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Robert Waugh

Ecclesiastical Polity and the Lusts of the KGB

“Maman, I want to join the Nazi Party.”

Imagine her surprise. But being a reasonable, bien élevée young lady who sorely missed her dead husband, she tried to take the reasonable approach. She wheedled. Her gangly model schoolboy was only fifteen.

“But, Hubert, you can’t join the Nazi Party.”

“Why not, Maman?”

“Because, Hubert, you’re Jewish.”

Well! You could have knocked him over with a feather! You never know where you’re at. You’re growing up in a perfectly sound Anglican family because your father has converted from his perfectly nominal Lutheran tradition to marry into your maman’s perfectly nominal Anglican tradition, which is all comme il faut in this day and age. It was a complicated family. Your mother’s father, a WASP as the braid on his shoulder proclaimed, had been a military attaché to the American Council in St. Petersberg, before the Revolution tacked the red flag to the nose of the Romanovs, and had performed additional duties that even in that halcyon time had to remain unspecified.

It was there, behind the facade of the frozen palazzo, watching through the night as a young girl the faces behind the candles, that she had acquired a taste for the icons, which she bequeathed to her Hubert. “Mother of God,” those long January nights she would whisper, “Mother of God.” With the Party underway at the Winter Palace, she was passing through Germany when she met your father, an adroit dealer in fabrics. You’re a touch precious now; in the gymnasium they’re all joining the Nazi Party, in a perfectly nominal fashion. If you were in America you would join the boy scouts and go camping. But you know if you’re Jewish that’s that. That puts the kibosh on camping and singing “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen” around the campfires above Heidelberg. “Die Fahnen Hoch” will never soar above you.

It calls for a radical career change.

This was the story his mother told her daughter-in-law years later. Ah, the foolishness of children, Anastasia would complain, throwing her hands to the skies. Her real name was Marjory, but she preferred the sound of her Russian childhood.

Fortunately for Hubert, there are many ways to join a Party. You can become a Communist and take to the streets where the good cause is being fought with placards, boots, and brickbats. But you don’t stay in Germany very long. Hubert was shipped off to his cousins in America where he joined the boy scouts for a short time. So much for being a Communist. They sat out in the woods of Western Massachusetts singing “Home, Home on the Range.” Increasingly he devoted his fervor to the church of his fathers—well, one of his fathers—the Episcopal Church of America, which Hubert regarded as an extension of Monarchy.

Art History provided a refuge also.

Now this is a story of gossip. I can’t tell you, the garage-mechanic can’t tell you, the firemen can’t tell you, Ethel at the bus-station can’t tell you, how we know these things, because we each of us know them as well, in our fashions, as anyone else in town.

Hubert was fantastically successful as an Art Historian. Early in his career he made his mark as a connoisseur of Medieval Russian art and from that branched out into the much more outré study of Central Asian statuary; Khazakstan vases of the twelfth century seemed to have been turned out under his eyes. Articles and books purred from his pen with annual regularity, and the chairs of Harvard and Princeton formed the foci of his orbit. Jane, whom he married between Khazakstan vases, had been one of his graduate students, and her angular New England poise was another of his successes. That was how we in the town saw it.

In our small town, at a small college with an enormous honorarium, he walked from his house to his office twice a week with a stooped hump back, stooped shoulders, flabby hands, and the physiognomy of a warty flatfish. Every Sunday he paid his devotions to the local Episcopal church and deprecated the changes in the liturgy. He read Hooker and cited him to the disadvantage of Canterbury; the Jacobean prelate became his emblem of a proper sacerdotal pride. Twice a year he would invite the local priest, who had no pride and no propriety and no Hooker, home for a glass of port and a theological harangue.

He would meet the priest on the porch because he hated the chimes which Jane had recently installed at the door. In notes on the upper scale of too high, they played the opening motif of an obscure cinquecento madrigal. “Amor, d’ogni mia pena io ti ringrazio,” it chirped. Hubert made it his habit to hover at the curtains of the front window to forestall expected visitors from ringing the chimes.

