I am providence the life.., p.159
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 159
It is perhaps not a paradox to say that Lovecraft may have had more of an influence on fantasy or science fiction than upon weird fiction. This is because these former fields have taken over that cosmicism which weird fiction seems to have abandoned. However, many science fiction writers have responded to Lovecraft with considerable hostility: John Brunner, Avram Davidson, Isaac Asimov, and Damon Knight have heaped much abuse on him, probably because of his dense style and his emphasis on pure horror. And yet, John W. Campbell, Jr—whose magazine Unknown (later Unknown Worlds; 1939–43) was consciously conceived to be as different from the Lovecraft type of tale as possible—nevertheless wrote “Who Goes There?” (1938), a novelette that, although very different from Lovecraft stylistically, clearly betrays the influence of At the Mountains of Madness. Traces of Lovecraft can probably be found in the work of A. E. Van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, and several other science fiction writers of the 1940s to 1970s. Ray Bradbury wrote a letter praising Lovecraft in Weird Tales for November 1939 (“Lovecraft again proved his wizardry of words by chilling me with a draft of ‘Cool Air’”), but has admitted that he has consciously avoided imitating Lovecraft in his later work in fantasy and science fiction. Still, an influence can perhaps be found in such of his horror tales as “Skeleton” and “The Fog Horn.” Arthur C. Clarke admitted to great enthusiasm for Lovecraft’s two tales in Astounding, and Lovecraft’s conceptions are perhaps detectable in such of Clarke’s novels as Childhood’s End (1953) and even 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with their notion (similar to that of “The Shadow out of Time”) of aliens guiding the intellectual development of the human species. Gene Wolfe wrote a Lovecraft pastiche in Lovecraft’s Legacy, and probably other Lovecraftian traces can be found in his novels. Lovecraft is a definite presence in the dark work of Charles Stross.
What is one to make of H. P. Lovecraft the man and writer? Certainly, judgments of him will differ in accordance with individual temperament. To those stolid bourgeois citizens who believe that “success” in life means working for a living, having a loving spouse and adoring children, and having a normal, wholesome outlook on life, Lovecraft will seem shiftless, freakish, and rather repulsive. Many derogations of Lovecraft’s character—including those pronounced by his previous biographer—stem from this perspective. But it is to be wondered whether the remarkable literary work Lovecraft has left us—remarkable and compelling precisely because of its defiance of normality and convention—could have been written by a normal, wholesome individual whose attitudes do not depart in any way from those inculcated in us by mass “culture.” Might it not also be the case that what passes for normality and wholesomeness is profoundly abnormal and unwholesome?—profoundly aberrant to the full play of intellect and imagination that is the only means of distinguishing ourselves from the other living creatures on this planet?
It should also be stressed that one’s final picture of Lovecraft must be based largely upon the last ten or so years of his existence; for it was at this time that he shed many of the prejudices and dogmatisms that his early upbringing and seclusion had engendered, and when he produced his most characteristic work. In those ten years I see very little to criticise and very much to praise. Let us then assess some key elements of Lovecraft’s beliefs, personal comportment, and work.
There will scarcely be anyone who will not disagree with one or the other component of Lovecraft’s philosophical thought. Some will be offended by his atheism; others by his “fascism”; others by his emphasis on cultural traditionalism; and so on. But few can deny that Lovecraft’s views were well conceived, modified by constant reading and observation, and sharpened by vigorous debates with correspondents. No one wishes to claim for Lovecraft a leading place among philosophers—he remained, by his own admission, a layman in this discipline. But he pondered philosophical issues more rigorously than most creative writers, and he also made his creative work the direct outgrowth of his philosophy.
The matter of Lovecraft’s erudition is worth pondering. Many of his colleagues professed amazement at his encyclopaedic knowledge, but there is some truth to the contention that many of these individuals were themselves not very learned—few people in the realms of amateur journalism or weird fiction are—and were therefore easily impressed. Nevertheless, Lovecraft did absorb a prodigious fund of knowledge over his lifetime, and was perhaps the more well-rounded precisely because of his relative lack of formal schooling, which prevented his specialising in a small number of narrow fields. He always had good library resources at his disposal, and he made good use of them. In the end, he became a near-authority on colonial architecture, eighteenth-century literature, and weird fiction, and had a thorough grasp of classical literature, philosophy, English and American history, and several other realms; most impressively, he had a keen knowledge of many sciences (especially astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and anthropology)—something obtrusively lacking in many creative artists. His discourses on these subjects, mostly in letters, perhaps sound the more impressive because of his tremendous rhetorical skill; but there is a foundation of genuine knowledge underlying them.
