New York Review of Books on H.P. Lovecraft (Luc Sante, "The Heroic Nerd")
- THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
October 19, 2006
Volume 53, Number 16
The Heroic Nerd
By Luc Sante
by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Peter Straub
Library of America, 838 pp., $35.00
H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Dorna
Khazeni, with an introduction by Stephen King
Believer Books, 245 pp., $18.00 (paper)
That the work of H.P. Lovecraft has been selected for the Library of
America would have surprised Edmund Wilson, whose idea the Library was.
In a 1945 review he dismissed Lovecraft's stories as "hackwork," with a
sneer at the magazines for which they were written, Weird Talesand
Amazing Stories, "where...they ought to have been left."
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fn1> Lovecraft had been dead for
eight years by then, and although his memory was kept alive by a cult--
there is no other word--that established a publishing house for the
express purpose of collecting his work, his reputation was strictly
marginal and did not seem likely to expand.
Since then, though, for a writer who depended entirely on the meager
sustenance of the pulps and whose brief career brought him sometimes to
the brink of actual starvation, whose work did not appear in book form
during his lifetime (apart from two slender volumes, each of a single
story, published by fans) and did not attract the attention of serious
critics before his death in 1937, Lovecraft has had quite an afterlife.
His influence has been far-reaching and, in the last thirty or forty
years, continually on the increase, if often in extraliterary ways.
Board games, computer games, and role-playing games have been inspired
by his work; the archive at hplovecraft.com includes an apparently
endless list of pop songs--not all of them death metal --that quote or
refer to his tales; and there have been around fifty film and television
adaptations, although hardly any of these have been more than
superficially related to their sources.
There is a reason for that superficiality. Lovecraft's work is
essentially unfilmable, not because his special effects are too gaudy or
too expensive to translate to the screen, but because they are purely
literary. Lovecraft was bookish in an extreme, almost parodistic way. He
may not have worn a fez or been able to afford a wing chair, but he
assumed the archetype of the nineteenth-century man of letters (Wilson
calls him "a literary man manqué") with his circle of disciples, the
roughly 100,000 letters he wrote to them (and he was only forty-seven
when he died), the preciously archaic language in which he expressed
himself (almost always using "shew" in preference to "show," for
instance), the humid cultivation of in-jokes that migrated from the
correspondence to the stories and were perpetuated in stories by the
disciples, and the carefully tended aura, if quite self-aware, of
In other words, he was a nerd. He was a nerd on a grand scale, though--
a heroic nerd, a pallid, translucent, Mallarméan nerd, a nerd who
suffered for his art. His art consisted exclusively of conveying horror,
and in this his range was encyclopedic. As a setting for his horror he
built a whole world--a whole universe, with a time-span measured in
eons--which others could happily continue furnishing indefinitely. His
horrors themselves are, with a few unhappy exceptions, described loosely
and suggestively enough that in effect they present a blank screen on
which the reader can pro-ject whatever visual imagery is most personally
unsettling. This explains the seeming paradox of an exceedingly bookish
writer enjoying a legacy that is to a very large degree extraliterary.
As a supplier of instruments for the cultivation of horror he was
custom-tailored for the suggestible fourteen-year-old boy, and the
number of fourteen-year-old boys--some of them chronologically rather
older, a few of them even female--is continually on the increase.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1890,
the neglected, lonely child of a father who died of tertiary syphilis
after years of institutional confinement and a mother who was by all
accounts confused and immature. Growing up in his maternal grandfather's
house, Lovecraft was left to his own devices. The foundations of his
imaginative world were laid very early; he suffered the first of many
emotional crises (a "near-breakdown") at age eight. His formal schooling
was sporadic thereafter, but he voraciously engaged in self-teaching,
particularly in astronomy. He published several hectographed journals of
astronomy in his early teens, and in his later teens and twenties wrote
an astronomy column for a number of Rhode Island newspapers. He began
writing stories and poems in his late twenties, publishing them
initially in amateur showcases.
One of the advantages of Peter Straub's fine selection for the Library
of America volume--which represents a bit over half of Lovecraft's
fiction--is that when read in sequence it allows the reader to watch him
maturing as a writer. The main thing I remembered from reading Lovecraft
when I was fourteen was his prodigal expenditure of a certain kind of
deckle-edged Gothic vocabulary: noisome, ichor, eldritch, miasmal,
necrophagous, eidolon. It turns out that this sort of usage drops off
significantly after the first few stories (although he could never quite
shake blasphemous, unhallowed, or Cyclopean). The early stories are
flagrant pulp, which is to say that they are crudely executed goulashes
of literary effects from all across the nineteenth century. That was the
era when more was more, and it gave him license to unleash sentences
that cannot now be read aloud straight-faced: "Shall I say that the
voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman;
disembodied?" Or: "In that shrieking the inmost soul of human fear and
agony clawed hopelessly and insanely at the ebony gates of oblivion."
