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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Reading H.P. Lovecraft for the First Time (Part Two) 

I've completed my project to read the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, all but 3 or 4 of which I had never read before. (I'm done at least for now; I've not read everything — there are additional collaborative 'revisions', many poems, and several volumes of letters, essays, etc. But I have read all the stories included in the generally available anthologies of HPL's works, which for my own tracking I compiled in a table plotting which stories are in which books. I've converted the table to html and posted it here.)

So what did I think? There's little point in my trying to describe HPL's writing, his style or themes, since he's obviously one of the most reprinted, read, discussed, and analyzed fantasy/horror writers in history. Between his reputation and the few stories I'd read before this, I knew what I was getting into, so I wasn't dissuaded by the stylistic excesses, not even at the beginning. To answer a comment to the earlier post, yes I did start from the beginning and read my way chronologically (with only a few excursions) from the earliest stories to the last. It's fascinating seeing themes recur and combine that way — I had the impression about 2/3 of the way through that HPL made a deliberate decision to combine thematic threads from his various types of stories so that everything interconnected, the dreamscapes and grave-diggers and Cthulhu Mythos histories, in much the way Isaac Asimov did late in his career (to some derision) with his robots and empires. More than just stylistically and temperamentally, all HPL stories are of a piece.

Frankly a couple of the reasons I started the project were pragmatic. At some point I picked up one of the Ballantine collections and read or reread a couple of the stories, and then read a couple more the next day, and so on. All the early stories are quite short — 5 or 12 pages. It was like eating jellybeans. That was good, or at least weird; I'll have another. A second reason was that the texts of all the stories could be found online (albeit in uncorrected, frequently typo-ridden form), to be read electronically in situations where it wasn't practical to read a physical book. And a third reason for becoming systematic about this project was that it seemed reasonable to get through everything by HPL within just a few weeks, even for a reader who's slow or has at best an hour or so per day to read. That is, the HPL corpus is manageable, unlike those of many more prolific or longer-lived authors; all of HPL's significant stories fit in 3 books. (As for what prompted me to pick up an HPL book in the first place, I'll mention that in a later entry.)

The attraction of HPL's stories, even the early ones, is first in the power of the authorial style, with its ornate descriptiveness and the relentlessness of its narrative, of block after block of sturdy paragraphs uninterrupted by dramatic interaction or character dialogue (with rare exceptions). Then there is the obsessive worldview that presupposes the existence of worlds unknown or unperceived by humans, and that experiencing these realms — especially as revealed through methods of science — would drive men insane. That idea of a hidden world, along with the macabre nature of many of the stories, is perhaps what draws the prototypical 12-year-olds to HPL's works. What strikes me, either due to a differing philosophical temperament, or the fact that I'm a bit past 12 years old, is that this presumption about the nature of reality is so far from the default presumption of much science fiction — which senses wonder about the universe, not horror. (When I was 12, I discovered and read everything I could find by Arthur C. Clarke...)

After finishing the stories I read the introductions to a dozen or so of the currently available collections, as well as Michel Houellebecq's H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (which is a short 100-page essay padded out in the book by two HPL stories) and HPL's own essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature", so I have a basic idea of where HPL was coming from and what the consensus among commentators is about how his life and literary development interweave. (A few notes on the commentators below.) After all that I do have what is perhaps an original thought, and it pertains to why HPL is still so popular and now even endorsed by such literary establishments as Joyce Carol Oates and the Library of America.

Is it because HPL reveals the 'real' world — especially via the methods of science, from Crawford Tillinghast's gizmo in "From Beyond" to the archaeological explorations of the later major stories — as a world that's a threat to human composure and sanity, a hideous truth inimical to human values? A couple commentators note that HPL's popularity grew after the World Wars in response to disillusionment about rationality and the consequences of science, and it seems to me the retreat from the real and rational has only increased in recent decades, with progressive distrust and disavowal of scientific results, especially by American religious fundamentalists who find the implications of evolution hideous and evidence of the big bang contrary to scripture. Is this also why HPL's themes continue to strike a chord in many readers, perhaps even explaining the willingness of the literary establishment, which has always been skeptical about the processes and values of science, to canonize him?

