Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Brief Introduction to H. P. Lovecraft (With Reference to George MacDonald and a Proposal for a Way Forward in the Writing of Theistic Weird Fiction)

A Brief Introduction to H. P. Lovecraft
(With Passing Comparison to George MacDonald and a Summary Reference to My Proposal for a Way Forward in the Writing of Theistic Weird Fiction)

‘Weird fiction’ was the umbrella term used in the early 20th century to designate science fiction, fantasy, and horror in the pulp magazines before they became separately formalised into their present genres, markets, and industries. Many writers of these modes of fiction were published famously in the magazine Weird Tales, of whom H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (of Cthulhu and Conan fame respectively) might now be the most famous.

H. P. Lovecraft was a strange, unique, lonely, misfit genius who clung to and proclaimed—with conviction, passion, and a unique literary vision—a truly horrific view of the universe. I happen to think his writing craft is rather poor rather more than half the time in his body of fiction. I’m pretty sure even many of his devoted admirers agree. But like C. S. Lewis said of George MacDonald: ‘he was a third rate writer with a first rate imagination’. (I realise some MacDonald fans may bristle at that comment, but I think Lewis was more or less spot on in this judgment: and this came from a man who called MacDonald his ‘master’, so no flippancy or disrespect is at all intended. He found MacDonald’s mastery in the mythopoeic quality of his fiction, not his writing craft itself.)
Lovecraft, like MacDonald, was a vivid and persistent dreamer of strange, unsettling, seductive, profound and awe-inspiring dreams. Both men’s dreams could turn to nightmares, but whereas the nightmarish made an appearance in MacDonald mostly more at the edges of vision, in Lovecraft the nightmare just is the central and all-encompassing vision.

Now, it is significant and intentional that I compare Lovecraft with MacDonald here. I eventually intend, within my long-term projects of sketching a ‘Christian philosophy of horror’ and a ‘theology of monsters’, to propose an artist’s vision that reaches back into the roots of Lovecraft and reconfigures a new, theistic way forward in the writing of ‘weird fiction’. This vision will attempt a collaboration and commingling between the ‘Inklings’ style fantasy of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams (and their predecessors, G. K. Chesterton and George MacDonald) on the one hand and the Weird Tales style fantasy of Lovecraft and Howard (and their predecessors, William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany) on the other hand. (And this will, of course, be proposed in full awareness of the offshoots of these two streams: fiction by the likes of R. A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Jeff Vandermeer.)

But back to Lovecraft: the nightmare is central and total. His most enduring creation seems to be his ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ cycle, named after the monstrous ‘hero’ of the story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. These stories about the (usually brief or indirect) manifestations of monstrous entities from the deeps of space evince what has come to be known as Lovecraft’s mode of ‘cosmic horror’. Sometimes said monsters are half laughable in their details, sometimes more convincingly skin crawling—if they can be pictured at all (which was part of Lovecraft’s intentional artistic point). Lovecraft is mostly not really a gross-out writer (despite some of the misleading cover art for his books), nor is he a master of suspense and terror. On the contrary, he is usually almost gentlemanly and dainty—and often indirect—in delivering the ‘reveal’ (usually near the end of the tale) of the ‘unnameable’ horror of the piece. How then could such a judicious and prudent (not to say prudish!) author become known as the father of all that is most hideous and sinister and terrifying in modern horror fiction?

From my personal experience of reading his fiction over the years, I would say it is the insidious worldview (and the atmosphere of appalling dread it entails) that truly haunts the reader’s imagination and mind for long after the book is put down. Again, like George MacDonald, Lovecraft is not so much admired for any particular wonder or horror or creature or storyline, but the overall effect of having spent a lengthy time within his visionary storyworld. With enough reading of either of these authors, you will have been immersed in a vision of pungent possibilities and powers you will not soon forget—each in his chosen genre, the horror tale and the fairy tale. Both authors offer us a picture of the world that will embrace its tiniest molecule and its vastest galactic expanse in one, all-consuming principle: horror or glory, respectively. Indeed, both men acknowledge each of these properties in the world, but interpret what they consider the lesser by the greater.

So, I propose that it is the conviction of seriously believing in the monstrosities that he writes about that has made Lovecraft so enduring—and has even made him a champion of harsh cosmic realism to some. He, of course, did not believe in the actual existence of this or that particularly named entity, but that the cosmic horror these gruesome ‘old ones’ symbolise is the real and true nature of things—whether we like it or not. It is not Lord Cthulhu’s giant cephalopod head and bat-wings and claws that really make him (and Lovecraft) so memorable (though this particular monstrous physiognomy has become an often humorous icon of horror), but the ‘truth’ Cthulhu and the Gang stand for.
Indeed, what is perhaps Lovecraft’s most repeated quote (from his most famous story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’), has summed up the truth of the matter for many: that pure, un-computable chaos is what lies ‘beyond the veil’ and if we really understood this at all, it would drive us stark raving mad. The truth is insanity. Therefore, we can only be furtively thankful for the sanity-preserving fiction of our anthropomorphic/anthropocentric belief in a humanly understood ‘reality’.

‘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 some day 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.’

Of course, this sentiment can be acknowledged to a meaningful degree without yielding to ‘cosmic horror’ as the full and final reality. I will eventually suggest that there is even a particularly Christian theistic way to grant what we intuit as the strong element of truth in this saying. And I also intend to eventually write about how Lovecraft himself at times felt very deeply torn about whether this was ‘the whole show’ or not, as seen in his more Dunsanian fiction, full of what C. S. Lewis called Sensucht: our human longing for another world of glory and the divine. Part of seeing this will be actually getting into the literary roots of Lovecraft in three main writers: Arthur Machen (himself a Celtic Christian mystic), Lord Dunsany, and William Hope Hodgson. To these roots I turn next.