Excellence in Lovecraft

  1. w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Well-Known Member

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    I have been delving into the advance reading copy of THE NEW ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT, and Lovecraft's fiction remains, for me, excellent, vital, living, original, inspiring. Yet, more and more, I see online discussions about what a bad writer Lovecraft was. Much of this seems to center on a personal dislike of Lovecraft because of his extreme racism rather than an in-depth and intelligent investigation of his Literary merits. Sometimes I wonder if my ecstatic passion for Lovecraft's poetry and prose hasn't made me a bit blind to what may be his faults as a writer. I do not see any excessive overwriting or purple prose; I see only the sincere attempt to write weird fiction that is fine, artistically and intellectually. I find in Lovecraft a writer who is mostly in complete control of his narrative voice, his prose style, a style that shifts, subtly, for what the artist is trying to accomplish in different stories.

    I am not one who understands, professionally, what makes writing good. Although I have spent four decades trying to write worthy weird fiction, any talent I have is mine by instinct, not by "know-how." I have read much that is great, and have tried to learn from the work of great writers. And I feel in my gut that H. P. Lovecraft is one of the Greats. I came to become obsessed with Literature as Art when I became obsessed with the Life and Work of Henry James, who--like Lovecraft--was deeply concerned with the art of writing. Time and again, in Lovecraft's correspondence, we come upon his use of the word "art" in reference to writing, or to weird fiction in particular.

    With this thread, I want to be educated, to learn from you all those aspects of Lovecraft's writing that you find praiseworthy or damning. Another of my passions is Literary Criticism, and more and more I find myself impress'd with and appreciative of the many fine Lovecraft scholars who understand that which makes for good writing, and who are able to shew why Lovecraft's writing is excellent. Rereading the fiction in this fabulous new annotated edition from Leslie S. Klinger makes me want to shout louder than ever, "Lovecraft Is Great!" To be great does not mean that one is without flaws as an artist.

    I hope many of you will join in this discussion, and that we can communicate all aspects of H. P. Lovecraft's Work. I am not interested in ideas concerning Lovecraft's personal life, his habits, his hatreds, &c. I want to speak only of his writing, his life as an artist.
     
    Jun 1, 2014
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  2. Ningauble

    Ningauble Lovecraftian

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    An admirable ambition! I hope I can contribute something. :)
     
    Jun 1, 2014
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  3. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    I only have time for a brief comment at this point; I will gladly join in the discussion as time permits.

    As you say, being great does not mean one is without flaws as an artist; as even HPL admitted, Poe had plenty of flaws, yet I don't think anyone aware of literature in general will argue that Poe was not one of the greats. The same goes for Henry James, or any other writer one can name.

    And it is here, in his faults, that I would say the overwritten passages tend to fall. They are considerably less than is commonly perceived; but that misperception, I have contended, is because people simply don't read carefully, in the main. They read for entertainment, they read to be amused and have their fancies tickled, or to get a shudder now and again, etc. But few read with any great attention, and even those who do are often blinded by adherence to this or that preference in literary manner, use of vocabulary, etc. (e.g., the bulk of the twentieth century being so wrapped up in Hemingway's dictum, "kill your darlings", thus minimizing use of adjectives and the like). So what is, in most cases, a very carefully thought out technique for specific effects, is often seen as overwriting, when it is more a matter of a very unusual, but often very powerful, method of addressing particular human emotional responses.

    Yet such passages in Lovecraft genuinely exist, in my view. They are scattered here and there in his fiction, sometimes even in his best, as with "The Whisperer in Darkness" or "The Dunwich Horror", as well as his least, such as "The Hound" or "From Beyond". Even the latter is not without its merits, yet the entire tone throughout is perfervid, an hysterical voice which begins that way, rather than gradually building to such an emotional pitch. I think it is also this which mars "The Hound" -- the coloring might not be so noticeable, were it gradually built up to; but the entire piece is overheated, and this turns the story (whether or not by intent) into a form of self-parody. With his better tales, these things are more brief passages where his choices are too heightened for that stage in the development of the story, or where they become bombastic and prone to rather maudlin depictions of good and evil (as with Armitage)*. Or where his superior aliens make such gaffes as even a mediocre intelligence here would catch, as in "The Whisperer in Darkness". These latter tend to make the weaving of his atmosphere of menace weaker by overemphasizing or falsely creating a feeling of ineluctable menace when, in fact, the facts do not always support such an impression.

    The purple prose, of course, refers to that where the very tone and word choice exceeds what is suited to weaving that atmosphere so carefully, and this is the flaw of several of his earlier pieces, in varying degree -- some quite strongly, as the specimens mentioned above; others to a much milder degree, as in "Dagon", "The Tomb", "Hypnos", etc. (though that last almost borders on the earlier examples at times).

