Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Personal Note

I had my first surreptitious encounter with the stories of H.P. Lovecraft when I was about nine or ten years old.  My father had subscribed to a horror and science fiction book club for some time, and had completely filled a wall in the family room with shelves jammed with these books.  Their lurid covers were irresistible, and no one needed to tell me that their content—wholesome pictures of rockets and planets and futuristic cities, but also darker scenes of haunted houses, monsters, and the unidentifiable—was forbidden.

(This was also around the time of the Index, developed by Catholic bishops to guard the flock against immorality, confusion, and cultural challenges to orthodoxy.  Catholic households were provided lists of books, and later on movies and TV shows that were banned because of problematic content.  The centuries old Index Librorum Prohibitorum, was finally abolished as church law in 1966, but still had ‘moral force’.  Most likely, the ultimate impact of the Index and similar guidance was to increase interest and enjoyment these items, and so drive up sales.)

My attention was eventually drawn to an anthology of short stories, which allowed me to peruse this material in relatively short sessions, and so evade detection more easily.  The book was located conveniently on a shelf near the floor.  The cover of the book was red, and I remember that the word ‘omnibus’ was in the title.  The story I kept returning to, again and again, was The Colour Out of Space.

With the word ‘space’ in the title, I assumed that the story would be about rockets, planets and possibly space aliens.  I could only read the story a paragraph or two at a time to avoid getting caught, and also because of my limited attention span.  A bookmark would have left evidence of my unauthorized access, so I inadvertently returned to the same paragraph, which I would read several times, imprinting it in my brain.  That paragraph was this one:

‘Nothin…nothin’…the colour…it burns…cold an’ wet, but it burns…it lived in the well…I seen it…a kind of smoke…jest like the flowers last spring…the well shown at night…Thad an’ Merwin an’ Zenas…everything alive…suckin’ the life out of everything…in that stone…it must a’ come in that stone…’

These are Nahum’s last words to his friend Ammi as he succumbs.  Around this time I augmented this horror by continually rereading another of the conveniently shortest stories in the book, The Rag Thing, by Donald A Wollheim.  In this story, a filthy cleaning rag, thrown behind a steam radiator, becomes animated by a primitive form of life.  It goes on to smother and strangle the occupants of the room while they sleep.  Since my room at the time was an appalling mess, the possibility of this happening again, but in my room, was a terrifying prospect, especially at bed time.

I began having spectacular nightmares.

My parents grew increasingly concerned.  Over dinner one night, I carelessly remarked that the word ‘colour’ in the Lovecraft title was misspelled.  “It should be c-o-l-o-r,” I remarked confidently.  The precious but forbidden book was soon moved out of reach, and eventually out of sight.

I did not read Lovecraft again until I was in my teen years.  The story that got me interested in reading more of his work was of course The Outsider. It is probably one of the first Lovecraft stories many of us discover, typically in adolescence.  Instead of peering down into the baleful contents of a contaminated well, the view in The Outsider is perilously upward.  The narrator climbs what he believes to be the treacherous walls of an ancient tower, and ultimately comes to a greater, if shattering, understanding of himself.  It is a perfect story for adolescents.  It includes a mysterious quest, a sense of social isolation, and at the end, insight, freedom, and self acceptance.  And most teenagers can identify with the horror one may find in “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”

Since then I have read pretty much everything he ever wrote, though I have yet to review collections of his correspondence, as well some of the more recent biographies.  I have watched many films and television shows that were either based on specific stories or were strongly influenced by his work.  I look forward to future adaptations that are respectful and reasonably true to the originals.

It has been almost a century since Lovecraft died, but his influence remains pervasive.  He and his contemporaries wrote horror and fantasy during a period of enormous social and technological change—in some respects, a time not so different from our own.  We rely on horror writers like Lovecraft and his colleagues to document both our personal and collective cultural nightmares, so that we may revisit them, and study them, and come to a greater understanding.  Perhaps in so doing we will avoid catastrophe.  I offer The R’lyeh Tribune as my small contribution to the labor of many others who appreciate the work of this author.

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