Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lovecraft’s Just Dessert

At the moment when my proposed literature advisers helped me make an enormous career decision, I wonder if there was an alternate reality, a parallel universe where I would have made H. P. Lovecraft my life’s work. Would I still be tickled by H. P. Lovecraft and his weird stories? Would I still be both amused and sadly empathetic with the odd man from Rhode Island whose marriage had resolved itself with the suggestion that he and his wife continue their relationship by correspondence?

I’ve been listening to the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft for a few weeks lately, like revisiting letters from an old beau, one that fate in this reality determined would drift away from the intimacy of post-graduate study. I had found him in a treasure-trove of some strange young man’s library gutted, no doubt, by his mother’s final disgust with his hoarding of the outrĂ© and merely speculative fiction. I was in junior high, pawing through the wreckage of the many libraries unloaded on the junk man in my small town in New Mexico. I learned to look for anything with the young man’s name written on the inside cover.
Tea Tarot
(c) Copyright 2011 Marcia McCord

I had wondered then if he had died. It was such a huge collection of sci-fi and horror and I could not imagine he had given up his books willingly. The books were cheap and I brought them home in shopping bags, much, I think, to the junkman’s delight. There were, of course, mainstream science fiction, if (I protest) there is such a thing: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and delicious Heinlein. And then there were the odder items, Lovecraft.

My luck lay in having been moved, much to howling protest, to eastern New Mexico, a place that was not beautiful nor lush nor friendly to a child whose chief source of amusement at age 11 was to read every book in the compact but fairly well-stocked public library. I had always been a bookworm but the severe cultural and climate differences drove me to bookishness, so much so that even my mother, bookish herself, complained that I did not “go out and play,” whatever that meant. Was she concerned that my skin was pale like a frog’s belly in spite of the unrelenting New Mexico sun? The summer after my sixth grade year I read all the books in the library, just a few blocks from my mother’s antique shop, sometimes reading as many as four books per day. I absorbed whole Dewey Decimal sections including those covering the paranormal and mystical in hopes of explaining my own gelling talent for “fortune telling.”

Then, in the cold weather of junior high I found Lovecraft and the world of science fiction, horror and weird.
My brother and I had long been fans of space movies, Star Trek and “Thee-ater X”. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Night Gallery had been our delight. Occasionally, a story was too frightening but I began to notice that my brother was always first to turn off the scary stuff while I complained that I was still watching. I always lost those arguments, my mother never comfortable with anything that wasn’t based in tangible reality. It seemed natural to me that diving deeper into the genres would happen for both my brother and me; we squabbled over ownership of the complete works of Poe which made its way from one bedroom to another and back again.

Even in grade school he and I discussed the pros and cons of scary stories and television shows. I was not a “monster movie” or “big bug movie” fan. These were popular in my childhood, evidence of the nervousness about the long-term effects of the atomic age. Accidental resizings or rearrangement of parts through misuse of technology struck me as carelessness and not the least bit interesting. Godzilla and Mothra could duke it out elsewhere as far as I was concerned. But the unintended consequences of ego, assumption and curiosity, ah, that was always my interest. Who was to say we, as a species, were so smart? What if, for all our moonwalking and Tang, we didn’t actually know everything there was to know?

I was never anti-technology. No, I was more interested in the story of Icarus, a lesson in anticipating problems and avoiding them and what happens if we do not. I wanted to experiment as my own little inner mad scientist but I wanted to live through the experience too.

What if? It was the next natural question after the ever-present Why?

The message of the World in Tarot is fulfillment, arriving at the answer, resolving all the problems, dancing within your environment, surrounded by the energies and resources and even antipathies of life, dancing in your place, your time. And yet, to have arrived and never moved on to start a new cycle is more death than Death itself. Dance on your laurels but do not rest on them; stagnation is to cease to exist.

Over the years, I have continued to love H. P. and to become sure I am not a character in his stories, certainly not the main character. H. P.’s main character is certainly not the same person all along, but his protagonists have commonalities: they have assumptions about the stability of their world only to have that removed by the discovery of something…else. Often, his heroes protest they were never interested in anything remotely “other”; in fact, they are almost uniformly repulsed and horrified by anything I might consider an adventure. They are quietly racist, xenophobic, clear about what was beautiful and what was bizarre, certain they were advanced and cultured compared to “savages” in their world, only to realize that large, powerful, strange, ancient and indifferent beings from “otherwhere” and “otherwhen” were interested in the noble human for their own need to exploit resources and survive. Lovecraft’s monsters where those who understood dimensions man could not imagine, lived in colors and sounds man could only barely sense. They were wise and old. And man was, in spite of his hubris, young and stupid, a weak victim of a conspiracy beyond his ken.

In spite of Lovecraft’s often laughable overuse of adjectives, almost a lesson in what not to do in current writing style, despite the weight of overwrought veneer of man’s idea of his own civility and cultural achievement, somewhere in between the “big words” and vague descriptions, he gets down to one idea common to us all.

In our lizard brains, we know: There’s scary stuff out there in the dark and it might eat us, considering us as nothing more important than a potato chip. He may not realize he challenges us to ask which is true madness? Is it expecting the indifferent powers to respect and admire human cultural constructs and advancements? Or is it the scientific delight in finding something new without the understanding of future consequences? And for that his work is horror, even in spite of itself.

Ah, Howard. You can miss what you never had after all.

Best wishes!

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