    In part, this stems from Lovecraft's lifelong attraction to the dramatic, something which can be seen in his letters and essays as well; hence a heightening of the language is to be expected; but it should not be too heightened, and it is in walking that line that HPL sometimes makes his missteps.

    Overall, however, I would agree that he is very much in control of his material, and what seems extreme writing to a casual reader is likely to be seen quite differently by one who reads his work carefully, and without a "modern prejudice" in mind... for Lovecraft wrote not just in an antique style, but in a very particular blending of antique and modern, with a very unusual blending (as Joshi points out) of the classic essay form with the prose poetic teqhnique... a difficult medium of expression, to say the least. And when he is most in control, as in "The Colour Out of Space" or At the Mountains of Madness, or even "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"**... then I'm not sure anyone could really best him at what he managed to achieve.

    *I have seen this same criticism levelled against Willett in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; yet I would argue this is not really true, as we are given plenty of emotional preparation for Willett's peroration, so that it strikes most readers as being very appropriate. Armitage's, on the other hand, are hackneyed, stereotyped, and myopic, and begin appearing much too early in the tale to have such preparation in place.

    *I see this as a prime example of how the language he uses seems, at first blush, to be excessive; yet, on closer examination, is almost the perfect choice of words. As a well-known example is the very odd statement of the narrator coming "face to face" with Innsmouth, as it is a ridiculous statement... or so it would seem. After all, no one can truly come "face-to-face" with a town; only with an individual or set of individuals. But it is a very carefully chosen phrase which foreshadows the ending of the story, making the phrase almost in a literal sense (and certainly in the most meaningful sense) true; a point which one is only likely to fully "get" upon already being aware of the plot and incidents of the tale.
     
    Jun 1, 2014
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  4. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    And then he writes over 900 words of measured prose! :D

    I would tentatively suggest that attention be given for a while not to Lovecraft's style, but to Lovecraft as a writer of plots. About.com says, "plot is concerned with how events are related, how they are structured, and how they enact change in the major characters. Most plots will trace some process of change in which characters are caught up in a conflict that is eventually resolved. Plots may be fully integrated or "tightly knit," or episodic in nature."

    Plot -- Plot Defined for Fiction Writers

    Considerations:

    1.Above all, Lovecraft wanted to create atmosphere or mood. That is, he wanted to evoke in the reader an imaginative and emotional state that by nature is not temporal; a "moment" in which the reader's entire attention, his intellectual, emotional, and imaginative faculties, would all be deeply exercised. During that moment, the reader would hardly be aware of the passage of time.

    2.This moment might, sometimes, be a moment of "wonder," although in many instances he was aiming for "dread" or "horror." We could lump these together as "the sublime."

    3.Lovecraft wanted to evoke this mood in others because it was what he prized in his own reading. Like many others, Lovecraft as a writer was largely motivated by the desire to achieve himself something close to what he enjoyed in reading others' writing. Lovecraft is always conscious of Machen, Blackwood, Dunsany, et al.

    4.OK, so if we grant that Lovecraft prized, and wanted to evoke, an intense moment of the sublime, then we can see that he faces a challenge. He aims at something that isn't in essence a "temporal" state. But a story writer must capture this state for his readers by telling a story, i.e. narrating a sequence of events.

    5.Thus, what Lovecraft had to do, time and again, was to figure out a sequence of events that, he could hope, would gradually develop that intense mood. But he wasn't enormously skilled at the construction of plots as described in the About.com bit quoted above. Time and again his plots do not really stand up to scrutiny, and mature readers may feel uneasily that they are engaging in special pleading when they have to deal with this aspect his work.*

    6.Lovecraft can be at his most successful in a narrative such as "The Colour Out of Space," which has little plot. Observers observe increasingly bizarre phenomena, and living things, from grass to humans, are victims of the trouble from the stars. But in many stories he seems to fumble his plots and/or to be unhappily dependent on pulp clichés, such as whispering rustics, protagonists who overlook obvious implications, etc. Characters are usually a major element in stories' plots, but Lovecraft has difficulties with any form of characterization other than sometimes quite lengthy potted biographies that have the effect of telling us too much about what the character is going to do or experience.

    I'm indebted to C. S. Lewis's short essay "On Stories," originally "The Κ Element in Romance," a 1940 paper read to an undergraduate group at Oxford, for the chief point I've attempted to make above. Lewis concludes: "In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive," etc. I warmly commend this essay -- which has much of benefit to offer to readers who love the sense of wonder.

    K stands for Kappa, the first letter in κρυπτός, "hidden."

