“Perhaps one needs to have suffered a great deal in order to appreciate Lovecraft…”
Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don’t care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All those prodigiously refined “notations,” “situations,” anecdotes… all they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already adequately nourished by any one of our “real life” days.
Now, here is Howard Phillips Lovecraft: “I am so beastly tired of mankind and the world that nothing can interest me unless it contains a couple of murders on each page or deals with the horrors unnameable and unaccountable that leer down from the external universes.”
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937). We need a supreme antidote against all forms of realism.
Those who love life do not read. Nor do they go to the movies, actually. No matter what might be said, access to the artistic universe is more or less entirely the preserve of those who are a little fed up with the world.
As for Lovecraft, he was more than a little fed up. In 1908, at the age of eighteen, he suffered what has been described as a “nervous breakdown” and plummeted into a lethargy that lasted about ten years. At the age when his old classmates were hurriedly turning their backs on childhood and diving into life as if into some marvelous, uncensored adventure, he cloistered himself at home, speaking only to his mother, refusing to get up all day, wandering about in a dressing gown all night.
What’s more, he wasn’t even writing.
What was he doing? Reading a little, maybe. We can’t even be sure of this. His biographers have in fact had to admit that they don’t know much at all and that based on appearances it would seem that at least between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three he did absolutely nothing.
Then gradually, between 1913 and 1918, very slowly, the situation improved. Gradually, he reestablished contact with the human race. It was not easy. In May 1918 he wrote to Alfred Galpin: “I am only about half alive—a large part of my strength is consumed in sitting up or walking. My nervous system is a shattered wreck and I am absolutely bored and listless save when I come upon something which peculiarly interests me.”
It is definitely pointless to embark on a dramatic or psychological reconstruction. Because Lovecraft is a lucid, intelligent and sincere man. A kind of lethargic terror descended upon him as he turned eighteen years old and he knew the reason for it perfectly well. In a 1920 letter he revisits his childhood at length. The little railway set whose cars were made of packing-cases, the coach house where he had set up his puppet theater. And later, the garden he had designed, laying out each of its paths. It was irrigated by a system of channels that were his own handiwork, and its ledges enclosed a small lawn at the center of which stood a sundial. It was, he said, “the paradise of my adolescent years.”
Then comes the passage that concludes the letter: “Then I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless Time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was seventeen. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.”
Adulthood is hell. In the face of such a trenchant position, “moralists” today will utter vague opprobrious grumblings while waiting to strike with their obscene intimations. Perhaps Lovecraft actually could not become an adult; what is certain is that he did not want to.And given the values that govern the adult world, how can you argue with him? The reality principle, the pleasure principle, competitiveness, permanent challenges, sex, and status—hardly reasons to rejoice.
Lovecraft, for his part, knew he had nothing to do with this world. And at each turn he played a losing hand. In theory and in practice. He lost his childhood, and he also lost his faith. The world sickened him and he saw no reason to believe that by looking at things better they might appear differently. He saw religions as so many sugarcoated illusions made obsolete by the progress of science. At times, when in an exceptionally good mood, he would speak of the enchanted circle of religious belief, but it was a circle from which he felt banished, anyway.
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movement of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure “Victorian fictions.”All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.
Lovecraft was well aware of the distinctly depressing nature of his conclusions. As he wrote in 1918, “all rationalism tends to minimalize the value and the importance of life, and to decrease the sum total of human happiness. In some cases the truth may cause suicidal or nearly suicidal depression.”
He remained steadfast in his materialism and atheism. In letter after letter he returned to his convictions with distinctly masochistic delectation.
Of course, life has no meaning. But neither does death.And this is another thing that curdles the blood when one discovers Lovecraft’s universe. The deaths of his heroes have no meaning. It brings no appeasement. It in no way allows the story to conclude. Implacably, HPL destroys his characters, evoking only the dismemberment of marionettes. Indifferent to these pitiful vicissitudes, cosmic fear continues to expand. It swells and takes form. Great Cthulhu emerges from his slumber.
