Monday, April 13, 2009

The Books Next to My Bed, Part II

Once upon a time, when he was only five years old, the 'monkey was strolling happily beside his mother through the local Prange Way store when they turned a corner upon a wire rack display of paperback books. Books that scared the crap out of him! Cover after cover of hideous skulls crawling with worms and things like the rat-man! Scared he was, very scared. And totally fascinated. He never forgot those book covers.

The above is a true story. It was what made me a lifelong fan of HP Lovecraft, though the I didn't read anything by him for at least another five years when my Grandpa Monkey bought me a beat-to-crap paperback copy of The Tomb at a flea market in Merrimac, Wisconsin. On the Fourth of July. I read the title story on the boat ride back to Grandpa's cottage on the lovely shores of Lake Wisconsin. (Click here to make some sense of this sentence). And it scared the crap out of me!

HPL doesn't scare me (much) anymore, but I am obsessed with the cover art and will buy any edition of Lovecraft prior to 1980 just for the art even if I already own two or three (or six editions) of the book. At any given moment there are usually two or three different HPL titles on my bedside table, just to be there when the urge hits. And hit it frequently does. The horrifying need for tales of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and eldritch New England sorcery are an itch that must be scratched sometimes.

Atop this horrifying pile right now is another tale of dread and fear, Dagon, the classic 1968 re-imagining of the Lovecraftian mythos by Southern novelist/poet/short story master Fred Chappell. It's not always been an easy book to find and I didn't get my hands on a copy until 1991. Read it. Loved it. Lost it. (Actually loaned it to a friend. A friend who taught me never to loan books, just to give them away. If they never come back, there is no harm done and no hard feelings).

I've haunted used bookstores searching out another copy for years without success, but finally I broke down last month and ordered a reprint paperback because I had to read it again. It's a stunning little piece of psycho-sexual horror, wrapping Lovecraftian themes up in a Southern Gothic tradition that makes absolute perfect sense. Just creepy as hell. And though it's one of the best non-Lovecraft penned pieces of Lovecraftian fiction, Lovecraft would've hated it. The sex would've killed him. (Not that terribly graphic today but by the standards of 1968 it was pretty racy and it still manages to be a little disturbing because it's creepy sex and not good or wholesome at all).

Anything by Fred Chappell is good for your head, kids. He's wicked smart, funny, weird and a helluva writer. I don't normally give myself to writers of a "literary ilk" because I've so often been disappointed by the lack of imagination these highly praised lit-types have. All style, no substance, no idea. But I cannot say that about Chappell. Support your local library and check out Chappell. (Pronounced like "Nurse Chapel" from Star Trek, I'm told by another writer I once knew who actually knows FC).

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