Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lovecraft’s Brush with Necrophilia

Though of uneven quality, H.P. Lovecraft’s collaborations with other writers are interesting and useful to those seeking a deeper understanding and appreciation of his work.  These stories show the resiliency of Lovecraft’s ideas and style, even when inextricably mixed with the mediocre work of lesser lights.  To borrow a horrible metaphor, here and there the hand of Lovecraft pokes up through the text like that of an incompletely buried corpse.  Often it is not clear whether a given story was lightly edited or completely rewritten.  Lovecraft appears to have used many of these collaborations to recycle his favorite images and themes into the work of his co-authors.

In The Loved Dead (1923), nominally by C.M. Eddy, Jr., the narrator discovers at an early age that he has a fondness for being around the dead.  He first learns of this inclination while attending the funeral of his grandfather—he is sixteen years old at the time.  It is tempting to see something autobiographical about this initial scene; Lovecraft’s maternal grandfather Whipple Phillips also died while he was in his teens.  The author repeatedly ensures that readers understand that the attraction here is sexual.  There is incessant reference to “insatiable desires”, “delirious joy”, and “wild, wanton, soul-satisfying sensuality”—and this is just in the first couple of pages.

There is more autobiographical detail:  the character in Eddy’s story also soon experiences the death of his mother—whose funeral reignites his unhallowed desires.  He obtains a job with the town’s sole undertaker to be nearer the object of his twisted affections.  Then his father dies.  With the death of his parents, and steady employment at the local funeral parlor, his career as a necrophiliac is off to a great start.  He loves his work, and his clients, (who rarely complain), and later obtains work in a larger company that operates a chain of funeral parlors in another town.

His weird compulsion deepens and becomes more difficult to satisfy.  He begins to add to his supply of fresh cadavers by murdering strangers.  Even a stint on the battle fields of World War I does not slake his appalling thirst.  He returns to his old job, but resumes his nocturnal activities and by degrees loses what little control he has left over his cravings.  On the run from police, he winds up back in his home town, where he murders a family while they are asleep.  Weirdly, the structure of this family—two parents and a single child—mirrors that of his own, (and Lovecraft’s in real life).  As the police close in, he flees to the graveyard where he had earlier buried his parents, and takes his own life.  The author makes sure to indicate that Hell is his next destination.  This is probably not a Lovecraftian touch.

Although Eddy probably wrote the original draft of The Loved Dead, S.T. Joshi believes the published version shows the strong influence of Lovecraft’s style, particularly in the heavy reliance on adjectives and other similarities.  There is the use of “perfervid free-association” at the very end, a technique that also closed The Hound, The Lurking Fear, and The Haunter of the Dark among others.  (The ridiculous end of The Loved Dead has the narrator gasp out, “I—can—write—no—more…”)

Similar to other Lovecraft stories and to The Rats in The Walls are two stream-of-conscious passages where the text devolves into hysterical phrases separated by hyphens or ellipses:  “…phantasmal hordes swarm over the rotting graves…spectral fingers beckon me…ethereal fragments of unwritten melodies rise in celestial crescendo…” and so forth.  Like many Lovecraft stories, this one contains no dialogue; it is basically one long soliloquy.  

Joshi suspects that the story is intended to satirize itself as well as the sensationalist fiction it represents.  Yet the presence of so much parallel autobiographical material makes one suspect that more is going on here.  It cannot be an accident that the story begins early on with the deaths of a grandfather and both parents, given the presence of these tragedies in Lovecraft’s own life.

Despite the morbid, overheated verbiage about “insatiable desires”, the story is oddly asexual.  There is almost no physical or sensual description of the victims or of the revolting activities implied—not that your humble blogger is eager to read material of this kind.  Perhaps the final version would have been unpublishable had it contained more graphic description.  Yet it seems as if it was only the idea of necrophilia, and not the actual thing itself, that excited Lovecraft and his collaborator.  One would suspect that a character with a compulsion like this would be preoccupied with details like gender, clothing, physical arrangement, and so on, but this is completely absent from the text.

It is difficult to imagine a sympathetic or sensitive portrayal of necrophilia; any depiction of such a taboo subject would not engender any other emotion than revulsion.  Originally I was going to criticize this story simply on the level of believability—it is rather melodramatic and over the top.  And yet today I read in the news about two brothers who were arrested again for engaging in cannibalism.  They at least showed more restraint than the narrator of The Loved Dead, only desecrating the graves of the recently interred, and not actively creating their own objects of sexual, or in this case, gustatory desire.   So perhaps these incomprehensibly grotesque behaviors still exist in the world.

The Loved Dead raises some intriguing psychological questions.  Why did Lovecraft help write a story about necrophilia?  Why does it contain autobiographical material?

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