Characteristics of Lovecraft’s Work - H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Characteristics of Lovecraft’s Work
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

What distinguishes Lovecraft’s work from that of his predecessors (and, in many regards, his successors) is his skill at incorporating core elements of his distinctive “cosmic” philosophy—rooted in atheistic materialism—into fiction that is inexhaustibly rich, complex, and vital. It is easy to be misled both by Lovecraft’s somewhat florid prose style and by his exhibition of an array of outlandishly named creatures—Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Azathoth—with equally outlandish properties, chiefly ropy tentacles: these flamboyant externals mask a profound understanding of the psychology of fear and, most significantly, a profound seriousness of purpose in making horror fiction a legitimate contribution to literature.

His prose—a unique fusion of the verbal richness of Poe and Dunsany with the precision of a scientific report—was inaccurately declared to be “verbose” or “turgid” by critics of an earlier generation raised (as Lovecraft himself rightly declared) on the “machine-gun fire” (Selected Letters 4.32) of Hemingway:

The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, or poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own. The stars were right again, and waht an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight. (“The Call of Cthulhu,” F 377)

What many have failed to note is that a passage like this comes only at the end of a long build-up of atmosphere, so that this apocalyptic revelation, expressed in terms suitable to its subject-matter, can bear the emotional weight it deserves. Lovecraft is, indeed, one of the premier technicians of the short story—he took to heart Poe’s strictures on the “unity of effect” and meticulously constructed his tales to proceed inexorably from beginning to end with the maximum emotive impact. Even though, for Lovecraft, “atmosphere” (CE 2.177) more than plot was the desideratum, his tales are invariably worked out so that their full potential is realised.

Lovecraft deliberately downplayed the role of human characters in his tales, leading some critics to believe that he couldn’t draw character at all, or that his use of dialogue (virtually non-existent in most of his tales) was weak. But, firstly, Lovecraft was well aware that, for the type of cosmic fiction that he was writing, strong or distinctive human characters might militate against the effects he sought; and secondly, he was careful to depict the gradual and insidious accretion of fear that his characters—deliberately bland so that they can serve as conduits of emotion to the reader—feel as they become increasingly enmeshed in the bizarre. The spectacular transformation of the protagonist of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” who proceeds from fear and loathing of his hybrid pursuers to an ecstatic embrace of them and of his fate, is a triumph of psychological analysis that has few rivals in weird literature.

The fusion of horror and science fiction that is Lovecraft’s greatest literary legacy received an interesting endorsement in a letter of 1931:

The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a for not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality—when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt—as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity? (Selected Letters 3.295—96)

This utterance was made while Lovecraft was writing At the Mountains of Madness, a preeminent instance of “non-supernatural cosmic art.” It arose out of a reading of Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Modern Temper (1929), a somewhat lugubrious treatise that expressed dismay at the future of aesthetics at a time when science had seemingly destroyed so many of the intellectual underpinnings of art—notably that of romantic love, which had been dissected by Freud and other psychologists. Lovecraft had been facing this dilemma since at least 1922 (see the essay “Lord Dunsany and His Work”), and it was one more weapon in his discarding of conventional weird motifs—the ghost, the vampire, the werewolf—in his work. He may not have adhered fully to the non-supernaturalism he seems to espouse here—there is plenty of relatively conventional supernaturalism in, say, “The Thing on the Doorstep”—but his expression of the principle is significant in linking him even more closely to the realm of science fiction.

But for all Lovecraft’s alliance with the field of science fiction, he retains the perspective of the supernatural writer by his focus on the past—not merely the past of folklore, where ghosts and witches emerged, but an unthinkably remote past that saw the descent to earth of extraterrestrial entities from the remotest reaches of the cosmos. Even his two most science-fictional works, At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time,” have this backward-looking focus—a focus that for decades caused readers, writers, and critics of science fiction to regard Lovecraft with some dubiety. This perspective was part and parcel of Lovecraft’s cosmic outlook—an outlook that minimised human achievement by dwelling on the risible recency of the human race and its ultimate extinction.

Lovecraft’s emergence at this juncture in the history of weird fiction is a testament to the substantial heritage the field already had to offer. Some critics have criticised Lovecraft for being overly derivative. To be sure, some of his early tales are too heavily influenced by Poe to be fully viable as aesthetic entities on their own, and the influence of Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, and a host of lesser writers can be found in his work—chiefly because, in his letters, he makes no secret of the works he was reading or had in his library. But in his mature work Lovecraft radically transformed what he borrowed. He even claimed that his pseudomythology was initially inspired by the theogony of Lord Dunsany: “About 1919 the discovery of Lord Dunsany—from whom I got the idea of the artificial pantheon and myth-background represented by ’Cthulhu’, ’Yog-Sothoth’, ’Yuggoth’, etc.—gave a vast impetus to my weird writing” (“Some Notes on a Nonentity” [CE 5.209—10]). But what Lovecraft fails to note here is that, in borrowing the notion of a pantheon of gods from Dunsany, he has transferred the entities from a never-never-land of the imagination to the objectively real world—an aesthetic gesture of immense significance, because it shifts the focus of his tales from that of fantasy to that of supernatural horror. Lovecraft also took hints from Machen’s “little people”—the notion of secret cults on the underside of civilisation, seeking to overthrow it—but in doing so he “cosmicised” the notion, making the threat not merely local but worldwide.

Lovecraft’s intimate connexions with a multitude of writers in the field was of immense importance in the subsequent progression of weird fiction: he was a kind of spider with an intricate network of webs connecting him to a wide array of figures who looked to him as the voice of authority and sought to elaborate upon his conceptions and themes. Many of these writers somewhat mechanically imitated the obvious externals of his Cthulhu Mythos; others focused on their own creations, but seemed frequently to use Lovecraft’s work as a touchstone or inspiration. Several of the more significant of these writers will now be treated.