Thursday, July 16, 2015

In perpetual defense of H.P. Lovecraft

It's once again time to defend H.P. Lovecraft's literary significance.

This discussion has a way of feeling relevant no matter how many times it's taken place, which is a lot more often than you might think. Lovecraft's legacy has been one of perpetual ebb and flow, with each generation embracing and rejecting his work at an almost industrial rhythm. Our cultural relationship with Lovecraft is like that of a child to a parent: we adore him in our youth, reject him during the painful onset of "maturity," and return to him in later years with a measured sense of respect.

Writer Alan Moore appears to have reached the twilight phase of his relationship with Lovecraft. His new comic series PROVIDENCE functions as a treatise on Lovecraft's strengths. It's a follow-up to his controversial NEONOMICON, which insisted on discussion of the bigotry, misanthropy and sexual undertones of Lovecraft's golden age stories. Both series are meta-pastiches that involve variations of his characters and situations, though PROVIDENCE (so far) has been a lot more restrained than its predecessor.

In the video above, Moore speaks briefly about our newfound "cuddly" relationship with the elder gods, one that has transformed Cthulhu into a kind of "Mickey Mouse" mascot of horror. Cthulhu was a concept that once invoked fear in readers. Today, he's fodder for stuffed animals, action figures and sardonic bumper stickers.

The reevaluation of Lovecraft's work is a popular meme, one that began almost immediately after his death in 1937. Below is a review of "The Outsider and Others," the first collection of Lovecraft's stories from Arkham House. Even though Lovecraft had been dead for just three years when this piece was published, the review has that faintly apologetic air seen so often today in discussions about the author.

By H. P. Lovecraft.
Arkham House, Sauk City. Wis. 

The late H. P. Lovecraft occupies a peculiar position in American letters.  It seems safe to wager that, in the minds of more than a few critics, he occupies almost no position in the American literary hierarchy. This is not because Lovecraft was not a good writer. On the contrary, he could write plain and fancy rings around all but a handful of his contemporaries. In his chosen field he had no equal.

Lovecraft's undoubted abilities have remained more or less hidden for two reasons. The first is that his field is the supernatural and the weird, traditionally a limited one. The second reason, closely aligned with the first, is that almost all of Lovecraft's writing has appeared in a comparatively obscure publication, Weird Tales. This magazine, besides being one of the abhorred "pulps" has a highly specialized circulation and is rarely to be found in the ivory towers of widely known critics.

Lovecraft died in 1937. “The Outsider and Others" is a posthumous collection of his stories, edited by Donald Wandrei and August Derleth, themselves writers as well as fanciers of weird stories. Not all the stories included are truly weird, but all have an element of strangeness, an element which in some cages is utilized to attain a pitch of horror not far short of Poe's level.

Lovecraft possessed a freshness of imagination and a prolificity of invention scarcely surpassed by any other writer of the weird. In the course of his career he developed at least the outer symbols of a peculiarly horrible mythology,  from which other writers have since borrowed. More than one of his stories approaches close to the borders of madness: It would be difficult, reading them, to believe that Lovecraft was quite sane, just as some of Poe's conceptions make one doubt his entire sanity.

A flowing, 18th century style contributes markedly to the effect of Lovecraft's tales. At times, this style burgeons a bit too consciously, and reading several stories at one sitting is likely to surfeit the reader’s appetite: but on the whole the writing holes up remarkable well.

Not the least interesting thing in this volume is Lovecraft's essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature," a capable and scholarly piece which deals with the origin of the weird tradition in literature and its various ramifications to the present day. It fittingly rounds out one of the most significant books of the weird to appear in many years.

(Originally published in the March 24, 1940, edition of the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star.)

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