LURID: Love Love Lovecraft
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
Seventy-five years ago today, Howard Phillips Lovecraft slipped out of this world in a morphine daze, after a long battle with intestinal cancer. He was a prolific writer of stories, poetry and letters, but had never published a novel. Although he was not unknown among fans of the Weird Tales oeuvre, he remained unrecognized in mainstream circles. He was living in poverty and suffering from malnutrition when he died.
Posthumously, as is so often the way with starving artists, he became a literary luminary, thanks to the efforts of his fellow writers, specifically August Derleth who founded the Arkham House press in order to publish collections of Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft is now acknowledged as a ‘Master of the Macabre’, a direct heir to Poe whose influence has shaped the visions of countless horror writers and film-makers. In Danse Macabre Stephen King describes him as “the twentieth century horror story’s dark and baroque prince” and credits a volume of Lovecraft stories for triggering his own interest in the genre:
Lovecraft… opened the way for me, as he had done for others before me: Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, Fritz Leiber and Ray Bradbury among them. And while Lovecraft, who died before the Second World War could fulfill many of his visions of unimaginable horror, does not figure largely in this book, the reader would do well to remember that it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”
But Lovecraft is not the easiest writer for the casual reader to enjoy. His work is mired in xenophobia and outright racism – even by the standards of his time (compare him to Edgar Rice Burroughs). His female characters carry trays of food around, faint and little else. His rambling descriptions of oddly shaped rocks or non-Euclidian geometry can be impenetrable after a paragraph or three. His obsession with committing to paper “unnameable things” which must not, indeed cannot, be described (except with terms like “noisome” or “eldritch” or “formless”) made him a poster boy for post-structuralists, who commandeered his use of language to support their pompous polemics in the 1980s and 1990s.
Worse still, Lovecraft’s loosely linked set of ideas about ‘the Old Ones’ which he used to underpin his storytelling (he termed it, flippantly, Yog-Sothothery) became the Cthulu Mythos, a framework which other, lesser writers used to create lumbering fanfic allegories about Good vs. Evil. The concepts that Lovecraft came up with as a sly joke between himself and fellow antiquarians (like the existence of an ancient, evil grimoire, the Necronomicon) have been entrenched, via repetition and repurposing, in a faux-scientific fanboy universe, where individuals who take themselves far too seriously vie to be Cthuluier than thou. Lovecraft’s writings are discussed and disputed as philosophy and scientific theory, as opposed to genre fiction, and usually collapse under the weight of critical expectations.
Is Lovecraft still relevant, readable even? He was old-fashioned in his own era, looking back to the Victorian prose of Lord Dunsany and Edgar Allen Poe for stylistic and thematic inspiration. His protagonists are obsessed with history and half-forgotten folklore; the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 loom large in several stories. When he mentions an automobile, or an aëroplane, it seems like a jarring anachronism. He was peculiarly resistant to technological advancement, or any “rash and overambitious programme” that might take scientists into previously uncharted territory – like Antarctica or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Like the young intellectuals who drive the core of his stories, Lovecraft presents himself as a throwback, steeped in the alchemy of a bygone era, a repository of esoteric knowledge that was useless to the Machine Age, let alone our own Internet epoch. He may have informed and shaped twentieth century horror, but can he continue to have an impact on our own century’s mass nightmares?
The answer, as always is, “it depends”. Perhaps the time has come to take Lovecraft full circle, to return him to his roots as a storyteller, to celebrate him as a savvy and subtle spinner of yarns, rather than attempting to claim him as a literary genius or a scientific philosopher? In the scramble to make the term “Lovecraftian” suitably significant, its true meaning seems to have been lost. Rather than looking to Lovecraft’s stories for insights on materialism, cosmology or quantum physics – or anything else that has ebbed and flowed with philosophical fashions – shouldn’t we be appreciative of his plot points and leave it at that?
Ponderous philosophies aside, re-reading Lovecraft’s better stories is always entertaining, thanks to his rich visual imagination and steady-handed world-building. One of Lovecraft’s great strengths is his ability to write about unreal things as though they were real. Although his main outlet was the pulp magazine market, he still subjected his work to rigorous scientific and literary scrutiny, and tried to make monsters that could exist. He was a lifelong student of astronomy, chemistry and history, and edited his work for plausibility as well as shock value. A Lovecraft narrative has both depth and breadth; even in one of his shorter, earlier stories like The Tomb he gives much thought to the exegetic minutiae, like the charnel-house door "fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago."
Lovecraft is also very clear about what he considers to be frightening on the page:
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daeligmons of unplumbed space.”[1
Lovecraft is, justly, famous for his manipulation of “unexplainable dread” and the “most terrible conception of the human brain”. He plays the reader’s imagination like a virtuoso, utilizing shadows, whispers, creaks, shuffling, white flashes, noxious fumes and oddly shaped footprints in a smoke-and-mirrors performance that would impress a Vegas magician. Yet he also knows how to deliver the specific details of horror, the kind of details that a cover illustrator needs in order to boost magazine sales to saucer-eyed kids. Sometimes a brief snapshot is enough (“the face of the motorman was a mere white cone tapering to one blood-red tentacle” – The Thing In The Moonlight), sometimes he gets downright autopsical, for instance when describing the dying form of Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror:
The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.... On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat.”
