Lovecraft's Comfortable World

  1. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Really, Lovecraft's stories have more in common with The Wind in the Willows than they are given credit for.

    By and large, Lovecraft's world is free of adult concerns. The protagonists do not have to work for a living. To the extent that money is even thought of, it's just there as needed. They have none of the responsibilities of marriage and family; as in The Wind in the Willows, there are, in effect, no children. The protagonists have ready access to interesting museums, music, books. If they wish, they can travel to interesting places. They have no responsibilities to employers and no sense that there is a God to whom they may be accountable. If they work at all, they find their work interesting.

    Yes, eventually they encounter horrifying phenomena; the parallel with Grahame doesn't hold up always. But here the stories remain comfortable for the reader, because nobody thinks that a Lovecraftian entity exists outside of the productions of popular media. The real strangeness of space is absent from Lovecraft's fiction; in his work it is a medium through which winged creatures ("Whisperer in Darkness") may be able to pass, as if space were just "night." We know better, and, of course, we know HPL also did. His philosophy is not really a threat to anyone, as I have implied in several threads on the failure of Lovecraft's philosophical project.

    In writing this I am not really demeaning Lovecraft's achievement. I have compared his fictional world to that of The Wind in the Willows, which is a book people can first read as children and continue to enjoy all their lives. I first read Lovecraft at age 14 and have continued to do so with enjoyment. He has virtually never scared me. His prose and his horrors are generally too outlandish to be scary.

    PS What of Lovecraft's racism and, it is sometimes alleged, misogyny? Honestly, I think they play a part in the "comfort" factor, albeit not a straightforward one. Sticking to racism, which is certainly there: this gives Lovecraft's critics teeming opportunity for virtue-signaling. They can express their abhorrence of racism and signal their right-thinkingness to one another at no cost to themselves. They feel good about themselves when they supposedly are agonizing over Lovecraft's racism. Self-approval is a comfortable emotion, is it not?

    As here:

    Acknowledgment is Not Enough: Coming to Terms With Lovecraft’s Horrors - Los Angeles Review of Books
     
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  2. lynnfredricks

    lynnfredricks Well-Known Member

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    It seems to me that many of the protagonists are living the life that HPL idealized - receiving support and comfort for pursuing intellectual interests that he also was interested in.

    I don't exactly see the connection between the thematic comfort and quacking-and-flapping virtue signaling. Is there one?
     
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  3. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I'm thinking there are three levels of comfortableness in Lovecraft.

    There's the initial situation of the Lovecraft protagonists, we readers enjoy the snugness. I don't think this gets acknowledged very often, but I think it's there. The protagonists have the uncomplicated lives of children but the freedoms of adults.

    And then when the horrible things happen, we don't actually feel vicarious or imaginative fear. The things that happen are just too outlandish.

    And then, thirdly -- and to your question -- there's the racism in Lovecraft, which is always mentioned as in the item I linked. And I think the people who talk about it feel good when they do. They are signaling their solidarity with other right-thinking, self-approving people who deplore such things. It's a comfortable feeling and it costs nothing. I mean, really! Lovecraft's been dead 80 years, and (as far as anything public is concerned) his kind of racism is about as remote as, say, passionate Prohibitionism. One would think it's hardly something these folk needs to write about so much. So I ask myself what needs or satisfactions the deploring of Lovecraftian racism serve, and I tentatively conclude that a lot of it is virtue signaling. And that is evidently a comfortable thing for a lot of people.

    It's probably also a way of acknowledging their enjoyment of something questionable. In some way it's probably related to the way people used to say they bought Playboy for the articles. People want to indulge their enjoyment of something while still being high-minded and correct.

    I'm writing with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek in this thread, but I'm not kidding all that much either.
     
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  4. lynnfredricks

    lynnfredricks Well-Known Member

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    Do you think this would also have been a factor when the stories were first published?

    A way to gain permission to discuss some portions by decrying the deplorable portions?
     
