Sunday, April 26, 2015

Personal Note: On My “Critical Method”

The R’lyeh Tribune is now nearly two years old, having begun back in May of 2013. Two years is still young for a blog, but like its human equivalent—I am thinking of my granddaughter at this age—the site is beginning to learn how to talk, how to get places, and how to get into things. 

Judging by the modest but steady number of page views, there is still considerable interest in the horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature produced between 1920 and 1940.  This is roughly the time period in which H.P. Lovecraft, the focus of this site, was active and influential among his peers.  Lately it has been gratifying to see the re-publication of a number of key authors from this era, now that nearly a century has gone by since their initial appearance.  It seems it takes at least 100 years to filter and sort the creative products of a society, to pick out the silver and gold from the dross.  As I approach that span of time myself I am coming to appreciate that process.

The R’lyeh Tribune will continue to explore the work of Lovecraft and his colleagues, and the importance of their contribution to the field of weird fiction.  As long as Kaleidoscope Books in Ann Arbor continues to operate, and the health and vigor of its proprietor is sustained—God bless and keep him!—I will have access to a deep vein of pulp horror, science fiction and fantasy.  That place is a goldmine, and about as hazardous:  patrons must step lightly to avoid sudden book-falls from overladen shelves above.

I would like to say something about my evolving critical method, if my opining and bloviating can be so glorified.  My approach to this literature is derived from a number of assumptions I have taken about pulp fiction, and perhaps all fiction:

1.      Most of what we consider “literature” is autobiographical in both content and purpose, even if inadvertently so.  It serves as a record, a psychological residue of its creator’s subjective experiences, and more broadly, those of his or her society.
2.      An in depth study of a body of work reveals both the psychology of the author as well as the sociology of the time period in which it was transcribed.
3.      The production of literature is not an individual but a collective effort, drawing inspiration from a matrix of ideas and social experience prevailing at the time of writing.  It is essentially a collective conversation, a dialogue forwards and backwards in time, across generations and across cultures, involving both authors and readers.  Authors are readers, who also happen to write.
4.      The critical role of the author is in recording and codifying both the—and I must turn to German at this point for the right words—Weltanschauung and Zeitgeist, the encompassing world view and spirit of the times, in his or her own style.
5.      Style is the only distinguishing characteristic of the individual writer, an expression of his or her spirit.  The form and content of a work are limited by human capabilities and interests—which are finite and universal—and so must be endlessly recycled and recombined.  Except for the soul of every single human life—my granddaughter’s for example—‘there is nothing new under the sun.’
6.      Finally, horror literature and fantasy, and to a lesser extent, science fiction, serve a religious function, insofar as they address perennial human anxiety about evil, death, the supernatural, the purpose of life, the nature of reality, and what ultimately is waiting for us out there in the dark forest of the unknown.  Our tepid, comfortable, suburban faiths—if even we subscribe to one!—have long since banished these unsettling subjects to the genres under investigation here.  Despite his atheism, or perhaps even because of it, H.P. Lovecraft wrestled mightily with these perennial terrors in his foundational work.  

None of these ideas are particularly original, and not everyone will agree with my approach.  More experienced readers may be quick to discern the limitations of this point of view, and I welcome their criticisms.  However, it being the 21st Century, no one can have the last word on the relative literary value of a work, much less its interpretation. And does that really matter anymore?

With all these considerations in mind, I will close by mentioning—crowing, really—that I was at my favorite used book store yesterday and found a treasure published by Arkham House back in 1952:  Tales from Underwood, a Collection of the Best Fantastic Stories of David H. Keller.  Keller was an associate of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and according to S.T. Joshi, once possessed Lovecraft’s astronomical notebook that covered the period 1909-1915.  Keller was a country doctor and psychiatrist who turned to writing for publication relatively late in life.  I am just getting acquainted with this author, but suspect that his work will exemplify some of the principles I discussed above.



Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.