A Jewish Neurodivergent Looks At Lovecraft

A Jewish Neurodivergent Looks At Lovecraft
by Matthew Kirshenblatt

The population [of New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight.
H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Nov 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 81

I have mixed feelings about H.P. Lovecraft. I remember when I was an adolescent seeing his works in bookstores, and wondering just what kind of writer would have a last name such as his. As I got older and more fascinated with horror I just assumed that Lovecraft was a writer that focused on murder and the macabre, not unlike Edgar Allan Poe. This quaint idea was challenged when I began to encounter the idea of Cthulhu in geek and alternative culture, but even then before I even knew what cosmic horror was about I wondered if something like Cthulhu made sense? I pondered just how Cthulhu, this being that seemed to be a giant humanoid with an octopus face and bat wings—this bizarre hybridfit into a genre that housed Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, and other elements of literary horror. 

Eventually, I did make it to Lovecraft. It was while I was untethered during undergrad, going far beyond my original five-year plan and trying to regain my initial drive, that I began reading Joyce Carol Oates’ anthologies, where I found some of Lovecraft’s works. My first Lovecraft stories were either “The Tomb” or “The Rats in the Walls.” It was the latter story that made me realize that Lovecraft’s scope of horror was far beyond murder mysteries and the subtle uncanny, and it was more of a primer into a vast and inhuman universe shaped by either uncaring or malicious forces behind everything that humanity thinks it knows. Of course, “The Rats in the Walls” was also the same story that introduced me to a cat with a fairly unfortunate, and downright racist, name.

I came to The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death where, in an introduction written by Neil Gaiman, the latter flat-out writes: “He was a believer in unpleasant doctrines of racial superiority, and was an Anglophile.” To be honest with you, I actually have no idea where I first heard that Lovecraft was antisemitic but it was, and still is, always in the back of my mind even as I continue to immerse myself in the eldritch world that he left behind him. 

I have already written about how I relate to H.P. Lovecraft and his work in articles such as Watching a Serial of Strange Aeons: Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence for Sequart, and My Favourite Lovecraft Story for my Horror Doctor Blog. As someone born into a Jewish background, and also being neurodivergent, my feelings towards the writer himself and his work are complicated. And some of these feelings lead to observations that are not always clear-cut.

For example, as someone who is Jewish, I think about “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and even “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” from the perspective of genocide. As much as I know now that Lovecraft is racist, it is fascinating to consider that at least with regards to those stories he doesn’t seem to be advocating for the extermination of other peoples. In fact, I tend to interpret “Sarnath” as a cautionary tale of genocide itself. It is true that Lovecraft goes out of his way to describe the people of Ib, who had been murdered and whose deaths were celebrated for millennia, as having “bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice,” which for me are characteristics reminiscent in stereotypical caricatures made about Jews, but he also takes great pains to describe how the people of Sarnath pay for killing them, and desecrating the god to which they once prayed. Perhaps the descriptions he wrote were not intended consciously to refer to Jews, or other ethnicities, but after being born into a culture that has been persecuted and labeled under similar words, I lean into that reading. 

“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” describes the Deep One hybrids that live in that town as having “the Innsmouth look,” though while their “narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, staring eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. “Rough and scabby” seems less like semitic caricatures and more Polynesian or Far East Asian ones; I correlate it with what Lovecraft has said about “Mongoloid” features and “coarse faces.” Neither description in either story gives me a visceral reaction of feeling attacked or targeted with regards to my ethnic identity. Jews were not being used as the basis for the people of Ib, or the Deep One hybrids, but at the same time there are parallels there that I can’t particularly ignore.

I think about “Innsmouth” in particular a lot, and while Bobby Derie in his Deep Cut article “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys believes that the hybrids are taken to enemy internment as opposed to concentration camps, I like how other Mythos writers taking up Lovecraft’s legacy and reworking elements of it, such as Ruthanna Emrys in her “Litany of Earth” and the rest of her Innsmouth Legacy novels, actually go there. Emrys in particular, although she has Japanese-Americans eventually find themselves in the camps with the remaining hybrids, deals with the aftermath of “Innsmouth.” She fleshes out the Deep One hybrid families, what they suffered through in the detention centres, and what Aphra Marsh, as one of the few survivors of that genocide and cultural and historical erasure by a hostile government, is going through as she attempts to rebuild her life. The “monsters” are more clearly humanized in this retelling, and I can relate to them in this way due to our peoples’ history with this kind of collective trauma, and how they deal with that fact.

I relate to Lovecraft’s “Innsmouth” in another sense as well. I come specifically from a Conservative Judaic background. Though I don’t particularly practice the religious aspects of it as an adult, antisemitism has affected my life, and how my family wanted me to experience the world.

What I gleaned from my family was the idea that the world outside of our cultural bubble was inherently poisonous, or tainted: that one shouldn’t become too familiar with outsiders, or ingest anything that is meat-based outside my home, or not checked for the proper ingredients: otherwise you could get sick, or compromised. Growing up, I would have been castigated for eating something non-kosher, or having a relationship with a non-Jewish person beyond friendship. The world was made out to be a large and terrifying space when I was growing up and one in which I should interact with as little as possible unless I wanted to become ill, used, or abused by outside powers: that I should stay within a little island of structured rules, and remain safe.

This ties into a lot of the themes within Lovecraft’s fiction, but it comes back to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” again. Not only is Innsmouth insular and hostile to outsiders for a reason, and one that’s realized at the end of the story, but the protagonist himself realizes he isn’t a normal, or mundane person but one of the people he is afraid of, or never particularly understood. Robert Olmstead is an outsider trapped on the borders between worlds, social and metaphysical, even if he doesn’t know it: or doesn’t want to. Olmstead has to deal with a certain level of self-hatred for reporting on his people, and I wish someone like Emrys would revisit that character in her series as I feel it is a missed opportunity.

