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!