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The King of Weird

In the frequently anthologized Grand Guignol “The Dunwich Horror,” we learn by degrees that the virgin Lavina Whately has been forced by her brutal father to mate with Yog-Sothoth, a “god”-creature from another dimension, giving birth to male twins. One of them seems initially a self-parody of the young Lovecraft, seven feet tall by the age of thirteen and haplessly bookish, doomed to be killed by a ferocious guard dog while breaking into the Miskatonic University library in his search for such texts as the Necronomicon. The other twin, for a time invisible, grows enormous as a barn, an obscene ravenously hungry ropy-tentacled monstrosity that shouts, in its death throes atop Sentinel Hill, “…ff-ff—ff—FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!”

Most of Lovecraft’s tales are not so luridly sensational as “The Dunwich Horror,” but rather develop by way of incremental detail, beginning with quite plausible situations—an expedition to Antarctica, a trip to an ancient seaside town, an investigation of an abandoned eighteenth-century house in Providence, Rhode Island, that still stood in Lovecraft’s time (“The Shunned House”—a novelty in Lovecraft’s oeuvre in that it ends happily, with “one of the earth’s nethermost terrors perished forever” and ordinary springtime commencing). One is drawn into Lovecraft by the very air of plausibility and characteristic understatement of the prose, the question being When will weirdness strike?

Readers of genre fiction, unlike readers of what we presume to call “literary fiction,” assume a tacit contract between themselves and the writer: they understand that they will be manipulated, but the question is how? and when? and with what skill? and to what purpose? However plot-ridden, fantastical, or absurd, populated by whatever pseudo-characters, genre fiction is always resolved, while “literary fiction” makes no such promises; there is no contract between reader and writer for, in theory at least, each work of literary fiction is original, and, in essence, “about” its own language; anything can happen, or, upon occasion, nothing. Genre fiction is addictive, literary fiction, unfortunately, is not.

Lovecraft’s simulation of “reality” was deliberate. In the essays “In Defence of Dagon” (1921) he divides literature into romantic, realistic, and imaginative, placing “weird fiction” in the last category, but aligning it with realism in its treatment of human psychology and emotion; in technique, “a tale should be plausible—even a bizarre tale except for the single element where supernaturalism is involved.” Romance is pointedly unreal,

but fantasy is something altogether different. Here we have an art based on the imaginative life of the human mind, frankly recognized as such; and in its way as natural and scientific—as truly related to natural (even if uncommon and delicate) psychological processes as the starkest of photographic realism.

Weird fiction” can only be a product, Lovecraft saw, of an age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways. He would hardly have been surprised, but rather confirmed in his cynicism regarding human intelligence, could he have foreseen how, from the 1950s onward, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of purportedly sane Americans would come to believe in UFOs and “extra-terrestrial” beings with particular, often erotic designs upon them.

For all his intelligence and aesthetic theorizing, Lovecraft was, like Poe, a remarkably uneven writer. Read chronologically, his tales stand in bewildering juxtapositions: the richly detailed, artfully constructed “The Call of Cthulhu” followed by the trashy “Pickman’s Model,” both of 1926; the subtly modulated “The Colour Out of Space” followed by the overwrought sensationalism of “The Dunwich Horror.” Like Melville, Lovecraft was “damned by dollars”—except, in Lovecraft’s case, the writer was forced to sell his stories, first-rate and otherwise, usually for no more than one cent a word, to the pulp magazine Weird Tales (launched in 1923, and destined to survive for a surprising thirty-one years). His work would never be published in book form during his lifetime.

Lovecraft’s most effective tales are those in which atmosphere is predominant and plot subordinate; in which a richly detailed, layered narrative circles about a numinous, indefinable image. In the early, Poe-inspired “The Outsider,” the unwittingly monstrous speaker moves as though in a dream to confront his own reflection inside “a cold and unyielding surface of glass”; even should we know nothing of the thirty-one-year-old author’s bleakly cramped life, we respond to the story as a codified cri de coeur: “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with…maddening rows of antique books….” Despite Lovecraft’s expressed contempt for mysticism, clearly he was a kind of mystic, drawing intuitively upon a cosmology of images that came to him unbidden, from the “underside” of his life: all that was repressed, denied, “defeated.” There is a melancholy, operatic grandeur in Lovecraft’s most passionate work, like “The Outsider” and “At the Mountains of Madness”; a curious elegiac poetry of unspeakable loss, of adolescent despair, and an existential loneliness so pervasive that it lingers in the reader’s memory, like a dream, long after the rudiments of Lovecraftian plot have faded. A hybrid of the traditional gothic and “science fiction,” Lovecraft is clearly gothic in temperament; his “science” has its own fictional logic, yet it is never future-oriented, but directed obsessively into the distant past. In Lovecraft’s cosmos, some tragic conjunction of the “human” and the “nonhuman” has contaminated what should have been natural life; there is no logic, no reason for such a fate, any more than there is reason for lightning to strike.

