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The Timeless Appeal of H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft

How is it possible that the feverish works of a writer who died in poverty and obscurity more than 80 years ago still matter?

And yet they do matter, and to a growing number of fans and admirers. Here are three recent takes on Lovecraft’s continuing popularity, all from vastly different points of view, though they agree Howard Phillips Lovecraft has something to say to modern audiences.

Cosmic Horror: A Study of the Unknowable, by B.K. Bass

Many modern authors have found inspiration in Lovecraft’s fiction. B.K. Bass, who writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror, acknowledges Lovecraft as a “primary influence.” What distinguishes Lovecraft’s “Cosmic Horror” from other genres, says Bass, is

that it plucks at the strings connected to two fears that arguably every person shares: fear of the unknown and fear of insignificance. Lovecraft himself may have said it best when he said that “it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage…without laying stress on the emotion of fear.”

The Emotional Rise of Cosmic Horror, by Mary Beth McAndrews

After giving due recognition to Lovecraft’s profound role in crafting and defining Cosmic Horror, Mary Beth McAndrews explores the best cinematic homages to the Cosmic Horror tradition. Her comments about Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s 2017 film The Endless perfectly capture the existential possibilities of the genre. (Here’s my review of The Endless.) McAndrews argues the genre is not nihilistic, but instead opens our eyes to a world where we forge our own meaning and love in an unfeeling and severe universe.

Well put. I would add that like Albert Camus’ absurdist fiction, Lovecraft’s works proclaim that the terrors and uncertainties of this world require us to discover and hold tight to whatever ties and aspirations that give our lives meaning. As Lovecraft himself once wrote, “All one can logically do is to jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him. He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.”

Toward a Theory of the New Weird, by Elvia Wilk

The enduring truth and vitality of an art form is reflected in how successive generations adapt it to their own experiences and worldviews. Elvia Wilk says this of Lovecraft’s all-too-relevant insights:

That discomforting implication of the limits of the human mind and the potential dissolution of the category Humanity makes Lovecraft’s fiction seem like a precursor to the contemporary awareness of the Anthropocene age. In an era defined by the planetary catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change, discussions of Lovecraft have come into prominence in philosophy, literature, and the arts. The horror of the archaic sea creature coming back to claim its due is a narrative (too) easy to map onto our current moment.

After all, it was Lovecraft who warned that the sciences, rather than ushering in Utopia, would open up “terrifying vistas of reality” upon us. Judging by our current predicament, I’d say he had a point.

H.P. Lovecraft: A Titan of Terror

This video is an excellent introduction to the life, work, and legacy of H. P. Lovecraft. As much as I’ve read about this tragic, talented man, it managed to surprise me with both biographical and career tidbits.

Here’s something I didn’t know: August Derleth, the editor chiefly responsible for publicizing Lovecraft after the writer’s death, had his stories translated and published overseas. Post-WWI French intellectuals, already admirers of Edgar Allan Poe, practically devoured everything Lovecraft had authored. That, of course, is how Michel Houellebecq “discovered” Lovecraft.

I’m definitely looking forward to future videos from Biographics. Confession: It’s the first YouTube channel I’ve subscribed to.

Quote of the day

Bad boys of literature

“The argument that we should judge a work by the sins of its creator reeks of puritanical righteousness and moral certitude. No work of art exists that wasn’t created by some complicated creature. When forming our literary, cinematic, and artistic canons, it’s important to remember that if you want a canon of saints, you’ll end up with a canon of zero.” Tyler Malone

Some bad boys of literature pictured above: Pablo Neruda, H. P. Lovecraft, Ezra Pound

Michel Houellebecq and The Lovecraft Legacy

Lovecraft Houellebecq
My entire (hard copy) Lovecraft library!
Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, launched his tumultuous career with the publication of H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.

A rogue’s views on a rogue. How fitting.

