Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3076
The critical acceptance of H. P. Lovecraft as an important American writer, and as the finest exponent of dark fantasy since Poe, has not come quickly or easily. Much of this neglect was due to a blanket rejection of the “pulp writer,” reinforced by the fact that Lovecraft published nothing in book form during his own lifetime. The primary outlet for his stories was Weird Tales, a pulp magazine whose circulation barely reached twenty thousand a month although its influence on horror fiction has been enormous. Moreover, Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre was modest in size and, for reasons both personal and commercial, a considerable portion of it never saw print during his lifetime.
There are, perhaps, even more obvious reasons for this general critical dismissal: In many ways Lovecraft was a poor writer. The prose is often vague, ornate, and studded with overblown adjectives such as “eldrich,” “uncanny,” “hellish,” and “weird.” At a time when even the pulps featured the hard, lean prose of a Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, Lovecraft’s purple verbosity sounded like a relic from the mid-nineteenth century. His characterization tends to be flat and undifferentiated. His plots sometimes collapse in the middle or disintegrate altogether, and his strain for sensational effect occasionally becomes painful. Lovecraft’s characteristically italicized last-line climaxes—“and the Monster was Real!!!”—sometimes evoke more laughter than dread.
How then can the reader take this author seriously, let alone grant him status as an important writer? The answer lies in the two unique contributions Lovecraft made to the supernatural horror genre in particular and to modern literature in general: His original approach to dark fantasy revitalized the genre and has influenced every important new writer in the field, and the vision that animates his fictions transcended the limits of the popular genre to offer a provocative and significant view of modern human beings’ predicament.
Because it has been so frequently anthologized, Lovecraft’s best-known work is probably the somewhat uncharacteristic short story “The Outsider.” An unnamed narrator laments his unhappy, bizarre youth. Having grown up bereft of human contact in a dismal, decaying castle, filled with damp “crumbling corriders” that smell like “piled-up corpses of dead generations,” he resolves to escape by ascending a partly ruined black tower whose top “reaches above the trees into the unknown outer sky.” After a difficult, perilous climb the narrator reaches a trapdoor, which he pushes open. To his amazement, he finds that he is not, as expected, on some “lofty eminence,” but is, instead, “on the solid ground.” Wandering about, he then comes upon a castle where a party is in full progress. As he enters, the guests run screaming. He assumes that there is a horrible presence lurking near him and becomes frightened. Sighting the beast, he overcomes his fears and approaches it, finally touching the thing’s “rotting outstretched paw.” Terrified, he flees back to the trapdoor but finds it blocked. Thus, he is forced to linger on the fringes of the world of the living, alienated from all contact with its inhabitants. In the last sentence of the story, the speaker reveals what he touched that so frightened him: “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”
The effect of this story on the reader is chilling—even if the story, when analyzed, is a bit absurd. Lovecraft succeeds in gaining the reader’s sympathetic identification with the narrator so the revelation of its monstrous being is a shock; and the experience itself is almost archetypal. One ingenious critic has offered five separate and different interpretations of the tale: autobiographical, psychological (Jungian), metaphysical, philosophical, and political. Although none of these readings is completely satisfying, they all have some merit and illustrate the important point: “The Outsider” evokes emotional responses that are not fully explained by critical exegesis.
At the same time, the story turns essentially on a clever deception: The reader is tricked into identifying with a creature who turns out to be a corpse or zombie or ghoul or something of that sort, a fact that is not revealed until the punch line. So the sensitive reader is likely to be moved and irritated by a story that seems both profound and trivial. This mixed reaction is characteristic of many of Lovecraft’s stories, and any attempt to assess his importance must somehow take it into consideration.
Despite its popularity, “The Outsider” does not suggest the full range of the author’s powers. At best it is a story with more resonance than substance, a very clever exercise in imitating Poe. To truly appreciate Lovecraft one must examine his central vision—the somewhat misnamed “Cthulhu Mythos.” (The term was coined by August Derleth, but Cthulhu is not really the major figure in the hierarchy. Contemporary Lovecraftians prefer to call it the “Lovecraft Mythos.”)