Sometimes it is impossible not to imagine an accompanying illustration
by Edward Gorey: "Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast
and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique
books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic,
and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft."
Lovecraft was an authority on the tradition of horror fiction; even
Edmund Wilson concedes that his long essay "Supernatural Horror in
Literature" (1927) is "a really able piece of work." Besides Poe, to
whom he was permanently in debt, he admired above all Arthur Machen and
Lord Dunsany, who have steadily become less read and less readable since
their heyday in the early twentieth century, and it may be from them
that he absorbed various Symbolist and Decadent tendencies (he mentions
Baudelaire a couple of times in ways that leave doubt whether he had
actually read him). He also drew upon the Puritans, with emphasis on
their more sensational effusions (between his extraordinary last name
and his long, bony, thin-lipped face it isn't hard to imagine Lovecraft
himself as a witch-trial judge), and had clearly delved deep into
certain strains of Americana.
He marshaled this equipment in the service of a single goal: horror. He
was apparently not much interested in anything else. He could summon up
considerable book learning when it would serve to buttress a story, but
did not waste time on fripperies such as characterization, the business
of daily life, or any emotions other than fear.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fn2> The complete absence of even
suggested sexuality in his work was much debated by fans in the
Freud-shadowed mid-twentieth century; the proposition, rather missing
the point, that he might have been homosexual sparked ferocious
arguments. Although he was married briefly, and many years later his
former wife was moved to state, peculiarly, that he was an "adequately
excellent lover," it is clear from all available evidence that
sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the things
that scared him the most.
He was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general,
temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races,
race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age,
great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry,
deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City,
fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams,
brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of
diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases,
whistling, whispering--the things that did not frighten him would
probably make a shorter list. He evidently took pleasure in his fears,
at least those on the creepy-crawly end of the spectrum, and although he
really did suffer from his fear of cold, for example, this did not
prevent him from exploiting that fear in a couple of stories, one of
them ("At the Mountains of Madness") his best.
The things that did not scare him are generally absent from his work.
Often his stories take place in a continuous landscape of fear, in which
every detail contributes oppressively. In "The Lurking Fear," for
example, all of nature is malevolent: "I hated the mocking moon, the
hypocritical plain, the festering mountain.... Everything seemed to me
tainted with a loathsome contagion, and inspired by a noxious alliance
with distorted hidden powers." The story concerns a Dutch family in the
Hudson River Valley that, determined to resist the encroachment of the
English in the late seventeenth century, shuts itself away from the
world; 250 years later inbreeding has caused the stock to degenerate to
a species of anthropophagous subterranean ape. Although this seems
excessively silly, it arises from authentic American folk panic--the
fear of isolated backwoods tribes with strange customs and perhaps
genetic deformities--which in Lovecraft's day was accorded a certain
respectability by the pseudoscience of eugenics.
Lovecraft lived in Brooklyn for two years in his mid-thirties, during
his marriage. While he was initially awestruck by New York City, his
attitude changed radically, at least in part because of the personal
unhappiness that resulted from his inability to find work. Like many
others unnerved by the chasm between the grandeur of their genetic
inheritance and the squalor of their prospects, he blamed the
immigrants. New York City, once a wonder of "incredible peaks and
pyramids rising flower-like and delicate from pools of violet mist to
play with the flaming golden clouds and the first stars of evening,"
became a "tangle of material and spiritual putrescence [from which] the
blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky." What those "swarthy,
sin-pitted faces" were up to he addressed directly in "The Horror at Red
Hook": the immigrants (many of them, apparently, Kurds) are devil
worshipers who, led by the degenerate scion of an old Dutch family,
engage in ritual murder and child sacrifice in addition to the usual
menu of rum-running and alien-smuggling.
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fn3> It did not really take
unemployment in the Big Onion to awaken Lovecraft's fear of the other,
though. Some years earlier, in "Herbert West--Reanimator," he had given
a description of a Negro boxer, the least offensive part of which
concerns his face, which "conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo
secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon."
Lovecraft's racial and eugenic preoccupations, which were hardly unusual
for his time, formed a constituent element of his landscape of horror
since, as he wrote in 1930 to his friend Robert E. Howard, creator of
Conan the Barbarian, "The basis of all true cosmic horror is always
violation of the order of nature." But Lovecraft was already looking
beyond the mere caprices of earthly existence, seeking vaster, more
awesome horrors. In "Supernatural Horror in Literature" he had written:
The one test of the really weird is simply this--whether or not
there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of
contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed
listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of
outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim.
