Two Early Readings of Lovecraft
and their Consequences

by Esther Rochon



My first encounter with the writings of H. P. Lovecraft was when I was in my teens, at the beginning of the '60s. I am a second-generation artist: my father was a film music composer and my mother a scenarist, both of them working mostly for the National Film Board of Canada, then in Montreal. My father, especially, had a keen eye for what we call in French "insolite", which is not exactly what is weird, macabre, or simply a play of imagination, but is a bit of all of these, with a connotation of humour and intellectual play. We would visit abandoned Victorian houses, of which there were several in our neighbourhood, and he would enjoy the occasional drive through the cemetary with friends over lunch. Though from Quebec City, my parents had spent three years in France and had several friends there; my mother would visit them almost every year and enjoy seeing films and theatrical plays that would not come to Montreal, as well as bring back to her delighted husband a few rare old toys and curios from some antiquarian shop on the Rive Gauche.

In those years, I remember two trends of ideas from France that my parents were particularly interested in. One was linked to Albert Memmi's book Portrait du colonisé. The whole of Québec was in the midst of the "Révolution tranquille" (the Quiet Revolution), and my parents were quite keen on that spirit of renewal, almost renaissance, where new ideas were like gold and we were shown how we had been "colonized", that is, led to think that other cultures' values (French and American, in Québec's case) were worth more than our own personal or ingrained cultural manner of adapting to a quickly changing world. The old "jansenist" values of Québec's strict Catholicism were quietly and brilliantly challenged by artists and intellectuals, among whom were my own parents, in their somewhat humble but thorough style.

At home, I think we had a couple of art books and one old Agatha Christie paperback in English, among one or two thousand books in French. I remember being frustrated by the books in English, because I could not make out what the text said, though the pictures were good.

The other trend from France that my parents enjoyed was examplified by the magazine Planète, of which I have later heard many things said by French people. It was the New Age magazine of those times. My parents were not particularly New Age people, but they did enjoy a dash of the surrealistic; both knew as fact that the world is infused with a sense of wonder. So the three of us—my parents and myself, an only child—would read each new issue of Planète as soon as we got it, that is, a few months after its appearance in France's bookstores, since in those years magazines came by boat, with occasional delays in winter due to the ice on the St. Lawrence.

The film directors my parents worked with also read Planète; it was fashionable among the circle of friends my parents had. Square pages; about a hundred of them, printed not too small; a classy metallic bronze or green cover photo of some ancient statue on black background; and many illustrations inside: pen drawings by the most brilliant artists of the day, etchings by Renaissance masters, or else black and white photos, stylish but not snobbish. It was grand. I especially remember their enlarged details from some of the Carceri series by Piranesi; those "prison" interiors, with their strange architecture, and more anguish and sense of vastness than what Escher did in our century in a different mode.

No one at home really cared whether telepathy was scientifically verifiable, whether other intelligent species could be contacted, whether there had been contact with humans on Easter Island or elsewhere. However, I was fascinated by the fact such questions could be asked. Planète contributors were strong on hinting at possibilities that have become old hat nowadays, and some of them had a talent for the wide-eyed that really looks a bit funny. However, the magazine had a fantastic lay-out, and it did publish great science fiction—"Flowers for Algernon" in its short story format, or a long excerpt from A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example (see note). Stories from the classics published in the US we would discover, translated, out of context, extracted from the dross of the pulps and presented as choice items on the immaculate paper of this Parisian magazine.

Years before, when I was a kid in Ottawa (the National Film Board was in mainly English-speaking Ottawa until 1956), I distinctly remember seeing once a pulp magazine cover: hordes of red crabs assaulting a handsome yet screaming hero. This was in the cigar store near the station. The fact that I still remember it shows that somehow I was interested. I had asked my dad about it; however, he had dismissed it as nonsense.

His own father had been a travelling salesman; my father was not from an aristocratic or intellectual background. His reaction to pulps was cultural. It could be stressed here that the combination of a "horror" or "sci-fi" cover with possibly excellent text inside is not part of the French-speaking culture, as it is of the English or American. Not knowing enough English to read them for leisure, my father dismissed these magazines because of their covers. I myself sometimes have to think twice on these matters.

Anyway, since those years in Ottawa I had never seen anything like a pulp magazine and neither had any of my friends. So my introduction through Planète to short stories from the American imaginative side was devoid of any association with cigar stores and cheap literature.

When the Planète editors loved a writer, a scientist, a thinker, there was no tongue in cheek going on. They would present him in the full tradition of pathos and celebration, the way French mass-market magazines such as Paris-Match still do today. It was glorious. We would be told of these persons, mostly unknowns, as though they were mountain high, made of tragedy and victory, of genius and passion, etched as they were in the evocative, sonorous tones of the elegant, cutting French language.