Finally, a few comments about the commentators, mostly in the introductions to in-print HPL editions, for those readers who may not have pursued the various in-print collections even if they're familiar with HPL's stories. Robert Bloch's introduction to the first Arkham House volume, THE DUNWICH HORROR, provides a basic bio, protests too much about Ted White's dismissal of HPL's writing as "sick", and rather embarrassingly forgives HPL's racism as a product of the time and suggests that HPL has had more influence on other writers than any contemporary except Hemingway. Hmm.

James Turner's intro to Arkham House #2, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, is considerably more insightful about the "progressive humanization" of HPL's life, noting also the shift in his political beliefs late in life, and the significance to his life and career of his 2-year stay in NYC.

T.E.D. Klein's intro to Arkham House volume 3, DAGON, is even more penetrating and suggestive about the influence on HPL of Dunsany, Machen, and others, and very perceptive in the way he traces HPL's themes even as they changed to return to Dunsany later in his career.

Joyce Carol Oates' intro to TALES OF H.P. LOVECRAFT persists in calling his stories "gothic tales". She compares HPL to Poe at length, and stresses his interest in the cosmic and impersonal.

China Mieville's intro to the Modern Library edition of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (the book also includes HPL's long essay) is notable for pointing out the influence on HPL of Oswald Spengler, whose historical theory about the rise and fall of cultures greatly influenced some of the later stories. He also discusses how HPL's racism and politics (of course) are reflected in those stories; e.g., the Shoggoth is depicted as a subway train of myriad eyes, just like a real train of working class multi-racial masses.

I didn't realize until late in this game that the recent Penguin anthologies edited by S.T. Joshi have lengthy footnotes to all the stories, explaining obscure references and providing background on the writing of each, or I might have followed along with them as I read. The intros tend to focus on details at the expense of general overview, but some of the details are fascinating — e.g., the way "The Shadow Out of Time" responds in part to what HPL thought were flaws in a 1933 film called Berkeley Square.

Andrew Wheeler's intro to the SFBC collection BLACK SEAS OF INFINITY provides only a brief overview, but the book is notable for including two short HPL essays (a bio and his tips on writing) plus two of HPL's collaborations not included in any other collection (except for the Arkham House volume of nothing but collaborations and 'revisions'). I agree with Wheeler that "The Mound" is a major story — a long and fascinating exploration of an alien culture, almost on par with "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow Out of Time". (I was less thrilled with "Winged Death", which struck me as even more predictable and less plausible than most HPL stories.)

Houellebecq's essay "Against the World, Against Life" wanders through various HPL themes before coming into sharp focus in its last third, as Houellebecq describes how HPL's racism was exacerbated by his stay in NY, and explaining how nevertheless those strong feelings were transformed and provided the power of his subsequent "great texts" written after his return to Providence. (And if some of the racist passages in his stories seem extreme, his letters, from which Houellebecq quotes, were more so.) Houellebecq says "Every great passion, be it love or hate, will in the end generate an authentic work", and he makes the case that HPL is a prime example.
Comments:
I agree with many of your impressions of Lovecraft. He put forward his own version of an Aristotelian ideal. I am surprised that Joseph Campbell never (at least I don't believe he did) comment on Lovecraft's work, finding some resonance of truth in the mythos. Your view of Lovecraft's popularity as a response to human anxiety or fascination with war can be applied to most trends in horror.

Thanks for the posting. Interesting.
 
Hey Mark,

Great post. Not sure I COMPLETELY agree with your insight into why he's popular (I'm not a fundamentalist, and have no problem with evolution, but I sure as hell found HP's world view scary anyway), but it got me thinking.

I enjoyed your insights, but I admit I'm disappointed that you never got around to revealing if you enjoyed the work or not. You spent so much time speculating why others found him popular that I was never really able to glean your own opinion. If it weren't for this almost accidental reference:

>I agree with Wheeler that "The
> Mound" is a major story — a long
> and fascinating exploration of
>an alien culture, almost on par
>with "At the Mountains of
>Madness" and "The Shadow Out of Time"

I would have finished your review believing you were completely unimpressed. It's like you read HPL's fiction, and then wrote a review of the man.

