* This is a reply to author Nick Mamatas essay “The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally.”. Not really contradicting anything, just adding to it. Read it here: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/real-mr-difficult-cthulhu-threatens-destroy-canon-self-interested-literary-essayists-universe-finally#
** “In Defence of Lovecraft” is a play on Lovecraft’s own letter/essay “In Defence of Dagon”. It’s probably used before.
*** I haven’t done any research for this text specifically, and some of the books mentioned I haven’t read in full for years. So authors views may be grossly misrepresented.
Lovecraft may be a “difficult writer”, but I’d argue that Lovecraft isn’t just a difficult writer that sometimes breaks the pulp fiction contract. He is The Anti-Pulp writer.
The only stories that touch upon the pulp genre is his work-for-hire, Herbert West: Re-animator, and The Lurking Fear, which he hated and disowned himself, and his ghost-writing and revisions for clients. And none of these should be considered as anything other than what they are, other peoples work written by Lovecraft. They are no more in his literary canon than his blurbs for advertising or ghost-written self-help book, except for the fact that he was so bad at his job that he couldn’t help but interject his philosophy and style into the tales, often to their detriment. He was a ghost-writer who often made his clients tales get rejected. The only pulp thing about him is as he himself pointed out, a slight and unavoidable taint of being in the pulp world. But most literary giants of “serious” fiction have, in their prose, drama, and structure, a lot more in common with pulp that Lovecraft did.
Lovecraft’s stories are studies in building a single mood, unbroken, often ending way before the hellish climax in a way that no good pulp-writer, or indeed few other writers, would dare. The conclusions exists in the readers mind, as they have from the very first paragraph that always reveals the intention.
There’s two books I lean myself on in my interpretation of Lovecraft: The early parts of “Lovecraft: A study in the fantastic” by Maurice Levy, and “Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy” by Graham Harman.
Levy’s book is a literary analysis that points out the unique themes in Lovecraft’s fiction. and the names of the interesting chapters themselves point to their relevance: “The metamorphosis of space”, “the horror of heredity”, “the depth of horror”, and “the chasms of dream”. Even though two of them contain the word “horror” they firmly put Lovecraft outside the realm of horror, in a tradition of weird that may be shared with Kafka and Borges, or even the later, lesser, and far more pulpy “magic realism”, except that Lovecraft’s realism serves a much deeper purpose.
The rest of Levy’s book is unfortunately lacking in it’s simple interpretations of Lovecraft’s “mythology”, influenced by August Derleth’s pulpy Christianized transformation of Lovecraft’s loose Yog-Sothothry, something which was never ment to be a clear mythology or hierarchy, but rather just a literary prank to make it all seem a bit more real for readers who didn’t know better. But in 1969 when Levy wrote it, originally as a doctoral dissertation, it was impossible to know what was Lovecraft and what Derleth made up.
Harman’s “Weird Realism”, on the other hand, present a brilliant defense of Lovecraft’s language, in order to rid him of the barrier that often leads less astute readers and critics to write him off as a “bad” and adjective plagued writer. Harman shows that the adjectives are not simply word-wankery, but serves a specific goal. They are layers of allusion and metaphor that constantly contradict themselves in order to create images in the readers head that are impossible and indescribable. To think Cthulhu is a squid is simply a failure of imagination. The two octopus paragraphs are not descriptions of Cthulhu himself, but of feeble human attempts at sculpting the unimaginable, based on the myth of Cthulhu. The first paragraph illustrates this the best:
It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful
It’s a symbol representing a monster, which an extravagant imagination pictures, not unfaithful to it’s spirit, as octopus, dragon, and human caricature, whose general outline is most shockingly frightful. And this is not the thing itself, only an artistic representation of an unseen thing.
The most evocative actual description is “A mountain walked or stumbled”. The other direct descriptions have to be seen in light of being “a simple, rambling thing—a naive sailor’s effort at a post-facto diary” that the narrator “cannot attempt to transcribe it verbatim in all its cloudiness and redundance” but only tells the “gist” of. The “flabby claws”, the “pursuing jelly”,the “awful squid-head with writhing feelers” are all descriptions based on the story narrators imagination, influenced by the sculptures he has seen, not the actual diary that cannot describe it.
Cthulhu is one of Lovecraft’s most identifiable creations, only less specific than the Elder Things, the Mi-go, and the Deep Ones, in contrast to the completely unimaginable horrors of Yog Sothoth, Shub Niggurath, The Colour out of Space, or most of all Azathoth, the pure nuclear chaos of the centre of the universe.
