Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down
—“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Not many writers would say that Elvis Presley had much to do with Lovecraft; the few who would are like to take a comedic bent, as Yvonne Navarro did in “WWRD” (2018). Yet if a writer were to step back away from the Mythos and look at the themes and ideas expressed by Lovecraft in his fiction—there is a horror story to be woven from the life of Elvis, one as terrible and inevitable as all human stories are.
Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) is better-known in Mythos circles for “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” (1990), which has been reprinted many times, including in the seminal Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology (1995). “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” gets far less attention, and far fewer reprints. The lack of response is probably because it is not what people expect, when they come to a “Lovecraftian” story: no Mythos, no tentacles or eldritch tomes. Parts of it are passages taken directly from books about Elvis’ life, and death, interspersed with stories about snakes which intersect oddly with the rest—they fit, like pieces of a puzzle where the larger picture is still obscure. It’s Lovecraft credits are boiled down to a single quotation, appended at the very end of the text:
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Like “Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell and “Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates, this is a story which stretches the bounds of “Lovecraftian.” It is a work patently informed by something Lovecraft wrote, yet not dependent on any of his individual creations. The narrative is nontraditional, the atmosphere it develops is one of slowly growing disquiet, rather than cosmic horror.
Images, interposed, become conflated by context. The roiling bolus of snakes in a mating ball. The terribly swollen megacolon of Elvis as he sits on his jet-black throne, drugs slowing his digestive system to a terrible crawl. It takes the imagination of the reader to fit the pieces together, to suggest a greater horror than reality…and there is an art and skill in the arrangement of those pieces, to make readers take that approach. The terrible inevitability of the piece lends a sense of apprehension to the whole affair—because most everyone should know how this ends. Elvis, even in death, is a figure larger than life, his semiotic ghost pervading the popular culture.
The craft of the story can be seen especially in the beginning and the ending; the title and the closing quotation of Lovecraft. The title is a reference to Elvis’ 1960 hit, yet with the twist: what is loathsome? Is it what Elvis would become, as years of abuse took its toll? The title sets up the sense of apprehension, the situation-normal-all-fucked-up; it hints at the reader what to expect—and Lovecraft, at the end, tells them what they just read. What the reader sought, or experienced, whether or not they recognized it at the time.
“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” was first published in the collection of the same name, and has been reprinted in Self-Made Man (1999), The Children of Cthulhu (2000), and is available on kindle. Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin currently has a GoFundMe campaign.