A Jewish Deadhead Looks at Lovecraft
by M.I. Black
The hi-fi system and the bean bag chair of my adolescent room were purchased with Bar Mitzvah gelt, the financial gain from the coming-of-age ritual marking the moment that thirteen-year-olds become accountable for their own actions in the Jewish community in which they are being raised. Most of my friends, visitors to my comfy chamber, were being raised Catholic or Protestant, and I understood from our dialogs that there was no precise equivalent to the Mitzvah milestone in Christianity. Religions—I was learning—were very different from each other. For example, there was no Jewish equivalent to the Christian concept of hell, other than—as the joke goes—New York City in August. As a counterpoint, ceremonies in which babies receive their names occurred in both Judaism and Christianity. Yet some have taken the ceremony’s gravity to the high heavens: my seventh-grade American history class taught me that the American Puritan Jonathan Edwards famously etched the importance of baptism when he professed, “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of unbaptized babies.”
Sounded like an image from an H.P. Lovecraft story to me.
I would discuss hell with friends, who all thought Jonathan Edwards was an idiot, and we pretty much all agreed that hell seemed like a recruitment tool to get people to become Christian, at worst, or a warning to persuade people not to do evil, at best. None of our theological debates, however, were as long or as exhilarating as our battles in our role-playing games, such as pitting a Paladin against a rattle of ten Bone Devils.
Deities and Demigods, a reference book for Dungeons & Dragons, introduced Lovecraft to me, as well as the works of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. I still have the first edition of the now prized D&D tome; a later edition excised the Cthulhu and Moorcockian sections due to a complicated legal squabble about copyrights. To this day, the line art for Lovecraft’s section (“Cthulhu Mythos”) still lures me to read its entries.
In high school, my friends and I began playing Dungeons & Dragons less and less and began reading books and listening to music more and more. I fell headfirst into the world of H.P. Lovecraft and fell head-over-heels for the songs of the Grateful Dead. The predominantly black and gray (with shattering reds and white) wraps of the Del Rey paperbacks called to me from the well-ordered shelves of a now-defunct chain bookstore in our shopping mall. I might have even bought Dead Set—a live, double-CD of The Grateful Dead—the same afternoon as The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories, my first Lovecraft book. To this day, I love the artwork of the album and the book, both famous for skulls and skeletons. I remain a fan of the graphical, as well as the auditory. And if what music I was listening to could somehow coalesce with what I was reading, more power to the successfully sound-tracked story.
In my bean bag chair, I soon discovered that I could not read Lovecraft and listen to the Grateful Dead at the same time. Despite the blanched bones, Lovecraft and the Grateful Dead did not sync up for me. Although lyrical in the sense of expressing deep emotions and observations, Lovecraft is not enthusiastic as, say, Ray Bradbury, whose writing could be paired up with several albums of the Grateful Dead. In contrast, Lovecraft begged for classical, to my ear, and I have heard that a few death-metal bands have been heavily influenced by his writing.
Why did I like Lovecraft’s stories? I loved how they created a universe of mythological deities and devices, not something you find in Poe, who I was also reading for pleasure way back when. The creatures of Lovecraft’s genius were indifferent to us earthlings at best, and at worst, they are malevolent with infinite, inescapable reach. His horror rang true for me. The Romantic and romance can find no purchase in the world of Lovecraft. No one seeks out the healing power of escaping to nature, nor does any major character seem faithful to love, unlike Poe.
Years later, while managing an independent bookstore in my twenties, I was surprised to read that Lovecraft had actually married. And in my thirties, another Lovecraft fan shared with me—as if unearthing something that should have remained buried—that H.P. was a racist and an antisemite though his former wife was a Jew. I seemed to recall stories that seemed to smack at racism, more so than the run-of-the-mill stories from that time period, but now with my new knowledge, these claims seemed more obvious in retrospect.
Soon I found myself struggling with how to handle this horrid information on Lovecraft, working through something like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. In mild shock, I told myself that if Lovecraft had lived longer, perhaps he would have outgrown the infantile compulsion that places one member of the human race over another. That Lovecraft was a product of a time—a victim of a puritanical upbringing—in which the insulated often deluded themselves into imagining that to belong to a higher rung in an alleged hierarchy is to live a life more supreme. Perhaps his trait, this reoccurring folly birthed of unfettered fear, retarded in Lovecraft any hopeful internal spark that may have illuminated him to achieve a happier life. Yes, I told myself that he was miserable, and this was the cause of his grumbling hate. If he had lived longer, experienced more of the 20th Century, the horrors of the Holocaust would have made Lovecraft dial back any theories he had about the Jews. And that the struggles of American Civil Rights would wrestle any bad beliefs on race.
