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The Heroic Nerd

Tales

by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Peter Straub
Library of America, 838 pp., $35.00

That the work of H.P. Lovecraft has been selected for the Library of America would have surprised Edmund Wilson, whose idea the Library was. In a 1945 review he dismissed Lovecraft’s stories as “hackwork,” with a sneer at the magazines for which they were written, Weird Talesand Amazing Stories, “where…they ought to have been left.”1 Lovecraft had been dead for eight years by then, and although his memory was kept alive by a cult—there is no other word—that established a publishing house for the express purpose of collecting his work, his reputation was strictly marginal and did not seem likely to expand.

Since then, though, for a writer who depended entirely on the meager sustenance of the pulps and whose brief career brought him sometimes to the brink of actual starvation, whose work did not appear in book form during his lifetime (apart from two slender volumes, each of a single story, published by fans) and did not attract the attention of serious critics before his death in 1937, Lovecraft has had quite an afterlife. His influence has been far-reaching and, in the last thirty or forty years, continually on the increase, if often in extraliterary ways. Board games, computer games, and role-playing games have been inspired by his work; the archive at hplovecraft.com includes an apparently endless list of pop songs—not all of them death metal—that quote or refer to his tales; and there have been around fifty film and television adaptations, although hardly any of these have been more than superficially related to their sources.

There is a reason for that superficiality. Lovecraft’s work is essentially unfilmable, not because his special effects are too gaudy or too expensive to translate to the screen, but because they are purely literary. Lovecraft was bookish in an extreme, almost parodistic way. He may not have worn a fez or been able to afford a wing chair, but he assumed the archetype of the nineteenth-century man of letters (Wilson calls him “a literary man manqué“) with his circle of disciples, the roughly 100,000 letters he wrote to them (and he was only forty-seven when he died), the preciously archaic language in which he expressed himself (almost always using “shew” in preference to “show,” for instance), the humid cultivation of in-jokes that migrated from the correspondence to the stories and were perpetuated in stories by the disciples, and the carefully tended aura, if quite self-aware, of “forbidden knowledge.”

In other words, he was a nerd. He was a nerd on a grand scale, though—a heroic nerd, a pallid, translucent, Mallarméan nerd, a nerd who suffered for his art. His art consisted exclusively of conveying horror, and in this his range was encyclopedic. As a setting for his horror he built a whole world—a whole universe, with a time-span measured in eons—which others could happily continue furnishing indefinitely. His horrors themselves are, with a few unhappy exceptions, described loosely and suggestively enough that in effect they present a blank screen on which the reader can project whatever visual imagery is most personally unsettling. This explains the seeming paradox of an exceedingly bookish writer enjoying a legacy that is to a very large degree extraliterary. As a supplier of instruments for the cultivation of horror he was custom-tailored for the suggestible fourteen-year-old boy, and the number of fourteen-year-old boys—some of them chronologically rather older, a few of them even female—is continually on the increase.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890, the neglected, lonely child of a father who died of tertiary syphilis after years of institutional confinement and a mother who was by all accounts confused and immature. Growing up in his maternal grandfather’s house, Lovecraft was left to his own devices. The foundations of his imaginative world were laid very early; he suffered the first of many emotional crises (a “near-breakdown”) at age eight. His formal schooling was sporadic thereafter, but he voraciously engaged in self-teaching, particularly in astronomy. He published several hectographed journals of astronomy in his early teens, and in his later teens and twenties wrote an astronomy column for a number of Rhode Island newspapers. He began writing stories and poems in his late twenties, publishing them initially in amateur showcases.

One of the advantages of Peter Straub’s fine selection for the Library of America volume—which represents a bit over half of Lovecraft’s fiction—is that when read in sequence it allows the reader to watch him maturing as a writer. The main thing I remembered from reading Lovecraft when I was fourteen was his prodigal expenditure of a certain kind of deckle-edged Gothic vocabulary: noisome, ichor, eldritch, miasmal, necrophagous, eidolon. It turns out that this sort of usage drops off significantly after the first few stories (although he could never quite shake blasphemous, unhallowed, or Cyclopean). The early stories are flagrant pulp, which is to say that they are crudely executed goulashes of literary effects from all across the nineteenth century. That was the era when more was more, and it gave him license to unleash sentences that cannot now be read aloud straight-faced: “Shall I say that the voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied?” Or: “In that shrieking the inmost soul of human fear and agony clawed hopelessly and insanely at the ebony gates of oblivion.” Sometimes it is impossible not to imagine an accompanying illustration by Edward Gorey: “Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft.”