In 1926, at the same time that he was drafting his essay, he wrote "The
Call of Cthulhu," which was to be the first installment of his life's
work, the Cthulhu Mythos, a sort of unified-field theory of horror.
In the story, the figure of Cthulhu--an otherworldly being so terrible
that it can never be seen directly, but is manifested by various
attributes--first appears in a dream experienced by several people
simultaneously, during a minor earth tremor. There are suggestions of
Cyclopean architecture, indecipherable hieroglyphics, and "a voice that
was not a voice" intoning something that can only be transcribed as
"Cthulhu fhtagn." Soon it develops that police in Louisiana,
investigating reports of a voodoo cult in the swamps, had come upon an
"indescribable horde of human abnormality" conducting a bizarre ritual
around an eight-foot granite monolith. In custody, the worshipers, "of a
very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type," were nevertheless
able to give an account of their creed, which centered on the Great Old
Ones, who had come to earth from the stars long before the appearance of
humans. Cthulhu was a high priest who lived in suspended animation in
the great city of R'lyeh, somewhere under the ocean, waiting for the
chance to rise again.
After this, the Mythos began to figure in nearly every story that
Lovecraft wrote, and it developed ramifications in every direction. In
"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," a long, complex tale reaching back to
seventeenth-century Providence, it appears that the cult of Cthulhu is
what actually underlies such heterogeneous matters as witchcraft,
alchemy, and vampirism. Playing a prominent part is the Necronomicon, an
ancient book, invented by Lovecraft in 1922, supposedly the work of one
Abdul Alhazred (a name Lovecraft had devised for himself at age five,
under the spell of the Arabian Nights), a sage whose career ended when
he was devoured by an invisible demon in broad daylight in the
marketplace in Damascus. The Necronomicon is ritually invoked in nearly
every story thereafter as the key to the commerce between the Great Old
Ones and the human race, and it is soon joined by a shelf of other
apocryphal titles, such as the "pre-human" Pnakotic Manuscripts.
Many of the stories take place in or around the ancient city of Arkham,
Massachusetts--Lovecraft's version of Salem--and its Miskatonic
University, one of the four or five places on earth where a copy of the
"forbidden" Necronomicon is kept, under lock and key. The Cthulhu
Mythos, which would be extended by others after Lovecraft's death, in
ever-widening rings of diminishing returns (even the Necronomicon
eventually achieved material form in the 1970s, more a heavy-metal
fashion accessory than a book intended to be read), represented a way
for Lovecraft to order his fears, to unify the realm of pure otherness,
the source of every inexplicable human terror.
Lovecraft is at his most effective when he evokes this inhuman realm,
just as he is at his best when he suggests, rather than attempting to
describe. He does himself no favors by revealing, for example, that the
beings of the Great Race are cone-shaped, of a "scaly, rugose,
iridescent bulk...ten feet tall and ten feet wide at the base"; the
sight may cause Lovecraft's narrator to scream hellishly, but the reader
is more likely to picture some kind of Cyclopean jelly candy. The more
spectral and unimaginable his subject, the more Lovecraft is at home.
Where he fails utterly is in conveying lived experience, the material
counterweight to his phantoms. His monsters, when exposed to the light,
exhibit the pathos of creatures in poverty-row horror movies; his
depictions of human life on earth in his own day are the least credible
elements in his work. The stories "He" and "The Horror at Red Hook" make
it sound as though he had never set foot in New York City, while "The
Shadow Over Innsmouth" suggests that he never visited the New England
coast and "The Dunwich Horror" and "The Whisperer in Darkness" that he
never so much as glanced out a train window at a rural landscape. It is
not that his settings are unreal--it is that they are made entirely of
words. They do not provide any suggestions to the inner eye, only
adjectives, mostly hyperbolic.
It is of course unfair to expect a thistle to bring forth figs.
Lovecraft only barely managed to exist on the material plane himself,
and it certainly was not his subject. His strengths, meanwhile, were
unusual and idiosyncratic. He had a flair for names, for instance. The
monikers he hangs on his otherworldly manifestations--Nyarlathotep,
Yog-Sothoth, Tsathoggua--are evocatively miscegenated constructions in
which can be seen bits of ancient Egyptian, Arabic, Hebrew, Old Norse.
The terror of Cthulhu is most vivid on the purely linguistic level: "Iä!
Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!" The
New England he fashions is so tangibly haunted in its nomenclature--
Arkham, the Miskatonic River, Devil's Hop Yard, Nooseneck Hill--that he
would have been wise to stop there and not attempt further description.
