mythology.  Known as a skeptic and critic of what he calls “pseudoscience,” Colavito is also a Lovecraft aficionado.  This tongue-in-cheek treatment approaches the subject with an earnestness that almost convinces the reader that Colavito actually believes what he is writing.  Meanwhile he’s poking fun at those who like to draw untenable parallels and invent unwarranted scenarios.

All of this is accomplished by using H. P. Lovecraft’s brainchild Cthulhu.  Good old-fashioned common sense tells readers that a fictional god-monster created by a fiction writer is not to be believed.  What Colavito does, with a straight face (or straight pen) is pretend all this is real.  Finding tenuous connections between ancient myths and words that can, from certain angles, resemble the name Cthulhu, Colavito takes the unwary reader down the garden path that suggests Cthulhu was the origin of nearly all world mythologies.  Or rather that all world mythologies are reflections and recollections of when Cthulhu was widely known.  Treating both fiction and factual sources with footnotes, this is a fanciful romp through “research” published by fictional characters made up by Lovecraft right next to actual sources where scholars are addressing something else, most of them in older tomes.

As an example of good fun, one thing worries me about the book.  Granted, it was published before the great Cthulhu was elected in 2016, but many people today have difficulty discerning actual facts from alternative facts.  “Fake news” can cover a host of sins.  Reconstructing the ancient past is notoriously laborious.  Not having written records means guesses are necessary.  When writing does appear it is so far removed from contemporary uses of the art that its original usages are sometimes completely opaque.  Receipts we understand.  Myths not so much.  Rituals even less.  Many scholars spend their lives in attempting some logical reconstruction of ancient cultures.  We have very little scientific means to test them.  It might make sense, in such situations, to offer Cthulhu as a suggestion for filling the gaps.

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

Prejudices of the Time

When my daughter was in middle and high school, I made an effort to read every book she was assigned for her English classes.  This gave us something to talk about during the years when many teens grow laconic and uncommunicative.  Some of the books I’d read before, but one frightened me off.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pressed the wrong buttons.  You have to understand that I saw the movie for a class in college.  It disturbed me.  Even before encountering H. P. Lovecraft, one of my deepest phobias was insanity.  Children of alcoholics sometimes fear those who are out of control, and mental patients had become, in my head, associated with the non-rational behavior of my father that frightened me so.  During a clown ministry event we visited the local state hospital for mental patients.  I trembled for about a week after we left.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in many ways a sixties novel.  One reflection of that is the fact that the religious imagery in the novel is presented in the form of punishment.  Everyone knows the narrative of R. P. McMurphy’s battle of the wills against Nurse Ratched.  The latter uses electroshock therapy as punishment and she tries to wear McMurphy down by using it repeatedly after the fight in the shower.  The electroshock table is described as a cross.  The metal headset is a crown of thorns.  Indeed, one of the patients is described as being crucified to the wall of the ward where he hangs throughout the novel.  The sixties frequently saw religion—especially the staid, conservative evangelicalism of the 1950s—as a form of punishment.  That’s pretty clear here.

Although the novel celebrates the freedom of the sixties, it also reflects the prejudices of the times.  The African-American attendees on the ward aren’t portrayed sympathetically.  The women—nurses and prostitutes alike—are there for the pleasure of the male patients’ gaze, exemplified in the leering laugh of McMurphy.  Still, there’s a kind of catharsis to this tale.  The Chief, from whose point-of-view the story’s told, is arguably cured by the antics and special attention McMurphy shows him.  Beneath the callous, self-serving conman there is a human decency that “the system” fails to find.  Indeed, McMurphy is a kind of Christ figure.  A fallen savior, no doubt, but a liberator nonetheless.  This was a difficult novel to read.  I couldn’t make myself pick it up half-a-decade ago, but I suspect somewhere beneath the surface I’m glad I’ve finally read it.  It didn’t cure any of my phobias but it made me think.

Poe et Tree

When winter gets a little dreary with its constant chill and perpetually gray skies, I often think of Edgar Allan Poe.  There’s been so much going on lately, however, that I overlooked that today is his birthday until my friend over at Verbomania reminded me of the fact.  I’ve posted on Poe many times, but this morning I had an email concerning my work on Nightmares with the Bible stating that my use of Poe in that book was a nice touch.  Sometimes I need to be hit over the head with things, though, to make them sink in.  It seems impossible that it was 210 years ago that Poe was born.  Our Januaries have become remarkably crueler since those times, what with inaugurations and all.

