H. P. Lovecraft (1890--1937)

29 Dec 2023 14:32

American writer of horror, science fiction and fantasy; I have been reading him since I was twelve or thirteen.

The worst thing about Lovecraft, as a writer, is the stilted excess of much of his prose: "purple" hardly does it justice. His habit of rummaging through the dictionary sometimes finds gems, but for every "eldritch" there's at least one "squamous" and two "rugoses". Those were meant to suggest a learned, leisurely, gentlemanly 18th-century manner, but Lovecraft was not Edward Gibbon and just couldn't pull it off.

These days, I think many critics would regard his very overt racism as a bigger flaw than his prose. I agree it is a flaw, but lots of good writers had political ideas which later generations find repulsive. (I have enjoyed plenty of books by authors who were, at the very least, fellow-travelers of Stalinism.) The aesthetic issues with Lovecraft's racism are, it seems to me, three-fold:

  1. It's often so over-the-top as to be distracting or disfiguring;
  2. He had very strong reactions to things which (now) seem trivial;
  3. It is inconsistent with his best ideas.
(1) speaks for itself. As for (2), from the perspective of early 21st century America, someone who gets racistly weirded out by Italians ("Haunter of the Dark"), or "Levantines" in Brooklyn ("Red Hook"), or (so help me) the difference between Saxons and Celts ("The Rats in the Walls") is just being ridiculous. (In our age of progress, we have prominent Italian- and Armenian- American anti-immigrant nativists.) Of course, HPL had over-the-top reactions to lots of things.

(3) is, to my mind, the most important. There is a well-known passage where Lovecraft describes what he was aiming at:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. ... To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. [1927]
He would have been a stronger writer, by his own best standards, if he could have realized that when confronting "the shadow-haunted Outside", obsessing over the shape of his (human) characters' noses is puerile and distracting.

Despite those puerile distractions, and that over-wrought prose style, Lovecraft is worth reading, almost a century after he died in obscurity. This is because at his best he succeeded in evoking that sense of the little warm human world opening out into something vaster and darker, and indifferently hostile. There is I think an interesting essay --- which may have been written! --- about Lovecraft as an anti-mythic mythopoet, who succeeded in creating new myths by inspired inversions of ancient themes. (Thus I have thought since I was an undergrad that, at some level, Cthulhu is a parody of Christ. [I would not like to make "at some level" more precise just now.])

There are two sets of inter-textual questions regarding Lovecraft I would like to know more about.

  1. Did he read Blavatsky directly, or second-hand? When, and how much? Blavatsky's cosmology involved a whole series of more-or-less-inhuman, not-quite-material-as-we-understand-it races occupying the Earth in prehistory, some of them on now-sunken continents, and leaving records known in esoteric lore, so I am pretty sure there must be either a line of descent (Theosophy was big in those days), or, less likely, a common source.
  2. Did he read Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men? It came out in 1930, and "The Shadow Out of Time" was written in 1934--1935, and there's so much similarity (recounting the future history of the solar system and humanity, telepathic creatures of the far future inhabiting the consciousness of present-day humans to research all the different forms of mind) that either Lovecraft read Stapledon and was inspired, or, again, there's a common source.

Pointers on either subject would be appreciated.