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The Hideous Unknown of H.P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft; drawing by David Levine

1.

For adolescents, something about horror never goes out of style. They often feel an excited disgust upon learning how things really are, and their disgust is merely a notch away from the more thoroughgoing pleasures of horror. It is the closest they can come to the sublime.

Every teacher of creative writing in every American college and university is no doubt familiar with the tendency of young people, usually young men, to concoct gruesome narratives that take place in an edgily unspecified locale. Mayhem, awkward sentences, paper-thin characterizations, and complicated weaponry vie for the reader’s attention. But always there are the aliens, organic or machinelike or both, and always the accompanying rage and revulsion.

The authors of these horrific fictions sit in the back of the classroom avoiding eye contact, rarely speaking to anybody. Shabbily dressed, fidgety, tattooed, hysterically sullen, they are bored by realism and reality when not actively hostile to both. When asked about their reading, they will gamely mumble the usual list of names: Neal Stephenson, Stephen King, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. But the name that I have heard most often mentioned in these litanies is that of H.P. Lovecraft, whom they revere. He is their spirit-guide.

And they should not be dismissed. Two horror classics were written by teenagers: Mary Shelley began Frankenstein at the age of eighteen, and Matthew Gregory Lewis wrote The Monk (1796) in ten weeks at the age of nineteen. John Berryman thought it more authoritative about damnation than Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.1

As for Lovecraft, who died in 1937 at the age of forty-six, he never really grew up. “Adulthood is hell,” he once wrote in a letter. Like his character Randolph Carter, “he wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and yearned for the days of his childhood.” His fiction’s familiar condition—fear inspired by shock—is characteristic of early adolescence. Wild imaginings and panic-stricken rhetoric, two features of his work, stem from his anathematizing of day-to-day adult reality and can cast a spell over many susceptible readers, who look up from his pages feeling oddly disturbed and dazed.

The effectiveness of Lovecraft’s fiction has little to do with its purely literary qualities, which are minimal (Michel Houellebecq claimed that Lovecraft’s work was “not really literary”), but with another feature that’s harder to pinpoint: the ways it casts a spell. Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it. Though sometimes stagy, the intensity in Lovecraft’s stories does not seem fake. Closing the book, the initiate tries to find other readers who were similarly spellbound. A cult is formed, as if to combat post-traumatic stress. From generation to generation the cult grows.

By contrast, readers of a certain age who come to Lovecraft for the first time may remember Tolstoy’s remark about Leonid Andreyev: “He tries to frighten me, but I am not afraid.”

The new volume of his stories, approximately the size and heft of the Manhattan telephone directory, is a curious production, like something imagined by Borges. Stories that first appeared in pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales are carefully annotated here, with footnoted and illustrated explanations appearing in the margins. Because the bookish Lovecraft had an antiquarian side, along with a taste for the esoteric and the arcane, the explanations—of prolate spheroids, sigillaria, calamites, the Archaeozoic era, Otaheite, the Pilbara region, the Clavis Majoris Sapientiae, and many, many other locales and phenomena—are helpful. But the effect is like having a friendly and obliging professor whispering learned asides all through a blood-spattered grind-house movie.

And the footnotes, like a worm-shaped entity in a Lovecraft story, begin to take on their own life, climbing down the left-hand and right-hand margins and sometimes, when much explanation is required, crawling ahead of the text by several pages. The reader in search of enlightenment may find himself paging back and forth, peering at illustrations that are sometimes too small to be construed without a good magnifying glass. The effect is to throw the reader out of the story into a speculative realm concerning the author of these self-described “weird” tales. What on earth (or elsewhere) is the source of these imaginings, and why is the crisis rhetoric so similar from one tale to the next?

Born in Providence in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a near contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work, along with the books of most of his better-known contemporaries, he seems never to have read. “I do not think that any realism is beautiful,” he once wrote. His father had a breakdown in 1893 and had to be committed to an asylum, Butler Hospital, dying five years later of tertiary syphilis.2 In 1919 Lovecraft’s mother followed her late husband into the same Butler Hospital, complaining about “weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings.” Madness, not realism, ran in the family, and Lovecraft himself suffered what all the accounts label a “nervous breakdown” in 1908 when he turned eighteen. For a time he could not get out of bed during the daytime and spoke only to his mother.

Even Lovecraft’s indefatigable biographer S.T. Joshi claims bafflement about this period in the writer’s life. For at least five years Lovecraft languished with some sort of emotional disability. “It is the only time,” Joshi writes, “when we do not have a significant amount of information on what he was doing from day to day, who his friends and associates were, and what he was writing.” What we do know is that when he emerged from this period, Lovecraft began to write poems. Some of them, such as the virtually unprintable “On the Creation of Niggers,” are pathologically racist.