No indulgence, Hubert argued as he sank into his chair and placed the port at his elbow, should be paid to any spirit of the times. Cranmer had crafted a perfectly fine language for the rendering of worship and no one since, certainly not Auden—the naughty schoolboy whose jowls sagged more momentously than Hubert’s—had the taste to improve it. There is an inertia to human understanding which made futile, Hubert continued, further invention. An artwork is made once and for all, and so is a liturgy. He peered meaningfully across the room at his shelf of Khazakstan vases; the priest shrugged and peered into the dainty glass in his hands. That inertia, Hubert rumbled on, is the meaning of original sin.

“Well of course there’s original sin,” his wife agreed, her mind on a flowerpot and her potting knife, “but you can’t let it get you down.” She left Hubert and the priest to it. April was not the cruelest month; it was the potting and unpotting and uprooting month, the turning month and the month for driving to that wonderful garden store an hour away in Connecticut, the month for stopping at that wonderful restaurant that overlooked the lake from its terrace; the fresh, dark green paint of the boathouses sparkled from trim lots along the lawns of the shore. Arugula and balsamic vinegar, potted hare, crème fraiche and framboise. Every season offered its own mode to treat her lean body to its own delight.

On her way to the car, Hubert assured her that he would be available in the afternoon for the workman she’d hired. She sighed and insisted the shed be painted.

After an hour, the priest rushed out the door pursued by his collar. The long Sunday afternoon of mid-spring began its ambling course.

***

The two men trotting up Main Street that afternoon looked like Wall Street stockbrokers, or perhaps CPAs a little down on their luck. Ethel at the bus station deprecates this description, but I can only describe them as I saw them; I don’t know that I have ever seen any stockbrokers, successful or unsuccessful. I can only say that the two men talking at the corner of Main Street and Church Street were dressed conservatively, a bit old-fashioned perhaps—dowdy, says Ethel, as though agents of a capitalism that has never needed to reflect upon its existence or its goals. Ethel majored in Social Studies.

But they were, in fact, agents of the dreaded KGB.

Now let us not misunderstand. Those were different times. These were not the stockbrokers who prefer a power lunch of New Age cuisine, not the CPAs you meet in a well-appointed basement when you need to prepare your taxes. Nor were the bishops and archdeacons with whom Hubert contended the same ones you see at the altar for a local confirmation, the ones who have surrendered social activism for the sake of the simple word and the simple handshake after the processional. That heroic time is past; the new Prayer Book is accomplished, Hubert is in his grave, and the files of the KGB are open to any tourist enterprising enough to dare the streets of Moscow on a picnic. Putin is, of course, a wild card. But in those days the KGB were the shock troops of the evil empire; and the bishops were the shock troops of the ghetto.

And here they were, the KGB, on Main Street.

One had a beauty spot sparkling under his right eye. The other had a black hair, thick as a pig’s bristle, that stuck from the lobe of his left ear.

They were trotting up Main Street to attend the charity auction at the fire station. Ahead of them, waiting cautiously at the corner to cross the street, stood Willy.

He was a pale, heavy-set young man. Behind his trim glasses, his warm brown eyes moved up and down the street, watching for the car that would hit him as he stepped off the curb, as though he were a llama looking out for an avalanche; his lower lip drooped as he peered. It hadn’t hit him yet, not the car nor the avalanche—but you can’t be too careful, he told his wife. He was ridiculous, he knew, as he looked up and down again. He and Margaret had recently returned to our town, where he had been a student, to set up his law practice. He was the real thing, unlike the beauty spot and the bristle; he may as well have been a CPA.

As Willy crossed the street, he saw to his left—in a wet brown suit sagging on the bench in front of the New Age deli—the town drunk; and for a moment the thrill of his expectation seemed to die inside him. Everybody knew old Joe; nobody knew his story. Some things never get said. But Willy could feel it behind his back as he stood in the middle of the lanes—the heavy, voiceless sob of defeat and resignation, the conviction that you’re poor stuff, the post-middle-age sag of a hurt that could not be plumbed because somewhere behind that man’s back the hurt stood voiceless and faceless. And Willy knew that it was his hurt too, if he ever turned to face it. And if he could live without turning, he never would turn. That might have been his father. Sweat and booze stank together. You can’t let it get you down.

The fire station where the auction was held had a witch’s peaky hat perched atop the virtue of its volunteer status. The pale green fire trucks huddled in their places. A discrete good taste, which the fire prevention technicians swear is more visible on the roads, serves in the place of fire-engine red. Long formica tables and sagging bridge tables lined the parking lot in an unlikely formation.

