What is it that makes Lovecraft so appealing? Surely not some touching belief in his qualities as a prose stylist. As heretical as this may sound, anyone with fairly good literary taste will recognize Lovecraft’s defects for what they are. In fact, it was these bad writing habits that precipitated the near fatal blow literary critic Edmund Wilson dealt Lovecraft’s reputation in a famous 1945 New Yorker article “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m as much a Lovecraft fan as any reasonably intelligent reader of horror fiction, but there is no getting around the fact that Wilson was on target when he 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, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus.
Granted, the “invisible whistling octopus” seems gratuitous and even mean-spirited. Nor is it altogether correct since Lovecraft produced all sorts of evil-looking things. But Wilson does rightly suggest that no effective horror writer depends on a surfeit of adjectives (sadly, Wilson ignores personal favorites of mine like “fetid,” “noxious,” and Lovecraft's signature “eldritch”) to terrify readers. It’s the old writer’s rule of show, don’t tell.
And yet it was this attack from so eminent a critic—and Wilson really was a good critic—in so eminent a venue that prompted a host of critics to rescue Lovecraft from disrepute in the hallowed halls (they’re only unhallowed at Miskatonic University) of academia by writing and publishing critical study after study about him. Heck, I’m one of those guys myself! (You’ll have to Google me for the proof.)
But I’m smart enough not to mistake what works about Lovecraft from what doesn’t. And to that extent, we owe Edmund Wilson a debt of gratitude. For without his disdain, we would not have the critics and writers we do defending the poor, long dead gentleman of Rhode Island from the slings and arrows of the ivory tower. Even I was to become one of those defenders who saw in HPL something still worth reading once days of acne and teen rebellion were behind me. And there is much worth the reading.
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.