Tales of HP Lovecraft
Why Lovecraft's failures are sometimes successes.
The Library of America has released a hardback selection of Lovecraft's finest stories. As a result I have been revisiting this important pulp author's fiction, and I find myself returning to a question I have often asked myself about Lovecraft. What is the reader meant to feel? Terror? Edification? Relief at not being confronted with unnamable horror in the Real World?
The world Lovecraft depicts — where reason is frail and evil lurks beneath the surface of matter itself — is far removed from that described by, say, Homer, in which there is good and bad, and the bad can be defeated if you show courage and passion. In Homer, the self is the centre of a storm of emotions, and the ability to triumph through the will is a properly heroic trait. In Lovecraft's universe it is not the heart that is at the centre of the human experience, but the mind. Given the regularity with which his narrators end up insane, it seems the mind is not adapted to deal with the terror of things. Lovecraft presents the individual as a lone wanderer in a desert that will ultimately consume him; nothing here of the sense of fraternity on which Homer's heroes rely. For Lovecraft, better not to join the dots: reality, that terrifying totality, is too intense to apprehend. No wonder his protagonists are so severely punished for their curiosity.
What, then, am I meant to feel when reading a Lovecraft story? On the one hand, there is something truly disturbing in the Lovecraftian realm; beneath the hyperbolic prose and the hysteria, a core of absolute fear remains that can't be explained away. This is the fear not only of the unknown out there, but of the unknown in here; that is, the fear of apprehending, for the first time, that "our" world is not ours, that this world in in fact that world where indifference is the oldest god. On the other hand, despite what one suspects is a serious effort on Lovecraft's part to instill horror in the reader — he seems to take his own pessimism completely seriously — too often this horror is compromised by the structure of the story itself: once one figures out the "Lovecraftian formula" according to which a chaste, scientific-minded man opens the door to a chaos that can barely be contained, the magic is lost.
Difficult not to detect in this formula a refusal to carry to its conclusion a dialogue between the self and the abyssal Other, between me and the impossible You of an unlistening universe. For Lovecraft it is sufficient to catch the merest glimpse of the unnamable; anything after that is overkill. This is fair enough. The problem is that he is content merely to hint at this unnamable, and then to make his narrator proclaim insanity; in other words, there is no true psychological depth to the Lovecraftian protagonist. He — invariably a "he" — is a vehicle for the scientific spirit of mankind, not a convincing "humanlike" construction. The result is a slideshow of monstrous footprints, exhumed skeletons of exceptional proportions, a flash of chaos through a window… and then the return of routine, albeit a routine forever undermined by trauma. We are not often given access to the inner world of the Lovecraftian protagonist when he is anything other than in a state of heightened awareness. Thus while the dormant horrors of our cosmos evoke a shudder, the stories themselves are not really stories — they are elaborate stagings of rational man's encounter with the irrational infinite, but in an almost purely cerebral context. The dialectic that slips into all of Lovecraft's work — a progression from skepticism to fear to horrible discovery to insanity — allows no space for the human factor. Many of his stories feel like little vignettes expounding on the same basic message — the message that there is no message for us. The emotional factor is almost entirely absent; a placid intellectual curiosity gives way to fear and trembling, and then the narrative is over. It is a kind of continual rehearsal for the day nuclear warfare destroys us all, but it isn't compelling fiction.
The pleasure afforded by Lovecraft's tales is undeniable, but it is an intellectual pleasure. His style can certainly be unsubtle, and yet there's something earnest, even honest, about it. The despair in Lovecraft's underlying philosophy is tragic, and the standard structural criticisms leveled at his work — "too many adjectives", "too little dialogue" — are of little consequence when we consider his achievement as a whole. Lovecraft proved that thoughts can feel fear, too. The heart is put aside in favour of the brain, but in fact even human reason is fallible in the face of the incomprehensible. This instability of the rational mind makes Lovecraft's work interesting in a way that most "horror fiction" is not. No matter how clumsy the execution, there's an important lesson in humility in Lovecraft. Cheap thrills are replaced by the shock of incomprehension. It may not make for satisfying fiction on a story-by-story basis, but the overall effect has an undeniable resonance.