Racism is not incidental to Lovecraft’s vision but is persistent and essential to it. Ethnic minorities and monsters are, for him, often interchangeable. In his stories it is not unusual for a character to undergo a transformation into a creature from whom all humanity has been leached out, turning him into a foreign-seeming thing, an immigrant, whose attributes are both unpredictable and repellent.

A stranger to joy, Lovecraft had the timid shut-in’s phobia of difference, variety, and diversity, with the result that the category of the “alien” is for him remarkably capacious. It comprises outer-space creatures, Italian immigrants, Jews, and women. Accordingly, his fear of others, or as we say now, “The Other,” often manifested itself as eloquent hatred that cannot find any release from its own obsession. The dividing line between human and inhuman feels remarkably thin in Lovecraft’s work, and in his letters he is capable of describing the residents of the Lower East Side as if they were swamp creatures from beyond Mars:

The organic things—Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid—inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities.

Nor does he restrict his views to his private correspondence. In the stories, the reader keeps running into this sort of characterization:

The negro had been knocked out, and moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.

(“Herbert West: Reanimator”)

The annotational gloss on this passage is as follows: “Lovecraft had a deep-seated abhorrence of blacks, Jews, southern Italians, Portuguese, Poles, Mexicans, French Canadians, and virtually every other race that was not ‘light-skinned Nordic.’” Elsewhere Klinger notes that Lovecraft’s “support of Hitler’s eugenic programs, including the ‘racial cleansing’ advocated by Ernst Rüdin and others, is well known.” This reader had not known it but upon being informed was not particularly surprised. In his photographs, Lovecraft may look like an epicene headmaster of a second-rate New England boys’ boarding school, but in his letters and stories, when the subject is racial purity, he sounds like a skinhead.

Mixed in with the racism is the inevitable misogyny, which is not scary but horrifying. Progressing through the eight hundred pages of The Annotated Lovecraft, the reader is likely to notice the general absence of women and of any female protagonists. The stories are peopled almost exclusively by frightened males. When women do appear, they often look like crones (“The Dreams in the Witch House”) or worse, much worse. The raucous woman-hatred of “The Thing on the Doorstep” results in a character, Asenath Waite, from whom dogs flee and who is introduced as “very good-looking except for overprotuberant eyes; but something in her expression alienated extremely sensitive people.” Five pages later, her “whole aspect seemed to gain a vague, unplaceable repulsiveness.” In her wake she leaves a lingering, “detestable stench,” “stench” being a much-favored word in the Lovecraft oeuvre.

What does Asenath Waite want? What does any woman, in Lovecraft, want? “She wanted to be a man,” and, in pursuit of this enterprise, “constantly took his body and went to nameless places for nameless rites, leaving him in her body and locking him upstairs”—shades of Jane Eyre.

In 1924 Lovecraft, somewhat against the odds, married. The marriage lasted for ten months until his wife, Sonia Greene, who was Jewish, left New York, her destination being Cincinnati, for a department store job. He did not follow her. She returned to Lovecraft the following year for a month, before departing to Saratoga Springs for a rest cure. The recitation of these sadly comical details would have no bearing on the stories were it not for the attributes of Lovecraft’s monsters, which tend to be gynecological in their outline and in their particulars. Cutting through the sublimation, Stephen King has noted that when Cthulhu—one of Lovecraft’s central monsters—“makes one of its appearances in Lovecraft’s tales, we are witnessing a gigantic, tentacle-equipped, killer vagina from beyond space and time.” He notes that such stories as “The Dunwich Horror” and “At the Mountains of Madness” are, arguably, “about sex and little else.”

Beyond the peculiarities of Lovecraft’s vision is his writing style. Edmund Wilson was one of the first to note the pile-up of adjectives in Lovecraft’s sentences and the ubiquitous hyperinflated tone. “The only horror,” Wilson writes, “is the horror of bad taste and bad art.”

But Lovecraft’s writing included several other faults not noted by Edmund Wilson. There is a certain tonal monotony in Lovecraft’s work resulting from his technical limitations: he cannot modulate out of the same death-haunted key.