This type of tentacular spectacular tends to stick in the mind long after the less-practically defined specimens of inferior writers fade from view, and generates the kind of covers that make books fly off the shelf – just the effect that Lovecraft was trying to create.
Despite his emphasis on “seriousness and portentousness”, we should never underestimate Lovecraft’s dark sense of humor, and this is one of the major merits of his writing. Many of his tales function as pure dramatic irony. To a man, his young, prematurely balding, bespectacled, earnest protagonists exhibit breathtaking hubris, and cheerfully embark on courses of action that make the reader shriek “Bad idea!” from the get-go. Their lack of self-awareness and insistence that their way is the right way condemns them to a grisly doom; given his focus on skinny, posturing, self-styled intellectuals, it’s possible to regard Lovecraft as the prototype for the Brooklyn blogger, Die Hipster.
Whether the youthful scholar in question is reconstituting the bones of long-dead magicians (The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), sightseeing in an unfriendly seaside town (The Shadow Over Innsmouth), exploring the South Pole (In The Mountains of Madness), or renting a room that used to belong to a witch (The Dreams In The Witch House), they all ignore warning sign after warning sign, bounding up the proverbial stairs when they should be running straight out the front door. It’s clear that Lovecraft models all these mother-loving antiquarians on himself (even naming one Howard Phillips in The Thing In The Moonlight), and is inviting the reader to some Schadenfreudic downward comparison (“I would never do anything THAT stupid, but will enjoy watching the horrible fate that befalls someone who would”).
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Herbert West – Reanimator. Narration duties fall on the shoulders of Herbert’s hapless “friend”, a fellow medical student (and graverobber) at Miskatonic University who has a ringside seat for Herbert’s many attempts to cheat death. Unlike their role model Victor Frankenstein, who brought to life only one such aberration, realized his mistake and then dedicated himself to destroying it, West and his pal reanimate the dead with abandon. In their gimlet-eyed quest for knowledge, they plunge vials of vivifying serum into whatever specimen comes to hand, and pay little attention to cleaning up the resultant mess.
They start out with rabbits and guinea pigs, before moving on to “a brawny young workman drowned only the morning before…a sound animal, without psychological subtleties”. By the time West wields his needle on their kindly dean, Dr. Halsey, it’s gotten personal. Halsey is a man whom “a youth of West’s logical temperament” regards as “the product of generations of pathetic Puritanism; kindly, conscientious and sometimes gentle and amiable, yet always narrow, intolerant, custom-ridden and lacking in perspective.” Why? Because Halsey dismisses West’s reanimation thesis as “the immature vagaries of a youthful enthusiast”. Ouch!
Flying the flag for unfairly graded students everywhere, West finds a way to strike back. Halsey’s barely breathed his last from typhoid before West is jamming him with liquid, incontrovertible proof that there is indeed life after death. Halsey regains just enough consciousness to be deemed criminally insane and is wheeled off to the asylum. Revenge doesn’t get more Jacobean than that.
Or does it? Lovecraft finds a way to amp up even this extreme scenario: after years of West’s experiments create an array of the ambulatory dead, both in New England and on the battlefields of World War I, the reanimated specimens gang up, pool limbs, organs and vocal chords and seek satisfaction from their arrogant, immoral creator. The Grand Guignol climax of Herbert West – Reanimator provides delicious satisfaction for the wise reader, who knew all along that resurrection is just plain wrong, and that West was going to get his just desserts.
Like Charles Dexter Ward, Herbert West ignores the wise advice of his elders, takes his mad science too far, forces his ideas on others and is surprised when his creations turn antithetical to his cause – and Lovecraft skewers him for it, as he skewers all the other zealous young men in his stories who take themselves too seriously. Lovecraft scholars and other adherents of the Cthulu Mythos, take note.
Lovecraft is a fine writer, but it’s a stretch to claim he’s top notch on a literary level. We should celebrate his strengths and enjoy the unique quality of his imagination, without trying to label him as a Late Romantic or Cosmicist. All kinds of random things have come to be described as ‘Lovecraftian’ which are not, from definitions of mechanistic materialism to knitted Cthulu toys to Christmas carols. Howard Phillips, the atheistic antiquarian with a love of stargazing, would be embarrassed by some of the elaborate claims made for his thinking – especially as he believed that human thought was insignificant and unworthy of discussion in the context of our huge, mechanical and indifferent universe, ruled by the Old Ones.
If you love the horror genre, there’s no question that you should read his best work; he’s influenced so many writers from Neil Gaiman to Brian Lumley to Alan Moore that it’s impossible to imagine the genre without him, and it’s fascinating to see how his ideas resonate through others’ words. But remember that his influence has, over the decades, become bastardized through rampant overuse, and not everything he wrote was good, or even comprehensible, and no amount of applied critical theory is going to make it otherwise.
On his death day, I propose we reclaim Lovecraft from the endless debates about astral possession, cosmic indifferentism and alien miscegenation and instead enjoy his melodramatic, outrageous, inventive and truly Lurid stories for what they are – Bad Books. And when you raise a glass in his memory, remember that yes, H. P. Lovecraft invented the brain-thirsty marauding zombie as we know it, and for that alone he deserves our undying, nay ever-undead, love.
For my father, William Wilson, 1934-2012, who loved nothing more than a good horror yarn and was once one of those saucer-eyed, Weird Tales-devouring kids.
 Supernatural Horror In Literature by H.P. Lovecraft
To leave a comment