Monday, 12 January 2009

'A festering mass of unnameable putrescence...'

Having finished my yearly New Year reread of M. R. James and friends, I looked restlessly for something else a little bit creepy for those chilly evenings in. And before I knew it, I found myself in that unholy aisle of Borders that contains the Stephen Kings, etc. - the kind of books that have the author's name embossed on them in metallic colours, as my friend Ian would note witheringly. Feeling like Father Ted trapped in the department store lingerie section, or like a middle-aged man about to be caught looking at pornography, I realised I just had to get something and get the hell out of there.

Reader, I ended up with H. P. Lovecraft.

That night, I lay in the bath and entered 'a nightmare world of hellish horror.' No, nothing to do with the crawling, tentacled monstrosities or the suppurating corpses Lovecraft litters about the place, but the prose, oh God in heaven, the prose! It was like stepping into a twilight zone in which there exists a verb 'to night' ('the nighted city'), where one can not only say 'audient' for 'listening', but in which one can actually write phrases like 'the cosmic majesty of this dripping Babylon of elder daemons!' It was, as my old tutor at Oxford would have said, 'A. Vertiiiiginous. Mise. En. Abîme.' Frequently Lovecraft - who was a child prodigy - seems either not to know or not to care about what the words he uses actually mean. Take this wholly-representative sample from 'The Call of Cthulhu':

The aperture was black with a darkness almost material. That tenebrousness ['tenebrousness'! - I ask you] was indeed a positive quality; for it obscured such parts of the inner walls as ought to have been revealed, and actually burst forth like smoke from its aeon-long imprisonment, visibly darkening the sun as it slunk away into the shrunken and gibbous sky on flapping membranous wings. The odour arising from the newly opened depths was intolerable, and at length the quick-eared Hawkins thought he heard a nasty, slopping sound down there. Everyone listened, and everyone was listening still when It lumbered slobberingly into sight and gropingly squeezed Its gelatinous green immensity through the black doorway into the tainted outside air of that poison city of madness.

There's a kind of genius in being able to write this badly, to be so utterly hag-ridden by one's own literary tics. The misuse of words engenders precisely that niggling irritation one experiences on trying to read a laptop instruction manual translated from the original Korean by a Japanese rice-husker. The sky, for example, cannot be 'gibbous' ('characterised by convexity, protuberant') - Lovecraft means 'wan' or 'nearly half in shadow', and has clearly misunderstood the phrase 'a gibbous moon'. Deliciously, 'gibbous' in the sense of 'swelling, protuberant' is very close to being the antonym of the other adjective Lovecraft foists upon the sky, namely 'shrunken'. The whole passage is a study in mixed metaphor - is the darkness escaping from the doorway physical or not? In the first sentence it's only 'almost material', but a few lines later, it has absurdly developed 'membranous wings', like a horde of bats. Can someone be 'quick-eared' by analogy with being 'quick-witted', as opposed to natural English 'sharp-eared'? (And how different from Herbert's exquisite, delicate, 'quick-ey'd Love'). Why capitalise the pronouns referring to the monstrous being?! Given the context, it can't be to evoke a kind of Jehovah-esque ineffability. One senses that Lovecraft feels obscurely, like a five year old, that things which are very big deserve capital letters. Finally, why say 'slobberingly' and 'gropingly' instead of 'slobbering' and 'groping'? He means 'to lumber whilst slobbering', etc, which requires a present participle, not 'to lumber in a slobbering manner', which is difficult to imagine. And as for the 'poison city of madness', words simply fail me.

One could be generous, and say that Lovecraft here is deforming the vocabulary and syntax of the English language, warping it with paradoxical half-meanings, in order to convey mind-deranging horror. Or, alternatively, we could just acknowledge that this is lurid hackery, designed for the anthologies of 'Weird Tales' which so pleased adolescents of the 20s and 30s.

After having read about five of the stories, I could take no more of their squeaking, febrile hysteria, and turned for refreshment to Angela Carter's criticism. (Oh, to have been an English PhD student back before the vultures got to Carter! She is a sinister jewel.) In 1975, Carter wrote a hilarious dissection (a very Lovecraftian word, there) of Cthulhu and his ilk - which she terms 'a bizarre cosmogony full of ambivalent deities with names that look like typing errors.' The article is called 'The Hidden Child' - am I right to detect a whiff of Dostoyevsky's dreadful scapegoat psychomyth in The Brothers Karamazov? - and is both acute and radiantly merry, as women often are when confronted with the mucky-mindedness of men. ('He loses control of himself completely when confronted with a charnel house.') Carter notes his omnipresent racism, his pashes on Hitler and Mussolini, and brilliantly observes that evil for Lovecraft is an aesthetic quality; not for him Arendt's banality of evil. Evil is rather 'a visible ghastliness', something that is, not something that is done. Hence his hybrid, entrail-faced monstrosities, his unspeakable slimes, the obsessional necrophagy of his stories, going on literally ad nauseam. Brilliantly (because Carter was not one to hide her light under bushels of any kind) she overgoes his efforts, and proffers a Lovecraftian tale of her own:

One could write a very Lovecrafty tale about the arrival at his door late, very late, one night of a (preferably) demented student clutching in his hand an actual copy of the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, bound in human skin, stolen from the enfer of the Bibliothèque Nationale and brought triumphantly to the Maestro of the Twisted Nerve, who has so often mentioned it.