The edition pictured above (cool cover, huh?) includes a useful and knowledgeable introduction by Stephen King, who regards Lovecraft as both mentor and muse. In this, King is not alone — he notes other accomplished writers who, in King’s words, “have been touched by Lovecraft and his dreams,” such as Harlan Ellison, Kingsley Amis, Neil Gaiman, Flannery O’Connor, Fred Chappell, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Houellebecq’s compact work uses Lovecraft’s biography as a springboard for a lively introduction to weird fiction, Lovecraft’s unique contributions to that sub-genre, and as a well-argued case for a greater appreciation for Lovecraft as an author. Few can deny Lovecraft’s livid, overflowing imagination, but many dismiss him as a second-rate writer and craftsman. This, declares Houellebecq, is simply wrong. Lovecraft’s style perfectly matches his subject matter and worldview.

In Houellebecq’s view:

Lovecraft has never been rivaled in this. His way of using mathematical concepts, of precisely indicating the topography of each location of a drama, his mythology, his imaginary demoniac library, have all been borrowed; but no one has ever attempted to imitate these passages where he sets aside all stylistic restraint, where adjectives and adverbs pile upon one another to the point of exasperation, and he utters such exclamations of pure delirium such as “Hippopotami should not have human hands and crazy torches…men should not have the heads of crocodiles…” And yet this is the true aim of the work. p. 88

I must admit that though I have long admired Lovecraft’s story-telling abilities and shocking inventiveness, I considered him only a so-so writer. Monsieur Houellebecq has convinced me otherwise.

The sizable volume on the left (also sporting a great cover!) is another recent acquisition. All the HPL works I’ve read over the years were either borrowed from the library or downloaded from the ‘net — Lovecraft’s fiction is in the public domain. I am now the proud owner of The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft — with one glaring exception. Despite its title, it does not include “In the Walls of Eryx,” one of my favorite HPL stories. It’s one of his few sci-fi works, and I cannot understand why it wasn’t included.

As Monsieur Houellebecq would put it, “C’est la vie.”

Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography

Robert E. Howard Whether you’re a fan of fantasy fiction in general, or of Robert E. Howard in particular, or if you’re an aspiring writer who wants to learn what makes successful writers tick, you will enjoy David C. Smith’s Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography.

David C. Smith is a prolific writer himself. In his latest work, he focuses on the complex and rich relationship between Howard’s life and thought and the spell-binding tales he gave the world. One of the strengths of this literary biography is the fact-filled account of Howard’s inspirational, yet tragic, development as a young man and author. Note: This is not a pseudo-psychological analysis, but an insightful and sympathetic exploration of an important literary figure backed by thorough research and genuine understanding.

Smith draws upon his own experience as a writer to flesh out the intellectual and emotional forces that shaped Howard and his works. Of Howard, the man, Smith observes:

His work is shot through with a relentless awareness of time, hurtfully so. This tragic appreciation is exhibited as powerfully in his writing as his acute awareness of the body — the weight of time, its passage and its cost to us. He grew up, of course, listening to recollections of the immediate past, frontier tales in which “the past is never past,” in Faulkner’s famous phrase. … Thus, what we get from Howard is not merely a story. Howard reports the facts. Right down to every bloody detail, each emotional pitch, all of the colors and moods — he reports the facts. Howard reminds us who we are. pp. 191-2

The portrait Smith creates sheds light on the enduring appeal of Howard’s most famous character, Conan:

Let enemies come, even demons and sorcerers; he will confront them and defeat them or go down trying. He is the natural man, ourselves begun again, reborn in a world as we secretly know our own world to be beneath its layers of hypocrisy and pretense. Conan is nothing if not honest in this regard and has no patience with the nonsense most of us accept as a matter of course. p. 134

The chapter examining the correspondence and resulting relationship between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft is itself worth the price of the book. Not only does it add to our understanding of Howard, it’s also a useful introduction to Lovecraft.

This is no hagiography. Smith does not close his eyes to Howard’s literary and personal stumbles. While Smith clearly admires Howard’s accomplishments, he constructs his case for a new appreciation of Howard out of a solid and broad body of research, with observations and critiques from friends, editors, and other writers who knew the man and the artist. The only fault I can detect in this otherwise remarkable and entertaining book is in the final chapter, “Legacy,” in which Smith slips into an over-the-top tone of wounded offense toward critics who dismiss Howard as a hack.

Having read Smith’s previous chapters, the reader will already be convinced how wrong those critics are.