Saturday, February 12, 2005

No love for Lovecraft

Laura Miller goes after H.P. Lovecraft with her best hatchet in Saturday's Salon, wherein on the eve of the Library of America's issue of a new collection of the Providence recluse's collected works, she agonizes over the question of how Lovecraft became "American literature's greatest bad writer" and an icon of horror fiction. Beginning by pronouncing the man decidedly un-scary, Miller parades a hit list of disparaging quotes from current writers in the genre - including short story writer Peter Straub, who denies that Lovecraft was a major inspiration, and Stephen King, who while owning up to H.P.'s influence relegates his works to readers "living in a state of total sexual doubt." Lovecraft's mythos is a Jungian nightmare of giant vagina dentatas and other psychosexual beasts, King offers, a juvenile phase of horror writing ultimately outgrown by serious practitioners of the craft such as he.

Ouch, you may say. But Miller conveniently forgets that disowning one's influences and disparaging the classics is something that genre writers do best (witness Salon itself showcasing David Brin as he went after Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with a crowbar, or Cory Doctorow's damnation via faint praise of Isaac Asmiov in July of last year's Wired Magazine. The sci-fi/fantasy/horror crowd spends as much time dissing each other as the hip-hop industry, so is it any surprise that the current bestsellers are going to emphatically deny anything but their own genius?

Worse than that, however, is the fact that Miller's critical analysis (as well as that of King and other detractors) is just plain wrong. Lovecraft's cosmicism is more existential than Jungian, not paranoia so much as a healthy terror of the "infinite spaces" revealed by modern scientific thought going all the way back to Blaise Pascal. Unlike the psychological thrillers or gross-out explicitness of latter-day writers, H.P. Lovecraft's horror is of an intellectual variety, a cautionary tale of human knowledge and its limits set against the backdrop of early 20th Century New England.

As master of small-town creepiness, Stephen King has every right to call Lovecraft out for misrepresenting the Massachusetts countryside as he does in "The Dunwich Horror", but King fails to give old H.P. credit for his spot-on descriptions of the places he knew best - Providence, Boston, and the seaside towns of the North Shore, which he has rearranged into the pseudonymous mythos locales of Arkham (Salem), Innsmouth (Newburyport), Kingsport (Gloucester), and other unnamed hamlets and sleepy fishing villages preserving the unspeakable mysteries of the Old Ones. King's knack for parsimony may play well when describing rural New England and its frightening secrets, but Lovecraft's style befits his milieu, as his short stories often read as if written by antiquarians or archivists driven mad.

So he's a little on the verbose side - that hasn't kept Anthony Trollope from being an unabashed favorite of many an English major, while devotees of the Cthulhu Mythos have had to keep a low profile in the Ivory Tower for fear of ridicule (although I happen to have a good friend who has combined his talents as a professor of biology with his passion for Lovecraft in a unique and lucrative manner, writing supplements for the cult classic Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game). Lovecraft's cosmicism is disturbingly similar to the interplay of Apollonian and Dionysian knowledge, something I once pointed out to my former advisor in Classics only to get a grunt and a harumph in return.

Granted, the guy has serious problems with women, immigrants, and modernity in general, but as with rapper Eminem half the fascination comes from watching an artist sublimate his or her insecurities into art. And is his writing as terrible as Laura Miller et al make it out to be? Go to your nearest Barnes and Noble and pull some current genre fiction off the shelves and you'll soon disabuse yourself of that notion. At least H.P. Lovecraft is capable of writing prose that is erudite and grammatically correct, and doesn't rely on the cheap gimmickry of profanity, gore, and sexually explicit themes - the unholy trinity of modern horror fiction - to tell a creepily good tale. Kudos to the Library of America for recognizing Lovecraft as an American classic!


Roberto Iza Valdes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Akers said...

I celebrate this incisive commentary.

Decorum prohibits me from remarking on the sheer pretense of abysmal pseudo-criticism of HPL's literary genius. In its vast subtlety and depth, blindness to how magnificent is one thing. Except to say thanks Jersey Exile, for drawing attention to this one case in point. So flunking HPL from English classes he's not even enrolled in, a tin horn tradition established in snob lit-crit academy, is still alive and well?

What I find objectionable is the presumption of poseurs commenting on his work, in educated idiom, from the sheer poverty of such unperceptive water-cooler gossip. Its kind of unacceptable, and richly deserves what for.

I particularly applaud your recognition of the likely inspiration HPL drew from Pascal's articulation of the 'cosmic chill' that has descended upon humanity, a cold front in the advance of knowledge and understanding -- of gale force, intensifying over centuries. A 'metaphysical tsunami' -- to borrow a memorable phrase from Chris Stevens, NORTHERN EXPOSURE ("The Body In Question" episode) --apparently intensifying over the centuries since Galileo and remorseless, ongoing discoveries since.

I've long been struck by the echo in CALL OF CTHULHU's opening paragraph, almost paraphrase -- of Pascal, 1670:

“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after ... engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened ... The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me” (1670, Pénsées).

The bewildering gap between man's need and search for meaning - and the inability or failure of science to serve it to us on a silver platter -- proves an energy source for an entirely new kind of horror story. Thanks to one guy, HPL, and how masterfully he converted it, for all of us to savor and enjoy. He seems to have been a magician of metaphysical thermodynamics, as it were.

And wasn't he the literary genius, to realize and harness that emergent ontological rip for us, the splitting of reality's atom as it were; in effect -- putting a welcome silver lining in that otherwise ominous cloud.

THANK YOU JERSEY EXILE, and of course kudos for your insightful reference to Pascal, in context of HPL appreciation. If I ever cross paths with this "Linda Miller" -- she's in for a long, boring talk about her depreciation of HPL's brilliance, and gift to us.

Brian P. Akers, Ph.D.