Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Summer of Lovecraft: I'll Sleep When It's Over

[My blog colleague and benefactor Tom Jackson of RAWIllumination.net wrote very recently about "Extraterrestrial Gargoyles On Medieval Scottish Church," which actuated the following blogspew.-OG]

One should not act or speak as if he were asleep. - Heraclitus

Earlier last month, in H.P. Lovecraft's Providence, the largest congregation yet in honor of HPL was held: the NecronomiCon, of course. It's good to see HPL's name finding ever-larger recognition.  The Washington Post even had a story about it. (See "Fans To Celebrate Horror Writer H.P. Lovecraft With NeconomiCon Gathering.") Michelle R. Smith notes that in HPL's "creations and works [...] they influenced might be better known than the man himself." Aye. It seems that for many of my favorite writers this is the story. Why? I don't know. We're reminded of the mental illness in his family and in HPL, and his 80,000 letters and his social networking with other writers. And he died in 1937.

Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is quoted twice: "For (HPL), the most terrifying thing that could happen is to defy our understanding of the known laws of physics." Later in the piece Joshi says he thinks "we're finally getting to the era where horror fiction can be looked at as more than just something to scare you." And I wonder and ask: If true: why? Whatsit about "today" that allows a re-evaluation of a former "pulp"writer, someone the eminent critic Edmund Wilson wrote out down as a "hack" and "bad taste and bad art."?

Tom Jackson had noted before the NecronomiCon how the city of Providence was starting to honor its native son, HERE. Why? Hey, I love HPL. But why the building burgeoning ballyhoo? What's changed?

                                              I love this rendering of HPL. Who knows
                                              the artists's name?

In June the Guardian noted how quickly Kickstarter money for a life-sized bust HPL came in for the Athenaeum Library, and wondered why such a "terrible" and "execrable" writer was so famous, especially a racist one with the "bleakest worldview." Like that last is a bad thing? I tend to side with Luckhurst in his addressing of HPL's racism: not only was HPL mentally unwell...not exactlyas Prof. Carlin would say, "A happy guy," but he was provincial to an absurd degree, and his two years in multicultural New York were probably shocking to a man who fancied himself a scion to a bygone New England type. (There's a larger problem of why so many of our literary geniuses held to some sort of fascist politics, but I'll have to essay that some other time.)

My favorite quote from this article is by Elizabeth Bear, who, when asked why HPL was still such a big deal despite being a racist and all that, answers: "Because authors are read, and remembered, not for what they do wrong, but for what they do right, and what Lovecraft does right is so incredibly effective. He's a master of mood, of sweeping blasted vistas of despair and the bone-soaking cold of space. He has at his command a worldview that the average human being, drunk on our own species-wide egocentrism, finds compelling for its sheer contrariness."

That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons even death may die. - Abdul al-Hazred

Joshi's idea that we may be able to look at horror in a new way in the present epoch may have something going for it, and it's not just the plethora of games and films and graphic novels and iconography and just sheer depth of Lovecraft's influence. And yes, there are Baby books with the HPL Cthulhu mythos as themes. This from a man who once wrote, "I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page, or deals with the horrors unnameable or unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.

I mean, what baby can't get on board with that? And now academics are getting on board, too.

                                     whiskey-tango-foxtrot??? (see the ET-gargoyles
                                     in the link to HERE) If this Thing mated with a
                                     gila monster, it might all make sense!

Whatever we see when awake is death; when asleep, dreams. - Heraclitus

The growing popularity among intellectual types of Lovecraft's work may be testimony to this. In a review of a collection of HPL titled Classic Horror Stories in the prestigious Los Angeles Review of Books, Jess Nevins reviews the extensive introduction and exegetical chops of the editor, Roger Luckhurst, and Nevins says Luckhurst's explanatory notes on HPL's style, allusions, and inventions are "exhaustive." I'll have to see for myself. The aforementioned Joshi and other scholars of HPL such as Dan Clore may have something to say here, but nonetheless, the most interesting thing to me, the aspect of HPL that seems to have opened the door toward some semblance of academic acceptance and canonicity is the trope that he's not strictly a "horror"writer or even "science fiction." Rather: he's "Weird." And elements of the Weird are given as "concerns with liminal things, in-between states, transgressions always on the verge of becoming something else." For Luckhurst this places HPL in a tradition that goes back to the 1880s and Coleridge, up to today's China Mieville. On the face of it, this doesn't wash with me, as I'd read Lovecraft's own analysis of his tradition in the long, tremendous essay, Supernatural Horror In Literature, and he sees his antecedents and influences as going back to around 1810, with the more extreme Gothics. Luckhurst obviously knows this essay well, but would rather argue that what makes HPL worthy of respect by the cognoscenti is those aspects of the "Weird."

