• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The King of Weird

H.P. Lovecraft: A Life

by S.T. Joshi
Necromonicon Press, 704 pp., $20.00 (paper)

At the Mountains of Madness & Other Novels

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, 458 pp., $19.95

Dagon and Other Macabre Tales

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, 444 pp., $19.95

Miscellaneous Writings

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, 568 pp., $29.95

Selected Letters Vol. I: 1911-1924

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, (out of print)

Selected Letters Vol. II: 1925-1929

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, $10.00

Selected Letters Vol. III: 1929-1931

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House

Selected Letters Vol. IV: 1932-1934

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, $12.50

Selected Letters Vol. V: 1934-1937

edited by S.T. Joshi
Arkham House, $12.50

1.

Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.”

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

How mysterious, how unknowable and infinitely beyond their control must have seemed the vast wilderness of the New World to the seventeenth-century Puritan settlers! The inscrutable silence of Nature—the tragic ambiguity of human nature with its predilection for what Christians call “original sin,” inherited from our first parents Adam and Eve. When Nature is so vast, man’s need for control—for “settling” the wilderness—becomes obsessive. And how powerful the temptation to project mankind’s divided self onto the very silence of Nature.

It was the intention of those English Protestants known as Puritans to “purify” the Church of England by eradicating everything in the Church that seemed to have no Biblical justification. The more radical Puritans, “Separatists” and eventually “Pilgrims,” settled Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the 1620s; others who followed in subsequent years were less zealous about defining themselves as “Separatists.” Yet all were characterized by the intransigence of their faith; their fierce sense of moral rectitude and self-righteousness. The intolerant theology of the New England Puritans could not have failed to breed paranoia, if not madness, in the sensitive among them. Consider, for instance, the Covenant of Grace, which taught that only those men and women upon whom God sheds His grace are saved, because this allows them to believe in Christ; those excluded from God’s grace lack the power to believe in a Savior, thus are not only not saved, but damned. We never had a chance! those so excluded might cry out of the bowels of Hell. We were doomed from the start. The extreme gothic sensibility springs from such paradoxes: that the loving, paternal God and His son Jesus are nonetheless willful tyrants; “good” is inextricably bound up with the capacity to punish; one may wish to believe oneself free but in fact all human activities are determined, from the perspective of the deity, long before one’s birth.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the very titles of celebrated Puritan works of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries strike a chord of anxiety. The Spiritual Conflict, The Holy War, Day of Doom, Thirsty Sinner, Groans of the Damned, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Man Knows Not His Time, Repentant Sinners and Their Ministers, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions—these might be the titles of lurid works of gothic fiction, not didactic sermons, prose pieces, and poetry. The great Puritan poet Edward Taylor was also a minister; much of Taylor’s subtle, intricately wrought metaphysical verse dwells upon God’s love and terror, and man’s insignificance in the face of God’s omnipotence: “My will is your Design.” Here is the gothic predilection for investing all things, even the most seemingly innocuous (weather, insects), with cosmological meaning. Is there nothing in the gothic imagination that can mean simply—“nothing?”

The first American novelist of substance, Charles Brockden Brown, was born of a Philadelphia Quaker family; but his major novel Wieland; or The Transformation (1798) is suffused with the spirit of Puritan paranoia—“God is the object of my supreme passion,” the fanatical Wieland declares. Indeed, the very concept of rational self-determinism is challenged by this dark fantasy of domestic violence. The novel is a nightmare expression of the fulfillment of repressed desire, anticipating Edgar Allan Poe’s similarly claustrophobic tales of the grotesque. Wieland is a disciple of the Enlightenment who is nonetheless driven mad by “voices” urging him to destruction.

Such assaults upon individual autonomy and identity characterize the writings of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, and more recent twentieth-century writers for whom the “supernatural” and the malevolent “unconscious” have fused. Even in the more benign “enchanted region” of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow (of The Sketch Book, 1820), an ordinary, decent man like Ichabod Crane is subjected to an ordeal of psychic breakdown.

In the work of our premier American gothicist, Edgar Allan Poe, from whose Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) so much of twentieth-century horror and detective fiction springs, there are no fully realized female characters, indeed no fully realized characters at all; but the female is likely to be the obsessive object of desire, and her premature death, as in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” and “The Black Cat,” is likely to be the precipitating factor. “The Black Cat” presents a madman’s voice with such mounting plausibility that the reader almost—almost—identifies with his unmotivated and seemingly unresisted acts of insane violence against the affectionate black cat Pluto, and eventually his own wife. Like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with which it bears an obvious kinship, “The Black Cat” explores from within a burgeoning, blossoming evil; an evil exacerbated by alcohol, yet clearly a congenital evil unprovoked by the behavior of others.

The canonical writers of the gothic-grotesque were all born, fittingly, in the nineteenth century. As realism began to dominate prose fiction in the late nineteenth century in Europe and America, along with the more radical, more grindingly materialist school of “naturalism” derived from Flaubert and Zola, educated readers turned to the work of such writers as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, Hamlin Garland, and Theodore Dreiser. In the toughly Darwinian masculine-urban worlds of such writers, with their exposure of social and political corruption and their frank depiction of adult sexual relations, there would seem to have been no place, still less sympathy, for the introspective, brooding idiosyncrasies and metonymic strategies of the gothic imagination.