What is Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us. Lovecraft’s terror is rigorously material. But it is quite possible given the free interplay of cosmic forces that Great Cthulhu possesses abilities and powers to act that far exceed ours.Which, a priori, is not particularly reassuring at all. From his journey to the penumbral worlds of the unutterable, Lovecraft did not return to bring us good news. Perhaps, he acknowledged, something is hiding beneath the surface of reality that at times allows itself be perceived. Something truly vile.
It is possible, in fact, that beyond the narrow range of our perception, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts, and other minds. Amongst these entities some are probably far superior to us in intelligence and in knowledge. But this is not necessarily good news. What is there to suggest that these creatures, different as they are from us, will exhibit any kind of a spiritual nature? There is nothing to suggest a transgression of the universal laws of egotism and malice. It is ridiculous to imagine that at the edge of the cosmos other wise and well-intentioned beings await to guide us toward some sort of harmony. In order to imagine how they might treat us were we to come into contact with them, it might be best to recall how we treat “inferior intelligence” such as rabbits and frogs. In the best of cases they serve as food for us; sometimes also, often in fact, we kill them for the sheer pleasure of killing. This, Lovecraft warned, would be the true picture of our future relationship to those other intelligent beings. Perhaps some of the more beautiful human specimens would be honored and would end up on a dissection table—that’s all.
And once again, none of it makes any sense.
O humans at the end of the twentieth century, this desolate cosmos is absolutely our own. This abject universe where fear mounts in concentric circles, layer upon layer, until the unnameable is revealed,this universe where our only conceivable destiny is to be pulverized and devoured, we must recognize it absolutely as being our own mental universe. And for whoever wants to know this state of the collective consciousness, its easiest indicator is Lovecraft’s success, itself a symptom. Today, more so than ever before, we can utter the declaration of principles that begins “Arthur Jermyn” as our own: “Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”
The paradox, however, is that we prefer this universe, hideous as it is, to our own reality. In this, we are precisely the readers that Lovecraft anticipated. We read his tales with the same exact disposition as that which prompted him to write them. Satan or Nyarlathotep, either one will do, but, we will not tolerate another moment of realism. And, truth be told, given his prolonged acquaintance with the disgraceful turns of our ordinary sins, the value of Satan’s currency has dropped a little. Better Nyarlathotep, ice-cold, evil and inhuman. Subb-haqqua Nyarlathotep!
It’s clear why reading Lovecraft is paradoxically comforting to those souls who are weary of life. In fact, it should perhaps be prescribed to all who, for one reason or another, have come to feel a true aversion to life in all its forms. In some cases, the jolt to the nerves upon a first reading is immense. One may find oneself smiling all alone, or humming a tune from a musical. One’s outlook on existence is, in a word, modified.
Ever since the HPL virus was first introduced into France by Jacques Bergier, the increase in the number of readers has been substantial. Like most of those contaminated, I myself discovered HPL at sixteen through the intermediary of a “friend.” To call it a shock would be an understatement.I had not known literature was capable of this. And, what’s more, I’m still not sure it is. There is something not really literary about Lovecraft’s work.
To make this case, let us first consider this fact, that fifteen or so writers (Belknap Long, Robert Bloch, Lin Carter, Fred Chappell, August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, to name a few) consecrated all or part of their careers to developing and enriching the myths created by HPL. And not furtively so, nor in hiding, but most avowedly. The filial lineage is even further systematically reinforced by the use of the exact same words. These take on the value of incantations (the wild hills west of Arkham, Miskatonic University, the city of Irem with its thousand pillars… R’Iyeh, Sarnath, Dagon, Nyarlathotep…and above all the unnameable, the blasphemous Necronomicon whose name can only be uttered in a whisper), lâ! lâ! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
In an age that exalts originality as a supreme value in the arts, this phenomenon is surely cause for surprise. In fact, as Francis Lacassin opportunely points out, nothing like it has been recorded since Homer and medieval epic poetry. We must humbly acknowledge that we are dealing here with what is known as a “founding mythology.”
