Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Lovecraft in the Walls

John J. Miller, in WSJ's Opinion Journal writes about H. P. Lovecraft, the man who inspired a million creepy short stories:
Stephen King and just about everybody else in the know recognizes him as the 20th century's most influential practitioner of the horror story--a claim he arguably clinched last month with the publication of his best works in a definitive edition.

If our country's literary canon has a dress code, then surely it involves those shiny black jackets covering the volumes produced by the Library of America. Lovecraft's new one runs for more than 800 pages and includes 22 novellas and short stories with titles such as 'The Horror at Red Hook,' 'At the Mountains of Madness' and 'The Thing on the Doorstep.' There are now 25,000 copies in print, which is an above-average number for the nonprofit publisher. (A book of Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women' and other writings, released at the same time, has an initial printing of 19,000.)"
Sure, he used words like gibbous, shibboleth, shambling, degenerate, and phrases like towering monoliths and non-Euclidean geometry too much, and contributed plenty of glossolalia like "Ia! Ia! C'thul'hu F'thag'n" and "Mwl'fgah pywfg fhtagn Gh'tyaf nglyf lghya" to the canon of nonsense. But he also knew what to write about and what to leave out of a scary story. He knew how to focus on the things that scare people, the conspiracies of people who for some reason take the side of evil against their fellows, and the seemingly uncaring, nihilistic, tragic universe that is at least 99.999% emptiness.

Lovecraft's greatest contribution was to the understanding of the horror story. All the best horror writers now writing, and many of the lesser ones, owe him a great debt. Stephen King, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Joe R. Lansdale, even Harlan Ellison mined the vein that Lovecraft opened. In the 19th century, horror stories were about ghosts, monsters, or men who dared to challenge God. After Lovecraft and his fellows, especially Robert W. Chambers with his series of stories about the King in Yellow, a play which drives its readers and viewers mad, the horror story became more personal. More focused inward. The unreliable narrator, the narrator in conflict with his own internal monster, which was such a feature of Lovecraft's best writing has become a central character in horror fiction, and in all the narrative arts.

For example, let's go to the end of The Rats in the Walls, one of his freakiest stories.
Something bumped into me -- something soft and plump. It must have been the rats; the viscous, gelatinous, ravenous army that feast on the dead and the living ... Why shouldn't rats eat a de la Poer as a de la Poer eats forbidden things? ... The war ate my boy, damn them all ... and the Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt Grandsire Delapore and the secret ... No, no, I tell you, I am not that daemon swineherd in the twilit grotto! It was not Edward Norrys' fat face on that flabby fungous thing! Who says I am a de la Poer? He lived, but my boy died! ... Shall a Norrys hold the land of a de la Poer? ... It's voodoo, I tell you ... that spotted snake ... Curse you, Thornton, I'll teach you to faint at what my family do! ... 'Sblood, thou stinkard, I'll learn ye how to gust ... wolde ye swynke me thilke wys?... Magna Mater! Magna Mater!... Atys... Dia ad aghaidh's ad aodaun... agus bas dunarch ort! Dhonas 's dholas ort, agus leat-sa!... Ungl unl... rrlh ... chchch...

This is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.
Could there be any more complete collapse of the humanity of a character than that descent into vengeful, ranting, incoherent cannibalism?

Think of some of the most frightening movies of the last half century, Rosemary's Baby, Memento, Videodrome, The Ring, The Thing, The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street. Even the Evil Dead featured the Necronomicon, one of Lovecraft's standard maguffins. These movies all play on the viewer's identification with the characters by calling the characters' perceptions into question. That was Lovecraft's gift. Rashomon introduced the idea of making a movie about differing perceptions, but American movies have taken the concept of differing perceptions and applied it to the subject matter of hallucination, paranoia, phobia, and self-doubt, as did Lovecraft. And if there is a desire for more purely Lovecraftian movies, then try the Re-Animator movies. They are terrific and very gory.

Sure, his work cries out for parody. And gets it. And that is the greatest gift that he gave us. Lovecraft's prose is so overwrought, so purple, so gibbous, shambling, and stilted, that it is almost as if he dares his readers to write their own stuff using his themes. From this dare sprang a million short stories. And from them maybe a hundred writers who are worth reading.
"Wait, you plush fools!" cried Professor Blue Smush DinoBaby. "'In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.' Do not disturb Him, or you will doom us all!"
And that is my way of saying that I will definitely be putting that Library of America edition of Lovecraft on my wishlist.
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