Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Rhode Island

I am all about atmosphere. As an occasional believer in the paranormal, if not exactly a “Ghost Buster” or a “Van Helsing,” I find it fascinating that gritty film-noir New York managed to magnetically draw two dedicated masters of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, to write here for a spell.

Like literary Ray Bradbury, both writers represented real “belle lettres” rather than mere shameless schlock. There's a restaurant that I’m fond of in Manhattan’s “Nolita” on Bond Street called “Il Buco,” where Edgar Allan Poe wrote reams in their suitably dark and dank winecellar. A search for similar mysterious haunts of forlorn Lovecraft (who rarely left his apartment and had groceries delivered) came up with zero hits.

Unlike many savvy Manhattanites who love used book stores, where you can actually smell the mold of obsolescence, I prefer thick consumer blocks of cast-iron edifice, offering frequent Starbucks bathroom breaks and inevitable Borders book-buying frenzies.

Still, it was in the form of a Christmas gift from an cart that a mysterious tome (much like the Necronomicon written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred in Lovecraft’s oeuvre) landed in my lap. Hey now, what’s this? It was an elegant Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s short stories, simply titled Tales. I realized that “Weird Fiction” had finally evolved into highbrow literature of Die Welt.

Who is the supreme master of the horror tale? (Please don’t say ”Steven King.”) Poe perhaps. Or Lovecraft. My vote is emphatically for Lovecraft. No matter how scary Poe’s short shocker “The Cask of Amontillado” — playing upon the fear of being buried alive — there’s one Lovecraft tale that might be the scariest short story ever written: “Rats in the Walls” — playing upon the fear of being eaten alive!

Rereading “Rats in the Walls” for the first time since I was a teen had the same chilling effect on me: I awoke from a fever after reaching the penultimate paragraph of this suspenseful pageturner. Once again, I was frightened out of my wits, for longer than I would care to admit. (I don’t want you to think I’m some nancy boy who can’t handle a healthy dose of horror.)

“Rats in the Walls” is about a reversal of the progress of Homo Sapiens. The protagonist, investigating the sounds of rats scuttling in his manse, descends down the evolutionary ladder of madness — and becomes a cannibal. Returning to his accursed ancestral home, the narrator Exham Priory discovers a secret passageway to a penumbral sub-cellar off its Roman-era basement. A team of archaeologists comes to investigate and discovers a twilit grotto with a horrifying past.

“. . . in one terrified glance I saw a weird pattern of tumuli, a savage circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a Saxon pile, and an early English edifice of wood. . . . For yards about the steps extended an insane tangle of human bones . . . or partly articulated skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemonic frenzy, either fighting off some menace or clutching other forms with cannibal intent.” Hence, the suggestion is that subhumans were bred here and slaughtered like hellspawn cattle.

The narrator of “Rats in the Walls” is later discovered alone and speaking in tongues: “Ungl . . . ungl . . . rrrlh . . . chchch. . . .” There he was, crouching in the blackness “over the plump half-eaten body of Captain Norys.” From the barred room of an asylum, the narrator defends himself, “They must know it was the rats . . . the daemon rats that race behind the padding of this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the walls.”

When I first read this story in the 1970s, I sweated with rank nightmares for weeks. As a child prodigy expert on horror and science-fiction, I was into doing conventions and obtaining memorabilia, such as the complete collection of the late Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella magazines. Then I discovered the older “antique” pulp magazines with lurid covers and sensationalist titles like “Astounding Stories!” and “Weird Tales!” In these, Lovecraft published most of his stuff in the 1920s: The Shuttered Room, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness. Also, as a real collector, I soon ran out of allowance money.

I regarded Lovecraft as both literary and unloved. “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness,” Lovecraft wrote in his classic The Outsider. “Wretched is he who looks back upon long hours in vast and dismal chambers with . . . maddening rows of antique books.”

Not so recently, I drove to Providence, Rhode Island to renew my passion for Lovecraft’s work, convinced that H.P. was some sort of space alien or vampire who might still be knocking about the campus of Brown University, trying to pick up coeds. In other words, I was surprised how nice and New Englandy were the stomping grounds of this reclusive master of terror, famous for his prognathous jaw, tall gaunt form, and vacuous stare.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island on August 30, 1890 to an upper-middle-class Wasp family. In 1893, his father was committed to an asylum and eventually died of syphilis. Lovecraft lived his entire life under the care of women. First, his overprotective mother. Then, two batty aunts straight out of Arsenic and Old Lace. Finally, a stern divorcée seven years his senior whom he married in 1924. 

A natural recluse who was often ill, Lovecraft enjoyed breakfast in bed and took but one trip from his beloved Providence to New York, where he lived briefly before returning to his native city. He brought back an aversion to cities with “their squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone.” He could do without crowds and their teaming populations of “swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes.”

In Providence, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that there was no fog curling about my boots nor strange music radiating in the background, like the classic film of New England witchcraft “Horror Hotel,” starring an impossibly young Christopher Lee. At least the Nancy Drew lookalike librarian seemed concerned for me when I requested a mimeograph of Lovecraft’s various residences. (I imagined she had a blind minister father in the back room, who wanted to warn me in a deep rich baritone worthy of a Shakespearean soliloquy to “Leave this place at once while there is still time!”)

With everything pretty much hunky-dory in Providence, where did the aura of the grotesque in Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction come from? While some claim Poe received his inspired visions from the contents of an opium pipe, I would say Lovecraft’s only inspiration came from extreme loneliness and the contents of a disordered mind.