It's cool that maybe a few thousand MA and PhD theses will be written on Lovecraft, but for me: Contra the common claim of critics that HPL's style was "execrable," I love his baroque catachreses and mixed metaphors, his obscure words and borrowings from science and Egyptology and late 18th/early 19th century archaisms, his psychedelic mixture of factual content with the speculative and eldritch bizarre imaginings. If academics see fit to worm Cthulhu into canonicity, fine, but trying to assert that he's not tainted by "being" a science fiction or horror writer (declared declasse and out-of-bounds among the Highly Learned long ago) and rather his classification is now respectably "Weird" like someone in, I don't know...the French Academy respect? This for me does not fly. His overall vision and style seems enough to be taken seriously.

And with the new neuroscience of unconscious workings and neurolinguistics, there seems much to bring the multi-diplomaed to a long study of HPL. His transcendently cosmic and gnostic horrors prefigure the feelings citizens may be having in the sort of State we live in now. Or maybe: the subconscious stirrings that give rise to an anxiety that maybe the march of technology has indeed taken over, that the machines are running us, that They have augmented our sensoria as appendanges and managed to convince us that we are still in charge, when it's Them. We are merely a way for Them to make more of Themselves. Okay, maybe I'm getting carried away and the strain of sativa is really good. Perhaps I should've gone more towards an indica. But suffice: the gnostic idea that we've learned enough to know that we are not in charge, but that we must repress this, in order to preserve our species's sanity?As if coming to terms with us not being, as Hamlet said, "the paragon of animals" is too ghastly to live with? That some massively indifferent but - to us - malevolent force is Out There? Doesn't this tap into the still-living imaginations of the children within all of us? (For a more nuanced, detailed and learned exegesis see - well, just about anyone who's written on Lovecraft, really - but I would point to Erik Davis if I had to pick one person. Maybe have a look at "Calling Cthulhu: H.P. Lovecraft's Magickal Realism," as found on pp.114-136 of Davis's stellar collection of occulture criticism and Nomad Codes.) But that's just me. Robert Anton Wilson has some wonderful takes on HPL as well.

"I suspect Dan Brown has as much sense of humor as me, but chooses to hide the fact. I'd like his books better if the professor came from Miskatonic instead of Harvard." - Robert Anton Wilson, in an interview in Secrets of Angels and Demons, p.8

Which takes me to a piece I ran across in The New Republic, a title I semi-stole for this blog: "This Is The Summer of Lovecraft," by novelist Walter Kirn. The opening paragraph hits a Lovecrafty tone and seems worthy of a film, but Kirn's writing about his actual life, lately?: he was "friends" with a sociopathic (psychopathic?) person named Clark Rockefeller - a likely name! - and has realized that for a full ten years he was duped by this guy, but not as bad as Rockefeller duped others. Worse than deception, Rockefeller is an impostor and convicted killer. Think of how you'd feel if you realize your "friend" was a monster all along. If you're like Kirn, you spend all day in "depressing, sedentary hard-labor" teasing out the ways and "methodologies" by which Kirn pulled off his deceptions. Worse: all of this takes place against a backdrop of the advent of what I call The Snowden Era: PRISM, secret FISA courts, the suspicious death of Michael Hastings, the President's private Kill Anyone I Want List. Writing in early August, Kirn doesn't get to Obama itching to bomb Syria because of alleged chemical weapons use. I hope Walter is hangin' tough.

Kirn answers his own question: Who are the winners this summer? Answer: Kafka, Orwell, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick, who suddenly becomes much clearer now to some of us.

