The Horror, the Horror!
H.P. Lovecraft enters the American canon.
Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
NO FULL UNDERSTANDING OF MODERN literature is possible without taking into account an exceedingly peculiar, self-educated, semi-recluse from Providence named Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
That is a conclusion no one, including Lovecraft himself, would have predicted. As he was dying in 1937 at age forty-six, he may well have felt he had lived in vain. His stories--sixty or seventy works of various lengths and completeness--resided in scattered notebooks and throwaway pulp magazines, uncollected and unlikely to be remembered.
But it now seems beyond dispute that H.P. Lovecraft is the most important American writer of weird fiction in the twentieth century--and one of the century's most influential writers of any kind of fiction. His admirers range from the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges to such contemporary masters of darkness as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Each year winners of the "World Fantasy Award" take home a trophy modeled on Lovecraft's gaunt, lantern-jawed face. Nearly every author of supernatural fiction and dark fantasy sooner or later tries his hand at a Lovecraftian homage or pastiche.
In fact, H.P. Lovecraft now seems almost as iconic and influential as the original American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. A selection of Lovecraft's tales, edited by novelist Peter Straub, has just been issued by the Library of America, and there shouldn't be any fussing that a writer of "pulp horror" has been honored with such a volume. Out of such New England towns as "witch-cursed, legend-haunted" Arkham, "crumbling, half-deserted" Innsmouth, and degenerate Dunwich and Kingsport, Lovecraft created a province of the imagination as vivid as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County--and he did so in prose as distinctive and powerful as Ernest Hemingway's or Raymond Chandler's.
But say the name H.P. Lovecraft, and there will be immediate snickering about that style. Portentous, overblown, corny--these are the usual dismissive adjectives. And, truth be told, Lovecraft did favor words like "eldritch," "Cyclopean," and "eidolon." He referred frequently to Miskatonic University's rare copy--"one of six extant"--of the accursed Necronomicon of a mad Arab named Abdul Alhazred, and he created a pantheon of evil gods (who are actually extraterrestrials) with such nearly unpronounceable names as Nyarlothotep, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath (or "The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young," as it's sometimes called). Even his titles often sound a bit hokey or camp: "The Colour Out of Space," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Whisperer in Darkness," "The Dunwich Horror."
BUT WHAT MAKES LOVECRAFT so overwhelming to sympathetic readers isn't his sometimes overheated prose--any more than the Grand Guignol of his plots (revival of the dead, the swapping of minds, aliens among us) or his philosophy of "cosmicism," which reduces mankind's role in the universe to a bit part, hardly even a walk-on. What matters is that he possesses the storyteller's greatest gift, the one Nabokov called shamanstvo: the "enchanter quality." This narrative sorcery derives, to a great extent, from Lovecraft's mastery of atmosphere--created by the very prose for which he is mocked. Read almost any story's opening sentence, quietly suggestive of a world suddenly grown uncanny, and the spell is cast:
* "When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean's Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country" ("The Dunwich Horror").
The voice of the narrator--often an academic or antiquarian--is at first calm, logical, nearly reportorial; here are no fanciful speculations but hard facts, however odd, and clear-eyed observations, however disturbing. Lovecraft firmly believed that the successful weird tale should be faithfully realistic except for the one, shattering incursion from the Outside. Still, from the beginning of each narrative he hints (then more than hints) that something is awry, off-kilter, not quite right. To convey this pervasive uneasiness, his most powerful word is often nothing more fancy than "too": "The trees grew too quickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood. There was too much silence in the dim alleys between them, and the floor was too soft with the dank moss and mattings of infinite years of decay."
Occasionally Lovecraft's openings also plant quiet clues about the final horrific revelation: When he states that an apparent madman "bore the name of Charles Dexter Ward," misdirection can hardly grow more subtle. But as the stories progress, so does their sense of urgency, and the prose often grows dionysian and phantasmagoric. How else can one describe violations of nature and visitations by the absolutely Other?
