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July 2005
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by James Sallis

H.P. Lovecraft: Tales, edited by Peter Straub, The Library of America, 2005, $35.

MY grandfather back in Arkansas would not eat frog legs. Not, that is, until the day he was served a plateful of small, tasty drumsticks. After putting away a dozen or so, he looked at my grandmother, stirring up more gravy at the stove. "How many legs," he said, "did this chicken have?"

So it is with a taste for stories of horror and the supernatural. Those who don't possess it can only wonder and shake their heads, or, should they be critics and proponents of high art—most famously Edmund Wilson in a number of essays on genre fiction, more recently in the furor over Stephen King's receiving a National Book Award—cavil and disparage. Many will accept into the fold only those stories of the supernatural that go abroad dressed in mufti, pretending to be something else, passing.

All these thoughts come bumping in the night because of the latest volume in The Library of America, which seats Howard Phillips Lovecraft on the bus alongside the like of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, and Richard Wright.

Imprimatur, anyone? Get your imprimatur here! While they last!

Quite probably Lovecraft, a blazingly intelligent, well-educated man, would be surprised to find himself in such company. A craftsman of the first order, he was nonetheless eminently aware that he worked a small patch of land all but lost to the sprawl of farms: that not everyone has a taste for kohlrabi.

Still, as Robertson Davies pointed out, people are desperate "for assurance that the visible world is not the only world, which is an almost intolerable state of mind." Some of us go for the comfort of religion or New Age trappings, some for the discomfort of tales of alien abduction, conspiracies, and crop circles, and some for a ground curiously in between, offering at one and the same time both comfort and its opposite: edge literature.

Yet even among its fellows—the crime novel, fantasy, science fiction, and other arealist fiction—horror is often perceived as a poor cousin, sent to its room when company comes. Will the appearance of this latest Library of America volume alter that? Almost certainly not, even with writers of the mettle of Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z. Brite, and Dennis Etchison busily toiling in their own vegetable patches just up the hollow. What it will do, is prompt many to read, or to reread and reconsider, the work of H. P. Lovecraft.

There are plenty among us, I suspect, who have more an impression of Lovecraft than we have any intimate knowledge or informed opinion of his work. Chances are good that we read it in the squall of our youth and have not since returned. We recall the strange names, the adjective-shrouded nouns, the often feverish prose, the endless procession of events too terrible to be penned and imports too awful to be perceived; yet over the years—for all Lovecraft's ubiquity, for all the encomia from fellow writers—our apprehension of Lovecraft's work has been fatally abridged, perhaps tempered as well by memories of a host of imitators.

In addition, as is the case with many such singular writers, Lovecraft has become, through the years, iconic. It is difficult to see past the image: the brooding New England recluse hemmed in by cats and eccentric preoccupations. There is also the fact that, like Hammett and Chandler, so much has Lovecraft become an element of the very air we breathe and the ground upon which we tread, that we take his innovations for granted, failing to recognize and to honor them.

"Lovecraft is, in many senses, the linchpin of the twentieth-century weird tale," Lovecraft biographer and key critic S.T. Joshi has written, "not only for his absorption of the best weird work of the past but for his nurturing of a fair proportion of the best work that followed him." It's from Joshi's editions of Lovecraft texts that the current volume, edited by Peter Straub, draws.

A commentator once remarked of Hammett and Chandler that they took murder out of the country chateaus and put it back in the hands of the people who actually commit it. Lovecraft's work precipitated a similar relocation. If the weird tale is, as Joshi defines it, one of "cosmic fear," then Lovecraft moved the locus of that fear from a focus on man's affairs to one in which human concerns have no purchase, no significance. The humanocentric pose, he wrote, was impossible to him. Individuals are "momentary trifles bound from a common nothingness toward another cosmic nothingness." Horrible engines forever clang and crash above our heads. The Old Ones of "At the Mountains of Madness" created all life on Earth "as jest or mistake." Whatever may motivate the beings of "The Colour out of Space," those motivations remain incomprehensible to us.

"Howard Phillips Lovecraft was the Copernicus of the horror story," Fritz Leiber observed. "He shifted the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space. To do this effectively, he created a new kind of horror story and new methods for telling it."

Or, as Lovecraft himself attested in the introduction to his landmark Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927): "The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim."

