Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lovecraft And Me

The Oaf presents his best wishes to the Terrible Old Man on the Occasion of his One Hundred and Nineteenth Natal Anniversary.

The other day I was out walking with the missus, and I mentioned to her that H.P. Lovecraft was the literary figure with whom I most closely identified. And more than that, he'd had a direct influence on our relationship.

"He married a woman named Sonia Greene -- she was Jewish, too -- and moved to New York. He had a hell of a time there and they wound up divorcing. I can't help but wonder how things would have turned out for him if he'd stuck it out. Back in the bad old days, there were a few times when I wondered if our relationship was good for us. Then I'd think of poor old Lovecraft, giving himself cancer with his cornflakes and canned spaghetti diet, dying poor and alone, and then I'd feel grateful for what I had even if it wasn't perfect."

I first encountered Lovecraft as a child, I'd guess in the second grade. Maybe first. It was in an anthology of monster stories, I believe edited by Peter Haining (I wish I could remember the name because I wish I had a copy; it had the chicken heart story and Ballard's giant-corpse-on-the-beach story and...).

The story was The Outsider. When I was done reading it, I had the same kind of reaction I'd have years later when I really listened to Hank Williams for the first time. "That son-of-a-bitch has my number. He knows where I live."

I tried to find as much of his work as I could. I scoured the library for him. His vision of mankind's fragile tenure in an essentially hostile universe was one of the seeds around which my view of the world crystallized. But as the years went by, I found that there was a lot more to Lovecraft than horror.

When I found the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath, it was a revelation. While it hasn't stood the test of time for me, the dizzying visions of a genuinely fantastic fantasy world, a world that was wholly the product of the mind, captured me absolutely. I read it and reread it, and when I tried to find out more about it I found myself drawn to other writers such as Lord Dunsany and Clarke Ashton Smith who have been more directly influential on my work.

It was during my first miserable year of college that I found out about Lovecraft the man. The library at UC Santa Cruz was very kind to me. A complete set of Dunsany first editions! Who's this Edward Gorey guy? He's great! And what are these black-bound volumes with the gold lettering on the spine?

The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft.

I'd known about the Lovecraft circle. Part pen-pals, part writer's group, part proto-internet, many of the most influential American fantacists of the early twentieth century were correspondents with one another, and Lovecraft seemed to be the center of it all.

Reading his letters brought home to me the contrasts he represented. His mind held the universe and more; he lived a life of poverty and limitation. He spoke of the essential hostility of existence and yet he was a genuinely lovely person to his friends. I came to regard Lovecraft as a brother I'd never meet.

The discomfort he felt with himself and the world also made me feel a sense of connection with him. While I'm not in a position to completely understand him, I truly feel the forces both internal and external that led him to lead such a limited life. His example is one of the reasons I continue to struggle to find a place in the world. If I grow weak, I too will shut myself away and die of poverty and self-neglect. But as long as I wish that there had been a way to save Lovecraft, I won't stop looking for a way to save myself.

A few years back, Michel Houellebecq wrote a book on Lovecraft. I did not think highly of it. When I ran across its listing on Amazon, I went to the trouble of writing a negative critique. Here it is. This was something I could do for Lovecraft's memory.

Here's to you, Howard. I wish we could have met.

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