Book Review: Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story


Bagge seeks to illuminate the life of a woman who was neither saint nor devil, but a human being with qualities both heroic and vainglorious. 

Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, staunch advocate for women’s reproductive rights and whose tireless efforts led to the financing of research that ultimately introduced the birth control pill, is arguably one of the most polarizing historical figures of the 20th century. Sanger spent her life actively working to bring common sense advice on birth control, a term she coined, long before women in the United States were recognized as having the right to vote. Accurate biographical information on Sanger can be difficult to come by due to a long established effort among certain dishonest and radical parts of the pro-life, anti-abortion movement to demonize her through distortions, lies, quote mining and even Photoshopped images.

To unwind this confusion of facts, fiction, hero worship and character assassination, cartoonist Peter Bagge put together an excellent book-length comic biography titled Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story. Bagge seeks to illuminate the life of a woman who was neither saint nor devil, but a human being with qualities both heroic and vainglorious. Ironically, in making Sanger into a cartoon character, Bagge made her more real and accessible than ever before.

Peter Bagge is just the cartoonist to make this happen. I’ve been following his work since the mid-1980s, beginning with Neat Stuff and continuing through his nearly two decades of Hate (both series published by Fantagraphics). My daughters loved the short-lived comic series comic Yeah!, about the adventures of an all-girl rock band that Bagge did in collaboration with Gilbert Hernandez. Bagge’s style is fluid and extremely comic; characters might react to outrageous comments by literally being knocked off their feet, and anger might cause steam to shoot out their ears.

In Bagge’s hands, Sanger seems like a grown-up Little Lulu, whose passion for adventure and strong sense of justice often leads her to act before she thinks. Like Lulu, Sanger also can be cunning and clever, and has a knack for getting things to go just the way she wants, even if it does not seem possible for her to have planned it that way. Despite my comparison, Bagge’s work is not for children, but a very compelling, humorous and dramatic biography, full of details both important and salacious.

Sanger was an advocate, at least privately, of free love, meaning that despite her marriages and her children, throughout her life she had sexual relations with men as it pleased her and without guilt. One of her many lovers was science fiction writer and socialist H.G. Wells, who was positively gaga over her. Another was Havelock Ellis, the pioneering sex researcher whose unusual sexual fetish (which I won’t detail here, you’ll have to read it yourself) Sanger apparently had no problems with satisfying.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is Bagge’s relentless depiction of the truth behind various smears that have been thrown at Sanger over the years, and the detailing of her non-stop battles with the Catholic church, which had no problem pulling the strings of local law enforcement to satisfy its sense of moral justice, the law be damned. Bagge deals with the accusation that Sanger was a eugenicist interested in wiping out non-white races of people by pointing out that Sanger was adamantly against defining one group of people as “superior” to another. Indeed, leaders in the black community sought Sanger out for help, and Martin Luther King was proud to receive an award named in her honor.

Bagge also details Sanger’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, which concerned her speaking to a KKK woman’s auxiliary group to explain birth control. Sanger called this “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing” and added that she had to use “the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand.” Sanger was committed to the idea that all women should have access to the basic knowledge of birth control, but even so, the experience of speaking to the Klan was weird enough that she only did so once. (Pictures of Sanger at a Klan rally are Photoshopped fakes, as even a cursory web search will show.)

Ironies abound in Sanger’s worldview. She was all for birth control, family planning and child spacing, but was against abortion. She believed in and practiced free love but was “against” masturbation. Sanger put no stock in conventional religion, but was a deeply spiritual woman who believed her hunches and premonitions were in some way supernatural. Sanger held séances, through which she contacted her daughter Peggy, who had died as a young girl, but who now, Sanger believed, lives as an adult in a “parallel world.”

Bagge’s Sanger is human, with all that entails, good and bad. She is passionate, maybe even a little crazy about her cause, and not immune to the call of fame and fortune. She’s a bit of a narcissist and perhaps not always the best mother, spouse, sister or daughter, but then, when are any of us perfect? Sanger’s vision and accomplishments changed the world, inarguably for the better. Her efforts rescued millions of women and men from the confines of their biology, freeing us and expanding the definition of what can be accomplished in our lifetimes.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story is gripping subject matter told by a comic artist at the top of his game. The book retails for $21.95 and is published by Drawn & Quarterly. Get your local bookshop to order it for you.

Book Review: Stand Up! 75 Young Activists Who Rock the World and How You Can Too!


RI native says, ‘Being cool is overrated’

Kids get a bad rap these days. Being known as a generation full of lazy twerkers, sexters and fans of god-awful, wretched music, their elders don’t have much confidence in the future of tomorrow. Shortly after reading an article about a group of bullies anonymously torturing a special needs high school student via text message, I started reading Stand Up!. This book is a collection of 75 inspiring essays from young adults already making a difference in this world. I immediately breathed a sigh of relief. These young adults have all done something wonderful with their young lives, like getting over a fear of talking to become a Global Messenger for Special Olympics, raising millions of dollars to build soccer fields for children in Africa or helping orphans around the world. I have no doubt that they will continue to do fantastic things that will help make this world a better place, and hopefully cancel out whatever crap the others do with themselves.

Representing Rhode Island, Arielle Schacter’s essay, “Being Cool is Overrated,” focuses on what it is to be “cool,” concluding that it’s just a perception to which people pay too much attention. Born with a hearing impairment, she was determined not to be an outcast. Instead, she figured out how to make being deaf or hard of hearing cool and acceptable. She created a website, bf4life-hearing.weebly.com, that serves as an online support community for others with abilities similar to hers. The website helped her gain attention – she was published in The Huffington Post and named one of Glamour’s 2011 Young Women of the Year. She also took it upon herself – with some initial help from her mother – to take on physical issues that affected people who are hard of hearing.

