Plenty of writers have mastered their craft, but few have fostered a genre. Howard Phillips Lovecraft—purveyor of pulp fictional cosmic terror—did both. Dying at age 46 on March 15, 1937, in penniless, cancerous misery, most of his works became classics of supernatural lit, inspiring the likes of Stephen King and Clive Barker; directors Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, and John Carpenter; and sundry supernatural TV series, from True Detective to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you’re a fan of evil alien fungus, tentacled hell-beasties, accursed tomes, and gibbering-madness-inducing extra-dimensional gods, you should raise a glass to H.P.L.
And now, here’s your chance.
Bucket O’ Blood owners Grant and Jennifer McKee look forward to it. Transplants from New Mexico and Texas, respectively, they moved to Chicago in 2002. The first Bucket O’ Blood store opened in Logan Square eight years later, providing a prime selection of new and used sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, as well as punk, indie, and heavy metal on vinyl. In 2015, rising rents prompted a move to their current, more spacious location at 3182 N. Elston Ave.
“In high school, I spent most of my time and money buying and listening to punk rock and heavy metal records,” says Grant. “I’m stoked to be in a position where I can now share my love of these things with my customers.”
The store has hosted numerous horror/sci-fi/fantasy-themed events, but the Lovecraft Death Day Soireé remains as popular with Bucket O’ Blood’s clientele as the author it celebrates.
Prone to using a dozen words where one would do, Lovecraft nonetheless excelled at tone and suspense, and remains a source of inspirational high weirdness across multiple media. Lovecraft classics like “Cool Air,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” continue to inspire new generations of creators. In a sense, the soirée is a seance.
“We wanted to acknowledge his influence, as well as salute early weird fiction and cosmic horror,” says McKee. “The initial gathering in 2017 was the 80th anniversary [of Lovecraft’s death], so it seemed fitting to have a party. That was so well received, we’ve kept doing it!”
Lovecraft spent the bulk of his life in his hometown, Providence, RI, briefly living in Brooklyn with his eventually estranged wife for two years—but he has a Chicago connection. Weird Tales, the magazine he most often contributed to, had its offices on Michigan Avenue. At one point the publisher offered him an editorship, but only if he moved to the Windy City. Lovecraft declined, preferring Providence and, more understandably, having an extreme, lifelong aversion to cold weather.
Lovecraft, while a helluva muse, did have his off-putting side. Bluntly, he was an anti-Semite (though he married a Jewish woman), homophobic (though he had gay friends), and an avowed racist (no mitigating circumstances for that one, I’m afraid). He was the pampered, single scion of an upper-crusty New England family that fell on hard times, so no surprises there.
Lovecraft’s racism remains a sticky point. The World Fantasy Award, from 1975 until 2015, presented winners with a caricatured Lovecraft bust designed by cartoonist Gahan Wilson. Sometime in the 2010s, both recipients and fans complained about using the image of an unrepentant bigot as a trophy—an uncomfortable situation multiplied when a writer of color like Nnedi Okorafor won. The bust was discontinued in 2015, replaced by a more evocative image of a tree silhouetted against the moon.
Some apologists write off Lovecraft’s racism as a regrettable but common quality of his time—as if an entire generation gets a miss for collective, purposeful mean stupidity. One has little sympathy for that nonsensical argument after reading his descriptions of immigrants in Lovecraft’s shoddiest tale, “The Horror at Red Hook”. The McKees themselves are aware of and deplore Lovecraft’s more vile aspects.
“We focus on passages that highlight his literary innovations,” says McKee. “As for his well-documented history of racism, it’s certainly not something to be taken lightly and not something we would deny. Obviously he can’t speak for himself, but we do know that he lived a life of extreme xenophobia and isolation virtually from birth. It’s unfortunate that he never had the opportunity to change that.”
For all his gross, pathetic faults, Lovecraft has the slight saving grace of inspiring thousands of new horror and fantasy writers—many of whom are members of the groups he once slurred and who, satisfyingly, write better than he ever did. To best understand Lovecraft, I think, one must know that he was a goony oddball who lived in two places: his spinster aunts’ home and his freakishly inventive mind. A prolific letter writer—he allegedly wrote some 100,000 letters in his lifetime—we should give thanks he lacked Internet access.
Lovecraft was a teetotaler, but his eponymous soirée promises a Prohibition/speakeasy atmosphere. He may have refused to relocate here, but this is still Chicago after all. And drinks aren’t the only thing on the menu.
“This has always been a great opportunity to connect and interact with fellow fans of cosmic horror, but this year we are pulling out all the stops to provide an extra special backdrop for mingling,” says McKee.
People can buy tickets in advance through Eventbrite or at Bucket O’ Blood (3182 N. Elston). Attendees are encouraged to show up in their dandiest 1930s finery at B’El Bar Kitchen (3188 N. Elston), at 5pm, Friday, March 15. Ticket-holders receive a Lovecraftian, yet tasty, appetizer and a cocktail/mocktail in a limited-edition glass created by Chicago artist Alex Van Trejo. At 7pm, attendees will repair to the bookstore’s back parlor for snacks, beverages, and a special toast, followed by a batch of readers reciting excerpts from Lovecraft’s work.
Miss the Lovecraft Death Day Soirée?
That would be madness.
Gibbering, extra-dimensional madness.