21st Century
The Future
World Travel
Books & Film
Original Fiction
Opinion & Lifestyle
Politics & Living
Film Space
Movies in depth
Kid's Books
Reviews & stories

The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Paranormal

The 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 tie—and drives out to mist- and myth-shrouded Providence, RI, to prove why...

I am all about atmosphere. As an 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 Manhattan’s "Nolita" on Bond Street I’m 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 frenzies.

Still it was in the form of a Christmas gift from an cart that a mysterious tome--much like the Necronomicon written by the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, often mentioned in Lovecraft’s oeuvre--landed on my lap. Hey now, what’s this? It was an elegant Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s 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 don’t say "Steven King.")
Poe perhaps.
Or Lovecraft.
My vote is for Lovecraft. No matter how scary Poe’s short shocker "The Cask of Amontillado" is—playing upon the fear of being buried alive—there’s 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 don’t want you to think I’m some nancy boy who can’t 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 madness—and 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 walls."

Whoah, heady stuff! But Lovecraft clearly also had an unusually bizarre sense of humor to boot, which in today’s "green," politically correct world would be nigh on obsolete: for example, in "Rats . . . " the name of the narrator’s faithful black cat is—get this—"Nigger-Man." Cringe.

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. Ackerman’s 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 Lovecraft’s 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 couldn’t 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 Lovecraft’s 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 Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction come from? While some claim Poe received his inspired visions from the contents of an opium pipe, I would say Lovecraft’s 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 Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) look like a madcap socialite from New York Magazine’s "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, wouldn’t care to get stuck like spidey food permanently in that literary vortex.

Lovecraft’s 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 Lovecraft’s various apartments, I still felt I could fool the reading public by proving Lovecraft’s superiority over Poe with two words: "Chthulu Mythos."

Much has been made of Lovecraft’s 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? Lovecraft’s 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 Lovecraft’s 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 won’t 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 Lovecraft’s 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. Lovecraft’s 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 ago—and unfortunately have a nasty habit of coming back.

For example, In one of Lovecraft’s 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 a "master."

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 sentence—and then printing it in italics, presumably for maximum shock value." Carter, who also wrote Chthulu Mythos stories herself, says Lovecraft’s 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 reader’s memory like those horrific yet somehow natural-seeming monsters of Hieronymous Bosch." Lovecraft’s 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 Past).

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 I’m 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 Starbuck’s 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 Lovecraft’s 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 Howard’s 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,, 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 City’s "Hell’s 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!)

Hubbard's Cupboard
John M Edwards
I 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.

More Reviews


© Hackwriters 1999-2009 all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility - no liability accepted by or affiliates.