It's a short piece and you ought to read it entirely, but don't miss the bits about how Clark Rockefeller used "Persona Management" (and the NSA does too): you invent fake identities online, then win the confidence of others, mine their data, then exploit them. Here's Kirn:

"In one case that I know of, he employed one fictional alter-ego to give a character reference to another. The victims didn't uncover the ploy until I alerted them to it, fifteen years later, and they only believed me when I pointed out that the Managed Persona they'd been scammed by bore the name of a villain from a popular novel."

Keyser Soze LIVES! (?)

What was that fragment from Herclitus? "Things are in the habit of concealing themselves?" (No, you idiot; try this: Nature loves to hide. (Frag 123)

Quick like a bunny: What has a single anterior nucleus embedded in a robust protruding axostyle, and an interior bundle flagella that emerge slightly sub-anteriorly and have a distinctive beat pattern?

If you answered, "Cthulhu Macrofasciculumque and Cthylla Microfasciculumque then you're fucking FREAKIN' ME OUT, dude! If you skipped the day we covered this, see HERE.

Finally, check out these Lovecraft-ish sea creatures that actually inhabit our world, now. I think television nature-channel editors must have seen these guys and thought, "The sponsors will abandon us if we show these demonic looking beasts! Forget it! Let's go with another segment of dolphins or chimps!" I would have been MUCH more interested in Biology in 9th grade if I'd been turned on to just about any one of these dudes. RAW fans: watch the video about the Sarcastic Fringehead, keeping in mind the 2nd circuit and the average hardcore fan of Fox News.

As I write in this, our Summer of Lovecraft of 2013 CE (summer in the No. Hemisphere) is down to its last three weeks. Even less. It's not too late to get to the library and finally read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It'll prime you for October! O! The magnificent mind-spaghettifying horrors that await us for our enjoyment!


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. And the sequel to The Shining comes out this month: Dr. Sleep.

Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness remains my favorite horror novel and piece of tangential Lovecraftiana.

My car has a Grateful Dead bumper, but my previous two cars had "Miskatonic Alumni Association" bumper stickers.

Anonymous said...

As usual I highly appreciate the

Fritz Leiber was a friend one I do
miss greatly. That makes me a 3 off
Lovecraft who I appreciate as well.

If you expand your understanding by
research into what is being explored
and discovered and analyzed, you
soon have to adopt HPLs views of the
paradigm shifts caused by such new
knowledge. There's no solid ground
no sure place to stand and if you
seek a cosmic connection that can
be expressed in human terms or values
you are guaranteed disappointment.

Or sanity loss, in gamers terms...

As far as I can tell that's framing
error, we don't need to make sense
in intergalactic cosmic terms.

We need to think globally for a
sense of place, but make it locally for teleological sense.

If you want a rigid framework for
your correct answer machine, you
are failing to understand the Tao.
Because the universe is what it is
it will never be what we want it to

HPL was unkind enough to point out
that science by the mere effort of
observing the world and reporting
what was found placed the sane
rigid view of sure knowledge at risk
just by saying, hey look at this.

Socially he was enmeshed in the
correct answer machine of his time.
That makes him a very uncomfortable
figure to those who'd rather have
a pure idol of unstained virtue to

A great Feynman video, to follow
so closely on the heels of those
who believe in 97.5% sureties.

My favorite game changer is the
new semiconductor switch 10000
times faster than anything previously possible. It is just
one of the recent discoveries that
marked 2012 as a transition point
to something wonderful in history.

Hel, if this keeps up, we might
even learn something.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

A critic named Darrell Schweitzer once made a point similar to one of yours (and I can't give a citation, sorry), that one of the most frightening aspects of Lovecraft is that there might be creatures Out There who could give a rat's ass about humanity and its concerns, who are simply indifferent.

michael said...

Eric - Have you followed all the stuff on deep allusions and secret codes in The Shining (Kubrick film)?

Anon - You were friends with Leiber? Wow! have you written anything on him? If so, I'd like to read it.

Tom - Your comment prompted another blog post, above, Sept 10, 2013. Thanks for the spur.

Eric Wagner said...

I saw the film "Room 237" and loved it. I don't buy a lot of the theories, but the theorists pointed out a lot of interesting details in the film I'd never noticed in 10+ viewings of "The Shining." I liked how the film "Room 237" didn't advocate any of the theories. I think that film makes a nice companion piece to the book "Zona" about the film "Stalker." Both those works of criticism bring a note of personal obsession to film criticism I find fascinating.

michael said...

