H.P. Lovecraft and Me

Yeah, I know. H.P. Lovecraft’s star is in decline these days, what with his racism and all. Ironically, Edgar Allen Poe was a racist AND a pedophile, but he still seems to be okay.  Everyone and everything we love turns out to be horrible.

Go figure.

There’s room, I think, for a fairly nuanced discussion of both Lovecraft’s racism and the racism of his era. I’ll write about that one of these days.

Like it or not, Lovecraft was an incredibly influential writer. Just out there, his weird scary stories had generations of shy young nerds stumbling around mumbling about tentacles and yog sothoth and whatnot.

I was one of those. I’ve actually written a couple of major Lovecraft stories: Dawn of Cthulhu, and Life, Love and the Necronomicon. Major in that they’re long, and I think, unique. Not that they’re famous or anything. But they’re good stories, so check them out. This blog is about trying to sell you on my work after all.

For me, the Lovecraft story was ‘The Colour Out of Space,’ a story which if you are concerned, has no racist aspects whatsoever as far as I can tell, and can be happily read by the most woke among us.

First I read it.

And then I lived it.

First, a little background: I was born and raised in a place called Dalhousie, New Brunswick. I mixed French/English town on the north shore of New Brunswick, sitting on Bay Chaleur, facing the red cliffs of Quebec’s Gaspe.

It was a very traditional Norman Rockwell sort of place. All these quaint little houses, and winding streets up and down rolling hills. The heart of the town was the pulp and paper mill that dominated one side of main street. It was the pulse, the biggest employer by far, three times a day, the mill doors would open, and the men of the shift would come marching out, the new shift coming in. The mill ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But it wasn’t the only thing, we had a chemical plant down the road, a regional power plant up the road, we were a shipping port, a fishing centre. The main street was filled with shops and stores. There were even car dealerships. People had good jobs, made good money; there was a sense that this was a pretty good place to live.

People grew up there, had families there and their children lived there. I have a picture at home – me, my great grandfather, my father and grandfather, all four generations sitting on the couch together. My dad was the only one with a full head of hair at that time. I grew up with my grandparents, with my uncle and aunt across the street, with cousins and the neighborhood kids. That was how my dad had grown up, how everyone did; your best friend at five years old was still around when you were ninety. I remember my parents having conversations about people, where you’d mention a name, and there’d be five minutes just sorting out their genealogy, before it got to whatever the point was. People weren’t just individuals; there was no isolation or anomie. Everyone had a past and a future, was all caught up or embedded in the webworks of everyone’s lives.

It wasn’t perfect, by any means. But I think it embodied a kind of community and social solidarity, a network of deep roots and connectedness that I don’t think we really see any more, in this era of isolation and loneliness.

I read somewhere once that the average person lives six hundred miles from where they were born.

Isn’t that amazing?

I’m astounded, how do you know your grandparents that way? I saw my grandparents practically every other day, went fishing, hung out at their house, was taught woodworking, they were constant vital presences in my life. What would it be like for them to just be strangers you’d talk to at Christmas, visitors every few months? All the intimacy of extended family, of extended community, sheared away and replaced with a narrow overworked tiny nuclear family unit and a world of transient friendships and arm’s length relationships.

How do you have any kind of roots that way? So far from and so disconnected from your cousins, your neighbors, from the lands and paths and sights that sense of place that used to be shared between generations. As I said, I’m kind of amazed.

But here I am living in this brave new world, my own old world largely gone.

But I digress. I do that a lot actually.

You’ll have to decide whether you like it or not.

I was in high school, it was recess. I wasn’t popular, and truth to tell, I wasn’t friendly. Usually at recess I just headed down to the library and leafed through the books. Sometimes I just worked my way through the encyclopaedias. Sometimes I read other stuff.

This particular day, I picked up a collection of short stories. It was some anthology or other. I can’t really remember. Just some random collection of stories by various authors with a somewhat literary bent. Not specifically genre – not science fiction or horror or even fantasy. Just… stories.

I looked through; I kind of liked weird tales. So I gravitated to this one story that seemed up my alley.

The Colour Out of Space.

I was riveted. Literally. The language, the style both vivid and practical, the sense of the ordinary and the unnatural, and the dread, inescapable progression. I couldn’t tear myself away. The recess bell rang and I had to leave the library. I just took the book with me, reading in the hallways. The Librarian didn’t say anything; she just let me walk off with a book.

I took it to my next class, a history class, and I sat at my desk. I ignored everything the teacher said. I just read that story. I literally could not let it go. The teacher walked up to me, and then he seemed to change his mind, and just walked back. Math class, where I finished it, the same thing. No one wanted to get between me and that story, I must have radiated fascination, fixation, the sort of single mindedness that radiated – don’t mess with this.

