Monday, September 19, 2016

The Summer of Lovecraft

Autumn begins Thursday, and as the weather gets cooler, I will have the energy to return to more serious, or at least more difficult, reading. In the hottest part of the summer, however, I entertained myself with a few potboilers and, in a project that started small but expanded as the time went on, the so-called horror fiction of H.P Lovecraft. I say “so-called” not because the tales were bad ― most of were quite enjoyable ― but because I didn’t find much horror in them, despite the use of the word the titles of “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Horror at Red Hook.”

In his most mature fiction, Lovecraft is obsessed by the idea that human beings are only the latest, and not even the most important, civilizing force in the planet.  Both “In the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Out of Time” present the ruins of long-dead cultures that rose and fell millions of years before the extinction of the dinosaurs. His most famous creation, the monster Chtulu, lives in another dimension but can break through at any time if someone utters the right incantation.
The sickly scion of a New England family, Lovecraft was preoccupied with inbreeding among the white population ― “The Dunwich Horror” distinguishes between the decayed and undecayed branches of the Whateley Family ― and, on the flip side, with the rise of what used to be called the “colored races.” His work is sometimes marred by crude and cliched bigotry, as in the description, in “Herbert West ― Reanimator,” of an African American boxer who has been killed in the ring: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.”

Where a more sympathetic writer might see a beautiful, well-muscled athlete struck down too, Lovecraft resorts to jungle metaphors.

Spawn of Chtulu
My two favorite stories are among the least known, and the shortest. “In The Walls of Venus,” an effort at straightforward science fiction that, unaccountably, didn’t make it into the Library of America’s handy Lovecraft edition. It’s a well-told tale that builds gradually and inevitably, without sensationalism, and by the end grows into a parable on the evils of colonialism ― surprisingly, given the author’s racial attitudes.  

The other story that stood out for me, “The Color Out of Space,” was Lovecraft’s own favorite. Here, he imagines what the astronomer Neil De Grasse Tyson has described as “different ways of being alive”: the alien force that destroys a New England family is not humanoid, or animal, or even material. It is, rather, “a shapeless stream of unplaceable color.”

But as I’ve said, while Lovecraft’s alternative realities can be absorbing and even exciting, I find little horror in them ― not because of any lack of skill, but simply because the horror that monsters may inflict on human beings is nothing compared to the horrors we inflict on each other.  

Poe, Lovecraft’s hero, understood this.