When I was but a young teacher, unmarried, and using what free time I had to play role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller with students and former students and fatherless boys, I came across a game that really creeped me out. And it was quite popular with the kids who relied on me to fill their Saturday afternoons with adventure. It led me on a journey through the darkness to find a fascination with the gruesome, the macabre, and the monstrous. The Call of Cthulhu game brought me to the doorsteps of Miskatonic University and the perilous portals of the infected fishing village of Innsmouth. It introduced me to the nightmare world of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Old H.P. is as fascinating a character as any of the people who inhabit his deeply disturbing horror tales. He was a loner and a “nightbird” but with little social contact in the real world. He lived a reclusive life that included a rather unsuccessful “contract” marriage to an older woman and supporting himself mostly by burning through his modest inheritance. As a writer, he got his start by so irritating pulp fiction publishers with his letters-page rants that he was challenged to write something for a contest article, and won a job as a regular contributor to “Weird Tales” pulp magazine. He was so good that he was offered the editorship of the magazine, but true to form, he turned it down. He resembled most the dreamer characters who accessed the Dreamlands in various ways, but let their mortal lives wither as they explored unknown continents in the Dreamlands and the Mountains of the Moon. He created a detailed mythos in his stories about Cthulhu and Deep Ones and the Elder Gods. He died a pauper, well before his stories received the acclaim they have today.
I have to say that I was so enamored of his stories that I had to read them as fast as I could acquire them from bookstores and libraries all over Texas. My favorites include, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness. But reading these stories lost me hour upon hour of sleep, and developed in me a habit of sleeping with the lights on. In Lovecraft’s fiction, sins of your ancestors hang like thunderheads over your life, and we are punished for original sin. A man’s fate can be determined before he is born, and events hurl him along towards his appointed doom. H.P. makes you feel guilty about being alive, and he shakes you to the core with unease about the greater universe we live in, a cold, unfeeling universe that has no love for mankind, and offers no shelter from the horrors of what really goes on beyond the knowing of mortal men.
Loving the stories of H.P. Lovecraft is about deeper things than just loving a good scare. If you are looking for that in a book, read something by Stephen King. H.P. will twist the corners of your soul, and make you think deep thoughts to keep your head above water in deep pools of insanity. I know some of his books belong in yesterday’s post, but we are not talking about happy craziness today. This is the insanity of catharsis and redemption.