I felt at the end when I put it down, exhausted and exhilarated, horrified and weirdly elated. It was so good; it was such a wonderful story. And at the same time, so dread, so full of awful relentless energy that built and built. But not frothy, not showy. Just a progression, like taking a long walk, each step getting darker.

I don’t know if that story made me want to be a writer. Actually, no, that particular life mistake goes further back. But it awakened me to the power of writing, to the fact that a story wasn’t just something that happened, but could be a matter of being, of existing and feeling. That a story could affect you, deeply.

For those of you who haven’t read it: A meteor falls from the sky onto a farmer’s land. It’s a weird funny colour, but it evaporates away so everyone forgets about it. Then things start to get weird, people start getting slowly sick but no one is sure why, the apples come sour, the crops rot, everything slowly gets distorted by this creeping contamination. It just goes on slowly and subtly, so no one really notices. Finally, the farmer’s family literally disintegrates. A light crawls out of the well and goes back into space, the same colour as the meteor, but a portion of the light falls back. There’s no happy ending. Just this… contamination. There’s no ‘monster’, there’s no ‘agenda’ or ‘motivation.’ The contamination is just there, slowly gnawing away at everything, twisting it without our ever noticing, without ever being able to do anything.

It chilled me to the bone.

Maybe, somehow, way back then, I sensed what was coming.

Dalhousie was an industrial town in the 60’s and 70’s. You know what that means?

It means that the chemical plant could have spills into the bay, and they’d get fined a dollar each time. Because the alternative was losing those jobs. I read someplace that the waters around Dalhousie had something like a dozen times the acceptable levels of mercury contamination, a contamination that would last for well over a century. That was the end of the fishermen, of dragging for scallops and flatfish, of digging clams down at the bar. A trade off, I guess. Some jobs for the plant, versus the livelihoods of some fishermen, some families gained, some lost. A little piece of traditional life, that webwork of activities, clam digging in summer, snowshoeing in winter. It got frayed a little bit.

The power plant they built was coal fired. As kids we’d find pieces of coal along the train tracks. Amazing! Rocks could burn. I remember me and my brother watching fascinated as we burned pieces of coal in the fireplace. But as the plant came on line, everything got dirty. There was a film of grime on the cars. You couldn’t hang laundry outdoors any more, because it came back in dirtier than it went out. They built giant smokestacks, miraculously tall. The landscape changed, people’s lives changed, just in subtle ways. No one paid too much attention. You talked about it, sure, and then you talked about other things.

The mill got bought out by the Japanese; it was renovated, new machines, fewer workers. The overpass was built, so travellers took the highway, fewer cars and fewer tourists. Cable came in, the theatre closed, and then the drive in. Not a big deal, none of it, the world just moving on as it does.

My grandmother died of cancer. She smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, so there you go. They doctors couldn’t do anything for her. So they sent her home, and we all sat with her, taking shifts, waiting. I remember in teenage grief and rage, promising that if I ever met anyone from the tobacco industry, I would fucking chop them with an axe. Funny little note: I’ve never actually abandoned that promise. I probably wouldn’t do it though.

I moved away for University. I came back to work each summer at my Dad’s garage, each holiday. I graduated, got a job. It was harder to visit now, money was tighter, there was less time. But I came back to visit now and then.

My roots went back generations. I think that if I could have come back, settled down, made a living there, I would have. I think that in some Norman Rockwell alternate world, that’s how my life should have turned out – settled down, become a respectable country lawyer, married the girl next door, raised a family. Go figure.

But I came back. My grandfather came down with cancer. I came back. We used to sit on the veranda, the three of us. Me, him and his cancer. We’d watch the hummingbirds feed, and the cars go back and forth, and just sit in the sun. We didn’t talk much. There’s not a lot to say at times like that, the overwhelming fact of cancer tends to make it all pointless. I stayed as long as I could. Finally, I had to go.

I hugged him and said “I’ll miss you Pepare.”

He said “I’ll miss you too.”

I thought, ‘there should be more to it.’ It seemed like it wasn’t enough. It never is. Mortality makes speech banal. Against its terrible weight, words are empty crumpled things.

A month later, I had to come back all over again.

He was gone by the time I arrived.

I suppose that’s when I started to notice it. The small disintegrations and distortions. The port shut down. The chemical plant closed, I suppose that even not paying for their spills, they couldn’t make a go, or it was just more efficient to pollute somewhere else on some larger scale. Houses, here and there started to become more decrepit. The cheerful streets and paths of our Norman Rockwell town grew ragged, the concrete breaking up, disintegrating in acidic rain. Things breaking down, falling apart, becoming overgrown.