    *Young readers may be more forgiving about defects in plotting than older readers. Surely the great majority of Lovecraft's admirers first read him when young. For them, plot problems were not that big of a deal. They "obediently" submitted to Lovecraft's efforts to getthem to read passionately. It worked. It still, perhaps, works for them when they read him because their reading now evokes not only the words on the page but the positive experiences of years of rereading. What was not a problem for them in their first readings, because they were young, is now not a problem for them because they successfully reconnect not only with the words on the page but with their own prior experiences.

    How many admirers of Lovecraft first read him at, say, age 35 or older?
     
    Jun 2, 2014
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  5. JoanDrake

    JoanDrake Well-Known Member

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    I'm not sure you can really do that with any artist, but particularly Lovecraft.


    H.P. was a "seminal" writer, first and foremost, much more influential on other writers than he was himself.


    (I can't help but think he would have just LOVED it here)
     
    Jun 2, 2014
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  6. w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Well-Known Member

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    I think we can certainly discuss Lovecraft's work as Literature without discussing what so many like to label his personal eccentricities &c. Yes, Lovecraft was and is deeply, hugely influential--yet none of the writers he influenced, including Robert Bloch, are much published today, whereas new editions of Lovecraft's fiction continue to appear. Just this year we have a new collection from Centipede Press, nine volumes of LOVECRAFT ILLUSTRATED from PS Publishing, THE VARIORUM LOVECRAFT in three volumes, and THE NEW ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT from W. W. Norton. The publication of these editions is not linked to Lovecraft's personal life but to the quality of his fiction, and its continual modern appeal to readers of all ages.

    He is seminal because he is excellent, original, captivating. It all has to do with the quality of his work, his Art. A poor writer, a bad writer, a lesser writer, would not have such a vital Literary life year after year, or such an increase of interest.

    He is himself, of course, as a Literary Figure, of vast interest. The continual publication of his personal correspondence testifies to that. I am particularly looking forward to the volume that will publish the joint correspondence of HPL and Clark Ashton Smith. But his continual fame as a fascinating figure of Literature needs its own thread. We can, and I hope we do, here discuss the quality of his Art, that which makes it find, that which we feel is its flaws, &c &c.

    ("...is its flaws..."???? oh wilum, honey, learn Correct English girlfriend.......
     
    Jun 2, 2014
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  7. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    I may be misunderstanding you here, but if not, then I don't agree. That he was a seminal writer, I would -- that much is obvious from the influence he has had on generations of writers, his own as well as those following. But I would also say he was very influential on the weird tale as a genre, broadening much of its scope and (as Fritz Leiber pointed out) being perhaps the first, or at least the foremost, writer to make the cosmos itself the source of terror. As Leiber put it in his early essay, "A Literary Copernicus":
    Or, as Peter Straub put it, he created a new genre, a type of story which had not really existed before, though there are precursors which have elements of this type, of course. And, when he succeeded, which was (to again quote someone else, in this case Ramsey Campbell) really quite often*, nobody could beat him. Quite simply, he did something which is unique (however much many have tried to imitate it), and he did it very well. It is an odd and ironic fact, given his adoration of the man, that many contemporary critics are coming to view Lovecraft as perhaps even more influential on the fantastic tale -- not just his own "Lovecraftian" type, but the weirdly fantastic tale in general -- than Poe. Certainly, he is second only to Poe in the respect accorded him by a variety of international critics and literary scholars; not only for his fiction, but as a general literary figure. including his letters, which put him at the same level as someone like Walpole or even (albeit in a different mode and manner) Chesterfield.
    Given his decades-long aid to new and aspiring writers (despite frequent frustrations along the way), most likely he would have been offering aid, advice, and meticulous critiques all day (and possibly all night) long....


    Dale: I think that, while there is a certain amount of justice to what you say about those encountering him at such a young age, you tend to overlook the number of writers his own age who admired his work. This was not restricted to his own generation, either. Vonnegut (I wish I could find the quote, but I first came across it in an issue of Writer's Digest, if memory serves) called him "a consummate prose stylist"; Straub. from initially disliking his work based on a superficial reading early on, became converted to a very admiring party when doing his work to put together the Library of America edition of the Tales; he has inspired a number of close examinations by various academics from several fields, many of them quite frankly admiring, few of whom encountered him when young; and even Borges, though at times expressing some ambivalence (and occasionally outright hostility), also included him in his Introduction to American Literature, with a rather lengthy (given the amount covered) passage.

