The Magazine

The Horror, the Horror!

H.P. Lovecraft enters the American canon.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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H.P. Lovecraft


edited by Peter Straub

Library of America, 828 pp., $35

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").

* "I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why" ( At the Mountains of Madness).

* "West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut" ("The Colour Out of Space").

* "I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d'Auseil" ("The Music of Erich Zann").