Sunday, September 24, 2006

Horror in the Hills:
Lovecraft in Vermont... Coming in October!

On the weekend of October 20th, the first (hopefully annual)
  • Lovecraft in Vermont
  • gathering of H.P. Lovecraft readers, fans, buffs, scholars, and the simply curious will take place in and around Dummerston, VT, just north of Brattleboro.

    The cause for celebration: Lovecraft's visit to this part of my home state 80 years ago, in the late 1920s (actually just south of Brattleboro, in Guilford), a trip that inspired Lovecraft's single Vermont-based tale of horror, "The Whisperer in the Darkness."

    Organizer Alan D. Eames (author of the definitive Secret Life of Beer: Legends, Lore & Little-Known Facts, 1995) has been pulling this event together since spring, when he called VT folklorist, horror novelist and my great amigo Joe Citro and I to the Eames estate for a brief powwow about Alan's dreams and schemes.

    Joe and I will be participating, on some level, but this is Alan's baby: The Beer King is trading crowns to honor the creator of the Old Ones, and the festivities are promising to spice the foliage season in ways never before imagined.

    Thus far, my sole concrete contribution has been to organize the weekend's film program, negotiating with VT filmmaker Jayson Argento (here's a pic of the thrall from Jayson's film) and The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society to arrange for a double-feature screening. First up will be Argento's latest short film,
  • The Cthulhu Chronicles: Episode One: The Ropes (2006),
  • followed by our festival feature, the marvelous faux-silent adaptation of Lovecraft's 1926 tale
  • The Call of Cthulhu (2005).

  • It turns out the Lovecraft Historical Society folks responsible for that gem are coming to Vermont in the spring to make a new Lovecraft film, and I for one am overjoyed to know this is in the works.

    Anyhoot, about the Lovecraft in VT event: I'll be delivering an illustrated lecture on Lovecraft in comics & film as a lead-in to the films, and Alan will be posting more info as the schedule of events congeals
  • here,
  • so keep tabs on that site as the leaves change colors and the nights grow colder.

    FYI, here's my bio for Alan's site, which I've taken the liberty to footnote a bit for your Sunday entertainment and enlightenment.

    See some of you in October!

    As a native Vermonter, it would be suitably romantic to cite my entry point into H.P. Lovecraft’s universe as “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” but that isn’t true, and I won’t pretend it is.

    The first Lovecraft story I ever read was in a black-cloth-covered, dust-jacketless collection of horror stories my mother inexplicably owned. Truth to tell, it was Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats” (1936) that made the greater impression on me at the relatively tender age of ten, an impact so overwhelming that I simply can’t recall another story I read in that anthology off the top of my head, and can’t lay hands on it today to check which Lovecraft story lurked between its covers. As a child, I was terrified to revisit the book, and Lovecraft interested me not at all until my curiosity was aroused two years later by the announcement in one of the monster magazines that Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” was about to be adapted into a film starring Boris Karloff (which was shot under the title The House at the End of the World and eventually released in the US as Die, Monster, Die!).

    This prompted me to scour, fruitlessly, two local libraries, neither of which harbored a single fragment of fiction by Lovecraft (whose name prompted suspicion from Mrs. Post, our venerable Waterbury VT librarian, who must have thought I was referring to some sort of sex manual, given her initial reaction to my boyish queries; she looked enormously relieved when I explained he wrote horror stories). Fortunately, the Lancer paperback The Colour Out of Space and Others, with its lurid (and patently fake) ‘flaming skull’ photo cover, popped up on the paperback racks next to the new Bantam Doc Savage titles.

    [Note: I was a huge Doc Savage fan at this age, devouring every one of the Bantam paperbacks -- and no doubt about it, it was the James Bama covers that caught my eye first and every time. Like many young Doc Savage readers, it took about a dozen books for the template to grow too repetitive, by which time I'd discovered Lovecraft, Bradbury and Matheson -- the holy trinity that defined much of my teen reading appetite. Prior to this, it was Verne, Wells and Poe for me; of those pre-Lovecraft discoveries, only Wells and Poe retained my interest as I matured. BTW, the Waterbury Library still stands, and it was a great library when I was a kid -- it had a second floor museum collection that included a real mummy; a basement and attic filled with musty stacks of old magazines I combed and studied, using the Periodical Index as my guide; and occasional 16mm film shows, including my first exposure to Jiri Trnka. I believe Mrs. Post's first name was Emily -- I kid you not -- and she guided me thoughtfully and patiently through my formative reading years, easing me past my little boy fascination for dinosaurs into sampling Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Jack London and much, much more.]

