Poppy Z. Brite, Iain Banks, and the Lovecraft Flu (Can Reading Make You Sick?)
For their 100th podcast, the editors of Pseudopod have set aside their usual practice of employing living writers and have chosen one who is very much deceased. Last week they presented an excellent reading of “The Music of Erich Zann” written by the pervert from Providence himself, Howard Philips Lovecraft. To me, this was especially welcome news, as audio files are the only way I can enjoy the work of this seminal writer. You see, whenever I attempt to read the work of H. P. Lovecraft, read it from a book, that is, I get terribly ill.
Now let’s be clear. This is not the sensation that occurs when I see, smell, or in this case read something that induces a temporary nausea. I have read exactly two books that made me ill in this way, and neither of them was written by Lovecraft. One was The Wasp Factory, the first novel by popular Scottish author Iain Banks. A deliberate exercise in sensationalism and controversy, The Wasp Factor details the homicidal adventures of Frank and his older brother Eric, a former medical student who sets fire to, and occasionally eats, stray dogs. Gross as that may be, it was the origin of Eric’s insanity that sent me running to the toilet. Suffice it to say that the scene involves a poorly attended infant with an incomplete skull. Read it at your own risk.
The second book to make me vomit was Exquisite Corpse, by Poppy Z. Brite. There is a lot here the stomach could object to. Indeed, the book was rejected by a number of publishers before finding a home. There are many characters and subplots, but the main story revolves around what happens when serial killer Andrew Compton and cannibal Jay Byrne meet and join forces. Brite avoids the obvious homicidal rampage, choosing instead to let this dangerous relationship culminate in the death of the more submissive Byrne. But it is the fate of Tran Vinh, their perfect victim, that made my stomach heave. I will confine myself to saying that he is alive when Compton and Byrne begin to play with him. Exquisite Corpse is perhaps the most elegantly constructed horror novel I’ve ever seen, but I will never read it again.
Lovecraft does not make me ill in this way. There is nothing specific in his subject matter, no particular passage or turn of phrase, that trips my gag reflex. It’s just that every time I start a Lovecraft story, I get sick. It began with the novella “At the Mountains of Madness.” I remember very little of the prose, as I never got very deep into the story. I recall a description of penguins that managed to make those terminally cute birds seem grotesque and menacing. And I remember the cold. The frigid winds of the Antarctic setting seemed to chill my skin and settle into my bones as I read. Before long, I began to shiver despite the summer heat. In short, I soon came down with a bad case of the flu. I narrowly avoided a trip to the hospital, staying hydrated with frequent sips of flat ginger ale, but I ate nothing solid for a week.
A couple years later, I decided to try Mountains of Madness once more. After all, I’m always reading something, so I’ve gotten sick in the middle of plenty of other books. Again, I got a few pages in only to feel that familiar chill sink into my body, like a frozen sun radiating cold from the center of my chest. It was food poisoning this time. I spent a sleepless night on the bathroom floor, spasms twisting my gut. It took a month of acidophilus supplements to rebuild my digestion, and I have been unable to eat dairy products ever since.
Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, I attempted to apply reason to my superstitions the third time around. Determined to avoid Mountains of Madness, I selected “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” instead, largely because I’d recently read about the efforts of author Caitlín R. Kiernan to discover the real life inspiration for this fictional locale. To make an obvious story short, I caught the flu again, and swore off Lovecraft forevermore.
I can thank Tim Kane for convincing me to try Lovecraft on audio book. He loaned me a CD of “Herbert West—Reanimator” read by none other than Jeffrey Combs, star of the Re-Animator movies. Combs’ presence is not just a marketing gimmick, either. Anyone who hears him deliver the oddly emphasized phrase “Miskatonic University at Arkham” will never pronounce it normally again. I must confess to a moment of fear when I first popped the disk into my player. It felt as though I was deliberately eating raw beef, or maybe licking the scum beneath the trap in my sink. There were bound to be consequences. Then the story began, and I stopped worrying about my stomach and began to fear for my mind.