    It may be special pleading (though I think not) but, having read a fair amount of the classics of the field from the earliest examples to the present, I would say that the objections to him on the grounds of characterization, etc., are no more than could be leveled even against such writers as Balzac, Maupassant, (Henry) James, Poe, Bierce, and a host of others, all of whom are recognized as (to again use the phrase) major literary figures; not just in the weird, but in general. As with Poe and even Hawthorne (though for different reasons), while Lovecraft tends to polarize people, he has emerged as a world figure in literature; his works are almost constantly in print all over the world, and the impact of them and the fascinating with both the works and the man have long transcended national or cultural boundaries. The French and Japanese in particular have taken to him quite strongly; but so have a host of others. In his own way, he has actually superseded many of his contemporaries who are more widely recognized by the American literary establishment -- again, much as Poe did. Whether this is a good thing or a bad (or neither), I don't really know. But it certainly seems to be the case, if one looks at the sort (and degree) of comment which has emerged on him over the past 40-50 years... a thing which would astonish, and perhaps even dismay, the man himself....


    * I think in particular of such things as, yes, "The Colour Out of Space" and At the Mountains of Madness, but also "The Call of Cthulhu", The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, "The Music of Erich Zann", "The Shadow Out of Time", "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Strange High House in the Mist", and even such a slight piece as "Polaris" (which really does, when one considers it, have cosmic implications).
     
    Jun 2, 2014
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  8. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Are we going to discuss Lovecraft as a writer of plots?

    I know he is popular. A great deal of his popularity seems to be due to the fact that, since the 1970s or so, horror has become a popular genre, and Lovecraft delivers the goods, tentacles and monsters from space and all.

    My understanding is that this thread is intended for exploration of the topic of literary excellence in Lovecraft. It seems to me that this kind of exploration usually focuses on his style (or styles). To date, so far as I know, those discussions have been inconclusive.

    I hope we can discuss the topic of plotting with good will and some rigor. I've offered some theses for discussion... perhaps these could help to focus a discussion of Lovecraft's plotting for a while.

    For an example of a story with story elements of supernatural horror, and that I think is superbly plotted, I would point to James's Turn of the Screw. In the light of the brief material I quoted above, from About.com, I think a fresh reading will reveal that the James novella is exemplary.

    So would anyone care to get down to cases?
    What about rigorous arguments for the excellence of the plotting in particular HPL stories? (I've contended that, in what's perhaps his best story, "Colour," an element of his success is that there was little need for plot. The story is largely the evocation of the sublime without need for much plot. In this way it is like Machen's "White People." Where Machen attempted a story with a lot more development of plot, like "Great God Pan," he wasn't very successful.)
     
    Jun 2, 2014
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  9. w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Well-Known Member

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    A discussion of Lovecraft's plots should also include his attitude toward the importance of plots in weird fiction, or rather in his weird fiction. From everything that I have read, he had very little interest in plotting, and perhaps even a slight prejudice against the idea of plots as in any way significant. S. T. Joshi seems to stress an importance on world view rather than plotting, and sees Lovecraft's cosmicism as the important component to Lovecraft's fiction. For a superb and concise outline of all of Lovecraft's story plots, we can refer to AN H. P. LOVECRAFT ENCYCLOPEDIA, by Joshi and Schultz. Are Lovecraft's plots a part of what makes his fiction original, especially in the years of composition and publication? How did the new unfolding genre of science fiction affect Lovecraft's approach to plotting? Did his burgeoning attempt to write for and sell to the sf pulp magazines really affect his plotting in such tales as At the Mountains of Madness, "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow out of Time"?
     
    Jun 3, 2014
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  10. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Wilum, I was intrigued by your initial request for discussion about the literary excellence of Lovecraft's stories. Was Lovecraft implying that, for the type of story he wished to write, plot should be regarded as of relatively minor importance? If he did imply that, was he right? On what basis can we argue that he was right?

    I'm hoping that we can have some reasonably rigorous thinking through here, about the matter of plots in fiction, and that we can get down to cases, individual stories. For example, would anyone like to argue that Lovecraft handled plotting rather well in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"?

    By the way, I think plotting is often a difficult area for the fantasist. Take The Lord of the Rings. I don't know if anyone here reveres that book more than I do. Yet it seems to me there's a plot problem of a familiar sort in it. It seems to take Gandalf and other great ones of the West too long to realize the nature of Bilbo's ring -- years, in Gandalf's case. Of course real-world history is full of situations at which we look in retrospect and wonder: how could they have done that? how could they have failed to see that? But I could wish that Tolkien's plot had accounted for the delay in the perception of the Ring's nature in some more compelling way.
     
    Jun 3, 2014
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  11. w h pugmire esq

    w h pugmire esq Well-Known Member

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    The idea of plotting in the case of Lovecraft is tricky at best. We know that Lovecraft not only fully imagined his stories but that he probably made extensive notes and outlines before the actual writing began--we have the notes for a number of tales in various collections of his essays &c. But we also have an account from Barlow that in writing "The Outsider," Lovecraft had originally intended to have the story end with the revelation of the chamber of caskets, and only later thought to add the portion following that with the Outsider venturing forth from the crypt, and then thought to add the final revelation in the mirror. I know from my own experience how, in writing a story, the story itself can lead the author down paths of inspiration that were never in the original outline or plan.

