[Paleopsych] NTYBR: 'H. P. Lovecraft': Unnatural Selection
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'H. P. Lovecraft': Unnatural Selection
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17
By DANIEL HANDLER
H. P. LOVECRAFT: Tales.
Edited by Peter Straub.
838 pp. The Library of America. $35.
IT'S impossible to read the work of H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
without experiencing a familiar sensation. The throat constricts. The
lips purse. A shudder goes through your body, and the hands rise
involuntarily to the mouth. But all resistance is futile, and you must
succumb -- to a profound case of the giggles.
Of course, this is not the effect to which Lovecraft aspires. ''The
oldest and strongest emotion of mankind,'' rumbles his famous credo,
''is fear,'' and the author intended from the very start -- his first
story, completed when he was 14, was ''The Beast in the Cave'' -- to
carry on in the grand literary tradition of making adults wonder if
that slight creaking sound is the claw of some sinister beast finding
its slimy way into, say, the walk-in closet in my bedroom.
This is a fine tradition, and Lovecraft's shadow looms large in it.
But like so many seminal influences -- modern practitioners, from
Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates, hail him as a crucial figure --
he's not read nearly as widely as he is regarded, and frankly it's not
difficult to see why. Just as Oscar Wilde noted that ''one must have a
heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing,''
it's tough to venture into a Lovecraft story with a straight face, let
alone with chattering teeth. Lovecraft's stories are so overwrought
that they make Jules Verne look like a homebody and Edgar Allan Poe a
well-adjusted realist; he pushes at the already extreme boundaries of
the Gothic, horror and science fiction genres -- not so much in the
way that John Ashbery pushes at the boundaries of poetic form but more
as Spinal Tap pushes at the boundaries of heavy metal: by turning the
volume up to 11.
A scientist in a tale by M. R. James might stumble into strange
circumstances that grow more and more sinister; in Lovecraft's
''Statement of Randolph Carter'' he lowers himself into a forbidden
crypt in the dead of night to discover the source of a ghastly noise.
A Wilkie Collins character might find a curious document in a locked
drawer; in Lovecraft's ''Dunwich Horror'' the document has been passed
between various shadowy figures, all of whom were either driven to
death via madness or, it can sometimes seem, vice versa. While
watching a John Carpenter movie, you long to ask a character, ''Why
are you going outside in your nightgown when you've heard there's a
killer lurking nearby?'' In Lovecraft's ''Shadow Out of Time,'' you
hardly know what to say to Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, who is suffering
from five years of amnesia due to a mental takeover by invisible
beings from another, unearthly dimension.
This unearthly dimension, appropriately, adds an unearthly dimension
to Lovecraft's world. A good deal of space is devoted to concocting
and exploring a mythology of his own devising, if ''mythology'' is
indeed the term for something so utterly removed from quotidian
reason. Whereas Bram Stoker and Poppy Z. Brite made hay with
Transylvanian legends of yore, Lovecraft created a mythos out of whole
cloth -- or, more precisely, whole fungus. Mi-Go, the Fungi of
Yuggoth, is one of the slimier attractions in Lovecraft's Cthulhu
mythos, named after Cthulhu, a sort of dragon-octopus-human combo who
skulks around driving men mad. Mi-Go is one of the less maddening
creatures in the world of Cthulhu, although Lovecraft's description is
''They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous
bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membraneous wings and
several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted
ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a
head would ordinarily be.'' Passers-by are ''quite sure that they were
not human, despite some superficial resemblances in size and general
outline. Nor, said the witnesses, could they have been any kind of
animal known to Vermont.''
I should say not. While the notion of an unseen world is hardly unique
to Lovecraft -- fantasists from Coleridge to Rowling have enjoyed
peeking under earthly rocks -- one can hardly imagine a universe more
removed from our own than that of Cthulhu. Biologically impossible,
logistically unplumbable and linguistically unpronounceable, it's a
world that makes you want to lock up all the wardrobes rather than
venturing inside them. It is little wonder that the scarred witnesses
of Cthulhan excursions talk to us in language as unspeakably florid as
the universe they're attempting to describe. Lovecraft's narrators are
all desperate with misery, and it is worth quoting several of these
hysterics as they begin their tales, to approximate the accumulated
tone of so much hand-wringing:
''Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal
chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or
upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic and
vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft.
