Misc. Lovecraft gleanings by divers hands

Discussion in 'H P Lovecraft' started by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, Mar 6, 2010.

  1.  
    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    I re-read a few of Lovecraft's short stories every so often, and I don't necessarily have the material or skill to put up a lengthy, wide-ranging essay, and sometimes there isn't a story-thread that I can add my impressions to, so I thought a catch-all thread to store passing impressions would be useful. Naturally, more considered reflections can be used to start a thread of their own, and if we amass enough comments about a particular story, I (or another mod) may take the liberty to split them off into an exclusive topic.

    I've been reading 'He' this morning. The opening passages of this story correspond so closely with Lovecraft's own impressions and experiences of New York that I am moved to point out how much the 'weird fiction' of this man is in fact closely intertwined with his own dreams, hopes, thoughts and quotidian experience. It isn't the richness of a writer's external doings with the world that feed creativity so much as a rich internal life which can transform the mundane experiences that may be shared by many others into unique, illuminating inspiration.

    I live in a city that I once loved, or thought I would, and am increasingly dismayed by the way it has grown. This passage by Lovecraft strikes me as a particularly striking observation on the sense of what it is like to live in a place that has outlived all of its original meanings and beliefs, a zombie city, quick with a terrible, unnatural new life:

    Of course, I have to read this passage with that strange double vision with which I empathise completely with what is being said, while reserving a grain of sourness for the knowledge that those 'queer animate things' may well have included creatures like myself, in Lovecraft's eyes.

    Still, what a powerful, dark image that is! And how pertinent when the cities that we live in seem no longer to be conglomerations born of human need and wants but machines that perpetuate themselves, with human lives serving merely as grist to the mill.

    Or perhaps I'm just having a morbid morning. In any case, a striking passage that I thought worth sharing.
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2010
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    And here I thought, when I saw the title, that it was going to be suggestions on recordings of readings of Lovecraft's tales by different people, such as David McCallum's rendition of "The Haunter of the Dark" (which, despite having been slightly edited due to length, is really quite good).

    Well... "He" is a good example of Lovecraft using his own experience for a tale; and you're right: he drew heavily on his own inner life for his work, whether it be dreams, his philosophy, his views on various experiences or persons or events, or what-have-you. While it is a seriously flawed story in some respects, there is also much in that tale to admire. I have some thoughts of my own concerning the amorphous thing which engulfs the titular character, but I will save those for another occasion.

    At the moment, I'm going to take a slightly different direction by focusing on one of his verses... a rather minor piece, in this case: "John Oldham: A
    Defence".

    This was written in response to a piece by his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, who in turn wrote it in response to Lovecraft lending him a copy of Oldham's Poems. To me, this is one of those examples of a side of Lovecraft few people outside of the hardcore readers ever really see: the humorous side as well as a certain warm, very human side, of the man. While very gentle (as always), Kleiner does rather take the old satirist Oldham to task:

    And so on. Now, one of the interesting things here is that Kleiner himself was a modern, and his use of such elisions here is very unusual... done, I suspect, somewhat tongue-in-cheek in response to such an archaic subject (Oldham being a poet of the seventeenth century: 1653-1683). Lovecraft, on the other hand, who was wont to use such things quite frequently in his poetry (not to mention his letters) up to this period, is surprisingly restrained with such things here, using only three ("O'er", "ev'ry" and "dy'd", in lines 2, 7 and 9, respectively); though he does use the rather archaic term "witlings" in the final line. This gives Lovecraft's verse, oddly, a slightly more modern in feel than that of his friend Kleiner -- a complete reversal of the usual case. He also displays a bit more knowledge (not surprisingly) about the subject, and one which must have interested him more than a little, given that Dryden did indeed praise Oldham (writing a rather touching eulogy on him), in which he makes much mention of his abilities as a satirist (though also gently chiding the rough versification and often badly-stretched rhymes... the latter of which Lovecraft himself mentioned in his essay, "The Allowable Rhyme"), a type of verse of which Lovecraft was especially fond, and at which he had no little talent himself. (His "Medusa: A Portrait", for instance, is something which might very well have done Dean Swift or "the Wicked Wasp of Twickenham" -- a.k.a. Alexander Pope -- himself proud.)