In attempting to live a secular life I’ve felt like I’ve had to “pass,” I don’t want to be determined by the prejudices of bigots and ignorant people, I do want to live my life away from the strictures and fears of my culture as I was brought up. In some ways, it feels like a betrayal to do so. Olmstead and I are not exactly the same in that regard. He never knew what his ancestry was until after the events at Innsmouth, while I’ve known about my ethnicity for my entire life, and no one ever let me forget it. However, perhaps there was a part of Olmstead that felt like he was outside of society, that didn’t fit in, even if he didn’t know why this was the case at the time. Perhaps this is why he was so keen on exploring his genealogy: to find out who he was, but to reassure himself of what he was too.

I think where we diverge is that Olmstead feels like he’s betrayed a people he doesn’t know, when he informs on them to the Federal government after his escape, and later when his transformation begins he feels like he needs to atone. Whereas while Olmstead had to fight his inner demons of revulsion towards something alien inside himself and came to terms with it by accepting it and that community, I feel like I have had to deal with those internalized elements—of feeling confined by a sense of insular identity, and a history of prejudice—by distancing myself from all of it, turning my back on it, and attempting to assert my independent self. In many ways, I feel like I am an outsider in more ways than one. 

This ties into my neurodivergence, which informs how I experience life as a bit like the vast, weird, almost senseless universe of Lovecraft and the human world’s supposed place within that cosmology. In the North American education system, I have been considered learning disabled in mathematics and spatial areas: so essentially I have dyscalculia, and difficulties navigating or even understanding geography. In addition, I have anxiety and depression, for which I see a therapist. 

Because of my neurodivergence, my family monitored me as closely as they could, terrified that because of my spatial difficulties I would get lost, I wouldn’t be able to understand the price of something in an interaction, or I would come across as “strange” to somebody else and be subject to ridicule or exploitation. Even to this day I fidget and do what is called “stimming,” where I rock back and forth. I talk to myself a lot. Social cues were something I had difficulty picking up on, and even learning how to read and speak took me a longer time to figure out than others. I wasn’t sociable, but I—and to my family’s express relief—learned how to “pass” enough. Until, sometimes, I didn’t.

Even now, I don’t. 

Perhaps this is why Lovecraft’s sense of cosmicism is almost comforting. Instead of being in a reality where everything is sensible, and I’m not, perhaps it is this world that is inherently nonsensical, even volatile, where even most other people are hard to understand. It’s cynical, almost over the border of misanthropy, but it makes more sense than the alternative: especially when you feel like you are peering at it from the outside. In fact, you would think that “The Outsider” is an easy story for me to relate to based on my personal experience. However, it’s more than not fitting into a society or a group, but rather having the illusion of “being normal” or “passing” as such, getting broken when you look closely into the mirror of the world. The protagonist in “The Outsider” has forgotten who they are. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it is time that did it, a long solitary existence lost underground. Whatever the case, when the protagonist sees themselves—truly sees what they are—it shakes them to their very core.

For me, I have attempted to downplay my ethnicity for so long due to dealing with my insular familial environment and its attempt to ingrain a perspective of a world inherently prejudiced against me but—more than that—tried to “pass” as “normal.” Except that when I was confronted with having great difficulty getting employment and hesitating and procrastinating over doing the simplest daily things to survive, I realized I wasn’t normal. I’m not normal.

In Lovecraft’s “The Quest of Iranon” you have a wandering, seemingly ageless singer who is trying to find the beloved “Aira” of his youth amid people who don’t know where it is, or understand what he’s looking for, or why, only to find out towards the end that it never existed, that he made it up, that he’d always been this dreamy, lost, strange, child that couldn’t fit into the world such as it was, and this revelation leads to him giving up on everything completely. I know that Emrys herself in the TOR Review I’m Too Sexy For This City greatly disparages this story, but I think that I relate to it differently because of my spatial awareness, or the lack thereof, and that terrifying sense of impermanence: along with the need to be in a place—or make a place—where I can feel the opposite of that as neurodivergent person. “The Quest of Iranon” is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories because I have an affinity to that protagonist who, like me, started off from a place where he felt laughed at, or pitied, and just wanted to find his dream in a seemingly hostile world. In the end, he just wanted to find a sense of home. And if Iranon couldn’t use his disciplines to find this home, he could use them to make one: if only for a time.

One aspect about being neurodivergent, and arguably Jewish, is that I focused more on my strengths than my conceived weaknesses. My language and literary skills became my mainstays, and I became obsessive and fixated about stories and fictional worlds. I meander when I talk and write. I wander. Lovecraft’s references to mystical and literary texts within his works, and his usage of heightened diction directly appeals to me: even to the point where many sentences and words that he uses in his narratives—which might be seen as awkward and ostentatious—are elegant to me, and when I write something of them myself I feel a sense of power and sophistication that I didn’t have as a child. I love “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” “The Call of Cthulhu” and other stories that reference “Easter eggs” to Lovecraft’s other works, and those of others because that knowledge makes me feel like I understand an inside joke, or possess a sense of importance in a world around us that might not be so obvious.

In spaces where I’d been seen as slow, or easily agitated by stimuli, or frustrated with motor-skill difficulty with basic tasks, I take my advantages where I can. In retrospect, I can only imagine the annoyance that the Great Race of Yith feels when they exchange minds with another being entirely, trying to operate their body and understand their existence through living it in “The Shadow Out of Time” or Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide. Sometimes I wonder if I am a Yithian that forgot my original purpose.

Nor are those the only Lovecraftian characters I can identify with. With my dyscalculia, I can appreciate the idea of something “non-Euclidean” and I possess great sympathy for Walter Gilman’s poor sensory experiences in “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and wonder just how discordant and viscerally uncomfortable “The Music of Erich Zann” would feel in my gut as I hate sudden and annoying sounds now that I’m older. Yet there is one story in particular that jives with me the most, and I think it’s where Lovecraft and I actually meet. 