    Part of what I see as excellence in Lovecraft's fiction is his way, in the early stories, of blending dream with reality, to the point where we cannot be certain that a tale, even told in first person narrative, is a recollection of an actual event or a description of a fantasy/dream that has, for the narrator, aspects of reality. What is the plot of "The Music of Erich Zann"? We cannot be certain because so much in the story is nebulous. This is one of that fantastic story's strengths, to my mind. We cannot trust the narrative in "Zann" because from the very first line we enter a realm of confusion and doubt. Tales such as "Dagon," "The Outsider," "Nyarlathotep," "The Statement of Randolph Carter" also share this aspect. In "Statement," the place wherein the two searchers after horror find their fate is said not to actually exist by others who know the region well. How can this be? What, then, are the realities in Carter's narrative, what can be believed and what is pure fantasy or delusion? Later on, in those tales that are said to be his greatest, this borderland betwixt dream and reality vanishes. In "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Thing on the Doorstep," At the Mountains of Madness, "The Shadow over Innsmouth," and "The Shadow out of Time," there is no doubt that the story is rooted in reality. In these tales, dreaming plays a significant part--but they are stories of actual events rooted in humanity's dark history.
     
    Jun 3, 2014
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  12. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    First: My earlier post was in response to what you had asked at the end of yours -- about how many admirers of HPL first read him at 35 or older (though I think the specific age was intended to be just an indicator of maturity rather than a definite lowest age). What I was indicating is that there have been plenty such, from various fields, and various cultures.

    Now, given the definition from About.com (and, for that matter, the rather lengthier entry on plot at Wikipedia, which cites from Aristotle, Freytag, etc.), I would say that, on the whole, Lovecraft was actually very good with plots. I tend to agree with Peter Penzoldt when he says that Lovecraft's stories were "nearly always perfect in structure" (FDOC, p. 69). And as for a series of incidents, their structure and relationship, and their effect (change) on the protagonist (as well as other characters at times), I would say that these were there in abundance. At times they are not explicitly stated or "diagrammed", but they are nonetheless there.

    I will also venture to disagree with both Wilum and S. T. to a degree. In his earlier writings on the art, he did indeed express a strong interest in plot, though later it came to be of secondary importance to creating an impression or mood. Nonetheless, he viewed the best way to get there as closely involving plot, in most cases (some particular types of story, the "pure fantasy", as it were, are less reliant on this), as can be seen in his "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction", which states that one should write two synopses: one outlining the events and action in order of occurrence, the second in order of narration, before proceeding on to writing the story in even a rough draft form. So obviously, however he put it second to weaving the mood, it remained quite important to him.

    On your second point, I would say that it was less "horror" that he wished to evoke, but rather "terror" , albeit "horror" is there in plenty; e.g., the shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness are primarily horror (though also with some ontological terror involved) whereas the final climax of the thing beyond that second mountain range is an evocation of terror. This is carefully prepared for by the references throughout the novel of the plateau of Leng and Kadath mingled with the Dunsanian references and the dream imagery, gradually breaking down the accepted laws of time and space. Above all, this is a realm where all such structures break down, and this leaves us with no anchors to moor us, hence the mood here is one of true terror rather than horror.

    On the point that it has to be done in a "temporal" state -- he wished to evoke that feeling, yes, to capture that moment; but in order to do so, he presents us with a series of incidents which gradually build toward such a moment, rather than simply attempting to capture that moment itself. True, he sets out by identifying that moment, but always with a great deal of reservation; presenting the reader with (as Henry James said was so important) a mystery which the rest of the tale is required to resolve. Hence, also, his reliance on the "terminal climax" as everything which comes in between is meant to build toward that one final moment (Poe's "singleness of impression").

    This use of plot can be seen as early as "The Beast in the Cave", albeit there his youth causes the tale to be somewhat pedantic in presentation. But by "The Tomb", it is much more carefully crafted and all extraneous material is winnowed out, so that by the end the narrator has undergone an intensely drastic change, in becoming possessed of his ancestor (whether by this we mean an actual case of the spirit of that ancestor possessing his descendant, or his obsession with the tomb and its inhabitants -- particularly this one -- causes him to take on that personality).

    I think, too, that the concept of "plot" as described here may mean different things to you and I. I would agree that many of Lovecraft's stories are not "action-driven" as much as "knowledge-driven"; in fact, there is a distinct element of the detective story to many of Lovecraft's works as the protagonist strives to piece together the actual picture, generally to their detriment. But I would argue that he does indeed utilize a series of incidents which gradually cause a shift in his character(s), usually leaving the protagonist horrifically isolated in one form or another (the most extreme perhaps being the Outsider), but in any event, they are fundamentally changed by their experiences.