In addition, he had no ear at all for common speech, and his New Englanders sound like vaudevillians: “Nothin’ was to be diff’runt on the aoutside, only we was to keep shy o’ strangers ef we knowed what was good fer us.” When he tries for anything resembling realism, he typically fails. In a period when American writers were struggling to find a natural idiom, his default style is that of upholstered Victorian prose:

Of the whereabouts of that less conceivable and less mentionable nightmare…we could form no guess; and it cost us a genuine pang to leave this probably crippled Old One—perhaps a lone survivor—to the peril of recapture and a nameless fate.

His narrators cannot calm down; the fever never breaks. Accordingly, simple human decency, kindness, and generosity have no place anywhere in the stories. Their emotional range is limited to dread on one end of the spectrum and hysteria on the other.

When confronted with the monstrous, furthermore, his narrators tend to lapse into a variety of understatements in which the hideous object of attention is claimed to be indescribable. The horrors, it turns out, are unnamable, and “The Unnamable” stands as a key story. Lovecraft supplies the reader with hundreds of characteristic sentences in which the monstrosity is first located and then verbally barricaded as if it were a sacred object. For example: “The effect was subtly menacing in a way I can never hope to depict,” or “The cry, however, had possessed a quality which no mere writing could convey.”

This effect is intensified by Lovecraft’s habit of beginning his dramatic paragraphs with topic sentences, a habit he probably acquired from his reading of discursive prose. For any fiction writer, this technique is tricky and dangerous to use; it loads on to the beginning of the paragraph the conclusion that the reader should come to on her own by the paragraph’s end. In effect, the topic-sentence habit bullies the reader into having the reaction the narrator has already experienced before the evidence itself has been presented.

Such a procedure violates the logic of sequential perception and outfits the topic sentences with a previews-of-coming-attractions tone: “Certainly, we were in one of the strangest, weirdest, and most terrible of all the corners of the earth’s globe,” one paragraph begins, and one paragraph later, “Yet even more monstrous exaggerations of Nature seemed disturbingly close at hand.” Confronted with paragraph after paragraph constructed this way, along with the racism, misogyny, and the semicomical monsters, including hissing six-foot penguins, the reader may well, out of exasperation and distaste, lay the book aside.

2.

All that said, Lovecraft’s fictions have held a tight grip on the imaginations of several generations of writers and filmmakers, including Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates,3 Michel Houellebecq, and Ridley Scott in his film Prometheus. Lovecraft’s fiction, like his creatures, refuses to die. The French poet Yves Bonnefoy, visiting the Brown University French Department in the late 1960s, announced that he was pleased to be in Providence, home of the great H.P. Lovecraft, and looked forward to hearing from the faculty about the genius of the place.

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J.M. De Aragón
An illustration that accompanied Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’ when it appeared in Amazing Stories, September 1927. Lovecraft wrote: ‘And in a fearsome instant of deeper darkness the watchers saw wriggling at that treetop height a thousand tiny points. . . .’

At the reception, drawing up a chair next to a graduate student in English (a friend of mine), Bonnefoy asked the young man to tell him all he knew of this author considered in France the equal—“almost the equal”—of the divine Edgar. With great enthusiasm, Bonnefoy discussed “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” debating the rankings of the stories.

Despite all his defects as a writer, Lovecraft is still read, and is worth reading by intellectuals and pulp fans alike, for two features not always noted about his tales. The first has to do with the Piranesi-like architecture of the structures in which his explorers find themselves. Borges was interested in such places—one can imagine him being intrigued by Lovecraft—and in a commentary on William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), Borges observes that a distinction must be made between Dante’s Hell, which “is not an atrocious place; it is a place where atrocious things happen,” and Beckford’s Palace of Subterranean Fire, an infinite palace where a silent, pale crowd of persons who do not look at each other wander here and there. For Borges, Beckford’s Hell is an atrocious place, containing both the punishment and the temptation. And its design, its architecture, is horrific.

A similarly disturbing non-Euclidean architecture repeatedly turns up in Lovecraft’s stories, whose inhospitable interiors, either simple or elaborate, feel like private prisons disturbed by lunatic geometry. Their spaces present vistas of grief-stricken vastness, combined with a steadfast inanimate hostility to any human endeavor. They cannot be a home to anybody. Any effort at domesticity within them would be laughable. No one would want to be there. The dysfunctional rooms, hallways, and staircases seem to have shunned any practical purpose they may have originally been designed for and instead project a malign subjectivity meant to madden whoever happens to enter them. Lovecraft’s baroque interior spaces are often crazier than his monsters:

The effect was that of a Cyclopean city of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws and attaining the most grotesque extremes of sinister bizarrerie. There were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped discs; and strange beetling, table-like constructions suggesting piles of multitudinous rectangular slabs or circular plates or five-pointed stars with each one overlapping the one beneath.