The Mythos did not spring full blown from Lovecraft’s head but emerged in bits and pieces. In “Nyarlathotep,” a fragment, Lovecraft presented the first important figure in his pantheon. “The Nameless City” introduced the “mad Arab, Abdul Alhazrad,” author of the Necronomicon, a fictive text of magical spells and arcane knowledge which became the bible of the Mythos. The book itself was brought into “The Hound” and “The Festival,” the latter story being the first set in the “Arkham, Massachusetts” region, site of most Mythos tales. It was not until 1926, however, that Lovecraft really consolidated his ideas and presented them in a single story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”
The artistic assumption behind the Mythos is that by the 1920’s the usual menaces of horror fiction—such as Satan, demons, werewolves, and vampires—had become overworked and obsolete. A new set of menaces, he felt, one more in keeping with contemporary views of humans and their place in the universe, was needed to breathe life into the genre.
The metaphysical assumption behind the Mythos is stated in the famous first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
In the Cthulhu Mythos, that “terrifying reality” consists of an order of beings, vast, powerful, and immortal, who hover at the edges of humans’ consciousness, poised to enter their world and sweep them away like so much useless debris. These creatures—the “Great Old Ones” or “Ancient Ones,” with exotic forbidding names and titles such as “Cthulhu,” “the messenger Nyarlathotep,” “the blind, idiot god Azathoth,” “the key to the gate Yog-Sothoth”—had dominated the earth long before human beings but lost the power eons ago for reasons that vary from story to story (in early tales, they tended to be supernatural creatures from another dimension; in later ones, they were usually powerful extraterrestrials).
The Old Ones remain on the periphery of human beings’ reach in outer space or lie dormant in vast submerged cities, and they strive to reenter the human domain or to awaken from their enforced sleep. Since this reentry is barred to them without human assistance, the Old Ones have established contact with various degenerate groups, families, or individuals, who attempt to utilize the occult knowledge found in forbidden books such as the Necronomicon to summon their “masters.”
Thus, the typical Mythos story pits the degenerate servants of the Old Ones against the harried but valiant human defenders (most often professors from Miskatonic University). In a few stories the Old Ones can be banished by various magical defenses, but, for the most part, once they are reanimated, they are invulnerable; only accident, luck, or whim saves humanity. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Old Ones, however, is that, despite their horrendous appearances and destructive capacities, they are not truly evil or consciously malevolent. They simply regard humankind with total indifference and would destroy it for mere convenience without concern or rancor, as a human would step on a pesky insect.
“The Call of Cthulhu”
The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” states that “he has had a glimpse” of that awful reality, which “like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things—in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor.” Lovecraft wisely maintains this fragmentary approach in narrating his tale. Instead of a simple chronology, the reader has isolated events and revelations which slowly form into a pattern. This indirect, quasi-journalistic approach also enables Lovecraft to mix real historical events, places, characters, and references with the fictional ones, and to insert newspaper clippings and interviews into the text along with straight narrative; the effect is to give the story a strong feeling of authenticity that not only underscores the horrors described but also implies that horrors even more profound lurk just beyond the limits of perception.
“The Call of Cthulhu” is presented in three self-contained sections, which are brought together in the narrator’s final conclusions. In the first section, “The Horror in Clay,” he describes a set of notes left to him by his granduncle, George Gammell Angell, a Brown University Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages, who has recently died mysteriously after being jostled by a “nautical looking negro.”
Angell’s package contains a number of interesting items: a strange bas-relief covered with odd hieroglyphics, including a symbol suggesting “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature”; a document headed “Cthulhu Cult”; a number of notes on queer dreams, as well as references to secret cults; and occult, mythological, and anthropological texts. As the narrator examines these fragments, a frightening picture gradually coalesces, from dreams and hints, to accounts of the sinister machinations of the Cthulhu cults and the lore surrounding the creature, to a final confrontation with the thing itself. This semidocumentary approach works brilliantly. The dreams of a young sculptor, as relayed to Angell and reinforced by a series of weird events around the world, give the reader a feeling of pervasive cosmic evil on the brink of erupting.
That evil is made more concrete in the second part, “The Tale of Inspector Legrasse,” which chronicles the apprehension of a mysterious, bestial swamp cult in the midst of human sacrificial rituals. From the cultists and an old mestizo named Castro, the officers hear the story of the Great Old Ones, the first articulation of the Mythos in Lovecraft’s stories.
