I'm still trying desperately to get the paper I wrote published, so hopefully you'll be able to read it sometime too.
But, on top of that, I ran a one shot Call of Cthulhu RPG with two friends about a week and a half ago, for the first time in like 10 years! So that's had me thinking about the Old Man from Providence as well. Anyway, back to the article… I pulled the article and cannibalized it because I answered the question on the Lovecraft Ezine forum, "When or how did you discover H.P. Lovecraft?".
It was an interesting question, and one that I've examined before.
I mean, obviously I've thought about it. I wrote a fucking article about it.
But that also got me thinking about the larger question… why am I the way I am? Or, to put it another way, what is the origin of my unnatural obsession with all things horror and H.P. Lovecraft?
It's a good question, a question that goes beyond my weird geekishness. As you can see, I'm moving intellectually and writing-wise into actual, serious literary analysis of weird fiction and - more specifically - the titans who defined the current horror universe. From the Victorians like Stoker, Shelley, or Stevenson; to the weird writers like Lovecraft, Machen, Derleth, or Chambers; or the sublimely American masters of early creepiness like Poe or Hawthorne - I'm reading, analyzing and trying to academically and professionally find the roots of literary horror.
This in no way diminishes my love for all the other tropes and trappings of horror. Horror films, anime, Halloween, visiting the filming sites of classic horror films - my obsession knows no bounds.
So - again - it asks the question… where did all of this madness begin?
It all falls, I believe, on my late Uncle James.
He was only 10 years older than me and, after the death of my grandmother - when I was around 5 or so - he came to live with us. He was 15, a teenager, and cool... and I idolized him. It was through him that I learned to love horror, and - believe it or not - as an obsessed Lovecraft scholar, I didn't come to Lovecraft until I was in high school myself. But that seed was planted many, many years ago by James. His was a hard life. He lost his mother and father at an early age, and never recovered. He was raised for a time by my mother, who was only a few years older. He crawled in a bottle at a young age and never crawled out… and that addiction cost him his life at the relatively young age of 52. He died alone. His life came to an end sadly.
But for a time, when he was living with us, he was my favorite uncle and he introduced me to horror movies.
I grew up on a steady diet of horror. Whether it was movies or books, I can remember always being fascinated by the darker things in life. My Uncle James introduced me to the Universal monsters on Saturday afternoons, to The Munsters, and to classic Hammer horror films when I was 4 or 5 years old. His recent death made me reflect on how integral a part of me this early education was, and I will always be grateful to him for that. It’s not much of a legacy, but to me, he was solely responsible for the writer I am today.
I grew up in the 70’s, and as a combination of my Uncle James’ love of horror films and the unique time period it was for toys, movies, and pop culture -- I was inundated with horror in all of its incarnations. I'd stay up late on Friday night watching creepy Hammer films, or Classic drive-in horror flicks on our local late night horror host show. Then I'd then wake up late on on the following Saturday morning and eat Count Chocula and Boo Berry cereal while listening to albums of spooky tales told by the deep baritone of Boris Karloff. Then I'd watch the Saturday afternoon creature features, Addam's Family reruns, and go to bed under my Frankenstein sheets -- under the watchful eye of of an Aurora Model of Lon Chaney, Jr.'s tragic Wolfman.
My fascination with the horrific grew as I did. I taught myself how to read before I was five (and Sesame Street’s The Count taught me my earliest arithmetic) and I remember sitting in the back of the classroom while the rest of my first grade class learned how to read (my parents wouldn’t let me skip grades). While they were learning that the snake says, “Sssss…”, I was imagining myself hiding in the dark of a cave with Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, hiding from Injun Joe in the stygian depths. Although Mark Twain hadn’t intended it, he’d come up with a masterpiece of suspense and horror that resonated with my own ghoulish proclivities.
I remember being 8 or 9 and reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot; and it scared the crap out of me. I still – to this day – glance at the windows on dark, stormy nights and shudder as I imagine a soft tapping, or perhaps the quiet skree of a bloody fingernail on it. I’ve obviously always had a great imagination, but that imagination is a detriment when you’re in your 40’s and still give yourself the heebee-jeebees imagining the deathly pallor of the Glick boy outside the bedroom window, asking me - pleading with me - to let him in.
I devoured every book I could. My movie tastes evolved as I came of age in the golden age of the 80’s slasher flicks and amidst George Romero’s first holy trilogy of zombie films. I plunged into the darkness and reveled in it.
And yet, against this rich background and vast horror experience, I had never heard of H.P. Lovecraft.
At least not until I was freshman in high school, that is. I was in a health class, ignoring the teacher and reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for the fourth or fifth time, when the kid in the desk next to me – his name was Sean - commented on it. We started up a conversation, and as true geeks and purveyors of the odd know, we can smell our own. We became fast friends and he invited me to do something I’d always wanted to do – namely join in one of his and his friends’ weekly role playing game.
He had a disdain for Dungeons and Dragons, having long since played and evolved past that. Instead, my book being a clue to him, he asked me to join him and a few other friends in playing Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP). Surprisingly, I agreed, despite my usual quietness and non-social tendencies. I told him I’d always wanted to do it, and was pleased he’d asked me. The thing is, the more we talked, the more obvious my love for horror became. After a few days, he made a decision.
“D.,” he said, “I think you’d totally love MERP, but there’s something else I think you might like better. There’s a game out there called Call of Cthulhu that’s based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a horror game and, although it’s probably not the best game to learn to role play with, I think you’ll really, really like it.”
When he saw my quizzical look at the strange name of Cthulhu and the name of the dark master, Lovecraft, he grew excited and tried to explain to me the Cthulhu Mythos and Lovecraft’s strange world. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it intrigued me nonetheless.
