Contradictions and the Burkean … Lovecraft?
Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890–1937) is, after Poe, the most important and influential American writer of horror fiction. This, it seems, is as far as consensus extends. He has been savaged by Edmund Wilson and praised by Joyce Carol Oates, published in lurid paperbacks and in the Library of America, damned as a racist, and exalted as a model of the unified philosophical life. His personality incorporated similar contradictions: much-traveled homebody, good-humored pessimist, mechanistic aesthete. These tensions power Lovecraft’s tales, as he time and again subverts his own cherished principles for the sake of effective horror. Characters who share Lovecraft’s philosophy of scientific inquiry and materialism meet horrifying dooms embodying his belief in human insignificance on a cosmic scale. Towns populated exclusively by the Anglo-Saxon race he champions in his letters decay into animalistic demon-worship in his fiction. The landscape of New England, which he loved with an almost palpable fervor, conceals monstrosities older than its hills; its architecture is “witch-haunted” or even extra-dimensional.
His political beliefs likewise initially seem schizophrenic. In his early adulthood, he edited an amateur journal called The Conservative and hung a picture of Jefferson Davis on his wall; by his forties, he supported the New Deal, made excuses for both Hitler and the Bolsheviks, and called for the wholesale restructuring of the economy along “scientific” principles. The common thread, of course, was his suspicion of democracy and popular opinion: his letters are full of caustic references to the “herd.” When creating a technocratic utopia—admittedly, one inhabited by cone-shaped beings in the deep Jurassic—he described its government as “a kind of fascistic socialism.” But even here, Lovecraft shades into unlikely contrast, if not contradiction.
Although his politics, economics, and scientific racism (he was a great devotee of Ernst Haeckel, an illustration of whose works delightfully adorns the cover) were all rigorously modern, Lovecraft despised Futurism, Modernism, and the aesthetic of the twentieth century he saw throwing up its “vast angles” and “improper surfaces” everywhere he looked. Even in the 1930s, it should have been obvious to Lovecraft that neither fascism nor socialism were likely to halt the hideous propagation of anti-human architecture and art—rather the opposite. But like his terrified fictional protagonists, Lovecraft fled from the implications of modernity both artistically and literally. When his marriage collapsed in 1926, he abandoned his feeble attempts to find employment in modern, strident New York and returned to colonial, peaceful Providence, Rhode Island to live with his aunts.
His Augustan aesthetic conservatism did not even admit much of the nineteenth century. Lovecraft deprecated Victorian architecture, and considered Swinburne the last readable English poet. Scientifically convinced that the machine age was inevitable, he nonetheless crafted his science-fictional horror tales from complex, involute sentences richly adorned with adjectives and adverbs after the style of Hawthorne or Poe. His horrors embodied the beliefs of modernity—the inevitable death of the universe, the insignificance of humanity, the contingency and evanescence of civilization—even as his aesthetics exalted their opposite.
Lovecraft believed it was the duty of the artist to maintain tradition, especially in the modern age, writing for example in a letter of 1929 that “there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon . . . & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed us by the massed experience of our ancestors. . . .” That Burkean belief resonates throughout Lovecraft’s writing, along with Burke’s theory of the Sublime and its relationship with fear. The aesthetics of both Burke and Lovecraft emphasize such elements as vastness, infinity, obscurity, power, ruination, impossibility, and the astonishment of horror. In 1926 Lovecraft presented these themes in the magisterial fugue of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and continued ringing changes on them for the rest of his life.
Here in his fiction, and only here, could Lovecraft reconcile his own contradictions. His stories reconcile the tradition of the Gothic with the reality of the modern age by creating a new vocabulary of horror. The unutterably ancient geology of the Earth becomes the “haunted castle” of the Gothic; unknowable aliens replace mysterious foreign nobles; violation of scientific law transcends the Gothic’s concerns with moral law while echoing its storms and specters; above the Catholic trappings of the Gothic, Lovecraft erects a new mythology of ancient alien gods and blasphemous tomes of para-scientific lore. Even the fainting and persecuted protagonist remains, becoming an Anglo-Saxon scholar rather than a fair-haired damsel.
