Lovecraft's Comfortable World

Toby Frost

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So, is M.R. James "comfortable"? I think he falls just on the side of "uncomfortable".

Like Lovecraft, James' world is refined (intellectually as well as financially), and doesn't have much to do with romance, illness, family life, financial issues or anything to do with the stresses of daily life. The average James protagonist is very comfortable, and lives a fairly similar life to the average Lovecraft hero - I actually get the feeling that James' guys are even more successful and accomplished, and perhaps happier interacting with the real world - speaking to students, visiting the city and so on without being disgusted.

I think that the smallness and the lack of overarching mythos or explanation of James' monsters make his stories less comfortable. Likewise the lack of blasphemous tomes that send you mad (how does that work?). The monsters are small, usually humanoid, and seem to have no contact with each other. I suspect that a lot of them are demonic, or revenants. Many don't seem particularly intelligent. There's no real way to interact with them or learn about their world, no occult science like that set out in the Necronomicon (and no SF elements).

Maybe the fact that they're not as visually inventive as Lovecraft's, and that they've never entered the popular imagination on their own (they're just "more ghosts") has kept James' monsters fresh (kinda). In "Confessions of a Pornographer's Shroud", Clive Barker takes a classic sheet-over-head ghost and does something interesting with it, but doesn't create a new creature. Likewise the monsters in James' stories. James is writing classic ghost stories in a way that Lovecraft isn't - he's just doing it very well. Or perhaps it's just me.
 

Extollager

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Here are a few thoughts on M. R. James and HPL.

It seems to me that Lovecraft's fans sometimes give him the benefit of the doubt in a way that one doesn't need to do with James.

I wonder how often people become HPL fans if they only first read him in, say, their thirties or later. On the other hand, I don't get the impression that the age of first reading has a lot to do with someone's response to MRJ. There must be many readers who first read HPL as adults, thanks to Lovecraft reprints by prestigious outfits such as New York Review Books, the Library of America, and Penguin Classics. "Lovecraftian" is on its way to becoming a recognizable adjective like "Orwellian." Do first encounters with Lovecraft by adults make fans? Incidentally, also I wonder how many of the copies sold of those HPL prestige reprints are to people who are already HPL fans/collectors.
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It's interesting to me that the copiously illustrated volume of James that I've seen was an Oxford release around 30 years ago, in which the pictures are almost all pencil sketches of architectural scenes -- cathedral cloisters and whatnot. It's a nice book and I liked the approach very much. Conversely, an illustrated Lovecraft will be replete with imagery of monsters, human beings in extreme situations, etc. -- an aesthetic out of old gruesome EC comics, recalling Stephen King's remark somewhere that, if he can't terrify or horrify, he'll go for the grossout.
 

Randy M.

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I'd add one bit to that, Extollager, introduction to HPL now no longer needs to come from books. Magazines, movies, tv shows, games (especially games, I bet) and probably media I'm not thinking of, all have been affected by HPL's brand of creepy-crawlies. As Toby points out, because it's less systematized (or maybe less open to others systematizing it) MRJ's work hasn't received attention that broad, influenced media that widely.

I guess, in a sense, HPL has received that much attention because his work can be commodified. You can get a plush Cthulhu, but who wants a plush bedspread with hairy mouth and teeth? (Granted, there may be a few potential customers. I only ask for 1% of net profits for the idea if anyone pursues it.)
 

Toby Frost

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I immediately assumed that the second photo was what you saw when you opened up that rather sober collection of MR James stories! Is the maniacal chap Charles Dexter Ward? There seems to be a copy of Borellus in the foreground!

In terms of having a big cult following, it probably helps to have both a range of exciting monsters and an overarching "world" that people can notice as they read more stories. The James stories don't really build on each other the way the Lovecraft ones do. Also, Lovecraft does provide a wider range of images than James. There's nothing in James like Cthulhu rising out of the waves, or the narrator of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" being chased across the town by fishmen. Lovecraft seems to have had a wilder and more extreme imagination than James.
 

Extollager

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"I guess, in a sense, HPL has received that much attention because his work can be commodified."