To create a great popular myth is to create a ritual that the reader awaits impatiently and to which he can return with mounting pleasure, seduced each time by a different repetition of terms, ever so imperceptibly altered, to allow him to reach a new depth of experience.
Presented thus, things appear almost simple. And yet rare are the successes in the history of literature. In reality, it is no easier than creating a new religion.
To understand clearly what is at play, one would have had to personally experience the sense of frustration that invaded England with the death of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had no choice: he had to resurrect his hero. When, vanquished by death, he in turn laid down arms, the world was engulfed by a sad sense of resignation. We would have to make do with the fifty-odd existing Sherlock Holmes stories, reading and rereading them tirelessly. We would have to make do with those who would continue these stories and with commentators; we would have to greet the inevitable (and at times amusing) parodies with a resigned smile, all the while in our hearts nourishing the impossible dream that the central core, the very heart of the myth, would continue. An old Indian army trunk would turn up somewhere, and magically preserved therein, unpublished Sherlock Holmes stories…
Lovecraft, who admired Conan Doyle, succeeded in creating a myth as popular, as lively and irresistible. One might even say that the two men had in common a remarkable talent for storytelling. Of course. But there is something else at work. Alexandre Dumas or Jules Verne were hardly mediocre storytellers. And yet nothing in their work comes close to the stature of the Baker Street detective.
The Sherlock Holmes stories are centered on a character, whereas in Lovecraft one does not meet any truly human specimens. Of course, this is an important distinction, very important, but not truly essential. It can be compared to what separates theistic from atheistic religions. The fundamental character that brings them together, the so-called religious character, is otherwise difficult to define and to broach directly.
Another small difference that might be noted—minimal to literary history, tragic to the individual—is that Conan Doyle had ample occasion to realize that he was creating an essential mythology. Lovecraft did not. At the moment of his death he had the clear impression that his creative work would plunge into obscurity along with him.
Nonetheless, he already had disciples. Not that he considered them as such. He did indeed correspond with young writers (Bloch, Belknap Long, and others) but did not necessarily advise them to take the same path as he. He did not present himself as either a master or a model. He greeted their first ventures with exemplary delicacy and modesty. He was courteous, considerate, and kind, a true friend to them, never a teacher.
Absolutely incapable of leaving a letter unanswered, neglecting to request payment when his literary revision work went unpaid, systematically underestimating his contribution to stories that without him would never have seen the light of day, Lovecraft conducted himself like an authentic gentleman throughout his life.
Of course, he liked the idea of becoming a writer. But he was not attached to this above all else. In 1925, in a moment of despondency, he writes, “I am well-nigh resolv’d to write no more tales, but merely to dream when I have a mind to, not stopping to do any thing so vulgar as to set down the dream for a boarish Publick. I have concluded, that Literature is no proper pursuit for a gentleman; and that Writing ought never to be consider’d but as an elegant Accomplishment to be indulg’d in with infrequency, and Discrimination.”
Thankfully, he did continue and his greatest stories were written subsequent to this letter. But until the very end he remained, above all, as he liked to describe himself, a kind old gentleman from Providence. And never, never, a professional writer.
Paradoxically, Lovecraft’s character is fascinating in part because his values were so entirely opposite to ours. He was fundamentally racist and openly reactionary. He glorified puritanical inhibitions and evidently found all “direct erotic manifestations” repulsive. Resolutely anticommercial, he despised money, and considered democracy to be an idiocy and progress to be an illusion.The word “freedom,” so cherished by Americans, prompted only a sad, derisive guffaw. Throughout his life, he maintained a typically aristocratic, scornful attitude toward humanity in general, coupled with extreme kindness toward individuals in particular.
Whatever the case, all those who had dealings with Lovecraft as an individual felt an immense sadness when they learned of his death. Robert Bloch said that had he known the truth about the state of his health, he would have dragged himself on his knees all the way to Providence to see him.August Derleth consecrated the rest of his existence to collecting, compiling, and publishing the posthumous fragments of his departed friend.