Because it is a collection of essays, I took a different approach to reading Stand Up!. I read “Being Cool is Overrated” first, but then would open to random essays and read them, not knowing what they were about. Each essay had me intrigued and cheering along to the amazing things that these young adults were doing. Their ideas were creative and they had the persistence to pull off some awe-inspiring feats. Several of these activists have raised millions of dollars – or close to it – for the organizations that they started. I’m not sure what help, if any, was given to the success of each organization, but it doesn’t matter or take away from anything these kids have done.

Every essay put a smile on my face. These people, at such a young age and with differing abilities, have all accomplished some amazing things. This is a book that should be on the summer reading list of every child entering high school. The essays are inspiring and will serve as excellent motivation for kids about to enter the journey that will shape their adult lives.  Reading Stand Up! will no doubt show the interested youth that, even though they’re young and may not be taken seriously by society, they have the ability to accomplish anything with enough perseverance and a good idea.


Book Review: New Critical Essays On H. P. Lovecraft

HPLHorizontalThe content of the introduction to this new scholarly tome of Lovecraftian criticism should be familiar to all who attended the 2013 NecronomiCon as the author, S.T. Joshi, used much of this material in his opening address held at the First Baptist Church in Providence. In the forward, Joshi describes the singular rise of Providence author H.P. Lovecraft’s literary reputation from nearly forgotten 1930s pulp writer to a secure place in America’s literary pantheon, alongside such luminaries as Poe and Hawthorne.

With Lovecraft’s reputation secure, says Joshi, all that is left is “the continued evaluation of his entire work… And the placing of that work in the context of [Lovecraft’s] times and in the overall history of weird and mainstream literature.” New Critical Essays On H. P. Lovecraft is an important, erudite, yet readable collection of essays that might be seen as the beginning of Joshi’s call for a new era of such scholarship.

Published by Palgrave Macmillan at a list price of $85, this is not a book for the casual Lovecraft reader, but a book aimed at hard core fans and college libraries. The seriousness with which the subject is approached does not mean that the book lacks a sense of fun. An entire chapter is dedicated to Lovecraft’s influence on comics (with ample illustrations) and another chapter explores Lovecraft’s influence on “extreme” heavy metal music.

As is often the case with scholarly work, the various authors sometimes delve into literary minutia to make their cases. The second and third chapters focus on Lovecraft’s short story “Dreams in the Witch House,” which has never been considered one of the writer’s stronger entries and was once referred to as “Lovecraft’s magnificent failure” by critic Steven Mariconda. Still, this story features one of Lovecraft’s strongest woman characters, even if she is an ugly, evil, dimension-hopping witch. This focus on odd characters in obscure stories is necessary because many critics want to engage with Lovecraft’s depiction of women, such as it is. As it stands, Lovecraft has written very little about women, and almost nothing about sexual relations, unless one is willing to read between the lines.

The strength of the first three chapters is that they do not turn a blind eye toward or try to explain away Lovecraft’s overt racism and (presumably unconscious) misogyny. Instead, the essays explore the ways Lovecraft’s attitudes flavored and informed his brand of weird fiction, which stressed the horrors of otherness, miscegenation, race and sex. Chapter four deals with Lovecraft’s relationship with modernism, while chapters five and six deal with aspects of two of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dunwich Horror.”

The first half of the book concerns itself with Lovecraft and his fiction, but the last six chapters deal with Lovecraft’s place in modern pop culture. Here the book really shines in my opinion. Chapter seven details the ways in which Lovecraft’s work was interpreted and warped by August Derleth, the man who, along with Donald Wandrei, kept Lovecraft’s work in print until his literary worth was secured, but not without Derleth’s rather odd reinterpretation of Lovecraft’s ideas. Chapter eight talks about Lovecraft’s literary ascension, and his inclusion in the Library of America.

My favorite chapter, nine, was titled “Co(s)mic Horror,” and was a fairly complete introduction to the exploration of Lovecraft’s influence on comics and a history of the comic adaptations his work inspired. There is an irony in Lovecraft being adapted into comics (or movies for that matter) since much of what Lovecraft wrote about he described as being “indescribable.” This presents a challenge to artists eager to interpret his work.

Chapter ten covered Lovecraft’s influence on heavy metal music, while chapter eleven compared Lovecraft with the weird fiction author China Miéville, who admits Lovecraft as an influence on his work. The final chapter could almost have worked better as the first chapter, since it attempts to be a summary of Lovecraft’s impact on popular culture covering everything from literature, movies, comics and role playing games.

This anthology works as a photograph of the current state of Lovecraftian scholarship, outlining in broad strokes many different directions of inquiry. The work is of course not complete – there is plenty of scholarly work yet to be done.

Lovecraft was once “owned” by his fans, who kept his work and legacy alive when no one took him seriously. Now that academia is becoming interested, fans will find that they will have to share their favorite author with scholars. Far from being put off by this, interested fans should find their experience of Lovecraft’s work enhanced and enriched.


Zombie Yourself

Zombies are all the rage at this moment. While much cooler than the previous vampire trend, you can’t go anywhere without seeing or hearing about the undead in a post-apocalyptic world. Lucky for me, I’ve been a huge zombie fan since I first saw Return of the Living Dead way back in my teen years. Author Scott Lefebvre is hoping to use this zombie love-fest phenomenon to crowdfund his upcoming book, The End of the World is Nigh, which will be a mixture of short stories and a novel. In one of the more interesting ideas in recent memory, $50 backers will answer a lengthy personality survey and be written into the story, with an unknown fate.

“I figured that if someone made a contribution I would offer to write them into the novel,” Lefebvre said after a friend suggested he go the crowdfunding route to finance this piece. “It was either this or get a second job and give up my dreams like everyone else.”

While Lefebvre plans to focus more on the characters, the story will take place 10 years after what is referred to as “The End of the World,” a time when an overcrowded and underfed world led people to resort to cannibalism, which, in turn, turns them into “your basic zombie, a brainless walking chomping eating machine.” The scenarios will “integrate post-apocalyptic themes, which have always been interesting.” Ultimately, this will be a story about “love and hate and life and death,” but with seemingly everything a horror fan would love.

