Monday, October 22, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft: Part 1: Introduction

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

I've never been a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Although I loved monster movies as a kid, that love didn't really translate over to horror fiction. I read "The Colour Out of Space" in high school and later borrowed a collection of Lovecraft stories from a friend who was a Cthulhu fan, but I didn't really get into them. I found Lovecraft's prose to be dense and his characters not terribly engaging. Most of all, I found Lovecraft's over-riding theme that Humanity is but a meaningless speck in a vast, uncaring (if not outright hostile) cosmos, unappealing.

But recently, I've been reading through a couple volumes of Lovecraft edited and annotated by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi that have been making me look at his work in a different light. I hadn't really thought of Lovecraft as a science fiction writer, but actually his Cosmic Horror springs as much from his understanding of Science as it does from a sense of the Supernatural, and Lovecraft took great pains to check his stories against the science of his day. Although I've read little of Lovecraft's work before, the truth is that all my life I've been reading stories that were influenced by him.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in 1890 to a prosperous upper-class family in Providence, Rhode Island. As a boy he had an intense love of reading and a burning curiosity about science. His favorite authors were the great Victorian authors of imaginative literature, like Arthur Machan, Lord Dunasy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Raised to privilege, he tried to model himself as a gentleman. But with the death of his grandfather and the subsequent mis-management of his grandfather's estate, the family fortune dwindled. His family's lack of money and an illness which prevented him from finishing high school kept him from attending college. He found himself an unemployed gentleman with no marketable job skills, except his imagination.

What saved him was blogging. The Internet, of course, did not exist in 1914, but something else did: Amateur Publishing Associations. These early fanzines were publications in which amateur journalists could write about things that interested them and distribute them. Lovecraft had already earned a small reputation writing to the letters columns of magazines such as Argosy, and was invited to join once such APA.

This proved to be a perfect outlet for Lovecraft's self-expression because it allowed him to find an audience for his writing and make friends. The lack of pay did not bother him, because he felt that a gentleman ought not to stoop to writing for hire; he believed in Art for Art's Sake. The contact and correspondence with other views also allowed him to somewhat broaden the insular outlook his sheltered childhood had given him.

One of his friends was starting a humor magazine and asked Lovecraft to contribute a series of stories for it. The resulting serial, "Herbert West -- Reanimator", was a broad parody of the horror genre and Lovecraft detested it. Still, it was an entrance into the world of Commercial Fiction.

In 1923 the magazine Weird Tales was founded, considered by many critics to be the first Pulp Magazine. Lovecraft's circle of friends urged him to submit to it. Although many of his stories were published in the pulps, Lovecraft never considered himself a pulp writer. He disdained writers who cranked out verbiage by the yard according to formula and tried to hold himself to the artistic standards of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.

By this time, Lovecraft's life had undergone dramatic upheavals. His mother had died after a lengthy illness. Sometime afterwards, he met a woman named Sonia H. Greene, a widow seven years his senior, at an amateur journalism convention. She persuaded him to move to New York and they married. Sonia was a businesswoman who owned a hat shop; but shortly after their marriage, the shop failed. She was able to find a new job in Cleveland, but her husband stayed in New York.
Life in the Big City did not suit Lovecraft. He found it threatening and impersonal. In addition, he had difficulty finding work. About the only good thing about his "exile", as he called it, was that it gave him greater contact with the friends he had made through his correspondence. His circle of friends became known as "The Kalem Club", because most of it's members had names starting with the letters "K", "L" or "M".

After a few years, his aunts in Providence invited him to move in with them. He welcomed the chance to escape the hated metropolis. The invitation did not extend to Sonia. She was, after all, in Trade, and the idea of her opening a shop in Providence was unthinkable. And the fact that she was a Russian Jew probably had a lot to do with it too. Lovecraft acceded to his aunt's demands. He rarely saw his wife any more anyway; now he saw her even less, and they divorced in 1929.

His return to Providence marked a burst of output, and here he wrote what are considered some of his best stories, including the stories associated with what later became known as the "Cthulhu Mythos". Many of these stories were set in upstate Massachusetts near a fictional town called Arkham where the fabled Miskatonic University was located and many referenced a nebulous body of lore found in that unspeakable tome, the Necronomicon.

Lovecraft is sometimes regarded as a man born in the wrong century, because of his outdated notions of gentility and his pre-Victorian mannerisms, but in many ways he was very much a man of his time, the early Twentieth Century. He had an abiding interest in science, but his philosophical interest led him to make connections that others might not have. For him the great revelation of Einstein's Theory of Relativity was not in physics, but in metaphysics; by demonstrating that Matter and Energy are interchangeable  Lovecraft felt that Einstein had demolished the ancient duality of Matter and Spirit. On a broader theme, mankind has known since Copernicus that he was not the Center of the Universe; but most people didn't think much about what that really, really meant. Lovecraft did.

Lovecraft died in 1937 of intestinal cancer. After his death, one of his friends August Derleth started a publishing company, Arkham House, to keep his works in print. He also appointed himself a sort of keeper of the flame, organizing and expanding upon Lovecraft's stories into a kind of continuity, codifying the amorphous, non-Euclidian lore of Old Ones and Elder Gods into organized pantheons. Derleth's "Cthulhu Mythos" is controversial among Lovecraft fans, but he did much to keep Lovecraft's stories alive.