And it is thanks to Derleth and a few others (but primarily Derleth) that Lovecraft’s body of work has reached the world. Today, it stands before us, an imposing baroque structure, its towering strata rising in so many layered concentric circles, a wide and sumptuous landing around each, and the whole surrounding a vortex of pure horror and absolute marvel.
✯ The first outermost circle: the correspondence and poems. These are only partially published, and even more partially translated.The correspondence is rather staggering: almost one hundred thousand letters, some of which are thirty or forty pages long. As for the poems, a precise count does not currently exist.
✯ A second circle would contain those stories Lovecraft participated in, either those conceived of as collaborations to begin with (such as the stories he wrote with Kenneth Sterling or Robert Barlow, for example) or others whose author may have benefited from Lovecraft’s revisions (there are extremely numerous examples of these; the substance of Lovecraft’s collaborations varied and sometimes went as far as a complete rewrite of the text). To these we may also add the stories written by Derleth based on notes and fragments left behind by Lovecraft.
✯ With the third circle we come to the stories that were actually written by Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here, obviously, each word counts; these have all been published in French and we cannot expect their number ever to increase.
✯ Finally, we can draw a definitive fourth circle,at the absolute heart of HPL’s myth, that contains what most rabid Lovecraftians continue to call, almost in spite of themselves, the “great texts.” I will cite them here for the pleasure of it alone, along with the date of the their compositions:
✯ The Call of Cthulhu (1926)
✯ The Color out of Space (1927)
✯ The Dunwich Horror (1928)
✯ The Whisperer in the Dark (1930)
✯ The Mountains of Madness (1931)
✯ The Dreams in the Witch House (1932)
✯ The Shadow over Innsmouth (1932)
✯ The Shadow out of Time (1934)
Moreover, suspended above HPL’s entire edifice like a thick unstable fog is the strange shadow of his own personality. One might find the cultlike atmosphere surrounding his character, his actions and movements, and even the most insignificant pieces of his writing somewhat exaggerated or even morbid. But I guarantee that opinion is bound to be revised quickly after a plunge into the “great texts.” It’s only natural to initiate a cult in the name of one who proffers such benefits.
Successive generations of Love-craftians have done just this. As is always the case, the “recluse of Providence” has now become almost as mythic a figure as one of his own creations. And what is most startling is that all attempts at demystification have failed. No degree of biographical detail has succeeded in dissipating the aura of strange pathos that surrounds the character. And five hundred pages into his book, Sprague de Camp is forced to admit: “I do not pretend to completely understand H. P. Lovecraft.” No matter who one imagines him to have been, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was truly a very unique human being.
Lovecraft’s body of work can be compared to a gigantic dream-machine of astounding breadth and efficacy. There is nothing tranquil or discreet in his literature. Its impact on the reader’s mind is savagely, frighteningly brutal, and dangerously slow to dissipate. Rereading produces no notable modification other than that, eventually, one ends up wondering: how does he do it?
In the specific case of HPL there is nothing ridiculous or offensive about such a question. In fact, what characterizes his work compared to a “normal” work of literature is that his disciples feel they can, at least theoretically, through the judicious use of the same ingredients as those indicated by the master, obtain results of an equal or higher quality.
No one has ever seriously envisioned continuing Proust. Lovecraft, they have. And it’s not a matter of secondary works presented as homage, nor of parodies, but truly a continuation. Which is unique in the history of modern literature.
What’s more, the role HPL plays as the generator of dreams is not limited to literature alone. His work, at least to the same extent as R. E. Howard’s although often less obviously, has been a profound factor in the renaissance of fantasy illustration. Even rock music, usually so distrustful of all things literary, has made a point of paying homage to him—a homage, one might say, paid by one great power to another, by one mythology to another. As for the implications of Lovecraft’s writing in the domains of architecture or film, they will be immediately apparent to the sensitive reader. This is the building of a new world.
Hence the importance of building blocks and of construction techniques.To prolong the impact. ✯
Translated from the French by Dorna Khazeni