I have been reading the work of H. P. Lovecraft, who passed away on March 15, 1937, longer than that of any other author. I still own my copy of a book which, appropriate to Lovecraft, is itself a mystery. My name is inscribed on the inside cover, and I would have been about 13 when I read this opening sentence: “North of Arkham the hills rise dark, wild, and wooded, and much overgrown, an area through which the Miskatonic flows seaward, almost at one boundary of the wooded tract.”
Hawk-eyed Lovecraftians will perhaps think they recognize the opening of the story “The Colour Out of Space,” but look again. Lovecraft’s 1927 tale opens thus: “West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut.”
Fans of Batman, incidentally, will also recognize “Arkham” as the name of the Gotham City mental asylum, an indication of Lovecraft’s tentacle-like influence on pop culture.
But my initiation to Lovecraft, a novella titled The Lurker at the Threshold (price 3/6, which older British readers will understand; that’s about 25 cents nowadays), remains a mystery. The cover notes in very small print that it was written “with August Derleth,” an associate of Lovecraft’s, and the end of the book is clearly rushed and tacked on; threads of the tale are left open-ended. I have read elsewhere that Derleth wrote it all, but I don’t think so. What I do know is that something had an effect on me that remains after almost half a century, and as much as anything, that is Lovecraft’s style.
I stayed with Lovecraft over the years, always coming back to the deep woods, the ruined architecture, the strange geometry, the evil jewelry of Innsmouth, the Elder Gods and the Great Old Ones, Cthulhu and Dagon. Certainly, in an age long before our own and its CGI visual orgiastics, Lovecraft evoked something cosmically horrific simply using language. Written horror must work a lot harder than its modern cinematic equivalent. How did Lovecraft write horror?
The Czech writer’s Josef Škvorecký’s 1977 novel The Engineer of Human Souls uses famous Anglophone writers for its chapter titles — Poe, Conrad, Hemingway — and the last chapter is titled after Lovecraft’s story “At the Mountains of Madness.” Škvorecký’s main character, a literature professor, calls Lovecraft a “hack writer” who imitated Poe, but he sums him up to a nicety:
“Lovecraft didn’t have a great range of fantasy, but what he had was intense. It was more like an obsession than a fantasy. Like all prophets.”
“What did he prophesy?”
“The same as all prophets, Nicole. Doom.”
So, our Providence prophet of doom has a nihilistic message for mankind, a tale of terror written not just for Weird Tales — one of the magazines which first published Lovecraft — but for a misbegotten and doomed race. But how does Lovecraft tell his tale?
I’ll consider two books published around the same time a decade ago. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy by philosopher Graham Harman is a detailed look at how Lovecraft uses language to create the sinister tension of his literary world, and the manner in which this functions philosophically. A somewhat stranger book, in which Lovecraft makes only fleeting appearances but whose spirit infuses the whole, is The Conspiracy against the Human Race by American horror writer Thomas Ligotti.
Harman is a philosophy professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. The MIT Press lists him as a contributor and continues:
His work on the metaphysics of objects led to the development of object-oriented ontology. He is a central figure in the speculative realism trend in contemporary philosophy.
Harman bases his work on Heidegger’s notion of tools in Being and Time, and finds Heidegger’s foregrounding of the usable objects the world offers up to be a crucial element in human experience (portrayed by Heidegger as Dasein). Harman’s work has apparently had repercussions in the art world, and it is objects which offer Harman the key to Lovecraft’s stylistic effects: “No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess.”
Those familiar with Lovecraft will recognize the “uncanniness” of the objects, creatures, landscape, and architecture his protagonists encounter. Being is under pressure from language, and vice versa: “This is the stylistic world of H. P. Lovecraft, a world in which (1) real objects are locked in impossible tension with the crippled descriptive powers of language, and (2) visible objects display unbearable seismic torsion with their own qualities.”
This is not an enticing view of literary language from the point of view of style, but Harman finds that Lovecraft’s work actually breaks ground:
“Far from being a bad stylist, Lovecraft often makes innovations that feel like technical breakthroughs of the sort Vasari finds in various Italian artists.”
Style is often viewed as a separate area of literary concern, but it is more densely woven into the meaning of fiction than might at first appear. Some novels foreground linguistic style and its transgressions: the shifting meanings and semi-coherence of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the repetitions and recommencements of Alain Robbe-Grillet, or the strange task set for himself by Georges Perec when he wrote A Void, a longish novel which does not feature the letter e. But Lovecraft is neither a showman nor does he force language to do his bidding by conjuring strictly literal descriptions of horrors; it is rather what that language may be able to hint at that entrances him. His Pascalian terror of the infinite spaces can have no referent in the world of our experience, and may only be alluded to in disconcerting tones. But Lovecraft’s style can seem rather stilted, given his fantastical preoccupations.