I grew up working at the drive in, and so every trip back, I’d visit that lot, just for the memories. Brush creeping back. The big sixty foot screen started to lose its panels, holes showing up, like a moth eaten sweater. Eventually it was just a few panels and posts, and each summer, fewer of those great posts. Broken windows and peeling paint. My dad started using it for a junkyard for cars, which created a grisly Deja vu.

The mill had cutbacks, changed hands again and again. The last set of owners obtained exorbitant concessions from the province. The fuckers, asking for everything, grubbing everything they could get, in the end… giving nothing back.

The town was changing, withering. The young people like me, most of us were leaving, going elsewhere. We had been called by the infathomable forces of economics and ambition to leave our roots, live six hundred miles from where we were born to make strange new lives, both small and large. Some stayed behind, a few with prospects following the traditional Norman Rockwell pathways, some without. The world changes, it’s not good or bad.

But the town aged, people got older. There were more funerals and fewer births. The seniors home expanded, the schools contracted. It got frailer. There wasn’t as much money, not as many jobs.

My dad got cancer. I wanted to come back. He said wait. He beat it. I came back, and heard the story. The world wasn’t so bad.

Then a year later, my mother got cancer. Just got the word. She went to the Doctor, then she came home and pulled all the linen out of the linen closet. Then she sat there and smoked three cigarettes in a row. Why not? It wasn’t going to make a difference now. Nothing would.

I said I wanted to come back. They said wait. A month later, my father called up and said “Better get down here quick.”

And so thirty hours later, after cancelled and rerouted flights, after driving fifty miles through a blizzard, I was pounding like a madman at the doors of a hospital in the middle of the night, full of frantic rage and despair. The security guard that came told me it had been closed because of a flu epidemic. He looked at my face and just let us in.

Her cancer had been like wildfire. My mother never opened her eyes. I don’t know that she ever knew we were there. She just lay there, writhing. It was the cancer eating her, she was writhing with pain, and they’d drip morphine to ease. But not too much, because they didn’t want her to get addicted. Damn them. Watching her, sitting with her, I was back in high school, sitting in history class, seeing through the eyes of the protagonist as he finds Nahum’s wife, what’s left of her, hollowed, but just enough left. I was living it now. Living the Colour Out of Space.

She was a nurse, a supervisor, when I was young. That was how she came to our town, how she met my father.  My earliest memories were of her in her white uniform, of going to see her at the hospital. I was proud that she was a nurse, that she helped people. She was the last person to die in that hospital. After she died, they closed it. Apparently, there weren’t enough people to justify it any more. People had moved away. I remember back home, the week that she died, reading a really sarcastic editorial in the big city paper about how that hospital was a waste and should be closed. I won’t tell you what I thought of that. For years, I wanted to meet that writer.

My mother gone. The hospital gone. Both of them together. I guess the parallel struck me as a writer. It was fitting, I guess, in a tragic way.

You know the thing with cancer? It’s about as Lovecraftian as you can get. It’s the real Lovecraftian stuff. Not Cthulhu, not the hoary old gods, and the squid faces and the fish men, that’s what everyone thinks. That’s what all the adolescents think. But it’s cancer. It doesn’t come from anywhere. You don’t catch cancer from a sneeze or not washing your hands, you don’t get it falling off a ladder like breaking your leg. It’s not a bacteria or a virus, not an injury or an egg salad that’s gone off.

It’s just there one day, mysteriously. No cause and effect, or none that you’ll ever truly know. Just something inside you, a cell, goes rogue, changes, grows, and sends out little tentacles that change other cells. And then somehow, there’s something alien and indifferent eating you from inside. No mind, no motive, no shape, no shape. It doesn’t have any wants or urges, no opinions or desires.  It doesn’t have teeth or bite. It just eats you. An indifferent mindless death, for Lovecraft’s indifferent, mindless world.

It was happening faster now, each time I came back. The mill shut down, and the beating heart of the town, that rhythm, stilled. My brother was on the last shift, the last person to walk out. The power plant shut down. Too late by then, acidic smoke had rotted concrete and rooftops everywhere. Decay, a kind of existential cancer was everywhere. At the drive in, the screen and its supporting poles were gone. The roof had fallen in on the canteen, I looked through shattered window and saw the old projectors fallen through the floor. The garage where dad worked was chaos, junk and decay, the brickwork failing, the roof leaking.