Lovecraft was an authority on the tradition of horror fiction; even Edmund Wilson concedes that his long essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927) is “a really able piece of work.” Besides Poe, to whom he was permanently in debt, he admired above all Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany, who have steadily become less read and less readable since their heyday in the early twentieth century, and it may be from them that he absorbed various Symbolist and Decadent tendencies (he mentions Baudelaire a couple of times in ways that leave doubt whether he had actually read him). He also drew upon the Puritans, with emphasis on their more sensational effusions (between his extraordinary last name and his long, bony, thin-lipped face it isn’t hard to imagine Lovecraft himself as a witch-trial judge), and had clearly delved deep into certain strains of Americana.

He marshaled this equipment in the service of a single goal: horror. He was apparently not much interested in anything else. He could summon up considerable book learning when it would serve to buttress a story, but did not waste time on fripperies such as characterization, the business of daily life, or any emotions other than fear.2 The complete absence of even suggested sexuality in his work was much debated by fans in the Freud-shadowed mid-twentieth century; the proposition, rather missing the point, that he might have been homosexual sparked ferocious arguments. Although he was married briefly, and many years later his former wife was moved to state, peculiarly, that he was an “adequately excellent lover,” it is clear from all available evidence that sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the things that scared him the most.

He was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering—the things that did not frighten him would probably make a shorter list. He evidently took pleasure in his fears, at least those on the creepy-crawly end of the spectrum, and although he really did suffer from his fear of cold, for example, this did not prevent him from exploiting that fear in a couple of stories, one of them (“At the Mountains of Madness”) his best.

The things that did not scare him are generally absent from his work. Often his stories take place in a continuous landscape of fear, in which every detail contributes oppressively. In “The Lurking Fear,” for example, all of nature is malevolent: “I hated the mocking moon, the hypocritical plain, the festering mountain…. Everything seemed to me tainted with a loathsome contagion, and inspired by a noxious alliance with distorted hidden powers.” The story concerns a Dutch family in the Hudson River Valley that, determined to resist the encroachment of the English in the late seventeenth century, shuts itself away from the world; 250 years later inbreeding has caused the stock to degenerate to a species of anthropophagous subterranean ape. Although this seems excessively silly, it arises from authentic American folk panic—the fear of isolated backwoods tribes with strange customs and perhaps genetic deformities—which in Lovecraft’s day was accorded a certain respectability by the pseudoscience of eugenics.

Lovecraft lived in Brooklyn for two years in his mid-thirties, during his marriage. While he was initially awestruck by New York City, his attitude changed radically, at least in part because of the personal unhappiness that resulted from his inability to find work. Like many others unnerved by the chasm between the grandeur of their genetic inheritance and the squalor of their prospects, he blamed the immigrants. New York City, once a wonder of “incredible peaks and pyramids rising flower-like and delicate from pools of violet mist to play with the flaming golden clouds and the first stars of evening,” became a “tangle of material and spiritual putrescence [from which] the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky.” What those “swarthy, sin-pitted faces” were up to he addressed directly in “The Horror at Red Hook”: the immigrants (many of them, apparently, Kurds) are devil worshipers who, led by the degenerate scion of an old Dutch family, engage in ritual murder and child sacrifice in addition to the usual menu of rum-running and alien-smuggling.3 It did not really take unemployment in the Big Onion to awaken Lovecraft’s fear of the other, though. Some years earlier, in “Herbert West—Reanimator,” he had given a description of a Negro boxer, the least offensive part of which concerns his face, which “conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.”

Lovecraft’s racial and eugenic preoccupations, which were hardly unusual for his time, formed a constituent element of his landscape of horror since, as he wrote in 1930 to his friend Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, “The basis of all true cosmic horror is always violation of the order of nature.” But Lovecraft was already looking beyond the mere caprices of earthly existence, seeking vaster, more awesome horrors. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he had written:

The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.4

In 1926, at the same time that he was drafting his essay, he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu,” which was to be the first installment of his life’s work, the Cthulhu Mythos, a sort of unified-field theory of horror.