To keep things tight, this project is limited to 50 backers. Interested parties can sign up until October 31, and there are many packages to choose from. Certain backers will have their likeness illustrated within the story. Look for an early 2014 release date.


Motif’s Inteview with Scott Lefebvre

Motif: This is a very interesting idea. How did it come about?
Scott LeFebvre: Thanks for thinking it’s interesting. I wrote two short stories for an anthology called Forrest J. Ackerman’s Anthology of the Living Dead. It was a zombie-themed anthology, and I wrote the same story from two different points of view with two completely different characters. One was third person, which I published under my name, and the other was first person, which I published under my pen name. The interesting thing was that the editor accepted the story under my name with only minor editorial suggestions. The other story, submitted under my pen name, she tried to rewrite and I had to fight back to keep the story the way I had written it. Turns out that she didn’t like the person that she imagined my pen name was.
I’m sure you can see the irony inherent in the situation.
The editor invited me to come out to HorrorHound Weekend in Indianapolis, Indiana, to be part of a book-signing booth to celebrate the launch of the book.
When I show up, the editor is freaking out because the case of books that was supposed to be there wasn’t, so essentially, we would be three unknown authors at an empty table for the weekend. I decided to print copies of the story I wrote under my name so at least I’d have something to offer convention attendees who stopped by the booth. They could consider it a sneak peek or an appetizer before ordering the entree and at least I wouldn’t be sitting there all weekend with a stupid grin on my face.

I gave one of the print-outs to Jerry Chandler from Synapse Films, and to my surprise he read it that night and the next day asked me, “Where’s the rest of it?”
I hadn’t thought of it as an intro. I thought of it as a self-contained story, but I now realize that I accidentally wrote the introduction to a much larger work.
That was eight years ago.
I honestly forget why I decided to pick-up the project again. It just came to me one night and I started writing some stories in what I’ve been calling Nigh World or The World of Nigh. I felt like finally writing the novel-length version of it and I put a sample paragraph on Facebook and asked if anyone was interested in reading the complete story if I wrote it. My friend David Lavallee Jr. gets the credit as the first person to suggest that I go the crowdfunding route to get the money I needed to fund the writing of the project.

I figured that if someone made a contribution I would offer to write themselves into the novel and [Motif contributor] Rick Laprade helped me to put together the rest of the contributor reward prize tiers.
Motif: Do you have a basic plot written? Will this be a novel or a collection of short stories?
SL: The basic plot is that it’s 10 years after overpopulation and food scarcity cause people to resort to the soilent green solution, but in this scenario, the food product made from human protein does to humans what feeding cow meat to cows does. It causes a fever, then a coma, causing the death of the cognitive faculties, but not killing the host or satiating the hunger for food. So you get your basic zombie — a brainless walking chomping eating machine. My novel will be set 10 years after what everyone in the novel refers to as “The End Of The World,” so I can integrate post-apocalyptic themes, which have always been interesting to me.
But the plot is less important to me than being able to tell evocative stories about a set of characters. Zombies and the apocalypse are just a metaphorical threat and a backdrop for me to use to write a novel about love and hate and life and death.
It will be a novel, AND a collection of interconnected short stories with characters appearing as cameos in other stories. Think Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, but on a national scale, and with cannibals and zombies. Or think Stephen King’s The Stand except without the sides of good and evil being as simplified and polarized, and with cannibals and zombies.

Motif: How do you plan to incorporate all of the characters into your story? Is there a limit?
SL: I set the limit at 50 because I wanted to give everyone who contributed a satisfying character arc and not just give them one-paragraph on one page as their honorary mention fro their money. I know how hard you have to work to earn 50 dollars these days, and that’s the contribution level you have to donate over to be written into the book. 

I think it was wise to cap it at 50, but I would consider more if someone decided to contribute at a higher level. Essentially more characters just means a longer book.

I don’t think it’s irrational to think that this could be as long as Stephen King’s The Stand, or if the project is successful and I’m able to serialize the novels, I could go on indefinitely. Characters may come and go, but the world I’m building will continue to exist.If you’ve seen Richard Linklater’s film Slacker, you understand the way that characters can pass along a narrative baton like a relay-race and that’s kind of what I want to do. I want to write a post-apocalyptic zombie-epidemic multi-layered relay-race of a novel.

If a short story is a song, I want to write a symphony.
Motif: How did you connect with the illustrators?
SL: I worked as a brand manager for a horror-genre merchandising company for five years and then went on to coordinate horror conventions. Part of the job was going out to horror conventions and selling the merchandise to the thousands of attendees. When you’re a vendor at horror conventions, you run into the same vendors again and again and they become kind of like your carny family. I met a lot of talented artists who were well able to draw zombies during those years and if I was impressed by their work, I made a mental note to remember to get in touch with them. I can’t mention names yet as I’m still lining up the artists, but I’m planning on begging, borrowing and cashing in 10 years of favors for this project. I may be able to lure some of the best artists working in the industry if all I ask them for is one small picture of a zombie, which every horror artist secretly likes to doodle between paying projects anyway.
Motif: When you do plan to have The End is Nigh published?
SL: I think that being able to have the project finished for a January 1st launch in 2014 is a not unrealistic goal. I know it sounds insane, but I write faster and more confidently than anyone I know, especially when I can clearly see the narrative arc of a project. I can clearly see what I intend to do with The End Of The World Is Nigh. I can write 40 pages a day, times 50 characters equals a 2,000-page book and I can write it in two months if I wanted to work myself to death and use all of the proceeds to buy myself robot fingers. I think giving myself three months to write between 700 and 1,000 pages is definitely a realistic goal and only half of what I’m capable of if I can have 24-hour access to caffeine and nicotine and sleep was optional.

