Saturday, October 27, 2018

Classic Ghost Story Writers: H. P. Lovecraft

It's tempting to be facetious about the strange worlds of H. P. Lovecraft, "the twentieth century horror story's dark and baroque prince," as Stephen King famously described him.

I think a quick peek at the picture above will cure you of any notion that Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was gifted with much of a sense of humour. Life, for him, was a terrifying and frustrating business.

Here's a little photo-montage to enable you to visualise him more clearly:

What kind of a writer was he? An over-the-top, boots-and-all, pedal-to-the-metal user of every adjective and adverb under the sun to get the extreme effects he craved. His prose may not always be pretty, but it does have a certain brute effectiveness to it.

Here's an example of his early fantasy writing, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath," a long novella deeply indebted to Lord Dunsany:
Well did the traveler know those garden lands that lie betwixt the wood of the Cerenerian Sea, and blithely did he follow the singing river Oukranos that marked his course. The sun rose higher over gentle slopes of grove and lawn, and heightened the colors of the thousand flowers that starred each knoll and dangle. A blessed haze lies upon all this region, wherein is held a little more of the sunlight than other places hold, and a little more of the summer's humming music of birds and bees; so that men walk through it as through a faery place, and feel greater joy and wonder than they ever afterward remember.

And here's a piece of his more mature writing:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I guess what those of us brought up on his stories relish most, though, are the fragments of unknown, hellish languages he liked to mix into his stories. Here's a wonderful example from 'The Shadow over Innsmouth', cunningly blended with New England dialect:
"Yield up enough sacrifices an' savage knick-knacks an' harbourage in the taown when they wanted it, an' they'd let well enough alone. Wudn't bother no strangers as might bear tales aoutside—that is, withaout they got pryin'. All in the band of the faithful—Order o' Dagon—an' the children shud never die, but go back to the Mother Hydra an' Father Dagon what we all come from onct—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah-nagl fhtagn—"

Steve Thomas: Innsmouth

He's best known for his creation of a thing called the 'Cthulhu Mythos': a more-or-less consistent, interconnected mythology which gradually came into being in such stories as 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'The Dunwich Horror,' and reached its full flowering in the late novel 'At the Mountains of Madness' and his final completed story 'The Shadow Out of Time'.

The artist Steve Thomas has created a series of mocked-up travel posters for particularly significant Lovecraftian destinations:

Steve Thomas: Arkham, Massachusetts

Chief among them, of course, is Arkham, Massachusetts, home of the Miskatonic University, whose library boasts a copy of that most recondite of volumes The Necronomicon, written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, and a source of considerable inconvenience to everyone who encounters it, whether in the original or in its variously expurgated translations into a myriad of tongues.

Abdul Alhazred: The Necronomicon

Arkham (allegedly a blend of Salem, Massachusetts, and the author's hometown Providence, Rhode Island), has more than its fair share of demons, hauntings, empty graves, corpses with their faces gnawed off, spectral beasts, and even radioactive meteorites from outer space.

Nor is there any sense in pretending that Lovecraft was just playing around with these things for poetic effect. His paranoias and neurotic fears were very real. Take, for instance, the following conversation about "H. P. Lovecraft's Phobias" on Yahoo Answers!:
Question: I've heard that Lovecraft had various phobias, what were they?

Best Answer:
  • Gelatinous seafood and the smell of fish (severe).
  • Unfamilar types of human faces that deviated from his ethnic norm (severe).
  • Doctors and hospitals (mild).
  • Large enclosed spaces (subway systems, large caves etc., mild).
  • He also seems to have had a mild phobia about tall buildings and the possibility of being trapped under one after a collapse.
  • Very cold weather (probably justifiable, since he tended to faint in it).
- Source: David Haden
If you'd like to know more about that or other recondite matters, you could do worse than consult the following tome, by the indefatigable Leslie S. Klinger, annotator of Sherlock Holmes, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Alan Moore's Watchmen and a host of others:

Leslie Klinger, ed. The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (2014)

  • Klinger, Leslie S., ed. The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. Introduction by Alan Moore. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2014.

The main thing to emphasise is that this strange mixture of aesthetic recidivism, obsessive compulsion, and perverse white supremacism somehow combined into a body of work almost as influential on the twentieth century as Poe's was on the nineteenth.

If you think I'm exaggerating, just try googling "H. P. Lovecraft in popular culture" sometime.

Nor is his fan base entirely confined to readers of comics and pulp paperbacks with their caps on backwards (a proud group of human beings I'm happy to belong to: with the exception of the cap, that is). He recently joined the very select company of the Library of America, the only twentieth century horror writer as yet to do so (with the exception of the comparatively high culture Shirley Jackson):

H. P. Lovecraft. Tales, ed. Peter Straub (2005)

  • Lovecraft, H. P. Tales. Ed. Peter Straub. The Library of America, 155. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2005.