H. P. Lovecraft held one of the best places in their pantheon. Planète editors were doing nothing less than consecrating Lovecraft as their mentor, their inspiration. This was the '60s, Lovecraft had been dead for a quarter of a century; however (or because of that), they were hailing him as their prophet. They had a few of these—Krishnamurti, A. E. van Vogt, Gurdjieff; however, my memory is that Lovecraft was for them a class apart. He was not a spiritual guide; he was a vibrating sensitivity into the sense of wonder and awe that they wished to convey with their movement, and in fact this artistry, this gaze at the world was very precious. They had cornered an expression, "l'ailleurs absolu"—"the absolute elsewhere"—which, with its inherent paradox, exemplifies the kind of intelligent influence Lovecraft had on them. In the pages of Planète I remember reading "Dagon", "The Outsider", "In the Walls of Eryx", accompanied by evocative, smart, and restrained artwork, aimed at seducing young intellectuals.

The battles and plays of ideas swirling around Planète my parents would shrug off as "French intellectuals quarreling", and this, by the way, was my father's comment on Maurice Lévy's Lovecraft. (Isn't Lévy using Lovecraft as a weapon against Planète in there? Good blows, I must admit.)

While I do remember some of Lovecraft's short fiction in Planète, I was not so thrilled. It was hinted that longer stories had already been translated and published in books; I only read these later. I wondered what these French guys were finding so extraordinary about that American writer. This fiction was for me twice removed from home.

However, it all changed when my father bought the newly released paperback version of Démons et merveilles, the collection of the four Randolph Carter stories. I read the book quickly and remained in a state of shock.

One may casually remark here that perhaps girls are more into cats and night-gaunts, while boys would find Inspector Legrasse and Cthulhu more attractive. However true this might be, what was actually going on with me was different. I had read scores of children's books and fairy tales as a kid; Lovecraft's cats were as sweet as anyone else's. What I was discovering with Démons et merveilles was of a different magnitude. I was no longer reading from a kid's point of view. My shock had to do with nothing less than discovering poetry and the nature of reality.

Probably I was ripe for it, ready to be shocked by something or other. My father had experienced a similar shock as a kid, hearing Bach played at the parish church's organ at mass, which eventually led him to become a composer, writing operas and scores for hundreds of films. I was graced by the same kind of profound passion, unsought for, upon the mere reading of "Through the Gates of the Silver Key", which eventually led me to become a writer. I have said it many times: Lovecraft is the writer who made me decide to become a writer.

I knew not how to deal with something that monumental happening to me. I could well mention Lovecraft to the girls at school; they wouldn't bother to read him. They were busy with their own crushes: film stars (Gérard Philippe), singers (Guy Béard), writers (Albert Camus, Boris Pasternak), political figures (John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro). My school companions were not stupid. We all had crushes, we were that age, so we could have mutual empathy, but no actual exchange. And, to be blunt, in my case the guy was long dead, which might have hinted at something funny about myself. So I wasn't sure I wanted to advertise the thing too much.

My father too had read Démons et merveilles, and was enthusiastic. His enthusiasm was that of an adult who is already accomplished in his own artistic discipline; his reading was not going to change his outlook the way it would do mine. Nonetheless, we would share inside jokes about "neither a cave nor an absence of cave", or about things being almost hexagonal but not quite so. There was some complicity between us about Lovecraft, and about other writers as well such as the Belgian Jean Ray and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (one text of whom we had recorded, with myself reading it slowly while he improvised concrete music in the background). However, I was left alone with the strength of the emotion I felt, left to begin to invent my own stories and write them down. It was an extremely solitary and unique time. Looking back at the many crushes I have had in my life, I find that Lovecraft was by far one of the most fruitful.

Though my father's career had been, so to speak, ignited by Bach's Toccata and Fugue, his own music had not much in common with that of the Cantor of Leipzig. As my father's daughter, it was obvious to me that, having been zapped by Lovecraft, I was not to get into imitating the Dreamer from Providence in what I would write.

I began writing and my parents rejoiced: I could become an artist too, more specifically a writer. They themselves as artists were almost always at the service of others, working for film directors, as part of a team that makes a film possible. They were proud that I was unafraid of the loneliness of writing. In retrospect I can add that I admire their adaptability.

It felt as if a world was opening up and I could describe it. I was awed by the act of writing: something previously unexpressed, some limbo of thoughts could suddenly take shape to be communicated to others. I still find it quite mysterious. It is not like talking, where you can modulate your sentence according to the body language of the person facing you. Writing is more like a plunge into darkness. Indeed, to stick with Lovecraftian imagery, the act of writing evokes for me Randolph Carter jumping off the shantak into sentient blackness from which awakening happens. At some point you jump off habitual speech because it is lethal, and really get into raw emotions and the unknown. It it utterly frightening. And so good.

My father was appreciative of black people and Jews; their extraordinary talent for music made them a class apart, and also their sense of humour. My parents were social; among the friends we had were several Jews and several homosexuals, easily among the nicest people I met in my youth. So I was rather shocked to hear that Lovecraft had not been particularly fond of these groups of people, and it still bothers me. When I heard that Lovecraft had travelled to Quebec City and really enjoyed the atmosphere and the scenery, I felt both flattered and embarrassed. Did he like us because we were white?

Of course not, but these issues are not easy. Actually, for me this was an introduction to one of the delicate aspects of life, that of things not usually being clear-cut.

