The Philosophy in Lovecraft's Art


dan2100

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This is another one of my juvenile works. In this case, my views have changed much and this is more like me using Randian esthetics like a club to beat up on Lovecraft. I did write a couple of follow-up pieces -- partly due to conversations with Stephen Boydstun and Michelle Kamhi. I'll probably post those here next week. I don't think, though, that it's completely without value and hope it'll provoke some comment here.

Art is a highly selective act where one must consciously create. It projects the self onto the big screen for all to see. A good way to get at someone's deepest beliefs is to look at the art he likes or creates. This will show you how he sees the world, his values, and what he believes is possible. The goal here is not to prove Ayn Rand's theory of art, but to apply it to the case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). His fiction illustrates her theory.

Before diving into philosophy, we need an impression of him as a writer. Two dominant motifs throughout his work are scientific materialism and highly intricate, made up mythologies. He intertwined them to reinforce each other. The science makes the myths realistic and the myths make the science terrifying for what it reveals. A good introduction to Lovecraft is At the Mountains of Madness, a short novel displays his whole framework. There are elder races (the monsters), imaginary ancient myths (as in those collected in his mythical Necronomicon, a book that didn't really exist, but which he references and quotes from in many tales), and a scientific rationale for almost everything, all wrapped in the objective narrative of an Antarctic explorer.

Lovecraft's basic philosophy can be distilled by asking three questions: What is it? How do I know it? and What should I do? These questions cover the fields of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, respectively. To these I add two more. One – What are the social implications of Lovecraft's philosophy? – because it illuminates further the first three by showing how to apply them to men living in society. The other – What was his influence on later works horror? – because this further illustrates the role of ideas in art.

What is it? His universe was not a living entity or the creation of some supernatural being. He was not a supernaturalist. He was an ardent materialist. His world is governed by deterministic laws. This is very different from most horror writers – even some of the ones he admired, such as Arthur Machen, William Hopes Hodgson, and M. R. James. Unlike Lovecraft's, their worlds are very much alive, often ruled by some cosmic deity.

In his fiction he never explicitly addresses the issue of free will. From his fiction we can gather that even if some beings did have free will it was not efficacious, i.e., not able to bring about any major changes in their lives. His characters are always doomed to failure. In real life, he was a fatalist, which amounts to the same thing: even if man has volition it does not matter. (Explicitly, he termed himself a determinist, but he vacillated and didn't draw out the full implications of determinism.)

In this vein, how did he portray man? His characters fall into two major types, the ignorant masses and the knowing few. This is elitist, but Love- craft's overall view of man is as a miniscule, pathetic failure. The difference between the ignorant and the knowing is not one which can save the latter. His characters are almost always male too. This reveals something about his psychology – he was extremely antisexual. If one views man as essentially a failure, one won't have too high a view of human pleasure. But Lovecraft goes further than this. He eliminated it from his universe, both in his life and in his art. Such a profound break with pleasure indicates how deep his tragic view of man was.

How do I know it? Lovecraft appeals to reason as a source of man's knowledge, but there's a large scope in his works for other means of attaining know- ledge. Often his characters are not able to grasp the nature of their plight until it's too late. Even the knowing few – usually the main characters in Lovecraft's stories – have severe limits on their knowledge. Knowledge is usually obtained by a painstaking process of piecing together well worn folk tales, the passages from strange old books (such as the aforementioned Necronomicon), the latest scientific discoveries (such as quantum mechanics) and the main character's own observations (such as the weird behavior of the locals). The process is usually left uncompleted or is completed only at the very end of the story. The realization, then, is a kind of mental anguish – the seeker become finder of wisdom wishes he had never sought or found it. This can be interpreted as "reason won't be helpful in life." But it's deeper than that and relates to the next question.

What should I do? If ethics tells men how to live, what goals to pursue, what values to hold, then Lovecraft's art pushes a certain ethical stance. Knowledge, in his world, means despair and doom. Therefore, men shouldn't pursue the truth. He believed that mankind, in his times, was starting to piece together knowledge which could only speed the race's end. Knowledge is a double curse since man is doomed (as are all creatures) whether he knows or not. Knowing it is worse since man can't alter destiny.