Auctions for good causes are liable to be bores if you have a distinct idea what you want. Old chairs, which you think you should bid on—chairs cost so much these days, even when you don’t know a thing about caning; plastic baby mobiles, with greasy clowns leering down at the absent infant—early death syndrome, you suddenly think, and hate yourself; bureaus missing a drawer or a handle, bureaus that heirlooms get lost behind; many too many Readers Digests, a few books, the sensation of ten or forty years ago; tools, pick-axes, rusty saws, miter-boxes, gap-toothed rakes; zucchini cakes and carrot cakes, apple pies and muffins, several sorts of diet muffins, and diet brownies too.

Then the art table. Lladro figurines strung out in their etiolated yearning, squat Hummels, canvases and wire-constructions from first-year art classes, paintings on black velvet—toreros, stallions, high-blooded señoritas, and clowns. The auctioneer was expectant.

The llama wandered over to an elderly gentleman who looked like a flatfish. Two CPAs stood behind them.

The man of the woods looked up at them. His peasant eyes traversed them.

Looking over the tables of the art auction, Willy realized he was staring at the icon in front of him as though he had never seen such a thing before. Sometimes, when you see something for the first time, that first time emphasizes itself—puts itself so forward that not only is it the first time, but it feels like the last time, the most important time. You’re falling in love, you’re suffering the aesthetic experience. And you are standing in an auction which you attended for fun, not meaning to buy a blessed thing. You say to yourself without meaning to, “I’ve got to get it.” Or you turn to your wife, as the young man would have, and say, “I’m going to throw the money to heaven. Whatever it costs, it doesn’t matter. I’m going to throw the money to heaven.” He had a twenty dollar bill in his pocket and some small change, not bad in the early ’70s.

The painting was simple. The full-face, half torso of a man on a gold background. His robe, tunic, wrap, whatever it was, and the cope that hung off its collar were a deep brown, verging on black, and his bearded face was almost as deep. His eyes looked out of his long brow as though they had no need to see you, but they saw you and were not unkind; and as you looked at the eyes the gold background began to glow.

Perhaps it’s not right to call the color of the background golden. The thousand criss-cross fractures of age webbed it. It was paler than the gold we hold in our imaginations, pale like ivory or marble, the kind of color that falls away from you rather than comes forward. It glowed away from you, as if it were a light for somewhere else that you could inhabit if you chose. As if the color passed across the skin, Willy thought, of the exotic world, the Eurasian world, the sexual sniff of the asexual fantasy. Or as if it were the pink hint of dawn in the South-east, the first pulling away of the darkest moment of morning. An as-if color that could never find its home.

With a catch in his throat he thought how he would throw the money to heaven.

But he hadn’t counted on the effect of the icon on Hubert. Or its effect on the agents of the KGB. And you can’t throw money to heaven that you don’t have, even for the sake of a sumptuous, impeccable light.

“Did you ever see such a thing?” Willy wasn’t asking a question of course. Or he was asking himself, though he knew the answer. And if he had ever seen such a thing, it was not this thing, this moment.

“St. Sergius,” the flatfish said, “early fifteenth century, tempera, egg-yolk mixed with kvas, on a wood panel.”

“It’s a copy,” said the beauty spot.

“A cheap copy,” affirmed the bristle.

“Oh gentlemen,” Hubert said turning, “that’s all very well for you to say, but I have made a not insignificant career out of knowing these things. And I tell you it is early fifteenth century, perhaps from the hand of Rubljev himself.”

“Nonsense,” the two men chorused. But the antiphone of the CPAs was a little too swift, a little too emphatic, to be convincing. And Willy began to feel his heart moving in his chest as though an exploratory hand were settling its fingers on the organ to slowly pull it out later. It was too familiar a feeling—one he’d had too often in his life—of losing a battle before it had even begun. No one would let him throw his money to heaven. The car was going to hit him.

And that was the way it went. When the bidding came underway he had to drop out early. Hubert bid steadily, and the two agents bid steadily. A little interest began to stir among the rest of us who had come to bid on the chairs and mobiles and diet muffins. But in fairly short order the agents dropped out because, though they had a good deal of cash in their pockets, they had no funds in the local bank. As Hubert had.

