On Vermis and Bob Price
Bill Long 6/11/08
The Journeys Of Words
While studying for the 2008 National Spelling Bee (for those of us over 50 years old), I came across the word vermis, which I could probably spell easily enough but decided to put on my growing list of words for this year. The word derives from the Latin word vermis, meaning "worm." Something vermiform is shaped like a worm; vermiparous means "breeding worms;" and vermivorous means "feeding on worms." Synonyms for the last word are erucivorous and campophagous [though an eruca is really a caterpillar in Latin; the Greek term for caterpillar is kompe. Thus erucivorous=campophagous; it is another of the type of dual language words I love, such as piscivorous=ichthyophagous]. But the word vermis in English means "the vermiform process of the cerebellum." I guess it, like most of the brain, looks like a bunch of worms crawling around.
But this simple observation didn't end my quest. Indeed, it only began it. A further web search on "vermis" turned up reference to a book called De Vermis Mysteriis, reputed to be an occult book written centuries ago but, in fact, referred to in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, a Providence (RI)-born writer who died in 1937. More to the point, Lovecraft, who grew up only a few blocks from where I lived in Providence during my days at Brown University, was an author of horror books whose work wasn't much appreciated in his lifetime (1890-1937) but is growing in popularity more than 70 years after his death. Lovecraft had a sort of "circle" of writers he influenced, especially relating to his Cthulhu Mythos, "a series of loosely interconnected fictions featuring a pantheon of human-nullifying entities, as well as the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire of magical rites and forbidden lore."
The youngest member of Lovecraft's circle was Robert Bloch (1917-94), who, while still in his teens, wrote a short story "The Shambler from the Stars" (1935), in which a character reads a passage from the book and accidentally summons a supernatural horror. Bloch wrote to Lovecraft about his work, Lovecraft responded favorably and suggested that the book featured in Bloch's story (called Mysteries of the Worm) be referred to instead by its Latin equivalent De Vermis Mysteriis. So, there you have the origin of this (fictional) book.
As this article tells us, the "Shambler from the Stars" says that De Vermis was the work of a Ludwig Prinn, an alchemist and necromancer of the late Middle Ages who was supposely burned at the stake in Brussels. But, there is no indication of course that it originated anywhere else than the fertile mind of the young Bloch.
What Does Bob Price Have to Do With It?
So, while engaged in this new world for me, trying to learn as much about Lovecraft and his "grimoire" vision, I ran across several references to Robert M. Price, a contemporary religious writer who is one of Lovecraft's biggest fans today. Then, it dawned on me--yes, it is that Bob Price, a guy whom I attended theological seminary with in the late 1970s in Massachusetts. Bob was quite a guy when you met him; socially inadept but overflowing with all kinds of interesting arcane knowledge about the world and about possible hidden meanings or code meanings in the Bible or early Christian history. We were both students at an Evangelical seminary (Gordon-Conwell, in South Hamilton, MA), and both of us were gradually drifting away from the Evangelical moorings to which we had been tethered for some time. Bob was a Southerner come North to NJ for college; his Evangelicalism was probably more deeply rooted than mine, which only took life in me in the late 1960s. When we talked together he was always animated by an improbable explanation of some New Testament name or event. I was amused and entertained by Bob's vision and obvious intelligence, and I wondered how long he could stay true to the Evangelical vision.
Well, apparently not too long. As his web site tells us, he left orthodox Christianity in the early 1990s, after earning two doctorates (in New Testament and Theology--why do you need two in such closely-related fields?) from Drew Univ. in NJ. But it seems that Christianity has stuck its claws into him even deeper than it has me, for even though he has separated himself from orthodox Christianity, it seems like a burr under his saddle to get him up in the morning and send him to his work. But he has devoted a good deal of effort to understanding Lovecraft.
Thus, this little word vermis, just one more word I need and want to know for my Bee, took me on a trip that not only stimulated memories of Gordon-Conwell, but of Brown University and Providence, RI and of the vast swatches of imaginative horror literature of which I am pretty ignorant. I loved the journey. On which journeys do your words take you?