On “Old Bugs” by H.P. Lovecraft

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

When you try to mock your friends only to wind up making a mockery of yourself.

“Old Bugs” is thought to have been written before July 1919 but (for reasons that will become obvious) it was not published until 1959 when it was included in an Arkham House collection entitled The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces.

In my previous piece on “Memory”, I wrote a bit about how Lovecraft’s initial forays into getting his work out there were comparable to putting a story up on your own blog in so far as he was basically self-publishing his own stuff in amateur magazines written and edited with a couple of friends. While there’s something quite charming and romantic about this idea of Lovecraft the Blogger, there is also something of a downside.

While there is still an important piece to be written about the collapse of the blogosphere, one important feature in the format’s decline was its shrinking frame of reference. Running a blog back in the 2000s was a weird experience in that you had a lot of data on how your posts performed, but no real lens through which to interpret said data. What this meant in practice was that you’d write and write and write until something went viral and then you’d start to learn into those kinds of posts, often drifting away from the stuff that actually interested you, until the burnout and disillusionment started to take hold. While the most successful bloggers learned to manage these tensions, a lot of people made the mistake of either following the viral successes until they gave up in disgust, or refusing to acknowledge the viral successes and retaining an audience of about 73. The fact that these tensions were quite difficult to comprehend let alone manage meant that blogging tended to reward posts that naturally worked with both sets of tensions, namely stuff that was interesting only to you and to the other people who linked to your site. This is one reason why the blogosphere was so prone to beefing and why people tended to write a lot about blogging. Bloggers shrinking their frames of reference to the point where they spent most of their time writing about blogging almost certainly contributed to the collapse of the blogosphere because, at the end of the day, there’s only so much of your bullshit that people are willing to take.

With this in mind, “Old Bugs” is precisely the kind of story you’d expect from someone who was, at that point, publishing their own work for an audience comprised mostly of people they happened to know personally.

The story is set in a bar on the rougher side of the Chicago stockyards. Ostensibly a pool room, the bar is something of a focal point for the city’s illicit trade in hooch and narcotics. Newcomers to the bar are greeted by a raving derelict, a drunken drug addict who wants nothing from life other than the opportunity to get fucked up and who supports his habit by scrubbing floors and helping to empty spittoons. This man, known mostly as ‘Old Bugs’ is a deeply pathetic figure who cowers on the floor when sober and rants in arcane languages when high. The only time he gets anywhere close to cogency is when he spies a new face and takes upon himself to warn them of the hazards associated with a life of drink and drugs.

Into this den of iniquity comes a young man by the name of Alfred Trever. Trever is an upstanding 1920s college boy doubtless clad in a fur coat, a straw boater, and a jumper adorned with the Greek letters representing his fraternity. Trever comes from a good family but a tightly-disciplined upbringing served only to make him curious about the pleasures that had been forbidden him by mother. At first, Trever was content with smiling, being blonde, reading books and dancing the Charleston on top of a flagpole but then he learned the existence of what had been forbidden him and went in search of some vice:

“I want whiskey—good old-fashioned rye!” exclaimed Trever enthusiastically. “I’ll tell you, I’m good and tired of water after reading of the merry bouts fellows used to have in the old days. I can’t read an Anacreontic without watering at the mouth—and it’s something a lot stronger than water that my mouth waters for!”

While my reading of Lovecraft has thus far been dominated by my appreciation for the way in which Lovecraft uses fiction to explore his own feelings of worthlessness, this is one of those times in which Lovecraft is not writing from personal experience. Indeed, Lovecraft was a life-long teetotaller who had never set foot inside a bar let alone a rough stockyard pit full of queasy drunks and shady deals. Rather than having the locals beat and rob the American Bertie Wooster, the operators of the bar seem to think that this young man might be something of a good catch:

I do not think that many of Sheehan’s regular patrons will ever forget the day that young Alfred Trever came. He was rather a “find”—a rich and high-spirited youth who would “go the limit” in anything he undertook—at least, that was the verdict of Pete Schultz, Sheehan’s “runner”, who had come across the boy at Lawrence College, in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin.