Willy didn’t stay any longer. He turned to walk home with tears in his eyes. Crossing the street, he gave the twenty to the bum on the corner. Good old Joe. A square meal, some drinks, let him do what he wanted. The agents stayed to bid on a carton of paperbacks and to walk after Hubert as he left with the icon under his arm, wrapped in a brown sack. A few seagulls screamed from the peaked roof.

By the time they fly over our town, gulls get lost. They’re lonely and they scream, coming north, following the salt tidal bore of the river those seventy miles and then coming too far north. Every two or three days you see a gull circling and screaming that doesn’t know what to do. If you’re trying to find our town, that’s how you’ll find it, keeping an eye out for despondent gulls.

Willy and the agents, even poor Hubert if he ever let himself know it, felt lost. That’s what coming to an object like the icon of St. Sergius makes you feel.

For Willy, weak-blooded agnostic that he was, it carried the burden of the oblation of lights. And he’d never known such a burden before.

For Hubert, it was an academic object. But it was also, though he would have denied this and not recognized it, his childhood and an aftertaste of his mother, such as she was when he was a child, such as she is in the blinding morning-yellow light of his pinewood-panel heaven. The banners of the brown shirts flew through it, enlightened.

For the agents of the KGB, it was a duty. But it was also a spook of the past, a bit of the wreckage left by the ancien régime, and something in which the schizophrenic mind of Mother Russia took an inscrutable pride. St. Sergius was the peasant saint who lived in the woods; later, after he had founded his monastery, he was only to be found in the garden, hoeing and planting, hoeing and planting, sweating and never changing his coarse brown cloth while straggles of butterflies skipped around him.

And so all of them, Willy, Hubert, Ivan and Igor, imagine the space of the mother it carried: home, light, exaction, summons. They wanted to join it. But many things, as Hubert had discovered as a child, you can’t join. The party goes by without you.

They were all lost, and the gulls screamed shrill and lost for them.

Later that day the llama had his finger and his heart on the button of the chimes. He meant, he said later, to appeal to the man’s better nature, his sense of fair play. Walking home he had told the story of the auction to a friend who knew about Hubert, all about Hubert he said. Now Willy stood on Hubert’s porch, hoping that the flatfish would understand his passion.

“It’s you. I remember you, the very young man at the auction,” Hubert beamed as he opened the door. It’s a good bet he had spent some time looking through the curtain of the window before coming to the door.

“Yes, Mr. Reichenberg. My name is Will Collins, and I’d like to speak to you about the icon. If it’s at all possible, I’d like to buy it from you. There must be some way—”

“That icon, young man, is a work of art that demands responsibility from its owner.

“Well, sir—”

“Let me show you what I mean.” Hubert pulled the door back and motioned Willy inside with a gesture that bespoke its own magniloquence. “Let me show you…. Icons are very special; they come from special places and mean special things. They come clothed in their own particularities. These, for instance.”

He escorted Willy to the end of the living room where two icons of the theotokos hung by themselves on a wall consecrated to them and them alone, a private iconostasis that led to no altar.

“For instance, my young friend, can you tell me, of these two icons, which is the most interesting—that is to say, in its case, both the oldest and the most artistic?”

The embarrassment Willy felt in front of the two icons had very little to do with his ignorance. He hadn’t come to see these icons—neither of them meant anything like the icon of the auction, which was nowhere in sight. But if answering Hubert’s little test could bring him closer to his icon, he would do his best.

Two heads of the Virgin stared out at Willy, in their arms the two heads of the Christ child staring out also. They interrogated him in a dirty gold. God and mother looked past him.

But the longer he examined the two images and their frames, hoping the slightest of clues would help him (an apparent preoccupation, he had learned as a child, is the best defense), the harder his task seemed. It wasn’t simply that the two works seemed equal in his eyes. Hubert was right; he knew nothing about Russian art. But they seemed to him totally undistinguished. Since they weren’t his icon, they didn’t bear that light to him.

“It is difficult, isn’t it? But a connoisseur would identify the difference between the obrazi in a glance. Come along now, you’ll guess it surely.” One eye looked up, the other looked down. Hubert considered Socratic interrogation his profession, a way to hold the banners high.

