Fear of the unknown

I only ever read H.P. Lovecraft’s work in a haphazard manner, and my familiarity with his oeuvre has owed as much to Sandy Petersen’s 1980s role-playing game Call of Cthulhu as it has to the few stories I read before diving into this mammoth volume. His imaginary milieu, the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is a peculiarly compelling one, however, and a major influence on many writers I admire (some of whom have directly borrowed some of Lovecraft’s inventions), so it is probably long overdue for me to read him properly.

Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft does not contain everything he ever wrote, but it does contain almost everything which was published in his lifetime, which makes its eight-hundred odd pages seem relatively light in comparison to the heft of his reputation and influence. Lovecraft wrote and published during the golden age of the pulp fiction magazines, but he was by no means a successful or popular writer, and lived much of his life in poverty. It is only in the years after his death that he has been recognised as the singular voice that he is, standing alone in the twentieth century as Edgar Allan Poe did in the nineteenth as the benchmark of the weird and uncanny.

Just why his imaginary is so absorbingly horrific is probably an impossible question to answer, or at least one that has as many answers as he has readers, but there is clearly something in his sensibility that resonates far beyond his immediate cultural context. Reading his work as a single oeuvre, as I just have, I am reminded of Michel Foucault’s characterisation of the late medieval imagination as one in which, beyond the limits of the known, roils a seething, dangerous infinity of forbidden teratological knowledge, acquaintance with which engenders, and is engendered by, madness. Contrast this with a modern rationalist epistemology, in which that which is not known is simply that which has not yet been classified and accounted for. Lovecraft was an atheist, and called himself a rationalist or a materialist, but his work embodies a fear of the other that seems to be at odds with such an intellectual perspective.

In many of his stories Lovecraft talks about an unhealthy or unwholesome influence of the past, a danger inherent in living in old buildings or old towns. It is as though that Gothic imaginary subtends the rational modernity in which he lives,  waiting for the unwise, unwary scholar or explorer to unleash it on the fragile surface of our ‘civilised’ lives. While this might seem a useful conceit for a writer of horror fiction, one which plays on a generalised uncertainty that many people may feel regarding the unknown, I think it goes a little deeper in Lovecraft than a simple literary device.

The genuine unease and disgust with which he apprehended anything other is apparent not only in Lovecraft’s stories of ancient cults and lurking elder species, but in his clear distaste for other cultures and ethnicities. Whether they are his fellow Americans (Irish cops are ‘wholesome’, while Italian Americans are clearly dodgy, and blacks are a tissue of stereotypes), or actual foreigners, it is clear that all ethnic groups are held suspect in direct proportion to their cultural and racial distance from the protestant New England blood against which all else is measured. ‘Swarthy’ is an adjective Lovecraft uses regularly, and never of characters he would like us to like.

We do not, as readers, need to share Lovecraft’s racism to be affected by the depth of feeling with which he portrays an undercurrent of terrifying malevolence lurking in the backwoods, in ancient monuments, in the basements of old houses, in the deepest recesses of archaeological sites and unexplored territories. I suspect that the particular power with which he conjures such horrors springs, like his unfortunate ethnocentrism, from a genuine fundamental fear of what might lie beyond the bounds of his experience. Recent psychological research revealing a close connection between a strong digestive disgust response, a distaste for the unknown, and political conservatism, seems apposite in approaching Lovecraft.

His biggest fans tend not to share this fundamental fear, but seem more likely to find the idea of the unknown delightful. When Grant Morrison appropriated some of Lovecraft’s inventions to furnish his and Steve Yeowell’s legendary Zenith strip in 2000AD with its antagonists, the horror of their ultimate victory is one of absolute, ordered knowability – the radical polar opposite of Lovecraft’s horrifyingly unknowable chaos. Alan Moore, who wrote the introduction to this edition, is also not well known for his social conservatism or epistemological timidity. I guess this is relevant to Lovecraft’s enduring popularity; as readers we are less likely to fear Cthulhu than to love him.

Klinger’s annotations are, for the most part, very useful, helping the interested reader to place Lovecraft in the right creative and cultural context. They are often inexplicably tangential, however – leaving certain unusual terms without a gloss while engaging in bizarre speculations as to which then-undiscovered trans-Neptunian objects might correspond to worlds of Lovecraft’s invention, for example. A more consistent and rigorous approach would have been preferable, and one which made more of a literary-critical effort to relate Lovecraft’s creative practice to the tradition and commercial context in which he was working. It is however a gorgeous, lavish edition, and (assuming you can be bothered to lift it) a very satisfying way to explore the work of an unparalleled master of the weird.

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