Lovecraft’s austere and archaic style is explained by Alex Kurtagić in his introductory essay to a collection of Lovecraft’s short-lived magazine The Conservative:
This was not an affectation; indeed, Lovecraft condemned the Victorians for, among other things, their artificiality and affectedness; Lovecraft grew up on a diet of Augustan literature, and considered the prose of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century the most stylistically superior ever produced in the English language.
Prose style is much more than ornamentation or gimmick. A well-crafted sentence or passage indicates to the reader that he is in the hands of a master. Henry James’ Washington Square — a novel and an author I dislike — boasts what I think is, stylistically, the finest opening sentence in English literature. It runs to 57 words and is a perfect blend of casual, introductory tale-telling and precise linguistic management. It should be read, or even framed and hung on the wall, by anyone even thinking of writing a novel;
During a portion of the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practiced in the city of New York a physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptional share of the consideration which, in the United States, has always been bestowed upon distinguished members of the medical profession.
If this successful physician had continued the story to be possessed and later gruesomely slaughtered by a star-headed alien from the nameless dimensions of a forbidding cosmos — in other words, if Washington Square had been a Lovecraft production — this sentence would still fit perfectly, and Lovecraft’s ability to finesse the English language would make him more than capable of rendering it.
Harman is also generous concerning Lovecraft’s pastoral stylistic ability: “Lovecraft is a skilled landscape painter in words, though for obvious reasons his range of color is restricted to various shades of dark.”
No vibrant Hardyesque heaths or Proustian flower gardens for Lovecraft. His writing is steeped in the metaphysics of gloom.
Harman’s is a book for the Lovecraft connoisseur. He lifts paragraphs and sentences from the stories and novels and analyses them minutely as linguistic events, and as a system of signifiers which are being asked to do more descriptive work than usual. So much for Lovecraftian language; what of the horrors of being itself?
Thomas Ligotti approaches Lovecraft in the context of a nihilistic philosophy pieced together from several obscure (to me) writers, at least three of whom committed suicide. Ligotti is, the last time I checked, still with us, and so his contemplation of suicide or, better, his wish to never have been born at all (he is like Nietzsche’s Silenus), has not got to him.
Ligotti considers that “[s]tringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die.”
The only way to shield yourself from the horror that is living is to subtract a part of one’s experience from the whole and banish it from consciousness. Norwegian metaphysician Peter Wessel Zapffe is referenced several times and is credited as an influence on Ligotti. Zepffe brings the book nicely around to Lovecraft’s provocative view of consciousness: “Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the contents of consciousness.”
Lovecraft concurs in one of his most famous sentences, the opening line of “The Call of Cthulhu”: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
Where Harman showed the metaphysical relationship between Lovecraftian object-language and the effect he aimed to achieve, Ligotti is more interested in the borders of sanity. Ligotti quotes philosopher Thomas Metzinger, and we see that it is not some occult fantasy which chills the reader of Lovecraft, but the Faustian nature of science: “There are aspects of the scientific world-view which may be damaging to our mental well-being, and that is what everybody intuitively feels.”
For Lovecraft is neither a Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasist or an occult writer in terms of the worldview he brings to his fiction. He does not set some deep magic to work on a vulnerable world, but rather presents us with another view of realism, one which has the added content of that which was previously exiled as too dangerous for consciousness. Ligotti presents a picture of a man who wishes to adorn reality by revealing those parts of it we would rather not inspect:
Philosophically, Lovecraft was a dyed-in-the-wool scientific materialist . . . [and] sublimating his awareness of the universe as nothingness in motion, he also mitigated the boredom that plagued his life by distracting himself with reveries of “surprise, discovery, strangeness. And the impingement of the cosmic, lawless, and mystical on the prozaic sphere of the known.”
Lovecraft had the scientific view of the world you would expect of an intelligent, inquiring man of his time. As a teenager he wrote an astronomy column for a rural newspaper, The Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner. His astronomical knowledge appears in The Lurker at the Threshold, as Stephen Bates looks through a stained-glass window expecting to inspect his estate, and is appalled to see a wholly alien scene:
[T]he landscape before my eyes was pitted and torn, and was assuredly non-terrestrial, and the sky overhead was filled with strange, baffling constellations, of which I knew none save one, very close, which bore a resemblance to the Hyades, as if that group had come closer to earth by thousands upon thousands of light years.
