No Sex, Please, Just Lovecraft
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
It's an old joke. Teacher surprises schoolboy pouring over the works of Lovecraft and promptly confiscates the book, believing it to be porn. What makes this amusing, for those in the know, is that Howard Phillips Lovecraft - whatever else he may or may not have been - was an obtusely un-erotic writer. By his own account, his uncensored perusal of anatomy books in the family library had virtually killed off his interest in all things sexual by the age of eight. He was later briefly married to a woman who rather charmingly described him as an "adequately excellent" lover but, in his fiction at least, sex was to remain a strictly no-go area. Of the dozen or so women referred to in his tales, hardly one is sufficiently developed to register as a "character". The nearest would be the eponymous heroine of the uncharacteristically humorous "Sweet Ermengarde", followed by the hideous Keziah Mason in "The Dreams in the Witch House" and Asenath Waite in "The Thing on the Doorstep", who (aside from being elliptically presented) is strongly suggested to be little more than a vessel for the malign spirit of her father. Just one surprisingly poignant early tale - "The Quest of Iranon" - could be construed as delicately depicting a homosexual relationship, though there is no documentary evidence to suggest that Lovecraft (a few gay acquaintances notwithstanding) was in any way receptive to the idea of homosexuality - if anything the reverse.
Anthony Powell once described his friend, Dennis Wheatley, as belonging to that class of "relatively intelligent men who write more or less conscious rubbish". Not a judgement I'd hurry to dispute, but at least Wheatley brightened up his shameless tripe with the odd flash of pubic hair. That is why he once commanded a loyal pubescent readership. Lovecraft,on the other hand, would have regarded this kind of thing as quite beyond the pale. He hated it when his company's conversation turned even slightly bawdy and his work as an imaginative writer always retained a stiffly prophylactic air.
Of course, for some of his champions - and these days he's not short of them - this rejection of the erotic is one of Lovecraft's distinguishing qualities. In his eccentric but sympathetic study, Lovecraft : Against the World, Against Life, Michel Houellebecq presents this view with characteristic clarity and force.
The value of a human being today is measured in terms of his economic efficiency and his
erotic potential - that is to say, in terms of the two things Lovecraft most despised.
True enough, I'd say. Though I'm sometimes not sure that, for all his perceptions, Houellebecq, like other Lovecraft apologists, shouldn't be consigned to that class of relatively intelligent men who write more or less consciously about rubbish.
Whenever Lovecraft was mentioned in his presence, Eric Mottram - a near-legendary figure in American Studies, by whom I was lucky to be taught in the early 1980s - would roll his eyes and sigh before snorting "no literary value". I used to be surprised at the uncompromising nature of his stance. Although a Leavisite by training, Eric took a broadly inclusive view of what constituted the "literary" and was certainly not hostile to work in popular genres. Had he, I wondered, for all his independence of mind, been influenced by Edmund Wilson's famous anti-Lovecraft essay, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous", with its words about "the horrors of bad taste and bad art"? Whatever, were he around today I'm sure he would be dismayed, not so much at Lovecraft's cultural ubiquity, as at the sizeable and seemingly growing critical industry that has sprung up around him. The genteel pauper who only saw a single story appear between hard covers during his lifetime is now the subject of theses, conferences, and online forums as well as being represented in a quite bewildering variety of editions, these last including (at the classier end of the market) Peter Straub's Library of America volume, Leslie Klinger's bulky New Annotated Lovecraft, and the three Penguin selections edited by the most energetic and vociferous of Lovecraftians, S. T. Joshi.
My own acquaintance with Lovecraft over the years has been piecemeal, though I must by the end of my 20s have read all of those stories that Houellebecq identifies as "Great Texts", plus the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature and a fair bit besides. I'm afraid I rather struggled to take them seriously. Over lockdown, however, prompted in part by the hype surrounding the (I'm sure, very good) HBO dramatisation of Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country, I decided that it was time for a final reckoning with the seer of Providence, and read through the fiction complete, at the rate of a story a day, in the nicely printed budget edition from Chartwell Books. The introduction to this volume speaks of how the "quality and originality" of Lovecraft's work has "secured him a well deserved place in American literary history". Would that I could agree, but I'm afraid that what struck me increasingly with each dose of daily Miskatonic was HPL's odd frugality, both of means and of imagination. Indeed, it now occurs to me that it is, paradoxically, the very paucity of his product that has lead to the currently unstoppable growth of interest in him - especially within the academy.
