“Keeping Festival” (1997) by Mollie L. Burleson

I first “met” Lovecraft around 1950, when I saw Orson Welles read “The Rats in the Walls on TV. I was stunned. Later I searched for Lovecraft at libraries, book sales, and just about everywhere. Finally in 1971 I found a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I wrote an inscription in it stating how happy I was to find it! […] He took me to Marblehead (Kingsport, as I soon learned), and we met Ken Neily there to celebrate the real Yuletide. What a wonderful experience that was. We went there for fifteen years, never missing a one. We went in sleet, snow, ice, rain, etc. In time, other lovers of HPL joined us […]
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 47

Marblehead, December 21st. Lovecraft aficionado Paul wants to experience Yuletide in Kingsport, for the first time, to try and find something of what inspired Lovecraft to write “The Festival”—and finds, along the way, an unexpected bit of company. A three page story which is not exactly an homage to Lovecrat’s fiction, but to the meaning of that fiction to one person. A prose poem about the experience of Lovecraft’s fiction, which  can be both solitary and intensely personal or a shared and communal.

As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, there is a degree of awareness involved in this story. “Keeping Festival” establishes quickly that Lovecraft existed, as a writer of fiction, as he does in the world we know; there is never a suggestion, as is sometimes popular in works like Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), that the Cthulhu Mythos is also real—the world presented is as close to a realistic and accurate portrayal of contemporary Marblehead as possible. It is not, strictly speaking, a fantastic story at all but an episode from life.

Until a nameless man arrives to share the experience, one as immediately familiar to Cthulhu Mythos fans as the appearance of a particular beekeeper would be to Sherlockians. At this point, the brief sketch dips into magical realism—or perhaps just a daydream—as the stranger takes their leave, and Paul is left in a sublime moment of reliving a scene from their story.

Without being a sequel or prequel or in any way a part of the narrative of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” Burleson’s is nevertheless completely beholden to it. In three pages she tries to capture something like fifteen years of Yuletide gatherings on the same scene. Not for the sake of Lovecraftian horror, or to add on to the Cthulhu Mythos, or as a commentary on Lovecraft’s fiction but as a testament to how it made her feel. The old familiar ritual, the desire for a communion with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had walked those snow-laden streets which he had set down on paper in 1923.

On each 21st, Don would stand on the steps of the church, prototype of the one in “The Festival,” and recite from it with all of us looking on, beginning with “The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see.”
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 48

Is the reader then a participant, or a witness? Context is important. This is not a story for the uninitiated: readers without a fair familiarity with “The Festival” are not going to pick up on the references to that story, just as readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft himself will not pick up on the Easter egg of the piece. This is the kind of short fiction that can really only be written to an audience already steeped in Lovecraftiana—and combined with the realistic and almost sentimental tone, it’s perhaps no surprise that its one and only appearance in print is the relatively obscure Return to Lovecraft Country (1997).

Mollie Burleson has written a handful other pieces of Lovecraftiana and Mythos fiction, including “The Buglight” (1994), “Literary Remains” (1996), “The Dome” (2010), “Hotel del Lago” (2014), “The Quest” (2016), and “A Yuletide Carol” (2016), but is probably best remembered for her essay “The Outsider: A Woman?” (1990, Lovecraft Studies #22/23), which suggests an alternative and influential reading of Lovecraft’s story.

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