August 2013

Cate Fricke

fiction

The Classic Horror Stories of H.P. Lovecraft edited by Roger Luckhurst

Oxford University Press's The Classic Horror Stories of H.P. Lovecraft is a boon to those I'd call "Cthulu Newbies." The works most canonized, most talked about, and most borrowed from are gathered in this collection by professor and editor Roger Luckhurst, who provides detailed annotations, a thorough bibliography and timeline of Lovecraft's life, and a thoughtful, engaging introduction. In short, this volume provides exactly what readers of Lovecraft need when picking up his work for the first time: context.

Lovecraft is most celebrated for the series of stories that spawned "The Cthulu Mythos," fictional first-person accounts by men who stumble upon the class of creatures known as "The Old Ones." These Old Ones are at once extraterrestrial and subterrestrial; behemoth god-creatures of nebulous crustacean and cephalopodan appearance that existed long before man, and who are malevolently indifferent to man's existence. Lovecraft's stories about these and other horrors made him a touchstone for the genre of Weird stories.

But back to the issue of context.

It's context that reminds us that without Lovecraft's classic tales of the Weird, we would not have Alien, The Thing, or for that matter the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And for many contemporary readers, it's the context of Lovecraft's contributions to genre literature that will keep them tromping determinedly through long passages of expository narration and impossibly stilted descriptions to find the gratification at the end of each story: the moment in which the creature emerges, and reveals itself to be something that predates our darkest fears -- both as humans and as film watchers. In his introduction to The Classic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft, Luckhurst makes no bones about the author's somewhat strained relationship with literary critics who wagged their fingers at Lovecraft's sentence-level prose. Lovecraft's writing style, Luckhurst puts mildly, is "awkward." For contemporary readers, it's almost, dare I say it, alien.

As contemporary readers, we adjust comfortably to a character-driven narrative because contemporary novels and films are, ninety percent of the time, occupied with the quirks, judgments, and decisions of those characters. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was not interested in characters, or even action -- he was interested, above all, in atmosphere. His tales are told in the first person in a detached, almost academic style of reportage, and often the first-person narrators are relating accounts told to them by another party. Lovecraft's narrators are almost completely interchangeable, recognizable only by the degree to which each one is driven mad by what they are describing to the reader. What matters to Lovecraft was not that his readers remembered the idiosyncrasies (or even the names) of his narrators, but that we remember the feeling of dread and the indescribable horrors that they witness.

What makes Lovecraft's stories so chilling and unique, despite their "bad art," according to the critic Edmund Wilson in 1951, is their philosophical bleakness. In his introduction, Roger Luckhurst points out the influence of Gothic horror on Lovecraft's writing, but is also quick to note that that genre's "Christian underpinnings" distinctly do not apply. Lovecraft himself was an atheist, and his stories do not include any moral codes against which his protagonists err. In the Lovecraftian universe, humanity is doomed whether is ascribes to a set of rules or not. "I am not a pessimist," Lovecraft wrote, "but an indifferentist... Both [pessimists and optimists] retain in a vestigial way the primitive concept... of a cosmos which gives a damn one way or the other." The tentacled god-monster Cthulu and his ilk may seem ridiculous when described in physical terms to a readership used to carefully CGI-ed monsters, but neither their tentacles nor their malevolent ways are the true horror that Lovecraft intended to convey. Rather, the true horror is the notion that we are incapable of understanding what else exists in the universe -- our own inconsequence and ignorance is mirrored in the sheen of primordeal sludge.

Luckhurst makes an admirable attempt to link Lovecraft's most frustrating writing tic to this theme of the unknown when he claims that Lovecraft's "catachresis" -- deliberate muddling of language through the use of mixed metaphors and the like -- is a tool he uses to bolster the atmosphere of futility in the face of "absolute otherness." The trauma of encountering something so far outside the realms of imagination triggers a collapse of logic in the language itself. Though an interesting analysis, it does not necessarily make the following sentence from "The Call of Cthulu" any more pleasant to read: "The very sun of heaven seemed distorted when viewed through the polarizing miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion, and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles of carven rock where a second glance showed concavity after the first showed convexity."

