Mythos: Old Bugs and Juan Romero

It’s another double feature! A lot of Lovecraft’s short stories are seriously only like eight pages long, so unless they require a lot of commentary, they can frequently be crammed two to a single blog post. Really, 15-20 pages of story per 2,000 words of commentary is a pretty bad ratio, but the problem with short story collections is that the constant gear shifting to new characters, concepts, and situations tends to thwart summary.

Old Bugs

This is Lovecraft’s second (published) comedy. That sounds like the setup for a joke, but the dude did have a bit of range.

Sheehan’s Pool Room, which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard district, is not a nice place. Its air, freighted with a thousand odours such as Coleridge may have found at Cologne, too seldom knows the purifying rays of the sun; but fights for space with the acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes which dangle from the coarse lips of unnumbered human animals that haunt the place day and night.

I said a bit.

Probably the most interesting part of this story gets dropped on us at the end of the first paragraph:

Over and above the fumes and sickening closeness rises an aroma once familiar throughout the land, but now happily banished to the back streets of life by the edict of a benevolent government—the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey—a precious kind of forbidden fruit indeed in this year of grace 1950.

Funny enough, this story was written in 1919 (probably, it wasn’t published until 1959, when Lovecraft was sufficiently well-regarded that you could dig through his back-catalogue and pick stories written on a lark for publication), which is very nearly the same year as when the King in Yellow takes place. Written in 1895, the stories (or at least some of them – I haven’t read them in a while) take place in 1920, although it’s not clear how much of the changes are real and how many are the fevered delusions of an insane protagonist.

In this story, Lovecraft imagines a future after thirty years of prohibition, not yet signed into law from when he was writing in 1919 (or perhaps very recently made law, if we’re wrong about the date and he actually wrote it sometime in or after 1920). Or at least, I think prohibition is supposed to be in effect? The eponymous Old Bugs is an alcoholic employee (paid mainly in booze) at a drug den where the chief items sold appear to be liquor and hashish, with emphasis on the liquor. On the other hand, a young patron of the establishment is said to have been part of a mock fraternity in college called “Tappa Tappa Keg,” which strongly suggests that some kind of alcohol consumption is legal? Back on the first hand, Tappa Tappa Keg is an unofficial fraternity and may be engaged in illegal but widely known and quietly tolerated alcohol use, like marijuana use is rampant on college campuses today and basically no one cares even though it’s still illegal in like 47 states.

Eventually it does confirm that our Tappa Tappa Keg alumnus Trever is here at the speakeasy for his first drink (despite his upbringing):

Now, in spite of all that guidance, Alfred Trever was at Sheehan’s and about to take his first drink.

It’s still not clear what this Trever fellow has to do with Old Bugs, but presumably now they’re in the same building they shall have some sort of fateful interaction. The proprietor of the speakeasy’s dialogue is written in a hideous phonetic accent:

“Young feller,” responded the proprietor, “ya come tuh th’ right place tuh see life. We got all kinds here—reel life an’ a good time. The damn’ government can try tuh make folks good ef it wants tuh, but it can’t stop a feller from hittin’ ’er up when he feels like it. Whaddya want, feller—booze, coke, or some other sorta dope? Yuh can’t ask for nothin’ we ain’t got.”

Wait, has Coca-Cola been banned as well, or is he offering cocaine?

“Let me see, Trever,” continued the defaulter, “didn’t Schultz say your mother is a literary person, too?”
     “Yes, damn it,” replied Trever, “but nothing like the old Teian! She’s one of those dull, eternal moralisers that try to take all the joy out of life. Namby-pamby sort—ever heard of her? She writes under her maiden name of Eleanor Wing.”
     Here it was that Old Bugs dropped his mop.

Presumably because he recognized the name “Eleanor Wing,” but let’s not rule out the possibility that it’s because he realized that the end of the story with his name in the title is coming up, and he’s yet to do anything but have his backstory described. Side note, it’s said in Trever’s own backstory that his mother nearly married one guy, that guy turned into an alcoholic and slowly became more and more disgraced until he fell off the grid, and she ultimately married some other guy instead. From that mop drop, I’m guessing the alcoholic fellow who nearly married Trever’s mother is Old Bugs. I’m a little bit irate with myself that I didn’t make that connection sooner.

The youth’s eyes glistened and his nostrils curled at the fumes of the brownish fluid which an attendant was pouring out for him. It repelled him horribly, and revolted all his inherited delicacy; but his determination to taste life to the full remained with him, and he maintained a bold front. But before his resolution was put to the test, the unexpected intervened. Old Bugs, springing up from the crouching position in which he had hitherto been, leaped at the youth and dashed from his hands the uplifted glass, almost simultaneously attacking the tray of bottles and glasses with his mop, and scattering the contents upon the floor in a confusion of odoriferous fluid and broken bottles and tumblers.