Howard Phillips Lovecraft lived 1890-1937, almost the full span, in fact, of the golden era of the weird tale, which Joshi sets at 1880-1940. The year of Lovecraft's birth saw the first U.S. edition of Sherlock Holmes, the Sherman Antitrust Act, Wounded Knee, publication of Lord Jim, and designation of Ellis Island as an immigration station; the year of his death witnessed Stalinist purges, Buchenwald up and running, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Turing's seminal paper on digital computers. Lovecraft began publishing around 1917, his major work appearing chiefly in Weird Tales in the mid-twenties to early thirties. (Stories in the current volume run chronologically from 1919 to 1936.)

Lovecraft hailed as twin watersheds in his intellectual life the time when he discovered the Hellenic world and that in which he truly embraced and understood the immensity of space, of the great void that surrounds us. The "boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extraterrestrial reasons" had early on assured him of man's impermanence and insignificance; by seventeen he had "formed in all essential particulars" his enduring cosmic view. He could not write about ordinary people, he maintained, because he had no interest in man's relations with his fellows. It was only man's relationship to the cosmos—to the unknown—that intrigued him.

"I choose weird stories because they suit my inclinations best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis."

And what becomes of rereading Lovecraft almost four decades down the line?

Well, to start with, one finds that, like Twain's parents in the famous epigram, it has gotten much smarter in ensuing years, hoisting itself out of the blur of all those other books read in youth and the myriad preconceptions inculcated since, to reveal itself as truly revolutionary.

The stories are told after the fact, almost always in narrative summary by a discounted teller, a man who cannot assimilate, who can neither quite believe nor comprehend, what he has seen and suspects. All we are taught, all we assume and believe, is false; and trap doors wait at every turn—the very maw of the universe waits—to spring open beneath us. Many stories in fact take the form of investigations (a word which, not incidentally, turns up again and again), as in this opening of "The Thing on the Doorstep":

"It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer. At first I shall be called a madman—madder than the man I shot in his cell at the Arkham Sanitarium."
Or this, from "The Shadow out of Time":
"After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935."
With some surprise one finds that there is a gradual movement away from the overwrought, adjective-drenched style that first comes to mind when one recalls Lovecraft, to a later, contemplative style Joshi describes as an amalgam of eighteenth-century stateliness, the "atmospheric floridity" of Poe and Wilde, and the careful formulations of philosophic writing. It is a style that, in its well-crafted sentences, overall balance, and ever sensual surface, puts me in mind of nothing so much as the fine penmanship once taught universally in our schools.

True, there remain those breathless final, often italicized lines:

"It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did."

"But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life."

"I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye.…"

But the tone and craft of later work is far better represented by the first example below, from "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1931), than by the second, from "The Rats in the Walls" (1924).
"Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end. To say that a mental shock was the cause of what I inferred—that last straw which sent me racing out of the lonely Akeley farmhouse and through the wild domed hills of Vermont in a commandeered motor at night—is to ignore the plainest facts of my final experience."

"That what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat."

This is a bit like hearing "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" played on tenor banjo, then on a fine mandolin. Same strings, same relative tuning, virtually the same notes—but in the playing it becomes a different song.

Written in 1927 and published posthumously in 1941, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" seems a fulcrum, perhaps the first full-out essay of the new approach, and remains among the strongest tales. Gone are the more rococo verbal flourishes, the adjectives groaning with weight. Extensive use of documents—letters, journals, newspaper pieces—gives the tale a firm grounding in the textures of everyday life, in fact a kind of hyperreality, and the telling is at a remove: matter-of-fact, almost clinical. Interestingly enough, this is also the tale in which the Cthulhu mythology makes its first full-blown appearance.

"From a private hospital for the insane near Providence, Rhode Island, there recently disappeared an exceedingly singular person. He bore the name of Charles Dexter Ward, and was placed under restraint most reluctantly by the grieving father who had watched his aberration grow from a mere eccentricity to a dark mania involving both a possibility of murderous tendencies and a profound and peculiar change in the apparent contents of his mind."
In "The Call of Cthulhu" a year earlier, Lovecraft wrote: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day 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."

Lovecraft's work is about all those things. Ignorance, madness, science, dark ages, flight, the voids within and without. The realization that our prideful, hard-won "knowledge" amounts to little or nothing. The scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim.

Over the seventy or eighty years since its creation, and over the forty or so years since I last read it, that work retains its power, and now reasserts its singularity. If we can speak of an American genius, that genius may well be in its quirkiness. By and large our novel is not, on the European model, one about the individual's finding his proper place in society, but one in which the individual finds himself set against society. We remain, to some extent will always remain (in that blue place at the back of our heads), frontiersmen. This dogged individualism is the source of much of our most vital art and writing—like that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

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