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  5. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Would people in the 1920s and 1930s have vicariously enjoyed the comfortable lives of Lovecraft's protagonists? Sure -- especially during the Depression, which, as far as I recall offhand, is simply ignored in HPL's stories, as if it weren't happening. Someone might set me right on that. The escape for a little while into a snug world of independent means, culture, books, no responsibilities, etc. should have been appealing.

    I really do think this is a factor in the appeal of HPL's stories, but one that isn't often noticed. I'm not saying it's a literary fault.

    As I've suggested on another thread, I also don't think that we readers take seriously the supposed question of whether Lovecraft's narrators have been driven insane.

    Would people in HPL's own time have found his plots and creatures so outlandish as not to be scary? I don't see why they should have. By the way, I don't mean that there is nothing scary in his stories. I'm not sure he always knows what to make of it, but, yes, the idea of exploring deep, lightless caves will make most people uneasy; they can relate to that. Many, like Blaise Pascal, have looked into the night sky and felt "Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m'effraie," and Lovecraft taps into that. And so on. But what I mean is that when we read his stories, for all the emphasis on bizarre creatures and madness-inducing revelations, I don't think most people are actually creeped out. Excited, yes, led to feel suspense, but not creeped out in the way one may be creeped out by, say, Burrage's "One Who Saw," or Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, etc. One may not believe that ghosts are possible and still be creeped out by these eerie tales. I would figure I would be more likely to have frightening dreams after reading these than after reading "The Call of Cthulhu," etc. In that way, then, one could say that HPL's stories tend to be "comfortable." But here my argument depends largely on my impressions of own experience -- that in almost 50 years of reading Lovecraft I've rarely felt his stories, for all that they are classic "horror stories," to be scary. It may be that other readers, though, will be able to report that the stories really have got under their skin and given them "chills."

    I'm probing here in hopes of getting people to think a little more about what the experience of reading Lovecraft is really like, as opposed to what people often say it is like, or the way reading him is "supposed" to be.
     
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  6. lynnfredricks

    lynnfredricks Well-Known Member

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    Readers of the magazines in which he wrote certainly would have.

    The economic fallout of the Depression clearly affected different communities differently, as did Prohibition and the "Dust Bowl" drought, all culture-shifting events of the 20s and 30s. I think Lovecraft left out just about anything that wasn't immediately relevant to the story.

    I was thinking more about if they would find the ideas in the stories scary or not. In so many tales, a trip to the country dwells on creepy stuff happening behind closed doors. Those people who live apart from 'us' have strange ways - what else are they doing?
     
    Mar 12, 2017
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  7. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Hmm. Okay, city people would have more access to the magazines in which Lovecraft's stories appeared, and might have notions about the uncouth or even violent and perverse ways of the backwoods people (cf. Dickey's Deliverance). The thing is that I don't recall that the backwoods people (except for the Innsmouth residents) actually do much except mutter and look away when certain topics come up -- so there was a source of "creepiness" that Lovecraft could have developed that would have encroached on the "comfortableness." He generally didn't (and I'm glad that he didn't).

    Again, I'm not saying Lovecraft ought to have made his stories less "comfortable." I'm contending that one of the chief things readers like in the stories is "comfortableness," although this is usually not mentioned as a reason for enjoying them.
     
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  8. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    I don't know too much about the details of Lovecraft's life, but I find it very easy to imagine that a story such as Haunter of the Dark simply extrapolates from it - especially the sense of feeling isolated, even trapped with his fears. It's decades since I read his stories, but that's a theme I felt seemed to be a recurring one.

    IMO you're really touching on the wider theme that writers tend to write reflections of their own life - and that writing has always tended to be a pursuit of the leisured middle classes. Hence why Mr Frodo was able to relax and eat and smoke contentedly, rather than feel aggrieved at the daily injustice of class inequality.
     
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  9. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Someone once pointed out that Lovecraft's fiction is completely without love, sex or money. And if you are that sort of sexless intellectual - a cross between a stereotypical spinster and a bookworm - then yes, life is pretty good until you stumble upon the Incantation of Cd'fgltgh'wef and summon a blasphemous cyclopean thing.

