(My writing, like my speaking, is often digressive. One subject leads to thoughts of another. Usually I try to subtly weave the loose threads into the main fabric. But here I thought it might be nice to put any digressions more than a few words in parentheses and indent them from the rest of the text. I hope this is not too distracting.)
(Oh, and for those who look to these entries for Tarot bits, sorry. This is the first of several that look at works of imagination that have meant a great deal to me. More Tarot soon, I promise.)
A few days ago I checked my magic calendar, the Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints and discovered it was the birthday of H. P. Lovecraft, author of some of the worst-written and most compelling stories in American literature.
Despite the purple excess of his prose, and mostly one-dimensional characters (that dimension being usually “gibbering” horror, or “stark raving” madness) Lovecraft has a deep almost worshipful following. They range from cult fantasy groups (some of whom seem at times to think he was reporting rather than inventing), to such High Literary figures as Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote an admiring article in the New York Review of Books around the time of the Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s work. LOA, NYRB, you can’t get classier than that.
(I confess I hesitated several days before publishing this entry, for fear of offense to HPL’s often fanatic admirers. Literary taste is a matter of, well, taste, and I am in fact an admirer of Lovecraft, just not as a stylist.)
When the LOA (yes, the acrostic for the Library forms the generic name for Voodoo gods—how Lovecraftian!) published its omnibus editon of four of Philip K. Dick’s novels they were attacked for pandering to low culture by publishing a science fiction writer. I don’t remember any such criticism around the Lovecraft volume. Books labeled as horror have a longer pedigree, headed up by Edgar Allan Poe. Personally, I think that PKD was a far better writer than HPL or EAP, but I may be the minority on that.
Lovecraft was a horror writer—terror and revulsion seem to be the primary emotions of his stories—yet he was much more than that. An atheist, he created, or hinted at, an entire cosmology of warring gods who existed long before the emergence of humans. Chief among these were the Great Old Ones, and in the world of the stories even just reading about them, especially in a mythic grimoire known as the Necronomicon, written by “the mad Arab,” Abdul Alhazred, was enough to drive a human being—what else?—stark raving mad.
Chief among the monsters (though some say not the most awful) was Cthulhu, so that the whole thing has taken on the name “the Cthulhu mythos” (first coined by August Derleth). Mythos is a nice expression; it suggests fragments of an implied mythology, sparing the writer from having to fill in all the gaps. It’s as if all we had of Greek mythology was chunks of the Iliad, brief sections of Hesiod, and single stories or rituals of a handful of Gods from different sources.
In Lovecraft’s world, humans exist only because the terrifying monsters are asleep or banished to some other dimension. Attempts to break the banishment or wake them up would seem truly nuts, but without such craziness there’d be no story, and so we get mad Abdul and others like him. And to be fair, if we read “Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God” the most famous sermon in American literature, the God of the Protestants could give Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth a run for their money.
I discovered Lovecraft when I was around thirteen, possibly through a Modern Library anthology titled Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, which published two of his stories (no one hold me to this, please; it was half a century ago). I never cared for the whole gibbering horror shtick, but that idea of creating your own mythos really excited me. I also liked the sound, the feel in the mouth, of Cthulhu. Names are vital in any created myth or fantasy world, they make us feel a substance behind the image in the story. Some of Lovecraft’s other attempts seemed excessive to me—Shub-Niggurath, for example. I read an essay awhile back that claimed Lovecraft was a rabid racist and anti-Semite, the sort that goes on about sub-humans polluting White culture. Perhaps some of his names are projections of his attitude to various ethnic groups. Maybe we should think of Lovecraft as “the mad Anglo-Saxon.”
Something else fascinated me about Lovecraft: the community of people around him. A recluse who communicated almost entirely through letters, he was very generous as a mentor. That, and his compelling imagination, inspired followers, such as Robert Bloch (who later wrote Psycho), the poet and story writer Clark Ashton Smith, and especially August Derleth, who created a whole publishing company, Arkham House, to collect HPL’s work in handsome volumes. Arkham House went on to publish Smith, the fantasy writer Robert E. Howard, and other writers originally published in the magazine Weird Tales. When I checked recently Arkham House was still going strong.
(If the name Arkham seems familiar, the writers of Batman borrowed it for the nice idea that Batman’s villains are all crazy, locked up, when caught, in a place called Arkham Asylum, with the constant suggestion that Batman himself may be a mad Anglo-Saxon who would some day find himself in an Arkham straitjacket.)
I sent away for the Arkham catalogue and ordered a fair number of their books. Rather lonely and geeky (if only I’d known of science fiction “fandom”) I wanted to see myself as part of that creative world. And I really liked the idea that you didn’t need to borrow characters and images from existent mythologies, you could just invent your own.
And yet, there was always something that didn’t quite work for me—the emphasis on terror, madness, and disgust, the over the top language. And something else—it didn’t go far enough. A mythos, after all, is still not a mythology, and the need to set all the stories in our world, seen through human eyes, limited the imagination. I was looking for something else and didn’t know it.
Then something happened. In those days I used to wander around the Poughkeepsie Library in search of unusual books. I would look for titles and sometimes authors whose names intrigued me. In this way I discovered some wonderful writers, such as the great Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno or the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwangler.
One day, around 1961 (the time is important) I came across a book with an odd title, by an author unknown to me. I picked it up and the cover immediately fascinated me. Under the title was a large stylized drawing of an eye, while all around the margins ran letters in two very different but equally unrecognizable alphabets. I opened to the front page and found a poem, a kind of chant,, and as I read it the strange sensation overcame me that I’d been looking for this book all my (short) life, with no way to know that until that moment. This, I later came to believe, was what I’d been seeking in Lovecraft, which was why the emphasis on horror had seemed a distraction.
I literally have not read the poem in decades but I still know it by heart. It begins like this:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone…
The name of the book was Fellowship of the Ring, and the reason the year is important is because in 1961, and for several years after, no one I knew had ever heard of it.
To be continued…