This aptly describes his plots. His typical plot is: X is curious. X seeks out the truth, by questioning people ("The Lurking Fear"), reading ancient texts ("The Statement of Randolph Carter"), going on archaeological digs ("The Shadow Out of Time"), experimenting ("Herbert West – Reanimator"), or all of the above ("The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"). He finds out the truth and either goes mad ("Dagon"), is quickly dispatched ("The Picture in the House"), or settles down to a life of despair ("The Colour Out of Space").

Living a conventional life is no guarantee of success in his world. In "The Lurking Fear," plain people are terrorized and often whole villages are wiped out. In "Dreams in the Witch-House," an infant is killed. These exceptions aside, everything is still prejudiced against the truth seeker. Reality is malevolent on a cosmic scale. Anyone living is going to be touched by this, but the curious often meet up with their fates in more sinister ways than the average person.

What are the social implications of his philosophy? He fleshed out a lot of the implications in his stories. A key example is "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" where he deals with social decay. Given his fatalism and that he was a horror writer, this shouldn't be surprising. He had a cyclical view of history. Civilizations and societies are born usually by crushing older ones, they flower and quickly become decadent. After a period of decadence they are overthrown by upstarts or by the leftovers of the ones they first overcame. In this tale we also get a whiff of his racism. He attributes the decline of Innsmouth to the mixing of races not only between various human ones, but also between the human and the nonhuman.

This is a recurring theme in Lovecraft. It can be seen in "Herbert West – Reanimator", "The Call of Cthulhu" and "The Haunter of the Dark." In these stories there is a belief that mixing the human races is a bad thing and that Anglosaxons are superior to other ethnic groups. This can be derived from his metaphysics. He believed in a basically deterministic world. This determinism covers humanity by means of differing inherited abilities. No doubt he was influenced by his contemporaries in this. However, if racism had clashed with his fundamentals, I'm sure sooner or later he would have brought it into question. (One might ask, as Maurice Levy did in Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic, if man is cosmically miniscule aren't any differences between men even more so? However, this confuses cause with effect. Both racism and human unimportance are the consequences of Lovecraft's deeper views, of determinism.)

Back to his cyclical view of history, one of the best illustrations of this is "The Shadow Out of Time." In it a college professor is possessed by a mind millions of years from the past for a period of a few years. In order to do this the professor's mind is sent into the past and into body of the alien that borrowed his. He learns that humanity is just one of many species that have dominated the earth, and not a very interesting or intelligent one at that. The short catalog of other species, both native and extraterrestrial, shows the above cycles spread over millions of years. Revealingly, the alien's race lives under a form of socialism. It's very reminiscent of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. (I'm not sure if Stapledon influenced Lovecraft. The latter may have merely been working out one of his biggest themes, man's insignificance in the cosmos. He concretized this by throwing in all the human limitations he could, including dizzying expanses of time.)

Putting this together, his social theory cannot lead to some form of free society. Why? First, some form of genetic determinism keeps pushing different peoples down. Second, this couples with a cyclical view of history which means that ultimately all endeavors, social or private, are doomed. It then becomes a matter of keeping things going for as long as possible, which may involve wiping out other races or keeping the decadent strains in one's civilization from becoming dominant. This is similar to Plato's view give in The Republic of using political control as a way of preserving society in the face of inevitable decline. Lovecraft moved from a shallow conservatism in his youth to a sort of fascist-socialist vision before his death. James Turner (in "A Mythos in his Own Image") believes "The Shadow Out of Time" illustrates an ideological "humanization." However, Lovecraft's conservatism was an aristocratic elitism and his later political beliefs were merely more up to date versions of authoritarianism. Because there was no classical liberal period in his thought, not much stock should be put in his "humanization", especially since the underpinnings – man is not free, nor should he be – did not change. One last thing on social theory: Some of his stories, such as "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Whisperer in the Darkness," use vast conspiracies as a major plot element. This only adds to my conclusions on his social theories. Men cannot even be free inside the confines of their communities if there are plenty of malign (and successful) conspiracies ready to control society.

