Monday, April 18, 2005

A Series of Unfortunate Remarks

It pains me to report that "Lemony Snicket" has published a mean review of the Modern Library's selected tales of H. P. Lovecraft.

After a bad beginning, which argues that it is impossible to read Lovecraft without a fit of giggles, he careens down the slippery slope of stylistic critique. But it is a cliché that Lovecraft's prose is pompous and ponderous, not something that needs to be proved with extensive quotation – four full paragraphs (out of fourteen) and many sentences besides.

Nor do we need more derision for Lovecraft's biologically challenged monstrosities: this has already been expressed, decisively, by Edmund Wilson, whose 1945 New Yorker piece, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" moans that "the only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art."

I used to be a Lovecraft junkie, and I sometimes still admit the fact. I would not want to defend my thirteen year old taste. But a serious response to Lovecraft must begin with the fact that he is not frightening (something for which Wilson cannot forgive him), that he writes badly (in a way), and that his characters are thin, and ask: what else is he trying to do?

It may be too simple to say that Lovecraft is not frightening. But he is not spine-chilling. Nor is it good to defend him, as Snicket does, by appeal to the lonely monomania of his narrators, which "accumulates a creepy minimalism" that is "very, very scary."
Taken as a whole, Lovecraft's work exhibits a hopeless isolation not unlike that of Samuel Beckett: lonely man after lonely man, wandering aimlessly through a shadowy city or holing up in rural emptiness, pursuing unspeakable secrets or being pursued by secret unspeakables, all to little avail and to no comfort.
This is the literary-critical equivalent of laughing at, not with. That one is freaked out by Lovecraft's narrators is not a compliment to him unless he meant them to be the locus of terror, which he did not.

It is even more inept to express disgust at Lovecraft's creatures (as both Snicket and Wilson are prone to do). We can see this in a passage quoted at length in the review.
They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membraneous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would ordinarily be.
Lovecraft's target here is the opposite of the eerie: it is the medical, or the zoological. The masterpiece of this is the extensive description of the Old Ones in At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft's best and most successful trope is to turn the supernatural into science, the violation of law into mere ignorance, and the gods into aliens.

Apart from its intrinsic charm, and its influence on science fiction (it is also the principal strategy of the X-files), the project of making the magical mundane is akin to the more respectable literary task of evoking the strangeness of the ordinary. Lovecraft offers an inverse of Martian poetry, but the effect of mystery and awe is to some extent the same – not because the aliens are often mystical or awesome, but because we are invited to see ourselves as aliens, too. That seems to me the point of the awful sentence that forms the real climax of At the Mountains of Madness: not Dyer's raving confrontation with a "shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles" but several pages earlier, when he remarks about the Old Ones,
Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!


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