Blind Read Through: H.P. Lovecraft; Old Bugs
“At one time – probably in middle life – he had evidently been grossly fat; but now he was horribly lean, the purple flesh hanging in loose pouches under his bleary eyes and upon his cheeks. Altogether, Old Bugs was not pleasing to look upon.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re digging into the parable of Old Bugs and we’ll talk a little about writing style and contemporaries of Lovecraft.
I started reading this story expecting some kind of dark twist by the end. The title made me pause, because I was worried about some kind of Lovecraftian gross out. I was met with, not a scary tale, but a wonderful parable about the dangers of addiction. Of course this is told through Lovecraft’s lens so it is far more severe than it needs to be, but it’s told to hammer the point across, so take the text with a grain of salt.
Our story begins by describing Sheehan’s Pool Room, “which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard distcrict, is not a nice place.” Lovecraft describes the air as having “acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes,” which “too seldom know(s) the purifying rays of the sun“
Lovecraft says this pool hall is redolent with “the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey...” and we soon find out that the story takes place in 1950…31 years after the story was written.
Lovecraft vaguely describes the 18th amendment (prohibition) as coming from a “benevolent government” so right away we know that, between the story taking place in Chicago notorious for it’s speakeasys, and speaking of prohibition, that Lovecraft expected that doomed amendment to continue on forever. Lovecraft, you see, was a teetotaler and contended that there was evil inherent in alcohol as well as drugs.
The story evolves beyond Sheehan’s to describe the codger “Old Bugs.” Bugs is a sad excuse for a human (In Lovecraft’s opinion). He begs for drink and drugs in Sheehan’s in exchange for doing menial and disgusting labor. He apparently “epitomised the pathetic soecies known as ‘bum’ or the ‘down-and-outer‘.”
No one seems to know where Old Bugs came from but he often started stories of his past, “exploding into sesquipedalian admonitions and strange oaths…” giving indication that Bugs at some point was formally educated, but soon after his verbose tirades, his “alcohol-enfeebled brain would wander from the subject,” and he would return to his menial cleaning task.
The only break was when Bugs would pull out an old picture of a young woman, apparently an old lover, but invariably he would stuff it back into his pocket and get lost into drink.
Being prohibition, alcohol was illegal and thus Sheehan’s was stuck in a back alley away from prying eyes. To get new business the “pool hall” employed “runners” to garner new clients. One day a runner brought in young Alfred Trever to the hall; “a rich and high-spirited youth who would ‘go the limit’ in anything he undertook.‘”
He was a college boy who at Lawrence just joined the “mock-fraternity” of…wait for it…”Tappa Tappa Keg.” One can feel both sarcasm and the disdain for the drink dripping off the page.
Young Galpin had a young fiancé and a very rigid mother who rails against alcohol. These feelings in Galpin’s mother come from her own fiancé before Galpin’s father. Apparently he was a brilliant young man who was about to take up a professorship at Lawrence, before “Evil habits, dating from a first drink taken years before in woodland seclusion, made themselves manifest in the young professor; and only by a hurried resignation did he escape a nasty persecution for injury to the habits and morals of the pupils under his charge.“
Old Bugs overhears this tale and watches on in silence, cleaning vomit and filth from the bar.
Young Trevor, excited to jump into an unknown arena, orders a whiskey and is about to drink it. Old Bugs meanwhile has pulled out the picture of the young lady. He approaches Trevor and states:
Do not do this thing. I was like you once, and I did it. now I am like – this.
Bugs persists and Sheehan goes to remove him. A scuffle breaks out and Bugs was heard yelling “He shall not drink! He shall not drink!”
They eventually get Bugs out of the bar…excuse me, “pool hall” and Trevor sits down to grab his drink again when he notices the picture Old Bugs’ fawns over on the bar. He is surprised because, “Over the library mantel in his home hung the exact replica of that picture, and all his life he had known and loved the original.
“For the gentle and noble features were those of his own mother.”
Wow what a parable!
I actually found out after reading the story that Lovecraft wrote the tale for a young friend Alfred Galpin, who wanted to get drink before Prohibition started. Lovecraft sent young Galpin the story along with a letter. The letter was asked to be read after the story, and in the letter is said “Now will you be good?”
It’s nice to see more of a human side of Lovecraft, even if he is a little spastic in his affections. Alfred was the name of the youth in the story, Galpin was Old Bugs original name and even Elanor Wing, who was Bug’s love interest and Alfred’s mother, was a friend of Lovecraft in real life. This was a pointed story to get Alfred Galpin (his friend) not to drink, because obviously if he had one sip then obviously he would devolve into an old bum begging for drink in a tavern. Incidentally that’s why this is the only Lovecraft story (of which I’ve read at least) which takes place that far in the future. It’s written that way to make Galpin understand that if he gets lost in the drink then what he has to look forward to is a life as Old Bugs.
Being this close to the holidays, there is no doubt an echo of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the look into the future and what it could hold if the current path isn’t altered. I would contend however that there is a stronger resemblance to a contemporary across the United States in San Francisco…Ambrose Bierce.
This is exactly a tale that Bierce would tell and it’s told in much the same manner and dialect. Granted Bierce came before Lovecraft (and to tell the truth I haven’t actually heard Lovecraft referencing Bierce), but the tonality is the same. When you take a story like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, you can almost feel a visceral sensation of morality streaming through the text.
Then when you layer on newer writers of Lovecraftian fictions like Brian Lumley, you can see some of the same moral tones which blend in between Bierce and Lovecraft. Specifically in stories like “Fruiting Bodies” or “The Levee.”
Beyond morality, there is also the twist ending which Bierce was famous for (and sometimes forced through…painfully). Lovecraft tacks on this style of twist ending with some of his short stories very well, but the vast majority are trundling towards an inevitable ending. This story, though obvious, was specifically meant to have a shock ending to elicit a response from his friend, and by extension the audience, which was a divergence from Bierce. Bierce was looking for the shock, for the unexpected. He contended that he was the best writer to ever live because of this, and where he was absolutely a staple of American literature, by no means was he the best and his usage of these kind of tricks may have carried on beyond him, but for writers like Lovecraft, they give a basis of what to do and what not to do when building these kind of stories. Yes the ending was there for a bit of shock value, but the story was also written to be an anvil over the readers head. This story is not subtle in it’s moral, and thus we already know what the ending is going to be when we get there. This makes the shock ending more palatable because the reader can recognize it as a device that’s used sort of tongue in cheek instead of as a desire to shock.
Join me next week as we tackle “A Reminiscence of Dr. Johnson!”