Rogue Islands

How I broke my brain at an early age

I’d like to credit Sir John Mandeville, or Umberto Eco, or even Aleister Crowley with the first cracking of my surety in the world as it is presented to us. I’d like to talk about how Rupert Sheldrake and his theories of morphic resonance, or zero point theory, or quantum mechanics first opened the doors of perception for me ... hell, I’d love to credit Huxley or Blake. All of these and many, many more have certainly done their best to contribute to whatever dementia made me think I could, should or would become a writer, of course, and surely my choice to become a writer of speculations draped in outlandish plausibility came from all of them and many many more. But it would be a lie to credit any of them with that first rush of glee at the recognition of the division between what is, what is not, and what we are told is.

No, it was none of these nor any of the other worthies who have impinged upon the shell of my consciousness, it was not Julian Jaynes, it was not Tim Powers, it was not Henry Cornelius Agrippa or the Zohar that first blew the world up for me. It wasn’t any of them, it was, basically, just a weird little state out of the fifty that constitute my home nation and my grandmother’s living room.

It’s hard to explain, to someone who has not been there, what makes Rhode Island different from the rest of the United States. It’s not the size, although growing up and seeing your home used as a unit of measurement might well have had something to do with my later development. It’s also not the clear and nearly ubiquitous mafia presence in your life, even though I did go to Catechism classes with the granddaughter of Ray Patriarca and it was made clear to every boy within five years of her age that so much as touching her would mean very bad things for all involved: the poor girl never did seem to understand why, despite her relentless attempts at being pretty and popular, that she could never ever hope to get a date. I hope she went to school very far out of state.

There’s a way about the state that I have never found again, even years after leaving. Only in Rhode Island have I found people tersely, concisely telling me about vampires living in East Greenwich (vampires I discovered years later in the excellent Food for the Dead by Michael J. Bell, by the way, an anthropological study of the undead in my home state) and only in Rhode Island could I have, while working a summer job in the local police station, be asked to destroy box after box of old police reports. In those reports I read of a man committing suicide: surely not unreasonable in and of itself, but I clearly remember reading in a daze of horror and anticipation as the man committed suicide by shooting himself six times, reloading the revolver, shooting himself six more times, stabbing himself thirty five times in the chest, then driving himself to the bay and wrapping himself in chains before throwing himself into the water to drown.

This was a very determined man, I decided.

Of course, Rhode Island was the home state for H. P. Lovecraft, but to be honest no one talked about him much. His grave gets vandalized every Halloween and that’s about it for ol’ H. P. I discovered his work not at home but years later, on my first trip to London, where he seems to have a much greater following than on the streets he so diligently placed into his work under names like Arkham and Dunwich. No, it wasn’t HPL that moved me to my first encounter with the strange, and to be fair it wasn’t the vampires of the closed in, rural west of the state. It was more that the entire place was infused with an atmosphere of oddity, where even day to day events were tinged with mockery. People were proud of their eccentricities. When famous judges were caught sleeping with prostitutes or socialites were murdered by their husbands, there was an air of quiet satisfaction to the people and their responses, as if it were right and fitting somehow for these things to happen here.

When I was ten years old, my father lost his mother and then his father in rapid succession. Whatever relationship he and I may have had prior seemed to die on the vine, and at this exact moment I became interested in reading the collection of old encyclopedias that my maternal grandmother had purchased years earlier, no doubt to aid in the education of her eight children. Those books became solace for me from the changes in my home life and my own unusual psyche, my twisted relationship with the universe and God that would in time come to mirror that of the petitioner in a Stephen Crane poem, but even at that point, things might well have worked out so that I became no more than the occasional reader of a book by Poe or De Maupassant had it not been for a final intervention from fate — one that no one could really have foreseen, I think.

On those same shelves were a ratty old collection of several books by Charles Fort, specifically Lo! and The Book of the Damned, and next to them were several digest collections of comic books, especially old Superman comics and the old paperbacks of The Hulk and Iron Man from, I believe, Scholastic Books.

