Mon
Dec 14 2009 1:17pm

Look at What Wilson Did!

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.

This article is part of December Belongs To Cthulhu: ‹ previous | index | next ›
15 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
"Invisible whistling octopus" is pretty harsh (but not a bad band name). Still, it's interesting that such an eminent critic would even review an author like Lovecraft in 1945. He was, after all, a mere pulp author and one who worked in a genre whose only saving grace (from a literary establishment point of view) was that it wasn't science fiction. What prompted this review in the first place? HPL was several years dead and Arkham House was a very small publisher. I just can't see why he wrote it in the first place.

Favorite HPL word: squamous.
Ouranosaurus
2. Ouranosaurus
What? Squamous gets no mention? What about batrachian?
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
3. pnh
Wilson also wrote the highest-profile takedown of The Lord of the Rings to appear in the immediate wake of that trilogy's publication: "Oo, Those Awful Orcs" (Nation, April 14, 1956). Which I read as a teenaged Tolkien fan, because it was included in a collection of essays about Tolkien...and oddly, it led me to check out a collection of Wilson's reviews, and to become something of a lifelong Edmund Wilson fan, even though I obviously disagree with his views about some modern fantasy writers.

I particularly recommend his To the Finland Station, about the literature and history of European socialism and its influence (and lack of influence) on the Russian Revolution; and his wonderful Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. But Wilson is always interesting, always wrestling with complex texts and inscrutable history and coming back to tell us about it in plain strong language, carefully considered.

When he died in 1972, he was still writing thousands of words a day while putting away half a bottle of gin every night and teaching himself Hungarian. Quite a character.
Ouranosaurus
4. Nick Mamatas
As heretical as this may sound, anyone with fairly good literary taste will recognize Lovecraft’s defects for what they are.

Oh really?

Demetriois X: in 1945, Best Supernatural Stories, put out by World Publishing (not Arkham), sold tens of thousands of copies in hardcover. That could explain how Lovecraft ended up on Wilson's radar.
Andrew Foss
5. alfoss1540
What about Ululation? and Ululate. I used to think it was a word he made up.
Anita Croft
6. AnitaCroft
Squamous and gibbous are two of my favorites...and of course the ever-popular eldritch.
James Goetsch
7. Jedikalos
"only to produce at the end an invisible whistling octopus": you know, that is so true, and yet it leaves out so much. Perhaps Mr. Wilson was simply tone deaf, and thus could not make out the true horror of that cephlapod music from hell.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
9. supergee
As pnh notes, Wilson was a great critic who unfortunately considered it his duty to defend the borders of Literature against the rabble from the categories. Along with the attacks on Lovecraft and Tolkien, there was a famous essay called "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" One sometimes fears that will be what he is remembered for.
Ouranosaurus
10. Schizohedron
Aw, man, I thought this was going to refer to a piece of Cthulhoid art by Gahan Wilson! ::runs outside, ululates curses at Arcturus::
Ouranosaurus
11. melnibonean
I take stock in the fact that Library of America saw fit to collect and publish his works.

Bennett Lovett-Graff
Ouranosaurus
12. Nick Mamatas
I take stock in the fact that Wilson's essay is chock full of simple factual errors and even the quoted bit about show-don't-tell no-no rather misses the fact that most of Lovecraft's stories are first-person narratives (often with more than one narrator in the form of letters, documents, etc.) and that of course a person recounting this or that weird or eerie experience would use words like "weird" or "eerie."
Ouranosaurus
13. Martinus
It's funny that "eldritch" is considered a signature word. Lovecraft's complete fiction is just over 700,000 words. In those 700,000 words, "eldritch" occurs 32 times, and never more than twice in the same text.
Ouranosaurus
14. Josh Lukin
Bunny Wilson was very good at appreciations, including appreciations of authors who, in his time, were considered a little too middlebrow, such as Dickens. His negative reviews of Kafka, Chandler, Tolkien, et al tend consistently to miss the mark.

If I may articulate my own preference in the hope that it'll interest someone, I'm less interested in the ambitious books Patrick likes than in his collections of individual appreciations, such as The Wound and the Bow (pieces on Dickens, Kipling, Casanova, Hemingway, Wharton, Joyce, and Sophocles) and The Triple Thinkers (Pushkin, Flaubert, James, Shaw, and others). He excels at conveying a "Hey, here's what's interesting and why you should care" enthusiasm in adept prose.
Gregory Lantern
15. lantern
Furtive. Really, word "Eldritch" is ever-popular.

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