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Monday, June 28, 2010

Keeping the Monster in the Closet: Lovecraft and the Tradition of Cosmic Horrror

Though Lovecraft's work is often marred by an overabundance of archaic terminology, and contrived dialogue, the man had a definite vision according to which he chose to operate. Many of his so-called defects can be explained by this vision. Frequently, his stories are accused of lacking a climax, of failing to deliver the monstrosity which has been steadily hinted at throughout the course of the narrative. Though many of his disciples would forsake this technique, Lovecraft was adamant about leaving the most explicit details to the reader's imagination. He even had a name for the genre in which he operated: "cosmic horror."

Howard Phillips Lovecraft set out the groundwork for his peculiar trade in a sparse piece of literary criticism entitled, Supernatural Horror in Literature, in which he aims to sketch out the contours of the "weird" tradition. The word "weird" has not faired well since Lovecraft's benevolent usage. The word now refers exclusively to strange habits or temperaments. In Lovecration lore, however, the word takes on more sinister connotations. It refers to something alien, remote, and uncanny. Indeed, in Lovecraft's hands the word becomes synonymous with the supernatural.

A mild-mannered man who spent hours in the city archives, cataloging, and studying antiques, Lovecraft had a way of maximizing his talents which few could hope to rival. A thread running through all of his work is the theme of insignificance. There are countless psychological ramifications that come along with this one, but let me restrict myself to a few artistic remarks on Lovecraft's techniques. "Cosmic horror" throws mankind's minuscule status within the universe into sharp relief. Everywhere, there are sinister forces and deities whose sheer immensity makes a mockery of any human effort. All about us, there are strange forces and beings who pervade the atmosphere. In one of his most effective stories (From Beyond), Lovecraft introduces a character who has created a machine which enables a sixth sense, effectively adumbrating a sinister world which lives all around us. In typical Lovecration fashion, the only real description we get of this netherforce consists in the reactions of the people who witness it, all of whom are compelled to donate their sanity as payment for the view.

Supernatural Horror in Literature is remarkable for its learned approach to the genre. Lovecraft opens the book with the now almost- famous lines: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." But the "unknown" must remain unknown if it is to be effectively wielded in fiction. Consider this quote: "It may be well to remark here that occult believers are less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness, and impressiveness, than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order." This is vintage Lovecraft: intense, hyperbolic, and tragically sincere. But Lovecraft is right. If you attempt to introduce too much of a scientific, or pseudo-scientific framework into the tale, the atmosphere is jettisoned. So, the inviolable rule of Lovecration horror is never to reveal the monster completely, and to allow the reader to languish in an atmosphere of relentless terror and panic, with no recourse to anything of even vague familiarity. Here, I would say, Lovecraft often succeeds. His style is hampered by archaic terminology, and truly comical outbursts of dialogue, but the scenes are set so effectively that the atmosphere becomes the story's greatest merit.

It's worth noting that Lovecraft also finds the "weird" in some more conventional places. He dedicates a few obligatory remarks to James's, The Turn of the Screw, adding that James is clearly more interested in playing with words than nerves. He singles out Nathanael Hawthorne for special attention. Goodman Brown is a notably macabre story, weighted with supernatural themes and apocalyptic imagery, but it is his House of Seven Gables that Lovecraft truly wishes to praise. The hints of spectral presences and a family curse all find ample support from Lovecraft, though I suspect, he may be seeing more than your average Hawthorn reader. Lovecraft also singles out Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for especial praise, naming Heathcliff as a dark Byronic hero of the first order.

The "unknown" is not simply uncharted territory for Lovecraft, but an entire aesthetic. It is the "unknown" which fills the universe with a mystical splendor, and allows us to give voice to true fear and awe, both of which Lovecraft seems to regard as the most noble of human emotions. Why noble? Because a sensitively-attuned mind will recognize man's infinitesimal status in the cosmos, and his total ignorance of nearly all the forces gathered about him. Clearly, Lovecraft saw a stark beauty in this conception of the universe. Given his atheistic convictions, it is interesting that Lovecraft dedicated his most ambitious intellectual pursuits to saturnine deities bent on man's destruction. But they had to remain concealed, or the magic was lost. Lovecraft was a practitioner of a kind of "aesthetics of concealment." The formula works because the things about which Lovecraft writes are so alien and immense that they preclude description. The genius behind this maneuver resides in its ability to demonstrate the fertility of the reader's imagination, effectively making a weapon of it, and turning it against him.

Understandably, Lovecraft dedicates an entire chapter to the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Ever cognizant of the academic resistance to Poe's oeuvre, Lovecraft praises Poe's unique and sophisticated psychological insights which undergird his best works, though he recognizes Poe's melodramatic defects, as well as the many coincidences scarring his work. Of special interest here, are the references to Charles Brockden Brown as Poe's predecessor.

Aside from Poe, there are three masters whom Lovecraft singles out for special attention in his little book: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft took the best elements from all three of these writers, and carved out his own niche in the genre. Of these three, Blackwood's, The Willows, is the most kindred to much of Lovecraft's work. The test of time has secured Lovecraft an admirable place in the world of horror literature. Many authors cite him as influence, and have built upon his mythological framework, but Supernatural Horror in Literature remains an overlooked gem. It should stand as a classic treatise on the horror genre. The central thesis of adumbrating the "unknown" through a series of careful hints, and atmospheric pulses ought to be more emulated. We would be spared much of the brainless carnage that has become the standard trade of the horror genre. What Lovecraft tells us here is that horror--cosmic horror, at least--is less about revulsion, and more about awe and wonder.

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