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Category Archives: H.P. Lovecraft: the man

A friend asked me recently how I felt about the World Fantasy Award association’s decision to stop using the bust of Lovecraft as its trophy.

These handsome fellas right here.

Short answer: I think it was a great decision, and will benefit us all in the long run.

Long answer:  Have you ever read “The Thing on the Doorstep”?

Some people might argue it’s one of Lovecraft’s best–or, at least, most innovative–works.  Aaron Mahnke (of the podcast Lore) claims that it’s the first horror story to introduce the setting of the insane asylum.  (I take a bit of issue with that…insane asylums were definitely present before then–“The Repairer of Reputations”, anyone?–but he still was one of the first.)  The story revolves around mind control and the living dead, all well before they were popular in mainstream horror.  On top of that, it’s a classic unreliable narrator set-up that starts off with a bang.

It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

Damn, right?

Well, I’ve always just fucking HATED it.

Why?  (Spoilers, but come on, the man died in 1937.)

Because the malevolent force is a wizard who’s functionally immortal because he possesses the mind of those close to him.  Only–wouldn’t you know it?–he was unfortunate enough to have a single daughter.  And her mind was weak, as a woman’s is.  And thus he would not have the full force of his strength as long as he inhabited his daughter’s body.  So, of course, he possessed her, got her to seduce a man (our hapless protagonist), and then gained control of his mind.

While I can appreciate its literary merits, I’m never going to like it.  I’m never going to embrace it and think that this work encapsulated his genius.  I read it and think things like, “Oh, come on.”  Or, “Motherfucker, your long-suffering estranged wife was vastly more powerful and hearty than you ever could hope to be.”*

I can deal with that, though, because clearly women confused and baffled Lovecraft.  That’s really the only story with a female protagonist.  Most of the time, he just seems to forget they exist, and honestly, I’m okay with that.

But what if elements of the weak-willed, silly woman was present in every. single. one. of his stories?  Would I be able to ignore it?  Would my feelings about his writing stay the same?

I don’t think any of us would deeply enjoy reading an author who highlighted a feature of our core identity and used it as a weapon, a threat, or a joke in every single one of his works.  But I think it’s really easy to forget that those elements–and to be clear, I am talking about his blatant racism, there’s no getting around that fact–are there, if you’re not the one being singled out.  As a white female, I’m not phased by the cat’s name in “The Rats in the Walls”.  It doesn’t immediately jump out at me that every single black person in his stories seems to be either simple but upstanding or literally a member of a barbaric death-cult.

But if you’re the target, each and every slip and descriptor is a reminder that you’re not welcome.

I hate boring horror.  I hate things that strive to be as traditionally frightening as possible, both within horror as a whole and within Lovecraftian fiction specifically.  I think a lot of us do.  I think we seek out innovation, and that’s why the mythos has been such a fertile stomping ground–because there are so few rules, so few facts set in stone.

But if we keep telling people they’re not welcome–or tell them not to be silly, of course they are, and then expect them to be happy about a gift of a hateful man’s head–we’re never going to learn all that horror can be.  Diversity can be a buzzword, but it can also be our salvation.

We can only read stories of broad-chested English adventurers exploring the deep sea/Antarctic/Congo who stumble across an ancient cult and then get destroyed by something unthinkable or unknowable.  We can do that for the rest of our lives, if we want.  There’s certainly plenty of that ilk out there to last a lifetime.  For some people, that might be enough.  But it’s not for me.

The Cultist

*I love Sonia Greene.  I really, really do.

H.P. Lovecraft would have turned 125 yesterday, and as such, the internet was chock-full of interesting stuff.  So, in lieu of the ordinary essay, I figured I’d show you all the best of what I found!

First, there’s this song by the Mountain Goats, about a man living in a big city beset by loneliness, confusion, and anxiety who finds himself relating to Lovecraft’s year-long exile to NYC:

Then, I happened across this compilation of Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers.  Some of it didn’t quite speak to me (study the King James bible?), some of it did (please, for the love of god, stop using nouns for verbs, everyone–he said/she said/they said will always work beautifully), but all of the tips and tricks give really interesting insight into how he created his stories–from the careful outlining to the use of unusual vocabulary with care.  (Care needed not because he was concerned about alienating his readers, but simply because it’s easy to use unusual words incorrectly, and that simply would not do.)

Relatedly, here’s the original outline for At the Mountains of Madness!

MadnessPlotOutlineFinal.jpg.CROP.article920-large

I posted this to the Facebook page yesterday, but in case you missed it, here’s a Lovecraftian alphabet.  (Bonus nerd points if you watch it for the first time with the sound off to see how many you can identify.)

…okay, I will admit, I didn’t actually read this one (and I likely will not), but it contains all sorts of…links…and stuff…for those of you who might be…interested in this sort of thing: The Posthumous Pornification of H.P. Lovecraft

(Without reading it whatsoever, I would just like to say: I blame hentai.  Hentai is that which wrought this.)

Lovecraft’s stories are always good to read on your own, but they have potential to be mind-blowing if read out loud.  Check out this playlist for some good examples (although I’m certain there’s plenty more floating around the internet that I just haven’t found yet).

And lastly, if you didn’t celebrate enough yesterday, here’s a fine list of fun suggestions to honor the man this weekend.

Happy birthday, H.P.L!

The Cultist

So, as you’ve probably already heard, the hackers that stole data from Ashley Madison (a website explicitly devoted to extramarital affairs) and threatened to publish it did indeed make good on their promises.  I’m guessing A LOT of uncomfortable preemptive conversations right now.