What is Lovecraft's influence on later works of horror? Despite obscurity during his lifetime, he has had a profound impact on the field of horror. People that have been influenced by him not only include his circle from the Twenties and Thirties but also contemporary writers, such as Stephen King, T.E.D. Klein, and Ramsey Campbell. A few of his works have been made into films, including "Herbert West – Reanimator" (as Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator), "The Dunwich Horror," "The Unnameable," "From Beyond," and "Dagon." The movies hardly stick to the story lines, but when do they ever? His works are periodically reissued, often in anthologies. Also, there are several magazines devoted to examining him from a literary angle, including The Crypt of Cthulhu and Lovecraft Studies. His influence flows directly from reprints of his tales and indirectly through later writers he has an impact on.

What are the wider implications? Why are so many people attracted to Horror fiction? The answer lies in the shared premises between the producers and the consumers of Horror. The other side of the art's power is that our response to it reveals our deepest views. Art is like a mirror. Those who experience Horror as valid, pleasing or necessary are displaying that it confirms some of their deepest feelings and beliefs. Horror's popularity in our culture is a measure of how widespread these beliefs are.

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I've read quite a few of his books, and enjoyed most of them. Good piece, Dan wink.gif

~ Shane

Thanks!

Which works by him did you like the most? Have you read much other horror? Which ones did you like?

Edited by Dan Ust
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Thanks!

Which works by him did you like the most? Have you read much other horror? Which ones did you like?

At the Mountains of Madness was the first I read, and probably the only full-length novel at that. Most of his other works were in the collections. But I've always liked any stories that included Innsmouth.

I've seen several of the movies, too. I only wish that someone would do H.P. Lovecraft justice by making an A-class movie. I have one of the CoC computer games, and have dabbled a bit in the card game as well a few years back.

I've read a little bit of Stephen King, but not much at all. Of the contemporary authors, I probably enjoy Dean Koontz, though he's more thriller than horror. I like his supernatural overlays.

~ Shane

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Very good essay. The only criticism I would make of it is that in at least some of the stories, "the good guys" win out, even if some of them, or some of the innocent, die before victory is won: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Dunwich Horror, Lurking Fear are good examples of this--and in each of them, it's a scientist or a group of scientists--researchers using reason and the scientific method to analyze the data--who defeat the evil.

I actually read very little horror, but I would nominate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as one of the best written stories in American literature, horror and non-horror included.

Jeffrey Smith

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Very good essay. The only criticism I would make of it is that in at least some of the stories, "the good guys" win out, even if some of them, or some of the innocent, die before victory is won: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Dunwich Horror, Lurking Fear are good examples of this--and in each of them, it's a scientist or a group of scientists--researchers using reason and the scientific method to analyze the data--who defeat the evil.

I believe that all these stories end in the triumphant heroes "settl[ing] down to a life of despair" because the thrust of the victory over evil tend to be that this is only temporary and the characters seem to be aware that the universe is a much darker place.

I actually read very little horror, but I would nominate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as one of the best written stories in American literature, horror and non-horror included.

Jeffrey Smith

I wasn't as impressed with "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but it's been a long time since I read it. If I were forced to choose among his stories -- and I don't think of him as a great writer or his stories as great writing, but some of that might be more due to my preferences than any objective criteria I could muster -- I'd probably go with At the Mountains of Madness or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as being his best. (I also believe both Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Dagon are fairly good screen adaptations of the latter -- with Dagon being the more faithful one.)

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Very good essay. The only criticism I would make of it is that in at least some of the stories, "the good guys" win out, even if some of them, or some of the innocent, die before victory is won: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Dunwich Horror, Lurking Fear are good examples of this--and in each of them, it's a scientist or a group of scientists--researchers using reason and the scientific method to analyze the data--who defeat the evil.

I believe that all these stories end in the triumphant heroes "settl[ing] down to a life of despair" because the thrust of the victory over evil tend to be that this is only temporary and the characters seem to be aware that the universe is a much darker place.