    I snapped it up for a fat 60 cents -- well, ‘snap’ isn’t the correct word, as the cover price was a sacrifice I pondered for some stretch. Those six dimes could also yield somewhere between three and five comics, depending on which publisher or whether I was buying regular-sized 12-centers or 25-cent annuals. But my curiosity was too great, and thus I entered consciously Lovecraft’s literary realm and broke my Cthulhu cherry once and for all (the loss of my physical virginity would have to wait).

    [A long time.]

    “Colour Out of Space” was among the most horrific stories I’d ever read up to that time in my life, almost blowing “The Graveyard Rats” out of its primo position. It was an ideal intro to Lovecraft, melding as it did more traditional science-fiction elements (the meteor and its mutations) with an evocative backwoods reality I bought into without hesitation. Lovecraft’s invented rural Massachusetts setting held the allure of being “far away” from my home in Duxbury, VT -- hence, exotic -- while sounding like the deep woods I loved to hike along the Winooski and around the parameters of Camel’s Hump. Nahum Gardner could have been one of my woodchuck neighbors, like the Pelkeys, the Chamberlains, or the deer-hunting clan of Benoits. This made the mounting horror of Nahum’s degeneration and fate all the more palpable and arresting. Having already steeped myself in Poe, I thought few things I could find in books could or would raise my hackles (and gorge) the way films like Mario Bava’s Black Sunday had, but ol’ H.P.’s deceptively casual turn of phrase to describe Nahum’s demise -- “That which spoke could speak no more because it had completely caved in” -- hit me like a hammer blow. I almost tasted vomit; no writer had ever done this to me.

    I was hooked for life.

    That Lancer collection also featured H.P.’s “Cool Air,” which I loved and immediately recognized, with some excitement, as kin to Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” my all-time favorite Poe tale (which I would years later try to film on Super 8mm, using stop-motion animation to simulate Valdemar’s rapid decay, with humiliatingly risible results).

    [Note: This attempt to film a Poe short story pretty much capped my 8mm filmmaking years. Working with my close friends Bill Hunter -- who made more 8mm and Super8 films than I, and went to Boston to study filmmaking before his tragic death -- and Alan Finn, we set up a stop-motion animation set on the top of my desk blotter in my bedroom in my family's Colbyville, VT home. Using a tripod extended to its limit atop the desk, with the camera lens aiming down full-face at my crude facsimile of Valdemar -- a plasticene and clay mock-up sculpted in anatomically-correct layers of red and orange muscle and gray skin upon a Remco model of the human skull, with glass eyes set into the sockets -- Bill, Alan and I shot the disintegration frame-by-frame.

    It took, as I recall, two full days. My most imaginative effects flourish, or so I thought, was the replacement of the glass eyes with egg yolks at the predetermined stage of decay; to my delight, the yolks gradually shrank under the hot lights we were filming with. To everyone's growing disgust, they also began to stink.

    Nevertheless, we persevered, and after two full days and nights of frame-by-frame filming, we wrapped the sequence and eagerly mailed the unexposed film reel to Kodak for development (there were no quick-development photo booths around in those days, not in Waterbury, anyway; Vincent's Pharmacy was our 8mm and Super8 development venue, via their shipping the film to Burlington or wherever to return days later. When the developed reel returned, we eagerly met and screened it -- and Alan and Bill were literally in tears with laughter. I was simply mortified. The fruit of all our labors didn't look at all as we'd envisioned it: it looked like a fake clay head, essentially unzipping up the front and peeling away. The eyes "rotting" indeed looked cool, but it all went by so fast, it looked ridiculous.

    I recall watching this footage over and over, calculating where we went wrong -- we shot have shot two-to-four frames per change, not one! -- but my disappointment was so great that I abandoned the ambitious adaptation of Valdemar and relegated my filmmaking to the occasional experimental film, requiring no such special effects extravaganzas.]

