Earlier, I noted how the American man of letters Edmund Wilson tried to put a nail in Lovecraft’s literary coffin with his excoriation of HPL’s tics as a writer and the seeming silliness of the latter’s creations. But Wilson never really got why Lovecraft worked then and works now.
In brief, HPL advanced the American gothic literary tradition…and broke with it. Now keep in mind that Lovecraft was a self-proclaimed amateur in every sense of the word: he regarded himself as an amateur journalist, amateur astronomer, and, yes, something of an amateur writer who placed his work in pulp venues like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. For Lovecraft and his peers—Conan creator, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many lesser-known figures—there would be no climbing literary ladders of success into the pages of the New Yorker or Saturday Evening Post. He was one of several purveyors of shock and schlock—no more, no less.
But there was something different about Lovecraft—and, in my view, Howard, too. First, HPL was an aesthete, although one with some rather strange tastes. Second, he was deeply learnéd. Despite his failure to matriculate to university owing to poor health, he was a voracious reader with an enormous appetite for science, history, and philosophy and apparently the time to indulge it all because of his early cloistered life. Lovecraft is your classic example of the home-schooled autodidact: vastly read although not always with the rigor and breadth that the classroom setting provides through outside input and peer debate.
This vast reading, especially in science, promoted a materialistic foundation that informs nearly every one of his tales. This is no small matter in the Lovecraftian ethos of what counts for scary. Or, to put it in plainer terms, Lovecraft didn’t do ghost stories.
The American gothic tradition, as an intellectual construct, is complicated. It was born largely from the ashes of the British gothic tradition, which started with such overwrought and badly written classics as Horace Walpole’s ridiculous Castle of Otranto (1764), William Beckford’s Orientalism-inspired Vathek (first English publication, 1786) and Anne Radcliffe’s massively popular and seemingly endless Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Although starting as early as 1798 with Charles Brockden Brown’s fascinating Wieland (1798), the American horror tradition had to wait for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque (1839) to come into its own.
What’s especially interesting about the nineteenth-century American literary tradition is that there aren’t a lot of “ghost stories” in it. (This isn’t to say we lack lots of American ghost legends, just not many formal short stories along these lines.) The best explanation for this, the one that comes closest to my own thinking, shows up in scholar Donald Ringe’s American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Not an easy book to track down but definitely worth the reading. In brief, barring occasional exceptions, like Washington Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student” from his Tales of a Traveller (1824) or William Gilmore Simms’ “Grayling” (1859), Ringe suggests that the American immersion in Scottish rationalism—something which informed a good deal of our country’s founding documentation—put the traditional ghost story, and our willingness to suspend disbelief in the clanking machinery of that other world, on the defensive.
Consider Lovecraft’s self-proclaimed predecessor Edgar Allan Poe. Have you ever noticed that Poe never really wrote anything one could truly call a “ghost story”? There may be premature burials, split personalities, murderous intent, guilty consciences, even “metempsychotic” episodes (that’s fancy talk for mind transfers), but there is hardly a rattling chain or vengeful spirit. And this is largely because Poe himself was an avowed materialist (actually materialist pantheist, if you can stomach reading his Eureka: A Prose Poem ). In brief, he didn’t take any stock in ghosts or demons or devils (except that Demon Alcohol)—not that belief in the supernatural is a necessary prerequisite to the writing of ghost stories. But Poe didn’t even hold with presenting stories along those lines, probably because he rightly grasped that for American audiences, ghost stories just wouldn’t do it. They were just, well, too incredible.
Ringe argues that this hard-bitten American rationalism would change after the Civil War with the rise of spiritualism and the sudden cottage industry of spirit-rappers and Ouija-boarders. The loss of over 600,000 American lives, many of them the sons of Union and confederate families, did wonders for the spirit business as desperate mothers and fathers struggled to reach across that greatest of divides to those who died before their time. And while the American ghost story followed that trend to a small extent in the work of postbellum writers like Mary Noailles Murfree (who wrote as Charles Egbert Craddock) and even later Edith Wharton, you’d still be hard pressed with a few exceptions to find much in the way of a traditional ghost story. Instead, the materialist tradition lived on in the continued emphasis on psychological issues (and after Darwin, evolutionary issues). The most common threat was from the monster within.
What make HPL different is that he took this materialist tradition a whole step forward by suggesting the threat of monsters from without—but not from the land of the dead! For even though HPL claimed common cause with Poe as a materialist, it’s based on a strange reading of his great ancestor. As HPL framed it in one of his letters: if “Poe never drew a human character who lives in the memory, it is because human beings are too contemptible and trivial to deserve such remembrance.” Why is this an unusual take on Poe? Well, in his best tales, HPL is often at pains to demonstrate how insignificant human beings are compared to a universe of aliens who are older, more powerful and, most important, entirely indifferent to humanity. We’re either good vittles for some hungry ETs or, as Douglas Adams suggested, imminent roadkill in the face of oncoming intergalactic traffic. Either way, HPL’s horrors were often driven by the idea that we’re so very, very little: mere insects under the shadow of some giant alien boot about come down on us big time.
Notwithstanding HPL’s take on his literary ancestor, one never gets this feeling reading Poe—and with good reason. That’s not to say that Poe believed all that much in the dignity or individuality of the human spirit. One can sense that Poe’s characters are more machinery than flesh and blood, often crazy or crazed, like androids badly wired. But that predilection never precipitated visitations from the stars by those with bad intent—and that’s because between Poe and HPL lay some eight decades of astronomical discovery, Einstein’s theory of relativity (very important to HPL’s interest in beings from other dimensions!), and the little acknowledged (by HPL) but nonetheless vital work of science fiction writers like H.G. Wells, whose War of the Worlds inspired some of Lovecraft’s images of invasion—although HPL’s were often far, far sneakier.
So why does Lovecraft work? In large part, because he is very much a part of the American tradition of materialist horrors—a fear not of devils and demons, goblins and ghouls—but of what the sciences of mind and space tell us either is or may be possible. In other words, HPL took the American love of things scientific and things just plain terrifying and created in a way that none of his predecessors properly had the SF-horror tradition that we now know and love today.
Bennett Lovett-Graff is publisher of New Haven Review and was, once upon a time, a revered scholar in his own mind of the American gothic and fantasy traditions. Now he knows better.