I actually read very little horror, but I would nominate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as one of the best written stories in American literature, horror and non-horror included.

Jeffrey Smith

I wasn't as impressed with "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but it's been a long time since I read it. If I were forced to choose among his stories -- and I don't think of him as a great writer or his stories as great writing, but some of that might be more due to my preferences than any objective criteria I could muster -- I'd probably go with At the Mountains of Madness or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as being his best. (I also believe both Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Dagon are fairly good screen adaptations of the latter -- with Dagon being the more faithful one.)

I wouldn't call Lovecraft a "great" writer, but at his best, he was a very good one. For me, his best is "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Rats in the Walls." Most of the rest of his fiction is too marred by slipshod technique to be taken seriously as art. Also most of it suffers from what might be called a fundamental failure of imagination. Edmund Wilson was quite right to call his famous essay on Lovecraft "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous." I also agree with Wilson that Lovecraft himself is "more interesting than his stories." His letters are particularly remarkable and worthwhile.

JR

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[i wouldn't call Lovecraft a "great" writer, but at his best, he was a very good one. For me, his best is "The Colour Out of Space" and "The Rats in the Walls." Most of the rest of his fiction is too marred by slipshod technique to be taken seriously as art. Also most of it suffers from what might be called a fundamental failure of imagination. Edmund Wilson was quite right to call his famous essay on Lovecraft "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous." I also agree with Wilson that Lovecraft himself is "more interesting than his stories." His letters are particularly remarkable and worthwhile.

JR

I'd like to know what Jeff means here by a "slipshod technique." I have to admit, too, to not having read Wilson's essay, though I have read some of Lovecraft's letters. I haven't haven't read many of them... I think he wrote enough to fill several volumes. When I kept abreast of current Lovecraft scholarship, there seemed to always be new ones uncovered every few months.

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Very good essay. The only criticism I would make of it is that in at least some of the stories, "the good guys" win out, even if some of them, or some of the innocent, die before victory is won: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Dunwich Horror, Lurking Fear are good examples of this--and in each of them, it's a scientist or a group of scientists--researchers using reason and the scientific method to analyze the data--who defeat the evil.

I believe that all these stories end in the triumphant heroes "settl[ing] down to a life of despair" because the thrust of the victory over evil tend to be that this is only temporary and the characters seem to be aware that the universe is a much darker place.

I actually read very little horror, but I would nominate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as one of the best written stories in American literature, horror and non-horror included.

Jeffrey Smith

I wasn't as impressed with "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but it's been a long time since I read it. If I were forced to choose among his stories -- and I don't think of him as a great writer or his stories as great writing, but some of that might be more due to my preferences than any objective criteria I could muster -- I'd probably go with At the Mountains of Madness or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as being his best. (I also believe both Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Dagon are fairly good screen adaptations of the latter -- with Dagon being the more faithful one.)

There is a lot of Lovecraft which is written in an overly stylized manner, and in which the formula behind the plot is much too evident. You know what is going to happen before half the story is over: you just don't know how the details will work out. And the vocabular of course seems to be purposely dated. (I have yet to hear the word "eldritch") used in a piece of writing or a conversation that is not on the subect of horror stories.) I think that is what Jeff R. meant by slipshod technique. And some of them are more exercises in atmospherics than actual story telling; and in fact the two stories you picked as your favorites are good examples of that kind of piece--more heavy on atmospherics than on delivering any actual horror, although without the bad writing style and obvious reliance on formulas.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward suffers from none of this--and besides that, it is intricately plotted, and it leaves some of its horrors merely referred to, and doesn't try to clarify ever point. (For instance, we never come close to being told exactly what historic figure is raised from the dead by the doctor in his exploration of the underground chambers, or what happens to him after he rids the world of Hutchinson and Orne.) The Dunwich Horror and Dreams in the Witch House are two others that are almost as good.

Jeffrey S.

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I believe that all these stories end in the triumphant heroes "settl[ing] down to a life of despair" because the thrust of the victory over evil tend to be that this is only temporary and the characters seem to be aware that the universe is a much darker place.