Lovecraft's creepiest moments sometimes include such things as the sexual confusions of "The Thing on the Doorstep" and the echoes of the Crucifixion in the closing pages of "The Dunwich Horror." But inevitably, the last paragraphs or even the last sentence of a Lovecraft story elicits a final shattering epiphany, frequently delivered in italics, with the shriek of insanity in every syllable, as when "The Rats in the Walls" ends: "Magna Mater! Magna Mater! . . . Atys . . . Dia ad aghaidh's ad nodann. . . . agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas's dholas ort, agus lealt-sa . . . Ungl . . . ungl . . . rrlh . . . chchch. . . . "
IN HIS EARLY TALES--those written before the late 1920s--Lovecraft tended to focus on human-scaled horrors. He wanted (in the words of the Fat Boy in Dickens's Pickwick Papers) "to make your flesh creep." But his later work often added a cosmic dimension and the concomitant sense of wonder of science fiction, as when "The Shadow Out of Time" lyricizes, with an occasional shudder, about things to come and things that have been. As Lovecraft wrote in his masterly essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature," he aimed to excite "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." That notion of "awed listening" is particularly potent, for many of his ill-starred characters seem, just before their doom, to be listening for something--the scurrying of rats or a strange whistling, or perhaps a peculiar buzzing sound or even "a rhythmical surging or lapping, as of the waves on some level beach."
A CLASSIC GHOST STORY, no matter how frightening, generally confirms our fundamental metaphysical assumptions, even while playing upon primordial fears or showing us the malign, but oddly just, working out of an inexorable destiny. By contrast, the weird tale, especially in the "cosmic" form Lovecraft came to prefer, casts doubt upon everything we think we know--and so leaves us reeling. Our shiny and solid world turns out to be nothing but a flimsy puppet show, intended to distract us from the truth. We have been lulled--but for what purpose?--into a shallow, existential complacency. Life is but a dream. Or nightmare. One day the hapless and innocent suddenly realize that unknown forces have led to "a suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space."
"The most merciful thing in the world," claims the fearful narrator of Lovecraft's key work, "The Call of Cthulhu," 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. . . . But some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
Just so, in Lovecraft story after story, a character gradually detects an unsuspected pattern behind various oddities, folkloristic rituals, or ancient legends--and this dossier of anomalies brings him to the abyss as surely as it brought Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. After horrible imaginings the scholar-scientists finally arrive at even more horrible certainties. Those unlucky enough to survive drag out their broken lives, crushed by ghastly knowledge or the memory of unwholesome rituals, vainly hoping to dismiss their discoveries as nightmares, insanity, or delusion. Alas, as one of them admits, "no madness of mine could account for all the evidence."
AT ITS MOST AMBITIOUS, Lovecraft's supernatural horror aims to create in the reader a spiritual vertigo akin to that experienced by his racked protagonists. Could all history be, in fact, a sham, with the Earth's true masters hidden from us? Are we the playthings of a Great Race from beyond the solar system? Is our very identity uncertain and friable? Lovecraft answers yes to all these questions, even while recognizing that humankind cannot bear very much reality. Old Ones and crab-like fungi from Yuggoth may lurk in backwoods New England. Somewhere under the waves Great Cthulhu lies dreaming in his nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh, patiently waiting for the stars to come right again. There are doubtless things at the South Pole that don't belong there. Some unfortunate souls have even seen, to their dismay, the pit of the Shoggoths.
Peter Straub's selection from Lovecraft for the Library of America could hardly be bettered, though it does contain one or two weak pieces, such as the amusingly macabre serial "Herbert West--Reanimator." Straub excludes Lovecraft's more lyrical fantasies, influenced by the singing prose of Lord Dunsany, and you will look in vain for such an evocative, if minor, tale as "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" or the shambolic novel The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Some space should surely have been allocated for Lovecraft's miscellaneous nonfiction--in particular "Supernatural Horror in Literature." That is the essay in which he traces his genre's history, lingering over the dark splendors of Poe, the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne, especially in The House of the Seven Gables (which he judged American literature's finest novel of the supernatural), and the achievements of his own magnificent contemporaries.
In fact, Lovecraft often borrows or builds on his predecessors' themes and ideas. Surely there are touches of Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo" in "The Dunwich Horror," of William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland in "The Whisperer in Darkness," of Arthur Machen's "Novel of the Black Powder" in "Cool Air"--even of Arthur Conan Doyle's humorous "Great Keinplatz Experiment" in Lovecraft's terrifying "The Thing on the Doorstep" and of M.R. James's "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" in the final lines of "Pickman's Model." But all these borrowings are transmuted by Lovecraft's own dark artistic alchemy.