(“At the Mountains of Madness”)

In my judgment, Lovecraft’s true staying power as a writer can be attributed to his chilling depictions of death-in-life, the one subject in which he could claim genuine expertise. Even Coleridge’s efforts in that direction seem halfhearted by comparison, though as literature they are incontestably greater. In some sense Lovecraft does not write about “horrors” at all but about the worst kinds of clinical depression, the feeling that one is dead but not dead enough to achieve real rest. Nothing gives pleasure, nor can any form of pleasure be imagined.

Furthermore, what accompanies Lovecraft’s depictions of living death is a fundamental conviction that there is something wrong with the whole idea of resurrection, mostly because there is something wrong with life itself. The greatest hope of Christianity is, in these stories, a terrible outcome fervently to be avoided.

His three best stories, “The Colour Out of Space,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Dunwich Horror,” can all be read as inversions of Christian themes, as Houellebecq first noted. “The Colour Out of Space” contains a travesty of the Pentecost, “The Dunwich Horror” a travesty of the Incarnation, and “At the Mountains of Madness” a travesty of resurrection, which also appears elsewhere in graveyard-kitsch form in “Herbert West: Reanimator.” Whenever anybody or anything is brought back to life in a Lovecraft story, the resurrection is always botched, and the return to life is catastrophic. Since life itself is a form of sleepwalking anyway, the descent of the “foul” Pentecostal flame in “The Colour Out of Space” can only bring more destruction and misery, the God of these stories being a malicious trickster.

As for the afterlife, or the life to come, the unlucky resurrected ones dwell in various subbasements and oubliettes where they give off “a deep, low moaning” that is “hideous with the pent-up viciousness of desolate eternities.” In Lovecraft, all the eternities are desolate. When not made out of spare parts and jolted to life by electrical means, the resurrected are hidden away, “leaping clumsily and frantically up and down at the bottom of [a] narrow shaft.” This is not just the depiction of horror but of genuine suffering, the suffering of those perpetually imprisoned and unable to die.

Haunted by the failure of death that can result in zombiism, the stories repeatedly quote “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”: “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die,” an utterance not of hope but of inconsolable despair. Like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the stories are haunted by death-in-life and by the prospect of a life after this one that may be even worse than the one you have now.

Resurrection, after all, can be a very dicey proposition:

His legs, arms and belly were swollen and green, like those of a four-day corpse. His bloated face was cracked all over and it exuded a yellowish-white liquid which soiled the white shroud which he continued to wear: it had stuck to his body and could not be removed. In the beginning he had stunk terribly, and those who came close held their noses; but little by little the stench had decreased, until now he smelled only of earth and incense.

This passage is not by Lovecraft, as it happens, though it could be, but is from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and the figure in question is none other than the revived Lazarus, who might well have stepped out of one of the horror stories reviewed here.

After both world wars and the atrocities of recent history, Lovecraft’s horrors seem like quaint, construction-paper toys created by someone who did not get outside much—he never went to Europe—and who built his puppet theaters out of whatever was lying around. There’s the little monster glued together out of cardboard, and there behind it is the puppet-master, who is shouting and screaming and carrying on with total conviction, and after a while, all the noise he is making unsettles you.

Lovecraft’s fiction has lost whatever capacity it may ever have had to frighten the adult reader, but it has not lost its ability to disturb. His fiction haplessly projects a soul in a kind of nameless, undiagnosed agony. Monsters function as surrogates for this agony, but there is no release from the dread they inspire.

The grievously neglected American poet Winfield Townley Scott, who had once loved Lovecraft’s work and written beautifully about it, eventually came to feel that Lovecraft’s fiction was “finicky,” “childish,” and “antagonistic to reality.” But its very childishness and hatred of reality are central to it. If, as Thornton Wilder once claimed, no true adult is ever really shocked, that being “shocked” is always a pose, then Lovecraft never achieved adult status. But he held on tightly to the truths of adolescence: that the universe does not wish us well; that love is not to be found anywhere; and resurrection, if it ever truly occurs, would be a catastrophe.

Letters

The Judgment of Lovecraft January 29, 2015

  1. 1

    John Berryman, “The Monk and Its Author,” in The Freedom of the Poet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), p. 131. 

  2. 2

    These details are drawn from the chronology included in the Library of America edition of Tales, edited by Peter Straub (2005), p. 811. 

  3. 3

    Oates’s strong defense of Lovecraft as a latter-day Puritan, “The King of Weird,” appeared in these pages, October 31, 1996.