    A better way of putting it, as Extollager says, is that Lovecraft's horrors aren't real. Cthulhu may be evil, but he's certainly not banal, as evil is: there's almost something comforting about how grand and magnificent the baddies are compared to the small and squalid minds of dictators and serial killers. The only points where squalor intrudes are at the lower ends of the scale, such as Innsmouth, and you can be sure that inbreeding will follow. (Maybe I shouldn't, but I always see Lovecraft's naivety and lack of interest in the world as something of a corrollary to his bigotry). I've always been much more unsettled by the low-scale baddies such as the Deep Ones or the Mi Go than the full-on space gods like Yog-Sothoth.

    Which makes me think that if you were like Lovecraft himself, the Lovecraft world would be a pretty awful place - not because it threatens those you love (like The Shining, say), but because of all the misgenation and physical nastiness. (I think people slightly miss how disgusted Lovecraft is by physical things: tentacles, slime, toads, etc.) But from what I've seen, it appears that Lovecraft could be quite jocular about his fiction and didn't seem to believe in it in a literal or semi-literal way. On the other hand, he bothered writing it, which says something. To write 200 pages about something, even an extended spoof of Dune replacing spice with tea, requires a sort of belief in your own material, a willingness to treat it seriously.

    EDIT:

    In Danse Macabre, Stephen King identified three types of horror: revulsion, terror and awe (we could probably add dread to the list). Revulsion is Ian Holm vomiting gunge; terror is Ripley hiding from the Alien; awe is the sight of the dead pilot in the alien spaceship. Obviously, in Cthulhu, Lovecraft is aiming for awe. But awe falls flat the easiest, because it feels too remote to hit home. The other two are easier, and to me Lovecraft succeeds more when he's just being gross or suspenseful, as per the escape from Innsmouth (although he didn't like that bit).

    So perhaps the moral is "aim low to succeed". But then you can can get an otherwise rubbishy work like the 1970s film Tourist Trap, which is largely forgettable apart from a few moments where waxworks seem to move. It's crudely done, and lasts only a few seconds, but for that time, the awe is there, and the comfort of watching a tubby maniac chasing leggy girls around is gone, and the film seems to tap into something much more powerful.
     
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  10. lynnfredricks

    lynnfredricks Well-Known Member

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    Mostly they provide a background and framework - the corrupted Dutch of The Lurking Fear, all the extended families of Dunwich, the hillbilly tribes of the Catskill Mountains in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, hungry Santa in The Picture in the House, and the like. Then you have the 'fallen nobles' as in The Rats in the Walls. Except for the intrusive and disturbing foreigners and decadent artsy types, city life is more knowable and sensible (and comfortable).
     
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  11. John Thiel III

    John Thiel III I'm sitting with a south shoe.

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  12. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    There's some truth to this, but I also think it's a simplification. For anyone discussing/critiquing/criticizing HPL and his work, it's the elephant in the room. How can you not acknowledge it, even if what you're more interested in discussing sits elsewhere in his work? And for at least some readers/writers I think it's perplexing that work displaying this quality can still be engaging, even absorbing, and trigger one's own imagination.

    I suppose what you're really addressing isn't the addressing of his racism but how it's addressed, and that's a legit crit. The tone of self-congratulation and self-righteousness can be annoying even in writings that otherwise show some insight, and are deeply irritating in writings that don't. But this is a determination that needs to be made on each individual piece presented.

    Tangentially, I find it interesting that this aspect of HPL's personality and work has become a propellant for other works of fiction -- it's addressed in Jonathan L. Howard's Carter & Lovecraft and more directly wrestled with in Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom and from reviews I've read it's part of the foundation of Matt Ruff Lovecraft County (which I hope to read later this year).

    The dreaded sentence ending italics!!! But you forgot the exclamation mark! You always know something bad is happening when the sentence ends in italics! And exclamation marks!!

