International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Paranormal
Mad Mad Mad Mad World of "Weird Pulp Fiction"
John M Edwards
Is H.P. Lovecraft scarier than E.A. Poe? Hell yeah, says paparazzo-of-the-paranormal
John M. Edwards, who beats up the dead horse deeming it a tieand
drives out to mist- and myth-shrouded Providence, RI, to prove why...
I am all about atmosphere.
occasional believer in the paranormal, if not exactly a "ghost
buster" or "Van Helsing," I found it fascinating that
gritty film-noir New York City managed to magnetically draw two American
masters of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft,
here to write for a pace.
Like Ray Bradbury, both writers represented real "belle lettres"
rather than schlock. There is a restaurant in Manhattans "Nolita"
on Bond Street Im fond of, called "Il Buco," where Edgar
Allan Poe wrote in their suitably dark dank wine cellar. A similar search
for the mysterious haunts of forlorn Lovecraft (who rarely left his
apartment and had groceries delivered), however, came up with zero hits.
Unlike many savvy Manhattanites who prefer used bookstores, where you
can literally smell the mold of obsolescence, as a mannerism, I like
thick consumer blocks of cast-iron buildings bursting with frequent
Starbucks bathroom breaks and inevitable Borders book-buying feeding
Still it was in the form of a Christmas gift from an Amazon.com cart
that a mysterious tome--much like the Necronomicon written by
the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, often mentioned in Lovecrafts oeuvre--landed
on my lap. Hey now, whats this? It was an elegant Library of America
edition of Lovecrafts short stories, simply titled Tales.
I realized "Weird Fiction" had finally evolved into highbrow
literature of Die Welt. So who now is the supreme master of the horror
tale? (Please dont say "Steven King.")
My vote is for Lovecraft. No matter how scary Poes short shocker
"The Cask of Amontillado" isplaying upon the
fear of being buried alivetheres one Lovecraft story that
might indeed be the scariest short story ever written: "Rats
in the Walls"playing upon the fear of being eaten alive!
Rereading "Rats in the Walls" for the first time since I was
a teen had the same chill effect on me: I awoke from a fever after reaching
the penultimate paragraph of this suspenseful pageturner. Once again,
I was frightened out of my wits, for longer than I would care to admit.
(I dont want you to think Im some nancy boy who cant
handle a healthy dose of horror.)
"Rats . . ." is about the reversal of the progress of Homo
Sapiens. The protagonist, investigating the sounds of possibly rats
scuttling in his mansion, descends himself down the evolutionary ladder
of madnessand becomes a cannibal. Returning to his accursed ancestral
home, Exham Priory, the narrator discovers a secret passageway to a
penumbral sub-cellar from its Roman-era basement. A team of archaeologists
come to investigate, discovering a twilit grotto with a horrifying past:
". . . in one terrified glance I saw a weird pattern of tumuli,
a savage circle of monoliths, a low-domed Roman ruin, a Saxon pile,
and an early English edifice of wood. . . . For yards about the steps
extended an insane tangle of human bones . . . or partly articulated
skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemonic frenzy, either
fighting off some menace or clutching other forms with cannibal intent."
Hence, the suggestion is that subhumans were bred here and slaughtered
like hellspawn cattle.
The narrator of "Rats . . ." is later discovered alone in
the dark, speaking in tongues: "Ungl . . . ungl . . . rrrlh . .
. chchch. . . ." And there he was, crouching in the blackness "over
the plump half-eaten body of Captain Norys." Finally from the
barred room of an asylum, the narrator defends himself, "They
must know it was the rats . . . the daemon rats that race behind the
padding of this room and beckon me down to greater horrors than I have
ever known; the rats they can never hear; the rats, the rats in the
Whoah, heady stuff! But Lovecraft clearly also had an unusually bizarre
sense of humor to boot, which in todays "green," politically
correct world would be nigh on obsolete: for example, in "Rats
. . . " the name of the narrators faithful black cat isget
When I first read this scariest story ever told in the 1970s, I sweated
with nightmares for weeks, and wore sneakers to bed to protect my feet.
As a child prodigy expert on horror and science-fiction, I was into
doing conventions and collecting memorabilia, such as the complete collection
of the late Forrest J. Ackermans Famous Monsters of Filmland,
Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella magazines. Then I discovered the older
"antique" pulp magazines--with lurid covers and sensationalist
titles like "Astounding Stories!" and "Weird Tales!"--
in which Lovecraft published most of his stuff in the 1920s: The
Shuttered Room, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness.
Also, as a real collector, I soon ran out of allowance money.
