Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Lovecraft Fetish: Part Three

My other favorite H. P. Lovecraft short story is The Colour Out of Space which is about a meteorite that crashes into an out of the way ordinary family farm 20 miles or so outside the city of Arkham. Scientists from Miskatonic University take samples of the meteorite and notice in the globular nature of the specimen an indescribable but definitively strange and unique color.

Gradually, the unfortunate, common farm family suffers hardship after hardship though they are innocent and undeserving of their plight. Their animals get sick, the fruit trees bare foul tasting juices, other trees turn grey, grass dies, and eventually even the family’s dogs are all dead.

Meanwhile, the family members, one by one, go crazy. The mother first, gibbering mindless sounds. The farmer locks her in the attic and feeds her. She screams a lot. Then one of the farmer’s boys ends up the same way. He, speaking gibberish too, ends up in a separate room of the attic. Mother and son scream undecipherable utterances at each other in the attic. The youngest son thinks it is almost like a foreign language. Are they talking up there?

Over the course of about a year everything with a simple 5-acre span of where the meteor struck dies and decays into powder. Part of the meteor somehow fell into the family’s well. Out of that well one night the inimitable color of the original globule starts to glow. The trees start shaking though there is no wind, gradually the entire 5 acres glows in the night turning what life was left into grey powder.

“The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn and sheds. It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well – seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism.”

“The hideous thing” suddenly shoots straight into the sky and vanishes, leaving darkness behind. In a nutshell that is the story, though I only hit the highest highlights. Obviously, from just the small paragraph I quoted the reading of this piece of art is rewarding if you’re into the weird at all. As I am.

But, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story, the part that takes the horror far beyond the afflicted family farm, is that the story is narrated by a surveyor who is finalizing plans for a new reservoir that will flood the region, including the well with the contamination from space. It is mentioned in passing near the beginning of the tale: “The reservoir will soon be built now, and all those elder secrets will be safe under watery fathoms…and nothing could bribe me to drink the new city water of Arkham.”

Lovecraft, at his best, tells us of horrific tragedy inflicted upon individual human beings, some completely innocent, some seeking things that should never be sought. But, in the end, he brings the terror of the intimate into the periphery of the ultimate and, thereby, is your private world and everyone else’s consumed by the pervasive and cosmic madness.

Actually, the barebones plot does not spoil the story. Reading Lovecraft’s prose, like reading Marcel Proust, is a special treat beyond what happens in the story. He paints exquisite impressions with phrases, evoking often contradictory feelings or sensations, exact without actually being concrete and builds complexity and tension as he moves to an ominous end.

The Outsider, The Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror, The Music of Erich Zann, The Whisperer in Darkness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth are all first-rate short stories, regardless of the genre. They are literature well written, with many memorable passages that just beg to be reread. Full of shocks, surprises, relentless foreboding and building of tension, and at their best they affect the reader in a troubling yet entertaining way, atmospheric, giving you more of a feeling about what happens than a neatly tied up conclusion. There is little closure in Lovecraft. Whatever happens tends to linger. Often the implication is that the story isn’t really over at the end of the tale. There’s more waiting to happen.

My overview of Lovecraft would not be complete without mentioning his “dream cycle” stories. Lovecraft’s body of weird fiction can be roughly divided into three parts. There are the strictly classic horror stories, the Mythos stories, and then there are the stories which largely take place inside dreams. I don’t particularly care for this third set of stories. Some of the shorter ones like Celephais are interesting and rather lyrically written. But, his more ambitious efforts like the short novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath are cumbersome to get through. Unlike his other stories, the dream cycle stuff strikes me as too ridiculous to connect with, and tends to put me to sleep. Maybe that’s the point! Kidding. Dreams were important to Lovecraft. He had a vivid and rich dream life personally. But, his attempts to convey this within a plotted story usually turn up flat for me.

Lovecraft was a prodigious writer even though his fiction output is nothing spectacular in terms of quantity. He would sometimes go 5-6 years without writing any weird fiction but for hiring himself out as a ghost writer. During these times he wrote massive amounts of mediocre poetry, authoritative scientific treatises (usually on astronomy), literary criticisms, philosophical essays, extensive travelogues (particularly of Charleston, SC, New Orleans, and Quebec), and more than 100,000 personal letters. A prodigious number. The man wrote numerous correspondences virtually every day of his adult life. A lot of golden prose has been unearthed in his letters and selections of them have been available in print for years. Excerpts of all these fields of work, particularly for Lovecraft’s philosophic pieces, are a rewarding read for me.

Regardless of what he was writing, Lovecraft used words in a rather archaic way that I nevertheless find highly provocative. What drives the plot forward (or the subject in the case of essays) are these almost Proustian gestations of simultaneous beauty, emotion, strangeness, with an underlying tone of cosmic significance to what is happening.

Lovecraft frequently used the arts to describe the nature of the horrors he chose to summon. An example of this can be seen in the reference to Henry Fuseli in the passage above or to Sidney Sime and Anthony Angarola in the extended quotation of my previous post. The frequent mentions of works by Nicholas Roerich in At The Mountains of Madness are another fine example. Lovecraft was partial to referring to painters in his work, and enjoyed going to art museums in real life. Here again, he is like Marcel Proust, though Proust was considerably better versed in the arts than Lovecraft. With his often stunning prose, Lovecraft has much in common with Proust, in my opinion.

“As it is, the chief contemporary novelist of the day, for Lovecraft, was neither American nor British but French – Marcel Proust. Although he never read more than the first two volumes in English of Remembrance of Things Past, he nevertheless doubted that ‘the 20th century has so far produced anything to eclipse the Proustian cycle as a whole’. Proust occupied the ideal middle ground between stodgy Victorianism and freakish modernism.” (Joshi, page 578)

I have said Lovecraft was fundamentally a Late-Romantic. One way this is in evidence is how he felt about the mechanization of society, something we take for granted today but, nevertheless, is still a source of stress and brooding. Part of Lovecraft’s relevance today must reside in his initial protest of many aspects of early modernity. For example, Lovecraft felt that the effect of modern industrialization was to blemish his rather na├»ve and ideal impression of human aristocracy.

Lovecraft appreciated antiquarian aristocratic culture, especially in his travels during the 1930’s to the southern US and other places he relished. Here, as in his home town of Providence, he saw “tradition” still empowered beyond the threats of modernity. But he feared for the future of tradition.

Aristocratic custom was corrupted by the machine, transforming it into “‘one of wealth, splendor, power, speed, quality and responsibility alone; for having been erected on the basis of acquisition and industry.’ It would embody ‘the crude ideal of doing as opposed to the civilized ideal of being.’ The true gentleman – a vanishing breed – should simply exist and let the world come to him. The machine age, Lovecraft warned, would soon ruin the South as it had the Northeast. ‘Nothing good can become of that cancerous machine-culture…’ While he had enjoyed his airplane ride, ‘I’d hate to see aeroplanes come into common commercial use, since they merely add to the goddamn useless speeding up of an already over-speeded life; but as devices for the amusement of a gentleman, they’re ok.’” (de Camp, page 343)

H.P. Lovecraft was a fascinating person and an exceptionally talented writer with a bright, multi-faceted mind. His many personal idiosyncrasies, particularly his racism and his interest in writing weird fiction, tend to put-off many serious students of literature yet it cannot be denied that his influence is still largely felt in the genre of the horror. Moreover, several of his short stories compare favorably with any author of any genre in that art form. His troubled creations still reverberate today, seemingly more relevant than ever, when most literature of the 1920’s and 1930’s is largely forgotten. This is a testament to a special kind of talent, one I have recognized and appreciated for almost my entire adult life.

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