I actually read very little horror, but I would nominate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as one of the best written stories in American literature, horror and non-horror included.

Jeffrey Smith

I wasn't as impressed with "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but it's been a long time since I read it. If I were forced to choose among his stories -- and I don't think of him as a great writer or his stories as great writing, but some of that might be more due to my preferences than any objective criteria I could muster -- I'd probably go with At the Mountains of Madness or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as being his best. (I also believe both Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Dagon are fairly good screen adaptations of the latter -- with Dagon being the more faithful one.)

There is a lot of Lovecraft which is written in an overly stylized manner, and in which the formula behind the plot is much too evident.

I think that was the aim and certainly seems to be the appeal, for some, of his stories.

You know what is going to happen before half the story is over: you just don't know how the details will work out. And the vocabular of course seems to be purposely dated. (I have yet to hear the word "eldritch") used in a piece of writing or a conversation that is not on the subect of horror stories.) I think that is what Jeff R. meant by slipshod technique.

I don't know what Jeff meant. He'll have to tell us.rolleyes.gif

Regarding the presaged ending, I agree that once you're familiar with a few of his stories, that's almost a given. I'm not sure it's a negative. The surprise ending is not necessarily always the sign of good storytelling, in my view.

As for his vocabulary, I believe Lovecraft did this for effect and it seems to work, though, when I first read his stories, I was scrambling for the dictionary almost as much as I was when I read Nabokov's Pnin.

And some of them are more exercises in atmospherics than actual story telling; and in fact the two stories you picked as your favorites are good examples of that kind of piece--more heavy on atmospherics than on delivering any actual horror, although without the bad writing style and obvious reliance on formulas.

I think this, too, is part of what a Lovecaft story is like: the atmosphere is more important than revealing an actual monster or gore. This is true, too, of much horror. (This is accepting horror as a legitimate genre. Jeff and I have debated this issue before. I believe he thinks it's not an actual genre and more a marketing category. If I understand his logic correctly, his view is whatever makes people classify something as horror is not essential.) Of course, some of it is more action-oriented or more focused on delivering splatter.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward suffers from none of this--and besides that, it is intricately plotted, and it leaves some of its horrors merely referred to, and doesn't try to clarify ever point. (For instance, we never come close to being told exactly what historic figure is raised from the dead by the doctor in his exploration of the underground chambers, or what happens to him after he rids the world of Hutchinson and Orne.) The Dunwich Horror and Dreams in the Witch House are two others that are almost as good.

I'd have to reread these works. Regarding clarification, I'm not sure that's always a good thing. Some critics say the modern novel or story is open -- which I take to mean things are left unclarified at the end, but which also seems to mean that even if things are clarified there's no release or closure at the end of the story. Are these novels bad because they don't close off meaning at the end?

I also got a sense, when I was reading all these Lovecraft's stories years ago, that he was moving toward something new toward the end of his life -- that if he'd only lived a few more years he might have started writing in a very different way. It seemed to me, at that time, that you could divide his works into an early and late stage -- and that the late stage would've likely turned into a middle stage had he lived a decade or two more and continued to write. I'm presenting this impression here wondering if it explains some of these differences. Maybe not. I'd have to revisit his work and some of the criticism. (My excuse is I wrote "The Philosophy in Lovecraft's Art" several years ago and haven't done much in this direction since. When I originally wrote it, it was in my craw, so to speak, but it got out of my craw.cool.gif)

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Thanks for posting this, Dan! Very good essay. I don't know if you can really get away with analyzing HPL from a Randian kind of perspective, but you got away from that pretty quickly, after the beginning.

Ah, good old H.P.

I was in my junior high days when I first got exposed, and it was like a breath of creepy, musty air. Funny how it happened... I was deep into my early literature-geek development, and reading beyond furiously. Back then I spent my summers at a little property my family had on Lake Erie, next to Marblehead Lighthouse, and across from Johnson's Island, which once was a Confederate prison and remains a Confederate cemetery. I spent my time sailing my little boat, and running around the island with my friend. We'd camp out nights at the cemetery. It was sort of like living in New England, Lite. You know how you can, if you are a teenage lit freak, get into that real Gothic state of mind...

