Tuesday, October 22, 2013

American Literary Smellscapes: Sheehan’s Pool Room

I’m beginning to think that H.P. Lovecraft was quite the olfactory-minded artist. He certainly was smell-aware, based on the first six stories in The Complete Works, which I’m reading front to back to work up a frisson of creepiness for Halloween.

Lovecraft’s story Old Bugs was written in 1919—at the dawn of Prohibition—but set in the future of 1950. Its combination of moodiness, detail, and a Big Reveal reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here’s how it starts:
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 in 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. But the popularity of Sheehan’s remains unimpaired; and for this there is a reason—a reason obvious to anyone who will take the trouble to analyse the mixed stenches prevailing there. 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.
H.P. Lovecraft
Old Bugs (1919)

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