I find it fascinating that Lovecraft imagined that bar owners view customers in the same way as upper middle-class people think about people they invite to dinner parties. If you were having a dinner party, I can imagine you might think that Trever would be ‘good value’ in so far as he was handsome, entertaining, and always brought a certain kind of energy to proceedings but has anyone who owned a bar ever thought of their customers in such terms? You might describe someone as a ‘find’ in so far as they spend a lot of money and don’t annoy the other customers but dive bars are not middle-class dinner parties and it’s both fascinating and hilarious that Lovecraft would assume that the same social rules applied to both.

Trever’s highly-disciplined upbringing turns out to be the result of his mother having lost her first fiancé to drink and drugs. The story goes back and forth a few times until Trever shares his story, at which point he drops not only his mother’s name but also the name of her mother’s fiancé. That man, it turns out, would later become Old Bugs.

The name of the fiancé in question is Alfred Galpin, a friend of Lovecraft’s who had suggested he try getting drunk at least once before the government brought in prohibition. Lovecraft’s response was to write a story in which his friend is depicted as a drug-addled ruin begging for coins from the floor or a Chicago dive bar.

What commentary there is about this story tends to present it as a well-written comedy but I didn’t find it all that funny as the joke is really little more than a mean-spirited jab. I don’t drink and have had literally dozens of people suggest that I get shit-face drunk at least once in my life, if only for the experience. The first time you hear this suggestion, you smile. The seventeenth time you hear the suggestion, you roll your eyes. What you do not do is sit down and write a story about how one of your friends is going to wind up a toothless derelict who empties spittoons in the hope of scraping together enough money for a bump of coke. That’s not just silly, it’s silly is a way that reflects way more poorly on the jabber than the jabbed.

The reason this type of story reflects worse on the teller than the told is that it comes from a place of abject terror. In writing this story, Lovecraft may have assumed that he was satirising his friend’s lack of self-control but in order for the satire to stick you kind of have to assume that people who enjoy getting fucked up will inevitably wind up as raving derelicts and if that’s true then what does it say about Lovecraft’s own abstinence? Does he abstain because he doesn’t like the taste and sensation, or does he abstain because he assumes that even a momentary loss of self-control will result in the complete unravelling of his entire identity? That is not a position of strength but of profound fear and weakness. If you are willing to experiment because you know that experimenting will not change who you are then you have significantly more ego-integrity than someone who refuses to experiment out of fear that they will become instantly lost.

One of the recurring motifs of the early Lovecraft stories is snobbery born of self-loathing. Time and again, we see Lovecraft pouring scorn on people he considers inferior only for him to wind up telling on himself in quite striking terms:

  • In “The Alchemist”, Lovecraft’s protagonist sneers at the local peasantry only to describe himself as a penniless hermit living in the ruins of an old castle.
  • In “The Tomb”, Lovecraft’s protagonist wants so badly to be associated with an old-money family that he sleeps in the woods and rolls around in corpses.
  • In “Polaris”, Lovecraft vents his spleen about the Asiatic hordes only to wind up identifying with a coward who accidentally causes the eradication of the white race.
  • In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, Lovecraft spends half the story dehumanising a member of the rural working class only the spend the final third of the story desperately trying to get inside his head and lamenting the fact that he wasn’t afflicted with the same condition.

In this story, Lovecraft cracks wise about other people’s drinking habits only to imply that his own abstinence flows from a profound fear of losing control over an identity that was already proving too brittle for most forms of human contact. People often describe Lovecraft as a racist and a xenophobe who yearned for simpler times but the more I read of Lovecraft’s work, the more convinced I am that Lovecraft’s myriad bigotries were really nothing more than an expression of a deeper fear of lost identity born, no doubt, from the fact that he had witnessed not only his own father’s institutionalisation but also the loss of his family fortune and the breaking of what tenuous connections he had to wealth, privilege and social standing. Lovecraft was a man born on a downward trajectory and his hatreds and bigotries are merely attempts by a falling man to gain distance from those who he seemed to be passing on his descent into the poor house.

“Old Bugs” is another example of Lovecraft trying to distance himself from what he perceived as social inferiors except rather than making him look more respectable than middle-class people who enjoy slumming it in rough-neck bars, the ugliness of Lovecraft’s mockery only makes him look insecure. The rich and powerful have no problem drinking in dodgy bars because they know that, at the end of the day, they can go home to their butlers. By lashing out at people who drink in bars, Lovecraft is doing nothing more than expressing his fear that, upon reaching the gutter, he might never be able to drag himself back out.  

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