One of the most pleasing of the recent tributes to his influence is Alan Moore's remarkable series of comics set in a slightly alternative America of the 1930s:

Jasen Burrows: Providence 3 Cover (2015)

  1. Neonomicon. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2011.
  2. Providence: Act 1. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Issues #1-#4. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2017.
  3. Providence: Act 2. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Issues #5-#8. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2017.
  4. Providence: Act 3. Illustrated by Jacen Burrows. Issues #9-#12. Rantoul, Illinois: Avatar Press, 2017.

Jacen Burrows: Providence (2017)

Composed in his characteristic cross-genre mix of 'straight' comics and associated prose pieces and appendices, Moore's narrative described the odyssey of a hapless journalist over a thinly disguised version of Lovecraft's New England, resulting in the usual dire consequences for the entire human race.

Let's just say that these comics go some places that other fan fictions seldom do. They take a good look at Lovecraft's xenophobia and misognyny but pay full tribute to the power of his mythopoeic imagination, also. Not always to comforting effect, it should be said:

Jasen Burrows: Neonomicon 3 Cover (2010)

Beyond that, I have to say that I can't help but find amusing some of the Lovecraftian spoofs that seem to throng the web. This one, for instance, parodying those 'Sea-monkey' adverts so madly attractive to us as kids - when we were lucky enough to come across a stash of bona fide American comics, that is:

I guess that a lot of the 'shoggoth' references, and mentions of the "Great Old Ones' - not to mention 'Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos', or 'Shub-Niggurath, Goat with a Thousand Young', or even great Cthulhu him - it? - self, don't really make much sense to the uninitiate, but this one, at least, has a pleasing brevity to it:

And these are all very sound rules if you ever be unfortunate enough to find yourself caught in the midst of a Lovecraftian scenario:

On and on and on they go: Lovecraftian ice-cream flavours, carnival exhibitions, you name it, it's there:

But back to the serious world of bibliomania and book-collecting. I still remember the disquieting experience of asking in a Takapuna bookshop if they had any Lovecraft books, only to be solemnly informed by the shop assistant that not only did they not, but that she doubted the very existence of such books. I recall the slightly roguish expression on her face when I brought out the dread syllables 'Love-craft,' and the distinct impression she gave that I was on some kind of subterranean quest for porno. Fat chance in the New Zealand of the early 1970s!

To add insult to injury, I'd seen those very books in that same bookshop only a month or two before. So her denials were, to say the least, somewhat disingenuous. When I tell you that what I'd seen was something like this, though, you may understand better her reluctance to engage with such "literature." God bless pulp cover illustrators!

H. P. Lovecraft. The Lurking Fear and Other Stories (1973)

Never mind. In spite of the opposition of such petty minds, I eventually managed to assemble the six garish paperbacks which constituted the Master's collected horror fiction:
  1. Lovecraft, H. P. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. 1951. London: Panther, 1970.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror. 1966. London: Panther, 1973.

  3. Lovecraft, H. P. The Lurking Fear and Other Stories. 1964. London: Panther, 1973.

  4. Lovecraft, H. P. The Haunter of the Dark and Other Tales. 1964. London: Panther, 1970.

  5. Lovecraft, H. P. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. 1967. London: Panther, 1973.

  6. Lovecraft, H. P. The Tomb and Other Tales. 1967. London: Panther, 1974.

If you looked carefully enough (I did), you'd observe that these six paperbacks actually constituted trimmed-down, British versions of the following three American hardbacks, all edited by by Lovecraft's most faithful disciple August Derleth, and published by Arkham House, the firm Derleth started to perpetuate the Master's work after his untimely death at the age of 47.

H. P. Lovecraft. The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963)

  1. Lovecraft, H. P. The Dunwich Horror and Others: The Best Supernatural Stories. Ed. August Derleth. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1963.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels. Ed. August Derleth. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1964.

  3. Lovecraft, H. P. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. Ed. August Derleth. Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1965.

H. P. Lovecraft. Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1965)

The first two collections of Lovecraft's work issued by Arkham House are now fabulously rare and valuable. Here they both are (I'm sorry to say, if you're wondering, that I don't own copies of either of them):

H. P. Lovecraft. The Outsider and Others (1939)

H. P. Lovecraft. Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943)

Note the advertisement, above, for a book by Clark Ashton Smith, who, along with Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, constituted the 'Big Three' of the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales, which flourished - largely because of their work and that of other members of the Lovecraft group - throughout the early to mid-1930s.

There are innumerable modern editions of Lovecraft - many of them 'corrected' or at least re-edited by horror story polymath S. T. Joshi:

Leslie Boba: S. T. Joshi (1958- )

  1. Lovecraft, H. P. The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi. 2001. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P. The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S. T. Joshi. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.

