“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.
“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.
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.
Already in early childhood, Lovecraft suffered from violent dreams and nightmares; he called these afflictions, to which he would give minute expression in his tales, the “night-gaunts.” Many of Lovecraft’s stories read like pitilessly transcribed dreams. Of these “The Dreams in the Witch-House” is the most elaborate account of a descent into hallucinatory madness. In this nightmare fantasy, a student of mathematics and folklore rents a room once inhabited by a witch fleeing the Salem Gaol in 1692, and is subsequently destroyed by demonic forces—his heart literally eaten out by a gigantic species of rat. (Lovecraft seems to have taken for granted that Salem “witches” existed, not considering whether they were perhaps victims of others’ malevolent misuse of power.)
Like Poe, Lovecraft focuses upon interiors, the interior of the soul. His subject is the continuous assault on the person of unconscious forces of dissolution, disintegration; the collapse of sanity beneath the weight of chaos; the triumph of mindless entities like the subterranean deities Azathoth and Nyarlathotep and the “mad faceless god [who] howls blindly in the darkness to the piping of two amorphous idiot flute-players” (“The Rats in the Walls”). It was Lovecraft’s observation that the successful gothic tale replicates the paralysis and horror of a certain kind of dream:
I believe that—because of the foundation of most weird concepts in dream-phenomena—the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive, & witnesses or experiences a stream of bizarre events which…flows past him, just touches him, or engulfs him utterly.
(from a letter of 1936)
Yet this matter-of-fact statement gives no idea of the remarkable simulacra Lovecraft frequently evokes in his dreamscapes, which linger in the reader’s visual memory like those horrific yet somehow natural-seeming monsters of Hieronymus Bosch.
Bravely Lovecraft claimed that his dreams were not personal but “cosmic,” just as his tales drew upon no personal experience. Again like Poe, Lovecraft had a mind too pure to be violated by any idea of mere mundane reality.
S.T. Joshi’s meticulously researched H.P. Lovecraft: A Life suggests that Lovecraft, for all his championing of independent thinking, was much in thrall to his widowed, ailing mother Susie, who seems to have made of her son’s personal appearance (tall, gaunt, with a long, prognathous jaw and frequently blemished skin) an image of moral degeneracy. A neighbor recounts that “Mrs. Lovecraft talked continuously of her son who was so hideous that he hid from everyone and did not like to walk upon the streets where people would gaze at him,” a statement the neighbor considered “exaggerated.” (Mrs. Lovecraft was believed not to have been told the cause of her husband’s syphilitic dementia and death, and associated Lovecraft with his father. Yet it must have been she who encouraged her son to wear his deceased father’s clothes as a young man.) It would not be until Mrs. Lovecraft died while institutionalized, when Lovecraft was thirty-one years old, that he would try to free himself, at least sporadically, from his housebound, claustrophobic existence.
Yet no fathers or mothers appear in Lovecraft’s work, excepting the comically grotesque Mr. Whately of “The Dunwich Horror,” who consorts with demonic forces and arranges for his daughter to mate with a creature named Yog-Sothoth; virtually no women appear in the work, for to Lovecraft, the most asexual of men, for whom Eros manifested itself primarily in landscape and architecture, “male” and “female” have no more vital relationship with each other than atoms. In the lushly overwritten “The Thing on the Doorstep,” an unfortunate marriage between a precocious scholar-poet and a young woman with mysterious hypnotic powers is revealed to be, in fact, a marriage between the scholar-poet and the young woman’s deceased father, who had seized demonic possession of her body at the time of his death, and manages at last to seize possession of the scholar-poet’s body as well. What seems initially to be a tale of vampiristic erotic obsession turns out very differently indeed.
Is Lovecraft’s life a tragedy of a stunted, broken-off personality, severely traumatized in childhood, and never to “mature,” or is there a poignant triumph of a kind in the way in which the aggrieved, terror-ized child refashions himself, through countless nocturnal-insomniac sessions of writing, into a purely cerebral being?
I could not write about “ordinary people” because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relations to the cosmos—to the unknown—which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.
(from a letter of 1921)
This is the resolute, defiant note so frequently struck in the American visionary imagination: the very voice, surely, of Edgar Allen Poe and Emerson; the voice we might well imagine of Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, even the exuberant Walt Whitman (“one of the roughs, a kosmos”). For how can the merely personal be of galvanizing interest to the imagination?
The fascination for the historical past we might interpret, in Lovecraft, as a profound wish that the present might not yet have happened, if the clock and calendar be turned back far enough. To love the past, to extol the past, to yearn in some way to inhabit the past is surely to misread the past, purposefully or otherwise; above all, it is to select from the past only those aspects that accommodate a self-protective and nourishing fantasy. What is “past” tempts us to reconstruct a world rather like a walled city, finite and contained and in the most literal sense predictable. For the writer, the (selected, edited) “past” is in itself a form of fiction, though the writer will set as his idealized task its “coming to life” and credulous readers will respond to its “authenticity.”
