Category Archives: H.P. Lovecraft
I recently appeared on the inaugural episode of Matt Cardin’s podcast, The Teeming Brain. We discussed Lovecraft, Machen, cosmic horror and its alleged deistic counterpart “sacred terror”.
The discussion had been spurred by a provocative article appearing in the pages of Christianity Today, penned by Jonathan Ryan.
How did I do, Cushingistas?
To ring in the holiday, here’s a couple of quick publishing announcements.
First, I’m proud to announce that I collaborated with illustrator Deena Warner on her 2012 Halloween card. Deena’s cards are the stuff of legend and tradition in the horror community. Each year since 2001 she’s worked with a different writer and I’m tickled that she asked me to help out this year. The way it works is simple: Deena furnishes the image to work off of as well as one sentence which must be part of the story. Then the author writes the tale (three hundred words or less, so that it’ll fit on the card).
I’ve never worked this way before, and I enjoyed the challenge. It forced me to depart from my writing habits and tell a story in a whole new way. The flash fiction piece which emerged, “The Fanboys”, is a little something I’m proud to share with y’all. It combines three of my favorite subjects: Halloween, Lovecraftian horror, and the criminally insane.
If you’re on the mailing list for Deena’s cards, you should be receiving this year’s card shortly. (Alas, due to a printing error they won’t arrive at most folks’ homes in time for Halloween. Just think of it as a way to let the season linger longer). If you’re not on Deena’s mailing list, or if you just want to take an early peek at my flash fic piece and her illustration, you can check out the story for free by taking a gander at her website. If you’re not on Deena’s mailing list, but you’d like to get your name on the mailing list so you can receive her cards in 2013 and beyond, fill out this form (again, no charge — Deena does all of this for free and for fun; she’s a good egg that way).
The other news I’d like to share is that the good folks at Tales to Terrify (the horror arm of the StarShipSofa podcast family) have have included my story “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Piggy Class” in their new anthology Tales to Terrify, Volume 1. This story is a reprint, originally appearing in the anthology Werewolves and Shape Shifters: Encounters with the Beast Within.
In addition to appearing in the Tales to Terrify anthology, an audio version of the tale is forthcoming on the podcast itself. I can’t wait to hear what Lawrence Santoro and his minions have come up with for this one.
I had a blast at WorldCon and hope to write something like a con report a little later this week or next. For now, let it suffice to say that I had a great time working and playing in Chicago.
During the time that I was gone (or just getting back into the swing of things), there have been a few online happenings that merit discussion.
Jeff VanderMeer posted a brief essay entitled “Moving Past Lovecraft” up at Weird Fiction Review. The post itself (as well as thoughtful comments by folks like Sylvia Moreno-Garcia, Richard Gavin, Edward Morris, and W.H. Pugmire) make this a must-read for anyone interested in cosmic horror.
Meanwhile, I guest-blogged over at Gef Fox’s site Wag the Fox with a short article called “Why You Need to Be Reading Glen Hirshberg“. I feel an almost-evangelical fervor about Hirshberg’s work…so this guest blog was a great opportunity to spread the word (and it’s probably a little more effective than going door to door with tracts and threatening people with Hell if they don’t take Hirshberg as their literary savior.)
Also, D.F. Lewis’ Megazanthus Press (publisher of the The First Book of Classical Horror Stories and many other books) now has a website. Peruse it you must, Cushingistas. You heard me! Peruse, peruse!
For anyone interested, there are active discussions about my Lovecraft & Racism post over at the message boards on Shocklines.com and Thomas Ligotti Online. The feedback so far is mostly negative: a chorus of: “Who cares, it doesn’t matter what he did in his private life!” and then a few posts rushing forward to the “But he married a Jewish woman!” defense.
Of course, the difficulty with HPL is that the racism doesn’t stop at the shores of his private life — it extends out to the ocean of his fiction. Sometimes in a subtle/undercurrent sort of way, but often in an explicit, impossible-to-ignore way. Over and over. I agree that art has to be evaluated separately from the artist, but in the case of HPL this doesn’t offer any “out”, because if you separate the art from the artist you’re still left with racism littered throughout the very art itself.