He savors the dark texture of seventeenth-century Puritan names: Obed,
Peleg, Deliverance, Elkanah, Dutee. He frequently engaged his schoolboy
correspondents to send him lists of regional names from their local
phone books. Names, real and imagined, accomplish nearly everything his
strangled fustian tries and fails to do: suggesting vast stretches of
time, experience far outside the modern frame of reference, the
subterranean course of genetic inheritance, the repression of dismal
It is possible to view Lovecraft's work as an expression of the mingled
fascination and revulsion he felt for his Puritan heritage. Like the
Bible, the Necronomicon is an ancient work, steeped in mystery and
filled with horrors, that describes the compact imposed upon human
beings by enormously powerful otherworldly beings, a compact that may
not be in humanity's best interests. The earthly votaries of Cthulhu,
hoping for favors and dispensation, have over the centuries engaged in
secret rites, ritual murder, and nameless abominations to appease their
masters. All the while, the Great Old Ones sleep in their undersea stone
city, R'lyeh, awaiting their Second Coming. That event, while
inevitable, is to be anticipated with dread, since it portends the
annihilation of all living things. The Great Old Ones, implacably
hostile to the feeble human race, are themselves beyond life and death.
A "much-discussed" couplet in the Necronomicon runs: "That is not dead
which can eternal lie,/And with strange aeons even death may die." It is
all less reminiscent of Poe or Mary Shelley than of Cotton Mather and
The novelist Michel Houellebecq, who devoted his first book (1991) to
Lovecraft, misses this aspect of his work, but coming from a Catholic
culture he nevertheless can spot the grotesque parody of Christianity in
"The Dunwich Horror,"
in which an illiterate peasant woman who has known no men gives
birth to a monstrous creature endowed with superhuman powers. This
inverted incarnation ends with a repugnant parody of the Passion
where the creature, sacrificed at the summit of a mountain that
overlooks Dunwich, cries out desperately, "Father! Father! YOG-
SOTHOTH!" in a faithful echo of "Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani."
Interestingly, Houellebecq cites this as an illustration of Lovecraft's
racism, since "it is not one particular race that represents true
horror, but the notion of the half-breed." By that measure, the
Christian myth of the Immaculate Conception would also be a "violation
of the order of nature," which is certainly a bracing idea.
Houellebecq doesn't pursue it, though. His view of Lovecraft is
presumably an idealized self-portrait: a poète maudit who radiates
negative energy; who answers the imperative of life with a resounding
"no"; who demonstrates superior breeding through sheer unworldliness,
which he further elevates into otherworldliness; whose racism, while
perhaps deplorable, is merely a byproduct of his attempt to face down
evil--those other races, you see, are mentally and morally weak enough
to be the servants of the Old Ones. But racism is slightly beside the
point, anyway. All of humanity, all of life, is repellent:
To touch other beings, other living entities, is an impious,
repugnant experience. Their skin bloated with blisters that ooze
putrid pus. Their sucking tentacles, their clutching and chewing
appendages, all constitute a constant menace. Beings and their
hideous corporeal vigor. A simmering, stinking Nemesis of
semi-aborted chimeras, amorphous and nauseating: a sacrilege.
Living creatures are disgusting, and their omnipotent undead adversaries
are also disgusting: the universe is one gigantic swirling vortex of
vomit. The only remedy, transient and puny though it may be, is to give
voice to your principled stand in the face of it all. Houellebecq, who
according to the detailed account of his translator, Dorna Khazeni,
inserted interpolations ranging from a few words to entire paragraphs
into his citations from Lovecraft (for reasons that are not always
clear), found in the older writer a perfect vehicle for creative
misreading, an elected ancestor who was at once ambitious, marginal,
conventionally accomplished, and pathologically unstable. It is
fortunate that Houellebecq, like Lovecraft, has restricted his ambitions
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fnr1> Classics and
Commercials (Farrar, Straus and Co., 1950), p. 288.
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fnr2> A somewhat different
Lovecraft emerges from his correspondence. In the five-volume Selected
Letters (Arkham House, 1965-1976) and in Willis Conover's moving
Lovecraft at Last (Cooper Square, 2002; a record of the epistolary
friendship between the teenaged Conover and the much older Lovecraft,
halted by his sudden death), Lovecraft appears unfailingly generous,
painstaking, and tactful, as well as emotionally mature, severe in his
judgment of pulp mediocrity, wide-ranging in his interests, and
possessing a sense of humor that appears nowhere in his fiction.