I have often mused that we’ve lived beyond the era where one person can have the widespread impact (for good, that is) that influences an era.  In the area of my doctorate, for example, like him or not William Foxwell Albright rearranged the field of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies.  Nobody has been able to do it since because, well, Albright already did it.  Poe gave us many things—the struggling writer determined to make a living by his pen, the scary short story, detective fiction, the Raven.  Those of us who dabble in fiction do so in his shadow.  (I know Poe wasn’t the only writer of his era, but it’s his birthday, so let’s celebrate him!)  Other writers like H. P. Lovecraft, now a hot commodity, would draw their inspiration from Poe.  And from Poe and Lovecraft came the early work of Stephen King.

A winter storm advisory is in effect.  Outside it looks bleak and the clouds appear as if they wish to weep.  A nation founded by immigrants (my apologies, first nations) has come to believe that it was here first in a world full of need and suffering.  Building a silly, expensive, and utterly pointless wall is a telltale sign that the heart has ceased to beat.  Two centuries and a decade ago a writer was born.  He had penetrating insight into what makes people behave wickedly toward their fellows.  Just when things seemed to be making progress we find ourselves prematurely buried under masonry and rubble.  How could I have forgotten Poe’s birthday?  Too much has been crowding my January, I’m afraid.  I don’t take the time I should to gaze out at the winter and wonder.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

Trending Horror

It’s not often that I can claim to be ahead of the curve.  A “late bloomer,” I was a timid child whose reaction to most of the world was a species of phobia.  It probably didn’t help that I watched monster movies and was an early fan of the original Dark Shadows.  As I learned to relate to others and take consolation in religion, these more macabre interests became latent rather than obvious, only to come out into the open when working at a Gothic seminary in the woods of Wisconsin and then being fired from said seminary, casting me into the outer darkness.  I found myself being interested in horror again although I’d put it aside from bachelor’s to doctorate.  Now it started to feel therapeutic.

My wife sent me an NPR story by Ruthanna Emrys titled “Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World.”  The premise is one I’d read before—we find horror compelling because it gives us skills that we need to survive.  It teaches us how to separate evil from mere shadow and how to (or not to) fight such evil.  In other words, horror can be heuristic.  Those who know me as a generally calm, quiet—shy even—individual express surprise when I confess to my secret fascination.  One of the most common responses is the question of “why?”  Why would anyone want to watch such stuff?  My observation is that those who ask haven’t tried.  Horror is not often what it seems.  Or perhaps they have better coping mechanisms than I have already in place.

The names of many writers of what might be considered horror have gained mainstream respectability.  Stephen King’s name alone is enough to assure the success of a novel.  These days you can mention the name Lovecraft and a fair number of people will have at least heard of it (him) before.  Jorge Luis Borges has respectability for having been Argentine.  Joyce Carol Oates for being both an academic and a woman.  If you’ve read their works, however, there’s no doubt that something scary is going on here.  As Emrys points out, with our world becoming a more polarized and frightened place, horror may be ready to hang out its shingle saying “the mad doctor is in.”  In fact, it may become even more popular than it is already.  We human beings set ourselves up for horror constantly and repeatedly.  I’m seldom ahead of the curve.  I hang back to see what might happen to those out in front.  Call it a survival technique.

Jedi Bible

A long time ago in a galaxy far away there was no paper. This is something I didn’t realize until I read a book of essays by Ryan Britt a couple years back. George Lucas, although a limited visionary, saw a Star Wars universe without paper. When I thought back over the original trilogy, and the harsh prequel trilogy, that seemed to be true. Nobody picks up a piece of paper to read anything. Like many people I went to the theater to see The Force Awakens and left stunned. After being battered by episodes I through III, it was good to see the old form return. It was as if the force really had awakened. Then I went to see The Last Jedi.

Overly long and often plodding, I wondered, after it was over, what was so different this time. Not only was Luke Skywalker annoyingly noncommittal to the force, but backstory and counter-backstory made the truth hard to discern. There was a lot more talk of the Jedi religion as a religion. From my perspective, of course, this isn’t a bad thing. I would like to know more about this. There’s a secret tree on Luke’s island wherein are the sacred Jedi scriptures. Yoda shows up and calls down lightning like a little green Elijah and burns the Jedi library and its Keebler home. Then it hit me: not only is there paper in this universe, there are actual books. Scriptures.