Again, it's context that reminds us, in this very scene, that what we're reading is not only the emergence of a monster on the page, but the emergence of a genre -- and perhaps that's enough to forgive some utterly confounding prose. But Luckhurst's forthright introduction has more context to offer readers than just an exploration of Lovecraft's head-scratching style: it also reveals that the latter's preoccupation with alien terrors is all too firmly rooted in his own unshakeable racism and xenophobia.

This is not news to many Lovecraft readers, though a great number of collections of his work have been printed with little to no mention of the author's politics in their introductions. It's no secret that Lovecraft was a believer in eugenics, and was repulsed by the teeming number of immigrants and "lesser" people he encountered during his brief years in New York City. A staunch Anglo-Saxon Nativist, Lovecraft was in favor of strict immigration policies that would bolster New England against "racial suicide." A passage from a letter describing denizens of the Lower East Side slums reads almost exactly like a description out of "The Dunwich Horror": "They -- or the degenerate gelatinous fermentations of which they were composed -- seem'd to ooze, seep and trickle thro' the gaping cracks in the horrible houses... and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world..."

In his 1991 introduction to An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi remarks on the surprising nature of Lovecraft's stubborn ideas about race. In every other aspect of his life, Joshi states, Lovecraft applied a scholar's curiosity, and was often reforming opinions when presented with logic or science. But in the matter of his xenophobia and fear of miscegenation within the Nordic race, he remained unmoveable throughout his life.

Luckhurst, in his introduction to The Classic Horror Stories, does not make excuses for Lovecraft's racism -- instead, like Joshi, he acknowledges how much of his work is underpinned by that less salient aspect of Lovecraft's character. Lovecraft's narrators are not explorers, interested in discovering something new. They are scholars, yes, but also they are often skeptics who begin their murky journeys with the implied desire to disprove the whisperings or reports of others. And after they have pulled back the curtain on the luminescent sludge, the inbred alien-spawn, or the tentacled behemoth, they wish they never had. These are not men who are excited by the prospect of life from beyond. Their prevailing emotion is not curiosity, but revulsion. The figure of the other is a figure of darkness and aberration.

It is strange to think that what makes Lovecraft's fictions so terrifying, uncanny -- and thus enduring -- are the very products of his troubling fear of otherness. We cannot separate the man from the work in the same manner, to cite a recent example, that potential audiences of Ender's Game were recently asked by Orson Scott Card to ignore his homophobia on the grounds that Ender's Game, being set "more than a century in the future," had nothing to do with his political views. Were Lovecraft alive to make the same strange plea, it would be hard for him to argue that the revulsion and fear his characters feel when face to face with extreme otherness do not mirror his own.

So why read Lovecraft? Twenty years ago, S.T. Joshi proposed that this question would always bear asking, until Weird fiction became a more accepted genre, worthy of study. But now, with the renaissance of speculative fiction, sci-fi, and Weird fiction currently saturating literary magazines and publishing houses, genre seems no longer to be the crux of the question. But the question still exists. What with Lovecraft's literary demerits, and the influence of racism and xenophobia on his work, the question seems even more pressing, despite the current interest in strange tales. I can't offer you an answer (and neither, I would like to point out, does Luckhurst).

I will say that there is something satisfyingly uncanny about reading Lovecraft that is only compounded by this context. Like his many narrators, readers of Lovecraft will find themselves glimpsing something deeply unsettling: a worldview and a man filled both with revulsion and with wonder. His contributions to genre literature and pop culture are vast and undeniable. I hardly think that a man deserves celebration who described down-on-their-luck New Yorkers and aliens with bodies teeming with crustaceous stink and filth in the same terms, but I do believe that in some sense, it's better to know -- something that Lovecraft's narrators might disagree with. Do I, having acquainted myself more with Lovecraft via Luckhurst's informative collection, wish that I had never open'd the covers of the accurs'd volume and viewed the unspeakable horrors within? No. Instead, I feel once again the complicated wonderment that comes with seeing the layers of a human exposed, with the costume of Influential Author removed. I do not like Lovecraft as a man, and I'm not even sure I like him as a writer. But as a reader who still puzzles over Lovecraft's dark and teeming imagination, and who delights in the uncanny, skin-crawling creations he invented, I am glad to have seen what lurks beneath. Context excuses nothing, but it certainly makes for a more interesting read.

The Classic Horror Stories of H.P. Lovecraft edited by Roger Luckhurst
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199639571
496 pages