It may have been the drunken, sex-maniac modernist, James Joyce, who boasted that he would keep the professors going for a millennium, but Lovecraft - his teetotal, frigid, conservative antithesis - has lately proved a far greater boon to the lit crit industry. Ulysses, after all, is long, linguistically and stylistically challenging, densely allusive and strongly rooted in a particular historical context. Some professors will still be studying it, of course, but few I would have thought are actually teaching it any more and very few university English students graduating having more than glanced at it. Lovecraft, on the other hand, is thoroughly teachable, if nothing else. None of his writing is in long forms and, other than some fustian diction and the odd bit of New England dialect, it holds no stylistic terrors. Such direct allusions as crop up are easily identifiable, and contextual signifiers are relatively few and self-explanatory.
But it is not the manageable dimensions of Lovecraft's work alone that have made it useful to the academy. Two other factors are of major importance.
The first of these is the heavily documented nature of his existence. With Shakespeare we have around 37 plays, a handful of poems, a will and a few instances of his signature on legal writs, the whole floating in a biographical near vacuum (if that's not a scientific impossibility). With Lovecraft we have, not only the core canon of fiction, but a massive textual penumbra in the form of poems, travelogues, essays and - especially - some 20,000 surviving letters. These collectively constitute a virtually inexhaustible quarry for literary and biographical researchers, as well as giving us a minutely detailed picture of the author's ideas, character and opinions. Though most general readers will not really bother with them, they provide ample fuel for those aspiring to Lovecraftian authority.
The second factor, however, is the crucial one. Out of necessity frugal in life, Lovecraft was - for all his admirers' talk of protean imagination - also frugal in art. It is actually his parsimonious shuffling of characters, locations, motifs and portentous names from one story to another which builds up a hypnotic illusion of encyclopaedism; an illusion that has proved powerful bait for obsessives, and all the more intriguing for the extreme slowness with which it coagulates over the course of its originator's career.
Frankly, it is hard to imagine that Lovecraft would have troubled posterity at all had his life been a decade shorter. His earlier tales - which he probably regarded as of less importance than his mainly amateurish poetry - were chiefly short magazine stories, some better than others, but for the most part undistinguished. Essentially they fall into two types - dreamlike fantasy, in the manner of the then fashionable Lord Dunsany, and lurid horror pieces, more or less after Poe. With some exceptions, they are notably short-winded - unsurprisingly, perhaps, in a writer who took limited interest in character, no interest in women, struggled with naturalistic dialogue and avoided scenes of physical action. Their interest resides largely in the fleeting premonitions they offer of what August Derleth was to dub the "Cthulhu Mythos".
Derleth is a figure widely vilified in Lovecraftian circles for having both misappropriated and misunderstood his penfriend's work. Even if we leave aside the much vexed issue of copy-wright, some of this disapproval is doubtless deserved. His attempts to extend the Mythos through his own fictions (some based on Lovecraft sketches) are fairly desperate, and it seems pretty clear that (perhaps under the influence of his devout Catholicism) he misrepresented Lovecraft's meaningless cosmos as the site of a Manichaean clash between forces of good and evil. Still, there can be no denying his importance in securing Lovecraft's posthumous reputation, both through the founding of Arkham House Press and through his insistence that Lovecraft's tales adumbrate a unified and distinctive fictional world. Those tempted to see him as a mediocrity, opportunistically feeding off self-evident genius, should consider that he was throughout his lifetime a writer with a serious and enviable reputation for work in many genres. "What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise", to quote "The Call of Cthulhu", and it is an odd irony of literary history that he should now be known pretty much entirely for his association with an amateur writer of pulp horror.
The degree of importance which Lovecraft himself attached to his hierarchy of Elder Gods and Great Old Ones is open to question. He at least once referred to its vigorous elaboration in the hands of associates such as Derleth and (especially) Clark Ashton Smith as "Yog-Sothothery", perhaps an indication that he was himself somewhat enervated by the proliferating monstrosities he had released into the weird fiction atmosphere. Certainly, his own conscious integration of Mythos material only really began with his return to Providence from New York after the collapse of his marriage in 1926. Back where he felt safe, he launched into a brief, ambitious burst of writing that saw him attempt longer spans of fiction that expand and synthesize his earlier efforts.
The first fruits of this creative efflorescence were "The Call of Cthulhu" - of which more anon - and his two most determined assaults upon the novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. He was unhappy with both of these last, making no attempt to have them published, and they are not usually counted amongst his best or most representative work. They are, however, both fascinating for what they reveal about the nature and limitations of his talent.