During the course of the discussion at Shocklines it was brought up that Poe was — in fact — quite a racist, too (something I wasn’t aware of when writing my original post). It was also brought up that Poe’s racism is particularly evident in his seldom-read novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
While the news of Poe’s racism is disappointing, it’s worth noting that it seems to have been rather limited in its expression in his fiction. It’s possible for a 21st century person to read a representative collection of Poe’s horror stories and come away completely ignorant of his feelings on the matter. In stories like “The Black Cat”, “The Mask of the Red Death”, “The Tell-Tale Heart” “Berenice” and “William Wilson, racist themes simply don’t emerge (at least, by my reading). One can’t say the same when reading a similarly representative collection of HPL. So I think my original point stands — Lovecraft wasn’t just “a man of his time”, because the sheer volume and magnitude of racism and antisemitism in his fiction implies an obsession with white supremacy unmatched by other authors. Poe (for example) had other obsessions, as did several other authors in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Regarding the “But he married a Jewish woman!” defense, I plan to address this in the next blog post. If you want to see a preview of what I’ll be discussing, take a gander my most recent Shocklines and Ligotti Online message board posts.
Throughout all of this, I want to repeat a sentiment I voiced in my initial post — I’m not saying Lovecraft should be tossed from the canon. Lovecraft’s work in the field of cosmic horror paved the way for many of that subject’s most riveting practitioners. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I just think it’s time for the horror genre to take a good, long look at the tub and come to terms with the fact that there’s an awful lot of bath water.
A lot of Lovecraft eZine readers left messages on the site saying they enjoyed my story “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs” in the March, 2012 issue (#12). Now, eZine editor Mike Davis has made this issue (and, actually, all the issues) available as an ebooks on Amazon.com. I went ahead and downloaded a copy of #12, myself (99 cents toward a good cause), and was impressed by the epub’s formatting. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve run into too many ebooks that lack a table of contents, illustrations, etc. This epub has all those things.) Also, because I tend to enjoy reading off my Kindle more than reading off a website, this will probably be my go-to method to enjoy the eZine from now on. This ebook is pretty snazzy. I give it a big thumbs-up.
Over Memorial Day weekend I attended a local media SF and horror convention called Wonderfest . I’m usually not a big fan of media cons, but this one appeals to my sense of nostalgia — the focus of this con remains on “classic horror” media (think Karloff, Lugosi, and Christopher Lee instead of The Human Centipede). It’s sort of a middle-sized con, and that appeals to me too. No huge crowds, but enough people and programming to keep things interesting.
I had fun blowing through a little bit of money in the dealer’s room. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be writing a few “show and tell” sort of posts to let y’all know about my loot.
Show & Tell #1: A Pulp Magazine
For years, “the pulps” have existed, in my mind, only as a historical construct. I’d never held one in my hands before (let alone read out of one). Of course, lots of stuff published in the pulps has ended up being reprinted by venerable publishers like the Library of America. I’ve read lots of “pulp” horror and dark fantasy before (Lovecraft, Wandrei, Jack Snow, etc.) I’ve just read my “pulp” in hardcover.
I’m so glad I happened upon this particular pulp in the dealer’s room at Wonderfest. The title, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, likely refers to the fact that all of the stories are reprints (“Famous” sounds better than “Reprinted”). Yes, it seems like I happened onto one of the later, lesser pulp magazines. No Weird Tales, alas.
Still, I was excited to discover that two of the reprints in this issue matched my reading interests. One was an E.F. Benson vampire story, and another was “The Outsider” by H.P. Lovecraft. I’m posting a photo of the latter here for your edification.
I first stumbled across author W.H. Pugmire’s pale green visage on Thomas Ligotti Online a few years ago. Shortly thereafter, I discovered his Youtube videos — exuberant video blogs (“vlogs”) that always strike me as part Lovecraftian documentary, part drag show, and part monster movie. Indeed, in these 10-20 minute vlogs, Pugmire is just as likely to chat about the virtues of Mac cosmetics as he is to reminisce about the times he spent hanging out with pulp author H. Warner Munn or corresponding with Robert Bloch.