And, as I complained about just a short time ago, I’m a little pooped out re. horror fiction right now.  (Never fear, though!  I’m in the middle of a Caitlin Kiernan story, though, and those never fail to pep me back up–I really ought to write a blog post devoted to her Lovecraftian fiction, it’s in a world of its own–so on Friday, I anticipate a return to a more normal state of affairs here.)

But anyway, this is just a round-about way of explaining today’s blog post: a short meditation on the brief, awkward love life of H.P. Lovecraft, inspired by the Ashley Madison hacks and cemented by my temporary lack of inspiration re. modern mythos horror.  (Fucking water elementals…)

H.P. Lovecraft grew up lonely and sheltered, frequently sick.  His family was a wreck: initially wealthy, mismanagement forced them into abject poverty.  His father had died of neurosyphilis when Lovecraft was 8 (which Lovecraft stubbornly maintained was “paralysis due to nervous exhaustion”).  The a shock caused his mother (a frail, needy woman) to cling to her son desperately.  They maintained an uncomfortably close, love-hate relationship until his mother was admitted to a mental institution in 1919.  She died as a result of a mismanaged gallbladder operation in 1921.  Lovecraft was 31 and more or less a complete hermit.

Things would start to change very quickly for Lovecraft, though–throughout the course of his seclusion from the world, he maintained contact with his writer friends.  (By the end of his life, he had written over 100,000 letters, a figure which apparently puts him second only to Voltaire in terms of written correspondences.)  His support for his friends and his devotion to his craft would prove to be his salvation time and time again, and this was no exception.  At an amateur press conference, mere months after his mother’s death, he was introduced to Sonia Greene.

Sonia Greene is…well, I feel like she doesn’t get enough attention.  She sounds like an absolutely remarkable woman.  She was seven years older than Lovecraft, but several orders of magnitude more experienced in life.  She was married at 16 and had two children by the age of 19, one of whom died when he was only 3 months old.  Her husband was, according to her friends, “a man of brutal character”.  The marriage was brutal, but (thankfully? I feel like you shouldn’t say that, but maybe?) he killed himself in 1916.

Nevertheless, she was fiercely independent.  She had bootstrapped her way into the middle class, working as a milliner and traveling frequently for her job.  Not only was she able to rent a house for her and her surviving daughter, but she was able to afford her writing hobby, traveling to conventions and supporting independent magazines.

And so they met, the virginal xenophobic anti-Semite with terrible mother issues and the older, world-wise, Russian Jew.  Surprisingly (although maybe not entirely surprisingly, given the “Naaaah, man, I mean, sure, I don’t like the blacks/Jews/gays/etc., but you’re not like them, you’re super cool!” tendency of most racists), they hit it off.  They started writing.  He edited one of her stories (“The Horror at Martin’s Beach”, published 1923 in Weird Tales–I’ve read it, and it’s pretty damn good).  In 1924, they were married.

sonia greene

And how did that go?

God bless him, but Lovecraft was no slouch.  Wrote one of Lovecraft’s friend’s after the fact:

Sonia told me that prior to their wedding, HPL purchased and read thoroughly all subject matter he could obtain regarding the marriage, sex and the duties of a husband in the connubial bed. He was perforce a conscientious lover.

This was no small feat, considering how ashamed he seemed to be when it came to sex (he hated listening to his writer friends joking about it) and how much damage his mother had inflicted.  (It’s all well and good to joke about bad mother-son relationships, but consider this: the main motivation for H.P. Lovecraft’s seclusion was due to the fact that growing up, his mother told him constantly that he was grotesque, and should go out only at night to avoid frightening the neighbors.)

They seemed happy, but tragedy (and Lovecraft’s stubbornness) struck.  Sonia’s hat shop closed and she grew ill.  Lovecraft tried (a little) to support his wife, but no one really wanted to hire a 34-year-old with no job experience.  And he turned down a job offer to edit weird tales because it would have necessitated a move to Chicago.  In 1925, Sonia had improved enough to take a job in Cleveland, and Lovecraft moved into a single apartment in Red Hook.

This was not an acceptable state of affairs for Lovecraft.  There were far too many people speaking different languages.  “The Horror at Red Hook” should pretty much sum up all you need to know about Lovecraft’s feelings for New York.  He stuck it out for one year, hightailing it back to Providence in 1926.

Lovecraft still loved his wife, but he loved his family and his routine more.  His aunts told him how terrible it would be for his wife to set up shop in Providence (their nephew was of the gentry–he couldn’t be seen with a tradeswoman wife!) and he made no effort to contradict him.  Sonia pleaded with him, cajoled him, sent him a weekly allowance as she worked on the road, but it was over.  Functionally, the marriage had lasted two years, but they weren’t formally divorced until 1929.

Sonia moved to California in 1933.  She married again (learning much, much later that Lovecraft had neglected to sign the final decree of divorce, making her technically a bigamist).  Lovecraft stayed in Providence for the rest of his life, dying of intestinal cancer in 1937.

I’m not really sure what to make of this story, really.  I don’t have a good moral or a pithy ending to close with.  I mean, you can’t really make the argument that Lovecraft wasn’t an emotionally immature jerk.  Sonia deserved a far more loving and supportive husband, and I’m glad she finally got that.

However…and this is sort of a weird trait for Lovecraft horror fans…in my little cultist heart, I feel a strong, irrational warmth for the man.  He had a horrible life.  I believe (without exception) that everyone on earth is trying to do the best that they know how to do with what they have.  And Lovecraft did that.  Despite a cold, abusive upbringing, despite violent depression and nervous breakdowns, he stubbornly maintained contact with his friends.  He devoted himself to his true passion.  And I admire that.  And, on some irrational level, I’m so glad he got to experience adult love and sex.  He deserved it.

The Cultist

Sources:

A short biography of Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi

Wikipedia article on Sonia Greene

Lovecraft and sex, as told by one of Sonia’s friends