The Curious Genius of HP Lovecraft

August 21, 2014

“Atmosphere, not action,” said Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood.”

The Internet loves its cat pictures...

The Internet loves its cat pictures…

Today is Lovecraft’s birthday. I felt that, for any reader likely to locate my own contribution to the memory of one of America’s great writers, that I hardly need describe his contributions here. But then I reconsidered. After all, Cthuhlu, the danger of creeping madness, the Dreamland Cycles, and all the rest have had an enormous impact on the popular culture of my later life. Video games, role playing games, even tentacle-themed Twitter memes; so much of this reflects the curious visions of this reclusive master of American horror, who many credit with popularizing science fiction.

Lovecraft linked the intellectual realm with horror in literature. When we further consider his speculations on space and time, he was one of the first American writers to explore themes we now refer to as science fiction, though he shares his accolade with a few other noteworthy writers (it bears remembering that his was a world without galaxies beyond our own, and the age of the earth was still very much a subject of debate; this lack of scientific consensus no doubt influenced his own thinking on these matters). He made us shudder at the wild possibilities of an ever-expanding universe, and wrote books that reminded humanity of it’s unbearable smallness. Lovecraft seemed to have held the belief that our knowledge had limits, and that our efforts to push through them would only take us to places we could not belong. The first of his stories that I read was, The Call of Cthuhlu; the strange memoir of  the Cthuhlu cult, and the discovery of an ancient submarine city of the Elder Gods. It opens with that wonderful paragraph:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

It’s almost cliche to point out that Lovecraft didn’t have an especially happy life. His father was committed when he was three, and he and his mother were supported by his grandfather. He was a sickly child, and deeply reclusive. As a boy, he developed a love of science – especially astronomy, but could never attain a degree or become a teacher or researcher; he never graduated high school (math, apparently). His mother was also committed, but not until after Mr. Lovecraft became an adult.

One cannot view the record of his life and not come to the conclusion that his experiences shaped his approach to work. The cold, almost sterile feeling of his books is the product of a rationalizing mind. But he was incredibly prolific – he clearly desired interaction. It is estimated that Mr. Lovecraft wrote more than 100,000 letters in his lifetime – were he alive today he would mostly find considerable relief through blogging and social media. There are archives of his other writings online, and their breadth is impressive. His mind touched every subject, and he considered everything from literary theory to philosophy to politics and science. The range of these meditations is impressed on his better-known fiction. It is in these letters that we find an intellectual who, while withdrawn from public life, was deeply concerned with the complexity of social life.

Staying at dad's for the weekend had a special meaning for the young Lovecraft.

Staying at dad’s for the weekend had a special meaning for the young Lovecraft.

As a writer (and I say this as an admirer), I can’t help but feel that his physical solitude impacted his work in a profound, possibly negative way – certainly when it came to the reception he received during his life. Even if one disregards the nature of his most impactful work, with its themes of alienation, isolation, and helplessness, his writing style can be oppressively dense. I cannot help but smile slightly at his own suggestion to focus on mood, when many a reader will be referencing a dictionary in order to sort out precisely what emotion Lovecraft was seeking to inspire. I first encountered the word “eldritch” through his writings, and will always appreciate it much more as an object of academic fascination, rather than one carrying much emotional weight. Yet somehow, this strange density is part of his magic. In his own, occasionally stilted way, Lovecraft presents the horror of the overly rational man faced by something incomprehensible.The language of his narrators is limited in the dissonance that it creates between their felt experience, and their efforts to suppress the animal nature of man under a cloud of intellectualism. He wrote psychological studies of the academic classes of his age and the choice of language reflects the best efforts of his characters’  highly analytic minds to understand the monstrosities he calls forth. Nevertheless, I think Lovecraft will always be a bigger treat for those of a more classically bourgeois frame of mind, and will grate on those of a more populist temperament. He cries out across the ages as a challenge to our presumptions.

So take a few minutes today to read one of his short stories – maybe The Tomb, The Outsider ( one of my favorites), or the ever-wonderful Dunwich Horror.

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