Old Bugs: The Complete Lovecraft #9

Lovecraft tells the tale of ancient star beings lurking under the oceans. Insect intelligence watching human from the outer planets. Strange monsters in the darkness waiting only to pray upon those who are foolish enough to call attention to their fleeting existence. The strange and the incomprehensible that were here before us and wait only for the stars to be right before they come again, from the dark cold places of the world. Often chilling, often uncanny, occasionally just a little on the weird side, but all with a kind of darkness at their heart, an understanding that, as Lovecraft put it…

Image result for fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind

So when you read a tale by H.P.Lovecraft entitled ‘Old Bugs’, one probably assumes, quite naturally, that this is a tale about ancient insect intelligence’s lurking in the dark waiting to consume humanity, or something along those lines…

It may come as a mildly disappointing surprise to realise that the ‘Old Bugs’ in the title punctually refers to an itinerant alcoholic in an imagined 1950’s Chicago, earning his poison through odd jobs around a particularly disreputable speakeasy. You might think however that this does not mean it’s not still going to be usual Lovecraftian fare. After-all there is the question of what drove ‘Old Bugs’ to the demon drink in the first place, what horror had he witnessed that he needed to drown it in cheap rotgut moonshine…

Well, no, the only thing that drove ‘Old Bugs‘ to drink was, as described by Lovecraft, his own low character and lack of moral fortitude, and while there is a tale here, it is a morality tale about the evils of drink, with a twist that is telegraphed early on, and comes as little surprise. Indeed the most interesting thing about this tale is not the tale itself, but how, and why it was written, as well as the authors prejudiced that lead to it been written in the first place.

H.P. was a lifelong teetotaler who believed firmly in prohibition and the corrupting nature of drink. So firm was he in his convictions that ‘Old Bugs’ was written after his friend Alfred Galpin suggested in 1919 that they try alcohol, before the prohibition laws went into effect. It was not actually published until 1959 by ‘Arkham House’ long after Lovecraft’s death, which suggest in part that it was not written for public consumption. Indeed, the original manuscript contains a note at the end that was written for Galpin himself, ‘Now will you be good?’

This note, and the use of both Alfred Galpin, and his fiancee’s real name in the story point to the motivation behind its writing, which is entirely overt by the end. The question of why Lovecraft was so firm in his tee-totality and his belief in prohibition is more open to conjecture. He was known to declare on numerous occasion:-

‘I have never tasted intoxicating liquor, and never intend to.’ H.P.Lovecraft

The truth of this declaration has on occasion been a matter of debate, for his vehemence on the subject must have had some root (he wrote extensively on the subject of prohibition in private letters and elsewhere). Some have pointed to his breakdown as a teenager, and wondered if he actually flirted with drink in that period of his life. However the subject of prohibition was very much a central facet of American life in the formative years of his life before it finally came into effect in 1920, and the temperance league were a powerful and in somewhat attractive force. Oddly enough Lovecraft’s home state of Rhode Island was one of only two which opted out of ratifying the Prohibition Act, which points to it been a particularly hot topic in Providence.

The story itself, atypical though it is, has many of Lovecraft’s hallmarks. The slightly dispassionate nature of the prose. The unsympathetic nature in which he presents his characters, almost with a distaste for their lives and their weaknesses. That he holds his vision of his friend Galpin, projected thirty years in the future and having succumbed to the bottled demon, in contempt is obvious. Lovecraft is preaching here, but the tale hangs together, all the same, its moral message, while far from hidden, takes second place to the story itself. For which we should be thankful.

It has a twist that you can see coming, even if you do not know the history behind the tale’s telling.  But on the whole, it works. It is what it is, disappointing, but mostly because this is not what you read Lovecraft for. It is still well crafted and well written. Though you have to forgive the teetotal writers vision of a 1950’s where prohibition remained intact. Seen from the point of view of a future for him over sixty years in our past it has a certain twee quality to it. It’s not the 50’s as we know them, all Thunderbird’s, bright colours and rock’n roll. That aside it’s enjoyable in of itself, it just lacks the Lovecraft we open the pages of his books for. As such I am giving it only 2 out of 6, Though as a morality tale it is perhaps worth a couple more bottles than tentacles…



Further Lovecraftian witterings 


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