The barkeep attempts to throw Old Bugs out of the bar, but Old Bugs is well-defended by misunderstood history:

Old Bugs, obtaining a firmer hold on his mop, began to wield it like the javelin of a Macedonian hoplite, and soon cleared a considerable space around himself, meanwhile shouting various disconnected bits of quotation, among which was prominently repeated, “ . . . the sons of Belial, blown with insolence and wine.”

The famous weapon of the Macedonian phalanx was certainly not a polearm so short it could be thrown by its wielder.

Old Bugs kills himself keeping the speakeasy staff at bay, and the commotion draws the attention of the police. Seeing as Old Bugs wasn’t killed by anything but his own over-exertion, the cops make no arrests…uh…even though they just broke up an illegal bar? I’m not sure what’s up with that. But afterwards, a picture carried by Old Bugs confirms for Trever (though he does not reveal it) that yes, this Old Bugs fellow is the one who nearly married his mother before falling victim to his own alcoholic vices.

Barnes and Noble insists this was a comedy, but I can only assume it was because Lovecraft’s treatment of how terrible the vice of alcohol was is a satire of prohibition rhetoric. To me, it just seems like a story sincerely insisting that drink inspires immediate alcoholism which then unerringly destroys those who have imbibed it, but maybe in the context of its time the satire was more obvious?

The Transition of Juan Romero

According to Barnes and Noble, this is another of Lovecraft’s works not published until after his death, but this one, apparently, went unpublished because Lovecraft didn’t like it. The setting is far from Lovecraft’s usual New English literary stomping grounds: The American southwest, Arizona-ish, in a gold mine. The eponymous Juan Romero is a Mexican laborer employed in the mine. So now we get to see what Lovecraft thinks of Mexicans. I’m guessing his opinion is ultimately going to be not super keen, but still less contemptuous than he was of Appalachians.

It was not long after my arrival and employment that Juan Romero came to the Norton Mine. One of a large herd of unkempt Mexicans attracted thither from the neighbouring country, he at first commanded attention only because of his features; which though plainly of the Red Indian type, were yet remarkable for their light colour and refined conformation, being vastly unlike those of the average “Greaser” or Piute of the locality. It is curious that although he differed so widely from the mass of Hispanicised and tribal Indians, Romero gave not the least impression of Caucasian blood. It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend.

Looks like Juan Romero is mostly Aztec in heritage, and that Lovecraft plans to paint this heritage in the same basic Yellow Peril category that Robert E. Howard’s Stygians wound up in: Brilliant and competent, but also evil. So, my prediction is pretty solidly on track so far, albeit with the small wrinkle that Juan Romero is probably not meant to be representative of Mexicans in general.

The attachment which Romero manifested toward me was undoubtedly commenced through the quaint and ancient Hindoo ring which I wore when not engaged in active labour. Of its nature, and manner of coming into my possession, I cannot speak. It was my last link with a chapter of life forever closed, and I valued it highly. Soon I observed that the odd-looking Mexican was likewise interested; eyeing it with an expression that banished all suspicion of mere covetousness. Its hoary hieroglyphs seemed to stir some faint recollection in his untutored but active mind, though he could not possibly have beheld their like before.

Notably, Juan appears to be uneducated but nevertheless intelligent. Juan does pretty much immediately assume the role of subservient Man Friday to our presumably white narrator, though:

Within a few weeks after his advent, Romero was like a faithful servant to me; this notwithstanding the fact that I was myself but an ordinary miner.

I kind of wonder how much of this trope is pure delusion of the inherent supremacy of the white man being recognized by other races, or how much of it comes from true stories of white explorers/colonists receiving basic hospitality from natives they’ve made friendly acquaintance with, and mistaking this for submission, or how much of it comes from colonialists assuming that natives bowing and scraping happens automatically and that being backed up by a fully armed battalion demonstrably willing to kill anyone who looks at them funny is unrelated.

In any case, the plot proper gets itself started when the mine superintendent orders a blast to try and open up a new vein of gold, and the blast is either larger than intended or else blowing out the town’s windows was part of the plan. Either way, it opens up not a vein of gold, but a yawning abyss (abysses seem to yawn a lot – is abyssal culture bad with getting a proper amount of sleep at night?).

Baffled, the excavators sought a conference with the Superintendent, who ordered great lengths of rope to be taken to the pit, and spliced and lowered without cessation till a bottom might be discovered.