I’m also planning on publishing sections of the book, chapter by chapter, on the book’s blog. I may make an invite-only private group on Facebook or Google+ so that contributors can read their stories as soon as they’re finished or as their character develops in the story and make suggestions on which course the novel should take.
I’m not planning on writing this novel by committee. Suggestions, although always appreciated, are like wishes. Sometimes they come true, and sometimes they don’t. I reserve the right to do what I please with the characters, and as long as it’s for the good of the story, I won’t apologize except as consolation that someone’s character had to die because it made narrative sense. I figure as long as I don’t make a paying character a pedophile or a bestiaphile or a necrophile or a necro-pedo-bestiaphile, then all is fair in the fictional. But people have to accept the fact that it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie-epidemic project. People are going to die. 

Book Review: Gypsies Stole My Tequila


Punk, aging, and the Devil

If Robert Johnson were a punk, there is no doubt that he still would have sold his soul to the devil back on that infamous day at a Mississippi crossroads. But instead of selling his soul for musical ability, he would have hocked it for the ability to never grow up into responsible adulthood. Joe Blood and his wasted band mates in Blood Blister weren’t that smart, instead making a pact with the devil that they would jump off a cliff if they were responsible adults not playing music at age 40, getting nothing in return. Twenty years later, the devil is living in Joe’s calendar, taunting him as he counts down to his 40th birthday, waiting to collect his dues. That’s one plotline.

Joe’s old bassist, Vin, achieved financial success after Blood Blister’s demise. He keeps top-of-the-line basses as home décor and provided his son and his stoner friends the best instruments money can buy. But money can’t buy drive and Vin gets fed up with the kids using the studio to do nothing but smoke pot and play their instruments separately (when at all), so he challenges Joe to make something out of these miscreants, telling him that he needs to be creating music.  Sold on the idea, this other plot line becomes a sort of Bad News Bears with expensive equipment. Through hard-ass torture, he is able to mold these three into actual musicians, with him leading the way as the front man.

The two plots never really connect, which was a bit odd. One plotline is a down-to-earth, make the most of your second chance story, while the other is a very outlandish scenario that really makes the reader leave all realism at the door. I was interested in both parts. They transitioned into each other well, although I had trouble making the connection between the two. I found interest in both plotlines, though I sometimes wished that they were two separate stories, each going further in detail.

This is a story that appeals to different age groups. It would be an interesting study to compare interpretations from a group of 18-year-olds versus a group of 40-year-olds since these are the age groups consciously featured in this story. The contrast between age and youth is prominent throughout this piece of fiction. Like in real life, the youth think their elders don’t know what in the hell they are talking about, until they are proven wrong. Age and experience wins out over youthful naivety, and Joe Blood ends up getting the last laugh in the end, while Gypsies Stole My Tequila (the horrible name that the young ones decided on) played a dream show, opening for Naphula.

At 134 pages, Gypsies Stole My Tequila is a quick read that is funny, entertaining and thought-provoking. While the two plotlines were different as can be, it never hindered my enjoyment of the book. I got used to those differences pretty quickly, eagerly awaiting the outcome in both.  Adrienne Jones is a strong writer, with a knack for putting together great sentences. While I’ve seen plots similar to this, Jones has a great and unique way of telling the story.

Book Review: The Hanging and Redemption of John Gordon

The Hanging and redemption of John GordonThe title of this narrative non-fiction tale really gives away the plot. Before I even put down the $20 to pay for this book, I knew that John Gordon was the last person to be executed in Rhode Island and was later redeemed, though about 100+ years too late. Even though I knew the outcome, I was intrigued. It’s the why that really piqued my interest.

Rhode Island is a state full of corruption, gangsters, legal prostitution (until a few years ago) and enough of a political and financial mess to make people want to pull their hair out. It’s good to see that not a lot has changed since January 2, 1844, when John Gordon, an Irish immigrant brought to the States by his brother to live the American Dream, was arrested because his brother, Nicholas, was seen threatening the soon-to-be-murdered Amasa Sprague. Those in charge were still able to use their prejudices, propaganda and their sense of entitled power to take down those they didn’t like, regardless of the facts.

There were a lot of anti-Irish Rhode Islanders back then (if only Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys weren’t more than 100 years from being born), and the unsuccessful rebellion of Thomas Dorr in 1842 didn’t help matters. It seemed like this was a losing battle for John Gordon from the start, especially with the absolute thrashing he received by The Providence Journal. The evidence, at least as it was presented by author Paul Caranci, proved John Gordon’s innocence, but it seemed that everyone’s mind was already made up, leaving the poor guy doomed to the gallows.

I’d like to think that things would be different had this happened today, but I can’t be sure.  Despite the “innocent until proven guilty” value, many people are down for the count the minute they are handcuffed. A simple Google search of Derek Hazard can prove that, and that’s with The Providence Journal advocating for him to get a new trial. It’s even more difficult to get people on your side with “Court TV,” “Nancy Grace” and the 24-hour news media just dying to crucify the accused in the press.  Though they do get it right (not too many people are advocating for Dzhokkar Tsarnaev or Aaron Hernandez beside girls who think they’re too cute to break the law), it still seems to make the high-profile cases, which John Gordon’s was, that much more damning.

Caranci, a North Providence resident and Rhode Island history buff, did a lot of great research to put this book together. The story, though slow at first, discussing Roger Williams and the failed rebellion of Dorr, captivated me with the description of the murder of Sprague, to the point where I fell asleep with the book on my chest because I couldn’t put it down until my brain shut off. The photographs really painted a picture of the time and the characters, though I was surprised to see no pictures of John Gordon. Caranci brought this piece of Rhode Island history to life, tragic ending (for most involved) and all.