Anyway, I had really screwed up a sailing trip by staying out way too long, like 18 hours. I had stupidly even sailed my 11-foot craft all the way up into Canadian waters and back. This resulted in the mother of all sunburns--I was in agony and covered with blisters, sun-sick as Hell. Definitely landlocked and indoors (middle of July, couldn't even stay outside for long). I was stuck inside our vintage 19 foot airstream trailer, and I had read all the books I had brought along, having assumed I'd be more involved in exploring, and sailing with this girl from Maine who had her own craft as well.

Up the road apiece was a little country store named "Buck's," and I remembered seeing this little revolving rack of used paperbacks for sale, most of them ten cents. So I hiked my miserable ass up there to browse, and there they were--Lovecraft books! I had only heard of him, but the books looked right and I bought up 3 of them, along with some Mickey Spillane and other fun trash. "The Colour Out of Space" was first, then "At the Mountains of Madness." I was beyond hooked, and when I got home to Cleveland, I tore through the library consuming all things Lovecraft, including biographical materials. Ended up getting a nice research paper out of it for 9th grade English (A+, yay!).

I have only a few distilled thoughts about H.P. For one, there was the nod to "old" knowledge--knowledge held by elites. His porting of that into things like the "Necronomicon--" The Mad Arab, The Old Ones... Ideas about bloodlines. Aliens cross-breeding into humans (which is now a hugely discussed thing, of course) seemed implied. But the bloodlines in general.

Another thing was his generally misanthropic nature, and his constant description of fish-like beings. Misanthropy, of course, appeals to adolescents, for sure. And if you look him, you can start to imagine how he must've felt about himself, at times. I leave it at that, plus a picture of H.P. "Fishboy" Lovecraft--

hplovecraft.jpg

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Thanks for posting this, Dan! Very good essay. I don't know if you can really get away with analyzing HPL from a Randian kind of perspective, but you got away from that pretty quickly, after the beginning.

You're welcome.

I thought I hadn't gotten too far from a Randian perspective in the essay. I mean re-reading it, it seems to me like I was attacking Lovecraft and horror fiction from that standpoint. I did get some flak when I first wrote from other Objectivists for writing on the topic. Their view was something along the lines of, "Why focus on this garbage?" One even told me that he "hated horror."

Ah, good old H.P.

I was in my junior high days when I first got exposed, and it was like a breath of creepy, musty air. Funny how it happened... I was deep into my early literature-geek development, and reading beyond furiously. Back then I spent my summers at a little property my family had on Lake Erie, next to Marblehead Lighthouse, and across from Johnson's Island, which once was a Confederate prison and remains a Confederate cemetery. I spent my time sailing my little boat, and running around the island with my friend. We'd camp out nights at the cemetery. It was sort of like living in New England, Lite. You know how you can, if you are a teenage lit freak, get into that real Gothic state of mind...

Anyway, I had really screwed up a sailing trip by staying out way too long, like 18 hours. I had stupidly even sailed my 11-foot craft all the way up into Canadian waters and back. This resulted in the mother of all sunburns--I was in agony and covered with blisters, sun-sick as Hell. Definitely landlocked and indoors (middle of July, couldn't even stay outside for long). I was stuck inside our vintage 19 foot airstream trailer, and I had read all the books I had brought along, having assumed I'd be more involved in exploring, and sailing with this girl from Maine who had her own craft as well.

Up the road apiece was a little country store named "Buck's," and I remembered seeing this little revolving rack of used paperbacks for sale, most of them ten cents. So I hiked my miserable ass up there to browse, and there they were--Lovecraft books! I had only heard of him, but the books looked right and I bought up 3 of them, along with some Mickey Spillane and other fun trash. "The Colour Out of Space" was first, then "At the Mountains of Madness." I was beyond hooked, and when I got home to Cleveland, I tore through the library consuming all things Lovecraft, including biographical materials. Ended up getting a nice research paper out of it for 9th grade English (A+, yay!).