I have never discovered where the Fort collections came from. My grandmother did not really believe in keeping track of who brought what book into the house as long as the kids were reading, and my mother had no clues for me either. The comic books could have come from any one of my eight aunts and uncles, I suppose. But the tidal effect of the old, decaying covers of the Brittanicas with their pages and pages of strangely prioritized information, the Fortean books with their relentless attempt to poke holes in the status quo embodied in the previous tomes, and the lovely garishness of the elaborate Weisingerian mythology of the Man of Steel, his faithful dog, the bottle city of Kandor, his cousin from doomed Argo City perched atop a chunk of the very element fatal to its people ... Combine these disparate elements in a young brain still forming its opinion of the world while trying to decipher the complicated and often arcane day to day pulse of life in that bizarre pocket of reality called Rhode Island, and you may or may not end up with someone like me. It’s hard to say.

From Fort I moved on to look for inspiration in men like Colin and Robert Anton Wilson, both of whom had exactly one book available in the Cranston Public Library. Making use of its limited sources, I branched out from them to Robert E. Howard’s Kull stories, which were the first and only of his work I read before I left for college. Indeed, the sparsity of available works caused strange gaps and stranger associations in my reading — to this day I associate Procopius’ Anekdota with a paperback collection of old comics called Bring On The Bad Guys for no better reason than the fact that I checked them both out on the same day.

One of the conceits I have always adored in Fort, the idea of the supersargasso sea floating somewhere above or out of reach from whence come mad falls of fish or strange amorphous matter from the sky, to where the mysteriously disappeared Ambroses may well go be they Bierce or otherwise, has always reminded me of a book I read in the Rhode Island College library for the first time while my mother was taking classes to get her masters’ degree, a book called Passport to Magonia by a former scientific researcher into UFO phenomenon named Jaques Vallee. In this book Vallee associates the ancient stories of ghosts, faeries, witches, and so on with more modern stories of metallic goblins attacking American farms, men in high heels gassing Matoon, and so on as similar kinds of events, an incursion of mass belief into reality.

To be honest, I’ve always believed my home state itself is permanently stuck in a similar condition, an incursion between the kingdoms of the mad where Prestor John and Sir John Mandeville have estates and the little green men used to sail forth in Zeppelins and now prefer spaceships. It’s the subtle weirdness in the very air that gently shoved me towards the strange section on the library shelves. When I discovered Lovecraft I immediately identified with all the people in his books that seemed to live between bookshelves, as though growing up Catholic in that vampire haunted hinterland on the coast caused me, as it were, to not only believe in Carrol’s impossible things before breakfast but in fact to seek them out. Is there a Magonia, where magical and unnatural things hold sway? I don’t know, but surely if there is, there’s an embassy somewhere in Providence.

It would be fair to say that I learned to love the weird, the unnatural, the unusual and the odd from growing up in a place where the business of day to day life itself can become occulted, hidden from view behind layers of secrecy you never really penetrate. Is there a better breeding ground to come to find delight in the most outlandish of conspiracy theorizing, to be amazed and to wonder at the most elaborate scheme to drag meteors down from the sky via the killing of women in Whitechapel? These things don’t sound so outlandish when you go to church in the same building that Robert Blake (the fictional one, not the actor) was killed by Nyarlathotep. Why is there a pinecone on that archway? Why is there a giant blue insect by the highway, and a chrome dog next to it? Why did a moose come all the way down from Canada to die on the highway?

Who left that Charles Fort book in my grandmother’s house?

I don’t know. I’ll never know. Growing up was a series of mysteries I made answers up for myself, out of a sense of completeness, training in the graveyard of the strange on one of those islands in the Supersargasso Sea where fish might fall from the sky but Mafia Princesses could never get dates. And I take that place with me wherever I go, that junkyard of machine elves and chrome dogs, and I visit it every time I pick up a new book and find new questions lurking in it for me.