NecronomiCon Rising

illustration by Zach Becker

So what happens at a NecronomiCon? The weekend of August 22-25 looks to be chock full of events related to HP Lovecraft – some more tangentially than others – with some items aimed at the hard-core fan, and others at the casually curious.
Let’s start with the name. It has nothing to do with necrophilia. Well, not directly, anyway. The Necronomicon, also known as the Book of the Dead, is a tome invented by Lovecraft, in which all the deepest, darkest underpinnings of the universe were revealed. In a Lovecraftian universe, learning how things really work – by reading that book, for example – is inevitably maddening. I don’t mean frustrating maddening. I mean eyeballs rolling in different directions maddening. Makes you want to sell your soul to whomever will take it and blow up the world maddening. In other words, not a great beach read, unless you want something to crawl up on said beach and eat you.
Although it makes only brief appearances in Lovecraft’s stories, the Necronomicon name has surfaced, often only by obscure reference, in countless other tales of horror, video games, films (like the Evil Dead and Friday the 13th series), TV shows and comics (some are explored by other articles in this very tome).
As fate would have it, the word “con” is conveniently contained within the name of this fictitious opus. That makes it a fitting name for a Con inspired by its creator’s visions. Lovecraft, no doubt, foretold this double meaning – he had a way with words.
NecronomiCon used to happen annually in Providence, but has lain dormant for some years now. Its revival this August will include:

  • A fancy dress ball at the Providence Biltmore
  • A (sold-out) Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast
  • A concert that includes Neurosis and Lustmord at Lupo’s
  • Games – of knowledge and luck, as well as horror-inspired role-playing games like the classic “Call of Cthulhu” RPG
  • Movies
  • Art exhibits, including paintings, drawings and sculptures by prominent artists in the horror field, at the Providence Art Club and other local venues
  • Poetry readings, including Lovecraft’s work, contemporaries like Edgar Allen Poe, and more recent work inspired by them
  • A Waterfire walkabout, creepy-style
  • An historical tour of Providence by the Rhode Island Historical Society
  • An augmented-reality game enabling smart-phone guided walking tours of “Lovecraft’s Providence”
  • Astronomical observations from the Ladd Observatory
  • The bust unveiling at the Athanaeum of a newly commissioned bronze bust of HP Lovecraft. Not that kind of bust – get your mind out of the gutter!
  • Drink specials at numerous local bars
  • Wide-ranging panels, which will include 1920s New England culture and history, horror topics galore, filmmaking tips for horrorpreneurs, and special talks focusing on the “the rational and the supernatural” – or, where science and superstition overlap, agree to shake hands and politely disagree.
  • Some favorite talk titles include “Xenophobia, Atheism, and Tentacles,” “The Failed Promises of Rationality,” “Lovecraft and the Great Altar Stones of New England,” and “Religion, Philosophy and Cosmic Horror in HPL.”
  • You can find all the juicy details and updates at Necronomicon-providence.com

We Are Providence: The H.P. Lovecraft Community

50_fullObscure for all of his life and only slightly less obscure for decades after his death in 1937, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, like one of his fictional creatures, quietly waited under the earth of Swan Point Cemetery in Providence for an auspicious time when the author’s reputation, if not the author himself, would re-emerge. Presciently tapping the anxieties that would come to define science fiction in the age of atomic warfare and primitive space exploration, Lovecraft received his first biographical treatment in 1975 by fellow legendary author L. Sprague de Camp.

It was de Camp’s book that Carl Johnson would find when he decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lovecraft’s death on March 15, 1987. He noted the favorable confluence of the Ides of March date falling that year on a Sunday with a full moon. Johnson, now an historical interpreter and guide at Slater Mill Historic Site, is a local native who said that his ancestry ties his family to Lovecraft at several points – including that Johnson’s maternal grandfather and Lovecraft’s maternal grandmother were first cousins – discovered that his own Wayland Square residence was about halfway between the Phillips family home on Angell Street where Lovecraft lived for much of his childhood and the Barnes Street house where Lovecraft lived in his later years.

Johnson said that he wrote in East Side Monthly and the now-defunct Providence Eagle inviting the public to gather at Lovecraft’s grave site. “I expected a dozen horror fiction fans, but my phone started ringing. One hundred people attended,” he said, including Lovecraft biographer and editor S.T. Joshi. Johnson and his twin brother Keith continued the tradition of dramatic recitations, poetry readings and songs annually until 1992. After a hiatus, the commemorations recommenced in 1998, moving to the Ladd Observatory of Brown University where Lovecraft had been a frequent visitor and keen amateur astronomer. Presided over by Christian Henry Tobler as master of ceremonies, Johnson said that “folks are encouraged to dress in vintage or gothic attire, and many do.” The 2013 event drew about 140.

One of the consistent presenters has been poet and small-press publisher Brett Rutherford, who moved to Rhode Island in 1985 in what he termed a “Lovecraft and Poe pilgrimage” partly influenced by de Camp’s book. Although Rutherford said he has been a science fiction fan since age 6, in the late 1950s at age 15 he read The Colour Out of Space in an anthology and it “threw me for a loop, because it wasn’t like anything else.” He said he wrote a letter to Lovecraft’s friend and fellow writer August Derleth “who wrote back very kindly. I never told him I was only 15, because I was too stupid and proud to tell him I was just a kid.” He said that he still has Derleth’s letter.

Rutherford is the author of a 1993 biographical play about Lovecraft, Night Gaunts, named after the term Lovecraft used for his childhood night terrors. Performed several times at the Providence Athenaeum with Carl Johnson in the role of Lovecraft, Rutherford said that his play still attracts interest from as far away as Germany where it was staged in 2006, and that a college radio station in Massachusetts performed it on-the-air for Halloween in the 1990s. According to Johnson, a photograph of him in costume and makeup from the play is often erroneously misidentified as Lovecraft himself, including at least twice by The Providence Journal.