I have only a few distilled thoughts about H.P. For one, there was the nod to "old" knowledge--knowledge held by elites. His porting of that into things like the "Necronomicon--" The Mad Arab, The Old Ones... Ideas about bloodlines. Aliens cross-breeding into humans (which is now a hugely discussed thing, of course) seemed implied. But the bloodlines in general.

There is a whole Lovecraft subculture out there. Some in it seem to take it as an elaborate joke or just good clean fun, but a few get really into it -- and it appears like a mark of distinction to have read this or that story, to understand this or that symbol, and to pepper ones everyday life with allusions to Cthulhu and such.

Another thing was his generally misanthropic nature, and his constant description of fish-like beings. Misanthropy, of course, appeals to adolescents, for sure. And if you look him, you can start to imagine how he must've felt about himself, at times. I leave it at that, plus a picture of H.P. "Fishboy" Lovecraft--

If my memory's correct, Lovecraft didn't like seafood, which is kind of funny with him growing up where he did. And, yeah, he was no looker -- not in my book, anyway.

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I believe that all these stories end in the triumphant heroes "settl[ing] down to a life of despair" because the thrust of the victory over evil tend to be that this is only temporary and the characters seem to be aware that the universe is a much darker place.

I actually read very little horror, but I would nominate The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as one of the best written stories in American literature, horror and non-horror included.

Jeffrey Smith

I wasn't as impressed with "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," but it's been a long time since I read it. If I were forced to choose among his stories -- and I don't think of him as a great writer or his stories as great writing, but some of that might be more due to my preferences than any objective criteria I could muster -- I'd probably go with At the Mountains of Madness or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as being his best. (I also believe both Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and Dagon are fairly good screen adaptations of the latter -- with Dagon being the more faithful one.)

There is a lot of Lovecraft which is written in an overly stylized manner, and in which the formula behind the plot is much too evident.

I think that was the aim and certainly seems to be the appeal, for some, of his stories.

You know what is going to happen before half the story is over: you just don't know how the details will work out. And the vocabular of course seems to be purposely dated. (I have yet to hear the word "eldritch") used in a piece of writing or a conversation that is not on the subect of horror stories.) I think that is what Jeff R. meant by slipshod technique.

I don't know what Jeff meant. He'll have to tell us.rolleyes.gif

Regarding the presaged ending, I agree that once you're familiar with a few of his stories, that's almost a given. I'm not sure it's a negative. The surprise ending is not necessarily always the sign of good storytelling, in my view.

As for his vocabulary, I believe Lovecraft did this for effect and it seems to work, though, when I first read his stories, I was scrambling for the dictionary almost as much as I was when I read Nabokov's Pnin.

And some of them are more exercises in atmospherics than actual story telling; and in fact the two stories you picked as your favorites are good examples of that kind of piece--more heavy on atmospherics than on delivering any actual horror, although without the bad writing style and obvious reliance on formulas.

I think this, too, is part of what a Lovecaft story is like: the atmosphere is more important than revealing an actual monster or gore. This is true, too, of much horror. (This is accepting horror as a legitimate genre. Jeff and I have debated this issue before. I believe he thinks it's not an actual genre and more a marketing category. If I understand his logic correctly, his view is whatever makes people classify something as horror is not essential.) Of course, some of it is more action-oriented or more focused on delivering splatter.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward suffers from none of this--and besides that, it is intricately plotted, and it leaves some of its horrors merely referred to, and doesn't try to clarify ever point. (For instance, we never come close to being told exactly what historic figure is raised from the dead by the doctor in his exploration of the underground chambers, or what happens to him after he rids the world of Hutchinson and Orne.) The Dunwich Horror and Dreams in the Witch House are two others that are almost as good.

I'd have to reread these works. Regarding clarification, I'm not sure that's always a good thing. Some critics say the modern novel or story is open -- which I take to mean things are left unclarified at the end, but which also seems to mean that even if things are clarified there's no release or closure at the end of the story. Are these novels bad because they don't close off meaning at the end?

