By Bobby Derie
You only get to discover Lovecraft once—in a worn paperback with tanned leaves, or the severe little hardback with faded golden letters down the spine on the library shelf, or in the soft pages of an old magazine in your dad’s office, or lurking in some plain and unglamorous archive on the internet. Though you may encounter him again in a thousand different forms, there is never again the sense of discovery, of coming across the unknown. Only the familiarity of revisiting someone you have already met, and the ritual of re-reading what you had once read.
As a lad, I fell into Lovecraft through my father’s old paperbacks. Filled notebook pages with names and the titles of books real and imaginary, building a library of the mind and tracing the borders and milestones of Lovecraft Country. It was what I did, back then, as we moved from one post to the next, our little family out of sync with the schedules of other folk. The military is not always kind to families; school years and curricula varied from one place to another. Always the new kids. Holidays often saw my brother and I visiting our grandparents in Massachusetts, to hear strange yet familiar accents and drive down winding lanes past dry stone walls, to play in the snow beneath looming evergreens, to smell wood-smoke on the air, and hold our breath as we passed cemeteries. Far and away from the decrepit villages and archaic towns that Lovecraft promised, but a constant to cling to, no matter where we were stationed.
Adulthood brings new perspective, and while I carried my appreciation for Lovecraft into manhood, exposure to Lovecraft’s letters and the critical literature surrounding the man and his work—and just greater exposure to literature in literature—changed the way I read his work. Unthinking praise gave way to more considered analysis: the architecture of the stories, the way he structured the plot, language, and characters, is now more apparent to me; his influences and precursors are now more obvious, the events of his life and thought reflected more clearly on the page. It wasn’t quite a rediscovery of Lovecraft, but it was a very different way of looking at and understanding the man and his work. It’s no wonder I got out the notebook again, though these days I look for very different things.
I still go through my Yuletide ritual reread of “The Festival,” which smacks of the kind of ghost-story that M. R. James would have whispered before a blazing log to attentive younger relatives. In an age when holidays are often anything but holy, and the rest of the world teeters between saccharine sentiment and crass commercialism, it brings a smile to my face to read of that pilgrimage to old Kingsport, the strange relations and queer books with odd and exciting titles. I could be back in my grandfather’s library in New England, watching the snow fall on the lichen-covered stones outside, if only for a little while.
“The Cats of Ulthar” is another story dear to my heart, and one that I tend to push on the cat-lovers in my life. Friends and cousins devoted to their four-footed furry fiends, who hardly have time or interest to read indulge me every now and again, probably not sure what to expect. “Cats” is like “The Festival” in the respect that it’s a liminal tale, on the edge of Lovecraft’s Mythos, skirting the longer and more involved stories—and yet, oddly central too. There is no need to read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath to understand or appreciate “Cats,” or vice versa, but I have always held that “Cats” is a better tale, more complete and satisfying in itself. “Cats,” like “The Festival,” stands alone, yet is a part of a greater fabric.
My most well-thumbed edition of Lovecraft has a rectangle of onionskin tucked in near the spine, at the beginning of “The Picture in the House.” The opening paragraph is as pure a distillation of Lovecraft as you’ll find anywhere, seemingly effortless yet beautifully suggestive and leading at the same time. It assumes a conclusion that some might—and have—fought over. Yet the sentiment is pure, and the underlying message of local horrors resonates to anyone familiar with that habit of those who have stayed too long in one place, to glamourize and fetishize the strange and exotic. Why else do we spend hours in libraries, reading of dead kings in their finery, or the lost wonders of civilizations that succumbed to war and famine, flood and earthquake, degeneration and neglect? Why else do we thrill at the lush prose of Clark Ashton Smith, or the vivid impulse of Robert E. Howard, the quiet glory of Arthur Machen and the timeless enchantment of Lord Dunsany, except for the shadows of something else on otherwise small and drab lives?
“The Picture in the House” is only seven and a half pages in this edition, and I have read it many times, careful always to put the marker back in its place. It is perhaps not the best story that Lovecraft ever wrote—“The Colour Out of Space” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” would vie for that; and it is less popular than “The Dunwich Horror” or “The Rats in the Walls.” The ending is pure pulp, the final line dashed as the levinbolt strikes, which critics have their fun with, and the nameless narrator takes back seat to pure exposition more often than not. Yet it is so direct and excellent in its hinting, without ever showing; it is what the milk man shudders at when he sees the dawn, and the Pain of the Goat cast in gold, and the wide-eyed stare of another woman wearing the face of Ligeia. It was, for my younger self, the perfect introduction to Lovecraft. Even today, I can turn back to it with a smile, and picture in my mind that terrible butcher’s shop of the Anziques, and hear that old Massachusetts accent speak of victuals with such terrible relish.
You only get to discover Lovecraft once—but better than never having discovered him at all.