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Skeleton Key

I recently added the Annotated Lovecraft (which sadly does not include The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) to my library, so I dug up this post, originally published in June, 2012.

Once when I was in high school I got sick and had to go to the hospital, for neither the first nor the last time. I was there for several days, and when my parents asked if I needed anything I requested books, of course, by H.P. Lovecraft. At this point I don’t believe I’d ever read a single word by the Gentleman from Providence, but I was aware that he was a contemporary of Robert E. Howard, a fellow contributor to Weird Tales. I devoured the paperbacks my parent’s brought back to my hospital room, and when released went in search of more.

The following year, or maybe the same year – my memory is hazy on when exactly that trip to the hospital occurred – Lovecraft was the subject of the term paper I wrote for my American Literature class. The teacher gave me a ‘B’ which I thought quite generous considering the assignment called for ten pages and I turned in five. The issue was not an unwillingness to put in the time and write, but rather the lack of critical sources to use in crafting the paper. I was limited by the fact that this was back in the 80’s, before Lovecraft had a Library of America edition and Cthulhu was a part of popular (not extreme nerd) culture. Other constraining factors: the lack of the internet and my general cluelessness.

If I’m being honest here, or at least mostly honest, the cluelessness was my chief downfall, as it would be for some time to come. There was plenty of raw material in Lovecraft’s work for a measly ten page term paper, material that should have been obvious to a boy from Massachusetts. Many of Lovecraft’s stories are set in what some call Lovecraft Country, where the real and fictitious New England intermingle, where travelers venture to Salem and Kingsport at their peril. But Lovecraft’s love of this geography we shared decades apart went unnoticed by my callow self and so I received the scarlet B.

Lovecraft’s prose might be rightly considered an acquired taste, but I love the following passage, recently recalled to memory, which demonstrates his affection for New England and his ornate, or florid, style:

For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset, of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily. These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love. And there is antique Salem with its brooding years, and spectral Marblehead scaling its rocky precipices into past centuries! And the glory of Salem’s towers and spires seen afar from Marblehead’s pastures across the harbour against the setting sun.

There is Providence quaint and lordly on its seven hills over the blue harbour, with terraces of green leading up to steeples and citadels of living antiquity, and Newport climbing wraithlike from its dreaming breakwater. Arkham is there, with its moss-grown gambrel roofs and the rocky rolling meadows behind it; and antediluvian Kingsport hoary with stacked chimneys and deserted quays and overhanging gables, and the marvel of high cliffs and the milky-misted ocean with tolling buoys beyond.

Cool vales in Concord, cobbled lands in Portsmouth, twilight bends of rustic New Hampshire roads where giant elms half hide white farmhouse walls and creaking well-sweeps. Gloucester’s salt wharves and Truro’s windy willows. Vistas of distant steepled towns and hills beyond hills along the North Shore, hushed stony slopes and low ivied cottages in the lee of huge boulders in Rhode Island’s back country. Scent of the sea and fragrance of the fields; spell of the dark woods and joy of the orchards and gardens at dawn. These, Randolph Carter, are your city; for they are yourself. New England bore you, and into your soul she poured a liquid loveliness which cannot die. This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last these endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.

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