Of course, W.H. Pugmire is also a damned good horror author who somehow manages to be both devotedly Lovecraftian and utterly unique. I find that he particularly excels at the prose-poem, and I’m not alone in that assessment. S.T. Joshi has referred to Pugmire as “the prose-poet of the horror/fantasy field; he may be the best prose-poet we have.” Pugmire has been involved in the horror genre for about four decades, and has had stories reprinted in the Year’s Best Horror Stories series as well as multiple mass market publisher anthologies. The small press, however, is Pugmire’s home. Hippocampus Press has recently published his latest book, Uncommon Places, and Pugmire has many other small press books available as either collectible hardcovers or affordable trade paperback editions.
In our interview, we discuss his recent health problems, his correspondence with Robert Bloch, and the significant changes he’s seen in the horror field over the last forty years.
Nicole Cushing: First off, many readers may be aware of your recent poor health. How are you feeling these days?
W.H. Pugmire: My health is precarious. I’m tired all the time, and often so weak that I’ve started to use my father’s old metal cane when walking. I want to think that much of it is mental and not real, but the weakness feels real indeed — the tightness in my chest, the difficulty in breathing. I am attending the Lovecraft Film Festival this week-end, and it will be a major “test” to see how well I survive among lots of activity. I plan on taking it easy, but I get so excited when meeting Lovecraftians that I may overdo it.
N.C.: My understanding is that you once, in your late teens or early twenties, participated in an ongoing correspondence with Robert Bloch. Do those letters from Bloch still survive? What sort of things did you talk about? Is there any possibility of the letters finding their way to publication some time in the future?
W.H.P.: All of my letters and postcards from Bloch are in a wee suitcase that I purchased in Ireland. The suitcase contains all of my correspondence with the original Lovecraft Circle. I have since given the suitcase to Greg Lowney, who is ye official Keeper of ye Pugmire Collection. I initially contacted Bob to write a tribute to Forry Ackerman for my horror film fanzine, Fantasia, in 1970. I was, at the time, convinced that I wanted to be a horror film actor, as I was obsessed with horror films as a teen. Then when I got shipped to Ireland to serve as a Mormon missionary, my superiors banned me from going to horror films, so I thought, “Screw you, I’ll read horror fiction instead.” I began to buy anthologies that contained stories by Bloch, and this served as my introduction to weird fiction. I was soon hooked and buying lots of paperbacks, and thus I bought that wee suitcase in which to carry them. Bob encouraged me to write, in an oblique kind of way. I never sent him my stories, as he sent his to HPL, because I didn’t want to bug him or “use” him. But he was always kind in encouraging my writing, and he helped me to meet other horror writers through correspondence.
N.C.: In previous interviews you’ve said that you want nothing more for your career than to be considered a Lovecraftian writer – that you’re happy to dwell in H.P.L.’s shadow. However, since I’ve started reading one of your newest collections (Uncommon Places),I’ve come to suspect you might be selling yourself short. I think you have a voice distinctly your own. You may often play with plot devices and settings used in Lovecraft’s stories and poems, and it’s clear you have a passion for all things Lovecraftian. But you also play with the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. Moreover, your tales and prose-poems are innervated by a surreal energy and a sensuousness rarely seen in Lovecraft.
I’m curious what you think about this assessment of your work. Is it time to admit that you’re more than just Lovecraft-with-lip-gloss?
W.H.P.: I have often felt that it was expected of me to “grow up and stop trying to be H. P. Lovecraft.” Writing Lovecraftian fiction is seen as a youthful phase that we pass through on our way to writing our own thing. I reject that mindset. For me, writing Lovecraftian weird fiction IS my own thing, and I am never more MYSELF than when I am Lovecraftian. Being Lovecraftian is my identity as an artist, and it becomes more important the older I grow. I want my work to prove that one can dedicate oneself to writing Lovecraftian horror and yet still make a real solid vital contribution to the genre, with fiction that is audaciously one’s own. Part of my uniqueness is that I bring in all of the other writers with whom I am obsessed, Wilde and Shakespeare and Kafka and Henry James, and stir them into ye mix. And then I add a pinch of punk rock and drag queen fabulousness, and oh girlfriend, look what we have!