    I was also fascinated with the seminal “The Call of The Cthulhu,” the first horror story I found myself revisiting annually. It defied the formulaic template of most horror I’d been exposed to up to that point in my life, and didn’t seem to make much narrative sense, but I couldn’t shake the damned story. It haunted me and wielded some sort of terrible internal logic I couldn’t articulate or fully grasp, painting pictures in my mind while eluding any rational analysis. Still being a devout Catholic lad (that, too, would soon change), I think in retrospect “Call of Cthulhu” plucked the same nerves so much of the irrational Catholic dread I’d grown up with had fine tuned. Lovecraft’s fusion of elder prehuman deities, outsized primordial beings and cult fanaticism perfectly suited this dino-loving churchgoing Catechism-attending Yankee youth’s confusions, where nuns and priests unabashedly pronounced unknowable truths about the afterlife and arcane religious dogma -- and yet were forever flummoxed at my feeble attempts to make sense of the schism between the fossil record and the Biblical record, usually fomenting punishment. Once he emerged in the story’s rousing climax, Cthulhu proved to be everything the name “Godzilla” had promised, but cheated on -- an embodiment of ultimate supernatural power and prehistoric monster, church and monster incarnate -- sans the man-in-suit silliness of the Toho movies. I must also note that it was Lovecraft’s use of piecemeal narrative fragments in “The Call of Cthulhu” -- diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. -- that made Bram Stoker’s Dracula alluring to me for the first time in my life, whetting my appetite for later outings with Borges in my post-high-school and college years.

    The other stories in the Lancer paperback -- “The Picture in the House,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness” -- struck me then as ephemeral or silly, and I couldn’t make head nor tails out of “The Shadow Out of Time,” which simply confounded and bored me. Only later in my teenage years, revisiting the story, did it work for me; by then, my Lancer paperback was a tattered shell, its tablet-like binding dissolving like Nahum’s face, the purple-edged pages loosely sheathed by the faded cover.

    Although I came to love “The Whisperer in the Darkness” later in life, primarily for being set in my home state and for its suffocating atmosphere and chilling final movement, I still think it’s undermined by one of Lovecraft’s stupidest conceits. It’s a neat touch that its alien interlopers are linked with the floating carcasses of the historic 1927 flood, but the Mi-Gos -- ruddy man-sized soft-shelled crustaceans with fleshy wings sprouting from their spines, capable of flying (!) to the Green Mountains from distant Yuggoth -- mesh clumsily with Vermont landscape, lore and Lovecraftian zoology, their interstellar travel amplifying their patent absurdity well beyond the breaking point. It’s as if one of the hilarious species of space monster I used to laugh at Ultraman battling weekly on Canadian TV had spilled into the Lovecraft universe, or Yog, Monster from Space had supplanted Cthulhu -- too bad. It is, otherwise, a marvelous story.

    [Note: For the sake of accurate chronology, it must be noted that Toho's Space Amoeba, released stateside by AIP as Yog, Monster from Space, wouldn't hit any screens until after 1971 -- a few years after my initial reading of the Lancer Lovecraft paperback -- so I'm cheating more than a little with this glib analogy. But what the fuck, eh? By the time I'd re-read and fell in love at last with Lovecraft's mongrel mythos tale, I had seen Yog on a double feature with The Return of Count Yorga during a big-fun night out with George and Steve Woodard at the Paramount Theater in Barre, VT, so the integrity of my chronology is correct.]

    Like most aspiring young artists and writers smitten with Lovecraft’s fiction as a youth, the most recognizable mark left upon me by H.P. crept into my creative writing assignments. My English teachers and first junior high creative writing teacher (Carol Collins, 8th grade, Harwood Union High School) adjusted reluctantly to my predilection for writing horror, but winced at my emulating the most superficial aspects of Lovecraft’s prose. Carol in particular valiantly struggled with my preference for flamboyant Lovecraftian terminology and relentless abuse of adjectives; why use one when six would do the trick? I recall her patiently showing me a thesaurus, making me turn the pages and urging me to use it at all times, explaining why “ichor” wasn’t the best word to use over and over again as my nominal hero (who, of course, went mad in the final paragraph) hacked away at the scaly monstrosity I described in such excruciating, loving detail.

    I got over that habit, though I still treasure the multipage list of Lovecraftian adjectives poet and underground comix writer extraordinaire Tom Veitch gave me years later. Nevertheless, my artwork would forever reflect the malignant influence of Lovecraft’s imagery.

    There are some things you simply can’t and don’t outgrow.

    But oh, those Mi-Gos -- damn, they are silly-ass monsters.

    PS to yesterday's post: Thanks to Brian Defer for responding to the request for back issues of The Comics Journal -- I'm still seeking TCJ #28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 39, 41, 43, 44, 47, 50, 55, 57, 266. Thanks, Brian!