    I think it's an interesting observation that probably also applies to M. R. James' stories and the Sherlock Holmes canon. And while we're at it, See also, Hemingway, Ernest. One of the criticism leveled against Hemingway was the absence of working stiffs, or of any concern by his characters for where their money would come from. Now, frankly, we had plenty of Steinbecks, Faulkners, Algrens, Dos Passos and others to attend to the various social strata, but old Papa was supposed -- sometimes by his own judgement -- to be the best of the best so how come none of his characters have a job unless it's as a boxer or a big game hunter, and even then those guys seem more like dilettantes?

    I don't know about this. Maybe individual reactions differ. I've been reading HPL off and on for 40+ years so the effect is no longer the same, but the teenage me was happy it was daylight when he was reading even "The Tomb" and "From Beyond" and was positively creeped out when reading The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness -- concepts like mind-swapping and a deep, secret history were new to me and exciting but also frightening.


    Randy M.
     
    Mar 30, 2017
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  13. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I don't see why the fact that Lovecraft can be accused of racism is supposed to make people generally more comfortable with him. The vast majority of people who dislike his racism aren't the sort of needy cranks who go around looking for something to be offended about. This is a genuine condemnation of the man, not "Look at me being all trendy". It's the equivalent of the rumours surrounding Marion Zimmer Bradley: how do you treat a good writer who has a massive moral failing? Do you give them the "benefit of clergy"?

    There is also the very un-comfortable fact that the same qualities that made Lovecraft a bigot probably fuelled some of his best stories. In particular, The Shadow Over Innsmouth needs the concept of inbreeding to work (there's an interesting comparison with The Island of Doctor Moreau, a much more self-aware treatment of related ideas). I can think of plenty of authors who were weird or nasty people, but not many whose badness made their work stronger.

    I'm not sure what to make of the books "answering" Lovecraft (I gather there's another book "addressing" the lack of women in the Dreamlands stories out shortly, too). I can understand why an author would do this (it must be very unpleasant to discover that your favourite author hated people like you), but I think I would rather see authors doing something entirely new, perhaps influenced by the good and bad in Lovecraft, but not specifically riffing off him. I say this only because I think there is a bit too much "responding" in SFF: the urge to imitate or comment on Tolkien held back fantasy as a genre for many years, if you ask me, and the cinema is clogged with pointless reboots.
     
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  14. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    Good point, and according to the L.A. Review of Books article, a point not lost on at least one of the contributors. Me, I think a massive rereading of Lovecraft and Faulkner might pay dividends. The issue of miscegenation reverberates through both and the different approaches to it during the same time period might be instructive.

    Maybe when I retire ...

    You know, by the late 1980s I'd have agreed with this because during the 1970s into the '80s every one who could type "Ia!" (note the invisible umlaut over the a) was coming up with consonant-ladden gods whose wide-spread and famous secret cults were nefariously performing unnameable rites to the lilt of passages from moldering tomes with unpronounceable titles. But some of the stuff I'm coming across is good in its own right. I just reread Sarah Monette's The Bone Key, merging M. R. James and HPL, and again found it extremely entertaining as well as well-written and well-thought out, and Caitlin Kiernan is building one of the most impressive bodies of work I've come across while tapping into HPL but writing her own stories. Of course, some stories from the '70s/'80s were pretty good, too, like "Black Man with a Horn" and "Sticks," and I still think Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness is somewhat undervalued by the sf/f/h community as a whole, and then there's the body of work from Thomas Ligotti.

    So, yeah, I hear you and generally agree, but some of these writers are doing good work now. Besides, this Lovecraft infatuation too shall pass, eventually.


    Randy M.
     
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  15. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Thank you for understanding me!
     
    Mar 30, 2017
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  16. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    It's a comfortable thing: to criticize the manifest moral failings of others. We are mighty good at it in America. We put BLACK LIVES MATTER signs on our property while spending on ourselves vast amounts of money that must come from the pockets of children (of whatever ethnicity) and the unborn who had no say whatever in our decision-making and may have to suffer for it. But we are virtuous people! Oh, how we do deplore the racism in H. P. Lovecraft (who died 80 years ago).