Already as a child of eight, by his own account, Lovecraft perceived time as “some especial enemy of mine.” Repeatedly he speaks of his art as a “defeat of time”; as an adult he was irresistibly drawn to those city- and landscapes (particularly Quebec City) in which the past seems to coexist, dreamlike, with the present. The “continuity from the past” was, for Lovecraft, the defeat of time. Yet in many Lovecraft tales the intellectual protagonist is lured to his doom or disintegration by the prospect of transcending time, by attempting a Faustian “entry to many unknown and incomprehensible realms of additional or indefinitely multiplied dimensions—be they within or outside the given space-time continuum”—as in “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” where the young protagonist meets his grisly fate. (Despite Lovecraft’s ardent proselytizing for the weird fiction of Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Ambrose Bierce, he acknowledged Proust as the greatest contemporary writer, for the subtlety and beauty of his treatment of time.)
Such extended adventures as “The Shadow Out of Time” and the novella-length “At the Mountains of Madness” collapse millennia within the cataclysmic experience of individuals whose lives intersect with those of the Great Old Ones, alien creatures of immense intelligence from a distant galaxy, until now unknown to Homo sapiens. In the former, a professor at Miskatonic University deduces that he has been kidnapped psychically by aliens for purposes of research and hurtled back into prehistory; while in the latter story the surviving members of an expedition to Antarctica, fellow faculty members of Miskatonic, discover the mummified bodies of these fantastical aliens as well as the awesome ruins of their lost civilization, which would seem to have been patterned by Lovecraft on ancient Egypt. “The Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft’s most frequently reprinted tale, ironically reverses the much-lauded progress of Homo sapiens, as the civilized American hero helplessly descends the evolutionary ladder to become, like his despised ancestors, a cannibal.
In attempting to defeat time, such protagonists are defeated by it; they may discover to their horror, or mad glee, that they are in fact related genetically (“by blood”) to monster-ancestors and that these ancestors live in them. The ponderous, meandering, yet fascinating long story “Shadow Over Innsmouth” ends with the student-hero turning by degrees into a subhuman Innsmouth being (a sort of humanoid fish, or fishy humanoid), as one might succumb to madness. Investigating the ancient seaport of Innsmouth, though physically repelled by its inhabitants, the young hero ironically turns into one of them, and comes to rejoice in his subhumanity:
I shall plan my cousin’s escape from the Canton madhouse, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to the brooding reef in the sea and dive down through the black abysses…and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.
In such a reversal, the tension of resisting sadness is abruptly eased; the dreaded “night-gaunts” may be embraced like literal kin. To expunge the drama of having witnessed a parent’s descent into madness one may join the madness oneself. And perhaps time can only be “defeated” by madness.
Unlike Poe’s fevered tales which appear unrelated to one another, isolated in essential ways, Lovecraft’s mature work, the cycle of horror/fiction tales to which his disciples have given the title the “Cthulhu Mythos,” springs from a common source of invented legend. Lovecraft was one of those accursed, or blessed, writers who ceaselessly work and rework a small nuclei of scenarios, as if to force a mastery over the unconscious compulsions that guide them; such “mastery” for the writer may exist during the composition of the work, but fades immediately afterward, so that a new work, a new effort of organization and control, must be undertaken.
As a child, according to his own account, Lovecraft repudiated his mother’s family’s Baptist faith. For Lovecraft, who was proud of his life-long atheism, the Cthulhu Mythos was an “anti-mythology”; an ironic inversion of traditional religious faith. It constitutes an elaborate, detailed working-out of an early recurring fantasy of Lovecraft’s that an entire alien civilization lurks on the underside of the known world; as a “night-gaunt” may lurk beneath a child’s bed in the darkness, or as mankind’s tragically divided nature may lurk beneath civilization’s veneer. (Lovecraft was writing during and after World War I.) In the Cthulhu Mythos, there are no “gods” but only displaced extraterrestrial beings, the Great Old Ones, who journeyed to Earth many millions of years ago, bringing with them, disastrously, their slaves, called “shoggoths,” protoplasmic creatures that gradually overpower and defeat their masters. Deluded human beings mistake the Great Old Ones and their descendants for gods, worshiping them out of ignorance.
Among the sacred (and “forbidden”) texts that chronicle the exhaustively protracted history of the Great Old Ones is the Necronomicon of the Arab Abdul Alhazred, so frequently cited in Lovecraft that the title becomes a sort of running joke. One can see why Jorge Luis Borges was drawn to Lovecraft and inspired, in such Lovecraftian tales as “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius,” to create for his own purposes a fictitious library of mythical, cross-referenced, ancient cabbalistic texts.
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.
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.
October 31, 1996
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. ↩
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: ↩
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.” ↩