“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998) by Poppy Z. Brite

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.

 

 

“The Insider” (1998) by Stanley C. Sargent

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”

The conceit of “The Insider” is that it is a prequel to Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” Although both stories stand well enough on their own, once you get the idea the slight aping of Lovecraft’s diction and the general direction of Sargent’s story takes on a new dimension. It’s a solid, well-written Mythos tale, clever without being extravagant or feeling the need to explain everything, with a satisfying ending.

“The Insider” is not one of Sargent’s better-known tales; his claim to fame, if any, probably rests on the story “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and his essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002), both of which focus on alternative interpretations of Wilbur Whateleywho, like the eponymous Insider/Outsider, is marked from birth as one apart. It’s a subject that Sargent, growing up as a homosexual, could and did empathize with. It was Sargent who has made the strongest, or at least most elegant argument that Lovecraft himself might have been a closeted homosexual:

I read “The Outsider” when I was about 14 and beginning to realize there was something very different about me, my deep dark secret.  We are talking about growing up in the farm country of Ohio in the early ’60s here.  When I read “The Outsider,” I felt convinced the author had gone through the same situation I was going through, the abject horror of recognizing you are gay in a very anti-gay world.

Years later, I tried to find an alternative reason for HPL considering himself such an extreme “outsider,” but I discovered no plausible other reason for such an extreme feeling of being an isolated monster.  I didn’t really care a whit about HPL’s sexual orientation (I am not trying to claim him as one of “us”), so at the time it occurred to me that I might be projecting a bit.

Yet, as I read more about HPL’s life, I began to see that all the ingredients were there.  His upbringing with a dominant, overly protective mother (who dressed him as a girl for the first few years of his life) and the nearly total absence of a father is the classic formula for a male child being gay. Although he declared his distaste for homosexuals, in particular effeminate males, he was often described as effeminate himself.  Plus he was a close friend with Samuel Loveman for many years and Loveman was hardly in the closet about his activities.  Finally, I can come up with no other logical explanation for HPL’s close relationship with the teenage Barlow during the last years of his life, to the point of making Barlow his literary executor.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe HPL was able to cast off the conventions he clung to so desperately enough to actually “come out.”  I think HPL saw in Barlow the self-accepting talented writer he had always wanted to be himself but couldn’t be.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Barlow had discussed his own “outsiderness” with a very understanding HPL, but I doubt HPL could have ever brought himself to own up to his own similar orientation.

It all makes even more sense if you interpret “The Dunwich Horror” as an autobiographical cloaked confession of his dilemma.  Wilbur obviously represents HPL, all the way down to HPL believing his own appearance was “hideous” (again, thanks to mom), and I believe the twin brother was the a symbol of the homosexual desires HPL so desperately tried to suppress.  No one could see the monster and it was essentially so evil that it had to be contained.  Yet it kept growing and even Wilbur feared it would someday break out (read “come out”) and destroy the world (Lovecraft’s little conservative world).  That thought terrified him as being gay went against everything he believed in; it must have been awful for him.  He surely married Sonia, a mother figure, in hope of changing his orientation, a very common and futile mistake.  If he didn’t confess his problem to her, she undoubtedly guessed and was sympathetic.

I suppose I’ll be up for a lynching when die-hard Lovecraftians read this, but I’m convinced I’m right.  Even my friend Wilum Pugmire disagrees with me strongly on this point.  Lovecraft would certainly have equated his unnamable secret with Wilde’s unspeakable love.
Stanley C. Sargent, interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998)

Whether or not readers agree with Sargent’s interpretation as fact, from a literary standpoint the idea has a degree of merit: it is possible to engage with Lovecraft’s creations from that viewpoint…and why not? It’s a fair cop. Robert M. Price engaged with the idea in his essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982). It was probably not Lovecraft’s intent in this case to provide such an interpretation…but readers are free to interpret an author’s work as they would.

Knowing Sargent’s thoughts on “The Outsider” can in turn influence a reader’s response to “The Insider.” The theme of the lonely, ostracized young man that resorts finally to cutting as a release from the stigma of being different—only to be further punished and set apart for his behaviorresonates. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” is designed to provoke empathy in the readers, and “The Insider” is both a response and an echo to that. “The Insider” need not be an allegory for homosexuality per se, any more than “The Outsider” must be read in such light; both stories focus on both external appearance and the desire for acceptance, aspects of human experience which are adaptable to many different syntaxbecause we all live in a world where discrimination is real, be it based on age, gender, sexuality, physical appearance or ability, race, or faith.

Have we not all been an Insider/Outsider at some point, if only in our own heads?

“The Insider” was published Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #8 (1998), and was republished in Sargent’s collection The Taint of Lovecraft (2002).