The substantial slab of chapterless text that constitutes the Dream-Quest, was clearly abandoned before final revision, which is a pity, since it is for the most part, a colourful, inventive and fluent fantasy adventure, as well as being remarkable for the energy with which the author plunders and amplifies his earlier work (especially - though not exclusively - the Dunsanian tales of the so called "Dream Cycle"). The opening paragraphs, with their tantalising evocation of the marvellous city of Kadath as an unattainable "fever of the gods", vaguely calling up "glimpses of a far, forgotten first youth, when wonder and pleasure lay in all the mystery of days, and dawn and dusk alike strode forth prophetick to the eager sound of lutes and song" is one of Lovecraft's most effective pieces of writing. A strong atmosphere of mystery, excitement and yearning is sustained for much of the narrative, actually enhanced by the very vagueness of Randolph Carter's quest and the shadowy nature of the reality it unfolds against. There are decorative touches of horror but, for once, there is a sense of positive aspiration to set against the darkness - indeed, the idealistic impulse behind Carter's strivings is contrasted with the ghoulish afterlife of his morbid friend, Pickman. I don't know if Lovecraft had encountered David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus of 1920, but here he produces something that, if less profound, rivals it for otherworldly invention, whilst being considerably better written.
As things go on, however, some characteristic Lovecraftian oddities do start to surface. It is strange, for instance, that the Dreamlands, though seething with exotic life, are evidently devoid of females. Even the Ulthar cats appear to reproduce asexually. More damagingly, the lengthy battle scenes suffer from a lack of immediacy in the telling that becomes somewhat enervating. Yet the whole builds pretty convincingly towards a grand climax in the court of the malign trickster deity, Nyarlathotep, Lovecraft stretching his incantatory prose about as far as it will go. (It proves almost up to the task.)
The ultimate revelation that, unbeknownst to himself, Carter is really seeking, not the pinnacle of an extra-terrestrial mountain, but the peace and innocence of his Boston childhood, is one of the most unguardedly confessional things in Lovecraft, revealing him as an author who, for all his indebtedness to Poe, Hawthorne, Blackwood and other masters of the uncanny, had perhaps a greater affinity with Kenneth Graham, T. H. White, and those Victorian/Edwardian writers whose tragedy was having to enter an adult world they never entirely understood.
" ...the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell." the 30 year old Lovecraft wrote in a letter of 1920. Although, unlike such noted horror writers as Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, he would never deal directly with the world of childhood in his fiction, the fleeting visions of an idealized New England of rolling green hills and quiet steepled villages that crop up throughout especially his later tales, represent a pre-lapsarian realm of innocence and stasis, protected from the corrupt encroachments of an adult world by which he was both frightened and repelled.
But, it was not his only vision of New England. Charles Dexter Ward evokes its dark side - a place blighted by a history of superstition, repression, and cultural isolation. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who spoke of his native land as a virgin territory where God-fearing society could be remade in a state of clean-living positivity, but time and again represented it as an arena where (to quote William Burroughs) "the evil was there, waiting", Lovecraft had a divided attitude towards American Puritanism. On one level, he deplored what he took to be the dangerous self-delusions of religion, on the other, he embraced Puritan inhibition as the most effective personal protection against the horrors of the cosmos.
In fact, his only true novel (at a little over 50,000 words) is his fullest embodiment of this paradox. The vigilante mobs who burn down the necromancer Joseph Curwen's farm are combating a genuine monstrosity, but their ignorance and religiosity prevent them from identifying it as one with a scientific, not a supernatural, basis. The book's unlikely hero - possibly Lovecraft's closest approach to what E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (written, coincidentally, in the same year as Charles Dexter Ward) would describe as a "round character" - contrastingly embodies the best characteristics of his culture. Marinus Bicknell Willett is a somewhat pompous and self-congratulatory middle-aged doctor, but he has a courage, born of rationalism and enhanced by self-controlled sobriety, that make him a surprisingly engaging protagonist. His solitary descent into the loathsome catacombs beneath Pawtuxet Village, unflinchingly confronting horror after horror, is amongst the best sustained and most truly terrifying of Lovecraft's set pieces. Likewise, his final thwarting of Curwen's plot for world domination represents a satisfying triumph of the scientific spirit.
Lovecraft himself dismissed The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as "cumbrous" and "creaking", but it is arguably the work in which he finds the most satisfactory balance between the demands of commercial fiction and a deep held attitude of cosmic pessimism. Also - for me, at least, - it indicates a path that might have led him beyond the aesthetic impasse that blights (to greater or lesser extent) most of those late, "great texts", the first of which he had already written.
I will offer my thoughts on those in a separate post. In the mean time, a few quick interludes on my recent cultural activities...