[Paleopsych] NTYBR: 'H. P. Lovecraft': Unnatural Selection

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'H. P. Lovecraft': Unnatural Selection
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17


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
    hardly reassuring:

    ''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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