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H.P. Lovecraft
April 19, 2005 5:11 AM   Subscribe

"It is here, however -- perhaps 50 pages into this 800-plus page anthology -- that something begins to shift, and what was supposed to be sublime (but is actually ridiculous) becomes something that was supposed to be ridiculous, but is actually sublime."
Why H.P. Lovecraft is scary after all.
posted by Tlogmer (40 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
A Shoggoth on the roof
Bah Humbug!

Both come sealed with an elder sign.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:46 AM on April 19, 2005


As a review of Lovecraft, it entirely misses his central horrific theme - the ultimate cosmic irrelevance of man. Lovecraft is not "ooh, scary scary monster" horror, at least not at the deeper level where this reviewer failed to hit the mark. His protagonists act as they do because they are forced to recognize that they are not important, that the ultimate order of reality is neither anthropomorphic nor benevolent. Lovecraft represents the final abandonment of the Enlightenment and Transcendentalist themes of benevolent Nature; the recognition that, in the twentieth century, the world could hold unmitigated horrors (fairly apt for the time when he was writing).

Underneath the purple of his prose, Lovecraft captured the reality of his time in a rather profound way. Handler missed all that, and focused on the surface.
posted by graymouser at 6:22 AM on April 19, 2005 [2 favorites]


ooh, Gray Mouser. Is there a Fafhrd in the house?
posted by sciurus at 6:30 AM on April 19, 2005


Daniel Handler writes novels under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

well, if there's anyone who knows horror, it's certainly the jerk whose books inspired last year's shitty Jim Carrey film.
posted by jimmy at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2005


As a review of Lovecraft, it entirely misses his central horrific theme - the ultimate cosmic irrelevance of man.

Nailed it, using an eerie nail of cthonic origin carved from basalt with tools no human appendage ever wielded, and hit in such a way that it appeared to bend through space along a mad and non-euclidian path.

S. T. Joshi's biography of Lovecraft (which is apparently a bit rare at this point, need to take better care of my copy) covers a lot of this in fascinating detail.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:35 AM on April 19, 2005


Another point missed was Lovecraft's early adoption of the mistrust of science - and men of science - meddling in areas best left alone; Herbert West being the best example. In this regard he anticipated the SF movies of the 50's (Them, The Thing, etc.).

On preview - what graymouser said
posted by georgeTirebiter at 6:35 AM on April 19, 2005


Awesome links RoughAshlar!

I credit Lovecraft for making my temporary move to New England one that caused me great anxiety. Who knows what Shoggoth walks in Franklin Park. < shudder>>

Thumbs down on the NYT review, but I am a dedicated Lovecraft fan.
posted by bumpkin at 7:08 AM on April 19, 2005


The author this piece is the author of the "Lemony Snicket's" line of books. I certainly hope that the NYT will allow some other prominent author who's books are higher up in the food chain to write an piece deconstructing-while-missing-the-point-of Lemony Snickets. Such as Philip Pullman of 'His Dark Materials'...
posted by archae at 7:18 AM on April 19, 2005


graymouser, I wish you'd write up your post as a letter to the editor and send it off to the NYT. Seriously. In two paragraphs you give a better insight into Lovecraft than this reviewer was able to do with two pages.

Longtime Lovecraft fan here; "The Colour Out Of Space" is the most improbably scary story I've ever read.
posted by BoringPostcards at 7:25 AM on April 19, 2005


Graymouser, seconding BoringPostcards. Incorporating georgeTirebiter's point would be good too.
posted by kenko at 7:47 AM on April 19, 2005


Having Lemony Snicket give a review of HP Lovecraft is like having Ed Wood give a review of Alfred Hitchock.
posted by unreason at 8:04 AM on April 19, 2005


My favourite is "The Whisperer in Darkness".

On a somewhat squamous tangent, I think that a Lovecraftian influence is what made Dr Who great in a way that shines through the worst special effects and some pretty poor scripts.

Obligatory links for any HPL fans out for a chuckle:
Tales of the Plush Cthulhu

The Misadventures of Hello Cthulhu

posted by arjuna at 8:09 AM on April 19, 2005


While missing the point, Lemony Snicket quotes a part of one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read, in any genre of literature. It transcends being just a horror story and opens something larger. Here it is.

”The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but someday the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
— The Call of Cthulhu
posted by Termite at 8:16 AM on April 19, 2005


I think what bothered me about the review was his complete inability to get past the style and prose - admittedly somewhat florid. It's kind of like criticizing Kurosawa because the actors are wearing pajamas and speaking Japanese.