Harman again and again points out how allusions contradict each other while being undercut by the narrators inability to believe and transmit what they themselves know is true, and that not a single adjective is superfluous to achieving that goal.
The only flaw with the book is Harman’s inability to see that Lovecraft didn’t only describe the horrific, but the fantastic. The Shadow Out of Time or At the Mountains of Madness do not fail at describing a species who’s society is so advanced it is unimaginable to us, but succeed in describing a higher evolution of society that is still related to our own and still victims to the indescribable forces of the Old Ones. The technique of the narrators learning an alien language in a day and thus reading the history of the world; as in At The Mountains of Madness, may seem to be a cheap trick, but we ourselves send probes into outer space, filled with messages written in a pictorial and mathematical language which we hope intelligent aliens may understand. It is in no way inconceivable that vastly superior aliens may succeed in creating a language so logical that even puny humans may understand it rather quickly.
There are three more points that I’d like to make; that Levy and Harman do not emphasize, two of which Michel Houellebecq comes closest to describing in his raving essay “Against the World, Against Life”.
A little note on that essay first. It is often described as a biography, which it is awful as. Houellebecq constantly misquotes, gets details wrong, and inserts his deeply personal and ludicrous interpretations. But he himself describes the book as an essay, and his first novel. Though you can learn a way of reading Lovecraft through it, you always learn more about Houellebecq than of his subject.
Now to the first point: Houellebecq recognizes that Lovecraft is a kindred writer, writing as deeply personal as he himself. You can attack Lovecraft’s language, even after Harman’s brilliant defense, for it is a hundred years outdated even in his own time. But he was a man infatuated by language, born to late, and his friends testament that this was the way he talked. There is clearly little difference between the language of his personal letters and his fiction, except for the level of polish, and it is not unreasonable to think this language reflected accurately how Lovecraft actually thought. To attack a writer for writing in true to his own voice, is to attack the very thing that makes writers unique and great, and that makes literature a worthwhile endeavor. All a writer can do is to strive to find his own voice. Lovecraft came as close as anyone.
“Against the World, Against Life” also shows that Lovecraft is a philosophical writer, who cannot help but infuse his work with his thought. His project was anti-modern, using the most modern of methods and theories to create something whose general outline may not wholly unfaithfully be described as post-modern. His themes put words and images to realities the existentialists fail to describe, trapped in a single world, dimension, reality. He confronts mans longing for the past filled with horror, the alienation of an ever changing world of modern cities and life, the finality of death, and the utter insignificance of this brief period of cosmos where the tiny speck we call Earth will exist. Sometimes to his detriment he cannot stop himself including essays about his views on simplistic views on art and insightful views on literature in the stories themselves, but this adds to the almost manically personal nature of his stories.
The last point, which I don’t see mentioned nearly as often as it should is Lovecraft’s superb sense of poetic rhythm. Yes, the sentences are long, but unlike most other writers they flow beautifully when read with attention. All his best sentences are little poems in themselves, and most all his sentences are among his best. Study the language of Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, or any of Lovecraft’s pulp-friends, and you see how far he rises above them. Compare his rhythms to any of the great writers through history, and you find he consequently pulls off structures, rhymes, and movements that most would not dare dream of. Like Edgar Allan Poe or T.S. Eliot, his rhythm requires the attention of a great reader or actor, but once found you can not help but be swept away in the torrent of words and images. While I do not find the same level of precision in Lovecraft’s poems, it is clear that his understanding of the formalities of poetry helped him shape his language in an expert fashion, even in his later more understated tales. And how his language evolves from poetically subdued to feverishly, frantically, and nightmarishly dreamlike as you delve deeper into each tale, towards the ever-present depth of horror, is unrivaled.
To conclude: The Defence of Lovecraft is not just the comparing of size of your favorite authors literary penis. Lovecraft is unique, but as is countless other writers, celebrated or forgotten, all for their own reasons. The great writers are far more than we know and all appeal to different people personally, not universally. But in breaking the walls of Lovecraft’s complexity we hear a voice of deep poetry that is massively beneficial to understanding fiction, and see a view that is profound in it’s understanding of our life in the modern world.
There may be a thousand such voices, and there may be a thousand such views, but Lovecraft is one that no one deserves to miss.