Probably at the bottom they’ll just find more gold. Everything will be fine and nobody will be eaten.

Lovecraft’s stories have a lot of really fascinating ideas and are reasonably well executed, but the craft is clearly in its infancy. He makes all kinds of mistakes that would be considered the mark of a rank amateur today. For example, he feels the need to add a footnote to explicitly state the research he conducted for the story’s accuracy rather than just letting the accurate fact sit in his story, unobserved by 99% of his audience, but perhaps visible to a small handful.

Also, he hasn’t shaken the “revelation in all caps” thing.

“¡Madre de Dios!—el sonido—ese sonido—¡oiga Vd! ¿lo oye Vd?—Señor, THAT SOUND!”
     I listened, wondering what sound he meant. The coyote, the dog, the storm, all were audible; the last named now gaining ascendancy as the wind shrieked more and more frantically. Flashes of lightning were visible through the bunk-house window. I questioned the nervous Mexican, repeating the sounds I had heard:
     “¿El coyote?—¿el perro?—¿el viento?”
     But Romero did not reply. Then he commenced whispering as in awe:
     “El ritmo, Señor—el ritmo de la tierra—THAT THROB DOWN IN THE GROUND!”

At least it’s not the last words of the story this time.

The sound coming from below is evidently chanting. Probably a birthday celebration! A perfectly normal underground birthday celebration in which no one will be eaten. Our narrator and Juan Romero go to investigate.

This ritual apparently calls to Juan Romero’s Aztec blood:

Some new and wild note in the drumming and chanting, perceptible but slightly to me, had acted on him in startling fashion; and with a wild outcry he forged ahead unguided in the cavern’s gloom. I heard his repeated shrieks before me, as he stumbled awkwardly along the level places and scrambled madly down the rickety ladders. And frightened as I was, I yet retained enough of perception to note that his speech, when articulate, was not of any sort known to me. Harsh but impressive polysyllables had replaced the customary mixture of bad Spanish and worse English, and of these only the oft repeated cry “Huitzilopotchli” seemed in the least familiar.

And that’s about the last we’ll hear of Juan Romero:

Out of the darkness immediately ahead burst a final shriek from the Mexican, which was joined by such a chorus of uncouth sound as I could never hear again and survive. In that moment it seemed as if all the hidden terrors and monstrosities of earth had become articulate in an effort to overwhelm the human race.

Oh, no! Who could have seen this coming?!

Luckily, our narrator has a means of surviving this dire confrontation with hateful alien forces:

At first I beheld nothing but a seething blur of luminosity; but then shapes, all infinitely distant, began to detach themselves from the confusion, and I saw—was it Juan Romero?—but God! I dare not tell you what I saw! . . . Some power from heaven, coming to my aid, obliterated both sights and sounds in such a crash as may be heard when two universes collide in space.

deus ex machina

Come morning, there’s the by-now bog-standard Lovecraft ending where it was all just a dream, or was it, because although nobody saw the narrator of Juan Romero leave, including the night watchman who was watching the mine entrance they went through, nevertheless Juan Romero is dead of no apparent injury (this did not prevent him from going on to co-found id Software many years later).

I can see why Lovecraft didn’t want this one published. The basic structure of a Lovecraft story is by now getting pretty cliche: Narrator gets involved in the supernatural, ghostly occurrences build to a terrible climax, the next morning it was all just a dream, OR WAS IT?! What makes it work is when the ghostly menace is something new and interesting. It’s Polaris inflicting sleep upon our protagonist at a critical moment in his dream life in the primordial past. It’s a fish kaiju from a temple deep beneath the ocean thrust up to the surface by improbable tectonic activity. It’s an astral creature of pure fire and luminescence seeking revenge in the distant reaches of space, who inhabits a physical form on Earth during waking hours.

Here? The narrator backs out of actually telling us what the fascinating menace actually is, leaving nothing but the formulaic scaffolding, scaffolding which is redeemable in other works because of the ideas it delivers, here given nothing to deliver and left to stand on its own.

3 thoughts on “Mythos: Old Bugs and Juan Romero”

  1. Juan Romero seems to be the first appearance of the recurring motif in Lovecraft’s stories – the influence of blood and heritage on people. Something that Lovecraft himself struggled very directly when his many hereditary diseases started popping up.

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    1. This is true. I wonder how long it’ll be before we get to a Lovecraft story employing that theme that he liked well enough to publish?

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      1. About ten more stories I think. I have a title in mind, but I’ll keep silent until you reach it. It does have a neat anecdote related to it though.

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