Monday, April 25, 2005

Influential Pulpist

Tales, by H.P. Lovecraft, Edited by Peter Straub, Library of America, 2005

There are a number of authors whose writings improve for the reader simply by the reader, in true Twain fashion, growing old enough to finally fully appreciate them (Conrad is, for me, a quintessential example). There are, alas, also a great number of authors for whom the reverse can be said. As one’s tastes develop, as one becomes more discerning in what is capable of sweeping you away and transporting you to another time and place, many a juvenile favorite’s cornier, more hokey devices are revealed.

Like many a young adolescent male, I found tales of the weird, the gruesome, and the horrific to be the most appealing dish. If I had back every dollar I spent on pocket paperbacks of the most sensationalist kind, I’d have little difficulty in paying down a sizable chunk of my mortgage. All the covers of these books needed to promise were spectral hauntings, macabre monsters almost unspeakably abominable, or depraved murderers thirsting for blood. Inspired by those kinds of books, that kind of movie, the stories I wrote when I was young would, if written by a teenager today, undoubtedly earn me a trip to the principal’s office, an intervention with the school psychologist, and possibly a visit with the local constabulary.

And so it is with a certain falling disappointment that I finished the Library of Congress’ respectability coronation within a single-volume collection of twenty-two stories and short novels of H.P. Lovecraft. Because of his greater antiquity when compared with most of the other authors who made up my library in those youthful days, I had held out a little hope that his reputation would not suffer with rereading, that in Lovecraft I would have recognized something of quality. Didn’t his honoring with this prestigious publisher’s imprimatur almost prove that point for me?

Unfortunately, no. Rereading Lovecraft has been at times painful, at times embarrassing, and — to be fair — at times quite enjoyable. I’m not sure it’s possible to quite outgrow the pleasure in a good scare, and if the receipts of the latest horror film or rollercoaster theme park prove anything, they prove the endurance and widespread appeal of just this. But for all that, Lovecraft’s fiction is populated, nay, overpopulated by decrepit old cliches, by repetitive descriptions, by yet another isolated, educated young man intent on discovering the forbidden mysteries of the universe, by the dramatic last line revelation, and by overwrought, lurid prose that surely taxed Lovecraft’s horror term thesaurus. How else can we account for such curious jargon as eidolon, eldritch, beldame, Cyclopean, curvilinear, fungoid, rugose? How else for final sentences like “for you see I died that time eighteen years ago” or “But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life”? How else can we account for the author of the Necronomicon being unfailingly described as “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred”?

Probably known foremost for his cycle of stories dealing with Elder Gods from other dimensions out of space, the so-called Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft is actually at his best when that element is at the periphery of his story, when it merits a mention but never dominates. For the uninitiated, Cthulhu is an enormous squid-like being, made of something like matter, but with differing characteristics. Here’s how it’s described in its introductory story “The Call of Cthulhu,” “gelatinous green immensity…awful squid-head with writhing feelers…a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves.” Needless to say, with a description like that, these Elder Gods don’t mean the human race any good. But when they stride the stage in all their “indescribable horror,” they’re a bit cheesy and they distract from the potent atmosphere of dread Lovecraft’s purplish prose has been building.

In his best stories, “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “Cool Air,” and “The Dreams in the Witch House,” the focus is more upon the slow unveiling of less enormous horrors either in one person’s life or surrounding him. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” provided such a drawn scene of apprehension when a traveler staying overnight in the accursed titular town hears someone trying to break into his room that I recalled it perfectly well over the last twenty years. It begins thus:

In the darkness every faint noise of the night seemed magnified, and a flood of doubly unpleasant thoughts swept over me. I was sorry I had put out the light, yet was too tired to rise and turn it on again. Then, after a long, dreary interval, and prefaced by a fresh creaking of stairs and corridor, there came that soft, damnably unmistakable sound which seemed like a malign fulfilment of all my apprehensions. Without the least shadow of a doubt, the lock on my hall door was being tried — cautiously, furtively, tentatively — with a key.

And this scene stretches over five pages and is rather amazing for conveying mounting dread, the high state of tension, then the sudden descent into sheer panicked flight.

The most common comparison Lovecraft suffers from is to Edgar Allan Poe, though I’m not entirely comfortable with this likening myself. Poe’s stories, though heavily saturated with the same archaic passages of overwrought description and likewise dealing with the morbid, most frequently are purely psychological in their terrors. The exposures of crime in “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” to pick two very obvious examples, come from the disintegration of the protagonist’s public fa├žade of normalcy. The horrendous crimes pass in a moment and what follows is the crumbling of sanity. That seems to me the essence of a Poe tale, the inner torment. Lovecraft, on the other hand, is all too focused on the exterior horrors, on external destroyers of reason. At the same time, often the horrors of Poe are assuredly of this world, while there are no agents save supernatural ones in Lovecraft.

It is in his atmospherics, although often overstrained, that this comparison most makes sense. Both authors simply suffuse the page with evocative intimations of dread and unease, both write of characters disconnected from the world around them, sinking into a morass of insanity, both have a sense of the poetic. It was, however, even further shocking to me to find that there were, especially in Lovecraft’s earlier writing, a rather nasty strain of racism that went beyond the merely patronizing view of minorities that was commonplace for the time. Mild is one character owning a black cat named “Nigger-Man.” Witness this passage from “Herbert West — Reanimator” describing the loser in a boxing match:

He was a loathsome gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life — but the world holds many ugly things.

The suspicion that this is driven by a greater feeling of disgust for blacks than merely upper crust WASPishness is borne out by the note at the back of the book that Lovecraft also authored “a poem decrying abolition, based on white supremacist writings” and wrote another “expressing his dislike for immigrants.” That I could have read this in my youth and not noticed it is hard to conceive, though I can’t say the idea ever struck me before that Lovecraft was an out and out racist. Yet it exists throughout. When immigrant parts of town are described as “material and spiritual putrescence,” when Catholic Poles are characterized as “whining” and “droning” and “clod-like,” when an Indian woman is described thusly, “of a very repulsive cast of countenance, probably due to a mixture of negro blood,” you know it’s more than a passing dislike.

It is, then, doubly disappointing to find the twentieth century’s most influential author of horror fiction to be not only corny but a bigot as well. Lovecraft’s writing seemed to grow out of the more venomous expressions of this attitude as he began to more and more develop his Cthulhu stories, yet it hovered there in the background, a sneering reference to southeast Asia or darkest Africa. Left at just those two expressions of “civilization” looking down upon “savages,” Lovecraft’s bigotry could be casually dismissed as typical white superiority complex. Seen in its more hateful manifestation, one wonders if perhaps these frightening invaders were from as far away as another planet, or perhaps across the ocean, or even just across town.

However, racist or not, Lovecraft was enormously influential, having influenced Robert Bloch (Psycho), Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby), Harlan Ellison (Angry Candy), Stephen King (too many to name), the art of H.R. Giger, Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead trilogy of films), and countless others who could take the atmospherics without the personal spite. For that reason alone, the volume would benefit enormously from an introductory essay making the case for this former pulp writer to be so catapulted up among greater literary luminaries; yet in providing such a volume, the publishers provide a nuanced vision of American fiction, selecting from both the highlights and the low. I’m certain there are many a literary snob still reeling from their collections of Chandler and Hammett, two other American pulp writers to whom many a writer currently engaged owes a debt too enormous to fully pay. It is to the Library of America’s credit that such snobbery takes a backseat to the quality presentation each of their volumes presents.

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