A Polio Survivor Looks At Lovecraft
by Connie Todd Lila
A sixty cent paperback with a lurid, horror movie cover brought H.P. Lovecraft into my world and began a love affair that is thriving these 50+ years later. The circumstances of my introduction most certainly played a forceful role in the depth of his impact on me. A childhood case of polio went misdiagnosed as one of those “mysterious childhood fevers,” since I lived in the Age of the Vaccine… “It couldn’t be polio, she’s had the shots.” The disease attacked not my legs, but my spine. Already a loner at school, the twisting of my spine drew comments from classmates, forcing me deeper into my own keeping. At age 14, I underwent spinal fusion surgery to give me as normal a backbone as was possible. I spent that year, my freshman year, in a complete body cast, flat in bed. An easel contraption made to sit on my plaster chest held a book, making it possible for me to work with tutors and keep up with classes. Most importantly, that easel made it possible to read. American aphorist Mason Cooley said, “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” My sanity serves as proof of that statement. If Lovecraft’s madness-filled mountains, crumbling edifices, and gaunt-haunted nights had not entered my isolated young life just then, I can’t say where my mind might have wandered, or promise that I’d have wanted to come back.
The paperback anthology that, literally, made possible my endurance that year was a present from my mother. Very familiar with my childhood taste for classic black and white horror films, monster movies and scary stories, this paperback with a flaming skull on a dark cover caught her eye in a supermarket checkout lane. In this author, I found kindred, a companion to sit with me all the long nights sleep would not come; a magician with a wand of words who placed before my mind’s eye fantastic, terrible, and wonderful images into which I could “journey” and escape my prison of plaster. Odd as it is to say, the madness he offered me to “go into” kept me sane–and me a young girl.
Company did not come to my house. There was abuse, cruelty and sadness there, and I believe, these decades later, that my mother kept company away so no one would see how “wrong” our home was. I learned of H.P.L.’s own preference for solitude and his own company. In L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), de Camp relates how Lovecraft’s maternal grandfather used to “lead him about the unlighted house at night” to cure the boy of fear of the dark. “For the rest of his life, Lovecraft preferred night as the time to be up and abroad.” (de Camp, Chapter Two “Bent Twigs” 17-18). In the same chapter, de Camp describes the eight-year-old Lovecraft as “a born bookworm, he was affected more by the printed word than by his peers” (18). I sought solitude myself, some for my spinal oddity, some from habit. If Lovecraft found solace in words, not people, so would I.
The opening line of “The Outsider” (per Joshi and Schultz, probably written Spring or Summer, 1921; first published in Weird Tales April 1926) proclaims: “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.” I concede that the drama in this far exceeds the actuality of my experience; in my defense, the reader can understand how and why my young self would cling so fiercely to the author of that line… he “gets it.”
Becoming a Lovecraftian scholar required me to vastly stretch my vocabulary. I first read his works with a dictionary at my side. Of course, I fell in love with every line of purple prose. H.P.L. said of himself, of “The Outsider,” in a 1931 letter to J. Vernon Shea (from An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2001), that this story was “. . . almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language” (198). This language painted fantastical places for me to “go,” from my limited, plastered world. He continues with not being able to understand how he could have let himself be tangled in such “baroque & windy rhetoric” (from the same letter). It still moves me that Lovecraft couldn’t avoid purple prose even when being self-critical for its use. In my sophomore year, upright and mobile again after re-learning to walk, I began a study of the development of Lovecraft’s genius by tracking down and reading, in order, his body of work. Today, as a published writer, I credit my own peacock tail of a vocabulary and love of the written word to my early–and ongoing–obsession with Lovecraft.
In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (per Joshi and Schultz, written November-December 1931; first published as a book 1936, Visionary Publishing Company, Everett, PA), I found the comfort of the familiar yet again, in a grown up, darker interpretation of my girlhood fascination with mermaids. This novella even inspired a D&D campaign I composed around the Cthulhu Mythos (…in which I may or may not have furtively placed an opened sardine can on a warm radiator at the game point where one of the Great Old Ones rose from the waves…dark gaming is all about atmosphere). I continue to be impressed anew by his mind; to wit, a recent PBS cooking program featured an island inspired dish with “Ia” in the title. The translation means “fish,” something I never knew. What Lovecraftian fan cannot chant, “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn,” even if we didn’t know what we were saying?
Into this unabashed celebration of the person who connected the dots for me in a flavor I craved, and helped me keep my own dots together during a terrible time in my girlhood, I do interject a mild complaint. The volume, More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, 1999), is a fine reference, scholarly notes alongside ten of Lovecraft’s tales. My complaint is directed to the back cover, to the comment there. It is not credited, simply pronounces Lovecraft’s work “on a par with Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft’s mentor.” To be fair, this comment could simply mean that Lovecraft chose Poe as his scholarly mentor, which he certainly did. During his many tutored removals from school, he augmented his studies by reading voraciously, proclaiming at age eight: “I struck EDGAR ALLAN POE!!” Poe remained his lifelong enthusiasm and the strongest single influence on him. (de Camp, Chapter Three “Night Gaunts,” 31). The comment, unsupported, always implies to me that Lovecraft studied with Poe. Poe died 10-7-1849, according to biographies. Lovecraft was born 8-20-1890. Short of a really static-free séance, Poe could not have actually “mentored” Lovecraft. I wonder if I am the only Lovecraft scholar distressed by this casual comment? If so, please forgive a fanatic, driven from a youth isolated and different.
If the truest compliment is mimicry, then I do my own chosen mentor justice with my published work. A forthcoming anthology of Lovecraftian fiction from Infernal Ink Press contains my own dark piece; and there is another one jumping up and down on my desk, eager for me to give it wings to its own submission call.
I’ve been researching and re-reading Lovecraft for more than half a century now. Nowhere have I come upon a claim that his work saved anyone’s sanity–except here.
Connie Todd Lila writes from her home in the Central Wisconsin woods. Her published works include “Selkie Lament” (fiction) in Enchanted Conversation; “Dandelion Spring” (poem) in The Essential Herbal; “Don’t Sew Your Weddin’ Dress” (poem) in Hypnopomp Literary Magazine; “Keeping The Faith” (fiction) in The Monsters We Forgot; “Changeling” (poem) in Fiddler’s Green Peculiar Parish Magazine; “Smoke and Mirrors” (fiction) in Dark Carnival; and “Key” (fiction) to be published in the forthcoming anthology from Infernal Ink Books.
“A Polio Survivor Looks At Lovecraft” is her first guest post for a blog.
Copyright 2022 Connie Todd Lila