In the story, the figure of Cthulhu—an otherworldly being so terrible that it can never be seen directly, but is manifested by various attributes—first appears in a dream experienced by several people simultaneously, during a minor earth tremor. There are suggestions of Cyclopean architecture, indecipherable hieroglyphics, and “a voice that was not a voice” intoning something that can only be transcribed as “Cthulhu fhtagn.” Soon it develops that police in Louisiana, investigating reports of a voodoo cult in the swamps, had come upon an “indescribable horde of human abnormality” conducting a bizarre ritual around an eight-foot granite monolith. In custody, the worshipers, “of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type,” were nevertheless able to give an account of their creed, which centered on the Great Old Ones, who had come to earth from the stars long before the appearance of humans. Cthulhu was a high priest who lived in suspended animation in the great city of R’lyeh, somewhere under the ocean, waiting for the chance to rise again.

After this, the Mythos began to figure in nearly every story that Lovecraft wrote, and it developed ramifications in every direction. In “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” a long, complex tale reaching back to seventeenth-century Providence, it appears that the cult of Cthulhu is what actually underlies such heterogeneous matters as witchcraft, alchemy, and vampirism. Playing a prominent part is the Necronomicon, an ancient book, invented by Lovecraft in 1922, supposedly the work of one Abdul Alhazred (a name Lovecraft had devised for himself at age five, under the spell of the Arabian Nights), a sage whose career ended when he was devoured by an invisible demon in broad daylight in the marketplace in Damascus. The Necronomicon is ritually invoked in nearly every story thereafter as the key to the commerce between the Great Old Ones and the human race, and it is soon joined by a shelf of other apocryphal titles, such as the “pre-human” Pnakotic Manuscripts.

Many of the stories take place in or around the ancient city of Arkham, Massachusetts—Lovecraft’s version of Salem—and its Miskatonic University, one of the four or five places on earth where a copy of the “forbidden” Necronomicon is kept, under lock and key. The Cthulhu Mythos, which would be extended by others after Lovecraft’s death, in ever-widening rings of diminishing returns (even the Necronomicon eventually achieved material form in the 1970s, more a heavy-metal fashion accessory than a book intended to be read), represented a way for Lovecraft to order his fears, to unify the realm of pure otherness, the source of every inexplicable human terror.

Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm, just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a “scaly, rugose, iridescent bulk…ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base”; the sight may cause Lovecraft’s narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home. Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light, exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible elements in his work. The stories “He” and “The Horror at Red Hook” make it sound as though he had never set foot in New York City, while “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” suggests that he never visited the New England coast and “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” that he never so much as glanced out a train window at a rural landscape. It is not that his settings are unreal—it is that they are made entirely of words. They do not provide any suggestions to the inner eye, only adjectives, mostly hyperbolic.

It is of course unfair to expect a thistle to bring forth figs. Lovecraft only barely managed to exist on the material plane himself, and it certainly was not his subject. His strengths, meanwhile, were unusual and idiosyncratic. He had a flair for names, for instance. The monikers he hangs on his otherworldly manifestations—Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, Tsathoggua—are evocatively miscegenated constructions in which can be seen bits of ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Hebrew, Old Norse. The terror of Cthulhu is most vivid on the purely linguistic level: “Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!” The New England he fashions is so tangibly haunted in its nomenclature—Arkham, the Miskatonic River, Devil’s Hop Yard, Nooseneck Hill—that he would have been wise to stop there and not attempt further description. He savors the dark texture of seventeenth-century Puritan names: Obed, Peleg, Deliverance, Elkanah, Dutee. He frequently engaged his schoolboy correspondents to send him lists of regional names from their local phone books. Names, real and imagined, accomplish nearly everything his strangled fustian tries and fails to do: suggesting vast stretches of time, experience far outside the modern frame of reference, the subterranean course of genetic inheritance, the repression of dismal ancestral proclivities.