Shocked horror of the master, who never thought the vile thing existed. Has he
thought the vile abomination into existence? Or did it always exist, has he always been unconsciously quoting it? Opening the pages with trembling fingers, he discovers cryptic marginalia on time-stained pages, penned centuries ago in what fearful city, yet, unmistakably, in his own handwriting.

Game, set and match to Carter, who has here demonstrated casually in the course of a brief review that had she set out to be H. P. Lovecraft, she would have done a much better job of it than Lovecraft himself. It may be said that this scenario is very Borgesian, and indeed Carter proposes an 'odd stylistic resemblance' between the two which I otherwise quite fail to see.

Carter ends her review with a spectacularly insightful analysis of the Horrid in literature as essentially rooted in childhood, 'with its polymorphously perverse imaginings; its wild, inconsolable fears; its terror of darkness, of loneliness; its hatred of strangers...Its ability to contruct elaborate mythologies out of the cracks in the crazy paving or the pattern on the wallpaper. Fear of cold. Weakness. Clawing, screaming temper-tantrums. Self-abuse, old wives' tales. A Hobbesian and terrible place.'

Quite so. My only objection to Carter's magnificently throwaway piece would be that having read it misled me into picking up one of Lovecraft's wretched volumes in that aisle in Borders. Her own sparkling self-delight underplays Lovecraft's essential, unavoidable...crapness. He might indeed have been reciting poetry at the age of two, and have read the whole of The Arabian Nights by five; but three pages of Angela Carter at her witty best are better than anything Lovecraft came up with in a lifetime.

* * *

A. Carter, 'The Hidden Child', Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (London, 1997), pp. 443-7.
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories (Harmondsworth, 2002).


Anonymous said...

Have you noticed that while Lovecraft's visual horrors are rooted in his odd aversion to marine life, his linguistic horrors have a definite air of (seen but not understood) Irish about them?

By the way, Lovecraft's style does get somewhat less bad in his later stories. I think he deserves his place in the Library of America, though you're about fifteen years too old to be reading him for the first time. Rodger Cunningham

Bo said...

Do you think so, re: Irish? I thought they looked like dodgy Hebrew (the omnipresent -oths) and Egyptian. (Nyarlothotep).

I don't know about being too old to read him for the first time. I'm certainly old enough to be reading him for the last time.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking in particular of all those fh's. Heaven knows what he thought they stood for. The knowledge that they stood for a zero might have induced one of his spasms.

Before you leave the HPL circle forever, you might try for amusement Frank Belknap Long's "The Black Druid." It's a weak story even for the genre, but it takes on some interest when one realizes that Long must be ribbing his friend HPL for his fastidiousness and prejudices. RC

Pitch313 said...

Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fataghn!

Even though I can't really dispute you about Lovecraft's way with words--often it's curdled--a pleasure does exist when one reads him when greenhorn as to the possibilities and boundaries of language, writing, storytelling.

Two notions come to mind--cult and fan.

Lovecraft whispers of the character of cults, shadowy, skewed, secret cults. So he appeals to occulture.

And if one is young and nerdy, reading Lovecraft enables one to carry the ensign of a fan, somebody intently aware of stuff that most wouldn't care about if they could.

Never Moon said...


I have always wondered why I found Lovecraft's writing so soul-deadening (aside from the overt racism).

This sums it up nicely.

Also, please add me to your list, if that is ok -- I am primarily a lurker, but I do enjoy your writing.

Bo said...

Hi Siobhan! I'd love to add you but you need to send me your blogger or gmail email address. Use the email and I'll add you at once. All the best,


Matthew Roy said...

Worked at Borders for a year. It's amazing the quantity and quality of the trash we were paid to not only shelve and prettily display, but push on unsuspecting customers "within 30 seconds" of their arrival. I prefer the dinginess of used bookstores and thrift shops.

Evan CMG said...

But-but-but. . . !

I want to ask for a leave of difference to acknowledge the weird fact that HPL and AC were ever kinned to begin with; it's sort of magnificent.

There's much more to it than these categories of Crap and Wit. . . I would never ask anyone to cover all of the bases, but can't we just enjoy the game?

I guess that defeats the purpose of criticism. Hm. You've taught me something. Thanks.

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