Bob Waugh

When I attend Necronomicon Providence in a couple of weeks, I’ll be driving up with Bob Waugh.  Bob is at this point one of my oldest and dearest friends.  He and his wonderful wife, Kappa, are godparents to my younger son.  My wife and I have spent time with them on Cape Cod, in Provence, and here in the Hudson Valley, where we’ve shared birthday dinners and holiday celebrations.

During the second semester of my freshman year in college, Bob was my Honors English 2 professor; subsequently I took a host of classes with him, from surveys of English literature to intensive studies of the work of James Joyce.  Also during my first year of college, Bob founded the H.P. Lovecraft Forum, which he’s kept going for the last twenty-eight years pretty much on his own.  Every October, around Halloween (of course), he’s invited leading scholars of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction to the SUNY New Paltz campus to share their current work.  S.T. Joshi, Steve Mariconda, Peter Cannon, Judy Johnson, Norm Gayford, and a host of others (including more than a few students at the college, presenting their work in an academic forum for the first time) have shared their essays with a mix of students, faculty, and interested members of the public.  It’s usually a modest affair, which allows the audience the opportunity to speak with the participants afterwards.

For me, a consistent highlight of the Lovecraft Forums (Fora?) has been the chance to hear Bob read from his latest critical project.  Over the years, many of the essays he’s read have gone on to publication, first in Lovecraft Studies, more recently in the Lovecraft Annual, and occasionally in critical anthologies such as An Epicure in the Terrible.  In the last decade, he’s collected those essays and synthesized them into two books:  The Monster in the Mirror:  Looking for H.P. Lovecraft and A Monster of Voices:  Speaking for H.P. Lovecraft.  If the books have a common theme, it’s an effort to situate Lovecraft within a larger cultural frame.  In some essays, this means Bob considers Lovecraft in relation to Pope, or Keats, or Lawrence.  In others, it means he considers the role race and racism play in Lovecraft’s stories.  Indeed, throughout the ongoing discussions and debates about Lovecraft’s racial prejudices, I’ve frequently wished that the participants on both sides had read Bob’s “The Subway and the Shuggoth” (found in The Monster in the Mirror), which uses the climatic confrontation with the shuggoth in At the Mountains of Madness as a prompt to a wide-ranging discussion of how racial prejudice and anxiety inform not just the short novel, but the body of Lovecraft’s work.  It’s a moving, masterful piece of critical writing, one that exemplifies the best in literary study.  Sympathetic to its subject, it nonetheless refuses to let him off the hook.  The result is actual insight into how Lovecraft’s fiction functions.  The essay–and Bob’s critical work in general–has served as a model for my own critical efforts.

In the last few years, Bob, already an accomplished poet, has turned his hand to writing short fiction.  The stories he’s produced have ranged from bizarre anecdotes to longer, even weirder pieces.  At Necronomicon, he’ll be debuting a collection of them, The Bloody Tugboat and Other Witcheries.  They make a strangely-appropriate companion to his criticism.

So if you have the chance to hear Bob participate in a panel, or read from his fiction, I highly recommend you do so.  If you don’t have copies of his work, I highly recommend you purchase them.  He’s a fine scholar, a great guy, and I love him to pieces.

Allies

A couple of things I’ve run across on the Interweb lately have me thinking about influences.  If you know, me, then you know that this is one of my abiding interests.  I’ve published a couple of scholarly articles on it, and should I ever get around to finishing my long-on-hold dissertation, this will be its subject.

When I was younger, I was a bit more obsessional in my interest.  I think this was because I was more (self-) aware of my own influences, and felt pretty anxious about them.  (Yeah, when I ran into Harold Bloom’s earlier, less-crazy work, it really struck a chord with me.)  My concerns were probably affected by one of my favorite undergraduate professors, a Hemingway and Faulkner scholar who pretty much claimed that they were as good as American literature had gotten, and everyone to come since had been a lesser or greater imitation of one or the other.  (He claimed to have hung out with the late James Jones when they were both in Paris, and said that a drunken Jones had asked him what was left for him to do after those two.)

Anyway, during this time, I went to a reading by the late John McGahern.  For those of you who don’t know his work, he was an Irish fiction writer.  I had just read and been very impressed by his novel, Amongst Women, which concerns a family dominated by a tyrannical patriarch, Moran.  After the reading, I had McGahern sign my copy of Amongst Women.  As he was writing in my book, I couldn’t help myself.  I asked him how he, as an Irish writer, felt having to write in the shadows of Joyce and Beckett.  Wasn’t it intimidating for him as a fiction writer to have to follow in the footsteps of such giants?  How did he do it?

I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time McGahern had heard this question, or some version of it.  Well, he said, he didn’t think of Joyce and Beckett as competitors.  He thought of them as allies, great allies for a writer to have.

I thanked him and took my book, but I’m sure my lack of satisfaction with his answer was plain on my face.  We were talking about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett here.  How was it possible to see them as anything other than fearsome predecessors who had already occupied much of the aesthetic territory a fiction writer might wish to explore?  The same was true of Hemingway and Faulkner.  How could McGahern claim them as fellow-travelers, as friends, even?

From the vantage point of the two-plus decades that have elapsed since then, my own anxiety seems glaringly, painfully apparent.  Some writers never get past it:  late in his life, you find Hemingway writing to Faulkner about their great predecessors, evaluating them as if they were boxers, declaring himself and Faulkner able to take everyone but Tolstoy.  If that’s part of your artistic psyche, then I guess there isn’t much you can do about it.  And certainly, every writer, no matter how secure, experiences those moments of uncertainty, of anxiety, of jealousy.  Especially, when you’re working in what seems like a smaller field, like horror (or weird)(or strange)(or whatever) fiction, the presence of other significant writers, whether those who’ve gone before and continue to be revered (i.e. Lovecraft), or those whose body of work helped to bring the field greater popularity (i.e. Stephen King), or those who are doing dynamic work that’s gained a lot of attention (i.e. Laird Barron) can feel like a threat to what you’re doing, can feel as if it’s going to distract attention from your fiction.  Which in turn leads to all kinds of Oedipally-inflected behavior, trying to minimize those figures whose presence seems most overwhelming.

I think, though, that McGahern had it right.  Those writers, the Lovecrafts and the Kings and the Barrons, are in fact allies.  Their work is a testament of faith to the field in which I work.  The range of their stories, of their styles, helps to demonstrate the variety of plot and style I strive for in my fiction.  To be fair, it took me years of developing confidence in my own fiction, in the stories I wanted to tell and my ability to tell them, to arrive at such a view, for what once sounded absurd to sound reasonable.  I have to say, though, that it’s a nice feeling, to see yourself surrounded by allies, instead of enemies.