Wednesday, July 08, 2009

America's best bad writer

'America's Best Bad Writer' isn't yours truly. I don't have that great a claim to fame, though he and I do share some common literary mannerisms. It's none other than H. P. Lovercraft who earned that sobriquet, among others like 'America's Master of Horror.' Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) deserved the last name he was born with, rather unlike one Whalehead King. He lived all his life in one place except for a brief stint in New York City, which he loathed. Two more dissimilarities.

He loved two cities. One was his beloved Providence, RI where he spent most of his days. The other was Boston. Lovecraft's grave bears this legend: "I am Providence." I will never be audacious enough to put "I am Dorchester" on my tombstone. There are many more people who are more deserving. I've met them. They walk past my porch every day at all hours.

Lovecraft loved nothing more than strolling around Boston long before urban renewal. He loved the crooked streets. He loved the North End. He set a story in Boston called 'Pickman's Model' set near either Copp's Hill or the Granary Burial Ground. I forget which. You'll have to read this bloodcurdling tale to find out. He had the eye of an antiquarian and he loved Boston, like so many people do, because it was so old.

Why is he the 'best bad writer?' Firstly, he is best because he labored over his manuscripts and polished and agonized until they really were a product of his love of craft. The man really could write by the ream and his imagination knew no limits from the bowels of the earth to the farthest reaches of outer space on a time continuum that was infinite. Secondly, he is considered bad, not because he tells a story badly, just in his own way. His plots are tortuous, bogged down with obscure words, piles of adjectives and a style that was old fashioned before 1900. Little happens in a Lovecraft story except the unfolding dreadful, paralyzing realization that in the mindless machinations of the universe, human hopes are not even a flickering mote in a gibbering, blind god's eye. That's a Lovecraftian sentence right there. If you enjoy the way it rolls, Lovecraft may be for you.

'Pickman's Model' is another kind of story written in the same style with a theme that only touches on Lovecraft's obsession with a universe in which man is as much as naught, a flotsam of dimly phosphorescent plankton on the tides of eternity. It is set in his present, around 1920. It captures old Boston quite well through his appreciative eyes and it is a horrible, weird tale. No Dorchester stories, unfortunately, but we make do with what we have. Boston, like Providence, features in many of his stories, and Massachusetts as well. He was the quintessential, weird, New England author, the kind of crank we love.

The first book, from the Library of America, contains everything he wrote. It's more for the confirmed devotee. The second contains 'Pickman's Model' as well as some of his better stories for those on a budget.

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