In one of Lovecraft’s best stories, the parable-like “The Colour Out of Space,” with its vivid rendering of a once-fertile and now etiolated New England landscape, we see the obverse of American destiny, the repudiation of American-Transcendentalist optimism, in which the individual participates in the divine and shares in nature’s divinity. And how prophetic the story seems to us decades later, in its depiction of ecological disaster as a powerful, seemingly nuclear/toxic force emanating from a meteor fallen to earth on a farmer’s land, utterly mysterious and unknowingly deadly.

They had uncovered what seemed to be the side of a large coloured globule embedded in the [meteor]. The color, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe…. Aside from being almost plastic, having heat, magnetism, and slight luminosity, cooling slightly in powerful acids, possessing an unknown spectrum, wasting away in air, and attacking silicon compound with mutual destruction as a result, it presented no identifying features whatsoever…. It was nothing of the earth, but a piece of the great outside.

In the gothic imagination there is a profound and irreconcilable split between mankind and nature in the Romantic sense, and a tragic division between what we wish to know and what may be staring us in the face. So “The Colour Out of Space” ends, not sensationally, but with elegiac understatement: “It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it….” But the Massachusetts heath is permanently blighted, and all who have come into contact with the “colour” suffer neurological and bodily afflictions not dissimilar to those suffered by the victims of radioactivity and Agent Orange.

4.

Like a dictionary, a definitive biography will always tell us more than we need to know. But that is hardly ground for criticism. S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Life overflows with information, both in and out of footnotes and appendixes; in addition to a virtually day-by-day account of Lovecraft’s life, it contains a history of gothic literature, excerpts from Lovecraft’s unpublished letters, essays, and travel pieces, and, among other inspired passages, a description of New York City in 1924 and how it must have looked to Lovecraft’s wondering eyes when he first journeyed there, embarked upon his brave and unlikely marriage. The biography is so organized that, as Joshi suggests in his introduction, a reader may skim or skip entirely sections of relatively little interest to him or her. This is an admirable, pragmatic solution to the longueurs of the “definitive” biography.

Admirers of Lovecraft’s fiction will certainly be interested in this reclusive author’s unusually eloquent, frank letters (of which it’s estimated he wrote between 60,000 and 100,000, most of them now lost), but it seems unlikely that any will be equally interested in the “amateur journalism” organizations and activities to which Lovecraft, ever the gentlemanly amateur, gave so much of his time; nor will most readers be interested in the endless stream of long-forgotten or never-known “amateur writers” of the day who came to know Lovecraft or corresponded with him, and whose lives receive perfunctory thumbnail sketches from the biographer. Joshi suggests skimming, too, some of the many passages on Lovecraft’s philosophy—more accurately, philosophizing—but these are among the biography’s most engaging features. How rare to encounter, in life or literature, a person for whom the mental life, the thinking life, is so suffused with drama as Lovecraft.

Like his idol Friedrich Nietzsche, Lovecraft could write little that was not a cri de coeur; in ordinary matters, he gives the impression of struggling for his life. Joshi notes Lovecraft’s lifelong attraction to suicide, as in this letter of 1930 to the young acolyte August Derleth, who would become his posthumous publisher:

I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthensome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory….

Yet, much earlier in his life, in a letter of 1918 written when he was twenty-eight:

I am only about half alive—a large part of my strength is consumed in sitting up or walking. My nervous system is a shattered wreck, and I am absolutely bored & listless save when I come upon something which peculiarly interests me. However—so many things do interest me…that I have never actually desired to die.

If we are to believe Lovecraft’s account, by the age of thirteen he was convinced of “man’s impermanence and insignificance,” and by the age of seventeen, having studied astronomy, he was struck by “the futility of all existence.”

Even for a reader relatively familiar with Lovecraft’s work and with the gothic legend of his life, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life will contain illuminating surprises. That Lovecraft was a solitary, nocturnal personality we might know. But that his solitude was, after his mother’s fortuitous death in 1921, frequently interrupted by socializing of a kind in amateur journalism circles; that his hermetic, quasi-invalided existence was periodically rejuvenated by fanatic trips by bus or train to places as remote from his bachelor’s sanctuary in Providence as St. Augustine, New Orleans, and Quebec City;2 that, with his stark melancholy eyes, his peculiar stiff conduct, and the “archaic” cut of his clothes, not to mention his asexuality, he was nonetheless attractive to a number of women—all this is wholly unexpected. We learn that a “Junoesque” and quite vibrant writer-businesswoman, Sonia Greene, fell in love with Lovecraft for his intelligent conversation, and pursued him for three Platonic years before, misguidedly, he consented to marry her. (The marriage faded by degrees and after two years, Sonia Greene asked for a divorce.)