    Yet the satire here directed against modern poets ("For what could not the poet [Oldham] say / Of things these witlings scrawl today?") has less of a sting than a twinkle, taken in the context of the verse, let alone the fact that Lovecraft (seldom averse to having a bit of fun at his own expense) frequently classed himself among such "witlings" when it came to his own verse.

    It also demonstrates a tendency which has been overlooked with his verse much of the time, though there are at least some similar cases in his fiction as well: His tendency to engage in "dialogues" by penning pieces in response to the work of another, generally a friend or colleague. This last was not always the case, of course, as his "The Volunteer" -- written in response to a piece by one Sgt. Hayes R. Miller which he read in a journal -- amply testifies. This was a bit of Lovecraft's archaism as well; the sort of thing which poets of an older day did rather frequently, but which was seldom seen in his own time (at least publicly, and most of Lovecraft's pieces of this sort were indeed published, if only in the amateur press). It was a peculiar way of carrying on a conversation or gentle controversy with correspondents, where only those "in the know" would realize this was what was going on, yet producing along the way a light something which would either amuse or puzzle the readers who were not so privileged.

    Seen in context, these pieces take on a rather different set of associations and meanings than if read strictly on their own, for they become much less the "eighteenth-century rubbish" which Winfield Townley Scott accused them of being, and more of a jeu d'esprit where Lovecraft is having some fun with himself and his friends, while nonetheless making some very pointed comments about what he saw as the differences between the manners and matter of the past and the (at least to him) rather paler ones of the present.

    These are just a few thoughts about this little squib of his, but they point to why I find even such minor pieces from his pen interesting: there are always more layers than are at first apparent, and the more one looks at them in context, the richer the joke (and its point) become....
  3.  
    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    You're right, the title of this thread as it stands is ambiguous; I will fix try and fix that.

    I can also see from your post what a good idea this thread can be - a perfect catch-all for thoughts on various aspects of Lovecraft's writings that may not have a specific thread as yet.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Oh, I wasn't complaining about the original title -- I quite liked it (and it was accurate, for that matter). It is just that my mind went a different direction when I saw it, that's all....
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    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    Yes, but 'readings' has a variety of specific meanings, all of which are quite reasonable, while 'gleanings' is vague enough not lend itself to immediate misunderstanding. If that makes any sense.

    Having finished 'He', I can see why you'd call it flawed - this is one of these stories that hinges around a very ancient, wise and malevolent being expediting his own doom by some random act of hubris.

    I was amused by the fact that the narrator was essentially driven to the utmost terror by the sight of what might well have been a modern-day rave party attended by Asians. I can sympathise. While the ethnicity of the ravers makes no difference to me, as a staunch classical-jazz-and-metal fan I once wandered into one of these narcorhythmic shindigs by mistake, and had I been uninhibited enough to do so, I too would have 'screamed and screamed and screamed as my nerves gave way and the walls quivered about me'.

    The dissolution of the old man is eerie, but has a slightly farcical tinge. The thing that swallows him up, however, is the real eldritch deal and is obviously an early glimpse of the very gnarly Nyarlathotep - although I'd be interested to know what J.D.'s thoughts on the matter are.

    Your comments on how Lovecraft's writings often emerge as part of a dialogue remind me of the story 'The Unnameable' which arose from Lovecraft's exchanges with his friend, Maurice W. Moe, a schoolteacher of a rather devout yet prosaic disposition with whom the rationalist Lovecraft had often tussled in debates over the latter's weird fiction. You can see how the debate in the story reflects Lovecraft's own debates with his friend and the conclusion of the story is in a way a cheeky, fictional riposte to his friend.
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2010
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    w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Member

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    One of my favourite books is ye Hippocampus title, From the Pest Zone--The New York Stories. Its introduction to "He" is superb and contains chunks of quotes from Grandpa's correspondence recording the events that led to his composition of the tale. "He" has always fascinated me, and haunts me with its imagery, with its ambiguity. Here is S. T.'s introductory note in ye B&N edition:

    "Written on August 11, 1925, after a long voyage of exploration in the New York-New Jersey area, 'He' is perhaps Lovecraft's most poignant evocation of the wonders and terrors of the metropolis. It's grim remark, 'My coming to New York was a mistake,' has been taken as an admission that Lovecraft's marriage to Sonia and his move to the big city were catastrophic errors. The tale's cosmic visions of a future New York overrun by 'strange flying things' are powerful, although its mention of 'yellow, squint-eyed people' is disturbingly racist."

