Lovecraft and Writing in Revolt

H.P. Lovecraft is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. From the backward looking direction of the new management of Weird Tales Magazine to the ubiquitous images of Cthulhu on t-shirts and coffee mugs and comic strips, a love for Lovecraft’s imagery (if not his actual writing) has apparently awakened from a deep slumber. But as Jeff Vandermeer has already expressed (better than I have in what follows, I might add), I don’t think the fetishization of Lovecraft as a creator is helping us as writers and consumers of horror, fantastic, and weird fiction. It feels like rolling the same rock up the same damn hill, again.

I first became conscious of H. P. Lovecraft in my early teens when Stephen King (who, at the time ruled my literary world) extolled his virtues in Danse Macabre:1

[T]he concept of outside evil that is larger, more awesome… is what makes [H.P. Lovecraft’s] stories of stupendous, Cyclopean evil so effective when they are good. Many aren’t, but when Lovecraft was on the money– as in “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and best of all, “The Color Out of Space”–his stories packed an incredible wallop. The best of them make us feel the size of the universe we hang suspended in, and suggest shadowy forces that could destroy us all if they so much as grunted in their sleep….

And while Lovecraft, who died before the Second World War could fulfill many of his visions of unimaginable horror, does not figure largely in this book, the reader would do well to remember that that it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, while overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.2

It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when Del Rey/Ballantine Books republished a seven volume mass market paperback series collecting Lovecraft’s work, that I started reading him in earnest. The dark covers, pieced up from a diptych by Michael Whelan,3 were grim and monochromatic, excepting an occasional splash of blood red. And when I first saw the cover for The Doom that Came to Sarnath I knew this was horror made specifically for me. I devoured the stories in this collection, even though few of his signature tales were included.

Lovecraft has an adolescent sensibility that appealed to me back then. His main characters were men (there are almost no women in his writing by my recollection–and I’m not even going to touch his views on race!) who come face to face with their crushing naïveté in the face of a terrifying reality that shrinks the world in which they live down to size. As a sixteen-year-old, these stories were a direct mirror of what was happening in my own mind. A world that had previously revolved around me was broadening, becoming indifferent and too big to comprehend. Lovecraft got what I was going through.

The problem is that’s more or less all he’s got. As I got older and my alienation from the larger world became understanding and participation, Lovecraft’s themes of personal alienation and cosmic impotence in the face of monolithic opposition became less relevant. In Lovecraft’s world, one is safe until one recognizes and draws the attention of that which is profoundly greater. It’s a religious terror of ideas and systems that are too large for one person to coexist with without being swallowed up and made irrelevant. The digestion that occurs in the belly of incomprehensible cosmic evil is akin to the effect on the conscious identity of a child in an adult world. Realizing that one is not part of the plan (and least of all central to it!) is psychologically devastating.

But that fear is, in its essence, juvenile. Where Lovecraft expressed my dread as an adolescent, Albert Camus, by contrast, gave me hope as a young adult. To stand before the absurdity of existence and live in revolt is how you cope with the seeming irrelevance of cosmic meaninglessness.

If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd. But it is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction I notice between his true strength and the aim he has in view… Now, faced with this particular concern, belief in the absurd is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality….

[Sisyphus’] s scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing…. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.4

Camus presents us with the metaphor of being fundamentally outmatched as an expression of making our own meaning out of a life that is opposed by the very cosmic horror that crippled Lovecraft’s imagination. You can stare into the tentacled face of an elder god and go gibberingly mad, or you can choose to stand and shake your fist at the absurdity of it, despite the inevitable. It’s the choice between facing life as a self-centered adolescent or as a self-actualizing adult.

I love much of Lovecraft’s work as a relic of my own burgeoning realization that I am not a thing around which all Creation revolves. Sure, I love to go back and read some of those stories (Pickman’s Model is one of my favorites), but I just don’t find Lovecraft to be all that artistically inspiring or even deeply resounding. Naturally, given what I’ve described above, Lovecraft will continue to be an inspiration to readers and writers who discover him at that developmental moment when he resounds.  But I’m not sure that the resurgence in his public popularity hadn’t already run its course at the outset. I appreciate that Jeff Vandermeer has the guts to stand up to nostalgia and challenge us to look forward more than we look back.

All that said, I am presently working on a Lovecraft-inspired short story. Asking me to be consistent is the same as asking me to be silent.






1Which, at 13 years old, was the first piece of long form non-fiction I ever read purely for pleasure, even if it did take me the better part of a year to finish it.
2King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Gallery Books, 1981, 2010. Pp. 65, 101-02.
3Whose art was already a fetishized commodity to me due to his beautifully imagined covers for the Daw editions of Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné series.
2Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage International Books, 1955, 1991. Pp. 29, 120.


~ by poǝןɔɐɯ uǝʞɔɐɹq on 02/09/2012.

2 Responses to “Lovecraft and Writing in Revolt”

  1. I have to agree with you in the sense that (while I happen to enjoy Lovecraft’s writing very much) I don’t think it holds any benefit for a writer to begin emulating another writer’s work. Our own voices get lost in the translation. And while it might be the popular thing to do at the moment, it’s a disservice to ourselves and those who read what we write.

  2. I think there are themes playing out in our culture right now. As you indicated, there is this losing the adolescent notion of being the center of the universe, so to speak, then perhaps it was 9/11 that was our moment of horror when most
    of America was jolted out of its delusion and into the reality that the world itself is a far more complicated place than we could have imagined.

    In the last 11 years, there has been what appears to be a desperate attempt to put things back to the way things were, to “restore” the day when all that mattered was “God, the Flag, and Mom’s apple pie.” Some of this has resulted in a bizarre, cultish movement full of creeds and codes that seem positively alien in themselves and more than a little out of touch with reality, and utterly incapable of sustaining itself in the face of the greater forces in motion, much like trying to repell an Elder God with a cross made of popsicle sticks.

    Lovecraft expresses a zeitgeist. In the early 1900’s, it was New England Protestants with an understanding of a Newtonian clockwork creation of an all-loving God facing the realities of a vast universe governed by Einsteinian relativity and the emerging sciences of anthropology and psychology demonstrating a distinct lack of absolutes even in codes of morality. In the early 21st Century, it’s the growing realization that the United States did not win the Cold War by sheer faith in Jesus over atheistic Marxism.

    Those that read Lovecraft or his derivatives get the joke, and they are at once laughing at those desperate ants trying to re-install the traditional meaning in their lives while at the same time recoiling in their own horror at the lengths to which they will go to do it that dwarf even the grisliest, most visceral scene in any of Lovecraft’s writings.

    Think I’m going to shop for t-shirts, now. 😉

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