At the commemorations Rutherford usually reads “The Tree at Lovecraft’s Grave” (an allusion to Lovecraft’s own early short story “The Tree”) that he described as “an American Transcendental poem” he considers one of his best. Incorporated into his collection Whippoorwill Road: The Supernatural Poems (now in its 5th edition), its elegiac tone was enhanced when the actual tree that was its subject was cut down. “Many people imagine Lovecraft as being this grim, depressed person with a dark view of life, but the gothic is an entertainment, walking on a tightrope over a dark view of life,” he said. “I call this ‘the smile behind the skull.’”

Some of that smiling has been done by Thomas Broadbent, who annually organizes a “birthday bash” at Lovecraft’s grave site on the Sunday closest to his August 20 birth date, “with a birthday cake, balloons, readings and a jolly good time.” Lighter in tone and typically with better weather than the March commemoration, the purpose is, he said, to “honor Lovecraft and give him the birthday party he never had.” The event typically draws about 50.

Broadbent’s interest was piqued decades ago when he was 14 by his older sister who gave him The Colour Out of Space – the same short story that originally caught Rutherford’s interest – to read, which he said was “creepy even though I didn’t quite get it. At 14 you expect all horror to be like a horror movie.” He administers an active Facebook discussion group, “Lovecraft Eternal,” with about 1,000 members, and is among a number of subscribers to the “H.P. Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project” to commission a work by sculptor Bryan Moore that will be installed at the Providence Athenaeum in August 2013.

Lovecraft square“Locals held Lovecraft rather in scorn” and “were somewhat embarrassed by him,” Rutherford said, but this has changed at least since the Library of America edition of Lovcecraft’s works in 2005 effectively made him part of the literary canon. “One thing Lovecraft truly did love was Providence,” Rutherford said, adding that he personally knows “at least a dozen visual artists, writers, poets and students” who, like him, moved to the city at least partially because of their interest in Lovecraft. Broadbent said he was pleased with the decision of the Providence City Council, reported by the Associated Press on July 17, to designate the intersection of Angell and Prospect Streets as “H.P. Lovecraft Square.”

Informal societies humorously took their names from monstrous characters in Lovecraft’s fiction, Rutherford’s “Cthulu Prayer Society” and Broadbent’s “Esoteric Order of Dagon,” comprising “pockets of admirers who didn’t know each other,” as Broadbent described them, “who would just sit in cafés and chat.” As a committed scientific materialist and atheist, Lovecraft likely would have found these facetiously named societies amusing, but according to Rutherford, people would sometimes take them seriously as a religion, which he found ridiculous. Distributing the CPS newsletter to a library, he said he was once told, “You people are nuts!”

In addition to regular monthly meetings at a bar, the CPS went on field trips, including until 2009 annual picnics in Lincoln Woods where Rutherford, relying on letters describing the view of the horizon and terrain, said he was able to identify the exact spot on a rock ledge where Lovecraft liked to sit while writing. According to Rutherford, Lovecraft (who did not drive) recounted his visits by means of “a couple of trolleys and a bus.”

Some of the scorn and embarrassment about Lovecraft, as Rutherford phrased it, is undeniably due to the overtly bigoted views expressed in his fiction and even more so in his voluminous letters. Rutherford said, “I certainly don’t forgive, but I understand,” and he believes that Lovecraft’s relatively insulated and isolated life led him to profess theoretical principles that he often flouted in practice. “In his loyalty to his friends, he came to see people whose intellect he respected,” Rutherford said. “Even when I show his prejudice [in Night Gaunts], I am able to show him as human. His wife Sonia, who is Jewish, gets to break through, and she has to be an exception.” Johnson said that Lovecraft’s views were probably fairly common for his era and circumstances, even if “horrifying by our standards.” Broadbent said, “Lovecraft’s racism gets under my skin a lot, but I ignore it as much as I can.”

Lovecraft’s consciously archaic and dense style has put off some modern readers, but many also find the literary style part of the attraction and consistent with his view of the universe as unfeeling and indifferent. Johnson, noting that Lovecraft despised seafood, “felt the ocean was sinister and foreboding. He reasoned that what frightened him would frighten and fascinate his readers, and he was right.” Asked to explaining Lovecraft’s appeal, Johnson said, “He brought his own nightmares onto the printed page. He was a truly haunted mind despite his sense of the objective and the rational.” Broadbent said, “Lovecraft’s style, what he wrote about – horror, fantasy, science fiction, isolation and alienation, gothic literature – he combined that with a whole new aesthetic.” Rutherford said, “Lovecraft becomes pop culture at this point, no longer a rarefied taste,” citing the plethora of cinematic films based on his fiction. “He appeals to the Transcendental in me, the same thing that makes me love Whitman and Rilke.”

Asked to suggest an excerpt that best captured his sense of Lovecraft, Rutherford chose this stanza from his “At Lovecraft’s Grave,” written for the 50th anniversary ceremony:

We smile,
keeping our secret of secrets,
how we are the gentle ones,
how terror
is our tightrope over life,
how we alone
can comprehend
the smile behind the skull.

The author thanks Kyon Piche for research assistance.

Further information:

Rutherford’s Whipporwill Road: The Supernatural Poems: poetspress.org/reaper_catalog.shtml

Lovecraft Eternal group: facebook.com/groups/331924010190535

Lovecraft Bronze Bust Project: facebook.com/LovecraftBronzeBustProject


Cthulhu’s Call Still Echoes

HP-lovecraftA century ago, a man walked the tranquil east side streets of our capitol city. He was a quiet, unassuming man. He was a man who would be vastly unappreciated in his time. He was an author and poet with a fascination for chemistry and astronomy. And he was a man who had peered deep into the dark canyons of his macabre psyche to become one of the most prolific and influential horror and science fiction writers of the 20th century. The name of this Providence native son was Howard Phillips Lovecraft – H.P. for short – and he was the father of weird fiction.