    I sometimes forget about S. T.'s race, since it matters not to me -- but I ended a friendship with someone who abhorred Joshi because the world's leading Lovecraft scholar is not a white man. S. T. is very aware of his race -- whenever he speaks of himself as a kid he always speaks of "the little brown boy." S. T.'s notes for the tale in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories are fascinating; he links the creature described as "...a colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance..." to the shoggoths of At the Mountains of Madness. It is the opening of the tale that really captivates me, the atmosphere, the setting, the language. I love how the story plays with time: crossing the threshold into ye antient dwelling, where one can almost smell the hoary past, leads to a revelation of daemonic future. Brilliant!

    "He" inspir'd one of the segments in my prose poem sequence, "Uncommon Places," which will be one of the new pieces in my Centipede Press omnibus. "He" was a factor in my creation of my new urban realm, the city of exiles, Gershom, wherein that segment from "Uncommon Places" takes place. This thread has inspir'd a desire to read it on my YouTube channel, using the reading as a means of discussing the wee Hippocampus volume.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    From the Pest Zone is a very nifty little volume indeed... not least because it paints a concentrated picture of Lovecraft's experiences in and reactions to New York and provides some wonderfully helpful context. I am especially grateful that they included the photo and original piece on the site which inspired the setting of "He"... as well as the piece by Long on "The Shunned House" and the various other photos of sites related to the stories. Things like this are why I pick up volumes such as the two Annotated Lovecraft editions; though having the flaw of some egregious typos, all the added material makes them well worth the investment. The same can be said for the annotated editions of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Shadow Out of Time (Necronomicon Press and Hippocampus Press, respectively, for those interested)....

    J.P.: I will attempt to get that stuff to you a little later, probably some time tomorrow evening. At the moment, I am dealing with a horrendous headache, and think it best I toddle off to bed, as I've an especially grueling day at work tomorrow....
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    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    I hope that headache's better now, J.D.

    I have been putting off a re-read of At the Mountains of Madness for a while now, lingering over HPL's earlier stories, many of which I've not re-read in years. I should compare the creature from He with the shoggoths as depicted in the later story when I do.

    In a way, I'd learned to tune out racial references in fiction so well that I barely detected them the first time I read HPL's fiction. Only a few years ago, while reading some of these stories to my wife, did I notice that all those references to alien or degenerate races carried a certain significance that was not quite salutary.

    As I've said, the relationship between HPL's fiction and his dreams, and indeed the role of dreams in his fiction fascinate me. I know he was familiar with work of Freud (as indeed is shown in the passage I am about to quote); one wonders what he would have made of Jung. Sometimes it seems to me that his dreams and stories touch upon the idea of a collective unconscious. One of HPL's most extensive fictional statements on dreams occurs at the opening of Beyond The Wall Of Sleep:

    At the very end you can see HPL setting up his weird narrative; but, that aside, I feel this passage stands as a remarkable expression of the power and mystery of the protean, cryptic narratives we call our dreams.
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    w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Member

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    Do y'all enjoy audio Lovecraft? There is a brilliant series called The Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft from a company called Audio Realms, and they are absolutely delightful. I think there are six sets in all, although #7 has long been announced as forthcoming at Amazon and will be an entire reading of Charles Dexter Ward. The reader is Wayne June, and he is marvelous. My favourite thus far is Volume Five with "The Lurking Fear," "The Thing on the Doorstep" and "The Haunter of the Dark" -- although in "Haunter" they have, in ye last sentence, "titan blue" rather than "titan blur"! Ia!!! Volume Six is an entire reading of At the Mountains of Madness. It is really nice, when one is in the mood for HPL but too weary to read, to pop one of these discs into ye cd player or laptop.

