For Dougal Tukten Neralich
“Ph-nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” – “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
Almost everyone has had the experience of unexpectedly discovering a book that changed his or her life, even if the character and degree of that change was, at the time, largely imperceptible. In this posting I will describe the first such transformative moment in my life, and when they have finished this essay, I invite readers to contemplate similarly important literary occasions in their own lives, occasions which, like seeds planted but then forgotten, eventually blossomed and bore unexpected fruit.
During the summer following my tenth birthday, my mother took my grandmother, my brother, and me on a week-long vacation to Bermuda at the St. George hotel. I still vividly remember how, on the morning of our arrival, my brother and I were eager to get to the beach, where we spent hours playing under the warm sun. That night, the last thing that I remember thinking before turning off the lamp beside my bed and drifting off into blissful slumber was how pleasant it was to watch the billowing white curtains at my bedside window cast intriguing shadows on the floor, a consequence of the bright light burning on the balcony just outside the room.
The next morning at breakfast in the hotel restaurant, our waiter, a wonderfully friendly man named Buddy, introduced me to orange marmalade and good tea, both of which became life-long addictions, and later in the day he took my brother and me to our first cricket match, which, for American boys devoted to baseball, proved to be a decidedly baffling and, finally, incomprehensible experience.
That night, before going to sleep, I decided, fatefully, as it turned out, to read one of the books in the ancient glass-fronted cabinet in our room, and the one I selected was a musty volume with the deceptively innocent title, H.P. Lovecraft: Collected Stories. I opened the text and began reading the first story I turned to, “The Call of Cthulhu,” and within moments the horizon of my life had expanded dramatically, for never in all my youthful experience with books had I found anything like Lovecraft’s richly evocative prose. Never before had I encountered words like “pullulate,” “Cyclopian,” “antediluvian,” and “chthonic,” and despite strong misgivings consequent to the dire themes of Lovecraft’s stories, I nevertheless mustered the courage to leave my bed to retrieve from the book cabinet an archaic copy of The Oxford English Dictionary – the single-volume edition that comes with a small magnifying glass to abet the reading of its cramped entries – and place it on the pillow beside me. For the first time, I was absolutely enchanted by language, truly and literally spellbound by words, and I could not wait to tell my friends back home about Lovecraft and his dark tales.
Soon, however, my fascination gave way to stark terror, and I had the decidedly unpleasant experience of repeatedly having my spine tingle and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. By the time I had finished five of the book’s fifteen stories, I was almost paralyzed with fear, and the light streaming into the room from the balcony seemed far less bright than it had on the evening previous, and the shadows cast by the white curtains seemed somehow menacing – in fact, they were almost sinister. I was in thrall to a darkness more pervasive than any I had known before, and though I could, of course, turn on more lights in the room, even as a young boy I knew that it wouldn’t do any good.
Appalled by thoughts of the awful fate that might overtake me were I to fall asleep, I finished reading the entire volume, but despite my best efforts to remain awake, I drifted off into restless slumber sometime near dawn. Later that morning, seeing the dark circles under my eyes, my grandmother threatened to take me to the hotel physician, but I convinced her that they were merely the visible signs of an allergic reaction to a musty book I had read, which was, in a sense, close to the truth. I admit that the stories left me shaken and filled with vague but troublesome forebodings, but at breakfast I nonetheless asked Buddy if there were any more Lovecraft books in the hotel’s library, and later in the day, when I returned to my room, there were four slender volumes on my bed. Not only had Buddy found two more Lovecraft books in the hotel, but this saintly man had also taken time out of his lunch break to visit the public library and retrieve two additional Lovecraft collections for me, so that, for the following four nights, I was again able to answer the Call of Cthulhu, as I have done on so many subsequent evenings.