Although editor Roger Luckhurst is a scholar of the Gothic, his introduction to this collection scants Lovecraft’s revitalization of that form in favor of reading him into the again-fashionable genre of “the weird.” For this reason, Luckhurst includes the first, introductory section of Lovecraft’s critical essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, although even there Lovecraft refers to the works under consideration as “literature of cosmic fear.” Though most of Lovecraft’s published tales appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, despite its name it prominently featured the conventional horrors of Seabury Quinn and other un-weird writers. Perhaps more relevantly, three of Lovecraft’s masterpieces appeared in science-fiction pulps; this perceived slipperiness of genre gives Luckhurst some slight room to stand.
In addition to competent (though not entirely reliable) summaries of Lovecraft’s biography and philosophy, Luckhurst also addresses Lovecraft’s racism. To Luckhurst, race is central to Lovecraft’s theory of fiction, and his tales resound with the rhythms and sentiments of white supremacy terrified of its coming destruction. Perhaps for this reason, Luckhurst has chosen to include “The Horror at Red Hook” in the current collection. Easily Lovecraft’s most overtly racist horror, it is also, in a rare show of unanimity among his critics, almost universally considered one of his worst tales. Luckhurst defends its inclusion as needed “to point the way: it is Lovecraft’s engagement with the actual city of New York.” (Luckhurst probably does not mean to imply that “the actual city of New York” bursts with demon-worshiping Levantines.) Even on that basis “He” (a story of antique survival in “this city of stone and stridor”) would have been a superior choice, while the early tale “The Music of Erich Zann” points the way more clearly to Lovecraft’s cosmic concerns and individual “weird” voice.
Although scholarly opinion varies, the rest of Luckhurst’s choices are at least defensibly great horror stories. “The Dunwich Horror” raises the hackles of Lovecraft’s more puritan critics for its examination of sin and evil (derived from Arthur Machen, whose fiction Lovecraft pastiches here), and they likewise recoil from the trappings of historical witch prosecutions in “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” but the first is a genuine masterpiece and the second the fullest exposition of Lovecraft’s neo-Platonist extra-dimensional themes. At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time” both err on the side of philosophizing at the expense of the horror as Lovecraft explains his alien technocrats in loving detail, but both also indelibly evoke his cosmic sense of scale and contain scenes of sheer terror and dread. “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” demonstrate Lovecraft’s ability to masterfully transform the terroir of his surroundings (Vermont and Newburyport, respectively) into settings for terror tales; “The Call of Cthulhu” changed the shape of three genres while creating an iconic cultural figure; and “The Colour Out of Space” may well be the greatest single horror story ever written.
Frustratingly, Luckhurst presents all nine tales using texts mostly taken from their re-publication in the 1960s. He re-paragraphs At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time” as F. Orlin Tremayne, editor of Astounding Stories, did when they appeared there in 1936, disregarding not only the recent (2003) discovery of the original manuscript of “Shadow” but Lovecraft’s vituperatively expressed opinion of Tremayne’s work. Corrected texts of all these stories appear in the Penguin Classics volumes of Lovecraft edited by the dean of Lovecraft scholars, S. T. Joshi—perhaps some rivalry between Oxford and Penguin, echoing the cosmic wars of Lovecraft’s invented prehistory, explains the decision to use corrupt texts in this edition.
The flaws are not crippling (Lovecraft’s opinion notwithstanding), given that these versions held enough power to captivate, for instance, a young S. T. Joshi along with millions of other Lovecraft fans. With that said, the present volume is certainly more convenient than the three Penguin volumes, and (“Red Hook” aside) its selection of tales is superior to Joyce Carol Oates’s one-volume collection Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, which omits “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “Dreams in the Witch-House” in favor of a mixed bag of earlier works. Luckhurst’s endnotes and bibliography are adequate, but uninspired. But they indicate that Luckhurst lacks the understanding of Lovecraft that Joshi and Oates both possess, and the understanding of the weird, of the modern world, and of the Gothic that these classic horror stories whisper into the careful reader’s ear.
Kenneth Hite is a writer and game designer in Chicago. He has written Trail of Cthulhu, a Lovecraftian roleplaying game, Tour de Lovecraft: the Tales, a volume of Lovecraft criticism, the “Lost in Lovecraft” column for Weird Tales, and three Lovecraftian children’s books.
Posted: November 10, 2013
A Return to the Thought-Murders