Eric- personal obsession brought to criticism! I LOVE this; let us have more, you Diplomaed Ones: your pretentions and jargons and dryness as marks of "respectable" academics have gotten you...where? The Hard Sciences are kicking your asses!

Show some sinew and spleen. We know you're smart. We won't think anything less of your qualifications to cash that paycheck from the Institution if you admit in your writings and productions that there's an obsessive, personal element in your critiques.

As matter of fact, we'd like if not love you for moving towards this type of analysis. You might even see your Humanities Dept. begin to come back from the coma it's in now.

Shall I hold my breath? I won't.

gordsellar said...

Why Lovecraft has caught on so hard lately... oh, I could write for hours on that, but I'll spare you the bulk of my musings.

I will say, however, that it's probably a perfect-storm type of situation: a convergence of things, from geek culture mainstreaming to fan advocacy (with things like the entertaining H.P. Lovecraft Literary podcast), to the fact that Lovecraft invited derivative works; he was one of the original "modern" shared-world authors. That's an interesting strategy for attaining posterity. Indie productions are taking off, and he's (effectively, if not really) public domain, so that's another bonus. And there's the influence he had on people who grew up playing RPGs influenced, to some degree or other, by his work. Those people are out there creating now, be it fiction or films or music, so that helps. (I'm a minor example, in a small way, of that, I should note here. But I'm far from the only one.) And probably Joshi's right about the zeitgeist and how we look at horror now.

I think you're very much on the right track when you get into how the human sciences are changing how we see ourselves, in discomfiting ways. I wonder if you've read Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race? It's sort of his own version of Lovecraft's essay on the supernatural in fiction, and pretty clearly points at some of this and explores its relevance to horror fiction. Probably, also, the skeptical movement and the growing acceptability of atheism has something to do with it: Lovecraft's obsession with "cosmic" horror is something that resonates most powerfully with atheists, I find.

As for the designation of "Weird" being more respectable than "fantasy" or "SF" or "horror," I'm not so sure it is, really. Don't people use the term more because that's what Lovecraft and his contemporaries often explicitly called what they were doing? Lovecraft certainly refers to "weird tales" as if they were a literary genre of their own, and seemed to see his own work that way. This handily sidesteps the subsequently ossified generic categories that we now take for granted, but which I don't think really, truly informed Lovecraft all that much anyway. In our terms, his work spans several of our major popular fiction genres: (urban) fantasy, (dark) "high" fantasy (in the Dreamlands), SF, and horror... and maybe, arguably, even mystery fiction, here and there. But as far as I understand it, for him it was all just "weird fiction." And of course some people today are attracted to that kind of approach, too... hence the resurrection of the Weird as a literary genre.

(That, plus I think a sense among many that the established genres have been mined out, or need some revivifying through cross-pollination, alongside a sense of ennui among readers, a sense of concern among writers about the greying of their readership; all that is a dilemma, and some people seem to feel that embracing this category of "Weird" and bringing it back is part of the solution to not only their own artistic dilemmas, but also to the dilemma facing mainstream SF/F/Horror as its readership greys and as younger readers fail to embrace the genre in its literary form in the numbers necessary to keep the boat floating.)

gordsellar said...

Oh, and for your amusement, and pertinent to the fascistic tendencies of Lovecraft and other modern authors... I've been posting a long series on Ezra Pound's The Cantos and the more I read, the more Lovecraftian and pulpy the thing reads. Granted, I've been reading The Cantos mainly as research for writing a pulp supernatural adventure about Pound, H.G. Wells, H.D., and other contemporaries, but still... the points of contact and shared aesthetics/politics/lunacy are really rather astounding, once you get past academics' anxious avoidance of Pound's rather lunatic occultist obsessions (as explored by Leon Surette).

The most recent post:


michael said...


About why HPL is hitting his stride now: I literally could not have put it better. Thanks for your articulate comments, the link to your meaty blog, and please do drop back in and let us know about your pulp supernatural adventure! Saigon!

gordsellar said...


No worries, just glad to contibute to the discussion, even if I'm a bit late. (The summer of Lovecraft has given way to the late fall of Lovecraft, though then again where I am it's like hot, damp, insect-laden midsummer most of the year round anyway!)