In which I ramble about Howard Phillips Lovecraft

(EDITED to better explain how very not safe for work Suicide Girls is.)

I’ve been thinking about Lovecraft lately, and why he’s considered such a visionary for what he wrote about in the first third (give or take) of the century. Warren Ellis, in his Sunday column at the Suicide Girls site (somewhat totally NSFW) is writing about Philip K. Dick this week, but makes this comment at the beginning of his essay:

Philip Dick, to my mind, was the great visionary writer of the 20th Century. Alan Moore thinks it’s Lovecraft, but I think Dick contains Lovecraft, and Kafka, and in his own visions recontextualises and adds to them both. He was a visionary in both senses: he saw the future, and suffered his own instructive hallucinations.

Dick described the world in which we now live before it came fully to be, no doubt. I don’t know which of them is the true visionary of the 20th century, but I want to talk about H. P. Lovecraft, and how his pulp tales were really about the same thing Fox News’ pulp tales are about.

I think Lovecraft’s body of work basically addresses the fear of having no control, of being ineffectual, irrelevant, at the mercy of anything bigger than you, while knowing somewhere in your mind that nearly everything is bigger than you.

For Lovecraft himself, the masses, particularly the lower-class, immigrant, dark-skinned masses, were the vessel into which he poured that fear to give it a shape. He was a horrible racist of the common type – drawing his sense of worth from his (meticulously researched) ancestral history in the absence, in his own life, of the exceptional achievement that someone so intelligent and curious (from such an early age) must have expected for himself. When Lovecraft was forced to walk among the great unwashed, it upset him – they acted like people, right out in public! Lovecraft, I think, had a lot invested in regarding those not of Nordic ancestry as his inferiors, and it was very important that they should then act as his inferiors. But of course, they’re people, and absent, say, an empire’s worth of time and effort bringing them into line, they’re not going to act as a nervous New Englander, or anyone else, would prefer.*

People are like most of the rest of the universe in that way. The Twentieth Century is when Western culture found out that God had been the only thing standing between us and a cosmos too big and indifferent to comprehend, but only after we’d gone and killed Him. And advancing technology brought a high enough standard of living to enough people that they could inherit the aristocrat’s fear: It’s a big, hungry world out there, and it wants to take or ruin what you have. What are you going to do?

Lovecraft wrote about elder gods who were aliens from outer space, and gods even older than them who were aliens from outer dimensions. The terror he wrote about was not just in the realization that there’s an incomprehensible vastness beyond what we know. The true terror comes when you realize that the incomprehensible vastness just noticed you. You can hide in a suburb, you can hide on a continent surrounded by oceans, but you still know it’s out there. And it doesn’t think like you, it doesn’t reason like you, and it wants what you have.

The gays want to destroy your children. The feminists want to destroy your women. The Muslims want to destroy your Freedom. The Mexicans want to destroy your culture, and your economy. Do something.

Better yet, says the authoritarian opportunist, let me do something. I’ll just need you to surrender all those things you’re worried about to me, so that I can worry about them for you. Trust me.

Zombie movies, too, strike me as getting at the same feeling of an implacable, pervasive destruction that’s coming to get you from out there. I’m certainly familiar with the idea that the function of horror as a genre is to tell a culture, via metaphor, what it really fears at that time. The Thing (either of them), or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either of them) tell us with what our decade, or our generation, is preoccupied, with different inflections of interpretation for different generations. Lovecraft was a visionary because for whatever reason he was first and best able to connect to a zeitgeist in his work that was (appropriately) bigger, deeper, and more enduring than that which most artists are able to use, or express, or channel, or whatever (and he did it with pulp horror stories). Dick was a visionary too, but where Lovecraft was telling us where we are, I think Dick is also telling us about the implications of where we are for where we’re going. Which I think means I went through all that just to agree with Warren.


*Which is why he found living in New York so intolerable. If he wanted to ride the train to the park with his friends, he’d find his trip ruined by having to mingle with his fellow New Yorkers:

From a July 6, 1925 letter to Lovecraft’s aunt, Lillian D. Clark, printed in Lord of a Visible World, S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, eds. – “The next day – Saturday the 4th – said to be a provincial holiday in these parts – I was up in the early afternoon and accompanied S H on an excursion to a place neither had previously visited – Pelham Bay Park, high up in the Bronx in the shore opposite Long Island. We had often heard of it, and the fact that the B.P.C.’s next meeting will be a picnic near there had called our attention to it afresh. So we went – taking the East Side Subway and changing at 125th St. It took an hour to get there; and since the train was uncrowded, we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line – and disillusion. My Pete in Pegana, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons – nay, full nine out of every ten – weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help! It seems that the direct communication of this park with the ever thickening Harlem black belt has brought its inevitable result, and that a once lovely soundside park is from now on to be given over to Georgia camp-meetings and outings of the African Methodist Eiscopal Church. Mah lawdy, but dey was some swell high-yaller spo’ts paradifyin’ roun’ dat afternoon! Wilted by the sight, we did no more than take a side path to the shore and back and reenter the subway for the long homeward ride – waiting to find a train not too reminiscent of the packed hold of one of John Brown’s Providence merchantmen on the middle passage from the Guinea coast to Antigua or the Barbadoes.”

It turns out that people, even if they aren’t white, are also going to ride the train to the park, and enjoy themselves among familiar company, just as though they have the right to do so. And there was nothing Lovecraft could do about it, except hate it.


7 thoughts on “In which I ramble about Howard Phillips Lovecraft

  1. pedro

    Who’s going to disagree with such a cohesive thesis and point? I mean, really…it’s clever, spot on and points to why HPL has maintained his popularity in a time where horror is all hills and hostels. Weird thing is that Hollywood hasn’t coopted him yet…I’m guessing because it would be impossible to actually make HPL interesting on screen…it isn’t fun to see your protaginist have absolutely no chance of surviving after all….and we’d all be moaning if the last shot is Cthulu exploding a-la Hellboy nonsense.

    I was glad to see you mention Zombies as currently that’s my fascination and media obsession. I find the zombie to be the weirdest of Western metaphors and it doesn’t surprise me that zombie-as-horror has made a comeback. I mean…the horror isn’t some implaccable beast from the Outer Realms. It’s your fucking neighbor! That’s horror!

  2. Steve

    Thanks, palmer.

    Okay, pedro, you’re right, it’s totally not work-safe. I’ve changed it. I was just thinking, y’know, there aren’t any actual boobies right there on the page with Warren’s column. But of course, if the work IT department sees you surfing Suicide Girls, that’s a paddlin’.

    As to Hollywood not (successfully) co-opting him, the most common theory I’ve heard is that Lovecraft keeps the monster half-hidden, or offstage in most cases. I mean, sure, they ram a boat through Cthulhu himself at the end of “Call of Cthulhu” (which, now that I think of it, is totally Hollywood – “Gibber, you son of a bitch.”), but that’s probably the least compelling part of the story. Also, I think a lot of the effect of the stories depends on the narration. “At the Mountains of Madness” is another one where practically all the action takes place offstage, and most of the best bits have the protagonist/narrator just wandering around the ruins, reading hieroglyphics. Again, there’s the shoggoth at the end, and that’s a genuinely scary chase I think, but that’s it. The rest is all narrative.

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