“The Silver Key” is a progression of the depressingly real and banal, the senseless and the sad, where Randolph Carter doesn’t feel rooted anymore. All he can think about are the dreams of his childhood, as a counterpoint to cosmicism, and the place where everything made sense. For me, my childhood was alternatively a place where I was very enmeshed—even suffocated—but it was a small, golden island where everything made sense. I felt safe, and the rules were clear while my imagination could explore without limits. Over time, like Carter, I wandered, grew older, and I just felt … lost. When I was younger, I would put VHS tapes into my VCR, recordings of movies and cartoons from my youth, and watch them over and again: to try and escape the pain and uncertainty of this reality of the inevitably of loss—and to find that magic that made me so happy again. Obviously, that golden time didn’t really exist for me. A lot of my childhood was riddled with anxiety and fear of the outside world, especially at school, but in those films and animations, I felt peace. I actually felt happy.

I have thought about H.P. Lovecraft, and his background. I think about how his childhood had been spent at his Grandfather Whipple’s library, and how he lost it. I considered how his mother might have smothered him, and how he knew something of what happened to his father and, eventually, her—both dying in sanitariums. I contemplate the possible origins of his reactionary anger towards a world he didn’t really understand. I know he had a nervous breakdown that took him out of school, and he was precocious and oversensitive. I know many of his most intimate friendships existed mostly through correspondence, he was very selective about the work he did, and how it was a big step for him to leave his family and live with a woman not from his background, only to fail to find employment, to maintain that relationship, and have to go home with mingled humiliation and relief. As much as I am repulsed by his abhorrent beliefs, I feel empathy with this aspect of his existence, where I almost come to terms with him.

I wonder if, at the end of his life, Lovecraft finally found his Silver Key. If he found his foundation: his peace. If he found his own sense of home. Amid the chaos of this infuriating, sad world, I wonder if I will ever rediscover mine. Maybe I will be like Randolph Carter, and the journey will continue.

Matthew Kirshenblatt is a writer that lives in Thornhill, Ontario writing about fantasy, horror, and other elements of geekery in Sequart, his Mythic Bios, or The Horror Doctor Blogs. Even now, despite or because of everything, he is still trying to find his Silver Key.

Copyright 2022 Matthew Kirshenblatt.

A Transwoman Looks At Lovecraft by Sophie Litherland

As someone who has had a passing familiarity of the Mythos through popular culture, upon reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft I was not expecting to find much representation of women like me. I was then pleasantly surprised to find themes and ideas within the works of H.P. Lovecraft that have resonated with my personal experiences as a transgender woman. While there is no typical trans experience, there are tales of discovery and the questioning of accepted reality that appear regularly in the works of Lovecraft, which have certainly struck a chord with my own transition. These tales within the Mythos have helped me reflect and understand my own feelings towards myself, my dysphoria, and our society. 

In this essay I have selected a few short stories to give a fresh perspective on, and how they are relevant to my lived experiences and perhaps by extension to women like me. I was in fact very disappointed to find that in “The Transition of Juan Romero,” Juan merely transitions from being alive to dead. Of course, I still enjoy works such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but much of that appreciation comes from the same place as that of other readers. Instead, I have picked on themes which may have been overlooked by a cisgender mindset. I hope my thoughts are both informative and entertaining for all audiences.

The details of a typical protagonist are often ambiguous and left to the reader’s imagination, but share the common theme of reacting in a human and relatable way when presented with something out of the ordinary. This does drag up memories, sometimes painful, of the early phases of my transition having been young, confused, and unequipped to deal with my own feelings towards gender. As Lovecraft favours the short story format, the process of discovery of the unknown as a direct consequence of the protagonist’s curiosity is a common theme that is visited often. This shedding of innocence towards the supernatural has many parallels to the “incredibly knowledgeable about transitioning” stage whilst I was struggling with denial.

One example of this feverish curiosity is that of the young man in The Music of Erich Zann.” While living in a flat in the Rue d’Auseil, he becomes fascinated with the music of the old viol player, Erich Zann. Not necessarily understanding the true nature of his obsession, he repeatedly seeks out the elderly musician, desperate to hear and make sense of the music coming from the penthouse flat. Upon discovering an unnamed horror behind the genius of Zann’s music, he flees and is relieved that he cannot find his way back to the Rue d’Auseil. 

I can envision myself as the naïve young student, getting a glimpse of something extraordinary and compulsively following the trail of discovery before realising that there is no way of unlearning that which has been learned. Instead of a haunted German viol player, it was the knowledge that I could and eventually should transition. Learning what transitioning involved and knowing that it was achievable, in my stages of denial there was definitely a feeling of regret that I had pulled that thread and where it had led me. In this sense, I had tried fleeing my own Rue d’Auseil and hoping that like the young metaphysics student, I could never return to what I had discovered. Where my story differs in its ending was that I did find my way back and in fact began to rationalise my discovery and take positive steps forward.

The use of dreams as a vector of worldbuilding and creeping horror is an iconic part of many of Lovecraft’s stories and by extension the mythos as a whole. Whether by having nightmares or particularly vivid dreams, I am sure I am not alone in having those nights of dream filled sleep that have persisted long into the waking hours and even into my long-term memory. Before I accepted my gender identity, dreams where I was female would give lingering pangs of guilt and confusion over my enjoyment and comfort, coupled by feelings of bitter disappointment upon awakening. Nowadays I mostly dream in my preferred gender role, however the most precious dreams are when physically everything is vividly correct. One of the most common phrases coming from people suffering from gender dysphoria is that they wish they could somehow awaken as the opposite gender, a phrase so common it is considered cliche. This is where the blending of dreams and reality prominent in stories such as “Celephaïs really hits home.