Those same stars Lovecraft observed so closely would be the gateway for his fictional hordes of ravening, demonic aliens from ancient history: bloodthirsty, terrifying slaughterers of mankind intent on showing that they know what mankind does not and dare not. To quote Ligotti: “In the world of nature, as an instance, nothing knows of its embroilment in a festival of massacres.”
This is the other world Lovecraft wished to communicate, using both language (as Harman shows) and a metaphysical view of the universe which complements Lovecraft’s basic scientism (as Ligotti contends), and alludes to a pessimistic, Schopenhauerean metaphysics which undermines the cosmic security for which we yearn by not knowing reality in its fullness:
Atmosphere is created by anything that suggests an ominous state of affairs beyond what our senses perceive and our minds can fully comprehend. It is the signature motif that Schopenhauer made discernible in pessimism — that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.
Lovecraft had horrors of his own. Penury, obscurity, and failure are packed in the kit-bag of every self-respecting author, at least at some stage in their career, but Lovecraft was like a character in an Ibsen play, always aware of the hereditary taint of familial madness that features in some of his stories.
Lovecraft’s father was admitted to Butler Hospital, Providence’s own version of Arkham Asylum, when the writer was three. His mother would follow her husband there almost two decades later. What the world had shown Lovecraft was madness, death, and loneliness. As with so many literary “outsiders,” his art saved him.
Lovecraft provided his own literary mission statement in a letter of 1935 which Ligotti quotes:
All real art must somehow be connected with truth, and in the case of weird art the emphasis must fall upon the one factor representing truth — certainly not the events (!!!) but the mood of intense and fruitless human aspiration typified by the pretended overturning of cosmic laws and the pretended transcending of possible human experience. [Lovecraft’s emphasis]
Lovecraft was an outsider. He would have fitted well into Colin Wilson’s precocious book The Outsider. This cultish British debut in 1956 offered almost an Arkham Asylum’s worth of writers from outside the mainstream in one way or another: Strindberg, Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Rimbaud, Nietzsche. Wilson writes: “As far as the Outsider is concerned, it is more important to have a powerful intellect than a highly developed capacity to ‘feel’.”
That certainly fits Lovecraft. As Harman notes, there are no love stories in Lovecraft’s fiction. The emotional range goes from stilted to manic in a bi-polar fashion, and many characters are existentially awkward, naïve, and unaware of the doom they are courting until it is too late. Ligotti considers an “inside” and “outside” as territory patrolled by various writers: “The literary world may be divided into two unequal groups: the insiders and the outsiders. The former are many and the latter are few.”
Assessment for and streaming into either group could, Ligotti suggests, be achieved by “assessing the consciousness of [a] writer as it is betrayed by various components of his work, including verbal style, general tone of voice, selection of subjects and themes etc.”
To young horror fans today, Lovecraft must seem antiquarian. As noted, our culture’s ability to display horror has reached its limit point, and Lovecraft can’t compete with CGI demons, although his influence can be seen in science fiction cinematics, which do what Lovecraft felt could not be done in showing the horror. I wonder whether the invention of cinema changed the way people dreamed, and how CGI perhaps supercharged the dream-work (as Freud called it) of today’s movie-watcher. Lovecraft had no movies to make, but was attempting to conjure the malignant ambience of the nightmare in prose.
Lovecraft himself told of nightmares he experienced as a child, when creatures called “Night Gaunts” would take him on aerial journeys over damned and evil landscapes. From Lovecraft’s bad dreams came a literature of nightmare and otherness achieved with the spare but effective tools of language. This is the literature of cosmic unease.
I began my acquaintance with Lovecraft by reading a mysterious book, and a testament to the fact that Lovecraft created an uncanny world whose shades and ambience have lived on in later cultural apparitions is his own mysterious book. The Necronomicon, apparently authored by “the mad Arab Abdul Alahazred,” features in passing in a number of stories, and the narrator of “At the Mountains of Madness” regrets having read it: “I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.”
Today there is a Lovecraft volume in the Library of America, so the United States has honored its troubled son whose gravestone reads: I am Providence. Even in the Library of America’s choice we note a stylistic oddity, and it may be the only volume in the collection whose author preferred English spellings to American. But the Necronomicon has never existed outside Lovecraft’s feverish and cosmically appalled imagination, despite Harman reporting its being “sufficiently convincing as a fabrication that real librarians around the world often report requests for the book even today.”
We know from horror movies about the advisability of opening mysterious books and, like Lovecraft’s hapless enquirers after dark truths, we must beware of what we might unleash if we do.
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