Weird Tales of Modernity: A Review

A secret that fans of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft have known for years is that the works of these authors were much more than mere ghost and adventure stories. In the past couple of decades, a number of serious studies have confirmed that insightful and profound world views animated these tales, making them not only entertaining, but thought-provoking.

Jason Ray Carney is the latest scholar to analyze their enduring appeal. Carney, who teaches Literary Theory and Creative Writing at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, also writes speculative fiction, and is the chair of the Pulp Studies section of the Popular Culture Association.

Weird Tales of Modernity examines Howard and Lovecraft, as well as the lesser-known Clark Ashton Smith, and considers their stories as critical reactions to modern art and the transience of life. While this study rewards the reader with a number of well-argued insights into the mindset and artistry of the three authors, it is not aimed at the general reading public. It is instead a highly technical analysis aimed at academics. While it lacks the conversational tone of Mark Finn’s Blood and Thunder, or the rollicking wit of Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft, it marches along with forceful logic and a careful mobilization of facts, backed by citations of numerous works from sixty-four notable authors and critics, including Jose Ortega y Gasset, W. B. Yeats, and T. S. Eliot.

Carney argues that Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith were united not only by their frequent appearance in the speculative fiction magazine Weird Tales, but also shared a common vision of art and life. A common theme in their stories was their rejection of modernism, and specifically, modern art, with its abandonment of traditional forms and the classical view of man. All three authors contemplated with disgust the creeping conformity that erased both individual and regional personalities. Robert E. Howard, for example, feared that “in a few generations all the United States will present one uniform pattern, modeled on the mechanized fabric of New York.” Such conformity, they warned, would not lead to global democracy, but to a dehumanized, soulless world.

Pulp fiction offered the “Weird Tales Three” a vehicle for expressing, and perhaps reclaiming, basic human experiences that modern life had taken from them. Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith crafted fiction that was, in Carney’s words, “sensational, often ineloquent or excessively ornate in style, and concerned with inciting raw emotions in readers – such as wonder, joy, excitement, and cosmic dread.”

Differing somewhat in style and theme, all three sought to rediscover those fundamental, ancient, and human emotions. Howard evoked them in his energetic tales of action and danger; Lovecraft showed us protagonists whose pursuit of esoteric knowledge forced them to confront inescapable cosmic horror; and Clark Aston Smith described characters desperately seeking lost joy, innocence, or love. All three conjured the frightening and the fantastic to focus the reader’s imagination on the ephemeral beauty and wonder that live in the ordinary.

Carney’s evaluation of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith as a distinct subgroup provides an eye-opening and challenging appraisal that will help their readers to further appreciate their unique vision and artistry.

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