The story “Celephaïs” focuses on the main character Kuranes, a middle-aged man who is the last of a respected family line that has almost faded into obscurity. Visited by dreams from his youth, he pursues the land of Celephaïs within his periods of slumber. It is quickly established that Kuranes is not the character’s original name, but rather one he chose himself for this new venture of seeking Celephaïs. Kuranes then becomes obsessed with his dream world, spending the last of his wealth frivolously on narcotics to increase his periods asleep. Ultimately, the fate of Kuranes is a tragic one. Upon travelling with fanfare to his beloved Celephaïs, we are brought crashing back to the waking world with the body of Kuranes washing up on the shore. 

For me, the change of name really drives home the idea that in the dream we are unburdened by the roles and responsibilities that society has put upon an individual, instead we are free to be who we choose. As someone who has changed name, the gravitas of a character changing his name during his dreams says that Kuranes was so unhappy with his old identity that he felt it necessary to shed it entirely. Being the last of an esteemed family line, I imagine what little pride Kuranes had left existed in that name, so to rid himself of this hereditary pride shows complete commitment to abandoning his old life and starting anew in Celephaïs. 

The curious phenomenon that occurs within the tale of Kuranes is his inconsistent ability to reach Celephaïs, much like my inconsistent ability to dream in the correct gender. I have a particular sympathy with Kuranes when he starts spending the last of his wealth on drugs to extend his dreaming hours to further his search for Celephaïs. We, as a reader, may look upon Kuranes as foolish and desperate to take such actions. However, as someone who was desperately unhappy with my previous waking self, I can truly sympathise with the need to escape my physical self and pursue my own image in a dream. I am rather glad that in this day and age, I may instead work towards this existence in the waking world, instead of chasing a perpetual slumber to achieve transitioning. 

Continuing with the theme of dreams, I will next look at the short story “The White Ship.” Here, our protagonist is a third-generation lighthouse keeper, who boards a strange white vessel known to his family. Accompanied by an old man and guided by a bird of heaven, they visit many wondrous lands with the land of Sona-Nyl seeming like a paradise. The Keeper’s hubris is a central theme, where he pursues ever more lands until he is warned against venturing further to Cathuria. Refusing to heed these warnings, he insists on sailing onward, before the voyage ends in catastrophe with the white ship smashed upon the shores of Carthuria.  

When the keeper awakens with no time having passed, there lies the bird of heaven and a single spar from the white ship. Unlike in Celephaïs, our keeper has ended up here out of his own actions rather than the everyday event of awakening from a dream. Upon awakening, he gives no indication as to whether he regrets pursuing Cathuria and giving up the timeless paradise on the shores of Sona-Nyl. I personally resonate with the keeper when he looks at the bird on the shore and that scene really hit a nerve. 

As a reader, I feel two parts to observing our protagonist leave Sota-Nyl to pursue Cathuria. Initially, I feel a sense of superiority and smugness, thinking that I would never be so foolish as to throw away the golden opportunity of remaining in an idyllic land. On closer inspection however, what made them leave Sota-Nyl was what made this story special to me. When I first started transitioning, I understood that I was giving up an easier life with much less obstacles than that of a trans person. Without meaning to sound bitter, life is easier being cis and to give that up was an incredibly daunting journey to set out on.  Much like our lighthouse keeper, I too had many warnings and faced adversity in my choice of path and where it would lead me. So, to see our keeper stay true to his conviction and press on regardless, that gave me strength in my own journey. I can then fully understand the reasoning behind leaving what might seem a perfect world, because to people like me and the keeper, it was only ever the choice we ever had.

Lovecraft’s tales are often horrifying in nature and end in tragedy, they nonetheless have had the positive impact of exploring negative and self-destructive thoughts. By using the architecture of cosmic horror, it helps frame our thoughts and desires outside the norms of everyday life and rationalise them. I don’t wish I never pursued learning about transitioning, instead I see that curiosity is a common trait of humanity. I understand the futility of pursuing dreams as a substitute for existing happily in the waking world. Finally, I realise that like the lighthouse keeper, I would have been miserable upon the shores of Sona-Nyl and pursuing Cathuria to live what resembles an ordinary life was the best and only option for me. By reframing such tough introspections through the works of H.P. Lovecraft, these works have made me feel more comfortable with myself and my identity. At least until the old ones rise from the depths anyway.

Copyright 2022 by Sophie Litherland.

Sophie is a writer, stand-up comic, and presenter who tends to work with the sciences, but can’t keep her mouth shut on other subjects.

Twitter: @splitherland

A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith

History bears ample witness to this profound disquiet stirred in the human soul by bodies that stray from what is typical or unpredictable
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body 1

The first time I read “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft, I was a nineteen-year old stroke survivor, confined to the couch in my mother’s living room, gripping the edges of an old library book like one loosened finger, one glance away would send me onto the floor. The works of Lovecraft came into my life at a time when I needed the utmost concentration to regain skills extending from the ability to read to being able to stand in front of the microwave without collapsing. It took months to be able to walk from the couch to the door, the door to the mailbox, the mailbox to the orange tiger lily in my mother’s garden. I had known disability since childhood, but never a horror quite like this.

It was cosmic horror that brought a fractured life back into focus. 

My first deep exploration into the character of Lavinia Whateley was for my final undergraduate research paper, exploring the depictions of disabled women in 20th century horror fiction. Historically, Gothic literature has portrayed variations of health and bodily form as monstrous, asserting that the disparate form and function of disabled minds and bodies are to be feared and othered. As Pang Shi Hua states in their contribution to the Glossary of the Gothic: Deformity:

Part of the reason for our irrational fear of disability is that in any moment, a healthy body is one broken blood vessel removed from becoming a body with disabilities.

That is to say that the disabled body in the eyes of the abled witness is a harbinger of perceived limitation and ultimately, social ostracization and death. The characterization of disabled women as objects rather than subjects within the origin of the horror genre may be examined through interpersonal, temporal, and narrative elements via a contemporary lens of feminist philosophy and the burgeoning field of disability theory. They may also be examined to highlight issues that are primarily overcast in previous studies, including issues of embodiment, bodily autonomy and violation.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Dunwich Horror” the character of Lavinia Whateley is an excellent subject to examine in this contemporary context. Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.