My father’s cancer came back. The mill was shuttered, broken windows, a chain link fence across the lawn. The post office building was abandoned. It was this beautiful red brick building. They’d replaced it with a new built post office, nowhere near as stylish. It had found different purposes.

But there were copper thieves, you see. Times were tough; people were poor and hardscrabble, particularly the ones who stayed behind because they weren’t fit to go anywhere else. So what they did, was they’d break into empty houses, and they’d rip the wires out of the walls, they’d cut away the iron and copper plumbing. There was a scrap metal dealer just across the border who asked no questions.

That beautiful red brick building, with its columns and pillars and cornices, gutted from the inside. Just another hulk sitting there to rot, now a monument to its own necrosis. Another piece of Norman Rockwell gone.

They did that a lot. People left on vacations, came back; houses would be gutted and worthless. Whatever stood vacant was pillaged for pennies.  Pennies! There was a man who had a seasonal motel just outside town, nice place, nice guy. Copper thieves broke in one room, with their hacksaws and crow bars, and then they just ripped through each wall, to room after room, stripping it. They didn’t even have to open a door. Like cancer cells, they just consumed. He came back in the spring, and opened the door… I can’t imagine how he must have felt. That place had been his whole life. He gave it to the bank and walked away. And the bank? It had no use, no worth, just let it sit and rot.

The main street was emptying out, empty storefronts facing the dead mill. One day, I walked out into the middle of the main street in the middle of the day and just stood there… and there was nothing. No cars, no traffic, no people. It was a ghost town with people still living in it.

The next year, the Mill was gone. The building had been torn down. The carpetbaggers who’d owned it had sucked up everything they could extract from the province decided that they didn’t want anyone else buying it and running a paper mill, or I suppose, anything else in that building. Maybe they just didn’t like paying property taxes on the empty building.

It was the strangest thing to see it gone.

The Mill steps were there, and the lawn. Now the steps rose up to… nothing. To emptiness. Steps to nowhere. And the rest? The chain link fence, the strip of lawn, and this endless expanse of gravel all the way out to the bay. The Mill had shaped the town, had shaped and reshaped the very landscape with its works. Now? Just gravel.

My dad said to me “things have to get better. It can’t get any worse.”

There was talk, I heard, about preserving the stairs. Some sort of memento. The next year, even the stairs were gone. So was most of the other side of main street. The men’s wear I’d gotten my high school graduation suit, the place I’d bought the jacket and shirt the day of my mother’s funeral was gone. The bowling alley was gone. The pool hall. The auto parts store. Just a street of empty shuttered buildings. You couldn’t even sell them, there was no one to buy.

A mall had been built in more optimistic times. But it was as empty and cracked and dying as everything else. Just small stores there hanging on, not progressing. Just clinging as entropy ground everything down around them.

The drive in was just dead cars and encroaching growth, the building just collapsed splinters, the garage drowning in its own clutter, the motel falling in. The land sank, concrete buckled, doors went askew. Everything was out of true, off center, crumbling and peeling.

People used to have gardens. But not anymore. The chemical plant’s legacy was mercury, the mill’s was arsenic and god knows what else. They weren’t careful about pollution. The gardens used to be carrots and turnips, squashes, fresh vegetables. Now sour and toxic. I don’t remember when gardens faded away.

But I remember standing at a pothole in a parking lot at the edge of main street.  It had been a parking lot for the mill workers, when the town had been alive. With the mill gone, it was just a parking lot next to nowhere with no purpose.

But there I was, at the edge of an empty main street, a gravel lot behind a chain link fence down one side. Empty buildings on the other.  In a pointless parking lot, staring at a pothole eaten into the asphalt, half full of muddy water. And as the light hit it, I saw sheen. That slick, luminescent rainbow of hydrocarbons or pollutants. There it was, the colour out of space. But it wasn’t from space. It was just from outside.

We’d been an industrial town. The world outside had come and built and intruded, had been reckless or disinterested, and had left its contamination, its toxins, and moved on. All it left was decay, hollowed out failing shells of buildings, rust and rot, everyone growing thin and feeble and the future growing remote. My aunt died of cancer. My uncle came down with it and died. My cousins. I was getting the message.

My father was frailer each time I went back. The second last time, there wasn’t much left. He decided to go to the fish store for crab. We were a seaside place; crab and lobster were the local delicacies, eaten without delicacy. So we broke crab legs. He said they had no taste.

The next time, it was my brother. He wanted me to talk to the Doctor. The Doctor said ‘better come home.’ The hospital was in Moncton, two hundred miles away. The hospital back home was long gone. He never opened his eyes. He never woke. He moved a little, when my sister called; her voice reaching through to whatever small place was left to him as the cancer ate everything else. I remembered that story again.

