Welcome to the H. P. Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories. We hope to explore both the awesome and the problematic, both the deliberately and accidentally horrific. Reading order will be more or less random. As the Great Race of Yith would point out, if they cared enough to do so, linear time is merely an illusion anyway.
We’ll start today with a discussion of what drew us to Lovecraft in the first place, and what we’ve found there since.
ANNE: Let’s see. I think my fascination for horror began when my grandmother foolishly (or luckily) brought me to a double feature of Godzilla (yes, the original) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Baby Jane was way scarier. Godzilla just seemed like a big old lizard looking for a snack among all those pesky buildings and cars and squeaking humans. Kind of like poor Cthulhu, awakened from his aeons-long nap by pesky yet nutritious sailors. Except I didn’t know Cthulhu yet. On the way to Lovecraft, I remember devouring an ancient collection of Poe, followed by Rosemary’s Baby, via flashlight under the sheets. Baby was extra terrifying because not only would my mother kill me if she caught me reading it, but once I was dead I was going straight to hell, because the Catholic Church had CONDEMNED THIS BOOK! Yes, right there in red on the church bulletin board, along with all those evil R- and X-rated movies I also wanted to see.
I don’t think the Church knew enough about Lovecraft to realize he was a much, much bigger threat to the mundane religions of this world than Levin’s infant with its cute little talons and horn-buds and sweet yellow eyes.
RUTHANNA: I came to science fiction late, around adolescence, and the only horror stories I liked at the time were Steven King’s Carrie and Firestarter, which I adored as unpopular-geek-girl revenge fantasies rather than as anything I found personally horrifying. I also loved end of the world stories—again as comfort reads.
I come from a family of Reform Jews and librarians for whom the only heresy is censorship. So I missed any spice that might have been added to my reading by the lure of the forbidden. Not that I’m complaining. I remember picking up a ratty old copy of Stranger in a Strange Land at a yard sale, and my mother was right there and didn’t say a thing. I didn’t care about the sex, I was just hungry for the worldbuilding.
ANNE: I didn’t know about Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos until my sixth or seventh grade self was trolling the book store for what Austen’s Catherine Moreland called “horrid” stories, “horrid” being her highest term of praise. There! A whole line-up of covers featuring heads—or semi-heads—in various states of disfigurement and mutation. There was this ratman with a rat tail draped out of his empty eyesockets! A staring blue face with cloud-like brains erupting from the top of its skull! A face seemingly composed of green slime, dripping, with shards of glass thrust through a squamous bald pate! I’d learn that the art was only obliquely related to the stories within these books, but that didn’t matter. For the first time I was entering Mythos Land, and I knew very soon that it would be for an extended stay. The air suited me somehow, whether it took the form of a sirocco freighted with the spiced decay of tombs or an Antarctic gale alive with inhuman yet weirdly sentient pipings.
RUTHANNA: I didn’t come to Lovecraft through Lovecraft at all. The Cthulhu Mythos was ubiquitous among the fannish crowd at my little western Massachusetts liberal arts college. Jokes, stuffed shoggoths, GURPS IOU, Call of Cthulhu, the Illuminatus Trilogy… It appealed to the same thing in me that loved everything post-apocalyptic. There’s a weird sort of comfort in that type of ultimate crisis, survivable or otherwise. I wanted everything I could get my tentacles on. I read the Illuminatus Trilogy waiting in line at Disneyland, which was not only a mind-altering experience, but probably influenced the way I interpret Lovecraftiana—it’s a wonderful lens for making everything else darker and stranger, and lenses taken from other perspectives make Lovecraft more nuanced and intriguing. (Of course, all these explanations may pale beside the fact that the college in question gets its water from the Quabbin Reservoir—Lovecraft had Things to say about the wisdom of drinking from the Quabbin.)
ANNE: One thing I knew for sure. Two, actually. The cosmos was way bigger and way less cozy than I’d ever imagined it before, acquainted as I’d been only with the homelier horrors of trolls and werewolves, devils and vampires. Want to know what’s both worse and cooler than a plain old reanimated corpse of a vampire? How about a SPACE vampire, all mouths and grasping claws? Or a life-energy sucker without form, with only a COLOR, but no color in the normal spectrum? On the “softer” side, there was the allure of the Dreamlands and the tales Lovecraft fashioned after his other great influence after Poe, Lord Dunsany. A trip to unknown Kadath, via ghouls and gugs, cities made of onyx, aboard silk-sailed ships that float over ruins to which sailors are tethered like watery balloons, their eyes ripped out? Count me in, but leave my eyes. I don’t want to miss anything.
This stuff is so weird, I thought, so out there, so unutterably cool. You know, like space and time themselves. Other cosmologies should kind of get out more.
RUTHANNA: I finally got my wife to read the actual Lovecraft stories aloud to me, years later, while I was cooking dinner. It was very interactive—we would exclaim over the amazing worldbuilding details, but also the intrusions of overt racism and the number of times he uses “cyclopean” within a single story. I could see everything I loved from the Lovecraftiana in the original. But I could also see both the deeper, darker themes that few of the other writers in his sandbox manage, and the deeply problematic underpinnings that have been glossed over in later work. For him, at least, the two seemed intrinsically linked.