The next day he handed me a dog-eared copy of a mass market paperback with the most disturbing artwork I’d ever seen upon its cover. I held it at arm’s length, shocked at the images upon it. There were corpses, spiderwebs, and strange insect-like dog creatures with clusters of ruby red, murderous, eyes. There were strange men standing before bloody altars and drawn in such a way as to imply dark human sacrifice and all manner of debauchery. In other words, it had all the things that still warm my ghoulish heart.
I was speechless, and Sean rubbed his large hands together in delight
“HP Lovecraft, my man…” he said with absolute certainty, “Lovecraft is by far the greatest horror writer of all time. He’s influenced more writers, artists, novels, stories, and movies than any other writer EVER has. His influence is deeper than Edgar Allan Poe’s; deeper than Shakespeare’s. I guarantee you you’ll never be the same after reading Lovecraft. He’ll scare the hell out of you, brother. Seriously.”
Hyperbole not withstanding, damn him if he wasn’t right. That night, as I lay in bed reading The Doom That Came to Sarnath, I experienced true vertiginous terror. Never before had I experienced anything so horrifying, so gooseflesh-inducing, so mind-numbingly terrifying in all of my life. I came to realize that Lovecraft had a unique power, the power to see into the dark, nebulous space between the stars over our heads and in the shadows that lurk in the darkest corners of our homes and SEE things; things that no one else can see. He opened my eyes to new horrors – horrors that are all around us, and I was never the same.
Needless to say, my first taste of Lovecraft left me hungering for more. I began researching and studying his work -- to the detriment of my own studies at times. I became enamored with all things Lovecraftian; and that love of Lovecraft’s wild New England and the hallowed, brown, ivied walls of Miskatonic University still call to me.
That following weekend, in the midst of a howling, cold, Northern Ohio snowstorm -- I joined Sean, and two other young men, Jason and Curtis, and we explored for the first time ancient Arkham. Together, we three plumbed the depths of Lovecraft’s mythology and, to this day, I look back at those many hours when the four of us sat in Sean’s attic as some of the best times of my life. That tiny dark room, lit by candlelight and filled with the quiet, but pervasive, sound of dark, eclectic background music. I feel a tugging nostalgia when I recall the deep, melodic, and mesmerizing voice of my friend Jason (our Game Master) as he led us to comb the Miskatonic Library, or investigate a trapper’s shack in the middle of a hoary, primeval Massachussetts forest. We played for years afterwards, and gleefully lost sanity with the role of a die when confronted by one of Lovecraft’s otherworldly monstrosities. Those afternoons and nights are part of who I am today.
One chance encounter in high school health class changed my life, and I will always be grateful to Sean, Curtis, and Jason for making my life better, for introducing me to the man I consider the master of modern horror -- the man whose tombstone reads, simply, “I Am Providence.”
In addition to reading all of Lovecraft’s works, and playing Call of Cthulhu, we also immersed ourselves in the Brian Yuzna-helmed movies that make up the best Lovecraft adaptations to date. I still shudder with delicious pleasure to think of the depravity that is The Reanimator, and cannot look at the actor Jeffrey Combs as anything but ‘that tow-headed freak, Herbert West’. I still devour Lovecraftian moves, and hold dear those that truly capture Lovecraft’s vision; movies like Dagon, or The HP Lovecraft Historical Society’s brilliant silent film, The Call of Cthulhu. I almost wept when I heard that At the Mountains of Madness was not to be made into a film version because of the idiocy of Universal Studios suits.
And, later, as I became more literate, it was almost impossible to not see Lovecraft’s sinister touch in the works of the giants of today’s horror writing world. Brian Keene, Dean Koontz, Edward Lee, even New England’s other dark son, Stephen King. I found out many years later that my first of his novels, ’Salem’s Lot, was his own attempt at a Lovecraftian tale. Lovecraft can be found in music as well. From the overt work of Metallica and a myriad of other heavy metal, industrial, and gothic bands; to the more subtle and visceral musical scores of Nox Arcanum and Midnight Syndicate. Lovecraft is everywhere.
Born in Providence, H.P. Lovecraft himself lived a sad, lonely life. Laboring under a persistently ill and quiet existence, he found solace in the writing of the type of stories that had come into vogue in the pages of such classic pulp collections as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. He was a recluse, but he kept prodigious correspondence with many of the writers of the time, writers like Robert Bloch and Robert Howard.
We know much of Lovecraft through these letters, and through the impressive body of his work. When taken as a whole, we can maybe not forgive his patrician attitude, his racism, his classism, and the other faults that were a product of his time and breeding, but we can give them context. Much has been said of his persistent racism; but now we can look back at the inappropriateness of some of his portrayals and characters, of his representation of New England locals as inbred, degenerate inferiors, as a failing that is eclipsed by his writing. His own somewhat erroneously inflated upper class ideals pale when compared to the brilliance in his imaginative mythos. He created a new world (two, if you consider his Dreamlands) that still resonates through the membrane of the horror genre to this day.
He died painfully, but his legacy is left intact. Lovecraft was the first to imagine a cold, dark universe in which we’re insignificant insects. He wrote about the darkest fears of man, and the morphic thread that ties occult, magic, and science into one twisted Gordian knot. They are not separate; instead they are inextricably linked.
And that is Lovecraft’s greatest gift to mankind – namely, that WE ARE NOT ALONE. There are things that science, and the occult, and the human mind can’t explain. He is the progenitor of the horror concept that we are not – nor have we ever been - in control.
And we’re all the more terrified at the thought of that than anything else.
For me, that history -- those throbbing, alien roots of cosmic horror -- inundated all that came after it. The movies, the music, the literature, they all owe a debt to Lovecraft and the others. And it is through my late Uncle James, and the horror movies and books he introduced me to, that I learned my love for them and came to appreciate them. It comes full circle.