Wednesday, July 20, 2016

My take on H.P. Lovecraft (reader question)

A reader asks,

“Ed, Have you read any H.P. Lovecraft? What do you think of his stories? Did he influence Eleven Miles of Night, 12 Hours of Halloween, or any of the short stories in your Hay Moon collection?”

Let’s begin with the first question.

Yes, I’ve read him—a lot of him, in fact. I discovered Lovecraft while I was in college, when I was about twenty years old. I was in that “bulk reading” stage of my life. I was reading everything I could get my hands on—from contemporary pop fiction to classical literature.

I knew that I wanted to do at least some of my future writing in the horror genre. I had already read everything that Stephen King had written to that time (this was circa 1988); and I was ready to move on to some other horror novelists. I also wanted to read some horror fiction that was a bit more “academic”, if I could find it.

I gave Edgar Allan Poe a try. While I enjoyed some of Poe’s stories, I definitely found his florid, nineteenth-century prose off-putting at that stage of my life. I needed something a bit more modern.

As this was a full decade before the Internet, research was a catch-as-catch-can endeavor. I learned of Lovecraft’s existence through some scattered essays of literary criticism I had read. (Stephen King also mentions him in several of the introductory essays to his own works.) I knew that Lovecraft had done most of his writing in the 1920s and 1930s. He was roughly contemporaneous with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose fiction I had read and liked.

Lovecraft, I thought, might be what I was looking for. And he was. Sort of…

But Lovecraft didn't entirely meet my expectations. The first thing I noticed was that Lovecraft was more of a short story writer than a novelist. Only four of his works can be fairly described as novels: At the Mountains of Madness, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Lurker at the Threshold. And they are short novels at that—really better described as novellas. Most of what Lovecraft wrote would be classified as long short stories.

Lovecraft’s worldview also differed from what I’d anticipated. Not all horror fiction addresses spiritual concerns; but much of it does. Roughly eighty percent of the genre touches upon the supernatural, and that means the portrayal of some sort of a spiritual reality, often along Judeo-Christian lines.

H.P. Lovecraft—somewhat unique among horror writers—was an atheist, for all practical purposes (though his beliefs are more often described as cosmicism, or “cosmic indifference”).

While I don’t exactly wear my religious beliefs on my sleeve when I write, there is a discernible belief in a “spiritual force for good out there” in my novel Eleven Miles of Night, and several of the short stories in Hay Moon (especially the title short story). Although I wouldn't characterize my horror stories as “Christian fiction” by any means, they are written within a largely Judeo-Christian framework of good and evil.

Lovecraft’s fiction, by contrast, is naturalistic—except for the fact that there are extra-dimensional monsters, the so-called “old ones” out there. (The old ones inhabited the earth long before the ascent of humankind, and they are always threatening to come back.)

Lovecraft presents a universe in which human beings are the mostly unwitting victims of these “old ones”, which have a lot more in common with science fiction aliens than with ghosts, vampires, or demons. Although the old ones have special powers, they are not exactly spiritual in nature.

Perhaps this is why Lovecraft has been classified as a horror writer only by default. Publishers and bookstores need to fit literature into neat categories, after all. Many diehard Lovecraft fans are apt to bristle at the horror label, preferring the more vague moniker, “weird fiction” instead.

Whatever it was, exactly, that Lovecraft wrote, you have to admire the scope of his imagination. His stories (and he wrote a lot of them, by the way—many of which are now available only in electronic form) reveal a creativity that was truly profound in the early twentieth century. (We must remember that Lovecraft did not have Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Ray Bradbury to build upon. Nor did he have access to the science fiction films of television’s golden age.) Lovecraft’s stories were and remain unique and inimitable. Though his work has spawned a subgenre dedicated to its imitation, the products of the Lovecraft imitators continue to pale in comparison to the real McCoy.