But taken as a whole, and I collect the marvelous black-bound Arkham House books, there was an interesting mythology,begun by Lovecraft, and continued by Bloch,Clark Ashton Smith, and Dereleth (although he was a much better editor than writer).

And, at least for me, it touched a deep, primal area - and scared the hell out me
posted by georgeTirebiter at 8:25 AM on April 19, 2005


(cont'd) ... the rest of this story doesn't live up to this beginning, but what story could? These sentences are a story in themselves. A philosopher would have needed 1500 pages to say the same thing.
posted by Termite at 8:28 AM on April 19, 2005


More recently, see Charlie Stross's The Atrocity Archives, set in a cold-war-like spy environment but with esoteric Cthulhiana instead of piddly old nukes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:45 AM on April 19, 2005


I will now attempt a reprise of an argument I've thoroughly enjoyed since I was about 16 years of age:

Clark Ashton Smith did it so much better.
posted by Decani at 8:47 AM on April 19, 2005


Who Will Be Eaten First?
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:55 AM on April 19, 2005


Don't know if I want to bite on that hook, juicy as the worm may be. However, "The Dimension of Chance" and "The Immeasurable Horror" are unique and incredible short stories. I've had a tremendous fear of mile-high pink slugs ever since.
posted by georgeTirebiter at 8:56 AM on April 19, 2005


Clark Ashton Smith did it so much better.

Ah, that's not so controversial: I enjoy Lovecraft, but there are plenty of reasonable arguements for preferring Clark Ashton Smith. Now, if you'd come in here saying that you admired the moral clarity of August Derleth and the simpleminded good vs. evil "mythos" stories written under his tutelage, then we'd have something!

While we're at it, Dan Clore's stories are worth a look for Lovecraft fanciers.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:58 AM on April 19, 2005


graymouser's point is well taken, but in all fairness, doesn't Handler address the "the ultimate cosmic irrelevance of man" in "a reality [that] is neither anthropomorphic nor benevolent" in his final paragraph?
If you spend enough time in Lovecraft's lonely landscapes, fear really does develop: not the fear that you will come across unearthly creatures, but the fear that you will come across little else. And what first seems horridly overdone accumulates a creepy minimalism. 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.
posted by muckster at 9:27 AM on April 19, 2005


More recently, see Charlie Stross's The Atrocity Archives, set in a cold-war-like spy environment but with esoteric Cthulhiana instead of piddly old nukes.

There's a related novelette, titled "A Colder War", that's absolutely awesome.
posted by Goblindegook at 9:44 AM on April 19, 2005


Those of you slagging Handler for writing the Lemony Snicket books probably don't know that he also wrote under his own name the clever, entertaining, very creepy The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth.
posted by nicwolff at 9:52 AM on April 19, 2005


Clark Ashton Smith did it so much better.

Ah, that's not so controversial:


Well, damn. I used to almost get into fist fights for taking that line at school!
posted by Decani at 11:37 AM on April 19, 2005


Chtulhu cthays cthell your cthister into cthlavery!
posted by jonp72 at 12:24 PM on April 19, 2005


graymouser's point is well taken, but in all fairness, doesn't Handler address the "the ultimate cosmic irrelevance of man" in "a reality [that] is neither anthropomorphic nor benevolent" in his final paragraph?

posted by muckster at 9:27 AM PST on April 19


Eh, that's too little too late, to me. He spent two pages talking about the frame, with a mere mention of the picture. I think he was afraid of being "uncool" if he liked the Lovecraft book too much, hence all the dithering over the HLP's prose.
posted by BoringPostcards at 12:44 PM on April 19, 2005


How can the conclusion be "too little too late?" It's his conclusion, what he arrived at after slogging through a lot of Lovecraft. It's the point of the article. And equating Lovecraft with Beckett is a major compliment, and every bit as good as acknowledging that "underneath the purple of his prose, Lovecraft captured the reality of his time in a rather profound way." It's greymouser's argument exactly: "he final abandonment of the Enlightenment and Transcendentalist themes of benevolent Nature; the recognition that, in the twentieth century, the world could hold unmitigated horrors"--that, in not so many words, is precisely what "Beckett" means. I thought it was an insightful piece.
posted by muckster at 1:10 PM on April 19, 2005


I think what bothered me about the review was his complete inability to get past the style and prose - admittedly somewhat florid. It's kind of like criticizing Kurosawa because the actors are wearing pajamas and speaking Japanese.