Lovecraft fans come from all cuts of life. His appeal is vast. His work has influenced some of the greatest creative minds of our time such as Stephen King, John Carpenter and Clive Barker. His themes of fate, guilt, forbidden knowledge and humanity under attack are unmatched in their ability to mesmerize generation after generation. Yet at the same time, I can hardly think of any other writer who maintains such a cult following so long after death. Many talented wordsmiths are unappreciated in their day and become cherished authors after their passing. With H.P., his ever-growing fan base has not peaked nor ebbed and flowed; it has climbed steadily since the day he first put pen to paper in an effort to silence the demons scratching at his nightmares. Lovecraft fans are much like the cults H.P writes of in his Cthulu Mythos – fanatical, undying and growing in number daily. But how can one author so long after still command such a reverence from a fan base so vast while maintaining ever-growing pop culture popularity?

I asked this question of Niels Hobbs, of the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council of Providence, RI. Niels is the director of the yearly NecronomiCon convention that celebrates all things H.P. He told me, “It’s difficult to attribute it to any one particular factor. Of course, it took some decades before he really began to gain any particular notoriety outside of a very small Weird Fiction community. After some cult popularity in the 60s and 70s, due in large part to the tenacious campaigning of friends of his, Lovecraft began to be recognized in the popular culture. Stuart Gordon’s movies and Sandy Petersen’s role-playing games, coupled with a strong resurgence in Lovecraft scholarship from S.T. Joshi and many others, has lead to a steady increase in his fame and recognition. However, I think the biggest factor now is the democratic power of social media.”

Indeed, the legacy of the father of cosmicism is well-established on social media. Fan pages and Twitter feeds attributed to H.P. fandom are plentiful. There, die-hard Lovecraftians can praise their literary demi-god while bringing fresh meat into the fold.

The best example of a 21st century Lovecraft fan is Rhode Island tattoo alternative model and burlesque dancer Jeselyn Online. She has chosen to honor the genius of H.P. one step further than most by permanently inking his likeness to her flesh at Marco’s Tattoo in Wakefield. When I asked her why, she replied, “I don’t just have one, I technically have three! The first was a tattoo based on the old school design of Miss B Haven. We turned her into Cthulhu and it says San-Loss. The second was the portrait of H.P. on my shoulder with one tentacle. And the third was a tentacle on the side of my head that goes down onto my neck. It’s just a deep-seated love of his work that made me want to get it done. And fellow geeks and fans absolutely adore them.”

Niels Hobbs again had great insight into this phenomenon of young, hip fans of Lovecraft.

“It really is astonishing! This stuffy old New England blueblood aristocratic wannabe who was largely a failure in life but created this remarkable collection of tales that finds more and more fans every day. It’s remarkable, particularly, because he certainly didn’t write in the most approachable style. I think the biggest factor is that the Pantheon of Elder Gods and alien creatures he created still stand head and shoulders (or pseudopods and tentacles) above anything that Hollywood or most other imaginative authors produce to date.”

One of the major hallmarks of the greatest writers in history has been the ones who connect with the city around them, the ones who let the blood and soul of the pocked streets sink into their marrow. They taste the essence of the city on their lips, and they breathe it back into the atmosphere. The utter humanity of these urban centers fills their being and their words with a staunch industrial, yet organic fluidity. There is no doubt that the quiet, chilly streets of Providence greatly influenced H.P. on his journey into the madness of weird fiction. Where else but Providence, the long-time haven for artists, merchants, sailors and writers, could have birthed a man who not only led us down the path of cosmic horror so ghastly, but did so with such New England stoicism? Nowhere will you find a city more enamored with H.P. than Providence. In 1977, local fans discontent over H.P.’s name being inscribed on the Philips plot of his mother’s family raised the money for a headstone of his own in the historic Swan Point Cemetery. On this is inscribed the words “I am Providence,” a quote from a letter of personal correspondence. The Rhode Island Historical Society holds walking tours around his East Side haunts. And now, in 2013, the Providence City Council is beginning to thank H.P. for his influence on our fair city by voting to rename the corner of Angell and Prospect streets H.P. Lovecraft Square.

I asked Niels, “Many people say that H.P. was shaped by his life in Providence. After so many years after his death, why do you think the city council is just now choosing to honor H.P. with the renaming of a square on the East Side?”

“Well, part of it is the hard work and dedication of several local diehard fans who’ve been struggling for years, back to the original NecronomiCons held more than a dozen years ago, to keep the flame of Lovecraft burning. And, it certainly seems to really be burning bright right now. I think Providence, as a city, is finally starting to wake up to the realization that Lovecraft is a major asset for the city – both financially, with a global canvass, and culturally, as our very own literary star. As the fame of Lovecraft begins to reach into the stratosphere, with rumors of ever-increasing pop culture prominence (Guillermo del Toronto and Alan Moore!), Providence will do well to claim this fame all for itself!”

But what does the average citizen on the street think about the dark master of sci-fi? I asked native New Englander Mark Leighton what he could say about the man.

“My dad once said his stories were the only thing ever in print that actually made him scared to shut the lights off. Coming from a tough guy from Maine, who seemed like nothing could ever rattle him, that made me want to read them even more.”

That, friends, is how the cult continues to grow and breathe and expand. Much like the horrific monsters that haunted H.P.’s dreams, the swarming beast that is his fan base will continue to feed on the hearts and minds of all those young souls who are handed a book from an older Lovecraftian, along with a wink. For they know all too well from their own introduction into the cosmos of the mind of a quiet man from the East Side of Providence, who taught the world to be afraid of the monsters that lurk beneath the waves, in the stars, and indeed deep in our own hearts: Once you are in the cult, you cannot leave. You are now a missionary for the macabre prophet of the cosmic indifferences to humanity. You are the air that H.P. breathed as he walked the streets of the East Side. You are Providence.


Book Review: The Shadow Over Innsmouth

I finished reading this story while spending the night at a run-down inn in the mountains of New Hampshire. It was dark, the pool was empty and secluded, and the place reeked of not waking up in the morning due to something the guy who wrote Saw would have thought of. Finishing a story meant to terrify probably wasn’t the best idea.

