Halfway down the block on the North side of 14th Street in Manhattan stands a house that holds a quiet and singular place in the history of American letters. The house at 317 West 14th street, now one of the few remaining privately-owned guest houses left in the city, was once the home of George Kirk, a friend of the horror writer [H. P. Lovecraft]. In the early 1920’s, Lovecraft used his friend’s home as the setting for one of his most compelling stories, [Cool Air]. The story concerns the unfortunate fate of a mysterious lodger who depends desperately on mechanical contrivances to forestall a horrifying fate that threatens him from the sweltering intensity of a New York City summer just outside his windows.
I live right around the corner from this house and the fact that I am so close to it is a special instance of serendipity. Like many bright odd boys I fell in love with Lovecraft’s work at just the point in adolescence when I was starting to become aware of the darker side of life — of the discordance that existed between the world of my boyhood faith and a world “red in tooth and claw”, as Tennyson wrote. Lovecraft, a misanthropic depressive homosexual, was in many ways the perfect introduction to the imaginative defense against disillusion. His magisterial pantheon of cosmic horrors that threatened humanity both from the limits of space and time as well as our own corrupt bodies was an emotional boot camp for facing down terror. That his work does not travel well into adulthood (the prose is overheated, often embarrassing; the characters cartoonish) matters not a whit. Lovecraft was himself emotionally stunted, caught in a perpetual adolescence on the verge of becoming until his early death from cancer. It makes perfect sense that he is the literary patron saint of bright odd boys.
UPDATE 8/20: In honor of Lovecraft’s birthday, another of his short masterpieces: [The Music of Erich Zann]