Shortly after discovering Lovecraft, I made friends with a Romanian Jewish immigrant girl who had just learnt to read English through Superman comics. She convinced me I could do the same. Through her I went beyond the basic English taught two hours a week at school; she got me into reading Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, etc. Written English was easier than spoken; however, I began to understand some of the words on radio, and to catch a hint of what the action was if I went to see a film in English. I was delighted. Her dad was in a taxi business; they used to spend weekends around Lake Placid in the summer, and they invited me to accompany them a couple of times. The thrill of crossing the border! And then there was such magic to be found out there, in the land of opportunities and broken dreams, of Bob Dylan and the hit parade.

I wondered secretly whether the fog on the Appalachians bore any resemblance to the fog over Lovecraft's Kingsport, not to mention Arkham. And through this family, which was kind enough to invite me to share its direct appreciation of the mountains' beauty, I also had my first glimpse of how Lovecraft was perceived by Americans or by people who felt ready to immigrate there.

In short, they did not like him very much. They enjoyed straighter values. My Romanian friends were into tasty foods, witty stories, and getting a fair share of life's pleasures after good hard work. They had left two countries and two languages behind them, without regrets. The Nazis had killed some of their family. In other words, they had learnt how to move about and not get stuck. It felt so good being with them. However, this was not my path.

The tension I get from feeling stuck—that develops into writing! When I spent a weekend in the US with this family in those days, what I experienced was pure joy. I had a distinct feeling of the usual stress lifting up: I was in the land of the free. But then that joy would float away like some shallow dream. Whereas when I was in Montreal, prisoner of the ugly island of Montreal, muted because afraid that expressing my horror might cut me off from my kin, if I chanced to gaze upon the mountains on the southern horizon, I felt desperately alive. I actually wrote three books from that emotion, the Vrénalik trilogy, which has so much to do with the dynamics between North and South.

***

The dramatic perception I have just conveyed could be mine in these years. The idyllic days of my discovering Lovecraft with the complicity of my father were only part of what was happening with me. I was in the midst of the upheavals of approaching adulthood. One day I would feel mature, and the next day a child again, so I acutely distrusted myself, and the rest of the world as well. Adults around me were stressed. The times were exhilarating. Friends from school were, like myself, stressed from endless homework and competition.

I needed something truly my own to counterbalance this. In reading "The Silver Key" and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, I had felt a direct invitation to dream, and an implicit one to write. These early texts of Lovecraft are written from the point of view of the amateur who delights in what he does and is concerned about sharing it. Though an avid reader, able to invent stories as well, I had never seriously considered before that I could become a writer. So the first and most important way Lovecraft influenced me was through his hints at the pleasures of dream and writing as an antidote to difficult situations. And it worked. By inventing lands around Vrénalik, with their geography and dramas, I was venting my tensions, as well as feeling I could do something properly, without anyone asking me.

Probably because of my family background, from the start I had the intention of writing all this at some point well enough to get it published (it took me almost thirty years to do so). But, having no clue as to my actual capacities, I had no guarantee that I would ever be able to pull it through.

In church we were given models who were saints. In French class we were given writers to admire who had lived tortured lives, at odds with their society, and had for that reason died from alcohol and venereal disease. Neither fitted my plans with life. Lovecraft, with his ordinary, serene death (I had read that in Jacques Bergier's Démons et merveilles), was more my type. I was looking for an artist who had been able to withstand the enormous pressure from society, which I was discovering only too well, and who had done so without becoming twisted into a misfit (no problem with some eccentricity). What I would learn from him would not lead me into a ditch.

I was preparing to become the atheist I still am. But I did not yet have confidence in my thinking. I was looking for guidelines. Those suggested at school or church I felt as dry, old, or shallow. This is yet another way in which Lovecraft came to have some importance for me. I was intuitively trusting his vision. Actually, I felt some kinship with it. I could be sentimental about it, and then feel ashamed of that. I could brush it off, and then come back to it from another angle.

During these years, I was thinking a lot about what reality is, what time is, evolving my own explanations away from the philosophers we had to study, whose words did not meet my questions. I craved descriptions of the world from a subjective point of view. A major statement about this is of course in Lovecraft, and I wholly agreed with it from the start, recognizing it as obvious.

From "The Silver Key", indeed: "all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other."

That meaning would be remembered, because I would not easily forget the rush of emotion from that text.

Indeed, I felt at home with it. When I was seven, we had left Ottawa. I did not want to leave. We had a cheerful apartment, with lots of friends around and a park with a splendid waterfall nearby. But my father's job required a move to Montreal. Not only that, but the whole area was to be razed after our departure, to make room for the huge External Affairs building which is still there. So all the neighbours would have to move as well, and be scattered around. I told my mother: "How can we say this is not a dream? Maybe at some point I'll just wake up and nothing will have changed." I remember the sunlight the day we left: very harsh. There was a tall weed with yellow flowers and thin spiral-shaped leaves, of a kind I had never seen before, near the sidewalk that would soon be gone. I read "The Silver Key", written by this towering Lovecraft figure from Planète. He had been there too.


Note: I write this from memory, and may have confused what was published in Planète with what was published in its editors' book, Le Matin des magiciens. Return to text.

Continuation.... Back to Communique spring 2000 Top