By all accounts, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an unusual man, reclusive but friendly, and always willing to help aspiring writers. A confirmed materialist and agnostic, he lent no credence to the sorts of fantastic creatures who populated his extraordinary tales, and he was amused by individuals who approached his stories with undue seriousness. Influenced by, among others, Poe, Dunsany, and Machen, this quiet, skeptical man produced some of the great horror stories of the twentieth century, and his masterful prose and darkly imaginative storytelling influenced many other writers, including the peerless Stephen King. His ominously ingenious fables capture their audience with a linguistic artistry that is as seductive as it is richly-textured. While Lovecraft is justly famous for what critics have termed his “Cthulhu Mythos,” many of his stories that lie outside this genre are equally masterful. In any case, the universe which the characters in these tales inhabit is, at best, indifferent to human purposes and, at worst, inimical to them, and since any action based on a rational assessment of things leads only to doom or madness for these hapless individuals, the only possible response to such a cosmos is a resigned pessimism. Needless to say, I understood little of such matters when I was ten years old, but I did appreciate the fact that, whenever I began reading a Lovecraft story, I soon felt that something was lurking in the darkness just outside the circle of light in which I was sitting, and that this something was, for reasons either unclear or unspeakable, just biding its time. How could a boy not adore such tales, especially since their gloomy, altogether fatalistic vision contradicted so much of the mindless optimism that informed the suburban culture in which he grew up? How could the man he grew to become not remain grateful to stories that, whatever their horrific content, introduced him to what were until then the undreamt-of possibilities of eloquent self-expression?
Lovecraft’s influence extends beyond literature and can be found in music and in any number of movies, though to date, no film based directly on one of his stories has been unduly successful, although this might be an instance of a prose style that is simply too complex to translate well onto the screen, or maybe Lovecraft simply awaits a director or screenwriter possessed of sufficient talent and vision to give cinematic expression to his genius. Regardless, from The Crawling Eye to The Mist,, any number of terrifying films are at least in part homages to dread Cthulhu, and I confess that, partly because of my youthful infatuation with Lovecraft’s stories, I relish watching horror movies, no matter how awful others might judge some of them to be.
Since he worked in the minor genre of horror fiction, Lovecraft will never receive the same degree of respect accorded by literary critics to major writers, but there are many rooms in the Mansion of American Literature, and while Lovecraft’s chamber in this edifice might be a modest one, it is nonetheless well-appointed, albeit darkly. I still have several of Lovecraft’s books on my shelves, and many editions of his work remain in print. I particularly recommend The Best of H.P. Lovecraft, a Del Ray Book paperback, published by Ballantine Books, both because it has a representative selection of tales and because it contains a splendidly instructive “Introduction” by Robert Bloch. It also features a suitably lurid cover and the appropriately baleful subtitle, “Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.” I promise that most first-time readers of these tales will quickly appreciate and fear the dread implication of the words, “When the stars are right, the Great Old Ones will rise from their sleep,” especially since foremost among the Great Old Ones is, of course, Cthulhu. Even now, I shudder slightly when I read this passage in my well-lit study, just as I did in a dimly-lit hotel room on a night long ago in Bermuda.
In a sense, I have never left that room. I am not claiming that I became an incipient English major when I first encountered Lovecraft, but my initial acquaintance with his work did give me an inkling of the grandeur that the English language can attain when in the creative hands of a master stylist, instilled in me a passion for reading that still burns fiercely, and fueled my boyish imagination in ways that have abided ceaselessly for decades. While I soon discovered that R’lyeh was not on any maps, I eventually learned from Melville that real places never are, and I eventually realized that in some mysterious way, good stories can, like great myths, be true, despite never having happened. Above all, I learned that words matter, and that their artful employment is one of the greatest feats to which humans can aspire.
And so, in my Lovecraft-inspired imagination, it seemed only natural that I would do postdoctoral work in Eldritch Studies at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts, where I could assist Dr. Ted Klein in the forbidding task of explicating the Book of Ebon and work with Professor Laban Shrewsbury investigating the balefully cryptic implications of Juntz’s Nameless Cults.. Of course, none of us would ever dare to mention the Necronomicon,though whenever anyone referred to the “Mad Arab,” there would be no mistaking that he was alluding to Abdul Alhazred, the benighted author of this darkest of books. In some wonderful and timeless way, that postdoctoral work continues, and it quite naturally involved my introducing Lovecraft’s work to my sons, who in consequence have acquired a profound love of language and an equally acute understanding of insensate evil.
I will close by recommending that individuals who are not acquainted with the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft should acquire a volume of his stories and begin reading them immediately. Timid souls can postpone their encounter with beautifully-crafted horror until daylight, and bolder, foolishly optimistic individuals can, of course, attempt to keep terror and panic at bay by leaving lights burning all night, both inside their bedchamber and outside its window . . . even though it won’t do any good.