I’m taking an independent study course, which means I determine the syllabus and reading list and just meet with a professor once every other week to talk about it. The course is on early horror fiction, and the syllabus was inspired by my desire to read some of the authors who preceded and influenced H.P. Lovecraft. The list includes E.T.A. Hoffman, Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and other authors that are revered in horror circles but forgotten in most others.
The class has made me examine my fondness for Lovecraft. Coincidentally, Salon magazine recently published an article on Lovecraft in honor of his induction into the Library of America. While I respect the author, Laura Miller, the article rather damns him with faint praise (the subheading, which probably wasn’t written by Miller, calls Lovecraft “America’s greatest bad writer”).1
Miller rehashes a lot of armchair psychoanalysis regarding Lovecraft and his work. This surprises me a bit, since the current lit-crit establishment, while being very interested in the historical context of a work, seems to be maintaining its New Criticism aversion to allowing an author’s life to reflect (in a significant degree) on his work. Lovecraft was an odd duck, no question. But the tendency to view his work in a biographical context (Freud is often mentioned) seems have become a bit ghoulish.
Fortunately, Lovecraft’s supporters raise a spirited defense. One letter-writer, Tom Grant, gets in a good shot: “[W]ithout any sense of irony, Salon has printed article after article about the presumed genius of J.R.R. Tolkien.” I’d argue that many of those articles did have irony–few so-called intellectuals (myself included) will defend their penchant for something popular without qualification–but Grant makes a good point.
While the article is ambiguous in its assessment of Lovecraft, Miller does touch on one thing about Lovecraft that I’ve been thinking about lately: his stories aren’t scary.
I recently came across a transcript of a symposium on Lovecraft from the early sixties. The panel members included Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch. At one point, someone asked whether Lovecraft actually scared anyone. A few people said he did (Leiber, for one) but the general consensus was no, Lovecraft wasn’t scary.
I agree. For one thing, he’s always giving away his endings through his use of the “as if” or “seemed like” clauses.2 Once you know the ending of a Lovecraft story, it loses most of its suspense, and Lovecraft constantly spoils his own plot. Here’s an example from “The Dunwich Horror”:
Dr. Armitage, associating what he was reading with what he had heard of Dunwich and its brooding presences, and of Wilbur Whateley and his dim, hideous aura that stretched from a dubious birth to a cloud of probable matricide, felt a wave of fright as tangible as a draught of the tomb’s cold clamminess. The bent, goatish giant [i.e., Whateley–JFCC] before him seemed like the spawn of another planet or dimension; like something only partly of mankind, and linked to black gulfs of essence and entity that stretch like titan phantasms beyond all spheres of force and matter, space and time.
Naturally, all of Dr. Armitage’s wild speculation turns out to be accurate.
But this isn’t Lovecraft’s only problem. As Miller points out, piling on the obscure Anglophone adjectives doesn’t a creepy story make. But I think the real problem is regarding Lovecraft as a “horror” writer at all.
As a writer of horror stories, Lovecraft never impressed me; but as a science fiction writer, his influence is strong. Lovecraft bridged the gap–or perhaps found the middle ground–between Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells, with a little Arthur C. Clarke thrown in. All his beasties–Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, the Elder Things–are technically extradimensional creatures or space aliens, not supernatural demons. Whereas Poe, Bierce and HPL’s other predecessors confined themselves to the psychological and (less often) supernatural in their horror tales, it was Lovecraft who pioneered the realm of “science horror.” Without Lovecraft, there might be no Alien.
My attempts to write like Lovecraft3 have been pretty unsuccessful. He can be parodied (as I intend to do, lovingly, in Tales of Atreval), but not imitated. He’s too intellectually and philosophically idiosyncratic. His writing does tend to be overwrought. To my admittedly inexperienced writerly eye, he seems to have approached the craft of fiction writing from a theoretical, almost scientific standpoint–reading the stories of his favorite authors and then mixing and matching their stylistic templates to build his own. Lovecraft designed his stories carefully (if not always sucessfully) to achieve particular “effects,” but his thin characters, dense prose, and general paucity of dialogue can become wearisome–to write, at least; I have a much better tolerance for reading his work than trying to write like it.
I admire Lovecraft for the way he struggled with modernity, for his pained depiction of a universe in which humanity has little or no significance, but most of all, for his marvelously imaginative cosmogony. How can I not love the creator of such a bizarre pantheon of alien demigods, with names like Great Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, and the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep? Lovecraft is deserving of his legacy, in all its dichotomous glory.
1 I object! I think Lovecraft at least deserves to be called America’s worst good writer.
2 Tzvetan Todorov discusses this weird tale tradition in depth in The Fantastic.
3 In addition to the recently-shelved “Advanced Operators,” those would be “The Black Cloth” and “The Burying Ground” for you future biographers.