I personally regarded Lovecraft as both literary and unloved. "Unhappy
is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness,"
Lovecraft writes in his classic "The Outsider." "Wretched
is he who looks back upon long hours in vast and dismal chambers with
. . . maddening rows of antique books."
Not so recently, I drove to Providence, Rhode Island, to renew my love
affair with Lovecrafts work, convinced, if such things existed,
that H.P. was some sort of space alien or vampire who might still be
knocking about the campus of Brown University, trying to pick up coeds.
In other words, I was surprised how New Englandy and pleasant were the
stomping grounds of this reclusive master of terror, famous for his
prognathous jaw, tall gaunt form, and vacuous stare.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on August
30, 1890, to an upper-middle-class Wasp family. In 1893, his father
was committed to an asylum and eventually died of syphilis. Lovecraft
lived his entire life under the care of women; first, his overprotective
mother; then, two batty aunts straight out of Arsenic and Old Lace;
then, a stern divorcee seven years his senior whom he married in 1924.
A natural recluse, who was often ill, Lovecraft took but one trip from
his beloved Providence to New York, where he lived briefly before returning
to his native city, importing with him an aversion to cities with "their
squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading
stone." He could do without crowds, with their teaming populations
of "swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes."
In Providence, I couldnt help but feel a little disappointed that
there was no fog curling about my boots and no strange music radiating
in the background, such as in the classic horror film of New England
witchcraft, "Horror Hotel," starring an impossibly young Christopher
Lee. But at least the young Nancy Drew lookalike librarian seemed concerned
for me when I requested a mimeograph of Lovecrafts various residences.
(I imagined she had a blind priest father in the back room, who would
have warned me in a deep rich baritone, worthy of a Shakespearean soliloquy,
to "Leave this place at once, while there is still time!")
With everything pretty much hunky-dory in Providence, where did the
atmosphere of the grotesque in Lovecrafts Weird Fiction come from?
While some claim Poe received his inspired visions from the contents
of an opium pipe, I would say Lovecrafts only inspiration came
from extreme loneliness and the contents of a disordered mind.
I mean, Lovecraft was just plain weird, man! He made Boo Radley (from
Harper Lees To Kill a Mockingbird) look like a madcap socialite
from New York Magazines "Intelligencer" pages. There
is no real explanation why the so-called Dark Prince of Providence opted
out of real life, became a recluse, and created a complete alternate
universe which at times threatens to supercede and annihilate our own.
I, for one, wouldnt care to get stuck like spidey food permanently
in that literary vortex.
Lovecrafts only real contact with the outside world was through
correspondences with other writers. Indeed, Lovecraft was one of the
greatest letter-writers of the 20th century, sheer ouput numbering in
the many thousands. Some of his penpals included August Derleth, Robert
E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert Bloch, author of Psycho (later:
a Hitchcock film). But sitting inside a Providence Starbucks with a
Tall Decaf Latté, after a depressing tour in a light rain of
the lovely facades of Lovecrafts various apartments, I still felt
I could fool the reading public by proving Lovecrafts superiority
over Poe with two words: "Chthulu Mythos."
Much has been made of Lovecrafts parallel world of lost gods and
monsters at last returning to us, but not enough. What if, for example,
Woden or Apollo, who might indeed have been real gods, decided to come
back and lord it over us again? Lovecrafts personal favorite story,
"The Colour Out of Space" (1927), which had a completely
novel feel to it, indirectly influenced most science-fiction films of
the 1950s, such as "The Thing," based on the Campbell
short story "Who Goes There?"
In Lovecrafts piece de resistance, a meteor, a "frightful
messenger" from space causes a powerful ecological disaster in
the New England countryside: "It was nothing of the earth, but
a piece of the great outside." I wont spoil the rest of the
story by giving it away. At the time of its publication, it was heralded
as something completely different. Thus "Weird Fiction" escaped
the womb like a deformed fetus with fangs at a circus sideshow.
In his letters, Lovecraft significantly remarked, "All my stories
. . . are based on the fundamental lore or legend that the world was
inhabited at one time by another race, who, in practicing black magic,
lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready
to take possession of the earth again."
In facing Lovecrafts dangerous alt universe, we can abide by these
lines from "The Call of Chthulu" (1928):
"The most merciful thing in the world . . . is the inability
of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid
island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was
not meant that we should voyage far."
Vertigo. Lovecrafts world of eldritch terrors is intense. According
to the Chthulu Mythos, which became a literary sensation attracting
many other writers into its web, an alien civilization lurks beneath
our own. The Great Old Ones and their slaves (shoggotths) came to the
earth many millions of years agoand unfortunately have a nasty
habit of coming back.
