1. A French term for a play that is intended to absolutely horrify the audience (from the name of a theater in Paris that specialized in plays of this kind); 2. A French horror genre known for its element of surprise and morbid intensity. – Merriam-Webster Online
You’ve most-likely read him. You’ve probably heard of him. You’ve most defintely been exposed to him involuntarily. Lovecraft is everywhere from John Carpenter’s film The Thing to Stephen King’s “The Mist” to the tentacled face of Davy Jones in Disney’s The Pirates of the Carribbean 2: On Stranger Tides. If it’s got tentacles and suckers, chances are…
But beyond the tentacles and the shambling blobs of eyes and the rats and the town of Arkham and the Miskatonic (River & University) and the cosmic indifference of it all—does Howard Phillips Lovecraft really matter? His writing has the earmarks of great literature including its endurance and its technique and craftsmanship and its awareness of the “human condition”—just like the work of Hemingway. So, shouldn’t that be enough?
Lovecraft, when read as a “body of work”, reveals a deep understanding of both existential dread, the angst of our existence and our endless search for meaning in the face of nothingness. But, perhaps more importantly, seeing his work as a whole reveals a masterful hand at the storyteller’s art. And by that I do not mean the craft or mechanics of writing fiction.
It’s the artistic vessel through which Lovecraft delivers his message that matters, that makes it Story; without the vessel, it’s just a another message…one we would most likely otherwise ignore; or, if given the choice remain ignorant of. But it is from within Art’s cage that the flying things buzz loudest.
We Humans Matter, Right?
So, what’s all this talk of meaninglessness about? Well, like many writers and artists of his day, according to the definition of the term, Lovecraft falls nicely into the category of “existential nihilist”…
“Existential nihilism is the philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence. According to the theory, each individual is an isolated being born into the universe, barred from knowing “why”, yet compelled to invent meaning. The inherent meaninglessness of life is largely explored in the philosophical school of existentialism, where one can potentially create his or her own subjective meaning or purpose.”
(Wikipedia, Cosmicism, Existential Nihilism)
That has Lovecraft written all over it.
So, how do you take an unsettling idea like this, and make its message of horror interesting—even fun—to read? How do you make life’s loneliest, most unnerving truth palatable to a reader?
Aside from casting Albert Camus in the next Indiana Jones film, you use your talent and passion for words, your intellect and knowledge amassed from reading deeply and studying widely, your love for science and discovery, even your own nightmares, and you become an Artist of Storytelling. You learn to build Grand Guignol structures to lure your readers in; and then you…plant things…inside this structure that once discovered hit your message home.
It’s a malevolent business. Horror hiding where it doesn’t belong. But with your attention focused on the grandness of some rare beauty, perhaps you’ll be a little more inclined to overlook a tentacle or two.
This, is Lovecraft’s grand design.
I liken his creation of just such a vessel to the building of a beautiful, ornate to the point of macabre; yet seemingly benign cathedral. For now, and for clarity’s sake, let’s consider this over-wrought place of wonder Lovecraft’s vessel—his chosen method of of delivery—his unique “prose style.”
Come on in and sit a while,” it says. And you do. And you like it.
“…Lovecraft’s cosmicism is not religious…but rather a version of his mechanistic materialism. Lovecraft thus embraced a philosophy of cosmic indifferentism. He believed in a meaningless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their naturally limited faculties, could never fully understand. His viewpoint made no allowance for religious beliefs which could not be supported scientifically. The incomprehensible, cosmic forces of his tales have as little regard for humanity as humans have for insects.”
Add to all of this meaningless and indifferentism an apparent love for words and their power (Lovecraft was also a poet), well written stories, and a very active, macabre imagination, and you have a pretty potent mix—welcome to the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Lovecraft himself confirmed his philosophies in a letter he wrote to his editor at Weird Tales, 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.” (Letters of H. P. Lovecraft)
A “Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
As a point of comparison in the “literary world”, take a look at a theme embedded in a short story by Ernest Hemingway (also an existential nihilist) called “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”. In the story, you come across the word: “nada” used repeatedly…the Spanish word for “nothing”.
It’s a small, lean story that delivers a punch. It’s driving theme: why, sometimes, do we, as human beings, seek out and even become apprehensive to leave a “clean well-lighted place” like the little bar that is the story’s setting, at the end of the evening, for instance.
In the story, two waiters—one old, one young— having considered a man sitting all alone, have been ruminating as to the lone customer…as closing time lingers about the room, itself a very real character in the story, they say goodnight, and the younger waiter heads home…
‘Turning off the electric light [the older waiter] continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours.
What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well.
It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada….’
So, what does a Hemingway story and some little bar in some foreign country somewhere and two nobody waiters jabbering about nothingness have to do with the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft? Both use a seemingly benign method of delivery—one grandiose, the other skeletal—to drive home a message: we human beings are here, but in the scheme of things we don’t matter. God or no god; Old Ones or no Old Ones; sentient universe or no sentient universe, we mean nothing.
Lovecraft: The Man vs. The Artist.
If you’re a reader, a writer, a book collector (hoarder) who follows “weird fiction”—its history, its now, its future, its sociopolitics, its meaning—then you know some things about Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
- You know his lantern-jawed mug.
- You know he was reclusive.