Lovecraft’s rank as an “amateur” writer and his scorn of professionalism has rightly been seen as an outgrowth of his belief in aristocracy and his scorn of money-grubbing. Such attitudes are looked upon with vast disdain and hostility in this country, but they have been common among the educated classes throughout human history. Lovecraft began with the eighteenth-century view of art as an elegant amusement; after passing through his Decadent phase in the early 1920s, he came to believe that art was pure self-expression and that writing for money was not so much vulgar (although it was indeed that) as a business—a business, moreover, that held an unfortunate but illusory and mocking similarity to real writing. Certainly we would all like to have seen Lovecraft enjoy in his own lifetime a little more of the fame that his work has achieved since his death; but that work might never have achieved that fame had he not maintained his aesthetic integrity so keenly. Lovecraft towers above other writers of the pulp magazines, not only because of his native talent but because he refused to buckle down to editors’ whims and write what they wanted or alter a tale to suit their needs. For this he should be praised, not censured. The hackwork of Seabury Quinn, E. Hoffmann Price, and hundreds of other hacks whose stories have achieved merciful oblivion is a sufficient warning of what might have happened to Lovecraft had he not held firm to his principles.
In broader terms, Lovecraft’s disdain of money certainly subjected him to personal hardship, but it was hardship that he willingly underwent for the sake of his art. I see no reason to doubt that Lovecraft really did have a poor head for business, as he himself stated repeatedly. Whether this is judged a flaw of character will depend upon whether one regards the acquisition of money as in itself a good, or whether one believes that other values hold a higher moral or aesthetic worth.
Related to this is Lovecraft’s inability to hold a regular job and his consequent poverty. Again, this is a very American concern, reflecting a bourgeois contempt (or envy) of those who do not operate conventionally within the narrow range of economic society. It was, certainly, unfortunate that Lovecraft never received suitable job training in young adulthood; but this was not so much his fault as that of his mother and aunts, who—with the death of Whipple Phillips in 1904 and the consequent collapse of the family finances—should have realised that Lovecraft would in the course of time need to be able to support himself. There is every indication that in the last decade of his life he had overcome any highbrow opposition to regular work and sought—or at least hoped he could find—some means of employment that would allow him the leisure to write what he wished. That he never came upon such employment is scarcely surprising in someone who, with no previous job experience, was seeking to find work in the depression. And yet, Lovecraft worked very hard—even if most of his work was on his correspondence and on rather poorly paying freelance revision. He did manage to get by with the money earned fr
And yet, even on these points—his “obsessive” need for familiar possessions, his apparent desire to keep relationships at a distance, his seeming fear of change—Lovecraft has received criticism. There are a number of very complex issues here. Lovecraft’s “sense of place”—his passionate devotion to his various residences, his hometown, his region, his country, and his culture—was certainly pronounced, and it is what gives his fiction the textural depth and realism it has. I do not know that it was so pronounced as to be considered somehow pathological: at a time when frequent moving from place to place is far less common than now, many probably felt as Lovecraft did. This attachment to familiar things grew, I believe, out of an extraordinarily keen aesthetic sensibility that yearned for an harmonious and stable milieu; for it was exactly this milieu that would provide the springboard for Lovecraft’s imaginative ventures into the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
As for keeping relationships at a distance, the brute fact is that Providence—then and now not a town known for its intellectuals—did not offer the sort of stimulating give-and-take of argument that his far-flung correspondence offered. Lovecraft made every effort to meet his pen friends, and indeed met a good many of those who lived on the East Coast. Many others undertook the effort and expense to visit him in Providence, something they would not likely have done had they not sensed a deep mutual regard.
The one personal relationship—aside from his troubled involvement with his mother—that was definitively a failure was his marriage to Sonia; and here, certainly, Lovecraft does leave himself open to abundant criticism. His treatment of his wife can only be called shabby. And yet, she herself seems to have gone into the marriage—as many women do—with the resolute determination to remould him to her taste, and Lovecraft naturally rebelled. He did so not because he was an “ingrained bachelor,” but because he was his own person and resented not being taken for what he was. My feeling remains that it was a mistake for him to have married at all; but perhaps this was something he had to experience at first hand to realise that it was a mistake.
I scarcely imagine that Lovecraft’s attitudes on sex require much discussion. Probably they were unusually reserved even in their own day, and in our oversexed society nowadays they seem little short of bizarre. Lovecraft confessed that he was among the least sensuous of individuals, but in this he was very much like his idol Poe; and, during a time of great upheavals in sexual relations, it allowed him to retain his quiet dignity of bearing and shielded him from descending to prostitution, extra-marital affairs, and other ignominies that other writers have ill resisted.
The fact is that Lovecraft made every effort to overcome, and did in fact largely overcome, the severe emotional crippling inflicted upon him by his mother—the mother who had both showered doting affection upon him and called him “hideous”; the mother who indulged him in each new whim but publicly lamented his economic uselessness; the mother who no doubt instilled in him a distaste for sex that only aided in the collapse of his marriage. It is, in fact, remarkable how sane and balanced Lovecraft became in later years—he really had been tried in the fire, both by his mother and by his New York experience, and came out pure gold. If he remained somewhat emotionally reserved, he revelled in the play of his intellect and displayed an aesthetic sensitivity—to landscape, to literature, to art, to dreams, to the pageant of history—that few have ever equalled.
