Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Lovecraft Extravaganza

He was a racist who married a Jewish woman, an atheist who wrote some pretty lurid tales about ancient deities too powerful and horrific for humans to defeat. A prolific writer, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 -1937) had a limited following at best during his lifetime.

But that picture has changed considerably over time. H. P. Lovecraft, the man with the tombstone face, is now considered one of the most influential horror writers of the last century. Two of his stories, “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air,” were dramatized on Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery.” Others have inspired films and songs by such bands as Metallica and Black Sabbath. There are fanzines devoted to him. And this past August, one Niels Hobbs of the University of Rhode Island brought Providence’s the dormant Lovecraft literary conference back to life as NecronomiCon. Diehard devotees came from all over Europe, Central America, and even New Zealand for what vet and artist Tom Morganti calls “a Lovecraft extravaganza.”

Of course, Morganti was there, too, armed with his “geek-fest equipment” – a kit for conference participants that included bumper stickers, an elder-sign lapel pin, and tee shirts, one of which reads “Cthulhu FHTALN” or “Cthulhu sleeps.” (Cthulhu is one of Lovecraft’s Old Ones, a deity complete with tentacles and rudimentary wings. He’s very popular.)

It’s not Morganti’s first trip to Providence. Back in 1972, he and his brother Bill visited all the sites connected with the writer. “The people we talked to were – I felt – amazingly ignorant of Lovecraft,” he recalls. “At the time, I thought, ‘This is Providence. Why have they never heard of the most famous author from their own town?’” It took some doing, but the brothers finally located the Phillips obelisk in the Swan Point Cemetery. “I felt a rushing in my ears, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. He didn’t even have his own stone, just a panel in the side facing the river.”

This time around, however, there is a stone, put up by Lovecraft’s fans in 1977. Under his name and dates, it reads, “I AM PROVIDENCE” -- a line, Morganti explains, from one of his “effusive letters to some correspondent about his return home in 1926.”

And Morganti has a whole lot more company on this visit to the cemetery. Twenty to thirty Lovecraft devotees are there “’in costume’ – robes, top hats” – and there’s “a feeling of anticipation…like someone was expected to arrive and then the ceremony would begin.” In keeping with this feeling are the “grave goods” left out like so many offerings on an altar. A gold-framed wood-block print of his Grandpa Theobald (one of Lovecraft’s pen names was Lewis Theobald) and an original musical composition, its title indecipherable except for the word “melancholy.”

The essential elements of the original literary conference remain. There are discussions about the New England settings in many of his stories; Lovecraft’s critics; Lovecraft and sex (repressed sexually and socially or a closeted necrophile?); and Lovecraft as an “Atheist Evangelist.” Still another talk bears this quirky mouthful of a name – “Lovecraft’s Phobias, or What Can You Do with Somebody Who’s Afraid of Everything?”

The cast of characters leading these discussions is definitely eclectic. Robert Price, “the star of this show” and “an expert on comparative religions and an atheist at the same time.” Lois Gresch, the author of the Mortal Instruments Movie Companion, who calls Lovecraft “a bent genius.” Peter Canon, a small press advocate and publisher. Diane Louise Lindley, the widow of Dan O’Bannon, who wrote “Alien.” (O’Bannon, Morganti learns, suffered from Crohn’s disease his entire life – and there, my friends, you have the inspiration for the famous “chest-burster” scene in the movie.) An expert on medieval outlaw ballads who explains how “during the Middle Ages, the monster story left the realm of the campfire,” culminating in the supernatural/horror stories of Welsh writer and mystic Arthur Machen. (Machen, like Edgar Allen Poe and journalist/ghost-story writer Algernon Blackwood, was an influence on Lovecraft’s work.)

And the Lovecraftian fans are sitting there, taking it all in. Morganti describes them vividly: “The women look like hipsters for the most part – some Goth, some with funny hats.” There’s a guy wearing “a Green Man mask (and a black tee shirt). No, wait, he’s got tentacles – he’s Cthulhu….There’s a man in drag with peroxide hair, wearing a tiny hat. The guy next to him is dressed like Che Guevara. One of the panelists has a bouffant hairdo colored like the rainbow….The fella to the left of the podium is Gothed with black nails. His pal in the front row has black leather boots up to his thighs and a petticoat.”

It’s something of a mad tea party – albeit one with dark overtones -- and it gets curiouser and curiouser. At one point, Morganti wanders into the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel for one of the lectures…only to stumble upon “a small group up front, transcribing what sounds to me like poetry. One of the guys asks me if I want a lyric sheet, so I get one of those, and they start the boom box.”

That first song turns out to be a major re-working of the “Dreidl” song:

I made a little Dreidl
Cthulhu out of clay
And when I went to spin it,
I listened to it say….