We learn that Lovecraft, scourge of conventional piety in his writing, was for much of his life a self-styled “Tory” in homage to his “unmixed English gentry” ancestors, and became an adamant if purely theoretical socialist in his forties, during the Depression. How strange to know that Lovecraft was unfailingly kind, patient, generous, unassuming, and gentlemanly in his personal relations; yet, in keeping with his Tory sensibility, an anti-Semite (despite his deep affection for Sonia Greene and other Jewish friends), racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot.3

Following a nervous breakdown at the age of eighteen from which, Joshi suggests, he never fully recovered, Lovecraft never sought to formally educate or train himself for serious employment. Less worldly even than Poe, who had worked as an editor at several magazines, he eked out a meager living by doing revisions for other, mostly terrible writers, and occasional ghostwriting (once, for Harry Houdini). Though he prided himself on writing for the “sensitive,” a small circle of like-minded persons, in fact all of Lovecraft’s work was published in trashy magazines; and even after he became known for his numerous stories in Weird Tales, no contribution of his, no matter how atrocious, was honored with a lurid cover. Stories of the quality of “The Colour Out of Space” were summarily rejected. Most surprisingly, though Lovecraft’s much-declared vision of life was as bleak as Ambrose Bierce’s (“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know peer demonical hints of truth which make it a thousand-fold more hideous”), he seems, on a day-to-day basis, very often to have enjoyed it.

Lovecraft’s career, however, was increasingly disappointing to him. Even as he became more admired in the cultist world of gothic fiction, he became ever more impoverished, eccentric. One of his Tory handicaps was a misguided noblesse oblige: whoever wrote to him, he believed, deserved a thoughtful reply, so his time was consumed in writing to a daunting number of eager young writers and readers (among them a teenaged protégé named Robert Bloch, one day to write Psycho). With the publication of a cruelly mangled “The Shadow Out of Time” in the pulp Astounding in 1936, when Lovecraft was forty-six, he seems to have burnt himself out. Locked into idiosyncratic habits like one of his hapless protagonists in a nightmare scenario, Lovecraft took ascetic pride in eating frugally, estimating that he could subsist on thirty cents a day, $2.10 a week; often he ate unheated food out of cans and aged, even spoiled food. A lifelong phobia against doctors and hospitals prevented his intestinal cancer from being diagnosed until it was too late; but, in true Lovecraftian fashion, despite being in terrible agony he kept a “death diary” until he could no longer hold a pen.

Like Poe, Lovecraft died believing himself an ignominious failure. In his most fantastical musings this artist of “cosmic pessimism” could not have foreseen his posthumous fame; still less that, within a decade of his death, the very book he could not get published, Lovecraft’s Best Supernatural Tales, would sell more than 67,000 copies in hardcover in a single year.

  1. 2

    Can there be an Eros of the landscape, or place? The feverish intensity with which Lovecraft traveled, sleeping on buses and trains to save hotel expenses, forgetting to eat, the indefatigable sightseeing that wore out companions in better physical condition than he—what is this but the seeking of the beloved object, embodied in the yet-unknown? A friend of Lovecraft’s comments on the man’s manic traveling habits:

    …Howard arrived back from Quebec. I have never before nor since seen such a sight. Folds of skin hanging from a skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws. The man was dead except for his nerves….

    But the forty-two-year-old Lovecraft had had an ecstatic visit to Quebec.

  2. 3

    Certain of Lovecraft’s tales, notably “Shadow Over Innsmouth” with its debased, subhuman race of fishy-reptile folk with staring, unblinking eyes, are clearly paranoid fantasies of miscegenation. Over the course of his life, Lovecraft retreated from the most blatant claims of Aryan superiority (“No anthropologist of standing insists on the uniformly advanced evolution of the Nordic as compared with that of other Caucasian and Mongolian races…. It is freely conceded that the Mediterranean race turns out a higher percentage of the aesthetically sensitive and that the Semitic groups excel in sharp, precise intellection,” he concedes in 1931); yet he persisted in a belief in the biological inferiority of “blacks and Australian aborigines.” As Joshi notes, Lovecraft shared in the racist prejudices of his class and time, like his contemporaries Jack London and Frank Norris, among others. In 1934, disagreeing with a friend who believed that the Scottsboro youths, accused rapists, were innocent, Lovecraft writes: “It doesn’t seem natural to me that well-disposed men would deliberately condemn even niggers to death if they were not strongly convinced of their guilt.”

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