Since Lovecraft wrote mostly shorter works, instead of discussing a single story of his, I'll be looking at a few of his short stories and a novella, which are collected in The Annotated H.P Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi. I intended to start on the first one this week, but my biographical sketch would up a bit long; so next week we'll find out what's with "The Rats in the Walls" and experience the terror of "The Colour Out of Space."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Between Bullies and Assholes, and Creative people. Updated

The collision between culture and entertainment is evidence of our values, beliefs and lies to ourselves.

La Crosse, Wisconsin news television anchor Jennifer Livingston received  an email from a fellow accosting her for her being obese.   She fought back by commenting that the viewer was bullying her and that she was standing up for others who were being bullied.

There are, of course, varying definitions of what is bullying, but while the email (and emailer himself) was wrong and hurtful, (definition of bullying), she wasn't being bullied.   She was dealing with someone who was an asshole.   No one desires criticism about appearance from strangers, let alone family or friends.   But, this is an example of how people perceive media personages.   We place our values and expectations of perfection upon those we see, on the basis of physical looks.   And it is an example of how people who are assholes affect others.

Movie star Mel Gibson spewed racist venom when pulled over for drunk driving.   People then declared him to be a bad, bad man.   And suddenly, people who liked his work before now began to wonder if he was a bad actor as well as bad, bad man.  His past golden career became questioned in retrospect.    But while he was stinking drunk when spewing, I doubt that he was any different in sober state, only more restrained and better spoken, and as such, nothing changed other than our awareness of what he was.   His work remains what it was, before the arrest, and after.  

Amy Winehouse won 6 Grammy awards for her album Back to Black.   She was across headlines with her drug fueled antics and criminal acts associated with it.   Her music never changed, but people who never heard it judged her, and when she died from the effects of her struggles with addictions, they mocked her.   But her music alone was worthy of all the accolades, beyond taste, she had a voice and a talent that was unique.   What if, I ask, her talent called out to the addictive drugs, in a plea to quiet her demons?

Comic book artist and writer John Byrne became infamous when the internet bloomed in the early 2000s.   His boobery was not bullying anyone, but rather seemed assholish, and he is perhaps an asshole.   But his work remains what it was, on the shelf and in various galleries.  

But for all the words and acts and despicable behavior of these creative people, the words and voices, the visuals and the acting, the actions and words that caused the outrage does not outweigh the product/work by the creative people.  Sometimes raging assholes have raging anger, raging addictions or are just different.  An example:   Your brain surgeon is able to save your life but he is an asshole.   The next best surgeon is nice, but only 90% as good.   Do you really want a nice surgeon?  Or do you want to come out of the surgery alive and able to think?  As for me I don't want Amy Winehouse to have sung Toxic.   I don't want John Byrne to draw on steroids and cocaine.   I don't want Mel Gibson to be forced to make shit movies.

Sometimes there are assholes in the world.  Sometimes there are bullies.  Sometimes the people we love are assholes.  Sometimes we are assholes demanding others be what we want them to be.  We live in such a hyper-mediated, hyper-medicated, hyper-judgmentalist society.   We demand that people live by our rules, and then, in a twist, we chafe at laws limiting our freedoms.   We chafe at rules because we want to be the judge and jury, above all others.  We are so judgmental that we even limit our sympathy for those who died early, because they didn't do what they should have to endured.

Well screw that.  If you smoke, do it knowing that your health is affected.  If you drink alcohol, tip that glass and drink up.   Your life will be shortened if you over indulge.   If you use illegal drugs, don't hurt anyone else when you do so, but let loose.  The point is, life is short.  Do you want to live forever?   If so go for it. But don't judge those who don't.

I am sickened to death by the lack of empathy in humanity towards the suffering of others.   When people are assholes, it doesn't remove their worth.   It just challenges us to finding that worth through the crap.   But humans deserve compassion for their suffering, regardless of their choices.


I've been swamped with nasty emails suggesting since I drink, smoke or am fat that I believe these things.   Indeed, I am fat.   I am 6'4" and 270 lbs.   That isn't skinny or medium weight for anyone.  I am heavy.   I like smoking cigars but haven't for almost a decade, and stopped mostly in 1998 when my wife was pregnant with my son.   I enjoy drinking, but I get gout if I do, so I have to choose my spots when I do it.    But I don't believe in what I wrote because of my own choices.  

You are welcome to think about me whatever you like.   I believe that people are free to choose their path, and in doing so, the choices they make should be their own to make.   I believe this comes from my view of God.  I cannot choose another person's beliefs or values.  Therefore, all I can do is act upon my own beliefs and allow others to do the same.   For example, abortion, in my opinion, kills a baby, but I think it should be legal, because with the gray area of discussion, people who are dealing with the choice of abortion are the ones who need to make that choice.   I do not say this without some understanding.   I was born of a rape in 1963 and would have been aborted had my birth mother faced the situation 10 years or more later.  

Choices we make are our own to make.   If you don't agree with someone else's choice, then don't make that choice for yourself.  That is where I come from.