No, not at all. It's like criticizing Ed Wood because the script, sets, and camera placement are awful. It's perfectly valid criticism; if you can get past the blatant defects and admire either creator for their crazed originality, good for you, but you have to face up to the fact that Lovecraft was a crappy writer and Wood a crappy director if you want to communicate effectively with non-fans. Me, I can barely take Dickens' sentences (I gulp them down fast so I can enjoy the stories); I'm unable to tolerate Lovecraft's prose at all for very long. My loss, of course.
posted by languagehat at 2:52 PM on April 19, 2005


There are better and worse Lovecraft stories, but they're all strangely readable, even if they're not all what I would call good writing.

Some of my favorites:

The Colour Out Of Space: considered one of his best.

The Music of Erich Zahn: the only Lovecraft story to really frighten me.

At The Mountains of Madness: a strange one, in which some of the abominations inspire -- can you believe it? -- sympathy.

The Silver Key: This longer work doesn't really seem intended to be scary. It's one of his Dreamlands stories and sort of an adventure tale, but again, if you can get past his obtuse language, weirdly readable.

There are others too. Besides the Erich Zahn story above, I've never really been frightened by his stories, but there's just something about them. Weird.
posted by JHarris at 3:30 PM on April 19, 2005


The reviewer is wrong because he believes Lovecraft's work is fictional.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 4:03 PM on April 19, 2005


Fans of a cult classic take offense at an outsider touching the sacred stones.

Film at 11.

Seriously, Handler's conclusion seems to perfectly capture the very praise that the Lovecraft fans have been shouting in the thread.
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. There is something funny about this -- in small doses. But by the end of this collection, one does not hear giggling so much as the echoes of those giggles as they vanish into the ether -- lonely, desperate and, yes, very, very scary.
Having read some Lovecraft, I concur -- one story is creepy, a few are just silly, and lots of them all together blur into a hollow, unsettling sense of isolation and barrenness. The fact that the review did not sufficiently fawn over Lovecraft's legacy doesn't strike me as a down side.
posted by verb at 4:16 PM on April 19, 2005


The author did come off as someone who was too embarrassed to admit really liking Lovecraft, until the end. I appreciate Lovecraft greatly, and he's certainly influenced my artistic output in a lot of ways. Believe it or not, the heaping amounts of hyperbole and silly words actually enhance my enjoyment. Lovecraft, with all his glaring literary mannerisms and little obsessions becomes a character himself when I'm reading his work. Even without knowing anything about him, you can sense that he's an anxious, meek little man who plays the part of the aesthete without really possessing the understanding to pull it off. And he's slowly losing his marbles. This is a guy who can probably truly visualise the horrors he's writing about and scare himself. He's not an intellectually detached manipulator, pulling the strings to scare you, he's along for the ride himself. On the one hand it's kind of funny, but on the other, it's intriguing and lends an air of, oh I dunno, authenticity to the proceedings.

I realise that not everyone can, or should, appreciate Lovecraft this way. If you can't get past the bad writing, I think it's best to regard him as creative fertiliser: his often very flawed works possess a kernel of goodness, something unique that inspires others to create better things.
posted by picea at 4:55 PM on April 19, 2005


What the latecomers have said, except for the characterization of Lovecraft's prose as 'bad.'

"As a review of Lovecraft, it entirely misses his central horrific theme - the ultimate cosmic irrelevance of man."

Handler concludes with this exact point, noting that Lovecraft's nihilism is rooted in loneliness. As a nihilist, I'll have to observe that nothing could be more accurate. Loneliness may connote longing, however, and it's not clear that Handler understands that that longing for companionship or meaning in the universe is quite lacking in Lovecraft, which I concur is the true literary value of the work.

I found the review hilarious and sympathetic.
posted by mwhybark at 6:16 PM on April 19, 2005


Termite:
I like that passage as well. And I agree about it taking another philosopher 1500+ words to express the same thing. The passage reminds me of a, um... similar passage from Immanuel Kant's difficult tome, the "Critique of Pure Reason" --a work which in it's own way presents Lovecraftian horrors in both meaning and prose.