His “pose” as an eighteenth-century gentleman was, in the first place, a function of his cultural conservatism and, in the second place, clearly adopted out of tongue-in-cheek humour in his later years. (Lovecraft is frequently not given sufficient credit for being a jester—whimsical or sardonic as the case may be.) He certainly believed in continuity of culture, and certainly believed that the eighteenth century represented a high-water mark in Anglo-American culture—something on which it is not easy to dispute him. But he was flexible enough to adopt moderate socialism as the only economic solution to the problems engendered by unrestrained capitalism, and his theorisings on this issue are compelling and retain value even today. His hostility to democracy—or, rather, universal suffrage—will be less easily tolerated, since few political theorists in this country have had the courage to defy this most sacred of American dogmas; but his words on this issue also have much to recommend them.
It can scarcely be denied that cultural conservatism was a large factor in his racism. This is, without question, the one true black mark on his character; and it is so not because he was morally wrong (there might be some debate on this point) but intellectually wrong. He ascribed to views about races and cultures that were false, and that had been proven to be false before and during the course of his lifetime. It was the one area of his thought where he failed to reveal openness to new evidence. I repeat that his basic desire for a culturally homogeneous society is not in itself wrong, just as the currently fashionable view of a culturally heterogeneous society is not intrinsically and axiomatically right; there are virtues and drawbacks to each. Where Lovecraft erred was in conceiving that his simple-minded stereotypes were the product of scientific study of racial distinctions and in believing that different races and cultures were unalterably opposed and could not mix without disaster. It is possible that the highly developed aesthetic sensibility I mentioned earlier—a sensibility that craved harmony and stability—had much to do with his racial theories, or at least had much to do with the sense of discomfort he felt around racial and cultural aliens; but whatever the case, his views on the subject are embarrassing and contemptible. But they have also been blown out of proportion: discussions of race take up a relatively small proportion of his entire correspondence, and enter his creative work only fleetingly and tangentially.
Turning to Lovecraft’s work, I cannot hope to offer a comprehensive assessment of it—it is too rich and complex for that—but shall only discuss some elements that are directly related to his life and thought. At its core is cosmicism—the depicting of the boundless gulfs of space and time and the risible insignificance of humanity within them. This is something Lovecraft expressed more powerfully than any writer before or since, and it is his one distinctive contribution to literature. And yet, his fiction has paradoxically been criticised by myopic critics precisely on the grounds that it lacks “normal” human characters and relationships—that it is cold, impersonal, and remote. It is exactly that, and that is its great virtue. It is difficult to be cosmic and human at the same time. If one wants affecting pictures of married bliss or children at play or people working at the office, one does not turn to the fiction of Lovecraft or Poe or Bierce or any other horror writer except perhaps the soap-opera supernaturalism of Stephen King or Charles L. Grant. And yet, the poignancy with which Lovecraft’s characters react to the perception of cosmic insignificance gives to his work a genuine emotional resonance. When the narrator of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” learns that he is one of the monsters he has been fleeing so ardently; when Peaslee in “The Shadow out of Time” sees the manuscript he must have written millions of years ago: there are few moments in all literature that provide a reader with such a complex network of emotions—horror, bafflement, pity, sublimity, and much else besides.
Related to this complaint about the absence of “normal” people is the claim that Lovecraft had a “tin ear for dialogue.” The absence of idle chatter in his stories is another great virtue, for it not only creates a concision that only Poe has equalled, but it again shifts the focus of the tale from the human characters to where it belongs—the weird phenomenon itself, which Lovecraft knew to be the true “hero” of hi
The aspect of Lovecraft’s work that has caused the most controversy is his style—termed, by its critics, “turgid,” “artificial,” “verbose,” or “labored,” as the case may be. Again, it is a matter of taste and preference. Although Lovecraft admired the straightforward elegance of Addison and Swift, he knew that he himself had early absorbed writers who wrote more densely—Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Edgar Allan Poe, and later Lord Dunsany (although his prose is actually very pure and “Addisonian” in spite of its exotic subject-matter) and Arthur Machen—so that this style, though seemingly artificial, came to him naturally, as any reader of his letters can testify. There is, to be sure, an increased rhetorical element in his tales, but it is clear that the effect Lovecraft was seeking was a kind of incantation whereby the atmosphere generated by language creates an awed sense of the strange reality of the unreal. And now that the bare-bones prose of Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson has ceased to be regarded as self-evidently the best and only correct style for all works of fiction regardless of subject, having yielded to the richness of Gore Vidal, Robertson Davies, Thomas Pynchon, and others, we are perhaps more willing than a generation ago to give Lovecraft his due as a writer in the “Asianic” style.
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