Possibly inspired by his allergy to seafood, The Shadow Over Innsmouth shows how a town’s greed and/or quest for riches can lead to a deal with an underwater devil, which then leads to an interspecies marriage and an ancestor learning too much about his past. Told years after the incident occurred, this first person recount sheds some light on events seemingly covered up by the powers that be. Granted, the narrator is the one who called for the investigation in the first place, taking a trip to his New England family roots as a coming-of-age celebration. A budget-saving decision leads to him learning of Innsmouth, a small, run-down town in Maine that neighboring townies steer clear of. That piques the narrator’s curiosity, and the ensuing visit starts off eccentric and ends in a horror show. What happens next, what I considered the post ending, struck me as very odd, though brought everything full circle and grew on me the more I thought it over. Eventually, everyone needs to accept who they are, both the strengths and horrifying weaknesses.

I specifically chose this story to review, as it was one that Lovecraft didn’t particularly like. He wrote in a letter to friend and publisher, August Derleth, that The Shadow Over Innsmouth includes “all the defects I deplore.” I wanted to read these so-called “defects” that he spoke of for myself. While the flow seemed a bit choppy at times, I still was captivated at every page and fearful at just the right spots. Lovecraft’s words, while outdated, painted a fantastic description of a decaying town. I could feel the foulness of each street jump off the page, and the vision of the hybrid creatures is quite clear.

This story, the only one published on its own in Lovecraft’s lifetime, is pretty readily available. I found it in Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, a collection that I bought in college that still contains a bookmark receipt from September 1999, and a simple Google search brought up numerous free ebooks and mp3 audio books.

Lovecraft is a local cult figure with a plethora of stories to keep readers frightened enough to keep a battery-operated nightlight handy in case the electricity goes out.  His influence on the horror genre is undeniable, and he is a true Rhode Island inspiration.

Lovecraft’s Influence on the Locals

HP Lovecraft is a famous Rhode Islander, right up there with Roger Williams. While unappreciated during his lifetime, Lovecraft has become a cult figure, complete with pilgrimages to his grave to honor him on the date of his death. His influence is not lost on local artists. I asked each of the following artists one simple question: How has HP Lovecraft influenced your art?

Sean Branney (HP Lovecraft Historical Society): My colleague, Andrew Leman, and I run the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. We’ve made three motion pictures inspired by Lovecraft’s writings, a dozen audio CDs and countless other items, like shirts, props, playing cards and mugs. We have found tremendous joy in the works of Lovecraft and take pleasure in creating works that spread that joy to others. We’ve had the chance to collaborate with great artists and fans around the world and we owe it all to the “old gent of Providence.” The HP Lovecraft Historical Society is located in Los Angeles, CA.

Chris Cox (Author): I got exposed to Lovecraft growing up in England, initially through my youthful obsession with the band Morbid Angel, who use the mythos as a primary topic in their music.

I particularly loved the notion of the cosmic elder gods, asleep and dreaming throughout all eternity, being the source of all creation. And I especially liked that these ancient, sleeping beings don’t really care what we humans are up to. The idea of being absolutely inconsequential was very refreshing.  I also found a lot of romantic power in the idea of entities so great and horrific that getting too close or catching a glimpse led to madness and insanity in the beholder; things too big to wrap our tiny heads around fascinate me no end.  Part of the appeal is that we love challenges, and as a kid, I decided I would definitely be the one who saw Cthulu and lived to tell the tale!

Derek Dubois (Filmmaker): Lovecraft is an interesting figure who has influenced so much of modern horror / weird fiction as we know it. It is, like the Beatles’ influence on everything that came after in pop music, impossible to say there is no connection between my work and Lovecraft’s.

Though I don’t consider myself a horror filmmaker, my last two short films (Fallout (http://vimeo.com/26594772) and Lucid (http://vimeo.com/57335935)) have worked within the genre. As such there is a marked influence from Lovecraft in terms of introducing the weird/science fiction external event (the threats outside the walls in Fallout; the mysterious stranger in Lucid) as well as notions of existential crisis and fate.

That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not much of a Lovecraft reader. His influence on me comes, indirectly, from his descendants (King, Oates, Matheson) and from his shifting of the horror paradigm into what it became at the tail end of the 20th century.

Adrienne Jones (Author): My writing has often been called Lovecraftian, and I’m not sure if it’s simply the presence of oogedy boogedies from the deep or something more. What I’m drawn to about Lovecraft – and I can certainly see this reflected in my own work – is the theme of humanity sticking its hand in the wrong cookie jar. Whether it’s reaching for things beyond our world or delving into our own past, Lovecraft suggests there might be something lurking there we’re not quite prepared for. People think they yearn for something bigger than themselves, yet they can only handle the idea in the form of a benevolent god who loves them and wants to be their kitty. Lovecraft takes the filters off and confronts the logic that what we’re poking sticks at has just as great a chance of being malevolent, and instead of loving us and wanting to be our kitty, it will tear us apart for daring to disturb its slumber.

George T Marshall (Executive Director of Rhode Island International Film Festival): HP Lovecraft’s legacy is significant since his work illustrates the power of imagination and how the art of storytelling can inspire and touch lives. Lovecraft’s work touches a primal core in all of us and links us by shared human experiences.”

Jeff O’Neill (Organizer of Zombie Pub Crawl): HP Lovecraft’s ability to constantly change the definition of who he was and how he was portrayed is an aspiration of The Reverend Al Mighty aka DustyLove aka The Phury aka Jeff O’Neill.

Dave Prata (Hallowed Entertainment): HP Lovecraft’s writing inspires my design work in the haunted attraction industry; of his numerous writings, my favorite and most inspirational is Halloween in a Suburb. It is a true New England Halloween, and a setting I strive to include in my haunt designs.