What _did_ you think of the stories?? Do any deserve to be labeled masterpieces? Were you as stunned by "Shadow Out of Time" as I was? (it was the only write-in vote I used on Locus' last All Time Best Short Story poll). Fess up!

- John
 
It's quite amazing what a long shadow Lovecraft and his "Cthulhu Mythos" has cast over popular culture -- other writers, movies, comics, books, computer games....

On my Nintendo Gamecube, my favorite spooky game Resident Evil 4 contains obvious Lovecraft influences. And it's made in Japan!
 
Mark,
You're a better man than I am. Some years ago, I also set out to read the entire HPL ouevre, after my youthful reading of him had left me cold. I figured that with greater maturity and literary sophistication, I would appreciate him. After all, a lot of knowledgeable critics seemed to be rediscovering (and enjoying?)him. I even bought the entire Arkham House set, in order to have the definitive versions and all that.

In short, the experiment was a disaster. I found that I had apparently not "matured" after all, as his prose was still as ponderous and his scenarios still as preposterous as ever. If there is any meaning to Lovecraft beyond an elaborate and byzantine presentation of his active schizoid fantasy life, I don't know what it is. Maybe there is a depth here that I am intellectually unable to perceive. I'll grant the possibility. But all I can see, on the surface at least, is a murky and impenetrable swirl of images and ideas which communicate nothing to me, beyond a superficial insight into HPL's psyche which is of only passing interest.

Anyway, I congratulate you on your perseverance. Your review is interesting and well-written -- and even scholarly. But, as another reader has also asked, what did you really think of the stories themselves? As science fiction and/or fantasy, how do they measure up? Would you recommend them to today's readers? I hope you'll address some of these questions in a subsequent column. I'll look forward to reading it.
Carl Glover
 
Carl Glover wrote:

I found that I had apparently not "matured" after all, as his prose was still as ponderous and his scenarios still as preposterous as ever.

Ouch. Carl, which stories did you read? I have to admit that I felt the same way about a few, especially his early work. But I still consider "Call of Cthulhu" and "Shadow Out of Time" masterpieces.

- John
 
John,
Well, okay, I'll grant that "The Call of Cthulhu" is not all that bad, and a few others are tolerable. I do recognize that HPL made some sort of original contribution to fantastic literature, but I've never been able to quite figure out what it is. I'll have to leave that to smarter people than I. I just know that he doesn't arouse in me the emotional response of fear and dread that's necessary to fully appreciate this sort of writing. And that's strictly a matter of personal taste.

Thanks for your comments!
 
In all honesty, I don't feel dread when reading Lovecraft -- more like patches of fascination mixed with stretches of boredom -- a few "Whoa!"s between long passages of "Yawn..."

Maybe readers felt a stronger dread when the stories were new and reflected the anxieties of the 1920s and 1930s. I have no idea.

When you get past the often awful prose and the total lack of credible characters (and women), the most impressive feature of Lovecraft's stories is a pervading sense of vast stretches of time and space, of distortions of spacetime and reality -- perhaps a precursor to what Philip K. Dick would do to reality some 20 years later.

I wonder how HPL's writing, life and career would have developed differently, if only he had been a better writer -- and a saner person. Or is that futile thinking?
:-S
 
Yes, that is futile thinking. When dealing with writers like Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, it's important to accord them the same courtesy as reading Hammett, Chandler, and even Fitzgerald and Hemingway: consider the time and place. I think it's essential to viewing the work in that context--otherwise, you will miss things.

I think Lovecraft works best on modern teenagers, most of whom are incapable of seeing past their own nose or seeing past next week, whichever is shorter. During the time in which your universe revolves around what so-and-so wrote in that note that made everyone snicker and look at you, finding out that you are a cosmic speck of dust in the eye of an uncaring, alien god can be pretty unnerving.
 
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