Cosmic Claustrophobia: Gabriel Blackwell’s ‘The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men’
Part of the appeal of H. P. Lovecraft’s work is the sensed worlds (of teeming monstrous biology, creeping paranoia, undeniable nihilism) that lurk not so much within the text itself (famously verbose and weighted with archaisms as it is) but in the spaces between the flowery words and behind the formal lines. Lovecraft’s fiction is all about the suggestion, the hint, and that which we speak of when we speak of the unspeakable. To read Lovecraft is, in a lot of ways, to get what the man was about, under his surface veneer of genteel literary gentleman and scion of a decaying New England family. Under all that, well… horrors abound. Potent fears. Crippling anxieties.
All of which goes a long way to explain his continuing popularity well into the 21st Century, while the other, more successful pulp writers of his own time are all but lost to obscurity. Lovecraft somehow speaks to the current human condition. This is the Age of Crippling Anxiety, and Lovecraft is fast becoming its patron saint.
Gabriel Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) taps into that pervasive feeling of alienation and helplessness that bleeds out crimson between HPL’s purple prose and infects the reader. And the manner in which Blackwell does it!
Here are the bare bones of the plot: Lovecraft did not die of a combination of bowel cancer and Bright’s Disease. Or rather, he did, but the illness was merely a symptom (and not the only one) of a foul existential contagion transmitted to him through a textual artefact, a letter from a deranged fan resident in an asylum. And the name of this secret priest of the Great Old Ones? Gabriel Blackwell.
Natural Dissolution… is the record of the author (the present-day Gabriel Blackwell) travelling to Providence to search for his vanished girlfriend (who may or may not actually exist), where he finds temporary work shredding old hospital documents. Among these he finds HPL’s file, and within that, he finds Lovecraft’s final hand-written letter to his fan/persecutor/killer, which details the effects of that Blackwell’s (no relation? Maybe. Maybe not…) letter to him, and the rapid slide into hallucination, madness, and disease it triggered in him. Effects which, as the author Blackwell soon learns during his own descent into madness, continue to transmit through Lovecraft’s own letter.
There are some marvelously descriptive passages in Natural Dissolution…, passages that deliver on the fevered promise of both Lovecraft’s fiction and psychedelic use: if we could only look deep enough into things, then all would be revealed. It’s William Blake’s doors of perception getting busted wide-open, only to reveal, not a spacious and infinite universe of light and reason, but a claustrophobic infinite regression of fractal foulness, mutating forms, and crushing psychological darkness. Lovecraft, who only thought he saw the truth at the bottom of things, finally sees it, and it kills him. Blackwell, who only wants to find his girlfriend, instead finds a twisted passage (through the transcription and translation of the letter) into the emptiness of his own existence. The final chapters, with his return to the West Coast (divested of the letter by a thoroughly Lovecraftian trope: the jostle/mugging by a dark stranger in an alleyway near the piers) and the half-life he left there, give the reader a final maddening coda: Gabriel Blackwell the Author is perhaps host to the personality of Gabriel Blackwell the Lovecraft correspondent, and evidence of another person or entity living in the apartment he rents (and has filled with hoarded material to become a maze-like mirror of his psyche) hints that doors through time and mind have been opened and will never shut.
That being said, Natural Dissolution is also funny as hell. There’s a real David Foster-Wallace feel to the narrative, a dry humour in the sorting of awful phenomena and altered perceptions. Much of the story is pieced together through footnotes, and footnotes to footnotes, reminding me of House of Leaves, but in a good way. And Blackwell hits the perfect tone for Lovecraft’s voice: plummy and self-assured at points, devolving into “my god, that hand! The window! The window!” fevered hysteria at others, but sympathetic at all times. It’s Lovecraft’s last letter, and it feels just so, which is an amazing accomplishment.
The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men is far and away one of the better literary horror novels I’ve read. Witty, urbane, deranged and ultimately very unsettling. Highly recommended.
Scott R Jones is the author of the short story collections Soft from All the Blood and The Ecdysiasts, as well as the non-fiction When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality. His poetry and prose have appeared in Innsmouth Magazine, Cthulhu Haiku II, Broken City Mag, and upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.