    A charming British woman who calls herself MorganScorpion has also been doing a lot of Lovecraftian readings. I keep forgetting to listen to her reading of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. She delighted me by reading the entire text of my sequel to Lovecraft's "The Hound," which one may listen to at the Thomas Ligotti Online forum. Listening to audio texts often brings out aspects of a work of fiction that elude me from reading the text. One catches the wonderful poetic cadence of Lovecraft's prose by listening to a reading.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Well, as promised, I will attempt to put into coherent form my own thoughts about that odd "something" which engulfs the titular character of "He"... and about one or two other things connected to that little tale.

    I tend to agree with the idea that this "colossal, shapeless influx of inky substance" is the idea of the shoggoth slowly taking form (as does, apparently, Robert Waugh); but I think it also had already begun to emerge in rather different forms, in some of Lovecraft's other work. As the shoggoth is capable of taking on any form, so this "manifestation", if you will, is simply one of many of the basic idea. We saw something of a different, yet related, type in "The Shunned House", also one of his "New York stories", as it was written the first October that he was living there (though placed in Providence -- just one example of his growing need to return to the city of his birth and leave behind the foulness-- for him -- that was New York). What I refer to there is the amorphous, shifting form of the vampiric entity in the cellar of the house, even to the extent of not necessarily being solid or vaporous, as well as the description of what the narrator sees when it engulfs his uncle Elihu Whipple:

    The images here are not really all that far from some of those in "He", yet they are different enough to carry a more complex series of associations. In "He", that inky entity does seem to carry the idea of the non-white engulfing the white, albeit a corrupted vision of both. Yet this monstrous influx is also similar to how Lovecraft described the inhabitants of the East Side in his letter to Frank Belknap Long of 21 March 1924, in what is one of Lovecraft's most pungent expressions of racism:

    And this sort of imagery of such a fungous, formless, protoplasmic mass, it seems to me, is carried over into "The Horror at Red Hook" as well, though here it is oddly not directed at the "alien hordes", but at the nightmarish saraband of all the figure loosed from our deepest religious and superstitious urges and beliefs:

    Note, too, the "grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding". It would seem that Lovecraft's mind kept returning to and refining this basic image and its implications, over and over, but always in connection to non-whites and the fears and dreads of superstition and/or primitive forms of religion, which those same "aliens" continued to carry with them, like the seeds of plague.

    Which, not coincidentally, ties in I think with the fact that in "He", "The Horror at Red Hook", and "The Street", we have another recurring image: that of ancient, venerable houses representing a proud American history suddenly crumbling and collapsing from a hidden rottenness veiled by their surface solidity... a rottenness always connected with the incursion of the alien and hybrid cultures which themselves engulf and absorb these "oases" of Anglo-Saxon (or at least Teutonic) influence.

    Mind you, I am not at all convinced that Lovecraft himself had reasoned out the symbology here, or what it all meant; but I do think that these themes were revolving in his mind over and over (as evinced by his letters and even some essays of the period), and these particular images had an immense power for him, addressing such concerns while making them at least marginally bearable for the time being. It is as if, by turning these fears and loathings into the language of dream (as Maurice Lévy pointed out), Lovecraft found a way to live with them without quite being able to come to understand or be comfortable with them, as he was, say, with the night-gaunts and the like.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Well, it seems others were posting at the same time, so I'm a bit behind again now....

    Yes, Wilum, I do enjoy audio Lovecraft, very much (at least when done well, which is surprisingly often the case). In fact, I have come to a point where I often read his works aloud myself, just to better appreciate the poetic use of the language, the rhythms and cadences, and the musical and even orchestrated effect of his prose. He was one of the few writers of the period to be truly aware of the impact of good rhetoric on literature, and to turn it to his advantage.

    At any rate, thank you for the suggestions. I cannot, at present, afford to invest in such; but I'm hoping that will change a little later in the year, as I would love to have several of these in my collection of CDs (limited as that has, so far, been).