    Just a f'rinstance.
     
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  17. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    He'll get a free pass if it is taken that his emotions were homoerotic, censure if it isn't. (Yes, I'm kidding a little.)
     
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  18. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    More on the Comfortable World of HPL:

    The Greeks, I understand, had four words for love. (Now bear with me, I won't forget Lovecraft.)

    1.Affection is that warmth between "unequals," e.g. of pet owners for their animals, or parents for their small children, etc. It is undemanding and you don't generally have to work at it. In its essence it's a very good thing, though it can become possessive and may require dependence when it goes astray.

    2.Friendship is a love between equals that is usually associated with common interests. Two guys serving in the same military unit become "brothers." Two people working in the same office find out that they both like science fiction and they love hanging out during lunch hour and coffee break and talking about PKD, but the friendship deepens and one day the one friend is loaning the other all her savings. Friendship is not jealous; friendships are enriched as a friend of a friend becomes a friend. But people relocate, some develop new interests while others remain fascinated by the "old" interest. Most people who reach middle age may have old friends, but I suppose all will be able to think of people who used to be great friends and aren't any more.

    3.Eros is romantic love, seeking union with the beloved. It is apt to speak with the "voice of a god," demanding all from the beloved ans surrendering all to the beloved. It may be "as easy as falling in love" at first, but is liable to take a lot of working-at if the bond is to persist, e.g. in marriage.

    4.Charity or altruistic love or agape is self-giving love, "disinterested" love that may "need" nothing from the beloved but loves truly. It makes a lot of unsung heroes and heroines, as well as saints and humanitarians.

    Now I'd contend that, in Lovecraft's fictional world, which is what I intend this thread to be about (only dealing with his personal life as a definite side-concern), love is mostly absent, which to say the least of it is a big omission. It is one thing to suggest that the universe is a vast uncomprehending machine grinding away and taking no notice of humanity, etc. etc. But it is another to write stories that are, after all, about human beings, and to leave out love.

    Consider children's literature. In (at least) the children's books I think of, friendship is likely to be the only one of the loves that gets much of a look-in, for understandable reasons; eros is associated with sexual maturation, and charity (being, I suppose, the least "biological" of the loves) is likely to appear even later in life. (I'm consciously not exploring this topic further here; I'd need to do some more thinking, etc., and in any even this would take me away from Lovecraft's fiction; I think anyone would agree that charity as a factor in HPL's fiction is nearly nil.)

    But about friendship in Lovecraft's fiction. (1) I don't think it's all that common in his stories. If a friendship is mentioned, it isn't likely that it is much dramatized. (2) In any event, friendship seems to be the least demanding of the loves. If someone says, "You owe this to me as my friend," that friendship is likely in trouble, or indeed already over. Conversely, married people may humble down and spend hours, days, months, years wrestling with the selfishness that can be such an impediment to the deepening and enrichment of their love.

    So, to come to the point, the status of love is an element, even a key element, in Lovecraft's Comfortable World, a world of human characters but a world virtually without love. It is a world in which very few demands, or none, are made upon the protagonists. They seem to depend on no one else's love. When someone dies, no one is really bereaved; Lovecraft's world is almost entirely free of grief. And so it is "comfortable." It is fundamentally unchallenging for readers. It really is escape fiction, giving us something pretty close to the world we encountered when we were kids reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. And I do quite strongly believe that this comfortableness is one of the ingredients that make Lovecraft's stories so rereadable. It is quite pleasant to slip on that cmfortable old slipper once again.
     
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  19. John Thiel III

    John Thiel III I'm sitting with a south shoe.

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    Toby--I don't think it's pat that Marion Zimmer Bradley had a "massive moral failing", if that's what you said. She was always noted in science fiction fandom as being a stern moralist.
     
    Mar 30, 2017
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  20. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    John... in case you weren't aware of the accusations that, I suppose, Toby had in mind:

    Marion Zimmer Bradley - Wikipedia

    But further discussion of MZB should not appear on this thread. (y)
     
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