MOST PEOPLE discover H.P. Lovecraft through such anthology standards as "The Rats in the Walls" and "The Colour Out of Space." But some of his greatest admirers eventually come to prefer his nonfiction, especially his correspondence. Anyone who reads even selections from Lovecraft's letters (it's said that fifteen thousand survive) discovers a clear, vigorous prose and a wide-ranging intellect--together with a solid chunk of racism and anti-Semitism.
A descendant of early American settlers, Lovecraft believed in what he felt were sturdy Yankee virtues (especially abstemiousness and self-control). He also admired eighteenth-century Britain for its aristocratic elegance and enlightened deism, and he shuddered at the teeming lowlife of New York. Immigrants, he felt, should assimilate and model their comportment after that of proper white, Anglo-Saxon Americans. Many critics have pointed out that "Arthur Jermyn" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"--some of whose characters are not entirely human--may be interpreted as warnings about the supposed horrors attendant upon miscegenation.
BORN IN 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft grew up in a well-to-do family, learned to read very early, and composed his first work of prose, "The Noble Eavesdropper," at the age of seven--unsurprisingly, it concerns "a boy who overheard some horrible conclave of subterranean beings in a cave." Lovecraft's salesman father died young from syphilis, and soon thereafter the family fortune disappeared. Nonetheless, this skinny, horse-faced intellectual, with a high piping voice, a love for astronomy, and no regular income, managed to devote his entire life to writing. He earned a pittance revising other people's stories and proofreading articles and books (most notably, A History of Dartmouth College).
Along the way, he corresponded regularly with scores of lively, original thinkers and writers, including Robert E. Howard (of Conan the Barbarian fame), fantasist Clark Ashton Smith (whom he called "Klarkash-Ton"), Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), and the versatile Fritz Leiber, arguably his only real, and very different, rival among night's black agents. Through a poet friend, Lovecraft met Hart Crane, and he once ghostwrote a story for Harry Houdini called "Under the Pyramids."
More surprising than any of this may be the fact that Lovecraft--under-sexed, neurasthenic, a Mama's boy--actually got married in 1924, to a Jewish woman who described him, mirabile dictu, as "an adequately excellent lover." The couple resided in hated New York City for two years, until the marriage broke up and Lovecraft happily moved back home to Providence. In his later years, this once wholly introspective voyager traveled all around eastern America, from Quebec to New Orleans, from Cleveland to Key West.
He actually competed in an ice-cream eating contest and was reportedly offered the editorship of a periodical called the Magazine of Fun. He remained an almost literally starving writer, however, with so little income at one point that he ate his suppers out of cans, being unable to afford a stove. A typical dinner might consist of cold hot dogs, biscuits, and mayonnaise. Lovecraft died from cancer in 1937: forty-six years old and apparently doomed to be forgotten.
Except that he wasn't. His circle of admirers proved to be fanatically devoted. August Derleth founded Arkham House to publish his hero's works in hardcover and in 1939 produced a mammoth collection, The Outsider and Others. Following upon the example of Frank Belknap Long's "The Hounds of Tindalos," other writers quickly began to add their own stories set in the fictional universe Lovecraft had created (which became known, somewhat incorrectly, as the "Cthulhu Mythos").
Continuations and pastiches of Lovecraft have proliferated ever since. Most recently that influence may be glimpsed in spooky television shows and antiquarian gothics about global conspiracies, accursed manuscripts and secret brotherhoods. Scholarship has also flourished. Over the past quarter century, the tireless and meticulous S.T. Joshi has established definitive texts for the stories, written Lovecraft's biography, edited various compilations of his nonfiction and correspondence, and annotated almost everything. Through such efforts, and those of specialty publishers and university presses, nearly everything Lovecraft ever scribbled is in print or soon will be.
In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward we are given a warning: "Doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe." With the appearance of this Library of America volume, it is clear that H.P. Lovecraft has been called up and can no longer be put down. This once little-known horror writer has reached out from beyond the grave to claim his rightful place as a grand master of visionary fiction.
Michael Dirda, a longtime columnist for the Washington Post's Book World, is the author of Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books.