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fnr3> In "He," another story
from the same period, he gives, in the guise of a vision of New York's
future, his idea of a jazz club: "I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people
of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to
the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, and the clatter of obscene
crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges
rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen."
 <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fnr4> Dagon and Other Macabre
Tales(Arkham House, 1965), p. 350.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- Friends, Forteans, Listmates,
Luc Sante refers to "The complete absence of even suggested sexuality"
in Lovecraft's work. He adds that "it is clear from all available
evidence that sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were
among the things that scared him the most."
It may well be the case that sexuality, procreation, and the human body
were among the things that scared Lovecraft the most. However, I would
disagree about the "complete absence of even suggested sexuality" in
HPL's work. I find it hard to read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" without
imagining the revulsion that the Innsmouth sailors--or their wives and
daughters--would have felt about the embraces of the fish-like and
frog-like marine "Deep Ones" enforcing their Faustian bargain with the
economically desperate Innsmouthers who had turned to them for good
fishing and gold. I likewise find it hard to read "The Dunwich Horror"
without imagining the sheer horror poor Lavinia Whately must have felt
as she was impregnanted by Yog-Sothoth. Lovecraft, I think, MUST have
thought a LITTLE bit about the horror felt by his human characters
"embraced" by alien creatures and entities. His "Innsmouth" and
"Dunwich" tales, I've long thought, probably expressed some of HPL's own
feelings about sexuality and the human body in general--and about
miscegenation and "race-mixing" in particular.
T. Peter Park wrote:
>[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
> THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS
> October 19, 2006
> Volume 53, Number 16
> The Heroic Nerd
> By Luc Sante
> by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Peter Straub
> Library of America, 838 pp., $35.00
> H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
> by Michel Houellebecq, translated from the French by Dorna
> Khazeni, with an introduction by Stephen King
> Believer Books, 245 pp., $18.00 (paper)
> That the work of H.P. Lovecraft has been selected for the Library of
> America would have surprised Edmund Wilson, whose idea the Library
> was. In a 1945 review he dismissed Lovecraft's stories as "hackwork,"
> with a sneer at the magazines for which they were written, Weird
> Talesand Amazing Stories, "where...they ought to have been left."
> <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fn1> Lovecraft had been dead
> for eight years by then, and although his memory was kept alive by a
> cult-- there is no other word--that established a publishing house for
> the express purpose of collecting his work, his reputation was
> strictly marginal and did not seem likely to expand.
> <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19454#fn2> The complete absence of
> even suggested sexuality in his work was much debated by fans in the
> Freud-shadowed mid-twentieth century; the proposition, rather missing
> the point, that he might have been homosexual sparked ferocious
> arguments. Although he was married briefly, and many years later his
> former wife was moved to state, peculiarly, that he was an "adequately
> excellent lover," it is clear from all available evidence that
> sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the
> things that scared him the most.
- To Be a Woman in the Land of Tales: Gender and Space in Folk Tales of Turkey
By Evrim Ölçer Özünel
PhD Candidate, Folklore Dept. Gazi University, Ankara
In Turkey , folk tales have hitherto been conventionally taken for granted as fictional texts having little or no correspondence to reality. In her book, Evrim Ölçer Özünel begins by questioning this estimation and choosing 32 tales from Turkey, demonstrates that there is a strong relationship between the world of folktales and the real world through scrutinizing gender roles and various usages of space. According to Özünel, analyzing tales as social records reveals the existence of a realistic stratum that in return may serve for our contemporary understanding of society.
Özünel contributes to the conventional classification of space as private and public by presenting "window" as an "intermediary" space in-between. Interior of the house, the private space, is almost entirely the living space of women; it represents the integrity of the family, and therefore it must be defended. In return, the most important feature of the public space is that it belongs to men. In-between is the window, the intermediary space through which women are exposed to the public space. The exposition of the young virgin to outdoors proceeds in various stages. The virgin first realizes the existence of outdoors through the window; then she explores it by watching, and eventually desires to be a part of it. Leaping over the window into the public space is a step taken toward building a new family. However, life outdoors is threatening and dangerous for a young virgin who, in order to survive, must use every means of self-defense to remain "chaste", even if this
requires behaving and dressing like a man.
When the virgin's adventures outdoors comes to an end by the building of the new family, the social structure justifies itself. Unsuccessful attempts, on the other hand, results in self-destruction which is another way of perpetuating the circular pattern.
An innovative perspective with a strong theoretical basis, Gender and Space in Folk Tales of Turkey is recently one of the most important studies in Turkish folk literature. It will hopefully be a reference book for anyone who is interested in folklore and gender studies.
Stay in the know. Pulse on the new Yahoo.com. Check it out.
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