I do not have albinism, though I have several chronic and disabling conditions that made me empathize with Lavinia, and wonder as to the complexities that would arise in such a life. In my pursuit of analyzing her character, it was important for me not to medicalize her, since the foundational aspect of disability theory is in defining the social obstacles, rather than physical and biological ones, that make life difficult for individuals. People with disabilities are as different as snowflakes, and it was my intention to observe and analyze while avoiding any projection.

Disability is presented in the Gothic as a “direct response to the long-held habit of Western culture to define the human norm, then to construe the non-normative as dangerously close to being non-human” (Hua). Associating the disabled more closely with monstrosity serves a social purpose in that it frees the individual from proximity and association with a person they feel represents an injurious threat to their own wellbeing. In Nancy Marck Cantwell’s “De-Composing the Gothic Body in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent,” she says:

We commonly bear witness to the abject when we are confronted by the inevitability of our physical dissolution. (33)

When it comes to women, this is particularly poignant. The developmental origin of the horror fiction genre is complex, with the presence of horror elements in texts dating back to pre-Biblical times. Women in Gothic horror fiction, defined in this essay as fantastic works with macabre and haunting elements that arose within the first quarter of the 20th century, are portrayed and perceived through a particular lens; one that interprets the cultural ideals of feminine personhood and disabled embodiment through objectification, “othering,” and in consideration of 19th century idealism. In Nancy Cott’s “An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology” she states that:

The late nineteenth century was an era of contention over female sexuality, physiology, health, dress, and exercise, and one in which medical opinion had become an authoritative sector of public opinion. (219)

The realities of feminine suffering and their aftermath go largely codified or unspoken, with the narrative voices being predominantly male, and disabled women being relocated to the silent poverty-stricken realms of society. 

The female body as “other” is a perspective with historical basis, as discussed in David T. Mitchell and S. L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse

The othering of the female body—through the vilification of femaleness, female sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth—is not a new occurrence. Aristotle, like Freud and Lacan much later, identified women as incomplete or deformed males. (55)

The pervasive belief in biological essentialism was a key tool in the oppression of women, and so not only the state of the mind, but the condition of the body were determiners of ability, status, and the eventualities of their lives. In Mary Poovey’s Feminism and Deconstruction, the idea that “neither sexuality nor social identity is given exclusively in or through the body, however it is sexed” (51), a concept explored briefly below, was absent from gender discourse at the time as well.  This is further discussed in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today:

In every domain where patriarchy rains, woman is other: she is objectified and marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values, defined by what she allegedly lacks and that men allegedly have. (87)

The dehumanization and “othering” of women was a means to maintain patriarchal power. In horror and fantastic tales that are largely narrated by men and written in an era of evolving gender and racial rights, there lies inklings of information that allow for contemporary interpretation which, in turn, elevate the humanity and validity of women disabled women, and their experiences beyond the stereotypical label of victim, among other terms denoting the inhuman.

For much of our cultural history, the female body has been viewed as imperfect: an aberration of the “perfect” male form and consequently repugnant or even dangerous, yet close enough to this “male default” to be familiar and even attractive. This has a destabilising force on both the male subject, who simultaneously experiences desire and revulsion, and the female object, when she discovers that she is being “othered” and is “no longer seen in her own right.”
—Jane Mitchell, Reclaiming the Monster: Abjection and Subversion in the Marital Gothic Novel 57

It is worth noting that there were authors that addressed themes of disability and sexuality in the gothic novel, namely Edith Nesbit, though this is a topic for another examination.

Disability imagery in the Gothic novel and short story often signifies “moral decay or the lack of a moral sense” (Longmore 1987, 67-68; Snyder and Mitchell 2000). This archaic view of the disabled individual denotes their use in society as a warning against that which may bring about disease and decay, but it also claims that those who are regarded as wretched on the outside are wretched on the inside, something we know to be unequivocally false. Contemporary disability theory recognizes disability as “an overarching, life-defining confluence of categories” according to Jan Grue in “Rhetorics of Difference : Julia Kristeva and Disability” (49). In In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing, Chris Baldick observes that:

The representation of fearful transgressions in the figure of physical deformity arises as a variant of that venerable cliché of political discourse, the “body politic.” When political discord and rebellion appear, this “body” is said to be not just diseased, but misshapen, abortive, monstrous. Once the state is threatened to the point where it can no longer be safely identified (according to the medieval theory) with “the King’s body”—that is, with an integral and sacred whole—then the humanly recognizable form of the body politic is lost, dispersed into a chaos of dismembered and contending organs. (14)

Baldick’s passage supports the idea in Lucy Sheehan’s article “Trials of Embodiment: Being a Gothic Body in ‘Mary Barton,” which states that:

A single body ‘embodies’ multiple objects, or, alternately, in which many bodies “embody” a single unified political consciousness. (37)

“The Dunwich Horror,” chosen to illustrate the central themes of this analysis, was selected for the presence of a female character that drives the narrative, inclusion or suggestion of the supernatural, and the cultural impact the stories have had on contemporary horror fiction. The only major female character in the tale is Lavinia Whateley, who shares her name with a character from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Born in 1878, she is the daughter of wizard Old Whateley and her late unnamed mother, who had a mysterious and violent death when Lavinia was twelve years old. 

Lovecraft establishes Lavinia immediately as an outsider through her appearance, playing into the historical reality as described by Rosemarie Garland Thomson in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body,  that the “visually different have always provoked the imaginations of their fellow human beings” (1).  Lavinia has albinism, which contributes to the alienation she already gets for being a part of a strange family. She is described as slatternly, and has inherited the weak chin of her relatives. Lavinia disappeared in 1926 on Halloween night. It is inferred throughout the story that she was a victim of matricide.

