Dec 16 2009 6:23pm

Why Lovecraft Works

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 [1848]). 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.

This article is part of December Belongs To Cthulhu: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Roland of Gilead
1. pKp
Interesting post, but a bit more specific than its title suggests - it's more like "Why Lovecraft Works in the US". Unless you suggest that the conclusions you draw are applicable to the whole Western world, which is doubtful at best.

OTOH, I guess you could make the opposite point : Lovecraft works best in the US because a lot of people there are at least vaguely religious, which means they consider the place of humanity to be paramount in the Universe ("made in God's image" and all that). When HPL writes precisely the contrary, it is must be way more frightening for an American that, for instance, a French person (I'm French, hence the example), since Europeans as a whole are less religious than US residents.

(oh, and what about that whacked story about the brain-eating space-thing that gets pushed away by the Cross ? That's an very, very strange acknowledgment of the power of religion on HPL's part).
Howard Brazee
2. Howard Brazee
I've never been able to "get" Lovecraft. I figured it was part of my never being afraid of fictional bad guys, I can't suspend my disbelief that much.

But Lovecraft is even more silly than most.
Howard Brazee
3. firkin
pKp@1 raises a good point about religion. I haven't read much Lovecraft but very little of what i have read has particularly moved me, and it has nothing to do with suspension of disbelief (plenty of SF demands more, imo). I just don't get what is so terrifying about human insignificance. Some of the specific 'horrors' HPL concocts are frightening enough, but mostly because they are sort of gross and you're worried about what they might do; the mere knowledge of them driving people insane is what baffles me.

It's also interesting in light of your argument about Lovecraft's materialism. I get that historically people in the Judeo-Christian tradition are going to find the non-centrality of humans to be unsettling and unwelcome. But if Lovecraft was as materialist and non-religious as you say, were these things scary *to him* and if so why?
Howard Brazee
4. Mouldy Squid

Some of the best Lovecraft Criticism has come out of France. HPL was very big there after his death. The French translations of his works sold in France much better than the English in America (until the 70s anyways). I would hazard a guess that a whole lot of French "got" Lovecraft at least as well as the Americans.
Roland of Gilead
5. pKp
Yeah, I know (I live there, remember ? :). That's probably because SF as a genre was kinda big in France in the 70s - it was one of the first non-English-speaking countries to have a real fandom.

Speaking of criticism, Houellebecq's "Against the World, Against Life" is really good. I'm not familiar with other French Lovecraft critics/scholars.
Howard Brazee
6. chaosprime
@firkin: The ideology that Lovecraft was steeped in, as people never tire of pointing out, was racism. To understand why that makes his topics scary to him, though, one needs to shift emphasis in the usage of that term from the modern sense of "prejudice against people of specific skin colors" to "belief in the superiority and destiny of one's own race". White-Man's-Burden-style racism gave people a sense of nobility and purpose to their lives, one that maybe took up some slack with the decline of supernaturalism.

If what you're clinging to, then, is a notion of white people's glorious ascendancy, the idea of a universe that couldn't care less about your race's stunning accomplishments, one which in fact the idiot gibbering you associate with "inferior races" is more pleasing to the higher orders of beings than any of white men's grand works, is profoundly terrifying.
Howard Brazee
7. chaosprime
To expand on that a little, I'd say that another reason Lovecraft works is that no matter what it is you cling to in order to assign meaning and purpose to your life -- racism, sexism, religion, reproduction, science, art, hedonism, ascetism, what-have-you -- Lovecraft's universe is just as indifferent to it, just as threatening to any externally derived sense of purpose.

It's very unifying that way, really. :)
Miss Kai
8. wolfkit
When I first started reading 'horror' stories I was generally unimpressed with their ability to scare. Then I read my first Lovecraft. To date , I still consider him to be the only contender should I ever allow myself to be scared by a piece of fiction. Everyone else I've read just doesn't make the grade as 'potentially' scary.

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