Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?

It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot.  There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.

But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?

Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”.  Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.

Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror.  I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story,  but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.

S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”

Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters.  I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.

However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism.  (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)

Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.

So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.

Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu. Image via Wikipedia.

Longtime readers may know that I, like most sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts, enjoy the works of of H.P. Lovecraft.  Apart from his racial views–which are thankfully absent from most of his better stories–I like his writing,  his evocative settings and memorable, unique monsters.

That said, his plots frequently aren’t as good as they could have been.  The Shadow Out of Time needed to have the middle third edited out.  The second half of The Whisperer in Darkness gives away a certain critical plot twist way too early.  The Dunwich Horror is just bad.  Ironically, though Lovecraft wrote critical essays and letters asking for subtlety in horror fiction, his own stories often failed do this, and would clumsily reveal too much detail about his creatures.

The Call of Cthulhu is probably his single most famous work.  In fact, his Cthulhu creation may be more famous than he himself is, being a sort of shorthand for the ultimate evil in certain circles.

The problem is, Call of Cthulhu isn’t a very good horror story.  Well, to be fair, the first two-thirds of it are.  The opening paragraph is one of my favorite quotes in all literature.  But then we have the last third… (I’m about to spoil the story, so be warned.)

Part of the problem of the last third of CoC is that the first two parts are so good.  Lovecraft builds up to the horror gradually, hinting and letting his narrator–and by extension, the reader–glimpse and guess rather than just outright explaining  what Cthulhu is.  With all this weighing on his mind, we come to the the adventure of Second Mate Johansen.

The mere fact that anybody even found R’lyeh in the first place is a problem.  It would have been better if its existence had only been guessed at–perhaps in “old legends telling of a weird island that has since vanished”, or something along similar lines.  Having somebody actually find it eliminates a key element that is often underused in horror, but of which Lovecraft ought to have been cognizant: that is the element of uncertainty, of wondering if all the narrator’s suspicions might be merely incipient madness.

Even worse is the part where the sailors actually witness the awakening of Cthulhu.  No matter how overwrought Lovecraft makes his prose, he can’t possibly make this monster live up to the hype he’s given it.   So, it was a big dragon-squid, was it?  That’s… somehow disappointing.

But the worst of all; the fatal flaw that almost ruins the story for me, is what happens next: the last surviving sailor makes it back to his ship and rams Cthulhu with it.   And this actually forces Cthulhu to retreat!

This is just awful horror writing.  This Elder-God, this unspeakably powerful, incomprehensibly awesome creature can be defeated by one guy with a boat?  Why not just have the Navy station a battleship out there and repeat this every time the Great Old One becomes troublesome?  Actually, that’s not even necessary, because it apparently only wakes every few “vigintillion” years anyway, which means Johansen probably has saved humanity for the rest of its existence. This is such a classic mistake, there’s even a page on TVTropes named for it: “Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?

I think Lovecraft must have realized this was pretty weak, so he tried to imply at the end that the cultists (here are those blasted racial ideas of his creeping in) were going to sabotage all efforts at learning about the existence of Cthulhu or R’lyeh.  But the problem with that is, the cultists are repeatedly shown to be incompetent throughout the story. Johansen and his crew-mates were able to defeat their sentry ship without even realizing what they were doing.

All in all, what an awful way to ruin a potentially terrifying monster!  The lesson for aspiring writers: if you invent a Terrifying, Scary, Nearly Omnipotent Monster, don’t ruin it by letting it be defeated  easily.  And it’s best not to actually show it in action at all, but rather to just show hints of it.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the average blogger to correlate all his links. We live on a placid island of ignorance, in the midst of black seas of Wikis, and it was not meant that we should check the references. The Wiki editors, each biased in their own direction, have hitherto harmed us little. But someday, the linking together of barely-associated articles will open up such terrifying vistas of the internet–and of our own frightful pagerank therein–that we will either go mad from the revelation, or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of icanhascheezburger.com (Many apologies, Howard–MM.)

It all started with this post from Thingy–I realized I had never found out the origin of the common phrase “it was a dark and stormy night. So, I followed the link and it turns out, it was from this guy Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He was a prolific writer who also coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

So, I decided to read some of his books. Being a fan of horror, I chose to start off with The Haunted and the Haunters: or, The House and the Brain. It starts off as a fairly generic ghost story, but the end has some very interesting bits of philosophizing. Not a great work, but an enjoyable read, all in all.

He also wrote a book called Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. I tried to read it, but it was pretty dull. The plot did remind me a little of Arthur Machen’s later work The Novel of the Black Seal, which influenced Lovecraft greatly. But apparently, Vril inspired something of a “cult following”, and by that I mean that people actually thought it was true. The book is about a super-race that lives underground and has a powerful substance “Vril”, which allows them to do all sorts of amazing things. Some, notably the theosophists, believed that “Vril” existed.

Which is curious to me, because I know basically three things about theosophists:

  1. In the paragraph immediately after the one I parodied above in Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft mentions the theosophists briefly.
  2. The Theosophical Society was founded by Helena Blavatsky, who I know about solely because of the lines in the Warren Zevon song “Sacrificial Lambs”: “Madame Blavatsky and her friends/Changed lead into gold, and back again.”
  3. They have one weird logo. Observe:
Theosophical Society emblem, via Wikipedia

I only saw this symbol the other day, when I was reading about the lyrics to the They Might Be Giants song “I Palindrome I”, which includes the lyric “I am a snake head eating the head on the opposite side”. The technical word for this is Ouroboros. That word is also whence the name of the character Borous in the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Old World Blues is derived.

“Hold up, Mysterious Man,” cries the bemused reader. “What the Devil is the point of all this free-association?” Well, I’ll tell you: there was some philosopher I was reading about many months ago who had some sort of reasoning system of free-association, “correlating contents” and looking for subtle inter-connectivities in Nature. It was really interesting, but in recent days I have searched Wikipedia with considerable diligence, but I can’t find his page. I think his first name might have been Charles, but that’s all I can remember. Any information you can furnish me with as to who the guy was would be appreciated.