Monday, July 8, 2013

Was Lovecraft Really Such a Great Writer?

Was H.P. Lovecraft indeed a great writer of horror, fantasy and science fiction?  This is a hazardous question to ask in a blog named for one of his better known fictional cities.  Certainly he has been an influential writer for nearly a century.  Both his name and many of his creations have become essentially a recognizable brand for all kinds of products, including movies, graphic novels, games, rock bands, statuary, stuffed animals, “Cthulhu Mythos” inspired fiction and poetry, and even scholarly journals.  But did the actual quality of his writing warrant such developments, or was something else in play?

There have been numerous criticisms of Lovecraft’s work over the years.  Among familiar complaints are his use of archaic grammar and vocabulary, his reliance on italics to heighten climactic moments in his stories, and his florid, “purple prose” that has bogged down many a reader—unless surgically removed ahead of time by a humane editor.  But these are superficial complaints, and similar bad habits can be found among his contemporaries.

There are more serious problems with Lovecraft’s writing, which lessen the greatness that might have been present.

There is little or no dialogue among characters.  When there is conversation, it tends to be a monologue—essentially the author’s exposition surrounded by quotes.  Without dialogue, Lovecraft’s stories lack an efficient and subtle way to convey characterization, action, feeling, or relationship.  He is forced to rely on ponderous explanation and interminable back story.  When he attempts dialogue it is remarkably stilted and stereotypical, given the often overwrought text that surrounds it.  (Compare many of his stories to Hodgson’s creepy The Ghost Pirates—a novel told almost entirely through dialogue.)

Because there is rarely more than one character.  Almost always the lead character in a Lovecraft story is Lovecraft himself, or some close version of the author.   If the narrator is given a name at all, it is Randolph Carter, or Thomas Olney or some other alias.  Look for a quiet, sensitive, reflective antiquarian scholar whose intense study of diverse historical and occult materials allows him to connect the dots and see our collective and impending doom.  Whom no one will believe.  And his characters do not seem to change much as a result of their supernatural adventures, other than to become more terrified.  
There seems to be rather little affection or compassion among characters, or towards them.

And women aren’t allowed in his stories.  Nor are families, children, or dogs, (with the exception of perhaps, of The Hound).  One of the most striking things about movies or fiction inspired by Lovecraft’s writings is that women are added back in so to speak to create a more fully rounded picture of humanity’s struggle with the fearful unknown.  History tells us that women were prevalent in the 1920s, often appeared in books and even wrote them.  There were women in Lovecraft’s family.  Was his social sphere really so limited that he could not conceive of a believable female character?

Yet people of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds—all of them evil—do appear.  Lovecraft’s overt racism and cultural chauvinism have been discussed in earlier posts.  It is not hard to find examples throughout much of his writing.  It seems simplistic to rationalize this by ascribing it to the times he lived in—when some in the public were fearful of immigrants encroaching on white privilege in the big cities—or to emphasize how he later renounced these views.  There were contemporary writers and others who took exception to white supremacist views and other forms of racism; his attitudes were not inevitable.

•And no one works for a living.  In so far as we define ourselves by what we do and the things we accomplish, we develop a sense of identity that others can relate to—and these relationships themselves help us also to generate a sense of self.  Owing to his emotional problems and dysfunctional upbringing, it seems likely Lovecraft never really experienced a stable and fulfilling life that included meaningful work and intimate relationships—and this is reflected in the limited characterization in his stories.  On a practical level, who would be around or have the time to discover the awful truth about ghouls, or the Cthulhu cult, or what is going on in Innsmouth, if he or she had to work 9 to 5?  You would have to save it for the weekends.  

•And everyone gives up in the end.  There does not seem to be much conflict in a typical Lovecraft story.  There are awful discoveries, and running away, and insanity, but not much of a fight.  In the end, the character is often resigned to an uncertain and threatening future, and at best can only remain vigilant.  There is no lasting solution or resolution, because there is no struggle.

Despite these weaknesses, many obviously related to the sadness and frustrations of his personal life, Lovecraft made lasting contributions to horror, fantasy and science fiction.  We can thank him for the stock character of the quiet thoughtful man who sees, before everyone else, the terrible menace hinted at throughout history and in random events of today’s news, who puts it all together, and saves the rest of us with his insight—at least for now.  He is a champion for introverts, lonely scholars, and ostracized youth.  We need these people. 

He brilliantly developed a body of work that would later be called the Cthulhu Mythos.  Like all mythology, it continues to serve as inspiration for further creativity—all the cultural products mentioned earlier, and some that are yet to come.  This mythology undergirds a cosmic fear, not just fear of being personally consumed by a single predator, but of being converted en masse into something wholly other and unknown.

He disabused us of the ignorant notion that supernatural beings and extra terrestrials will look like something we know—like giant bugs, or lizard men, or people with antenna, or dinosaurs.  In fact we may barely be able to see them at all, especially if they come from where “the geometry of the place was all wrong.”  Lovecraft’s monsters are amorphous, shape shifting, in-between things—a good match for the fears our society has for its future and the awesome changes it is struggling through right now.

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