Kant's passage:

B295
A236

"This land, however, is an island, and is enclosed by nature itself within unchangeable bounds. It is the land of truth(a charming name), and is surrounded by a vast and stormy ocean, where illusion properly resides and many fog banks and much fast-melting ice feign new-found lands. This sea incessantly deludes the seafarer with empty hopes as he roves through his discoveries, and thus entangles him in adventures that he can never relinquish, nor ever bring to an end. But before we venture upon this sea, to search its latitudes for certainty as to whether there is in them anything to be hoped, it will be useful to begin by casting another glance on the map of the land that we are about to leave, and to ask two questions. We should ask, first, whether we might not prehaps be content with what this land contains, or even must be content with it from necessity if there is no other territory at all on which we could settle. And we should ask, second, by what title we possess even this land and can keep ourselves secure against hostile claims."

If Lemony Snicket's finds Lovecraft's prose unbearable, god forbid him ever discover Kant, as the above passage is one of the closest moments Kant ever gets to what we would call plain language!

Personally, reading Lovecraft is more like reading how it feels to directly know for oneself all the abstract conclusions reached by Kant. Oh my, I'm comparing Kant to Lovecraft at 4am and I have a final exam tomorrow.
Forgive me...
posted by archae at 1:09 AM on April 20, 2005 [1 favorite]


The key biographical fact about Lovecraft is that his father died of syphilis ('general paralysis of the insane') in a mental asylum. Once you know that, then a lot of the themes of his fiction -- the obsession with hereditary disease, the fear of mental / physical / racial degeneration, the creepy antiquarian fixation on terrible secrets buried in the past, the fastidious reluctance to talk about sex or even introduce female characters into his stories -- suddenly start to make a lot more sense. Handler is right to draw attention to the 'hopeless isolation' of Lovecraft's work, but he doesn't seem to appreciate the reason for it.
posted by verstegan at 4:17 AM on April 20, 2005 [1 favorite]


If Lemony Snicket's finds Lovecraft's prose unbearable, god forbid h[e] ever discover Kant

Good comparison. I can't read Kant either.
posted by languagehat at 4:20 AM on April 20, 2005


Just as a side note- HPL's letters to friends about the 'correct' pronunciation of Cthulhu:
The actual sound—as nearly as human organs could imitate it or human letters record it—may be taken as something like Khlûl’-hloo, with the first syllable pronounced gutturally and very thickly. The u is about like that in full; and the first syllable is not unlike klul in sound, since the h represents the guttural thickness. The second syllable is not very well rendered—the l sound being unrepresented. (to Duane Rimel, 23 July 1934)
The best approximation one can make is to grunt, bark, or cough the imperfectly-formed syllables Cluh-Luh with the tip of the tongue firmly affixed to the roof of the mouth. (to Willis Conover, 29 August 1936)
In “Lovecraft in Providence,” Donald Wandrei claims that Lovecraft pronounced it “K-Lütl-Lütl,” yet in the above-mentioned letter to Duane Rimel, Lovecraft claims that Wandrei’s comments on the pronunciation of the term are “largely fictitious.” Robert H. Barlow, in On Lovecraft and Life, claimed that Lovecraft pronounced it “Koot-u-lew.”

I am a fan of HPL, and though I agree with the criticism of his prose, as others have pointed out, when taken in the larger context of HPL's life and experiences, it begins to be much, much more frightening. I think that the analogy of a schizophrenic telling you a story in their own words, as opposed to a clinician trying to explain what the schizophrenic meant is closer to my reading of HPL's writing.
He really felt that way. Alienated. Scared. Like an insignifigant speck in an immense black void. And trying to get that feeling across without using hyperbole is simply impossible. He had to use all those adjectives to try to implant his sensibility in the readers' heads.
There's something to it, seeing as there is an entire genre devoted to emulating his style.
posted by exlotuseater at 4:47 AM on April 20, 2005


I think that to a large degree Lovecraft's philosophical insight into horror is a bit tarnished by the fact that he made a living rolling out story after story on it. I felt the same way about the Sherlock Holmes anthology sitting on my childhood bookshelf. It's nice now and then when I'm visiting my parents to open up a random story, and dive in. But trying to read the stories in sequence is an exercise in in tedium.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:12 AM on April 20, 2005


archae: Thanks! Your reply was more than I expected. Hope that exam went well.
posted by Termite at 8:19 AM on April 20, 2005


hmmmm...

houellebecq on lovecraft: "Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos operates on a bait-and-switch basis, promising the sublime (as in the famous opening line of 'The Call of Cthulhu', about 'the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents') and delivering the disgusting. In Houellebecq's own fiction, that kind of nihilistic betrayal is the way of the world." :D

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 9:01 AM on April 30, 2005


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