Tuesday, April 5, 2011

At The Mountains Of Nerdness With H.P. Lovecraft

I used to be obsessed with horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft, who died in 1937 at the age of 46, is perhaps most famous for a series of interwoven tales centered on a cosmic entity known as Cthulhu.

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

No less than Joyce Carol Oates has said Lovecraft exerted an "incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction," while Stephen King called him the "20th century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."

While I don't read Lovecraft anymore, I still have a soft spot for his overwrought prose.

For some reason, I committed the following passage from "The Hound" to memory when I was a kid and still remember it to this day:

"For crouched within that centuried coffin, embraced by a closepacked nightmare retinue of huge, sinewy, sleeping bats, was the bony thing my friend and I had robbed; not clean and placid as we had seen it then, but covered with caked blood and shreds of alien flesh and hair, and leering sentiently at me with phosphorescent sockets and sharp ensanguined fangs yawning twistedly in mockery of my inevitable doom."

That really impresses the girls, let me tell you.

In high school (yes, that's me in 10th grade), I wrote reams of horror and science fiction stories in a style that -- unfortunately for my reader(s) -- owed an all-too-obvious debt to the worst excesses of Lovecraft.

Sometimes I'd get one of these stories published in my high school literary magazine, and in some cases I actually sent a few off to legitimate magazines in the hope that an editor would recognize a budding literary genius. (None ever did.)

I also shot a few 8mm horror movies that owed their own debt to Lovecraft.

So it was with great interest that I came across a fascinating profile of film director Guillermo Del Toro -- he of "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hell Boy" -- in a recent issue of "The New Yorker." Del Toro discussed his efforts (ultimately unsuccessful) to bring a famous Lovecraft story, "At the Mountains of Madness," to the big screen. (There's also a video of some of Del Toro's inspired images for the film.)

Which led me to thinking about my über-nerdy youth, both as a Lovecraft disciple and a stamp collector. And how I managed to combine both of those obsessions by delving into the arcane world of "local posts" in the late 1970s.

Local posts are a kind of micro-mail service. In the most extreme cases, they serve as a surrogate to the national post office, issuing their own stamps and delivering mail in a limited geographic area.

The idea was taken up by some industrious stamp collectors who started their own "local posts." They printed their own postage stamps and often used unusual methods -- boats, balloons, rockets, etc. -- to "deliver" the mail. These envelopes -- with the local postage stamps affixed -- are known as "covers" and are prized by many collectors.

I used to collect "covers" when I was in high school, starting with classic "First Day of Issue" covers of U.S. postage stamps and then evolving into local posts.

And then, in what is perhaps the crowing achievement of my teenage nerdhood, I began my own local post. I called it Pyramid Local Post, both because of my interest in the occult and because I could easily carve a pyramid-shaped postmark out of a cork.

And my one and only stamp issue honored -- you guessed it -- H.P. Lovecraft.

I drew a crude silhouette of Lovecraft and fashioned a postage stamp and my father took my creation to a local printing shop in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where we were living at the time. The shop printed up a neat little packet of about 50 stamps, with adhesive backs to boot.

I advertised my Pyramid Local Post in "Linn's Stamp News," the philatelist's bible (or at least it was then), and other collectors would send me 50 cents or so (I can't quite recall) to pay for the stamp and return postage. I would affix my Lovecraft label, cancel it with my snazzy cork stamp, and send it back to them.

I wasn't overwhelmed with requests, as I recall. But I did receive a few dozen, turning each trip to the mailbox at the end of our country driveway into a little thrill.

I no longer read Lovecraft, and my stamp collection lays moldering in a box in the basement.

When I look back at my adolescence, I am amazed at my seemingly boundless energy and lack of self-doubt, and shocked that I spent so many hours alone in my room, reading Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and "Chariots of the Gods," and writing awful short stories that amused only me and my best friend, when I should have been taking girls to the movies and trying out for the football team.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

And So It Begins

The first gins and tonic of the season somehow taste sweeter. And a BBQ to boot. We survived another winter.

Check Out 'The Blender' Podcast

I'm hosting a podcast, along with a small group of other folks, including my wife, Daisy, over at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

You should check it out.

It's called "The Blender," and it presents the best of RFE/RL -- features from our far-flung bureaus, interviews with newsmakers and correspondents, reports on language, music, and culture, even a little humor now and again.

A new episode is posted every Friday.

Here's a link to the latest episode on "The Blender" blog. You can find earlier episodes here.

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Thanks, everybody!

-- Grant