Actually, it’s kind of an improvement on the original song. The next one borrows its tune from “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms of Jesus” (used in the 1955 movie “The Night of the Hunter”):

Sli-mee tentacles
Wri-ggling tentacles
Spell the doom of all man-kind
Great – green tentacles
Co-smic tentacles
Stran-gle in the everlasting arms!

Suddenly, Morganti realizes that it’s an actual organ he’s listening to and -- “No shit, I had walked into the hymn rehearsal for the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast Choir, scheduled tomorrow at dawn!”

But even he finds himself singing along on the next little number, sung to the tune of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”:

Cthulhu de-vours all his minions!
Eternal death shall set us free!
As he stirs us in the broth
That is known as Azathoth
Crawling chaos will transfigure you and me!

There’s even a Lovecraft-inspired version of “Rock of Ages” that probably has generations of churchgoers turning -- and groaning -- in their graves. Morganti, however, describes it “catchy, very catchy.”

All of this pales, however, beside the WaterFire event that caps off NecronomiCon. It begins at 10 p. m. in Roger Williams Park. A line of “robed and cowled acolytes” (all the big donors get robes with the elder-sign insignia) wend their way through the streets of Providence, carrying torches. Some costumed monsters are among the marchers, “including an obese man wearing a fly head.” He even has “a second head gibbering where his navel should be.” There’s also a giant 20-foot-tall pulley-operated puppet of Shoggoth, a monster from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It is, as it turns out, “too heavy for its supports” and breaks in two: the “acolytes” have to carry it sideways to the gondola. It all culminates in a celebratory Water Fire Event – more than 80 bonfires rising from the river with live music and more characters from writer’s fictional universe wandering about.

So, what would Providence’s most reclusive son have made of all this? Morganti talks with sculptor Bryan Moore, whose bronze bust of Lovecraft is unveiled at the Providence Athenaeum during the event. They agree “he’d have been embarrassed over all the fuss made over him and his work” – that he probably wouldn’t even have attended it, given his dislike of crowds. “His biggest thrill,” Morganti concludes, “would come from the knowledge that in 2013, 76 years after his death, his stuff is still being read. That’s the mark of a true artist.”

But there’s more to it, I think. Somehow, the outsider who didn’t hesitate to “outsider” others, as one panelist puts it…the author whose “life makes an arguably more compelling narrative than many of his own stories” (Leeman Kessler, Lovecraft eZine contributor and HPL portrayer)… now has a following among people more diversified than he himself could possibly have imagined.  A community, almost.  And that is kind of amazing in itself.


Anonymous said...

Dear T. J.,

A mad tea party of an interesting article – Thank you for posting.



T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Robert! My curiosity definitely got the better of me on this one. I'm fascinated by what makes up a "community"...whether it's the people who follow the Renaissance Fair circuit or diehard Lovecraft fans that Tom Morganti met at NecronomiCon.

Samantha Mozart said...

A mad tea party, indeed. Catchy and fascinating. What makes up community -- that leads to culture and civilizations. Well, I could go on. It's good to read such a unique -- and as always with your writing, T.J., comprehensive piece.

Oh, and I see my friend Robert's name is mentioned here -- Robert Price.

Let me just add that I think men should start wearing top hats again.


T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Samantha. We are all searching for community/a group to belong to, I guess. Could be a church group, a grange, or that Renaissance Fair circuit that I alluded to earlier. (Now, there's a story that's calling out to be written.)
Top, that would be elegant. But not the Macassar oil that they used to use in their hair, please!

Gwynn Rogers said...

Boy, Lovecraft was a fascinating person. I had never heard of him. You definitely did an excellent job of educating me. Your posting was quite thorough and fun. I agree with Samantha... I think Top Hats would be quite elegant and Avant Garde.

Tom Morganti said...

you captured it perfectly. And for anyone who's interested, NecronomiCon II returns in August 2015. The "extravaganza" brought almost $700,000 to the city over three days, so the town officials are definitely pro-squidhead now.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Gwynn, but I barely scratched the surface. Lovecraft was a very complicated man, and he wrote some very complicated fantasy/horror...much more than I've alluded to here.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Tom -- I'm glad you feel that way. There was so much more that I would've liked to have woven in about his writing...but then I would have had a mini-dissertation on my hands! And that is better left to the people who really know Lovecraft's work, such as yourself.

Susan Scott said...

Thank you for this interesting post on Lovecraft TJ! I THINK somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain the name rings a bell, but maybe it's because of his lovely name. A mad hatters tea party indeed! How wonderful that he is being celebrated all these many years later!
I love the schtikl and schmukl verses .. no, I know those weren't the actual words iykwim ..

T. J. Banks said...

Thank you, Susan! Lovecraft was a man of contradictions...which is, I'm sure, why Leeman Kessler must've found him so interesting to portray.