In which I manage to discuss the poetry of Emily Dickinson, cosmic horror, Superman, Morrissey and Steve McQueen without exerting myself unduly.
Recently I was perusing a laughable book about- well, it’s hard to say exactly. Just sort of general things that might be called inexplicable or mysteries if anybody actually gave a shit about them or they weren’t clearly the result of somebody suffering from a bout of delirious, drunken stupidity or mental illness. Like Fortean Times, but even more random. Is there a turkey in the Bayeux Tapestry? It’s not really a mystery if nobody cares about the solution.
It’s the sort of book that usually costs a few pounds in a remainder shop, or is for sale in what my esteemed colleague Kid Carpet calls Mystical Shit shops (Seriously, I am a huge fan of Kid Carpet. Download his song Mystical Shit for a start), alongside dream catchers, rag rugs and crystals to unbung your chakras. My local library has loads of these books, for some reason. And a very comprehensive but never used section on things like irritable bowel syndrome, drug induced psychosis, anorexia and whatnot. For obvious reasons I’ve never made any effort to befriend the librarians.
Anyway, there was one interesting thing in the aforementioned book: an account of some strange jelly that apparently fell out of space in 1819 and landed in Amherst, Massachusetts. It seems not to have occurred to the author that this (at the time very small) place was the lifelong home of the poet Emily Dickinson and her family, although she wasn’t born for another 11 years.
The American Journal of Science, 1819:
“On the 13th August, 1819, between eight o’ clock and nine o’ clock in the evening, a fireball, of the size of a large brown bladder, and of a brilliant white light, was seen in the atmosphere. It fell near a house, and was examined by Rufus Graves, esq., former lecturer of chemistry at Dartmouth College. It was of a circular form, resembling a sauce or salad dish bottom upwards, about eight inches in diameter and one in thickness, of a bright buff colour, with a fine nap upon it similar to that of milled cloth… On removing the villous coat, a buff-coloured pulpy substance of the consistence of good soft soap, of an offensive suffocating smell appeared; and on a near approach to it, or when immediately over it, the smell became almost insupportable, producing nausea and dizziness. A few minutes exposure to the atmosphere changed the buff into a livid colour resembling venous blood.”
So in short order I thought of Emily Dickinson, Superman (specifically him crash landing on Earth as a baby refugee from his destroyed home planet), of thirty-year-old teenager Steve McQueen attacking The Blob with fire extinguishers, and of HP Lovecraft’s fairly bonkers The Colour Out of Space in which New England farmers find out the hard way that you shouldn’t use a well when it’s been contaminated with freaky substances that fall out of the sky, especially when they’re of a colour that doesn’t even exist and can’t be described.
Lovecraft was a kindred spirit to Dickinson in many ways: pathologically bookish, stubbornly antiquarian, reclusive, self-loathing, misanthropic and antisocial. Also a bit like Morrissey, come to think of it; Lovecraft and Morrissey are/were both racist idiots sometimes as well. It’s not inconceivable that Lovecraft had the Amherst incident either subliminally or consciously in mind when he wrote his story since he obviously had some knowledge of New England’s history and real-life reports of Fortean oddities. Looking at Lovecraft and Dickinson they also disturbingly share a bit of that slightly bug-eyed, froggy Innsmouth Look that Lovecraft also described to much more troubling effect in some of his stories. And of course both were brilliant in their own problematic, weird way and generally weren’t recognised as they deserved to be while they were alive. Unlike Morrissey, who’s probably been recognised in his lifetime a bit too much for his own good.
I was tickled by the prospect of any or all these fictional narrative options, any one of which could be the next historical figures/SF pop culture mashup that nobody wants or needs. In fact I should probably just do it myself on the model of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which was after all just a quick find-and-replace edit of an out of copyright text by an author who can’t defend herself because she’s dead, making cheap fun of the fact that people in Regency England had (and indeed people in England today still do have) a different culture, different manners and different material circumstances than modern day Americans do. Because people with different cultures, manners and ways of living are like totally hilarious, dude! It must have taken an afternoon to do in MS Word, maximum. Easy money.
The first option is the meteor fall as superhero origin story for Meteor Girl: “But… how was I to know that on this planet my poetry had become so powerful that it would leave a smoking crater where Walt Whitman stood but a moment ago?” The other scenario is that Dickinson’s proto-hikikomori determination to shut herself up in her room resulted from some kind of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, as in this unfortunate result of human contact with space stuff:
“It was quite dark inside, for the window was small and half-obscured by the crude wooden bars; and Ammi could see nothing at all on the wide-planked floor. The stench was beyond enduring, and before proceeding further he had to retreat to another room and return with his lungs filled with breathable air. When he did enter he saw something dark in the corner, and upon seeing it more clearly he screamed outright. While he screamed he thought a momentary cloud eclipsed the window, and a second later he felt himself brushed as if by some hateful current of vapour. Strange colours danced before his eyes; and had not a present horror numbed him he would have thought of the globule in the meteor that the geologist’s hammer had shattered, and of the morbid vegetation that had sprouted in the spring. As it was he thought only of the blasphemous monstrosity which confronted him, and which all too clearly had shared the nameless fate of young Thaddeus and the livestock. But the terrible thing about the horror was that it very slowly and perceptibly moved as it continued to crumble”
HP Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space.
Come no closer, Miss Emily, for I carry matches and gasoline and I shall use them if I must… I fear you may have been ruined by the germ of some monstrous, eldritch, biological blasphemy from beyond the stars.
In reality a sample of the space jelly was saved by the Amherst chemist, but it quickly clotted into a starchy substance and shortly afterwards evaporated entirely.
“I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent –
To wrap its shining Yards –
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear –
Without the sound of Boards –
Or Rip of Nail – Or Carpenter –
But just the miles of Stare –
That signalize a Show’s Retreat –
In North America –
No Trace – no Figment of the Thing
That dazzled, Yesterday.”