N.C.: You have a dedication to working in the small press, and you’ve said you have no interest in being a commercial writer. But I have to ask: have you always felt this way? Has there ever been a time that you felt the temptation to write a novel, land an agent, and seek to make your living from your writing? What are some of the advantages of working in the small press? Some of the drawbacks?
W.H.P.: When I first started writing I was obsessed with being a FAMOUS and SUCCESSFUL Mythos writer. Didn’t take me long to realize that it was a youthful fantasy. So many of us want to be KNOWN as a writer before we have actually produced much work. We want that special feeling that comes from saying, “I’m a writer.” So I went through my first youthful clueless phase, and then I stopped writing for several years and became heavily involved with the Seattle music scene. Then I started writing for Jessica Salmonson’s wee zines, Fantasy Macabre and Fantasy & Terror. I submitted “Pale, Trembling Youth” to Jessica, knowing she loves ghost stories, and she asked if she could work on it. Then she shocked me by selling it to Dennis Etchison for Cutting Edge. I was suddenly in a real book, a book that had a story by my hero, Robert Bloch! It felt amazing. I love being published. But I never had any desire to find an agent and make writing a boring profession. It was always to be “my art,” and writing for the small press made it possible for me to write what I wanted to write in the manner I wished to write it. I never go out looking for pro markets to write for, I just wait for editors to ask me for submissions. I want to be unique and do my own thang, I want to be Lovecraftian up ye arse. I don’t want to have to conform as a writer so as to write for some commercial market, to have to consider what sells and what doesn’t. Boring! The small press is the future of weird fiction, of that I have no doubt.
N.C.: You’ve been around the horror fiction scene for decades. I’m sure you’ve observed many changes over the years. What’s the best change you’ve seen in horror during that time? What change gives you the greatest concern?
W.H.P. The biggest change is the Internet, I think. I refused to get online for years, until S. T. Joshi became my main editor when I wrote my first book for Hippocampus Press. I typed that entire book on my electric typer, then made xerox copies of everything and sent it to S. T., who then had to scan the entire thing. When Jerad (Walters) said he wanted to publish a Centipede Press omnibus of my work, S. T. demanded I get hooked up and get email and thus send him my stories as Word docs. So my buddy and Savior Greg Lowney got me hooked up, and it completely changed my writing life. Too, the Internet has made it possible for more people to buy my books, through Amazon and such, and that has made a huge difference in book sales. And then I discovered that I can promote my books using YouTube, and I can dress up freaky and make a fool of myself as well! Sweet!
The downside is that the Internet has, I think, led to the death of the small press horror journal, those wonderful wee zines such as Deathrealm and Lore and The End. Lore is still going, I’m happy to see, but so many others have died. Too, we’ve lost the art of correspondence. I used to live for writing letters. I told myself that if I got online I wouldn’t let email stop me from real correspondence. But it has. And that is a real loss, I think.
There are lots of days I wish I was a stand-up comic instead of an author of weird, dark stories. Sure, stand-up (even just starting-out) would probably pay better. But the real incentive is that I’m impatient, and stand-up would mean getting instant feedback on my work.
Just think about it: a stand-up comic gets instant gratification. She doesn’t even have to wait until after her performance to know whether or not she’s bombed. She knows right then and there whether the audience “gets”and appreciates her stuff. If the audience laughs, she’s succeeded.
Not so with a writer. I spend weeks/months on a story. Revise it. Send it out to folks for critique. Revise it again. Revise it, sometimes, many, many times until I’m satisfied that it’s as good as it can possibly be. Then I send it out to an editor. After a few months, the editor lets me know if the story has been accepted or rejected. Then another few months (or longer) until it gets published.
Then (maybe, not all the time, but sometimes) I’ll get some reader response.
Reader response is important to me, not just because I have an ego of about the same magnitude as that of any other writer (that is, roughly the size of Godzilla on steroids), but also because I don’t think a story really “happens” until someone reads it; art without an audience is just mental masturbation.