For example, In one of Lovecrafts most effective hard-hitters,"The
Outsider," the narrator, ignorant of the fact that he is a grotesque
monster, finally for the first time sees what he looks like in "a
cold and unyielding surface of glass"a surprise twist along
the lines of a "Twilight Zone" episode. In another story,
"Shadow Over Innsmouth," the narrator turns by degrees into
a sort of subhuman humanoid fish with webbed toes. He recites poetically,
"We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down
through the black abysses . . . and in the lair of the Deep Ones we
shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever."
Angst. Lovecraft never at home in the "Roaring Twenties.,"
improvised of his own occupation, "Literature is no proper pursuit
for a gentleman." Yet as a recluse, one who purportedly walked
the cobbles of Providence at night when nobody else was around, he was
widely recognized by his peers, who all rushed to write their own Chthulu
Mythos stories, like a "phenomenon" or peculiar in-joke, as
In Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Chthulu Mythos, Lin Carter amusingly
writes, "[Lovecraft] has no ability at all for creating character,
or for writing dialogue. . . . His plotting is frequently mechanical,
and his major stylistic device . . . is the simple trick of withholding
the final revelation until the terminal sentenceand then printing
it in italics, presumably for maximum shock value." Carter, who
also wrote Chthulu Mythos stories herself, says Lovecrafts formula
for success involved "innovation"an alchemical fusion
of horror, science-fiction, and dark fantasy in unpromising locales:
the fictional New England town of Arkham, the depopulated hills of Vermont,
the brick labyrinths of Brooklyn, even the frozen wastes of Antarctica.
Similarly, in a collection called Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, the
editor, prolific Joyce Carol Oates, says H.P.s dreamscapes "linger
in the readers memory like those horrific yet somehow natural-seeming
monsters of Hieronymous Bosch." Lovecrafts dreams were "cosmic"
in nature. Though he rarely ventured out even to a local restaurant,
Lovecraft astral traveled from kingdom come to the outer limits of the
void. He suffered all his life from nightmares, which he called "night-gaunts."
Influenced by Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and Ambrose Bierce,
Lovecraft regarded Proust as the greatest contemporary writer for his
treatment of Time in Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things
And, alas, for Lovecraft, the ultimate anti-traveler, Time was not the
great healer but the great revealer, for his own fame is almost entirely
posthumous. None of his work was published in book form during his life.
When he died in 1937 at the age of only 47, he regarded himself a failure.
Lovecraft observed, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind
is fear, and the oldest and strangest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
Which sounds like a suitable epitaph for Weird Fiction itself, now an
often overlooked category of pulse-pounding period pulp pieces.
When I read Weird stuff years ago I felt like I was conquering my own
fear of the unknown; rereading it again as an adult Im not so
sure anymore. Like the mad fiddle player from "The Music of Erich
Zann," trying to block out the noise of an unearthly "blackness
of space illimitable" outside his window, I lingered late at the
Starbucks clutching Tales like a gravestone tablet in my trembling
bony hands, imagining there were unpleasant nasties behind the counter
ready to savage the bored-looking baristas. But, to use one of Lovecrafts
favorite literary latches (dramatic italics), I decided it was probably
just rats in the walls!
As I dearly departed Providence, foot slamming fearsomely down on the
gas pedal ("Eeeeeeeeee!!!"), one of Horror King Howards
most famous couplets jingled around like Gothic alt rock lyrics in my
shaken coffin-like subconscious:
"That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die."
© John M. Edwards June 2009
Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus),
with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being
stuck in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in such magazines
as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape,
Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living,
Emerging Markets, Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review,
Poetry Motel, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Trips, Big World, Vagabondish,
Glimpse, BootsnAll, HackWriters, Road Junky, Richmond Review, Borderlines,
ForeWord, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review,
and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel
Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative
Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Travel Writing Award, and a Solas
Award (sponsored by Travelers Tales). He lives in New York Citys
"Hells Kitchen," where you can eat ethnic every night
with soul survivors from Danté's Inferno. His indie zine, "Unpleasant
Vacations: The Magazine of Misadventure," went belly up. His future
bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders, have not been released. His new
work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux, is about a time traveler.
John M. Edwards
Separated from his tour group in East Berlin, a young college student
from New York gets seriously lost and says, "Ich bin ein Berliner!"
(I am a doughnut!)
John M Edwards
decided to enter the forbidden zone. Whence I was immediately greeted
by a stunning woman with long black hair and wide friendly eyes who
acted like a member of an evangelical church welcoming a walk-in with
a rhubarb pie.
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