I remember the Doctor at the hospital making conversation with me. So many cancer cases from Dalhousie. More than anywhere else. It was weird. He gave this little laugh. Probably a coincidence. I nodded, but in that moment, what I wanted was a crowbar. No one understands the rage inside you in these moments of grief, the rabid urgent need to strike out at an indifferent world, or the futility of it.

No. It wasn’t a coincidence. You take a town, and you bring a mill, and chemical plant, and a coal plant, and you poison the waters, and poison the water and poison the land, and you never give it a thought, because the money goes somewhere else, and the poison stays. And the world turns and we all go one by one. Not a coincidence, Doctor. It’s the world.

He breathed his last. So my brother and I took him home and buried him. I gave the eulogy. The church was mostly empty. Hollowed out like the rest of the town. I went by his garage one last time, and peaked into the window for a look at his 57 Ford Convertible, restored in happier days. He’d been a mechanic for sixty years. I’d been there, in diapers with him, when he ran the foundation for the garage. It would never open again.

I went away, and never came back.

I suppose I will someday.

But there’s no one left there now, but my brother. He told me that copper thieves got Dad’s house. One more gutted building I guess in a town being hollowed out by them.

I’m a little afraid of what I will find when I finally go.

The colour is in me. I feel it.

Years later, someone would explain to me that I’d gotten it wrong. The Colour Out of Space is really about an alien who falls to earth and lives in a well in the water, then it goes back, but leaves a piece of itself behind.

I thought, “you damned idiot.”   I didn’t say it to his face because I’m polite, for now. Maybe someday I’ll stop.

It’s about the family, and it’s about the land, and the strange decay. It’s the cancer, mindless, motiveless, without identity or form, that consumes from the inside, that twists. The alien doesn’t matter, it’s just a prop. The story is about entropy, it’s about something from outside coming in, so subtly we barely know it, and changing, eating away.

Lovecraft wrote a lot about decay. Some of his best stories are full of it, the fishing town that dies slowly changing into something else, the Dutch family falling into ruin and beastialism, the rotting house where a strange family grows stranger. I think that may have been unusual for the era he started writing, the roaring twenties, which seems full of desperate optimism. Or for the depression thirties, which saw less decay and more ruin and collapse. Lovecraft wrote about entropy over and over, and through his work, the shadow of cancer runs.

So that’s Lovecraft and me. I read his story, and then I lived it.

I suppose, in some personal way, we’ll all live it sooner or later. From what I know of his life, he lived it to, coming to the end where cancer ate him as mindlessly and purposelessly as it devoured almost everyone I knew.

I’ve read all his other stories, there’s some intense stuff. And some not so good stuff. Not planning on living out any of the rest of them, I’ll tell you that. But I recommend them. I read his revisions too.

I read Derleth’s ‘collaborations’, and his ‘followers’ like Lumley, and my god, it’s amazing how spectacularly people can miss the point. My Lovecraft stories are a complete rebellion against those guys. And again, you should seek them out; I mean let’s face it, if you’ve read all the way to this point… why not? Like I said, the whole purpose is to get people to read my stuff.

I’ve never read his letters. He apparently wrote a lot, and it’s quite a body of literate work. I probably never will. I’m satisfied to know the man through his stories.

But that story, that one story, stands out. I think I read it at the perfect time, an impressionable teenager, stumbling on it out of the blue, never imagining what I was falling into. Maybe for other people it’s an ordinary story. But for me, it was world shaking. I had never imagined writing so powerful. I had never imagined being so affected.

This is not, for the record, some twilight zone episode. There was no cause and effect. The story didn’t change the pathway of my life, it wasn’t some prophecy that infected me and forced my existence into its narrative. The truth is, if I had never read that story, everything would have been exactly the same. Everyone would have died, exactly the way and when they died, the town would have withered, the mill been reduced to gravel, I would have still been staring at the strange colours in the muddy water of a pothole, in an empty lot, in an empty town.

In the end, I would have still ended up alone, in a world full of strangers, a thousand miles from my roots, and whatever is in me waiting for its time, that colour would still be there.

It changed nothing.

But I did read it, and I’ve thought about it again and again over the decades. I’ve recognised it in moments of my own life.

That’s what good writing is, I guess. It’s more than just description and people and things happening to other things. It’s all that, and that’s fine, it’s even great. But really good writing touches who we are, it makes us feel, it makes us see ourselves in it, and see it in ourselves, it shows us things.

For all his flaws as a writer and human being, Lovecraft had something, hit on something genuine. I think we all want to do that.  The Colour isn’t really from Space, it’s here with us.

 

 

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