A little over a week ago one of my stories (a little 2600 word tale called “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs”) was published in The Lovecraft eZine. The eZine maintains a comments thread under each piece, so that readers can provide feedback, dissect the stories, criticize them, etc. So far, the reader response for “A Catechism…” has been quite positive.
In fact, I’ve been overjoyed to find that in addition to reader feedback, the story has been praised by a few long-established and critically-acclaimed Lovecraftian authors. People like Wilum Pugmire, Joe Pulver, and Ann K. Schwader have taken time to post positive remarks in the comments thread underneath the story.
Their praise (along with the praise of several readers) has just bowled me over. I really don’t know what to say. So, I’ll just keep it simple and say, “Thank You”. Thank you for reading my story and letting me know what you think of it. Thanks, also, for contributing to The Lovecraft eZine during its recent financial stress, as that support ends up helping authors, too.
Little zines have always exerted disproportionate influence in Lovecraftian fiction, going back to the days of H.P.L., himself, and his participation in the amateur journalism movement. Zines like Crypt of Cthulhu and Nyctalops helped foster an environment in which Lovecraftian fiction not only stayed alive, but thrived and evolved, in the ’70s ,’80s, ’90s. It’s my hope that Mike Davis’ Lovecraft eZine can play a similar role in our present day.
Those of you who’ve read Laughing at the Abyss in the past may remember that my mother was one of the millions of Americans during the ’80s who were brainwashed by Pat Robertson into considering Dungeons & Dragons “demonic”. (Don’t laugh, those of you in Generation-Y or younger, there was a real hysteria in the Reagan years about this sort of thing. Before Tom Hanks was the new James Stewart, he starred in a made-for-TV movie called Mazes & Monsters, about a young man’s descent into madness due to being unable to differentiate the game from reality). I’ve actually never seen the whole thing, but it strikes me as the heir to the ’50s delinquency films and catastrophizing cinema a la Reefer Madness.
Nonetheless, I worked around her prohibition by playing the game after school with a group of friends. In the process, I came into possession of a borrowed copy of the AD&D Monster Manual. I hid it under my bed so she wouldn’t discover it. I came off the bus one day to find the aforementioned terato-tome on top of my bed, and my mother poised to ambush me with a Kafkaesque interrogation. She treated AD&D like some parents treated a dime bag of weed. As a result, the only thing I actually remember about D&D was rolling the dice to create my character’s ability scores. You know, strength, dexterity, constitution, charisma, and all that jazz.
By now you may be asking: “What does this have to do with writing?”
Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips For The 21st Century Writer is one of my favorite books about the publishing business. In it, he recommends writers undergo a process of honest self-assessment (of strengths, weaknesses, and gray areas) as a step along to the way to self-improvement. For example, an author might excel at face-to-face networking at conventions, but struggle with adapting to new platforms and technologies. Short of some unforeseen genetic engineering that produces a “super writer”, none of us are perfect. Our professional lives are built from the scaffold of our character. Some wood in the scaffold is strong and helpful. Some wood in the scaffold is weak and detrimental. Some wood in the scaffold is in-between.
Recently, I’ve had the idea of merging Vandermeer’s self-assessment idea with the gone (but not forgotten) D&D character I created before Momma put the kibosh on my gaming career. Imagine using the D&D abilities as a schema for self-evaluation of one’s writing career.
Okay, let’s take a look at the old D&D abilities (for the uninitiated, these are Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). What would these mean if translated to the context of the craft of writing and building a writing career? What follows is my attempt to perform just such a translation. All ability score definitions are quoted from the D&D Player Handbook as quoted by Wizards.com.
Strength – In the game, this refers to “muscle and physical power.” As a self-assessment of your writing career, this will boil down to an honest assessment of the strength of your work. Of course, this is one of the most difficult areas of self-assessment, because none of us can accurately measure it except in retrospect. But here are some ideas to start this assessment off. If you’re a newer writer, are you involved in a formal (or informal) critique circle? Are you taking writing classes from professionals, when they’re available (as they often are, at conventions)? If you’ve been around for awhile, do you have a subjective sense that your writing is changing or do you feel like things have gotten stale?
