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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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."