Zap! Right on target, Randy.

Lovecraft's fiction, it could be argued, is more like that of Edgar Rice Burroughs than the stories of M. R. James.

Just as there have been hordes of ERB imitations, there've been innumerable HPL imitations -- some of them probably by the same authors.

James is known for the "antiquarian ghost story," and my sense is that people who like James may already have been interested in antiquarian things or else become interested in them. With Lovecraft, there are antiquarian details in some of the stories, but I don't get the sense that his imitators feel the need to delve as Lovecraft did into the real past, they are content to make up a new cult, a new book, a new "deity," a new town with gambrel roofs cribbed from HPL.

More than once, I've written "Jamesian" stories, with the antiquarian element coming first. For example, in "The Pageant at Willowton," I really had read Glanvil's Sadducismus Triumphatus and come upon a passage I thought could be worked into a story, which it was, eventually. Likewise, the "AB language" is real, something I'd read about years before setting about writing the story.


So it seems that Lovecraft inspires imitations by people who enjoy his stories and want to recreate the feeling they get from reading them. They borrow props from him and his earlier imitators. I don't know that MRJ inspires a great deal of this kind of thing. A. N. L. Munby's The Alabaster Hand is certainly inspired by MRJ, but the author (himself a real scholar-librarian as well as POW) knew about more things than just MRJ, while with HPL imitators you may get the impression that HPL is most of what they know -- that, and movies with gruesome makeup and sex scenes, perhaps.


 

Extollager

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I immediately assumed that the second photo was what you saw when you opened up that rather sober collection of MR James stories! Is the maniacal chap Charles Dexter Ward? There seems to be a copy of Borellus in the foreground!
Whoops! Sorry that I didn't make it clear that those were two very different books.
 

Randy M.

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"I guess, in a sense, HPL has received that much attention because his work can be commodified."

Zap! Right on target, Randy.
I usually am.

(Yes, I know better, but it seemed like the thing to say.)
Lovecraft's fiction, it could be argued, is more like that of Edgar Rice Burroughs than the stories of M. R. James.

Just as there have been hordes of ERB imitations, there've been innumerable HPL imitations -- some of them probably by the same authors.

James is known for the "antiquarian ghost story," and my sense is that people who like James may already have been interested in antiquarian things or else become interested in them. With Lovecraft, there are antiquarian details in some of the stories, but I don't get the sense that his imitators feel the need to delve as Lovecraft did into the real past, they are content to make up a new cult, a new book, a new "deity," a new town with gambrel roofs cribbed from HPL.
Uhhhhh ... I think you're trying to pigeon-hole something that's too big for the slot you're stuffing it in.

I might have agreed with this in the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly CA Smith, RE Howard, Robert Bloch and Frank Belknap Long, among others, did some imitative writing that fits your description, as did several writers from the '60s and '70s (thinking Lin Carter, Brian Lumley, etc.). Fritz Leiber struggled with incorporating HPL into his fiction, but didn't write anything really imitative until the 1970s, and that a pitch-perfect pastiche. Even Ramsey Campbell fits early in his career. Real early, in his teens. But then he started to move away and over time his HPL-ish fiction like The Grin of the Dark is beyond anything Lovecraft did or probably was capable of. Interestingly, while I'm not sure you would approve of how M. R. James became more of a model for his writing (though not the antiquarian impulse), his appreciation for James was what began drawing him away from Lovecraft.

With Thomas Ligotti in the '80s and '90s (among others), stories stemming from HPL started to become less imitative, more thoughtful about what HPL was imagining while also pulling in other influences. For many of those writers reading HPL may have led them to Blackwood, Machen and James (maybe both James, but certainly M. R.). Over the last couple of decades writers like Victor LaValle, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Laird Barron have taken Lovecraftian and expanded what it does and what it can do. I'm about 100% positive you would not care for Barron -- I find a little bit goes a long way -- but Kiernan is one of the best dark fantasists working today and Lovecraft may have been a springboard for her imagination but it's only one element in her work.

