Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tidbits of Lovecraft, Poe, and Stephen King

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On this sunless day, lashed by the first true rains of autumn--the ones that test the tenacity of the lingering leaves and remind you, through their insidious chill, that you're nothing but bones, cold bones, under your skin, let's have a post about Lovecraft and Poe.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I spend a lot of time reading writers' letters. What you may not know is that a lot of that reading begins with searches on Google Books: I'll go to a volume that's set up for previewing and see what I find through a search for a particular term. Often, the choice is topical: lately it's been "autumn," for example, or "night," or "ghosts."

Last night found me with Lovecraft's letters, and even though they're only readable in snippet form on Google Books, the returns were satisfying. "Weird," for example, brought me this pithy statement of purpose:
The weird artist should invent his own fantastic violations of natural law.
"Strange" turned up this:
The way I think of strange phenomena and outside intrusions is as a dreamer helplessly and passively watching a panorama flit past him.
"Nightmare," meanwhile, brought a letter in which Lovecraft describes in great detail a particularly horrible nightmare from childhood, one so intense that it led me to dig deeper and turn up more of the letter, which was written to Harry Otto Fischer in February of 1937:
But it is in dreams that I have known the real clutch of stark, hideous, maddening, paralysing fear. My infant nightmares were classics, & in them there is not an abyss of agonising cosmic horror that I have not explored. I don't have such dreams now — but the memory of them will never leave me. It is undoubtedly from them that the darkest & most gruesome side of my fictional imagination is derived. At the ages of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8 I have been whirled through formless abysses of infinite night and adumbrated horrors as black & as seethingly sinister as any of our friend Fafhrd's « splatter-stencil » triumphs. That's why I appreciate such triumphs so keenly. I have seen these things ! Many a time I have awaked in shrieks of panic, & have fought desperately to keep from sinking back into sleep & its unutterable horrors. At the age of six my dreams became peopled with a race of lean, faceless, rubbery, winged things to which I applied the home-made name of night-gaunts. Night after night they would appear in exactly the same form — & the terror they brought was beyond any verbal description. Long decades later I embodied them in one of my Fungi from Yuggoth pseudo-sonnets, which you may have read. Well — after I was 8 all these things abated, perhaps because of the scientific habit of mind which I was acquiring (or trying to acquire). I ceased to believe in religion or any other form of the supernatural, & the new logic gradually reached my subconscious imagination. Still, occasional nightmares brought recurrent touches of the ancient fear — & as late as 1919 I had some that I could use in fiction without much change. The Statement of Randolph Carter is a literal dream transcript. Now, in the sere & yellow leaf (I shall be 47 in August), I seem to be rather deserted by stark horror. I have nightmares only 2 or 3 times a year, & of these none even approaches those of my youth in soul-shattering, phobic monstrousness. It is fully a decade & more since I have known fear in its most stupefying & hideous form. And yet, so strong is the impress of the past, I shall never cease to be fascinated by fear as a subject for aesthetic treatment. Along with the element of cosmic mystery & outsideness, it will always interest me more than anything else. It is, in a way, amusing that one of my chief interests should be an emotion whose poignant extremes I have never known in waking life!
To some degree, that letter helps me understand Lovecraft's preference for the inchoate and indescribable--the horror beyond human comprehension--because what are dream terrors if not embodiments of horror that cannot be described without surrendering their potency?

Earlier in that letter, Lovecraft also offers an account of how he turned his childhood fear of the dark into a fascination:
In infancy I was afraid of the dark, which I peopled with all sorts of things; but my grandfather cured me of that by daring me to walk through certain dark parts of the house when I was 3 or 4 years old. After that, dark places held a certain fascination for me.
I will admit to a certain skepticism about the grandfather's approach, which seems needlessly cruel. It does, however, seem to have worked--to the extent, that is, that you consider Lovecraft to have been mentally healthy. Ahem.

With Lovecraft on my mind, I turned to Michael Schmidt's gargantuan The Novel: A Biography, a book that I've taken such pleasure dipping into and arguing in the month I've owned it that I already know I'll be pulling it down from the shelves regularly for years to come. Schmidt treats Lovecraft briefly, largely as an entree to a slightly longer consideration of Stephen King ("His bibliography is vast, but the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.") and in conjunction with Poe, and in a short space he offers some useful analysis:
Poe can still frighten a reader, especially late at night. It has to do, as Nabokov understood, with language, with the spaces that vowels carve out of the darkness and the way night loosens the hold of the literal world so that things move and happen in unanticipated ways. Shadows detach from their forms and develop a will. Poe and Lovecraft have much in common. Like Poe's, Lovecraft's favored medium is the tale, not the novel. Poe worked by a faultless instinct, Lovecraft sometimes willfully and by design. He is more interested in places than people, places with inherences; there is a general haunting about his worlds, which start as literal and then degrade. Gothic horror inheres, an aspect of reality, "cosmic" to use his word, rather than of invention.
When he points out Lovecraft's attachment to place over person, it instantly seems obvious, yet I've never before seen it put quite so succinctly.

It's worth briefly setting that--and Lovecraft's interest in the cosmic nature of horror in general--against Schmidt's analysis of Stephen King's approach:
Central to fiction is a simple paradigm, what King calls in an interview "an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it." What interests him is not the mechanics of the intrusion--ghouls, rabid dogs, ghosts--but what the characters do in response.
Exactly--and watching those responses, and realizing how strong is King's faith that somewhere along the line someone will respond with the combination of grit and inherent goodness that is required to beat back the dark, accounts for a big part of King's appeal. There's no writer I know of, other than perhaps Dorothy Dunnett, who writes so convincingly about simple human determination, a quality that we all can use as autumn draws in.

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