We’re never shown the inside of any of the books, but if the fact that fans tend to fill in the blanks holds true we may well see future publications of the Jedi Bible. H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious tome, now exists because his devotees couldn’t live in a world without it. And paper scriptures add an entirely new dynamic to any religion. Most world religions (at least on this planet) have some form of text. Books tell us what to believe and how to live our lives. Given enough time people will realize that they were written by other people and need to be interpreted by people. After all, if God could write the Bible, what would prevent him from writing the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon? So stuck here in the middle of a trilogy the rules have changed. First paper has appeared in Star Wars. And although it’s a little too early to be sure, it looks like Jediism will never be the same.

Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.

First Look

Youth might be described in a number of ways. One, of course, is in biological years. Another may be in exposure to experiences which change your life. There was a time, for example, when you can’t believe you were ever so naive. No matter how youth might be defined, a patina of fond memories tends to cling to images from that time with the passage of years. For me, unsurprisingly, those images are frequently books. I still recall the cover images of books from my tweenage years, and often think that if I found such books in a second-hand store, I would buy them for their ability to conjure past times. One such book comes not from my physical youth, but from my days teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. It was at that time, when the internet was also still young, that I began to try online research into H. P. Lovecraft. I found an edition of his stories titled The Shadow over Innsmouth for sale on a used book website. I was under-employed, but it was cheap and my curiosity inflamed.

Mainly I was interested in what I would now call the reception history of Dagon. Dagon is an ancient Mesopotamian deity mentioned briefly by name in the Hebrew Bible. He is also part of the pantheon of gods borrowed and invented by Lovecraft to populate his eldrich, watery world. I purchased this book for the titular story, where Dagon doesn’t actually appear, but his worshippers do. It is often claimed to be Lovecraft’s best story. As I sat down to read the whole book, however, I was struck by the strangeness of the collection. This edition, from 1971, included such unusual choices as “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “In the Walls of Eryx,” and “The Festival.” Also bundled here was the Houdini ghostwritten “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” When I first purchased the book I’d only read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Colour out of Space.”

As my interest in Lovecraft grew, I acquired other, more representative editions of his work and have consequently read most of his oeuvre. It was that sense of yesteryear, however, that led me back to this browning, aged collection. It was, in truth, the cover. Looking at it brings back that very office in Oshkosh where I sat as I found the edition online for less than five dollars. No doubt, I was younger then. The call of Cthulhu has echoed across the web since then. For me, however, the first exposure will always be a beat-up paperback that I ordered secondhand.

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.

Making Excuses

Those of us who watch horror are often asked “why?” Many of us have a difficult time answering that question. To be sure, there are those who like thrills, blood, and violence, but some of us do not. We can’t seem to help ourselves—watching those in difficult, dark places hardly seems edifying, and yet we do it anyway. After reading Jason Zinoman’s book with the supernaturally long subtitle, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, I may have gained a little insight in my own case. Zinoman is a film critic, so he has an automatic excuse. What I found interesting among the narratives of the directors and writers of modern horror is that these were largely men who grew up with absent fathers. Not all of them, of course—demographics are never so neat—but enough of them to start to discern a pattern. The world can be a scary place without a father.

It’s no accident that some religions use the father image to refer to God. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of life that has evolved to benefit the aggressive, the more contemplative often experience fear. Having grown up without a father, I think I might have a better idea now about why I watch what I do. As I’ve often told family and friends, I do not like being scared. Startle moments in movies bother me. I don’t like blood and gore—I’m squeamish both in real life and in the diegesis of the film I’m watching. Yet something compels me to keep coming back. Is it related to the fact that many of those who gave us the classics in the field (and yes, there are bona fide, canonical members even in this genre) know this same sense of childhood alienation that I did? The missing father is, in our culture, a source of horror.

I don’t mean to overly psychologize what Zinoman is doing here. He’s telling the untold story of the auteurs of the field. Some of them are familiar and others less so. They tended to grow up reading H. P. Lovecraft—I’m more of a Poe fan, myself, although Lovecraft still manages to deliver an existential angst that will do in a pinch—and they found ways of expressing the anxiety of being alive. Most of them are highly intelligent people. Some have even been professors. They learned to tap a deep source of fundamental fear that speaks to some of us on a level that other emotions don’t. I still can’t say why I enjoy a good horror film, but maybe now I’ll be able to do so without feeling like I need to make excuses.

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.