H.P. Lovecraft, Literary Hackwork, and the Horror of a Malevolently Indifferent Universe

Yesterday Geoffrey Pullum, Gerard visiting professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University and professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, penned a blog post for the Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education about his recent visit to a couple of Lovecraftian sites in Providence. I was pleased to see Lovecraft being brought up like this at the Chronicle, and then I was even more interested when I noticed the tone of both Pullum’s post and some of the comments it had drawn. A lurking disdain for the Old Gent from Providence was on display right from the start, and I felt HPL was taking a subtle, and in some cases overt, drubbing of the type that properly should have been laid to rest with his ascent to canonical status around the turn of the new millennium. I also felt there was a misreading of not just his work but his worldview that was afoot.

Pullum starts his post on a strikingly negative note by recalling his first boyhood encounter with Lovecraft’s writing and giving it a retroactive trashing before allowing a backhanded compliment:

As a 14-year-old budding collector of supernatural horror fiction, browsing a bookstore in England, I happened upon a paperback collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I opened it and read the first sentence of “The Lurking Fear”:

“There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.”

That must be one of the worst opening lines in all of horror fiction, I now realize. It reads like an entry in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, inspired by the ludicrous opening of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward “It was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton. And when I tell you that the last words of Lovecraft’s tale are “They were never heard of again,” you may find it hard to believe that even a 14-year-old would not be sophisticated enough to laugh out loud. Yet somehow, for a boy craving escape from the mundane world of the suburbs south of London, Lovecraft’s overwrought ghastliness rang an eerie distant bell in some haunted mansion of my imagination.

— Geoffrey Pullum, “Lovecraft’s Providence,” Lingua Franca, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 17, 2012

He goes on to describe how last week, after a day of teaching at Brown, “the fact that I am now living and working in Lovecraft’s beloved home town suddenly struck me as very significant.” Moved by this emotion, and setting out “For some reason I could not name,” he went and visited a couple of the famous Lovecraftian sites and structures in Providence — something I myself did several years ago during my sole (so far) trip to New England.

Pullum ends his account with a reflection that is both movingly emotional and, again, rather backhanded in the attitude it displays toward Lovecraft’s work and person. It also includes a somewhat ominous-sounding promise of another Lovecraft-oriented blog post to come:

I stood and looked at both houses for a long time, and found it strangely moving. Lovecraft, who died in poverty some years before I was born, was a very odd soul: a topomaniacal prudish misfit; a poseur and a snob; a total failure during his lifetime. Why would I find it moving to stare at a house where this strange man once lived? I actually have no idea. It’s especially peculiar in the light of the one big thing about Lovecraft that I haven’t mentioned. But I’ll write about that next week.

I suspect, although of course I can’t be sure, that the “one big thing” Pullum plans to talk about next is Lovecraft’s famous/notorious racism. We’ll all have to wait until next week to find out, but what we can see for sure right now is that Pullum’s semi-disparaging tone toward Lovecraft invited a comment or two from the blog’s readers that resurrected and rehashed the most vapid and unjustified of the early criticisms of his work that dismissed him as a hack. It was these criticisms that torpedoed his early reputation so severely that it has taken six decades of salvage efforts by a host of sharp and energetic critics for him to gain his rightful entry into the established literary canon.

“Innsmouth at Sunset” by Torley Linden

One comment in particular roused me to action by dismissing Lovecraft as a horrible writer who used arcane language to cover up a lack of real literary craftsmanship, and who endlessly trotted out and rehashed a stale stable of lame themes. Inspired by indignation, I responded with a comment of my own that kicked off a further subdiscussion.

Here, with a bit of elaboration, is what I said:

Lovecraft was not, in fact, a horrible writer. He didn’t use arcane language to substitute for craft. And while he did repeat the same themes frequently, he didn’t do it mindlessly, and the themes themselves are hardly lame. Such criticisms only apply to a small segment of his work, and to inflate them into an ostensible characterization of his entire oeuvre is insupportable, just as it would be insupportable to take the weakest efforts by any other author and hold them up as definitive. Edmund Wilson started this trend with HPL’s stories 67 years ago in “Tales of the Marvellous and Ridiculous,” his famously dismissive (and undeniably incisive and hilarious) hatchet job of a review. But in point of fact, Wilson simply didn’t “get” Lovecraft, and, I suspect, he simply didn’t want to. And he was guilty of, and was in fact the formal initiator of, the aforementioned mistake of taking Lovecraft’s weakest points to be the whole of his worth.

If informed taste and high literary reputation count for anything like authority, then the fact that other authors as varied and respected as Joyce Carol Oates, Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Jorge Luis Borges, and Michel Houellebecq have vocally counted themselves as passionate readers and admirers of Lovecraft’s work is enough to contradict any attempt at a blanket dismissal of it in Wilsonian fashion as pure hackwork. And anyway, one simply can’t approach his strongest stories with a fair and open sensibility — e.g., “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” “The Rats in the Walls” — and fail to recognize something of authentic literary and philosophical merit, regardless of whether any, all, or none of them happen to appeal to a given person’s taste and predilection.

“The indifference of the Lovecraftian cosmos is its malevolence. In his vision, awesome forces that, from the human perspective, possess an apocalyptically destructive and demonic-seeming nature simply do what they do, and are what they are, completely and utterly aside from any thoughts or reservations we might have, or fears or sufferings we might experience.”

After I made these points in the comments thread at the Chronicle, someone else chimed in with the apt observation that what really matters about Lovecraft is not his themes or prose style but his master mood and concept of a malevolent universe. To which I can only respond with a hearty exactly! To be slightly more accurate, the hinge of Lovecraft’s literary universe is the concept, and more pointedly the emotional apprehension, of the universe as malevolent in its indifference. As Lovecraft famously stated in a 1927 letter to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright:

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form — and the local human passions and conditions and standards — are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.

For the full idea and effect, one should also read this in tandem with a thematically central line in the story “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” which Lovecraft co-wrote with E. Hoffman Price, and which speaks of

the vast conceit of those who had babbled of the malignant Ancient Ones, as if They could pause from their everlasting dreams to wreak a wrath  upon mankind. As well…might a mammoth pause to visit frantic vengeance on an angleworm.

In other words and in sum, the indifference of the Lovecraftian cosmos is its malevolence. In his vision, awesome forces that, from the human perspective, possess an apocalyptically destructive and demonic-seeming nature simply do what they do, and are what they are, completely and utterly aside from any thoughts or reservations we might have, or fears or sufferings we might experience. And we, being what we are and inhabiting the position of cosmic helplessness that  it is our lot to inhabit, have no recourse or refuge. Life, from the human perspective, is inherently a monstrous and horrifying thing, and it is only by clinging to desperate illusions and delusions to the contrary that we manage to survive at all. If we ever do glimpse the truth, our sanity is destroyed even if we somehow escape physical annihilation.

It is the brilliance and power of this mythic-monstrous reframing of the blind, mechanistic universe of 19th-century science, and of Pascal’s “infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not,” that ultimately renders Lovecraft’s work worthy of its long-in-coming admission to the literary canon.


Image: “Innsmouth at Sunset” by Torley from torley.com (terrifc, yet unsettling ambience) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 18, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. oh dear…I’ve just written a Sesqua Valley version of “The Lurking Fear”……………such a fanboy, that’s me….

  2. The fact that in HPLs work we are virtually powerless insects in a multiverse controlled by alien gods of malevolence or indifference is what makes his stories horror rather than SF. There’s no Golden Age optimism that we can just beat them with our soon-to-be superscience, because that too is trivial and worthless in the face of the true reality.

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