Sunday, August 25, 2013

Some Early 80s Literary Criticism

What have others said about Lovecraft’s writing? 

Serious criticism of Lovecraft’s work began not long after the author’s death in 1937.  There is Edmund Wilson’s famous, or infamous “Tales of the Marvelous and Ridiculous” published in 1945.  The title pretty much says it all.   L. Sprague De Camp, Darrel Schweitzer and Donald R. Burkeson wrote critical surveys of Lovecraft's work and life in the late 70s and early 80s.  In 1981 S.T. Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism was published—this one is a bit more comprehensive than the others.    

Phillip A. Shreffler has a chapter about the author in a collection of critical essays about supernatural fiction that was also published several decades ago.*  The chapter is actually an excerpt from Shreffler’s larger work, The H.P. Lovecraft Companion, (1977), published a couple years after L. Sprague De Camp’s rather critical biography.  Shreffler is a past editor of the Baker Street Journal , an “irregular”quarterly publication devoted to writings about Sherlock Holmes.

There is not enough time or space to do justice to Shreffler’s essay, but here are some of the interesting points that he makes about the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

•It is relatively straightforward to identify those stories that were inspired by the style of Lord Dunsany; these he puts aside as “pure fantasy-land or dream stories”.  Shreffler offers a further classification based on the extent to which characters struggle with powerful forces that are natural or supernaturalistic and impersonal on one hand—what Joshi calls cosmicist—or show conscious evil intent toward humankind on the other. 

Shreffler would place The Other Gods in the first category, while The Case of Charles Dexter Ward would be a strong example of the latter.  It seems that Lovecraft’s earlier stories embody the theme of impersonal, even accidental cosmic forces, while the later ones, especially those comprising the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ exhibit actively malevolent entities.

(From a psychological viewpoint, this continuum of personal or impersonal forces is expressed in the concept of ‘locus of control’—the degree to which an individual believes that events in life result from personal effort and decision making or to the over powering influence of outside forces.  It is interesting that in Lovecraft’s stories, as in his personal life, the locus of control is almost always external—threats and challenges are met with passivity and acquiescence.  This seems to be the case no matter whether said forces are personal or impersonal in nature.)

•Shreffler feels that the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is misnamed, because it gives undue emphasis to Cthulhu, who only actively appears in just one story, and in an atypical location, (i.e., the South Seas).  The critic feels that this unique collection of Lovecraft’s stories ought to be called the ‘New England Mythos’, given the importance to Lovecraft of that region of the country, both for the settings of his stories and his underlying literary theory.  (Joshi and others have pointed out that Lovecraft himself did not coin the term ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, preferring instead “Yog-Sotho-thery”.)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, illustrates a uniquely Lovecraftian understanding of the origin of evil.  Evil does not come from the biblical concept of ‘original sin’—a notion Lovecraft would have been familiar with from his Puritan heritage.  Rather, the evil underlying all of the black and depraved arts of humanity is the remnant of “ritual veneration of these monsters from space”, that is the ‘Old Ones’.  Present day superstitions and occultism are derived from these ancient religious practices carried forward from very ancient extraterrestrial encounters.  So evil came from outer space, not from Adam and Eve.

•In Shreffler’s essay, the influence of both Hawthorne and Poe on Lovecraft’s fiction and literary theory are discussed in depth.  By way of Lovecraft’s analysis in his foundational Supernatural History in Literature, Shreffler shows how Lovecraft turned to Hawthorne for the insight that behind the commonplace is a “dismal throng of vague specters”.  From Hawthorne he also obtained an appreciation of how to manage setting and atmosphere to create an effect of terror and the uncanny.  Lovecraft of course left out Hawthorne’s interest in the moral or spiritual aspects his characters’ struggles.

It was primarily from Edgar Allen Poe that Lovecraft derived much of his prose style, and his tendency to emphasize setting and description of his characters’ mental and emotional state, as opposed to plot or characterization.  As with Lord Dunsany, the influence of Poe on much of Lovecraft’s work is fairly conspicuous.

There has been much more informed criticism since the eighties, as Lovecraft’s work has gained in stature and general familiarity.  If you have not already discovered them, two great resources for current study and analysis include the following:

S.T. Joshi’s Blog at

David Haden’s Blog at   

*“H.P. Lovecraft and an American Literary Tradition” by Philip A. Shreffler, in Literature Of The Occult, edited by Peter B. Messent, (1981, Prentice-Hall, Inc.)—this is an interesting book with a focus primarily on gothic fiction.

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