Intelligence – In the game, this refers to “how well a character learns and reasons”. We all make mistakes along the way of building our writing careers. Maybe we’re too imitative of our literary heroes and heroines. Maybe we over-think the market and try too hard to chase trends. Or maybe we still haven’t mastered the distinctions between lay and lie. For the purposes of this blog, an author with high “intelligence” learns from his mistakes (both in terms of craft and career). He is able to honestly see when he’s wrong so he can then take corrective action.
Wisdom – In the game, this refers to “a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition”. Translated to building a writing career, this amounts to savvy (regarding your work, the market, and where you believe the best opportunities are for the twain to meet). The wise writer knows what she can and can’t control. The wise writer creates a set of goals and sticks to them throughout the year. The wise writer keeps an ear to the industry grapevine (knowing that not all rumors are accurate, but also knowing that word-of-mouth is often the best way to determine the relative health of publishers and relative professionalism of agents). Perhaps most importantly, the wise writer understands that it’s important to be himself. The wise writer knows that chasing trends is folly.
Dexterity – In the game, this refers to “a character’s hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance”. Translated to building a writing career, the dexterous writer is a writer who is in a position to respond to market dynamics effectively. Often, this amounts to not having all of one’s eggs in one basket. Rather than working with one publisher exclusively, it’s far more dexterous to work with two or more. Opportunities in publishing emerge from interaction with others. So it behooves an author to interact with as many like-minded folks in the business as possible. Dexterity also applies to formats. For example, are you preparing to explore e-publishing opportunities, when they make sense in the context of the rest of your goals?
Constitution – In the game, this refers to “a character’s health and stamina”. Translated to the craft and business of writing, the writer with a high constitution is a writer who is able to approach her career with a long-term perspective. Obviously, this means the ability to forgo the temptation of grabbing at low-hanging fruit. Being poorly published is worse than not being published at all. The writer with a high constitution score also works at a sustainable pace, neither slipping into workaholism nor suffering extended writer’s block. The writer with a high constitution takes care of herself, her friends and family, and her health. This means putting real thought into writing goals to make certain they’re aggressive but also realistic, given the multitasking most writers have to do given the responsibilities of day jobs, families, and keeping up with what’s being written in her field.
Charisma – In the game, this refers to “a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness”. This definition could be used almost as-is when applying “charisma” to a writing career. But to flesh it out a little more, consider this. Are you comfortable at conventions? Are you considered likable? Are you at home with self-promotion and wear the “public figure” aspect of being an author like a comfortable garment? Think physical attractiveness doesn’t matter? I dunno…China Miéville’s photo takes up an awful lot of room on the hardcover edition of The City & The City.
Okay, so now the fun part begins…
You can take these ability scores and use them to create D&D-style character profiles of your favorite authors. For the sake of good manners, let’s restrict this to authors who’ve gone on to the big Con in the sky.
Strength – The strength of Lovecraft’s actual writing varied significantly over his career. He’s a prime example of an author whose work (from my perspective) often struggled at the micro level but excelled at the macro level. In fact, “excelled at the macro level” just doesn’t do him justice. He changed horror forever by introducing the cosmic perspective. So we’ll estimate this ability level at 15.
Intelligence – Hmm…did Lovecraft learn from his mistakes? This is probably a question better answered by a biographer like S.T. Joshi. His later work seems to hold more appeal than his earlier work, for many. But I don’t think he ever really nailed dialogue. So I’m going to give him a middling score of 11 (in honor of Nigel Tufnel).
Wisdom – This is another one that I can’t decide on. On the one hand, Lovecraft certainly knew himself, knew what he wanted to do, and stuck to his guns. He got that part of wisdom down. He seems to have not done as well as far as market savvy goes. The documentary Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown states that even as a ghost writer, he didn’t charge the going rates for his services (and as a result sold himself short). However, I feel that the knowing yourself element of this is probably even more important than the knowing the market aspect (as least, in terms of evaluating Lovecraft). So I’m going to give him a score of 17 on this one.