Ludwig Prinn: De Vermis Mysteriis (1809)

There's also a weird, less easily classifiable penumbra of works 'edited by' Lovecraft (this was indeed the main way he made his meager living), or 'based on' his manuscripts, or 'inspired by' his themes (particularly those embodied in the Cthulhu mythos). I have a small collection of these, but the field is a vast one:

August Derleth (1909-1971)

  1. Lovecraft, H. P., & August Derleth. The Shadow out of Time and Other Tales of Horror. London: Victor Gollancz, 1968.

  2. Lovecraft, H. P., & August Derleth. The Lurker at the Threshold: A Novel of the Macabre. 1945. London: Victor Gollancz, 1968.

  3. Lovecraft, H. P. & Others. Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Ed. August Derleth. 1975. London: Grafton, 1988.

Then there's the miscellaneous and secondary literature. There are collections of letters, of poetry (including his masterwork in this form, 'Fungi from Yuggoth'), of essays, of virtually anything you please. There are also numerous biographies and critical studies.

Of these I have only the first, somewhat dismissive one by L. Sprague de Camp, along with Colin Wilson's pioneering essay of 1962. Since then, however, the field has expanded vastly, due initially to the combined efforts of Derleth and Joshi, but now thanks largely to the incremental effect Academia tends to have on all such harmless pursuits:

L. Sprague de Camp: Lovecraft: A Biography (1975)

  1. De Camp, L. Sprague. Lovecraft: A Biography. 1975. London: New English Library, 1976.

  2. Wilson, Colin. The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination. 1962. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1982.

Colin Wilson: The Strength to Dream (1962)


Richard said...

I got At the Mountains of Madness from the library and it is the most memorable thing I have read so far. I have a couple of his other books (stories), a Charles Dexter novel and one that is a collection.

The Mountains of Madness is fascinating. If I was to collect horror etc more deliberately I might start with Lovecraft. I had heard of him as a book seller. Then I read more about him (he admired Hitler but this was before the war and I think he died before the results of Hitler's silliness eventuated).

Humans classify categorize and organize which of course is necessary: but in doing so we can "file" certain things away in a zone we forget contains fascinating connections. This is why I look, in libraries, to see what is in the 000 to 100 to 200 and in fact many other areas of the Dewey system. Comics and graphic novels are another thing we might tend to avoid. My daughter reads graphic novels but then this sometimes inspires her to read the main one. Her last one was Proust's massive opus. From the comic she got onto the actual book (it doesn't have to be a physical book if someone likes reading on an e book that is as good or it competes with not reading the thing at all. My fascination is with the covers. With some books also I like ex library as they are often hard back and first edition, and with some books have more photographs etc that p.b.

But there is something still as exciting reading At The Mountains of Madness as my teenage reading of some Sci Fi, Ryder Haggard (although in my early teens more erotic than frightening) and others. The movie 'The Alien' (the first one especially) hit me in a similar way. Those demon lovers, immortal golden domes, those caves of ice!

I'm reading a non fiction book called 'Nightmare' by Sandra Shulman. That covers dreams and terrible nightmares (as well as less 'insane' ones): but especially interesting is the chapter on the effects of opium addiction on Coleridge (His terrible nightmares, he had to have the Wordsworth women watching him as he slept) And other writers are talked about (Mary Shelley, even Kerouac who wrote 'A Book of Dreams') . It is well written and the author seems to have written mainly in the fantasy and perhaps horror regions of literature. Horror is not equivalent to dreams and fantasy but the two converge at various points on the psychic graph.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Richard,

I agree about At the Mountains of Madness - a real feat of imaginative projection.

Lovecraft is the kind of writer whom it's easier to reread than read for the first time. When you go through initially, you notice all the mannerisms - later on, you begin to disentangle the subtleties. 'The Shadow out of Time' is another classic - a late story, like 'Mountains of Madness'.

The Sandra Shulman book sounds very interesting. I have a copy, but I don't think I've ever read it -- must do so.

Richard said...

Thanks Jack. I've got the 'data' from my "Dewey Decimal Project" (sub the Inf. Projt.) and realised I wanted to read or sample more through time (libraries cut off about 2010 or even more recently so if you are looking for good books, and it is amazing what they throw out): so my own books and I started with science now more or less at Geog. Geology Psychology and onto related things. Shulman writes very well. And in fact another book 'Secrets of the Ice Age' and others that I have I have found I had to read all of if slowly.

Yes, I can see that Lovecraft needs re-reading. It is interesting that what he most deeply fears or they do, is...well it is as clever as 'The Secret Agent' by Conrad. In that great book the "joke" which leads to a tragedy and some bizarre events in that great novel: is to destroy and abstraction, "time", by blowing up Greenwich!

I have some stories by Lovecraft. Again they are remnants from books I had for sale and then kept for my own collection.

By the way when I read your novella I was inspired to read that story by Henry James you talked about. It is typically sybylline (but I love simply the way he uses words, that plush and delicious and almost camp 19th Century style bordering on the modern) and the whole story set at night in that house seems to go on and on...Like 'Mountains of Madness' it 'echoe[s] in the memory'...

'The Shadow of Time' sounds like Ballard's 'The Voices of Time'. 'Time': a word impossible to wear out.