More than once, I've written "Jamesian" stories, with the antiquarian element coming first. For example, in "The Pageant at Willowton," I really had read Glanvil's Sadducismus Triumphatus and come upon a passage I thought could be worked into a story, which it was, eventually. Likewise, the "AB language" is real, something I'd read about years before setting about writing the story.

I look forward to reading this.
So it seems that Lovecraft inspires imitations by people who enjoy his stories and want to recreate the feeling they get from reading them. They borrow props from him and his earlier imitators. I don't know that MRJ inspires a great deal of this kind of thing. A. N. L. Munby's The Alabaster Hand is certainly inspired by MRJ, but the author (himself a real scholar-librarian as well as POW) knew about more things than just MRJ, while with HPL imitators you may get the impression that HPL is most of what they know -- that, and movies with gruesome makeup and sex scenes, perhaps.
Let me suggest Fred Chappell's "The Adder". Chappell is slightly influenced -- or maybe more acurately, intrigued and amused -- by Lovecraft, and is by no means an imitator. "The Adder" is both homage and send-up of Lovecraft, infused with a sly sort of antiquarianism -- if an appreciation of Milton's poetry can be considered antiquarian. I think, if you haven't read it, you'd be much amused.

I've read 2 or 3 of Munby's stories and though they are competant, they lack the joie de vivre (for lack of a better descriptor), the energy and engagement with his materials that I find in James. That said, now you mention it, I should pull out The Alabaster Hand and read a few more. Christmas is coming after all.

 

Extollager

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Randy and all, I want to be sure that my point about “Lovecraft’s comfortable world” is not to fault him for failing to write unpleasant stories of an ugly, meaningless, despair-inviting world as I gather some more recent writers do. Rather, I’m trying to impress on his readers a contribution to Lovecraft criticism, that an important, but unrecognized and unacknowledged, element in the enjoyment many of the stories provide is the evocation of comfortableness. The essay tries to make that argument.

Somewhat related to that agenda is this, that I think that much of the appeal of his writing is his evocation of a type of the monstrous, where, if readers are really conscious of their reaction, “Cool!” would be an expression. Now I don’t think healthy people react thus to genuinely horror-inducing material, e.g. the maimed bodies of victims of violent crimes, etc. But when we read HPL, the shoggoths, the Innsmouth swimmers, the creatures in the subterranean Australian ruins, etc. are cool, and so, when we’re kids, we might even try to draw them or their lairs, might like old fanzines with other young artists’ renderings, etc. Yes, the creatures horrify people in the stories, but we readers think they are neat. Isn’t it so? I actually don’t read Lovecraft, these days.
 

Toby Frost

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I agree. I can't remember if I've posted this elsewhere or just thought about it, so apologies if I'm repeating myself!

It occurs to me that horror can be divided into "lighter" and "heavier" stuff. I was going to say "fun" and "nasty" but that doesn't quite work. A lot of modern horror is either kitsch in the sense of nostalgically repeating older stuff (especially the "slasher kills cheerleaders" sort) or a challenge to sit through owing to intense gore. Neither is really "fun" but neither has a very lasting psychological effect.

On the other hand, you've got things like The Shining (film and book), 'Salem's Lot and Alien, which aren't the goriest, but which have a lasting psychological effect on the reader. Something like The Stepford Wives (film and book) is hardly horror and at times lapses into intentional comedy, but its lingering effect is disturbing.

At moments, Lovecraft seems to blur into the "lingering" category, when he hits on a particular concept. I don't mean the big concepts (Cthulhu is a space god who rises from the depths) but particular details, like the suspicious letters and voices in "The Whisperer in Darkness". The aliens and brain-swapping feel far more comfortable than the idea of receiving letters and hearing voices whose provenance is uncertain. However, you can generally put a Lovecraft story down and not feel very unsettled by it. Cthulhu would be scary to meet because he's a big monster, and a picture of him might be awesome (both meanings!) but it's not really a lasting fear. It's easy to say "That would be frightening, but it's nothing to do with my life", the way that getting strange letters isn't.
 

