Thursday, November 27, 2014

Correlating The Contents of Lovecraft’s Mind

A new biography of H.P. Lovecraft is out this month from Plexus Publishing, Paul Roland’s The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft.  It is no surprise that such an influential writer as Lovecraft would become the subject of numerous biographies over the years, books that sought to connect his unique vision and grim world view to the tragedies and torments of his life.  Of these earlier books, probably the most familiar are L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft, A Biography (1975), and S.T. Joshi’s monumental two volume work, I Am Providence (2013).

Both of these are useful, and have their strengths.  De Camp’s purpose is to show how Lovecraft sabotaged his talent and efforts through poor organization, lack of self-discipline and immaturity—while acknowledging the impact of a traumatic family history on his troubled adulthood.  The book is critical in tone, and could have been subtitled How Not to Succeed as a Genre Writer.   Joshi’s book is an essential reference, very thorough and detailed, but probably overwhelming for the general reader.  However, I Am Providence is indispensable for those who are intrigued by Lovecraft’s work and want a deeper understanding of the social and historical context in which it was created.

The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft occupies a position intermediate between these earlier biographies.  Roland’s book will be interesting and accessible to the general reader who would like to know more about the life of this complex individual, and how it is expressed in his writings.  The biographer’s intent is to investigate “how Lovecraft’s disturbing creations may have been an attempt to exorcise both his inner-demons and the elemental abominations which haunted his recurring nightmares.” 

This is no small task, given that both Lovecraft’s life and work were full of contradictions.  What he wrote about himself in his letters was often at odds with the content of his poetry and fiction.  He was an avowed atheist, but one who made frequent reference to biblical passages, whose terrifying “Old Ones” were manifested through religious ritual, and whose settings often included churches and graveyards. Officially a materialist, Lovecraft’s metaphysics of the dream world held that dreams were as real as so-called reality, and probably more so.   In life, he felt that he was superior to the rabble and especially to ethnic, racial and religious minorities.  Yet he considered himself feeble, frequently incapacitated, physically ugly, and a failure.

Roland provides an overview of Lovecraft’s early life, drawing attention to the formative influences of his grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips and that of his mother, Susie Lovecraft—arguably the two most important people in his life.  The figure of Lovecraft’s grandfather haunts much of his fiction, a recurring ghost-like image who imparts wisdom and guidance, if little comfort.  The complete absence of women from nearly all of Lovecraft’s work must surely reflect the deep ambivalence he felt about his relationship with his mother.  A third influence that Roland and other biographers have chronicled was the steady decline of the family’s economic status following the death of the grandfather.  Lovecraft enjoyed a pampered “Golden Age” early in life, and then subsequent impoverishment, with its accompanying anxiety and sense of gathering doom.

Nearly everything Lovecraft wrote was autobiographical in content—he is the main character in the majority of his first person narratives.  His synopses of dreams, his poetry, fiction and correspondence all comprise a remarkable psycho-emotional record of his fears and disappointments.  This record artfully documents his struggles with depression and sanity following the deaths of his grandfather and mother, the subsequent loss of the family fortune, and his inability to succeed as an adult or as a writer in a challenging period of history.  He conducted himself as if he were a devout Puritan, yet had no hope or belief in a salvation.  Near the end of his life he was still trying to resolve the contradictions in his life and find a purpose—even an identity—for himself.

Roland makes a reasonable attempt, as others have before him, to diagnose Lovecraft on the basis of this psychic record.  He concludes that Lovecraft’s behaviors and interactions with others are typical of those identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome, a classification unknown in Lovecraft’s time.  This is probably not too far off the mark, and does account for Lovecraft’s famed preference for solitude, his inability to sustain focus at times, and his experience of being overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, and change in his routine. 

Yet the biographer cannot resist more traditional psychoanalytical interpretations of some of the sexual imagery in Lovecraft’s work, as well as his troubled relationship with his mother.  Nor can the rest of us; it seems very appropriate that an era that produced Freudian understandings of repressed human motivations should also produce repressed authors like H.P. Lovecraft.  In this regard, Roland offers an interesting interpretation of The Call of Cthulhu. He sees this classic tale as an explicit dramatization of Lovecraft’s subconscious fears “erupting” into consciousness.  Conceivably, Lovecraft may have benefitted from such insights, if he had possessed the means to access mental health services. 

In one of the book’s strongest chapters, (9. “The Haunter of the Dark”), Roland ties many of these psychological observations together into an analysis of Lovecraft’s style and content.  Why was he so enthralled with atmosphere and architecture?  How are Lovecraft’s struggles with family trauma reflected in such well known stories as Arthur Jermyn, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth?  Later on, Roland makes a reasonable, poetic defense of Lovecraft’s use of adjectives and adverbs, his ‘purple prose’—a frequent and perhaps unfair criticism of the author.

H.P. Lovecraft is increasingly popular and influential nearly 100 years after his death, despite having so little in common with the majority of his readers then as now.  For much of his life he did not work, was not interested in women, and was a “gentleman” in a country that is merciless to such affectations.  By some standards he was not even a particularly good writer.  Yet as Roland points out, Lovecraft is still able to conceptualize what is truly and supernaturally horrifying to us in the twenty-first century, especially at a time of great loss of faith in traditional religion and other institutions, in political authority, and even the reliability of science.  In some ways he foretold our growing dismay and fear of cosmic insignificance.

In The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft, readers will find an interesting discussion of the author’s principle works, as well as the historical and familial circumstances in which they were created.  The tone is thoughtful and affectionate, but not uncritical.  The book is graced by numerous rare photographs, several of them depicting Lovecraft actually smiling.  There are some interesting asides about Lovecraft’s use of dream incubation and creative visualization as adjuncts to writing.  Near the end is a helpful overview of Lovecraft’s various translations into film, television, graphic novels, visual media, music and other cultural products.  Finally, the appendices contain fascinating material written by Lovecraft and his wife Sonia Davis that will be of interest to fans. 
Overall, Roland’s biography provides a solid introduction for those who want to deepen their appreciation of Lovecraft and his contributions to weird fiction.   

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