That having been said, it must be noted that Lovecraft’s stories are relentlessly plot- and monster-driven—not character-driven. Even Lovecraft’s most ardent fans admit that character development was not his strong suit. His human protagonists are notoriously two-dimensional. Most are either young men who are driven to madness by their interactions with “the old ones”, or academic types who spend all of their time puttering around in the dank and dusty library shelves at Miskatonic University.

I suspect that this is the main reason for Lovecraft’s overwhelming emphasis on short fiction: A two-dimensional character can work in a 5,000-word short story. But over the course of a 100,000-word novel, a stock character falls flat.

Lovecraft has also been criticized for his lack of “meaningful female characters”. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that he doesn't have any female characters—or almost no female characters.)

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I have little patience with those who insist on bringing their ideological crusades into the analysis of fiction. But this particular critique of Lovecraft is not mere political correctness. It isn’t so much that Lovecraft’s depictions of women are stereotyped, or sexist, or misogynistic, as it is that he doesn't acknowledge women’s existence at all.

I’m willing to tolerate fiction that doesn't have suitably “strong women” in the contemporary usage of that term. Fiction that contains zero women is something else entirely. A writer who can only write one half of the human race (and superficially at that) is a writer with a major handicap.

By all accounts, Lovecraft was more than a bit of a recluse. He didn't get out much, and he didn't have many conversation partners. This shows not only in his arrested character development, but also in his stilted dialogue.

Here is an excerpt of dialogue from “The Colour Out of Space”, which is often cited to illustrate Lovecraft’s struggle to reproduce authentic human speech:

"Nothin'... nothin'... the colour... it burns... cold an' wet, but it burns... it lived in the well... I seen it... a kind of smoke... jest like the flowers last spring... the well shone at night... Thad an' Merwin an' Zenas... everything alive... suckin' the life out of everything... in that stone... it must a' come in that stone pizened the whole place... dun't know what it wants... that round thing them men from the college dug outen the stone... they smashed it... it was the same colour... jest the same, like the flowers an' plants... must a' ben more of 'em... seeds... seeds... they growed... I seen it the fust time this week... must a' got strong on Zenas... he was a big boy, full o' life... it beats down your mind an' then gets ye... burns ye up... in the well water... you was right about that... evil water... Zenas never come back from the well... can't git away... draws ye... ye know summ'at's comin' but tain't no use... I seen it time an' agin senct Zenas was took... whar's Nabby, Ammi?... my head's no good... dun't know how long sense I fed her... it'll git her ef we ain't keerful... jest a colour... her face is gittin' to hev that colour sometimes towards night... an' it burns an' sucks... it come from some place whar things ain't as they is here... one o' them professors said so... he was right... look out, Ammi, it'll do suthin' more... sucks the life out..."

(Perhaps recognizing this gap in his own skills, Lovecraft consistently minimizes dialogue in his stories, by the way.)

Overall, then, the human side of Lovecraft’s fiction is extremely weak; and that is a severely limiting factor for any author. Fiction should ultimately be about people—even if those people inhabit a universe filled with supernatural terrors.

This is why Stephen King succeeds brilliantly where Lovecraft falls short. Stephen King’s supernatural villains are not especially innovative: King writes about vampires, ghosts, and serial killers—the antagonists that have been filling horror fiction for years. Readers love King because they identify with his characters—Ben Mears of Salem’s Lot, the Torrance family of The Shining, Stuart Redman of The Stand, and, of course, the eponymous Carrie. If King’s characters were as flat as Lovecraft’s, King would not be where he is today.

In summary, then, I admire Lovecraft for his undeniable creative strengths. (Oh, I might also mention in passing his prodigious vocabulary, which includes SAT exam stumpers like cyclopean and antediluvian).

Nevertheless, if I had to select a list of ten fiction writers whose works would sustain me for life on a remote Pacific island, H.P. Lovecraft wouldn't make the cut.  And to the extent that he is an influence of mine, he is a minor and mostly technical one.