The mother was one of the decadent Whateleys, a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five, living with an aged and half-insane father about whom the frightful tales of wizardry had been whispered in his youth. Lavinia Whateley had no husband, but according to the custom of the region, made no attempt to disavow the child […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Lavinia’s depiction is as ableist as it is misogynistic. There is hardly a mention of her name that does not include a qualifier immediately before or after that she is deformed. Lovecraft’s characterization of Lavinia, meant to evoke horror and disgust, is also meant to be comparatively less offensive than the horror that is her son, Wilbur, a child described in both ableist and racist terms, as the “dark, goatish-looking infant who formed such a contrast to her own sickly and pink-eyed albinism” and “swarthy.” 

While I do not wish to medicalize Lavinia, as stated above, it is still important to put albinism in context for the contemporary reader. The understanding of the condition today is far more intricate than in Lovecraft’s time. Albinism is a genetically-inherited disease indicated by the absence of melanin; skin, hair, eyes are characteristically faint, having little color or intensity, and affects vision. Raji Ade Oba in “Albinism: A Silently-Growing Disability that remains largely uncategorized and ‘uncelebrated,’” states that:

A 2014 South African Medical Journal found that in Nigeria, albino children experienced isolation, dodged social interactions, and were less emotionally stable. In fact, it was reported that affected individuals were more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, and be unable to find partners. 

Lavinia’s few interactions with characters outside of her family are strange, stemming from her limited exposure which most likely resulted from familial or self-isolation from the townspeople due to her albinism. Though it can be argued that this isolation could be, either solely or mixed with, the dark sorcery of the inhabitants of her house. 

The medical aspects of albinism are not described in the story. Lovecraft delivers observations about Lavinia that illustrate her as hideous for an audience of the time that was likely just as uneducated and unsympathetic regarding genetic disorders. A more accurate or nuanced depiction of a character with albinism may have incorporated any of the following aspects, as described in The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine:

People with albinism may have one or more of the following eye problems: severe  far-sighted or near-sighted, astigmatism, constant, involuntary movement of the eyeball called nystagmus, problems in coordinating the eyes in fixing and tracking objects (strabismus), problems with depth perception, and light sensitivity. People with a rare form of albinism called Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS) also have a greater tendency to have bleeding disorders, inflammation of the large bowel (colitis), lung (pulmonary) disease, and kidney (renal) problems.

How much Lovecraft knew of these details is unknown. His characterization lends credence to the idea that the disabled should not procreate, seeing that Wilbur and his monstrous twin are evil and destructive beings. Lavinia’s impregnation can be seen as an inverse of the holy conception of Jesus Christ. It is also a direct reference to Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, where the formula “Et Diabolus incarnatus est. Et homo factus est.” is a deliberate inversion of “And God became incarnate, and made man.”

Lavinia was learned, affirming that the acquisition of knowledge was regarded as a peculiarity or trait that accompanied the makeup of a woman who could destabilize the patriarchal system at hand. “She was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great, odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys” and “She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her” (“The Dunwich Horror”).

Lovecraft plays into the medical model of disability with his characterization of Lavinia, which “frames atypical bodies and minds as deviant, pathological, and defective, best understood and addressed in medical terms”, an idea described by Alison Kafer in her pivotal text, Feminist, Queer, Crip (5). While it is stated that she is a woman of some learning, even if it is occult learning or familial oral history, it is most critical that you understand her as “deformed,” and therefore “other.” But impairment at the time this story was conceived was different than modern times. “What we understand as impairing conditions—socially, physically, mentally, or otherwise—shifts across time and place” (Kafer 7). As feminists and fighters against ableism, it is critical that we review texts with disabled characters, and disability overall, as “a site for collective reimagining” (Kafer 9). Lovecraft’s characterization  of Lavinia also hearkens back to classical and medieval times, when, as Angela M. Smith discusses in Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema: 

[…] unusual bodies and behaviors were viewed as evidence of divine or otherwise unknowable forces and read as portents of good will or ill, or manifestations of “earthly malignancy and witchcraft.” (3-4)

Her son, Wilbur, even began to regard her with a “growing contempt” eventually implicitly committing matricide. “Poor Lavinia Whateley, the twisted albino, was never seen again.” Here we have a supernatural being with disdain for his mother so great, that he murders her. One might look upon Lavinia’s cherishing of the child and see great injustice in this. That a woman of limited but enthusiastic learning, who perseveres beyond the so-called limitations of her condition, and still has some indefinable but present faith, as a discardable being. In David Punter’s A Companion to the Gothic he says that “The gothic uses and abuses a woman’s body; in this genre, she is ‘moved, threatened, discarded, and lost’ (257-268).

Women in Gothic fiction of the present day are afforded greater humanity. Through the mobilization of modern disability discourses, including the re-framing of  disability as marginalized identity rather than defective being, and integrating concepts of disability futurity, it may be demonstrated that portrayals of disabled women in Gothic literature may be reframed with modern theoretical interpretations to cultivate nuance that better serves the future of disability discourse. That is an improvement that will benefit not only readers, but the people who inhabit the real world as well.

Farah Rose Smith is a fiction writer and scholar from Rhode Island. She has authored the novellas Anonyma, The Almanac of Dust, and Eviscerator, as well as the collections Of One Pure Will and The Witch is the Body. She lives in New York City.

Copyright 2022 Farah Rose Smith

A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft

A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft
by Joe Koch

If we speculate that all horror is body horror—and we may because the emotional energy experienced interacting with horror arises physiologically in the body—cosmic horror seems to be the exception. Body horror and cosmic horror stand at two opposite ends of a spectrum, the former associated with violence and grossing out the reader in the most carnal way, and the latter concerned with the mental horror of existential dread and terrible awe. When my Yellow Mythos novella “The Wingspan of Severed Hands” was called “cosmic body horror” by beta readers, the label sounded like a conundrum. I’ve thought about the contrast since then, and I’d like to share my impression of what unites the personal and cosmic by digging into Lovecraft’s body horror from a transmasculine perspective.