I also got a sense, when I was reading all these Lovecraft's stories years ago, that he was moving toward something new toward the end of his life -- that if he'd only lived a few more years he might have started writing in a very different way. It seemed to me, at that time, that you could divide his works into an early and late stage -- and that the late stage would've likely turned into a middle stage had he lived a decade or two more and continued to write. I'm presenting this impression here wondering if it explains some of these differences. Maybe not. I'd have to revisit his work and some of the criticism. (My excuse is I wrote "The Philosophy in Lovecraft's Art" several years ago and haven't done much in this direction since. When I originally wrote it, it was in my craw, so to speak, but it got out of my craw.cool.gif)

When I speak of Lovecraft's often slipshod technique, I'm not thinking of the formulaic character of his plots. I agree with Dan that knowing what is going to happen is not an important issue. There are detective stories that I've read many times, despite the fact that I already know how they're going to come out. In fiction, it's the journey that matters most, not the destination (or whether the destination comes as a surprise).

As for the contrast between "atmospherics" and "delivering any actual horror," it is "atmospherics" that is Lovecraft's strong suit as a writer. This is what he does best. His best fiction tends to be the fiction in which this sort of writing predominates.

Nor am I concerned with the archaic quality of Lovecraft's vocabulary and diction. When it works, it's fine. It adds immeasurably to the effectiveness of the fiction. But it doesn't always work. As Edmund Wilson wrote, "One of Lovecraft's worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as 'horrible,' 'terrible,' 'frightful,' 'awesome,' 'eerie,' 'weird,' 'forbidden,' 'unhallowed,' 'unholy,' 'blasphemous,' 'hellish,' and 'infernal.' Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words - especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible, whistling octopus."

The fact is that the final unveiling of the thing that is supposed to be so horrible and terrifying is generally the low point of any Lovecraft story. The final horror in "The Dunwich Horror," for example, is ridiculous. Who could be horrified by something like that? Who could even believe it, even for a moment? Up to this point, there's a good deal of very effective writing in this story; the ending renders the whole thing a waste of time.

JR

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I often wondered about that. You know what I think he was doing? Bucking the classic buildup style. I think he was trying to sustain the creepiness. Then he painted himself into a corner. BUT, he left the door open. It made you want to read more. Endings are hard to write; you can blow your wad early. He just threw it up there and went for the vicarious experience. He did that well. I'd have to check again but apparently he didn't like using the climax/denouement technique. He was just writing linear...

His repetition of horror, terror, fear...etc.; I think he was overtaxed. Meaning he was actually feeling that as he wrote and he ran out of words. Either that or the bastard never saw a thesaurus. Heh.

Good points there.

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I often wondered about that. You know what I think he was doing? Bucking the classic buildup style. I think he was trying to sustain the creepiness. Then he painted himself into a corner. BUT, he left the door open. It made you want to read more. Endings are hard to write; you can blow your wad early. He just threw it up there and went for the vicarious experience. He did that well. I'd have to check again but apparently he didn't like using the climax/denouement technique. He was just writing linear...

His repetition of horror, terror, fear...etc.; I think he was overtaxed. Meaning he was actually feeling that as he wrote and he ran out of words. Either that or the bastard never saw a thesaurus. Heh.

Good points there.

I doubt he "never saw a thesaurus." It seems like he did and had a tendency toward archaic terms. I also don't think there's anything wrong, per se, with sticking to the same universe of words if these work.

I think that what Jeff Riggenbach and Edmund Wilson are getting at is not that Lovecraft didn't find more synonyms for "horrible" and the rest -- which would do what? merely show facility with using a thesaurus! -- but that harping on such abstract terms and repeating them detracts from the effect they seem to aim at. Linking this back to Rand, I believe she discussed -- and certain many books on writing discuss -- getting the effect by giving concretes that exemplify it -- in other specific images and the like that add up to something horrible. Something along the lines of William Carlos Williams, "No ideas but in things." (Of course, I don't think this should be followed formulaically -- as in always show but never tell. Sometimes telling saves time and should be used, in my opinion, if the idea is to move the story along.)

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