    J.P.: Yes, that is part of what I addressed in my own little notes on "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" which I have written down. I find this to be an excellent example (as are the openings of so many of his tales) of what Joshi calls his blending of the classic essay form and the prose-poem -- a marvelously effective combination. That first paragraph is rich in addressing both the tale itself, his general approach to dreams and their significance in the life of a fully-developed, evolved human being, and to many of the themes which he addresses time and again in his entire oeuvre. Fascinating stuff, and one of the things which draws me to Lovecraft's work over and over through the years....
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    w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Member

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  13.  
    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    Thanks for that lengthy post on Lovecraft's shoggoth-things and their origins in his reactions to multicultural crowds in New York. The observations on some of his horrific creations being, not entirely conscious, ways to fix an image of what had unnerved him so much are particularly interesting to me, as they add another dimension to my exploration of the role of dreams in Lovecraft's fiction. It seems as if in some ways his fiction served some of the purposes of a dream. It's trite to compare imaginative writers to dreamers, but I think what gives a successful tale of the weird or horrific its power can be precisely that it should draw on images and themes that resonate with the writer on a subconscious level, more usually explored in dreams. In Lovecraft's case this helped him create symbols that transcend the writer's own particular prejudices in their power to unnerve.

    We've touched on Lovecraft's imagery of 'alien hordes' whether literally or sublimated. I also wonder about the father-(or possibly grandfather-)imagery in Lovecraft; consider the man in 'He', the old man in 'The Pictures In The House', the eponymous 'Terrible Old Man' of Kingsport and Joseph Curwen. There's a certain recurring theme of older male figures who have authority and power - but in dark, forbidden areas, and have the power to destroy, devour or even supplant younger male figures. I know something of Lovecraft's life, and one obvious course would be to link this to his fancies about his father, whom he long thought had gone insane. However, one wonders if it could have anything to do with the grandfather who was closer to him, and introduced him to horrific tales - a dark, fascinating realm that in a way swallowed up Lovecraft. In any case, this is another recurring theme in Lovecraft that is perhaps less commented on by the general public than his alien gods, hybrid creatures and so on, but nonetheless a very intriguing thread that runs through many works.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Actually, Lovecraft (at least according to his writings) thought that his father had suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed. Winfield Scott Lovecraft did, in fact, go insane -- the diagnosis was "general paralysis of the insane" or "paresis", and it is almost certain that he suffered from tertiary syphillis. (M. Eileen McNamara wrote an article for Lovecraft Studies on the subject, also reproducing WSL's medical records from Butler Hospital. It makes genuinely chilling (and heart-breaking) reading.

    As for the "terrible old man" type (or archetype) in his fiction... there has been a fair amount of work on this aspect of things, from passages in Robert Waugh's The Monster in the Mirror to Carl Buchanan's "'The Terrible Old Man': A Myth of the Devouring Father" (Lovecraft Studies #29) and Richard Ward's "In Search of the Dread Ancestor: M. R. James' 'Count Magnus' and Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (Lovecraft Studies #36); as well as passages in some of Donald Burleson's and (if I recall correctly) Peter Cannon's books. There are others as well, but these are the main ones which spring to mind....

    Incidentally, I don't see the shoggoth as emerging only from that; as others have pointed out, part of the impetus for the shoggoth as we know it is Smith's story, "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros", which introduced Tsathoggua, and which also had that particular deity as a rather plastic entity strongly reminiscent of the shoggoth. This was incorporated into HPL's revision, "The Mound", albeit as a detail rather than a main motif... so, again, these concepts began to take form from many sources, and only gradually assumed the shape we recognize today....
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    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

    Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Knivesout no more

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    Count Magnus? Yes, I can see how that ties in, in a way. It's one of James' most chilling tales, I think and even though the old Count is never directly seen, he does fulfill the 'terrible old man' requirements down to an eventually fatal pursuit of the younger man.

    The titles of those essays are fascinating. One day I am going to have to spend what will no doubt be ridiculous amounts of money acquiring the critical literature on Lovecraft.

    And yes, I realise it would be stretching a point to trace any particular element in fiction, like the shoggoths, to one primary inspiration. What I enjoy is finding the different sources so that one may view the armature and the final product, much like listening to a symphony with score in hand.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Some of the best of the critical literature is still in print, though it can vary in price. (Burleson's Disturbing the Universe, for instance, isn't cheap; while Lévy's Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic is quite reasonable, at least in used editions. And, of course, some of the issues of Lovecraft Studies can still be found for very reasonable prices... though earlier issues tend to cost, and cost big.)

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