I mean, Lovecraft was just plain wierd! He made Boo Radley (from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) look like an eccentric socialite from New York Magazine’s “Intelligencer” pages. There's no real explanation why the 
Dark Prince of Providence opted out of real life and created an alternate universe which at times still threatens to supercede or annihilate our own. I, for one, wouldn’t care to get stuck like spidey food in that loathsome literary vortex.

Lovecraft’s only real contact with the outside world was thru correspondence with other writers. Indeed, Lovecraft was one of the greatest letter-writers of the 20th century, with sheer ouput numbering many thousands. Some of his penpals included August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and the author of Psycho Robert Bloch.

Yet, sitting inside a Providence Starbucks with a Tall Decaf Latté, after my tour in a light rain of the pretty facades of Lovecraft’s apartments, I still felt I could dazzle the reading public by proving Lovecraft’s superiority over Poe with two words: “Chthulu Mythos.”

Much has been made of Lovecraft’s parallel world of lost gods and monsters at last returning to us, but not enough. What if Woden or Apollo really decided to come back and lord it over us again?

Lovecraft’s personal favorite “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), which had a completely novel feel to it, indirectly influenced most science-fiction films of the 1950s, such as “The Thing” based on the Campbell story “Who Goes There?”

In this tale of cosmic dread, Lovecraft’s piece de resistance, a 
frightful messenger” from space (a meteor) causes a powerful ecological disaster in the New England countryside: “It was nothing of the earth, but a piece of the great outside.” I won’t spoil the rest of the story by giving it away. At the time of its publication, it was heralded as something completely different. Thus, “Weird Fiction” escaped the womb like a deformed fetus with fangs floating in a jar at a circus sideshow. 

In his letters, Lovecraft wrote, “All my stories . . . are based on the fundamental lore or legend that the world was inhabited at one time by another race, who, in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of the earth again.”

In facing Lovecraft’s dangerous alt universe, we can abide by these lines from The Call of Chthulu (1928): “The most merciful thing in the world . . . is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

Vertigo. Lovecraft’s world of eldritch terrors is intense. According to the Chthulu Mythos, which became a literary sensation attracting many other writers into its web, an alien civilization lurks beneath our own. The Great Old Ones and their shoggoths (slaves) came to the earth many millions of years ago. Unfortunately, they have a nasty habit of coming back.

In one of Lovecraft’s most effective hard-hitters The Outsider, the narrator is way ignorant of the fact that he is really a grotesque monster. Eventually, he sees what he looks like in “a cold and unyielding surface of glass” — a surprise-ending twist similar to a famous “Twilight Zone” episode. Except this story is so creepy, even Rod Serling would have dropped his cigarette and run off the set.

In “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the narrator turns by degrees into a humanoid fish with webbed toes. He recites poetically of his morphing, “We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through the black abysses . . . and in the lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.”

Angst. Never at home in the “Roaring Twenties,” Lovecraft improvised about his own jazzy occupation: “Literature is no proper pursuit for a gentleman.” Yet, as a wretched recluse who purportedly walked the cobbles of Providence at night with nobody else around, he was widely recognized by his peers. They all rushed to write their own Chthulu Mythos stories, like a “phenomenon” or a peculiar in-joke from the “master.”

In Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Chthulu Mythos, Lin Carter amusingly writes that “[Lovecraft] has no ability at all for creating character, or for writing dialogue. . . . His plotting is frequently mechanical, and his major stylistic device . . . is the simple trick of withholding the final revelation until the terminal sentence — and then printing it in italics, presumably for maximum shock value.” Carter, who wrote Chthulu Mythos stories herself, says Lovecraft’s formula for success involved an alchemical fusion of horror, science-fiction, and dark fantasy in unpromising locales like the fictional New England town of Arkham, the hills of Vermont in the 1930s, the brick labyrinths of Brooklyn, and even the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

Similarly, in a collection called Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, the prolific editor Joyce Carol Oates says H.P.’s dreamscapes “linger in the reader’s memory like those horrific yet somehow natural-seeming monsters of Hieronymous Bosch.” Lovecraft’s dreams were “cosmic” in nature. Though he rarely ventured out even to a local restaurant, Lovecraft took astral journeys from kingdom come to the outer limits of the void. He suffered all his life from nightmares that he called “night-gaunts.” Influenced by Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood and Ambrose Bierce, Lovecraft regarded Proust as the greatest contemporary writer for his treatment of Time in Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past).

Alas, for the ultimate anti-traveler Lovecraft, Time was not the great healer at all but the great revealer, as his own fame was almost entirely posthumous. None of his work was published in book form during his life. When he died in 1937 at only 47 years of age, he regarded himself a failure. Lovecraft observed, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strangest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” This sounds like a suitable epitaph for Weird Fiction itself, now an often overlooked category of pulse-pounding “period” pulp pieces.

When I read Weird stuff years ago, I felt like I was conquering my own fear of the unknown. Rereading it again as an adult, I’m not so sure anymore. Like the mad fiddle player from “The Music of Erich Zann” trying to block out the noise of an unearthly “blackness of space illimitable” outside his window, I lingered late at Starbucks clutching Tales like a gravestone tablet in my trembling bony hands, imagining there were unpleasant nasties behind the counter ready to savage the bored baristas. Yet, to use one of Lovecraft’s favorite literary latches (dramatic italics), I decided it was probably just rats in the walls!

As I dearly departed Providence, foot slamming down on the gas pedal (“Eeeeeeeeee!!!”), one of Horror King Howard’s most famous couplets jingled around like Gothic alt rock lyrics in my shaken coffin-ish subconscious: 

“That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly,, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.

1 comment:

  1. Strangely, John, I've not read Lovecraft. I have read Poe, and felt that he really got under the skin with his work.