The importance of Lovecraft’s “Memory”

Buy "Memory".

Buy “Memory”.

Previously, I wrote a bit about how I illustrated H.P. Lovecraft’s short tale “Memory”. This time around I’ll write about why, which is always more interesting.

Throughout his relatively short writing career Lovecraft wrote a handful mini-stories, flash-fictions, or prose-poems as they are called. These stories, between half a page and one and a half page long, and are really more meditations or mood-pieces than full stories.

It is easy to divide the masters works into two parts: His major stories, which includes his early stories, his Dunsanian dream-like fables, and his later science horror for which he truly is known. These works were all done as art for arts sake, and Lovecraft often bemoaned that he had to sell them to make a living and that the pulps in which they were printed infected his art like a cancer.

Then there is his miscellany work, the work he did for profit. This includes ghost-writing under the names of more famous people, revising fiction for friends and clients sometimes until it was mostly his own work, and collaborations with other amateur enthusiasts often done jokingly. Most of this work, with a few exceptions whether in parts of stories or in a few whole tales, is genuinely dreadful and soulless. And though it has historical and critical interest, it is clearly not a part of Lovecraft’s true legacy.

For some strange reason “Memory”, and the other prose-poems, are relegated to this miscellany category, while blatantly commercial works that Lovecraft despised himself; such as “Herbert West: Re-animator”, “The Lurking Horror”, and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”, the first two written for pay checks from a humour publication and the latter ghost-written for Harry Houdini, gets reprinted in collections of his major stories and are discussed as if they were created for arts sake.

“Memory”, along with the other mini-stories “Ex-Oblivione”, “What the Moon Brings”, and “Nyarlathotep”, were works Lovecraft did purely for his own passion. They were published in the amateur publications he championed, and not even submitted to the pulps he despised. While his estimations on their quality and importance may have varied, since he was notoriously self-critical, he actually kept sending these small tales around to friends and colleagues until his death. So there must have been some pride and affection there, well-deserved I might add.

As a whole, these four stories deal with a lot of central themes of Lovecraft’s major works, although perhaps in a more intimate and personal way. At least two of them are directly based on dreams, while the other two are dreamlike and refer to dreams. Together they explore the issues of loss, death, apocalypse, and extinction and evolution, but largely without the genre-tropes that sometimes infected his longer works that he submitted to Weird Tales and other such publications.

I will explore “Ex Obliovione”, “What The Moon Brings”, and “Nyarlothotep” later, when I’ve illustrated them as densely as “Memory”, so let’s focus on the story in question.

“Memory”, unlike the other prose-poems, is in the form of a fable. The story, as basic as it is, is simply a description of a valley full of ruins, where a Genie flies down on the moonbeams to ask a Daemon who built the ruins. The answer is that whoever built them is forgotten, and only a vague recollection of their name remains. Tadada! They were called man!

And this is the first misunderstanding about the story. Since Lovecraft is mostly known as a writer of horror, the ending of the tale is interpreted as a twist-ending. Now, I would argue that Lovecraft never tended to use twist-endings, but that the last paragraphs of his stories were actually just confirmations of what he had been hinting at from the very first line. And in this case, the story makes no sense without the reader understanding that these are the ruins of man. It is a tale of pure imagery, imagery which cannot exist unless your minds eye see that the moss-covered monoliths and stones are our very own streets and houses. So if there is a glaring fault in the story, it is not that the “twist” is weak and obvious, but rather that the build-up is too subtle.

And this was my first business when illustrating the text. Though keeping the art borderline-abstract at it’s best, I wanted to make sure that bits and pieces of recognisable civilization were seen between the vines and branches, and that the Daemons words conjure up an apocalypse we all know to expect.

My second emphasis was the poetry itself. Many have suggested that it’s an overwrought and flowery text, and that it too closely parrots Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Dunsany. There is no denying these influences in this or others of Lovecraft’s works, and his love of language seems to sometimes have gotten the best of him in his stories, poetry, letters, and; according to those who knew him, also in his daily speech. But there is a profound melancholy seeping through the cracks of every sentence, and the words are precise and in a weird way to the point. Every paragraph is full of words that allude to the forgotten and forgone, and more importantly to mankind and our demise. So there’s nothing superfluous about them.

As in all of Lovecraft’s works, the sentences are pretty damned long. But by breaking them up in distinct rhythms, I feel that I can both make them easier to read, and show off their beauty and elegance. And this rhythm is a deeply personal rhythm that is ingrained in all of Lovecraft’s works, whether it be his early “gothic” work or his more restrained later masterpieces.

So in this feeble half-page of text, Lovecraft spells out one of the most important issues of his art. Humanity is no more than a grain of sand in the endless desert of time and space and possibility. The world will go on perfectly without us, until there is no trace of our accomplishments left and no one to remember even our ghosts. This philosophical stance is at the centre of Lovecraft’s literature, and is nowhere more clear and beautiful in “Memory”, no matter how forgettable it can seem at a glance.

Hopefully my ink-splashes can help shed a light of some of these aspects, infuse it with the sadness and dread it needs, and perhaps even help the tale get a bit more of the accolade it deserves. And…. hopefully… at a much later date, I can weave all the prose-poems together to a sort of whole. Until then, don’t forget “Memory”.

Good grief… The pun… the PUUUN.

You can buy my illustrated Memory at sellfy.com

You can buy my illustrated Memory at sellfy.com

Read my write-up of how I drew “Memory” at Oslo 24h Comic Challenge here.

 

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22 July, 2014

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