- You know his father went crazy.
- You know his mother was emotionally inept.
- You know he was precocious.
- You know he liked regularity and stability in his surroundings.
- You know he was an anglophile.
- You know he was arrogant.
- You know he had horrible night terrors.
- You know he was averse to things of a sexual nature.
- You know he never finished school but that he was a very learned man.
- You know he wrote more letters—100s of 1000s—than stories or essays.
- You know he didn’t like Jews but that he married one, then divorced her.
- You know he wrote tentacle stories about a creature called Cthulhu and you know you can’t pronounce the damn name.
- You know the gist of the hyped stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “Dagon” and “The Dunwich Horror”.
- You know there is an award writers get that mimics a bust of him.
- You know that he began a “mythos” encouraging other writers to use his ideas freely within their own fiction, and that he did the same.
- You know he ghostwrote many very good stories, even one for Houdini!
But, do you also know what a conscientious, detailed, master artist of storytelling Lovecraft was?
Like us all, Lovecraft criticized himself and his work. He posed and waited. And wrote and submitted and waited. He felt rejection and waited. He almost gave up and he waited. His editor was a blockhead, a rusty-cog-in-the-wheel, but Howard waited.
The Grand Guignol Cathedral
I have read no living (or dead) writer of weird fiction yet who crafts and structures a story with a comparable level of acumen, knowledge of the physiognomy of fear, or storytelling talent and skill as Howard Phillip Lovecraft. And his talent surpasses many in the “non-genre” literary field to boot. This is why many have tried to emulate his work. And, perhaps, copying the mechanics can be done. I don’t know. I haven’t tried it. But Stephen King’s story “Jerusalem’s Lot” seems to nail it pretty well (an artistic story in and of itself and worth reading). But the Art of storytelling goes past mechanics. It dwells much higher up.
We are too spoiled by books and stories and by their inventors. We read hungrily about the cathedral and the bat wings flapping like ghost sheets in its uppermost shadows…we see glowing eyes in the chorister…and is that blood pooling around the closed door of the confessional?
But do we stop enough and take time to ponder some things about the cathedral itself, about the structure that allows such an atmosphere to take hold and grow? Such as, for instance, the complexity of its design; or the quality and type of materials that went into making it a solid structure—an enduring one?
Do we stop to wonder how long it took to lay each stone? What about shaping the stones required for the curve, the bend, the flute, the arch? The masonry? What about their quarry? These things matter.
Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Lovecraft built ornate cathedrals in which to house the Art of his storytelling. This is important—this matters—because it is the only reason we read him…or once read him…or keep going back to read him. We like the cathedrals he built. We admire them. They make us feel like we’re “somewhere”, at least for the time being. Somewhere matters in all of that nowhere.
It’s tidy. The lights glow inside, windows burn with it, colors bleed, everything is warm, shadows crawl back into corners…you feel safer now. You do.
But, there’s still something in the air, something behind the light, and it’s coming closer; it’s shocking and it’s macabre. But you don’t know that yet.
Is that organ music falling like prayers from the dome? Is that a wing flapping? Perhaps the stones are settling. A large shadow moves like a dark heavy cloud across the roseatte window high above you.
You are everywhere and you are nowhere. And the Storyteller knows this before you do. There are dark tendrils twirling upward above your head into the darkness; and things pale and white are spiralling downward, below your feet, into the very floor…but you are unaware of it…growing…quiet…like a seedling…
It’s the seed, finally, planted in this fertile structure, this foreign and unholy hall, that Howard Phillips Lovecraft wants you to feel, growing, slowly, as what it becomes overtakes you. The seed is his gift to you, his Story for his ever-trusting Reader. And he crafted this immense ornate cathedral, this womb, as an unexpected, unsettlingly unnatural place in which to ensure its growth…and your unreadiness to partake.
It is this unnatural juxtaposition of ornate vessel and obscure planting (this clandestine tending), its resultant shock and unexpected horror, that is Lovecraft’s Art.
The resulting fruit or fungi or spore or heaving viscosity—does belong here after all. It knows it belongs here. It has been here all along. By the time you know all of this, however, it’s simply too late.
Lovecraft has you. Story and Vessel have conjoined and wooed you and won.
Like a buzzing Mi-Go they carry you off (well, part of you, anyway) to a “no-place” the likes of which you dare not imagine.
It’s all so damned insidious.
But he will have it no other way. You don’t have a purpose. You don’t matter. You never did. And you never will. And he shows you this over and over again.
Maybe, like the old waiter in Hemingway’s story, we, too, must come to accept that our blackest truths—our most melancholic and maddening realizations, are made clearer to us when we are finally seized upon by them in the comfort of well-lighted place. ♤
‘”Good night,” said the younger waiter.
“Good night,” the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well.
It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.
“What’s yours?” asked the barman.
“Otro loco mas,” said the barman and turned away.
“A little cup,” said the waiter.
The barman poured it for him.
“The light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished,” the waiter said.
The barman looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation.
“You want another copita?” the barman asked.
“No, thank you,” said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.’
– Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”
(Unless otherwise noted, all photographs and art were found on Pinterest and were not credited. Photo collage of book in chair by Michael Albright-Quinn, photos from Pintetest. Red eye/twisted tree art by Michael Whelan.)