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Diversions: H. P. Lovecraft

George D. Henderson introduces the writing of HP Lovecraft (this article was prompted by the book review mentioned, in a Saturday ODT in 2005 - unfortunately I didnt record the exact date - G.D.H.)

Otago University professor of Religion Elizabeth Ischei probably offended more people - had they but read her review, of an anthology of Antarctic fiction, in the ODT - by her characterization of H.P. Lovecraft as a "now-forgotten" writer, than Chris Knox offended by his rude dismissal of John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps, on T.V., while introducing the Hitchcock movie of that name. Both that controversy and this demand that some Noel Coward character announce, "It's amazing how potent cheap literature is."

Lovecraft, of course, was the pulp sci-fi/fantasy/horror writer who combined the tradition of Poe, Bierce and Lord Dunsany with the literature and atmosphere of the fin de siecle Decadent writers: Huysmans, Baudelaire, Flaubert (after writing this, I downloaded Au Rebours from Project Gutenberg. This directly inspired Lovecraft's story, The Hound, which is a clever pastiche of Au Rebours; Huysman's style here in Au Rebours is close to Lovecraft's own mature style in sentence construction, vocabulary, and especially in their use of the past passive tense; "He had ... and, believing that..." which tends to give all thoughts, deeds, and experiences an equal, and distant emphasis).

Lovecraft is as important a literary figure as Philip K. Dick or JRR Tolkein, a frequently filmed and purloined author, and as influential an American stylist as Hemmingway, Raymond Chandler, or Mark Twain (for what it's worth, any gravitas Stephen King has derives directly from HPL). Further, he is a very important messenger of religious ideas; his stories introduce a wide range of concepts of evil, superstitions, dooms, heresies, and cults, blurring tradition and novelty. An astronomer and antiquarian, he invented, or codified, the concept of cosmic evil, the spiritual aspect of Pascal's existential angst, a fear of having tipped oneself over the edge of the known world, inspired or induced by his contemplation of the interstellar void, and the glandular condition that circumscribed his life (till it came to resemble the hermetic existence of Au Rebours antihero Des Essientes) and brought about his early death (because of the psychedelic parallels, he enjoyed a great revival in the 1960's). Though he always supplies his characters with scientific backgrounds and skepticism, they are nonetheless always overwhelmed by absolute and usually extra-human manifestations of evil (never sin).

Two important late 20th century philosophical writers, Colin Wilson and Nobel laureate Jorge Luis Borges, both began by dismissing Lovecraft and deploring his writing, but ended by copying his style (Wilson in two novels, one of which was filmed in the 80s, at the time of Halley's comet, Borges in a short story in The Book Of Sand, his last collection). Everyone used to smooth and colloquial modern writing who comes to Lovecraft's later work finds it dense and impenetrable at first (his juvenalia collection, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, derived from Lord Dunsany, is more accessible and utterly charming), but the ideas persist in the imagination, and his influence soon becomes obvious everywhere: hundreds of writers have used and added to the Cthul'hu mythos, and this ensures that H.P. Lovecraft will be immortal, indeed, will live as long as the genre does. He can be said to have created a literature: he was certainly its main apologist (his review of and essay on early horror and fantasy literature, the first complete work on the subject and some of his best writing, is an important contribution to bibliography), and he ghost-wrote for dozens of less capable, but inventive, pulp writers, incidentally bringing them more in line with his own vision. The Cthul'hu mythos is one of the great acts of literary creation: easily as influential as Ezra Pound and Imagism, Andre Breton and Surrealism, or Walter Pater and aestheticism.

I can understand why people are reluctant to accept HPL as a giant of literature (although it is not necessary for a great writer to be a good one; Pater and Breton read badly today): at first his prose seems over-ornate and affected, the past passive tense, though necessary to avoid bathos, reads stodgily, and his refusal to acknowledge sexual connotations that should be obvious (like Tolkein), can seem immature and repressed; however, when one tries to express similar ideas, casual prose will not do, and the engine crafted by H. P. Lovecraft becomes the obvious choice. His prose at first refuses to flow off the page and defies you not to giggle, but the solemnity required is perfectly matched to its subject. The effort is worthwhile and the suspension of disbelief is rewarded in full. We may begin by laughing at Lovecraft, but his inspiration is not so easily shrugged off.

George D. Henderson 8/o3/o5

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