But then Willy did guess, and he knew. There was a difference. The Virgin on the left, with colors more soiled, a shakier line in her draperies, with no virtues for which he would ever have chosen her, was the one—because Hubert was playing a game that he felt he would always win.

“Her,” Willy gestured.

Hubert floated back on his heels and held his head to the side. His ancient resemblance to the flatfish flapped for a moment on the surface of the seabed. But as he opened his mouth to speak, the chimes of the door ding donged their ditty again; he must, simply must, speak to Jane about those chimes.

He looked through the curtains. The beauty spot and the pig’s bristle stood on the porch. The pig’s bristle prodded the chimes. A purple paperback, jammed in the pocket of his tan suit, displayed itself under his elbow.

Willy had arrived before the two agents because they had become involved with their paperback treasures. Underneath Five Ways to a Firmer Chin, Desperados of Dry Gulch County, three Webster’s Collegiate Dictionaries, various Ace Doubles, and a Doctor Spock, they had found Sex Slaves of the Kalahari, I Was a Teenage Bimbette in the Balkans, and Naughty Nights in Norway. Inka performed feats of double jointed eroticism with birch-branches next to a steaming sauna. Tortured by the SS and the OGPU—the action was World War II, but the pig’s bristle was mystified how the Soviets had arrived—she came out on top in the end, to his pleasure. Inka dinka doo. The bristle was amazed; the simplicity of the action appealed to his idealism. The Soviet was short on such supplies. Crouching in the alley behind Hubert’s, they found it hard to put the materials aside.

But Igor and Ivan were expeditious. As soon as Hubert opened the door, the two agents bundled him up with his young friend, slapped tape on their mouths, wrists, and ankles, and sat them down under the Khazakstan vases.

Then they looked their prisoners up and down.

Down and up. You understand.

Then they slapped them about a bit.

“So.” Igor drew out the “z” and the “o” for all the play they provided. “You will tell us about the icon.” He and the beauty spot had learned the necessity of modeling themselves on the movies.

Hubert shook his head.

They called him a jew, a shit, an émigré. They shouted. It was all as it ought to be. They said it was very serious.

But as the beauty spot and the pig’s bristle smiled and drew back their fists, glittering with that inner beauty of contentment that only a sadist can possess as more pain begins to blossom from the silent mouths of the world, even a mouth as warty as Hubert’s, the chimes rang. Hubert groaned. The next week he would insist to Jane that the chimes had to go.

The chimes rang and the chimes rang.

Hubert only shook his head to Igor’s insistent question who the fool was out there. But Hubert knew.

For three minutes there was not a sound. And Igor and Ivan bent over Hubert again. But now the professor nodded his head wildly, and the agent tore the tape from his mouth.

“Upstairs, in my bedroom, on the bureau” he whispered. And in a great silence, tears began to well up from his eyes as though from a round spring of deep and pure water. Ivan replaced the tape and disappeared up the stairs. The pig’s bristle sat down beneath a rococo pastel that had been Jane’s triumphant acquisition on her first trip to Europe. Ivan came down with the icon, grinning, holding it out for everyone in the room to see, like a new arrival in a gallery. Then there was a pounding on the door.

Igor shrugged and took the doorknob in his hand; his nose twitched. A scent of fir entered the room, as though they were suddenly in the middle of deep deep woods in the far North. And to the scent of fir a drench of sweat and cheap wine, maybe some vomit, added itself. Ivan and Igor looked quizzical, their square faces squinched up; Willy gagged. Like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Ivan swung the icon behind his back.

Igor opened the door to old Joe. A brown butterfly flapped past him and settled on the lampshade. If Hubert had not been pre-occupied he would have looked for the fly-swatter.

“Where’s the paint?” The words wobbled out and might as well have been, “Where’s the pint?”

Igor looked him up and down. “We don’t need you.”

“Sure you need me. You called me.”

Igor argued, old Joe argued, and while they argued Willy, Hubert, and Ivan watched, fascinated. The room was shaking in the sunken light that suddenly happens in a late afternoon in spring when the sun goes behind a cloud; pink and gold clouds stretched across the window. Old Joe fought for his job, sodden and determined, like a walrus in rut rubbing its belly into its personal stretch of a rocky, barren beach. He said they had to take him just as they found him. He said Hubert had promised him, that every promise has to be kept. He said it was open and shut. And though his eyes went back and forth, up and down the room like the gyroscopes of a ship in high seas, he never seemed to look at anyone. The tape on the mouths of the flatfish and the llama made no impression. The room seethed in cross-purposes.