2.

The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

In writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton who experimented with gothic forms of fiction, the gothic tale may compensate for a conventional, restrictive life; in others, notably Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the gothic tale would seem to be a form of psychic autobiography.

The American writer of the twentieth century most frequently compared with Poe, in the quality of his art (bizarre, brilliant, inspired, and original, yet frequently hackneyed, derivative, and repetitive), its thematic preoccupations (the obsessive depiction of psychic disintegration in the face of cosmic horror perceived as “truth”), and its critical and commercial reception during the writer’s truncated lifetime (dismal), is H.P. Lovecraft of Providence, Rhode Island (1890-1937). Like Poe, Lovecraft created a small body of work carved by monomaniacal passion out of a gothic tradition that had already become ossified in the mid-nineteenth century. Like Poe, though more systematically than Poe, Lovecraft set forth an aesthetics of the art to which, by temperament and family history, he was fated. (Lovecraft’s frequently updated essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927) is a pioneering effort in tracing the history of the gothic sensibility from Ann Radcliffe, Hugh Walpole, “Monk” Lewis, and Charles Maturin through Emily Brontë, Hawthorne, Poe, and Lovecraft’s contemporaries Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, M.R. James and others.) Both tried to sell their writing and editing skills in a debased and demeaning marketplace, with little financial reward, burning themselves out in the process. Both were beset by dreams, nightmares, “visions.” Both entered upon brief, disastrous marriages (though there are bleakly comical overtones to Lovecraft’s marriage to a woman seven years his elder.) Both left no heirs. Both died prematurely, Poe at forty, Lovecraft at forty-six, having egregiously mistreated their bodies.

Though Poe is far more renowned than Lovecraft, indeed, and ironically, now a canonical figure in American literature—he who died penniless and scorned!—both writers have had an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction, and Lovecraft is arguably the more beloved by contemporary gothic aficionados.1 Poe is credited with the invention of the “mystery-detective” story and with the perfection of a certain species of ahistoric, claustrophobic, and boldly surreal monologue (of which “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the masterwork); Lovecraft with the fusion of the gothic tale and what would come to be defined as “science fiction,” and with the development of a species of horror fantasy set in meticulously described, historically grounded places (predominantly, in Lovecraft, Providence, Rhode Island, Salem, Massachusetts, and a region in northern central Massachusetts to which he has given the name “the Miskatonic Valley”), in which a seemingly normal, intelligent scholar or professor, usually a celibate bachelor, pursues a mystery it would wiser for him to flee. The remarkably detailed, intensely imagined “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (set in “Arkham”/Salem), “The Colour Out of Space” (set in the “blasted heath” west of “Arkham”), and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (set in “Innsmouth”/Newburyport, Massachusetts) are of this type, in which place itself would seem to generate horror.

Where Poe’s settings are minimally if hysterically depicted, like brushstrokes laid on with a trowel, Lovecraft’s most evocative stories are set in regions that seem “real” enough at the outset, like photographs just perceptibly blurred. Lovecraft’s mystical identification with his settings in rural Massachusetts and colonial-antiquarian towns like Salem, Marblehead, and Providence, Rhode Island, suggests a mock Transcendentalism in which “spirit” resides everywhere except possibly in human beings.

To all intents and purposes I am more naturally isolated from mankind than Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, who dwelt alone in the midst of crowds…. The people of a place matter absolutely nothing to me except as components of the general landscape and scenery…. My life lies not in among people but among scenes—my local affections are not personal, but topographical and architectural…. It is New England I must have—in some form or other. Providence is part of me—I am Providence….

(from a letter of 1926)

In the celebrated opening of “The Picture in the House” (1920), the nature of Lovecraft’s infatuation with landscape is vividly rendered:

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and desolate mountain are their shrines…. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.

In Lovecraft, as frequently in Poe, style and self-parody are indistinguishable.

3.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who boasted of having descended from “unmixed English gentry,” was the only son of an ill-fated marriage between a traveling salesman for a Providence silversmith company and the daughter of a well-to-do Providence businessman. His father began to exhibit symptoms of dementia, paranoia, mania, and depression when Lovecraft was two years old; a victim of untreated syphilis, he died in an insane asylum when Lovecraft was seven. Lovecraft’s mother was an emotionally unstable person who seems to have been, according to biographers, both abnormally attached to her only child and critical of him; her fear of change, and of the world beyond her household, was extreme.

  1. 1

    It is something of a tradition for writers of horror and dark fantasy to emulate Lovecraft. See, for instance, the anthology Lovecraft’s Legacy, edited by Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg (Tor Books, 1990). Thomas Ligotti’s novella “The Last Feast of Harlequin” has the dedication “In homage to H.P. Lovecraft.” And should you be needful of a Lovecraft calendar, The Lovecraft Horror Calendar with “Mythos art” is available from Artefact Publications.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print