    Tied to this is my disagreement that "The Colour Out of Space" has little of plot. In the broadest sense, this may be true, and would certainly fit your description; but plot doesn't have to be in broader strokes, it can be in very small touches as well (for example, A rebours, the bulk of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, several of Henry James' short works, weird of otherwise). I would say that is the case here. There is actually plenty going on, as incident piles on incident to indicate the true state of affairs, and the effects on the various characters are quite different: the Gardners, worn down mentally, physically, and emotionally by the influence of the thing, become numbed to it, accustomed to stranger and stranger things, including the disappearance of other members of the family as well as the altered taste in food, etc.; Ammi becomes more and more reluctant to continue his friendship with them, and begins to withdraw; the narrator, even second-hand, comes to feel more and more the presence of something which violates all his previous conceptions of reality, going from a fairly solid emotional state to one who is filled with fears and night terrors and visions of an ever-spreading blight.

    And, despite HPL's own stated lack of interest in characters per se, he also stated that the human characters should be presented with "unsparing realism, not catchpenny romanticism", in order to make the acceptance of the phenomena which lies at the heart of the tale more reasonable. Hence, as said, his protagonists seldom make such leaps as most reasonable people of these sorts of backgrounds would be unlikely to make. On the other hand, often his handling of characterization is quite subtle, as with Lavinia Whateley, who is given a distinct air of pathos in a very understated fashion; rather than making her melodramatic and the center of attention, she is presented as a pathetic creature who dies an unknown and unlamented death, with the implication that she faces it alone (again, Lovecraft isolating his character for maximum effect).

    I don't really agree with your statement about his plots not standing up to scrutiny, generally speaking, though I do think there are certainly instances of such; and I would tie this to your later statement about the protagonist overlooking obvious implications... then again, as noted above, in the real world, people with the sorts of backgrounds his protagonists have would usually be blind to such simply because they are such violations of the accepted "natural order"; they are more likely to doubt their own perceptions or intuitions than to accept the implications which are, frankly, so beyond a naturalistic view of the universe. As with his protagonists, it would take an extraordinary amount of such to overcome their scepticism about the preternatural. So, while it may seem the cliché -- who hasn't felt frustrated with the protagonist of a horror film or the like who just seemed too darned thick at times -- I would argue it is actually a very reasonable and accurate presentation of such characters when faced with something which is so at odds with their fundamental perceptions of reality. "Core beliefs" override evidence time and again in everyday life, and we are all prone to this sort of blindness in one area or another.

    Incidentally -- I would argue that there are severe plot holes in The Turn of the Screw, even though I think it a marvelous performance. There have been various essays over the years pointing this out; I don't have a list, but if you look about a bit, I would imagine you'd find them fairly easily.

    Wilum: I think that yes, his plots did make his work original; certainly for his time. Even Neil Gaiman, who criticizes "The Call of Cthulhu", also admits its originality of conception. Not all of his works are that original, of course; several of his earlier stories were much more closely allied to older models of the weird tale; but as time went on, he did indeed create his own type of tale, working out particular methods for telling such. As for the science fiction magazines and the like influencing him... perhaps, to some degree, though I think that was relatively little. After all, he largely disdained what was being published there as simply crap (with a few notable exceptions), and didn't bother reading most of it through, he found it so hackneyed and predictable. But what he saw as the best of it may indeed have given him some ideas about how to handle certain aspects of his own tales. However, by the time he was attempting to publish in these, or saw publication in them, his fiction writing days were practically over, so the influence was not likely to have been that great. I could be quite mistaken, of course, and someone else may have some very good indications that I am; but I would say that this was a very minimal thing in his life, and nearly all the aspects which might bear some comparison with the approach of the science fiction magazine stories were there from early on.

    Dale: On the subject of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"... yes, I believe he did. I may not be able to reply in detail to any questions on that right away (once the work week starts, time becomes very scarce, I'm afraid; even with the change in management, that hasn't changed), so the discussion may be somewhat attenuated -- but if no one has any objections to such, I'm willing to undertake to make a case for such a position.

     
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  13. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Wilum, again I will take issue with you on this -- I would argue that this blurring of the lines is still very present, may in fact be the crux of the matter in several of these tales; but it is presented in a much more subtle, understated fashion. I refer above to the mentions of the dreamlands stories in At the Mountains of Madness. As I have indicated elsewhere, I think the relationship between these tales and that short novel are much more than mere atmosphere weaving; I believe that, in order to truly "get" MM, one must be aware of the earlier tales with their implications, as Lovecraft builds on those for particular resonances and hints of the significance of certain things. That distinction between "reality" and "dream", and the threat of a breaking down of that distinction, so that there is no certainty of reality, is one of the key aspects of nearly all his work; hence the use of such dream imagery and the language of dream in so many of his tales.
     