In denial, I comforted myself by reading about Lovecraft’s mentoring and befriending a young writer, Robert Bloch, born a Jew, most famous for the novel Psycho, made more famous by the Hitchcock film. Surely, Lovecraft did not hate this Jew. Or, in Lovecraft’s eyes, it seemed a Jew could be born a Jew and then rise above whatever it was that Lovecraft did not like about the Jews. He had loved a Jew when he married his wife, right? They were happy, at least for a while. No, Lovecraft was not really an antisemite. Not a bad one. There were too many Jewish people in his life for him to be hardcore. The court of public opinion had an active imagination.
Then I read some more about Lovecraft, from his own letters.
What came next for me was the argument that art should stand alone, so who cares about the author, right? I remembered my dad’s chestnut: “Don’t learn too much about your heroes; just concentrate on what makes them heroic.” Can we not engage the work of art as it is by itself, separating it from any intentions of the artist? There was no benefit in learning about the author, for it was the reader that created the text. Reader Response literary theory aided in my denial.
Most fans, of course, want to know a little about the creator of their affection.
So, I read more about Lovecraft. I grew angry. A dead ringer for Gomer Pyle, he allowed all the women in his life—it seemed to me—to bully him. Although fairly prolific, he could not make a living stringing gloomy nouns, adjectives, and verbs together to create his signature ether of impending doom. But how signature was his cosmos? You take a gigantic octopus and stick it on the body of dragon, and—presto—you have Cthulhu, like a platypus, but scary. Oh, and don’t forget, there’s no meaning to life, the bad guys always win, and the cosmos is dead cold. A triad of existential angst! Stunningly creative! Pure genius!
My fist-clenching phase proved short-lived. I still liked his work.
What if I just read the stories I’ve read before? Or just the authors who took his mythos and ran with it in their books? Just watched the movies based on Lovecraft’s works?
Bargaining puttered by in a fleeting stage.
Should we not keep Lovecraft buried? Ignore his faults? Or numb ourselves to the sins of nasty opinions that he may never have acted upon other than to drip some poison in his stories with a random remark of rancor, the sloppiness of stereotype, the temper tantrum of a theme against the mixing of races? I can admire him at his best and ignore his worst. Lovecraft is dead. And we are all going to die. What was the point really? Art does not matter. Nothing matters. There is no fun to be had. There’s no one to look up to. I’m depressed.
The stories of the Grateful Dead soundtrack made me less depressed.
It is my experience from the first story I read of Lovecraft’s, “The Hound,” narrated by a graverobber set on his own goal of unearthing another graverobber from his grave, that a Lovecraft story is often the Grateful Dead story in reverse. In Lovecraft, if you unearth something, there will be hell to pay. Grateful Dead folklore tells another story.
While trying to name the band, guitarist Jerry Garcia lowered a blind finger into an open dictionary and came down on an entry. This entry described the folktale form of a hero coming upon an unburied corpse, giving the dead a burial, and later “going down the road” completing a difficult task with the aid of a stranger, who is the spirit of the grateful dead returning a favor.
Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, acting as the Cthulhuian Book of the Dead, shares accounts of the Old Ones—Lovecraft’s cosmological dreaded deities from space. Deadheads over the last forty years that have pointed to a passage from an uncited “Egyptian Book of the Dead” to bolster the meaning of the moniker of the band:
We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night
the ship of the sun
is drawn by the grateful dead.Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey (2012), 40n6
In Lovecraft, the dead do not return to the creator to serve. The dead or undead do not chant but moan. They do not draw the source of light but are forever drowning in darkness. Skeletons populate the worlds of both Lovecraft and the Grateful Dead, although, in one of these worlds, a skull screams as opposed to grins. Does Lovecraft now, who is still dead, scream on a level of hell that could be found in Dante’s cartographic efforts? Would he be on the Eighth Level of Hell, the realm of torment designed for Falsifiers? Maybe a part of him resides in hell. And the part of him that created a community of readers and writers, ironically through stories of dread and isolation, resides on some astral plane, high above the Inferno.
So, what is my role to play in the Lovecraft story? I will be the wandering hero, who has just found the dead body of Lovecraft, who will bury the bad thoughts of him and stated by him, and I will sing about what was truly deific in him and his work, to bring light up and to bury darkness down, to chant to all who will listen that we humans are complex creatures, given to contradictions, with a talent for winter growth, and I will eulogize that to err is human and to forgive divine. Atonement and forgiveness are not just for Yom Kippur, and someone does not need to ask for your forgiveness to receive it. And for the flawed mortal known as Lovecraft, if some essence of him is somewhere in a celestial plane and can find rest through my accepting the role as folk hero, maybe Lovecraft can be thought of as one of the grateful dead.
M.I. Black has written for advertising agencies, managed new and used bookstores, taught creative writing and media studies, and has worked as a communications officer in libraries. Copyright 2023 M. I. Black.