Monday, May 4, 2009

Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft

Now here's something ironic--this book is the first non-adapted Lovecraft work I've read!

While looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon this little treatise on the history of horror by one of its main writers during the 1930s. Originally written for what we'd call a fan magazine today, the obsessive Lovecraft worked for years on the project and never saw it get the detailed publishing it deserved.

The cover of the copy I read was a lot more understated than the one pictured here, buried under the solid read of a old library binding. I think it fits the work better than a fanciful one, because this is a serious essay that was obviously a labor of love (no pun intended) for the author.

Lovecraft has his biases, of course--it's very Anglo-Aryan-Franco based, with other cultures (from the Irish to Indians to Israel) existing as exotic cultures to be mined by superior literary talent of the aforementioned races for what Lovecraft refers to as "weird" literature. It's a bit jarring here and there for a modern reader, but I think the perspective of a pulp writer on how the genre got to where it was circa 1925 is worth the price of the negative aspects of Lovecraft's personal views.

The opening chapters are pretty rudimentary stuff, with Lovecraft explaining the genre's origins in believed myths told by the fireside as a way to explain life, showing his grounding in the scientific reductionism that ran rampant during his lifetime and led to tragic ideas like eugenics and racial superiority. Here, it's used to explain the superiority of those who didn't have time for ghosts as anything more than plot devices. (Interestingly enough, Lovecraft doesn't mention Doyle's belief in the very supernatural that laces his non-Holmes fiction.)

There's some mention of the earliest genre writers, none of whom I was familiar with until we get to Hawthorne (who Lovecraft gives a hometown discount to in terms of his writing abilities) and of course Poe, the man who nearlysingle-handedly made genre fiction what it is today, even if he was not recognized for it at the time. Poe is given his own chapter, where Lovecraft extols his virtues while stating his humor was terrrible and his writing sometimes overblown. (I admit to giggling every time Lovecraft disses on a writer in some way. It feels like pre-internet snark.)

Here's Lovecraft's reasoning for why Poe is so important to the writers of "today":

"Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority's artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove -- good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion."

In other words, Poe is a modernist in thinking even if a Victorian in writing style, much as Twain and James will be in varying ways approximately 40 or so years later. This is what sets him apart and makes "The Fall of the House of Usher" a classic while Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" tends to be, while good, an artifact for the modern reader.

Lovecraft probably would not like my singling out of James as a good writer. He only grudgingly admits to the quality of "The Turn of the Screw" and says that the work, "triumphs over his [James's] inevitable pomposity and prolixity sufficiently well to create a truly potent air of sinister menace..." Spoken like a person who didn't like having to read James in school!

After Poe, the names Lovecraft references become more familiar to me, such as Bierce, Stoker (who Lovecraft says in another snark had ideas better than their execution), Doyle, Wells, and Stephenson. He even singles out one of my favorite Doyle stories, "Lot 249" in the essay as a great use of the resurrected mummy plot. Still, his concentration on modern writers tends to names I didn't know, such as Robert W. Chambers, Mary E. Wilkins, Leonard Cline, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and a Dr. James, amongst others. Perhaps I am just out of touch on late 19th and early 20th Century horror (quite possible) or perhaps this is a fine example of why literary criticism is such a fickle animal. As tastes change over time, writers that were once in fashion are almost unkown a few scant generations later.

After all, no one really saw Poe comnig, did they? Or that Robert Howard would be the person whose stories lived on well after his death while other contemporaries with longer histories would fade away.

Lovecraft definitely has his blind spots--he seems to feel overall that horror needs no hero to drive the story, and that writers who try to moralize marr their work (it's his only complainst against Frankenstein, by the way, which he correctly cites as being a high point of the genre's early days). I can't say that I disagree with either point, but I do object to his bias against stories with a detective feel and also his quite puzzling bias against proto science fiction. (This is why Verne and Wells seem to get short shrift here.)

Overall, it's a fascinating and quick look inside the views of a master giving his perspective on a genre he clearly loved and hoped to see prosper in the years to come. The little quips and barbs Lovecraft throws in are enjoyable and as an overview of the supernatural fiction world up to aboiut 1920, it works pretty well. I'm sure Lovecraft would have been a blog-centric creator with a lot of comments, at least based on this and his love for interacting with fellow writers.

I'm not sure how he'd feel about modern horror--as a rule, I think it's too quick for shock value and too slow to engage the reader's mind, but my readings of modern works are admittedly limited. But I think he'd be happy to know that "weird fiction" is alive and well today.

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