Dexterity – I don’t think Lovecraft can be rated as a very dexterous writer. He sold much of his fiction to Weird Tales and maybe one or two other pulp magazines (correct me if I’m wrong). He never had an actual collection of his stories printed in his life time. He could have benefited from sound business advice. On this score, I’m going to give Lovecraft a lowly 6.
Constitution – One gets the sense that Lovecraft had a long-term perspective toward his publishing goals, but he earns low points in this one for neglecting his health. Had he taken care of himself, ate well, and gotten treatment for his cancer much sooner, he may have lived much longer than he did. On this score, he gets an 9.
Charisma – In this area, Lovecraft is bound to rate rather low. Although he did have acquaintances who were attracted to him on the basis of his brilliance, it doesn’t sound like he was a natural schmoozer. Cynical, aloof, and racist Lovecraft earns the lowest score in this ability area, a meager 5.
Now it’s your turn. Your assignment is to score the D&D-style “abilities” of various authors of your own choosing. The only rule is they have to be deceased. The goal is to get us thinking about self-assessment (not to hurt the feelings of living authors by dissing them through this exercise). Feel free to give your own scores for Lovecraft, too. I’m wondering if other folks would substantially disagree with any of my rankings.
“Ed rubbed his forehead wearily. ‘I – I got in on something. I saw through. I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see.'”
— Phillip K. Dick, “Adjustment Team”
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, 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. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. “
— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call Of Cthulhu”
Warning: This essay includes spoilers for the Phillip K. Dick novels A Maze Of Death and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
* * *
Last evening I read Phillip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team” (Zoetrope: All Story published it in their most recent issue; a film loosely based on the story is slotted to debut next spring).
I’ve not read a huge amount of Dick’s work yet (besides the story, I’ve only read three of the novels). But I’ve read enough to wonder if there aren’t certain thematic similarities between his fiction and that of another of my favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft.
Specifically, both Dick and Lovecraft write fiction in which the ignorance is bliss, and knowledge is terror.
In Dick’s work, this is illustrated by Ed Fletcher’s statement “I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see”; but also in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? – in which we encounter Rachel Rosen; the woman who is in fact a machine merely passing for a woman. It’s a theme also evident in A Maze Of Death, in which the entire first 90% of the book turns out to only have been a virtual reality mind game played by a doomed crew to kill time as their crippled ship orbits a dying star. The crew measures the success of each shared mind game by how much time they consumed before awakening to the grim awareness of their true situation.
A Maze Of Death may take place in outer space, but the real setting for it (and, arguably, most of Dick’s work) is the mind.
In Lovecraft’s fiction, a similar theme is played out on a stage no smaller than the cosmos itself. An astronomy buff from an early age, Lovecraft wrote fiction that reflected his understanding of a universe dwarfing all human concerns; a state of affairs that – if known and fully understood – robs humanity of any sense of significance.
The similarity in theme is countered by some distinct dissimilarity in lifestyle. Lovecraft barely married once; PKD married several times. Lovecraft comes across as up-tight, PKD as a bit of an unhinged 60s counterculture libertine. Lovecraft “was” Providence. PKD grew up a Bay Area boy.
Part of me wonders, though, if Lovecraft was just some sort of “PKD without the drugs”. Had Lovecraft been at a time and place to cross paths with someone like Timothy Leary, and had he experimented with LSD and amphetamines, would his fiction have turned out even more similar to PKD’s? Would he have learned to enjoy and get lost in the false-face that hides reality rather than rip it away?
Alas, the world will never know. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate. And, apparently, I’m not the only one to look at the connections between HPL and PKD.
This year, at the first annual Phillip K. Dick Festival, one of the presenters named Erik Davis gave a talk about this very subject. He didn’t touch on the shared theme of blissful ignorance/terrifying knowledge but he did have many other interesting observations to make. I didn’t travel to the PKD festival to hear these remarks, but they are conveniently posted online for your listening pleasure.
And please do leave me your thoughts on this topic. I’m interesting in hearing if others have sensed a kinship between these two great authors.