As for Hubert, he didn’t see old Joe. He saw a flatfish hung out to desiccate and dance in the windy sun, its bones poking through its greasy brown scales, its warty mouth the blue pallor of zyklon-b. He almost fainted.

Willy only saw old Joe, a very mild old Joe who knew what his life was about. He didn’t shout, he didn’t argue. He said he was standing on holy ground, that it would all open up, that he would paint the shed for them whether they wanted it painted or not, that he would paint anything.

The pig’s bristle saw St. Sergius and said so; the beauty spot saw a bum. And he added, “If I thought you believed in something like that, I’d never have consented to our partnership.”

“It’s not that I believe anything, just listen to the man. Look at him. Smell him.”

“I think it’s time for us to go.”

Old Joe pressed his finger to his nose and winked. “I think it’s time for a drink,” he suggested, “We’ll all go together.”

And that was that. Old Joe, still talking, went out the door with the two agents. To Igor it was as though in ten years—that’s what the sodden face in the cope asserted—his time would come round, but only on the holy ground of Russia, never in a place of polity, never where the canon is subject to change. You had to keep your promises. Never, the saint spat, in a hemisphere where the filioque slips in like a thief in the night. Old Joe was getting belligerent; saints do that. Hubert heard the voice trailing off in the distance of the April evening. And then he remembered that Jane would be home soon.

He was frantic. Between his embarrassed fluttering and Willy’s bemused fumbling it took some time for the two of them to free themselves. Had the beauty spot and the pig’s bristle taken the icon, or hadn’t they? Hubert couldn’t remember. He rushed upstairs and found it, still full of the as-if light, still half-smiling, still full of mother, leaning against the mirror of his bureau. He couldn’t bear it.

Coming downstairs with it cradled in his arms, he found Willy staring at the mothers of god on the wall. Hubert grunted and gestured; it was hard to speak. He held the icon out to Willy, told him to be quiet, very quiet, and get out. Willy left in a daze; Margaret thought he had made a wonderful purchase. Twenty dollars, that wasn’t bad.

A week later, when Jane found the icon lying in the dust behind the bureau and hung it in the living room, Hubert said no more than that he’d bought it weeks before, wondered how it could have ever gotten there, and accepted its light as light. But ever after he avoided the sight of Willy; he would never trust him to exercise Hooker’s harmless discretion.

It’s all very odd. When Willy asked old Joe what happened that afternoon, the man stared and swore he had never gotten to Hubert’s, that he had taken Willy’s twenty for a small binge that left him stupefied in the woods, under some old evergreens. But no one saw him that day, after the auction, so Willy supposed the old man might as well have heaved himself out of his stupor and appeared at the flatfish’s without his ever remembering. The man in the doorway was not at all sober. Whoever it was. There was certainly a man in the doorway.

As for the people of the town, the day remained memorable if only because, for a ridiculous amount of money, Hubert had outbid two other men for a black velvet painting of Emmett Kelly mooning over a broken daisy. Willy has heard the rumor and laughs.

“If you take me along,” the man in the doorway said, “it will all open up.”

Or perhaps he said, “There will be a multiplication of lights.”

He was right. Ivan returned to Moscow with the icon, which the curators at Holy Trinity monastery certified to be of the hand of Rubljev; though a certain amount of his knowledge was spurious or bluff, Hubert would never have been wrong about such a thing. Igor, realizing that his babble about saints was not the sort of thing to endear him to his controls, stayed in America. Once a week he cuts the pig’s bristle sticking out of his ear with a steel gadget he bought at Walmart. Once a month he opens his copy of Naughty Nights in Norway; Inka dances atop the pole of an old peasant, his rough cloth pulled up to his chest. Blesséd saints! It’s poor stuff, sure, but the scent of fir envelops Igor; butterflies pour past the window.

“Hey, big guy,” she whispers, “you wanna party?”

Robert Waugh, outside of writing, which comes as it will—whether poems, weird stories, or literary criticism—invites his soul, being retired. He and his wife travel. He walks the dog and watches the river. He reads a great variety of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It is no secret that he has written extensively on H. P. Lovecraft.

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