Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

Lovecraft is considered second only to Edgar Allan Poe among American writers of horror fantasy. Lovecraft was aware of his debt to Poe and his own position in the tradition of such literature, which he analyzes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1925-1927). Lovecraft’s literary career was aroused by his reading...

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Lovecraft is considered second only to Edgar Allan Poe among American writers of horror fantasy. Lovecraft was aware of his debt to Poe and his own position in the tradition of such literature, which he analyzes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1925-1927). Lovecraft’s literary career was aroused by his reading of the works of Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) and seeing the British writer when he visited Boston. Lovecraft was also heavily influenced by the style and subjects of the Welsh fantasy writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Among the literary techniques that Poe, Dunsany, and Machen perfected and that Lovecraft also used are an elaborate style, a matter-of-fact journalistic format, and a single protagonist pitted against an overwhelming horror.

Lovecraft’s style is ornate, deliberate, and loaded with archaisms, features that suggest another view of reality. The style is so balanced and controlled that it lulls the reader into a sense of security. The shattering of that calm when the horrific is encountered causes even more fright than the mere appearance of the terrifying would provoke. Another American predecessor, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), used the same device to describe Judge Pyncheon’s death in his The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

Lovecraft often reveals his horrors as part of a presumed actual adventure recorded in a journal, as did Poe in his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). In a rare venture into science fiction, Lovecraft has an explorer of Venus blandly record his experiences in a daily journal in “In the Walls of Eryx” (1936). The explorer finds an invisible wall and sees one of his comrades dead inside. When he makes his way around the wall to the corpse, strange creatures appear outside the walls. Sooner than the narrator, the reader realizes that the invisible walls are not a maze but a trap in which the first explorer perished. The finality of the narrator’s eventual death is underscored by his pragmatic description of his efforts to escape.

The main characters of Lovecraft’s stories can never be called heroes in the everyday sense, for their efforts always end in failure. Even if they manage to get away from the fiends they meet, they are psychically maimed for life. In “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), for example, a detective finds a devil-worshiping cult in an ordinary Brooklyn neighborhood. He escapes with his life, but later the mere sight of buildings that resemble the tenements in which the cult held its worship is enough to bring on a fit of madness.

What makes Lovecraft an artist of the first rank, like his hero, Poe, is the unnerving suggestion in these stories that evil truly exists. These tales are not designed to titillate a bored reader on a dark night. Lovecraft describes the humanoids who stalk his characters as having sloping brows, squat bodies, and a shuffling gait; they are low, slimy, and disgusting. It is as if Lovecraft detested the evolutionary past from which humans came. This identification of evil with the lowest animal nature suggests that it is not somewhere “out there” but instead is within each person.

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