For the most part I read Lovecraft as science fiction. While he emphasized fear, he also wrote about a vast universe, abundant with intelligences that live and die over the sort of deep time that few authors have the vision for. His creations are rich in wonder and awe and yes, in terror, often at the same time.
Sometimes I read Lovecraft as horror—but inverted from the horror that he intended. The guts of deep and abiding prejudice are hard to portray in modern fiction. If I were to write a character that expressed racism as blatantly as Lovecraft did, they would be perceived as a straw man. In his stories, I can look at an existential threat to me and mine from a—mostly—safe distance. And I can get an idea of what it looks like from inside, in a way that lets me confront that fear and make it—mostly—bearable.
This shapes my reading inescapably: I am one of Lovecraft’s monsters. When he writes in his letters about the shuddering horror of 1920s Brooklyn, those are my ancestors he crosses the street to avoid. He says that I am “the product of alien blood, and inherit alien ideals, impulses, and emotions” and that my very presence produces “a shuddering physical repugnance.” When I read his stories, I don’t—can’t—assume that he’s a more reliable narrator of his own created world than of the one he observes when he looks up from his typewriter.
And Lovecraft’s genius was that in his stories you can still see the possibility of a complex world, as worthy of awe as of terror, even when terror is all he describes.
Our First Mythos Stories:
ANNE: The first Lovecraftian story I remember writing, in high school, involved a nice young couple who inherit an isolated cottage on the coast of Massachusetts, oh, not so very far from Innsmouth. In fact, the wife has relatives there. And she’s pregnant. And there’s this crazy manhole cover in a sub-basement, covered with unknown runes. I believe it imprisons three creatures distantly related to the Innsmouth folk, but more like iguana-human hybrids than fish-frog-humans. Naturally the wife’s really semi-iguana, but this folklorist professor has kept her looking human, but reversion’s inevitable once the manhole cover comes up.
You know, the usual domestic drama.
RUTHANNA: My first published story was a drabble of Cthulhoid humor, written for a speed-writing contest at JerseyDevilCon and available in whatever copies of that issue of Nth Degree still exist. The elder gods were just trying to win a bet, y’see, about who could start the biggest religion…
It’s really not much like “Litany of Earth.” I’m not sure it’s like anything else I’ve published.
Adventures in Rereading:
ANNE: So here I am, a pile of lovely Arkham House editions of the Lovecraft oeuvre before me. Ruthanna and I have agreed to begin with “The Thing on the Doorstep,” a story I’ve always found peculiarly terrifying despite its less prominent place in the canon. Rereading it these many years later, with both eyes open to the horrors between the lines, has been a revelation. Psychosexual anxiety practically drips off the pages, and that great literary concern, personal identity, is front and center—the shoggoths and Outer Gods take back seats here, from which they probably watch the human flailings with distant bemusement. We humans, however, are stuck with gender and personality, so we get to squirm over the travails of poor Edward Pickman Derby.
As I continue work on a series of contemporary Mythos novels, each of which features an iconic location, I look forward to my fresh travels in Lovecraft country as both research and rediscovery. Arkham, Kingsport, Innsmouth, Dunwich, Providence real and ideal, the Dreamlands! Side trips to Antarctica, the Australian and American deserts, deep dark Vermont! Now there’s an itinerary. I’m packed. The night-gaunts are ready to carry me off, and they promise not to tickle me, too much.
RUTHANNA: I wanted to start with Thing because of the combination of personal and cosmic horror, because of the mess of gender and identity issues—and of course, because it gives one more fascinating and disturbing look at Innsmouth. As I write the next piece of Aphra’s story, I’ve been reading Lovecraft with closer attention than in the past. That attention has rewarded me not only with juicy problematic bits that I missed the first time around, but with the chance to stare more deeply into the abyss of riches that drew me to the Mythos in the first place.
You may have gathered that I have a somewhat fraught relationship with Lovecraft. I kind of hope that some of my reactions make him spin in his grave—and that some of them make him want to nod in agreement and post a fascinating response in the comments section.
ANNE: Though Lovecraft killed off Joseph Curwen at the end of Charles Dexter Ward, I have it from impeccable sources that the ancient Puritan wizard has “reincorporated” and that he plans to necromance the ashes of his faulty chronicler. In which case Lovecraft will discover the incredible playground of the Internet and, great epistolarian that he was, comment profusely all over the place.
Ruthanna Emrys’s “The Litany of Earth” was recently published on Tor.com. Her work has also appeared in Analog and Strange Horizons, and she can frequently be found on Livejournal and Twitter. Genetic tests give a 93% probability that she’s entirely human, just as she has always claimed.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” is published on Tor.com, and her first novel, Summoned, is now available from Tor Teen. She currently lives in a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.