Such a lot the gods gave to me -- to me, the dazed, the disappointed;
the barren, the broken.''
''Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I
can speak only with extreme terror. . . . Now that he is gone and the
spell is broken, the actual fear is greater. Memories and
possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.''
''I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to
save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake;
for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the
teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from
forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and
waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and
pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found
instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to
master, paralyze and annihilate me.''
Have you tried looking in Brooklyn, sir? The level of anguish, just in
these few sentences, is so overdone -- a sense of horror and
oppression threatening to master, paralyze and annihilate you? -- that
when the climax of a story arrives, the narrator seems to be
protesting too much. ''There are horrors beyond horrors,'' one such
trembler says, just as the beast is arriving at last, ''and this was
one of those nuclei of all dreamable hideousness which the cosmos
saves to blast an accursed and unhappy few.'' Oh, come on, this reader
couldn't help thinking. Tell me what the monster looks like already.
Tucked in an anthology, between the cloaks and daggers of Bram Stoker
and the ravenous monsters of Dean Koontz, Lovecraft out-cloaks,
out-daggers and out-ravenous-monsters them all, but after four or five
of these stories the effect is bludgeoning. Lovecraft has mastered,
paralyzed and annihilated the reader, and now the reader's ready for a
little P. G. Wodehouse, thank you very much.
It is here, however -- perhaps 50 pages into this 800-plus page
anthology -- that something begins to shift, and what was supposed to
be sublime (but is actually ridiculous) becomes something that was
supposed to be ridiculous, but is actually sublime. Part of this is
simply getting accustomed to so melodramatic a prose style, but there
is also, undeniably, a cumulative emotional weight. One hysterical
narrator is off-putting; four is a running gag; but 22 is something
else entirely, and over the course of this collection -- well chosen
by Peter Straub -- Lovecraft's credo becomes quite clear. Arguably,
the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind isn't fear. The first
emotional state, if you consult the Bible, appears to be loneliness.
After a day naming the animals, Adam is willing to give up one of his
brand-new ribs for a little companionship, and the heroes of Lovecraft
stories are similarly bereft.
In Poe, there's usually an innocent young woman who serves both as
savior from and victim of the horrors at large, but in Lovecraft the
men are isolated students or overdedicated scientists whose families
and loved ones have receded in the wake of these men's sinister
fixations -- and the Lovecraft chronology tucked at the back of the
book gives us a similar picture of their creator. ''Suffers another
'near breakdown,' '' an entry reads, when the author is just 10 years
old. ''Develops an interest in the Antarctic.'' His gaze continues to
fix on empty, cold horizons; his health continues to fail; so too his
brief marriage to a woman whose distinguishing characteristic appears
to be a need for a ''rest cure.'' His philosophies on race and
immigration, to put it mildly, do not show a great appreciation of
other cultures. For all of their professed interest in the sciences,
his characters have little faith it will bring the light of reason:
''The sciences,'' one narrator warns, ''have hitherto harmed us
little; but someday 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.'' Indeed, people seem to be fleeing in Lovecraft's stories even
before anything unnatural arrives. ''The old folk have gone away, and
foreigners do not like to live there,'' Lovecraft writes, by way of
setting the scene. ''French Canadians have tried it, Italians have
tried it, and the Poles have come and departed. It is not because of
anything that can be seen or heard or handled, but because of
something that is imagined.''
If you spend enough time in Lovecraft's lonely landscapes, fear really
does develop: not the fear that you will come across unearthly
creatures, but the fear that you will come across little else. And
what first seems horridly overdone accumulates a creepy minimalism.
Taken as a whole, Lovecraft's work exhibits a hopeless isolation not
unlike that of Samuel Beckett: lonely man after lonely man, wandering
aimlessly through a shadowy city or holing up in rural emptiness,
pursuing unspeakable secrets or being pursued by secret unspeakables,
all to little avail and to no comfort. There is something funny about
this -- in small doses. But by the end of this collection, one does
not hear giggling so much as the echoes of those giggles as they
vanish into the ether -- lonely, desperate and, yes, very, very scary.
Daniel Handler writes novels under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.
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