It is possible to view Lovecraft’s work as an expression of the mingled fascination and revulsion he felt for his Puritan heritage. Like the Bible, the Necronomicon is an ancient work, steeped in mystery and filled with horrors, that describes the compact imposed upon human beings by enormously powerful otherworldly beings, a compact that may not be in humanity’s best interests. The earthly votaries of Cthulhu, hoping for favors and dispensation, have over the centuries engaged in secret rites, ritual murder, and nameless abominations to appease their masters. All the while, the Great Old Ones sleep in their undersea stone city, R’lyeh, awaiting their Second Coming. That event, while inevitable, is to be anticipated with dread, since it portends the annihilation of all living things. The Great Old Ones, implacably hostile to the feeble human race, are themselves beyond life and death. A “much-discussed” couplet in the Necronomicon runs: “That is not dead which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die.” It is all less reminiscent of Poe or Mary Shelley than of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.

The novelist Michel Houellebecq, who devoted his first book (1991) to Lovecraft, misses this aspect of his work, but coming from a Catholic culture he nevertheless can spot the grotesque parody of Christianity in “The Dunwich Horror,”

in which an illiterate peasant woman who has known no men gives birth to a monstrous creature endowed with superhuman powers. This inverted incarnation ends with a repugnant parody of the Passion where the creature, sacrificed at the summit of a mountain that overlooks Dunwich, cries out desperately, “Father! Father! YOG- SOTHOTH!” in a faithful echo of “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani.”

Interestingly, Houellebecq cites this as an illustration of Lovecraft’s racism, since “it is not one particular race that represents true horror, but the notion of the half-breed.” By that measure, the Christian myth of the Immaculate Conception would also be a “violation of the order of nature,” which is certainly a bracing idea.

Houellebecq doesn’t pursue it, though. His view of Lovecraft is presumably an idealized self-portrait: a poète maudit who radiates negative energy; who answers the imperative of life with a resounding “no”; who demonstrates superior breeding through sheer unworldliness, which he further elevates into otherworldliness; whose racism, while perhaps deplorable, is merely a byproduct of his attempt to face down evil—those other races, you see, are mentally and morally weak enough to be the servants of the Old Ones. But racism is slightly beside the point, anyway. All of humanity, all of life, is repellent:

To touch other beings, other living entities, is an impious, repugnant experience. Their skin bloated with blisters that ooze putrid pus. Their sucking tentacles, their clutching and chewing appendages, all constitute a constant menace. Beings and their hideous corporeal vigor. A simmering, stinking Nemesis of semi-aborted chimeras, amorphous and nauseating: a sacrilege.

Living creatures are disgusting, and their omnipotent undead adversaries are also disgusting: the universe is one gigantic swirling vortex of vomit. The only remedy, transient and puny though it may be, is to give voice to your principled stand in the face of it all. Houellebecq, who according to the detailed account of his translator, Dorna Khazeni, inserted interpolations ranging from a few words to entire paragraphs into his citations from Lovecraft (for reasons that are not always clear), found in the older writer a perfect vehicle for creative misreading, an elected ancestor who was at once ambitious, marginal, conventionally accomplished, and pathologically unstable. It is fortunate that Houellebecq, like Lovecraft, has restricted his ambitions to literature.

Letters

H.P. Lovecraft and ‘Tsathoggua’ April 12, 2007

  1. 1

    Classics and Commercials (Farrar, Straus and Co., 1950), p. 288.

  2. 2

    A somewhat different Lovecraft emerges from his correspondence. In the five-volume Selected Letters (Arkham House, 1965–1976) and in Willis Conover’s moving Lovecraft at Last (Cooper Square, 2002; a record of the epistolary friendship between the teenaged Conover and the much older Lovecraft, halted by his sudden death), Lovecraft appears unfailingly generous, painstaking, and tactful, as well as emotionally mature, severe in his judgment of pulp mediocrity, wide-ranging in his interests, and possessing a sense of humor that appears nowhere in his fiction.

  3. 3

    In “He,” another story from the same period, he gives, in the guise of a vision of New York’s future, his idea of a jazz club: “I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, and the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.”

  4. 4

    Dagon and Other Macabre Tales(Arkham House, 1965), p. 350.

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