Deathbird

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It occurs to me that horror can be divided into "lighter" and "heavier" stuff. I was going to say "fun" and "nasty" but that doesn't quite work. A lot of modern horror is either kitsch in the sense of nostalgically repeating older stuff (especially the "slasher kills cheerleaders" sort) or a challenge to sit through owing to intense gore.
Right? A lot of horror I’ve read wasn’t particularly frightening. Heart of Darkness was pretty good..

Shalimar the Clown was pretty spooky.
 

Vladd67

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Talking of clowns, my 6 yo wore a killer clown costume with a large knife made from cardboard and tinfoil. Before he set off to extort sweets he looked at me, tilted his head to one side and raising his "knife" stage whispered "Stabby time," I felt a shiver run up my spine. That boy does creepy too well.
 

SporgyTheReader

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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
Lovecraft wasn't a misogynist by any means, sure he (probably) hated his mom because she was abusive but as of I know, Lovecraft is many things but misogynist is not one of them. Sure there's not of a lot of women that serve a major role in his stories but I don't see it as an issue as major characters in his stories end up either dead or suffering a fate worse than death. In terms of women with their experience with Lovecraft, although his wife did said that he hated New York, she did said he tried his very best to be a good husband and lover and his female correspondents had a relatively good experience working and talking with him especially Zealia Bishop.
 

Extollager

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Just so there's no misunderstanding -- I did not say, or imply, that Lovecraft was misogynistic.

I said that many common adult concerns are almost always missing from his stories, including marital and familial concerns; and that this contributes to the "comfortable" quality of the stories: his leading men have no grownup responsibilities to wives and children, as well as not being obliged to show up for work, make payments, etc., etc. In this way, the typical Lovecraft story is like, say, The Wind in the Willows, another book in which all the characters are bachelors whose needs are just met without any adult complications.

And my further point is that this is one of the qualities that contributes to Lovecraft's appeal. I'm not faulting him for this comfortable quality in his fiction. It's part of what kept me rereading him from when I first read him in 1969.

But you can have people who write endlessly about Lovecraft's cosmic horror and so on till the shoggoths cows come home, and miss this aspect -- which is so obvious once you see it.
 

Extollager

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A tangent perhaps for another thread would be devoted to exploring overlooked, or under-commented-upon, sources of appeal, in other stories. It's not that one is trying to look clever and all, but to ask sincerely if there is something in my interest of such and such an author or story that is generally not discussed.

For example, I suppose the reigning notion in English departments is that Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a fiction probing colonialism. It is. But this story tends to appeal to lots of readers, and I suspect much of its appeal is that it's a horror story; people who might not usually read horror fiction may find that they enjoy it, in the form used here by Conrad. It's years since I read it, but here are a few things I seem to remember:

--the story begins as a very leisurely narration among friends who are in snug circumstances (you get this all the time in ghost stories, etc.); as The Turn of the Screw is set in a frame of Christmastide ghost story-telling, in which you can almost hear the fire crackling on the hearth and taste the drinks, Heart begins with some fellows sitting around at the beginning of a voyage, in a pleasantly passive situation; there's nothing they need to do now, the ship is leaving London, they are quite relaxed, etc.;

--the main story begins with relatively less horrible scenes and builds to the eventual ghastly disclosure: at first, as I recall, you have something like the boat pointlessly shooting shells into the jungle, which is odd but not horrifying, then you get glimpses on land of the slave laborers that are definitely unpleasant but not terrifying, etc., till you reach the horror of Kurtz, who has "atavistically" -- as in various pulp stories -- reverted to some monstrous condition;

--and you have the idea of the horrible thing for which the world is not ready, that must be covered up -- here, Marlowe tells his listeners how he did not tell Kurtz's fiancée all that she saw, but let her retain her notion of Kurtz as stable, humane, etc.

And so on. It's not that all stories have this "under-commented-upon" quality, of course; but I suppose some do. There are probably lots of undergrads who think they found Heart of Darkness captivating because it is an exposé of imperialism/colonialism when, in fact, they've just read one of the world's great horror stories and really liked it.
 

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