Thursday, October 17, 2013

1. H.P. Lovecraft as Humorist

It is probably safe to say that Lovecraft is rarely ever laugh out loud funny, but there is considerable wit and cleverness in some of the letters and poetry that he wrote.  In his two volume biography of the author, S.T. Joshi provides several examples of Lovecraft using poetry as the medium both for playful literary criticism of genre writers, and for responding to their defenders in magazines like Argosy.  In an earlier biography, L. Sprague De Camp provides additional instances of Lovecraft using his skill with rhyme and wordplay to introduce members of his local amateur press society, criticize the poetry of Walt Whitman, and write a tribute to Charlie Chaplin.

Examples of humor and satire are too few and far between in his fiction, but one of his stories stands out in this regard.  Though off the beaten path for most readers of Lovecraft, Ibid is well worth reading, and provides a completely different view of the author’s capabilities. 

Ibid was published in 1938, the year following the author’s death.  Joshi suggests on the basis of some of Lovecraft’s correspondence that the story was written in either 1927 or 1928.   It is the fictional history of one Caius Anicius Magnus Furious Camillus Aemilianus Cornelius Valerius Pompeius Julius Ibidus—or Ibidus for short.  Born in 486, Lovecraft tells us that Ibidus was a critic and biographer of some renown, who flourished towards the end of the Roman Empire.  He lived to the ripe old age of 102, following a distinguished career that included military service, scholarship, rhetoric, and poetry.

But Lovecraft’s story actually begins at Ibidus’ death.  The tale is not so much about Ibidus as it is about his head, or more specifically, his skull.  Lovecraft has a lot of morbid, irreverent fun detailing the adventures of the skull on several continents, through various historical periods.  There is not a little parody here; at one point the skull is mistaken for the relic of a saint, and the old Roman is canonized in absentia.  Ibid also appears to be a send up of academic writing. Throughout the story Lovecraft’s love of words and history is on full display.

Favorite line:  “At first worshipped with dark rites by the prairie-dogs, who saw in it a deity sent from the upper world, it afterward fell into dire neglect as the race of simple, artless burrowers succumbed before the onslaught of the conquering Aryan.”

Very few of Lovecraft’s stories contain this level of playfulness and whimsy, which is a shame.  Stories like Ibid show that Lovecraft was much more talented and creative than his short time on earth allowed him to demonstrate.  In my view, he was at his most inventive when he combined his deep historical knowledge and facility with the English language.  His sense of humor seems to warm the pages a bit and bring him in closer to his readers.


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