In the summer I turned fifteen I received many birthday presents, none of which I remember except this one: The Trail of Cthulhu by August Derleth. I was used to sports stories and at best Ray Bradbury’s fiction, which coincidentally had been given to me by the same guy who gave me Derleth’s book. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, it was, featuring the strangest story I had ever read, “The Small Assassin,” about an infant who commits adulticide or rather parricide. I would discover The Martian Chronicles later, seeing that Bradbury’s world wasn’t all about baby killers, that is, babies who killed.
Strange subject, right?
Stranger still, this Cthulhu Mythos:
“No one but August could continue the Cthulhu Mythos cycle after the death of its creator, his friend H.P. Lovecraft. In a comprehensive fusion of Lovecraft’s fearful myth-pattern, Dr. Laban Shrewsbury pursues his arcane investigations into the unspeakable secrets of the Ancient Ones to the drowned city of R’lyeh, where the ancient god Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
I love the word “arcane.” It conjures ancient houses where not just macabre things lurk, but beings who have been created by some sinister force— the lore of black magic that all kids hear about somehow before they reach puberty.
I read Derleth’s book and couldn’t get enough, and so I found copies of Cthulhu progenitor HP Lovecraft’s original fiction: At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror. They made a movie of that last title, and guys I knew in ninth grade saw it and couldn’t quit talking about it. I never saw the film because the story was enough for me.
In eleventh grade, Mrs. Norton’s Humanities class, I wrote my term paper on Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. It must have been 25 pages long, and I’d shudder to read it today, much as Mrs. Norton must have shuddered or at least wondered about me then. All those Old Ones and Ancient Gods. Here is a drawing of Cthulhu to help you see what Mrs. Norton and I mean:
Tame now, but heady stuff for 1972.
Most of us are lucky enough to have that one friend in our lives who leads us far from the maddening social crowd. My friend was Jimbo, they guy who gave me Bradbury, Derleth, Lovecraft, and later on John Fowles’ The Magus, DM Thomas’s The White Hotel, and took me to see Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties.
He is also the guy who three months ago texted me one afternoon and ordered me to drop everything and download the podcast S-Town, which as many know is partially set in our hometown of Bessemer, Alabama.
Jimbo wanted to escape Bessemer for as long as I knew him, and he did. He helped me escape, too, and now with S-Town, he brought us both back. I should say here that neither of us hates Bessemer now, though at one time both of us did. It is our home and we have family and friends still there or thereabouts. I go back more often than he does mainly because I live closer and have more time off than he does. I can’t remember the last time we were there together, but each time one of us goes, we call the other to laugh, to reminisce, to offer comfort or to inject an arcane fear.
As much as I love going back and seeing my home people; as much as I love driving around the old haunts and thinking about that girl I knew who used to rock on her front porch, that old store — now a realtor’s office — where Jimbo, my brother Mike, and I used to buy our comic books, or the park where somebody kissed someone else in the dark and we all smoked illicit Marlboros, I had to leave.
If I had stayed and lived in Bessemer, what would have happened to me? What would I have done there; where would I have worked? Would I have married, or would I have stayed at home, living with my parents, with my mother after my father died?
I went to college close by, at the University of Montevallo, but without the influence of my friend who led me down more roads than I can say here, maybe after college I would have returned home and tried to get a job in journalism as my dad once suggested I should.
It’s a simplification, I know, but when Jimbo started dreaming of faraway places, I did, too. I never wanted to go as far as he did, and I never wanted to stay away as long as he did, but I wanted to leave. I knew I had to leave if I were going to challenge myself and try to carve out or through the mountain of my own potential madness — the neurosis of one who believes that there is no safer place, no place at all, like home, and he has to stay there despite all inclinations to the contrary.
Like John B.
If after all of this you want a book recommendation, I’d suggest Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean.
I’m not finished with it, or even halfway through it, but I’m savoring every word. It would be your fictional introduction to HP Lovecraft, though it might keep you from wanting to know him any better. But if you do like it and want to know more, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. I like to return favors or pass them on to those who do want to keep traveling, who want to find the many lives beyond the one they currently own.