The horror of cosmic horror arises from the realization that humanity is insignificant in the universe. In Lovecraft, we are like ants under the crushing feet of indifferent elder things that intersect with our world from other dimensions. The threat of cosmic horror comes from outside the body, outside the mind, and outside of the entire framework of quotidian reality. There’s comfort in cosmic horror: the fact that an outside realm exists might mean escape is possible from the confines of the physical world. For anyone ill at ease in their body, the horror of cosmic horror holds a convoluted sort of hope.

Lovecraft’s stories create a world of escape from everyday concerns. Politics, economic struggles, romance, or any significant emotion besides terror takes a back seat to the moment of horror which comes at the end of a systematic mental journey of denial, analysis, and skepticism. The body with its immediate needs and routine desires is almost completely erased in Lovecraft’s fiction, except when the body itself becomes the location of horror.

I’m intrigued by how often it does.

Despite pervasive problematic views that make his work very hard to stomach as a queer, feminist, transmasculine person, what interests me in revisiting Lovecraft today is the very present question of the body. He seems to struggle with it. A nagging tension exists between the dysphoric body horror of his “reversion to type” tales and the fantasies of protagonists who escape their bodies by dreams, drugs, and alien intervention; a divergence between Lovecraft’s claims of scientific rationality and the utterly irrational astral travels he portrays with the veracity of desire.

Body swapping between humans and even alien entities in Lovecraft tales typically comes from the character’s desire to go beyond a given body’s limitations: to perhaps travel in space, interact with alien or forbidden technologies, or achieve a kind of immortality. Gender swapping occurs in “The Thing on the Doorstep” when the occult practitioner Ephraim steals his daughter Asenath’s body before his death, leaving her to perish in his corpse. Because he believes he needs a male body to achieve mastery, he romances and marries an older man while in his daughter’s body to gain access to the intimacy required for another body swap. Asenath’s female body is murdered after the swap, and the husband stuck in her rotting female corpse slogs around with his mind still alive trying to warn the narrator. The female body expires in a soupy mess on the narrator’s doorstep, fulfilling the horror of the title.

Just to be clear, this is no transgender person’s fantasy.

The most queer thing about “The Thing on the Doorstep” is the way Lovecraft reveals the multiple levels of body swapping. The layers covering up Ephraim’s true identity, layers of a possession within a possession, a mask within a mask, are peeled away one by one as the narrator realizes afterwards who he has been interacting with. The process of removing mask after mask rings true to me as a person who has gone through the rather shocking growth process of coming out to myself and then to others.

Gender nonconformity is presented in the story as an aberration, a belief shared by many conservatives today. The narrator shows disapproval and disgust when the female body of Asenath exhibits behaviors Lovecraft associates with masculinity. This external point of view is fixated on the binary and dwells on an impression of wrongness, evoking the fear that if we feel out of sync internally, others will see the mismatch and despise us for it, a fear gender nonconforming people often face. Some trans people overcompensate by performing their assigned gender so expertly as a cover up that they go through phases of self doubt, feeling like an imposter. Lovecraft gives Ephraim a hateful degree of misogyny as motivation for body swapping, with no room in his rigid view for gender fluidity.

Misogyny is a typical misconception about transmasculine people and transgender men. Reactionaries even frame it as an accusation against us, as if hatred of women drives our desire for self-expression. Nothing could be further from the truth. Misogyny is not the same as gender dysphoria in my experience. I’m a feminist. I express this strongly in my fiction. Yet if I could snap my fingers and wake up in a more masculinebody, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Not out of hatred or disdain; it’s a much more personal and intimate desire for outward presentation to align with my internal reality and to fulfill childhood visions of self.

The common term for what drives us to change is gender euphoria. When we are addressed using correct names and pronouns, and when we see ourselves represented in the body and external world as we know ourselves in our minds, we experience gender euphoria. Our motivation is not hatred but joy. We simply want to feel at home in our bodies, which I think is a very reasonable human wish.

From reading Lovecraft, I have the impression he didn’t feel very much at home in his body. He missed school often and failed to graduate due to a nervous breakdown (I Am Providence 1.97-102, 126-128). He confessed to suicidal thoughts in his letters several times, most explicitly:

The method was the only trouble. I didn’t like messy exits, & dignified ones were hard to find. Really good poisons were hard to get—those in my chemical laboratory (I reëstablished this institution in the basement of the new place) were crude & painful. Bullets were spattery & unreliable. Hanging was ignominious. Daggers were messy unless one could arrange to open a wrist-vein in a bowl of warm water—& even that had its drawbacks despite good Roman precedent. Falls from a cliff were positively vulgar in view of the probable state of the remains. Well—what tempted me most was the warm, shallow, reed-grown Barrington River down the east shore of the bay. I used to go there on my bicycle & look speculatively at it. […] How easy it would be to wade out among the rushes & lie face down in the warm water till oblivion came. there would be a certain gurgling or choking unpleasantness at first—but it would soon be over. Then the long, peaceful night of non-existence….
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 4 Feb 1934, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 222

He said that learning about human reproduction from a science book ended his interest in the subject of sex at an early age (“ I knew everything there is to be known about the anatomy and physiology of reproduction in both sexes before I was eight years old” Selected Letters 1.304). He died young partly due to his avoidance of doctors, seeking medical treatment for cancer when it was too advanced for anything other than palliative treatment. Clara Hess, a neighbor, recalled:

Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her unfortunate son who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze at him. (Ave Atque Vale 166)

Lovecraft wrote stories such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “Arthur Jermyn” rife with fear of being or becoming a monster hybrid. The discovery that they are genetically inhuman is the heart of the protagonist’s horror. An inherited “degenerative” element in the protagonist’s character triumphs over their intellect no matter how hard they fight, dragging them down the evolutionary ladder to engage in reprehensible, inhuman, and likely cannibalistic behavior. Intellect will be subsumed by madness because in Lovecraft, biological determinism always wins.

