Happy Birthday, Howard Phillips

Kage Baker had a deep respect for H. P. Lovecraft, whose birthday it is today. She wasn’t very fond of horror in general, but she had an enormous fondness for good writing by anybody. And she was always in support of American genre writers.

Those are the same reasons she admired Stephen King. She didn’t read much of  their work, though, because both King and Lovecraft scared her out of her wits.  That increased her respect for them but decreased the likelihood of her ever reading them – again. She had tried it, once.

When fantasy had its enormous re-blooming in the 1960’s and 70’s – after The Lord of the Rings was a unexpected cultural blockbuster – Lovecraft’s works were resurrected, ha ha, along with many other 19th and early 20th century fantasy writers. Kage read them then because we – Kage, Anne, Kimberly and I – were greedily reading all these “new” writers we could find. It was an overnight cornucopia! Haggard, McDonald, Lindsay, Mirlees, Eddison, Morris, Pratt, de Camp, Howard, and Kage’s lasting favourites: Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake.

As the 20th century trundled on, both modern fantasy and horror arose from their combined roots into separate genres. King became the standard-bearer for modern horror, and although Kage read his first few novels, he wrote too well for her peace of mind and ability to sleep. I remember when she was reading The Shining (once she wrenched it from my greedy hands): she couldn’t sleep until she’d put the book in a desk drawer. A locked drawer. In my room.

She kept reading fantasy, but it went down two different roads and Kage preferred the lesser path. She felt that most modern fantasy can be traced to influences by either J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis – and she preferred the latter. Lord Dunsany predated Lewis, but she saw a similar spiritual approach; the American Mervyn Peake was definitely more of Lewis’ kidney than the Elder Edda-flavoured epics of Tolkien. Most everyone else, though, took up residence in the Tolkien camp.

Kage just about stopped reading fantasy altogether. McKillip, de Lint, Lee and lots of books that were technically juveniles (like Rowlings) she still read – heroic epics left her pretty cold. She was just beginning to appreciate writers like Neal Gaiman and China Melville – whom she especially saw as an intellectual heir to Peake – when she died.

A similar dichotomy grew up in horror: blood and steaming entrails vs chilling, unspeakable, wordless dread.  After about 1980, Kage got her reports from the advancing edge of horror second-hand: i.e., she would listen to me tell her the plots. Only if the books were good writing on their own; sheer gore bored both of us,  so I was never moved to share the modern blood-fests with her. She endured my re-telling every single King novel, though – and she read his essays on writing herself, and considered them excellent advice. But those were technical manuals.

Anyway, between busyness and queasiness, Kage wasn’t very fond of horror. However, no one can completely deny the weird and original charm of H. P. Lovecraft … and when we moved to Pismo Beach – a small, peculiar beach town in its own right – Kage began to assign strange stories to its environs. God and the Devil contested for souls along its beach; the Sea herself seduced local sailors from their wives, behind the wheel of a gleaming convertible. A sacred grove collected sacrifices along the borders of Pismo’s butterfly groves. The place was riddled with dimensional portals, giant apes roamed, and aliens were simply everywhere.

And finally, there was “Calamari Curls”. It’s my favourite Pismo Beach story, wherein a certain celebrity cthonic god breaks through the walls of human sanity in a local bar lounge. She wrote it in tribute to H. P. Lovecraft, and finished it on his birthday in 2004. Best of all – it’s based on a true story!!!

So, happy birthday, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, in the shadow of whichever mountains or fungoid gardens you now reside. I advise you, Dear Readers, to peruse one of his tales in honour of the anniversary today. He died too young, not even 50, in 1947.

At least, it is supposed he died. It’s the other date on his gravestone, at any rate.

Ah Lou-ah Lou-ah eh, ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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8 Responses to Happy Birthday, Howard Phillips

  1. Tom says:

    Though I am afflicted with an eldritch terror driving over the brink of madness far beyond human endurance, I have to ask – HUH?? In just what way is ‘Calamari Curls’ based on real events? I can imagine the cafe owner as real, and the rollerskating mime, too . . . but then the going get weird!


  2. Kate says:

    *snicker* The grouchy cafe owner and the roller skating mime are entirely out of Kage’s head: though influenced by the several cranky restauranteurs and eccentric street performers she met over the years. No, the real part is the municipal swimming pool under the restaurant on that particular corner – it’s real, and it’s still there. You can hear the hollow echo underfoot in certain areas of the bar.

    And the building has long enjoyed – if you can call it that – a reputation for being haunted. It kept going unexpectedly out of business during the 1960’s too, when it was, diversely and sequentially, The Red Rooster Club and The Peppermint Twist Lounge. I can remember the batwing swinging doors – red leather with brass studs, very striking. And of course there were all the times it stood empty and dark, and we would peer through the dusty windows that were rendered opaque by the neon on the store fronts all around it …

    We giggled about it for years before Kage plotted the story – mostly while sitting across the street eating clam chowder and staring at the place.


  3. maggiros says:

    The Pismo stories always seem to me to have something in common with some of Ray Bradbury, the small town with big weirdness lurking behind a very door, albeit for a way different generation in a rather different world.


  4. Medrith says:

    Nice chant (mi-go gotta go)


    • Kate says:

      Thank you, Medrith! The chant is partly authentic Cthulu gibberish, and partly based on the musical legend that anything – anything at all! – can be sung to the tune of *Louie, Louie*. Which is true.


  5. mizkizzle says:

    At times when I am filled with the creeping, eldritch sensation that the very fabric of reality is about to be torn asunder by an ancient, faceless terror from beyond the mountains of madness, I contemplate the savage stone carving given to me by my good friend, Professor Ambrose Lowell of Miskatonic University before his disappearance in Tibet, and then I have myself a Coke and a chocolate chip cookie.


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