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  14. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I haven't written very much, but, yes, that's my experience too. In my "Lady Stanhope's Manuscript," if anyone's happened to have read that, the incident in which the invalid's apparition is seen in the tree was as much a surprise to me as to the people who saw it.
     
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  15. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I confess that, when I ventured the thesis that Lovecraft often had troubles with plotting, I was thinking of later stories. You rightly remind me of his earlier work, wherein sometimes plot needed to be only minimal.
     
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  16. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    When your time permits, perhaps you can explore this. It seemed to me that "Shadow Over Innsmouth" might indeed be a good story to unpack in order to show Lovecraft handling plot effectively.
     
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  17. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I make a distinction that, perhaps, others won't accept, between adult readers who already like horror fiction and discover Lovecraft as adults, and readers who like "literary fiction" and discover HPL as adults and are impressed, like Borges -- although I'd have to look up just what Borges wrote; I have that American Lit book, but it's packed away somewhere, I think.

    Here follows a digression:

    As you know, I have wondered if C. S. Lewis and/or J. R. R. Tolkien read "The Shadow Out of Time" or At the Mountains of Madness in Astounding and liked one or both of these late HPL stories. I've pointed out that Lewis was reading American sf magazines early on -- I'm pretty sure Donald Wandrei's "Colossus" was the story he had in mind when he acknowledged influence of an American sf mag story on his Great Divorce. "Colossus" appeared in 1934, before the two Lovecraft stories.

    http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/536718-sf-f-short-fiction-magazines.html#post1615217

    Book Reviews, Creative Culture - Brandywine Books

    I think it's quite possible that, as an adult, Lewis encountered Lovecraft and enjoyed one or both of these stories, and Tolkien may also have done. In fact I've wondered if "The Shadow Out of Time" influenced Tolkien's Notion Club Papers, an unfinished novel from the 1940s.
     
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  18. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Isn't it true that HPL often has characters who are already conversant with the cycles of "myth" and the forbidden books that provide the key to understanding the horrible truth, and yet their arrival at the truth is delayed? That's my impression, although "Dunwich" is the only HPL story I have read recently. If the impression is correct, then that would be an example of a recurrent plot problem for HPL. It may be his wish that we take the characters as knowing of these myths and books just as vestiges of ancient superstition, and then they have to realize that, for all their rationalism, those superstitions are true, but, if so, I don't know that his plots dramatize this process of realization very convincingly; what (it seems to me) is often the case is that I feel that the realization is delayed because HPL needs it to be so that he can build the mood. In other words, HPL hasn't managed to integrate everything so that the work is a satisfactory whole. It is that like that old problem that Sir Walter Scott said about one of his books, that it wasn't a good book but it had good things in it.

    Again, I'm thinking of HPL's later stories, the ones usually identified readily as Cthulhu Mythos stories, I suppose.

    So, again: Lovecraft wants to create a mood or an apprehension of the imagined Sublime, but to get to it he needs the apparatus of plot, and there he sometimes runs into difficulties. Isn't that evident in "Dunwich" or even the late and impressive "Shadow Out of Time"? Are we all quite convinced that the narrator of the latter story would have all that information and experiential evidence but yet still not "get it" till he sees the document in his own handwriting?

    The story works -- I'm not trashing it, I'm just saying I think there's a plot problem there that HPL didn't manage with entire success. But I've been reading and rereading it for over 40 years with enjoyment. I personally feel that I'd probably have to do a bit of special pleading to get past this issue, though, if I were arguing for the merits of the story with an adult reader new to HPL and who wasn't willing to take his achievement as a given. But this would be one of the stories I would probably recommend to a new reader.
     
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  19. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    I can supply you with at least a part of that. As Barton L. St. Armand notes, Lovecraft "is accorded as much space as had been previously allotted to E. A. Robinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Robert Penn Warren". He then goes on to quote the passage:
    What is impressive is that Lovecraft, still considered here and in the UK at the time Borges wrote this book to be a very minor writer (he was already seeing considerable appreciation in Europe), was given so much space; this indicates that Borges saw him as a much more important literary figure than most of the English-speaking world did at that point. He also said in an interview: "I like Lovecraft's horror stories. His plots are very good, but his style is atrocious. I once dedicated a story to him" (from Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, p. 376). The story, as I believe you know, is "There Are More Things", from The Book of Sand.
    It would be very interesting were anything to come to light indicating this is the case. As it is, it's a fascinating thought, though I rather think Tolkien, at least, would find Lovecraft's style as little to his taste as did M. R. James.