The monster is the body. The hero is the mind.

The mind of the protagonist, no matter how noble, is trapped in the body and doomed to express biology. Like modern gender critical theorists, Lovecraft claimed to believe only what science can objectively prove. This eugenicist point of view falls apart when the science of biology is not severed from the science of psychology and the larger body of the society, culture, and the full set of direct human experiences in which an individual’s gender is formed and reinforced.

I suspect if Lovecraft were alive today, he would tend to align with those who oppose transgender rights in a similar way that he aligned with the predominant view of his time classifying homosexuality as a perverse abnormality and crime. If he were interested in the subject of gender, and there’s not much to suggest he was beyond brief mentions in his letters of his repulsion for effeminate men (Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos 28-43), he would perhaps, like modern gender critical theorists, label people like me delusional.

There’s little in his work to welcome me, but ironically Lovecraft populated his work with portraits of body dysphoria that feel familiar. Gender dysphoria is the sense of unease or distress one feels when one’s gender identity and body don’t match. When it’s misinterpreted or denied, it may become extreme and debilitating. Lovecraft’s depictions of self-loathing, of the feeling of horror within the self and the sense of having inherited a biological curse that tortures a mind trapped in the wrong body strike a very similar tone. If torture seems too strong a word, check out the statistics for anxiety, depression, and suicide among transgender people who are denied medical care or who encounter familial and societal opposition to their mere existence (Transgender individuals at greater risk of mental health problems, Mental Health and the LGBTQ+ Community).

Feeling tortured by living in an incorrect body isn’t a universal transgender experience, but it’s a very common one. Shame and self-loathing can destroy quality of life, preventing a person from socializing or pursuing hobbies and career. I’ve had my share of days where like Lovecraft I “hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people could gaze on him” due to the burden of gender dysphoria.

Owning it and taking action lifts the burden. I picture poor Asenath’s liquifying body from the ending of “The Thing on the Doorstep” as a symbol of self-loathing: this corpse-like and “foul, stunted parody” of self, a self fetid with dysphoria that I dutifully lugged around for half a century before coming out. The corpse in the story can’t speak, and the man inside it dies silenced, able only to deliver a scribbled note. I’m glad that’s not my fate.

In the real world, we’re stuck with one body, no swapping allowed. As transgender people, we know real life body horror. Knowing the opposite—euphoria, groundedness, and a deep sense of being at home in one’s body—is definitive of the transgender experience. And while our concern in this essay is horror, I think it’s vital to contrast the horror discussion with the empowering reality of the health, self-acceptance, and immense happiness transgender people enjoy when they practice freedom of expression and have access to corrective care. Modern discourse focuses on the negative statistics to emphasize a need for change or vilify us as unwell monsters, but my everyday reality is not a struggle with illness or horror. I’m significantly happier and in much better physical health now.

The parallels with coming out in Lovecraft’s fiction keep the horror intact. A protagonist’s success in going beyond the limitations of a story’s physical world won’t negate Lovecraftian biological determinism, but will usually lead to a different kind of body horror. The consequence of crossing the border between worlds is the creation of a bridge: be warned, once the (closet) door is opened, it can never be closed. Once the protagonist’s mind has transgressed liminal space, the body becomes liminal and thus subject to invasion by entities or energies from non-human dimensions, an often unwilling conduit between worlds.

Considered outside of Loveraft’s fiction, the body as liminal and changeable is a mere fact of existence. Time will change all of us, like it or not, as we age. Food, exercise, medications; all of the subtle and bold chemical alterations we make to the body impact the moods and cognitive functions of the mind. The mind doesn’t reign in isolation as a detached godhead; mind and body dynamically interact. I’d personally go so far as to speculate the mind may be a myth dreamed up by the body. If self is an expression of interconnecting systems and body is the engine of impermanence, Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is simply a restatement of physiological fact.

Is it really a horror to know oneself as permeable and changeable? In contrast to the horror tales, Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter stories such as “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” depict flexibility as an asset. They show monsters and aliens as characters rather than unknowable forces. Carter can astral travel, time travel, and interact with other-dimensional spaces and entities. In navigating the dream world, Carter comes to know himself more fully as his quest sends him back to his childhood home, which may symbolically be the authentic body.

At the end of his story arc, Carter achieves a sort of immortality by inhabiting the liminal state of being neither alive nor dead. The horror of permeability fades with the explorer’s increased pleasure and mastery in negotiating a wider range of experience.

Transgender people tend to live, at least for some time, in a liminal state between the gender binary extremes, as neither male nor female. We may lack access to obtain care for aspects of medical transition, we may need to delay it for a variety of reasons, or we simply may not want it. Many nonbinary and agender people in particular seek no physical alteration to the body and continue to present according to society’s standards for their assigned gender. This is why one must never assume another person’s gender based solely on their appearance.

On the uncertain or transgressive borderline between things which can and can’t be known, things neither alive nor dead, we run up against cosmic horror that is not body horror. Lovecraft unintentionally captured the experience of body dysphoria in his work, and the yearning for transformation beyond physical limitations is a fantasy he engaged with in his fiction repeatedly. Whilewe can posit all horror is body horror because the mind is dependent upon the body’s processes for input and existence, I think this is too limiting. It’s as if we’ve given ourselves a diagnosis of awe as a mere chemical or physiological anomaly. Even the staunch biological determinist Lovecraft pointed to something much bigger in the scope of the cosmos.

Joe Koch (He/They) writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and the forthcoming collection Convulsive from Apocalypse Party Press. Their short fiction appears in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Not All Monsters, Liminal Spaces, and many others. Find Joe online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.

Copyright 2022 Joe Koch.

A Polio Survivor Looks At Lovecraft

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