August 30, 2017
Back when I was about fifteen, I traveled to Wildwood, New Jersey, with a few other guys. Mostly the plan was that we'd hang out on the beach and wander the boardwalk at night. I loved Wildwood. My folks had taken me there during my early summers until German submarines showed up and the lights went out.
On that trip in my fifteenth year, I got an unexpected gift. Somebody suggested we should get a boat and go fishing. I'd never been fishing, and sitting in a boat waiting for fish to bite sounded boring, not to say tough on the fish. But I was outvoted. Next day, instead of just sitting around on a beach watching for girls, we'd sit around in a boat, watching for fish.
I thought about going to the beach alone, but that didn't sound like a good option. A few years later, it would have been the obvious call. That time, though, I agreed to go. But first I stopped in a bookstore and picked up a book or a magazine –I'm not sure which. It would give me something to do out on the water. I don't recall any details about the thing I bought, except that it had a story by a guy I'd never heard of: H P. Lovecraft. The story was "The Tomb."
I didn't sleep well that night. And in the years that followed, I chased down every Lovecraft story I could find. I still recall my level of disappointment when I discovered that he was long dead. More than ten years, which constitutes 'long' for a fifteen-year-old.
I eventually moved on to other ghostly writers. I became a rabid fan of Algernon Blackwood. And of course Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. I read some of Ambrose Bierce. I picked up Dickens' A Christmas Carol. (We'd had a much shorter and less effective version in our reader back in grade school days.)
Movies about Frankenstein and Dracula had always been pretty scary. I decided to read the books. The Dracula films all seemed pretty faithful to Bram Stoker's novel. But Frankenstein provided a surprise: The character doing the damage wasn't the creature, but was instead its creator, who mistreated and ignored it. I was particularly struck when I discovered the monster reading John Milton. And that had another curious effect on me: I went down to the local library, found a copy of Paradise Lost, and got blown away by it. Thank you, Mary Shelley.
Speaking of whom, I can't resist mentioning Mike Bishop's brilliant Brittle Innings, which wonders what might have happened had Dr. Frankenstein's experiment actually occurred, and the creature survived into our era to become a professional baseball player? It's basically a quest for what it means to be human.
I can't help wondering what I might have missed had we not gone fishing on that long-ago summer day in 1950?