Reading As A Writer

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I grew up reading a lot of Lovecraft. He has had a tremendous impact on me. Some of the core tenets of his work dealing with learned men learning just a little too much and going mad from the knowledge always hung over my head as something of an autodidact. A favored trope of his was that once you saw the cracks in the relatively nice and cozy reality we have constructed, it’s impossible to un-see them and they will gradually erode at your very sanity over the years. Assuming you survive.

Now, as a man of Jewish descent who reads about the authors he considers most influential, I am accutely aware that old Howard was picturing my people when he wrote about the deep one hybrids, that the vast bulk of his horror stories dealt with “pure” blood being bred out of the human race by encroaching savage monsters disguising themselves as human and infiltrating the bastions of civilization. I don’t think there’s really any point in apologizing for his racism. Even at a time when racist thought was the norm, he brought it forward to the point where it was probably some form of mental illness, and even his racist friends told him he needed to relax and tone it down a little bit. Let’s not even unpack the part where he marries a Jewish woman and she regularly has to tell him to stop ranting about the zionist councils eating away at the heart of proud white European culture whenever they walk past a synagogue. Acknowledge that he was above and beyond the fringe of racist thought even for the early 20th century, recognize that those thoughts and fears are the basis for a lot of his horror stories, and do with that what you will. There have been some tremendously good short stories and novellas over the last couple of decades playing with the concept, stuff like Lovecraft Country and The Ballad of Black Tom telling the other half of his stories.

 

I know I look a little off-topic here, but stick with me.

For Lovecraft, I believe that he had kind of an internal counter in his head that informed everything he did. At some point he had a break in his head and started to hyperfocus on incidents where minorities were encroaching on areas where he felt safe and surrounded by peers, and that built to a fevered pitch culminating in works like The Horror at Red Hook.

Once he saw that stuff, it was everywhere. He couldn’t unsee it.

I’ve had a bit of an inverse reaction over the years. When I emerged from the soft, pillowy cocoon of college I started examining my reading choices more critically. I have a counter in my head for representation in media. The less of it there is, the less it grabs me, because when you don’t have diversity and representation of all kinds of people it feels less real and more fictional. If you set a story in New York and only have a bunch of white characters, there’s no way I believe it’s actually in New York. I’ve lived in Brooklyn and I can suspend my belief well enough to be okay with tentacled horrors living in the sewers but not when your characters walk the length of Flatbush Ave without encountering a hispanic guy selling cheap veggies, a couple of dudes in turbans, a black woman pushing a stroller and nursing her Dunkin coffee, and maybe a grouchy old Caribbean guy on his way back from a night shift wolfing down a beef patty.

The other way in which the concept resonates with me is that once you start writing, really writing in earnest and putting that extra level of polish on your words, you can’t help but see that in other works you read. There have been times where I discuss books with non-writer friends and we both come away from a story with radically different opinions on it. The story may be great but the construction of the prose completely ruined it for me, or it could be a completely banal story with narration so good I read the whole thing in one sitting. The way that sentences are put together become just as important as the actions of the characters, to the point that the narrative itself becomes its own character for better or for worse. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and you start to pick away. The cosmic horror aspect of it comes when you realize that you’re picking away at the walls of reality within this setting you’re reading. You start wondering why a character seems so good, and so you pull apart the narrative arc for that character, the external influences, you unravel the carefully aligned structure and look at what lies beneath it. The bizarre clockwork musculature that keeps the paper-thin skin of a book moving along.

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