Monday, February 11, 2008

Book Selection of the Month: "The Best of H.P. Lovecraft"

lovecraft.jpg Book Selection of the Month (Third of Four): “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Blood-Curdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre”

Lovecraft, despite writing of all sorts of eldritch, supernatural monstrosities from other, dark dimensions that drive men mad and haunt their nightmares with visions of terrible power (indeed, despite being the Poe-influenced inspiration for half the horror and sci-fi stories along those lines that you’ve seen), was basically depicting the same godless, brutal, Darwinian world that convinced his contemporaries, the eugenicists, that all life must be seen as a biological struggle for survival, with bourgeois civilization but a thin and phony veil over the far grimmer truth. Indeed, there are abundant reminders in Lovecraft’s work of the popularity in his day of eugenics (across the political spectrum, as noted in my December Book Selection of the Month, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism).

True, there are alien horrors with batlike wings and writhing tentacles that bare little resemblance to humanity, but so often in Lovecraft stories, there are in addition humans who are described as being of a “low type” or “half-caste,” who are the harbingers of the more alien threats to come. The subhumans range from the low-intelligence swamp-dwellers on the outskirts of New Orleans who herald the coming of the world-crushing alien Cthulhu in his story “The Call of Cthulhu” (perhaps the best short story of all time) to the inbred New England clans who spawn the half-human “Dunwich Horror” (despite efforts by big-city health officials and college professors to intervene).

In one of his many archaeology-influenced stories, “The Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft depicts a man who, digging down through successive sub-basements in his ancient family home, gradually realizes his family has dwelled on the site not for centuries but for millions of years, maintaining in that time a long family tradition of cannibalism and the covert farming of an even more subhuman race upon whom to feed. These are the kinds of things, one suspects, Lovecraft expected humanity to find waiting for it if it continued to probe and investigate a universe coldly indifferent to our happiness and survival.

(And if you think a eugenics theme was abnormal in 1920s sci-fi, check out the original Buck Rogers novellas, which explicitly depicted Buck waking up in a future dominated by the only-partly-human Mongol hordes led by Asian despot Killer Kane, who had driven the white race into the last bastion of democracy and freedom in the world, a megacity in the midst of what had once been America. Kane plainly inspired Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Marvel Comics’ futuristic Kang the Conqueror, and Star Trek’s Khan, who is basically a fusion of Buck and Kane — a genetically-engineered, world-conquering superman who gets frozen in the twentieth century and wakes up centuries later. Sci-fi icons owe a great deal to Buck and eugenics.)


Lovecraft was keen to depict not a world where certain beings were evil or sadistic but rather one in which, unbeknownst to humans, the universe is dominated by creatures so vastly beyond our own understanding and powers that we cannot begin to fathom what their purposes may be — but will likely be destroyed by them anyway, simply because we are so tiny and fragile in comparison and may, like vermin at a construction site, get in their way. The core of Lovecraft’s work was a handful of stories employing his “Cthulhu Mythos,” stories in which people (often professors or archaeologists) unearth increasingly disturbing evidence of the existence and imminent return of utterly alien Elder Gods, Outer Gods, Old Ones, Deep Ones, and the like, some the size of mountains, festooned with slime and tentacles, worshipped by obscure and ancient cults, sleeping in tombs the shapes of which obey no Euclidean geometry.

Many fans lament that Lovecraft’s intellectual heir and sequels-writer, the Lovecraftianly-named August Derleth, being Catholic, imposed a conventional moral order upon this dark chaos, with some of the aliens in the good camp and some in the bad, perpetually at war.

Tomorrow, I’ll describe some of later works of sci-fi influenced by Lovecraft — including at least a few popular films — but I think it’s worth noting in passing that in addition to the more obvious examples (cases where the primary menace is something not seen but rather lurking in an alternate dimension that threatens to unravel all human comprehension), Lovecraft probably also influenced pivotal 1960s “New Wave” science fiction writer Michael Moorcock (who in turn influenced, among others, my favorite comic book writers, Bryan Talbot and Grant Morrison) with his lists of random, dark portents in “The Call of Cthulhu”: outbreaks of madness reported in one section of the globe — depraved dreams among nuns in another — bleeding from the eyes among scientists studying the darkest reaches of space — you know the drill…

And, as explained in the Wikipedia entry about the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft and a few other writers of his time, including Robert E. Howard, deliberately referenced bits of each other’s fictional universes within their own, so technically, Conan the Barbarian walks the same grim world as the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred and the Goat with a Thousand Young, which is sort of cozy and reassuring.

P.S. And since Lovecraft looked a bit like Lurch from the Addams Family — and indeed, since their worlds were somewhat similar — why not take this opportunity to watch Lurch’s most beloved musical performance?


dave said...

Thanks for the review- I read some Lovecraft anthologies last year after finishing the Illuminatus! Trilogy (you know, because I had learned that HP Lovecraft’s books held the secrets of the universe;) and found them to be very uneven – as though the person putting them together just picked up stories at random, with no regards to quality. I thought the Shadow Out of Time was phenomonal, as were the few about the ‘other gods’. But others were quite difficult and unrewarding. I will certianly check out Chutulhu. (Do I risk offending the punk fan in you by pointing out that it’s a kick ass Metalica song?)

BTW, keeping with the theme of the month, I thought his depiction of a much older history of life on earth and the darwinian struggle including with half humans and extinct beings who were much stronger and smarter than humans was written partially to play on fears of Christians. Kind of like “God is not real, but you are correct in believing that he is the source of goodness and order. Unfortunately, he’s not real, so you’re fucked.”

Not that he mentioned christianity expilcitly, but I think that his was a godless world (in the judeochristian sense) was part of the backdrop.

Todd Seavey said...

Yeah, one gets the impression that Lovecraft was a scientific materialist at heart but — like a lot of people circa the 1920s — probably didn’t think being fascinated by psychic claims and the like was as blatantly at odds with that foundation as sentimental mainstream religions were.

And there’s no question his stories are uneven in quality — I’m not even sure I’d recommend reading more than a few, since you quickly get the idea — but “The Call of Cthulhu” sums him (and the Mythos) up pretty well, with enough references to things unseen to leave you feeling almost like you’ve read a primer to the rest of his universe.

Donovan K. Loucks said...

Although Lovecraft wrote about the paranormal and even did some limited reading about it, I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was fascinated with it. Instead, he simply considered it useful fodder for his stories. Reading through his letters, one gets the impression that Lovecraft had more respect for mainstream religion than for things like spiritualism, but only because of the long-standing traditions of accepted religion. He didn’t believe in the supernatural at all, and considered himself a thoroughly “mechanistic materialist”.