    I think that yes, this is perhaps the most problematic aspect of these things. While the professors at Miskatonic in "The Colour Out of Space" are not aware of this sort of thing, by the time of "The Whisperer in Darkness" and At the Mountains of Madness they are... albeit in the first, it is understandable, given that Wilmarth is a folklorist. That one of the Antarctic expedition's team would be aware of these books would be quite acceptable, given the sort of notoriety they are likely to have had both because of their being so restricted, and because of even a "hushed-up" version of the events of what happened with the Whateleys. That several were is a bit more difficult to accept; though again, given that notoriety and the fact that such is recent history (to them), they might well have been tempted to look into these things because of their connection to such. But their being so slow to come to an acknowledgment of the truth of these things is thus strained, yes. Not, I think, to the point of incredulity (given, as I mentioned, real-life examples of just such blindness), but nonetheless a weak point when these stories are viewed together rather than singly. In the context of the individual stories, it is more convincing, I think. But I agree that this is a weakness. On the other hand, the majority of his characters are not in the position of having seen examples of this "myth-cycle" at work; hence are much less likely to make that leap easily.

    I don't, however, think that Peaslee's trouble accepting his own experiences as reality is all that unlikely; not only is the threat to his established worldview considerable, but there is the personal application, and what that means to him as an individual (something which calls into question his own identity and perception of who and what he is) to contend with. It takes something as concrete as his holographic manuscript to furnish that final link in the inescapable chain which binds him to the reality of those desperately denied memories and, given the genuine impact of such a truth, I can quite easily believe that nothing less would overcome the final walls a person would tend to put up around to protect the core of their identity.
     
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  20. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I'm prepared to accept this point about Peaslee's personal point of view. What complicates things is that, even on a first reading, the reader has never had any doubt -- over so many pages -- that Peaslee's experiences were real. I mean, the reader knows well that there's no way we're going to reach the story's end and discover -- Yup, it was all an aberrant mental episode with an explanation that leaves the understanding of earth's history, etc. right where it was! Unfortunately Lovecraft has structured the story such that the "terrifying realization" is evidently meant to be the story's big payoff. Thus I see this as a real plot defect.

    Isn't that basically the same problem, by the way, with a much inferior story, "Pickman's Model"? "Elliott, it was a photograph from life!" But the reader has never doubted that the ghouls, etc. were real. I don't think the argument that the story is trying to attain, not a surprise ending but a "confirmatory" ending, is persuasive, since, for me at least, there is little doubt that Lovecraft did like the idea of a shocker ending. But I mention "Pickman" as just a footnote. In my view, Lovecraft wouldn't be worth reading if this one represented the height of his achievement. Granted the plotting flaw in "Shadow," still this story has continues to impress because of other elements.

    As another "footnote" -- it's a while since I read "The Haunter of the Dark," but that might be one in which the "confirmatory" conclusion succeeds.

    ....Let me worry that Wilmarth conclusion a little more. What do you think we are supposed to feel at the end of the story? I see two possibilities, neither of which comes off for me.

    1.Shock -- which is what I have assumed above was HPL's intention.

    2.Sympathy -- i.e. we've known all along that Wilmarth's experiences were real and that this effort of his to rationalize the truth away was bound to fail. Perhaps I'm coldhearted, but I don't, myself, have enough invested in Wilmarth the character to feel a cathartic pity for him.

    In reading Oedipus Rex, we know that Oedipus is going to find out the horrible truth: he killed his father and married his mother. This is never in doubt. Sophocles manages his plot, dialogue (however formal it is, with choruses, etc.), etc. such that many readers feel pity for (first) Jocasta (Oedipus's mother, who catches on to the truth before he does) and Oedipus. The play is probably one of the first literary examples that will come to people's minds with regard to catharsis.

    Do we feel anything like that for Wilmarth?

    We might feel something approaching that emotion if Lovecraft's plot were different. For example, Wilmarth could be forced to realize that he has unwittingly committed a terrible transgression. There's a suggestion that the wind-creatures have been stirred up by human exploration, but is Wilmarth specifically implicated? And do they pose a serious threat? Etc. In Sophocles' play we really do feel something of the horror of Oedipus' unwitting transgressions, and of the irony that the very actions that were meant to prevent their prophetic fulfillment have helped to bring them about.

    I'm contrasting Lovecraft to one of humanity's literary masters to try to bring some light to bear on the question of HPL's literary excellence. It is the great works that serve as touchstones for the highest attainments. So I'm saying that we have a story here with some similarities to "Shadow," and by putting them side by side we can see the relative weakness of Lovecraft's plotting more clearly.

    I often feel misgivings about the literary experience of some Lovecraft advocacy. He gets compared to his imitators and to various popular writers of our time who -- I think we could agree -- have little prospect of being remembered. So I welcome a "literary excellence" thread, and encourage reference to literary work outside the box of the horror genre.
     
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