“Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day.”
H.P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”
Introduced to Lovecraft’s stories in my sophomore year of high school, I was immediately pulled in by his beautiful, brutal visions. At the same time, along with peppering English essays with words like “ichor” and “Stygian”, I was sneaking out of the house to tear along the back roads with Chad and Billy. One night, we went out to the river and got drunk on stolen beers. I fell for a girl who’d eventually break my heart. Jessica, whom I’d only though of as a friend before, helped me put the pieces back together.
Back then, I didn’t think those weird old stories had much to do with my first unsteady steps toward adulthood. Looking back, though, I see the connection between adolescence and Lovecraft’s vast, incomprehensible universe.
In the opening lines of “Call of Cthulhu”, Lovecraft writes, “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” In “The Colour Out of Space”, scientists examining a strange meteorite conclude, “It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with the outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”
Adolescence is when we first come into contact with the “great outside” where the laws of childhood – if someone’s mean to you, tell a grownup; bullies will back down if you stand up to them; everything will work out in the end – no longer apply. Physically, our bodies transform and early sexual experiences are thrilling, embarrassing, and heart-poundingly frightening all at once. There are other moments when someone’s understanding of the world and of themselves changes radically – a soldier’s first battle, for instance – but adolescence is the only universal one. Male and female, rich and poor, it’s the one time all of us are driven to explore past our placid islands of ignorance.
And exploration is the focus of most Lovecraft stories. In them, the protagonist (often a nameless, faceless reader proxy) is plunged into an ancient, powerful mythology that is somehow totally hidden from the mundane world he’s familiar with. It’s a good metaphor for the first time we fall in love and are convinced nobody else has ever felt passion as strong as ours. The first time we’re dumped, we’re just as sure nobody has ever suffered like we are.
The goal of most fantasy heroes is to restore order – to defeat Voldemort and save Hogworts, to cast the ring into Mount Doom and return to the Shire. But Lovecraft’s protagonists can never forget the things they’ve seen and return to innocent, ignorant childhood. They don’t fight for victory, just sanity. They’ve glimpsed interstellar gods and the true size of the universe, and the best they can hope for is to accept that knowledge without going mad.
I survived my high school years more or less sane. Since then, I’ve written several books for teenagers, myself. At 31, it can be hard remembering what those nights were like. I haven’t talked to Chad or Billy in years. The last I heard from Jessica, she’d joined the Navy. But I still have my crack-spined Lovecraft collections. Every few years, I’ll pull one out, meaning to just re-read one story, and wind up burning through the whole bunch just like I did back in 10th grade. That’s when I remember what adolescence felt like – the mingled wonder and terror, the pure trembling awe, of new vistas.
(Originally published at Innsmouth Free Press.)
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