In the third part, “The Madness from the Sea,” the reader meets the dreaded Cthulhu itself in the grotesque experiences of Gustaf Johansen, a Norwegian sailor. Although Johansen has apparently been killed by the cultists, the narrator obtains his journal which describes the encounter. After meeting and subduing a boatload of bizarre, savage sailors, Johansen and his comrades discover a mysterious island and inadvertently release Cthulhu from his slumber. All but Johansen and one other are killed; chased by Cthulhu they flee and survive by ramming the monster head-on. The actual meeting with the beast is the least satisfying moment in the story. It is unlikely that any other writer, and certainly one not given to Lovecraft’s extravagant use of language, could depict a creature as awful as the one suggested in the story prior to the actual meeting. Even the reader’s disappointment in the monster, however, does not seriously undermine the power of Lovecraft’s conception; the meeting with the creature is brief and sketchy, leaving the momentum of the story largely undamaged. Neither Lovecraft nor his successors ever made the mistake of bringing Cthulhu back to the surface again.
With “The Call of Cthulhu” Lovecraft established his Mythos, but the story is uncharacteristically expansive and fragmentary. It lacks one element that was typical of most of his best fiction, a solidly realized setting. The hierarchy of supernatural beings was only one side of Lovecraft’s coin; the other was the very real, believable New England world into which they usually intruded, “Arkham, Massachusetts,” and environs. As the elements of his cosmic design grew and became more subtle and intricate, so, too, the world of Arkham became more concrete and familiar. Like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the real area it was modeled after (Salem and vicinity) can easily be identified, but the fictional region takes on a separate identity of its own.
“The Dunwich Horror”
The importance of this milieu is nowhere better illustrated than in “The Dunwich Horror,” as underscored by the fact that Lovecraft devotes the first five pages to convincing the reader that the township of Dunwich, located in Northern Arkham County, is a particularly desolate, foreboding, and degenerate area. Only after thoroughly establishing this realistic environment and eerie atmosphere does he introduce the diabolical and perverse Whateley family, the subjects of the narrative.
Once an important, aristocratic family, the Whateley clan has split into two factions, one that clings to normality and some sense of respectability, the other that has thoroughly degenerated into bestiality, viciousness, and black magic. The story proper begins with the birth of Wilbur Whateley to Lavinia, “a somewhat deformed albino woman of about 35”; the father is unknown. Lavinia’s aged, half-mad, ”wizard” father publicly rejoices and tells the villagers that “some day yew folks’ll hear a child o’ Lavinny’s a-callin’ its father’s name on the top o’ Sentinel Hill!” The child grows rapidly and strangely. At a year and a half he is as big as a four-year-old; at ten he is fully grown; at thirteen he assumes the role of an adult—and a height of more than seven feet. Other odd events occur around the Whateley household: Extra rooms are built for no apparent reason; whippoorwills crowd about the house and sing constantly; cattle mysteriously disappear—as does Lavinia; and finally the old man dies, mumbling incoherently about “Yog-Sothoth” and “the old ones as wants to come back.”
Shortly thereafter Wilbur attempts to secure the Miskatonic University Library copy of the Necronomicon. He fails but excites the curiosity of the librarian, Henry Armitage. Some time later Wilbur is killed by a guard dog while attempting to steal the forbidden text during the night. When young Whateley’s clothing is ripped off, he is revealed to be a monster whose torso is covered with black fur, tentacles, unformed eyes, feelers, and the legs of a lizard; instead of blood a greenish-yellow ichor flows out. As people watch, the dead creature dissolves into a putrid mess.
With Wilbur dead, something in the house breaks loose and begins to terrorize the countryside. Armitage recruits two colleagues, and they study the dangerous, arcane books in hopes of finding a defense against the invisible creature, who leaves only huge footprints at the scenes of its carnage. At last they encounter the thing, make it momentarily visible with a powder spray, and deliver the magical chants. As it dissolves, it cries for help to “FATHER. YOG-SOTHOTH!” thus fulfilling old Whateley’s prediction, but not in the manner he had desired. As usual, Lovecraft gives us the final explanation of things in the last line: “You needn’t ask how Wilbur called it out of the air. He didn’t call it out. It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did.”
“The Dunwich Horror” is probably the most direct and visceral of Lovecraft’s major horror stories. If it lacks some of the subtlety and complexity of other masterworks such as “The Colour Out of Space,” At the Mountains of Madness (1964), and “The Shadow Out of Time,” it is a potent, memorable narrative that perhaps conveys the essence of the Mythos more clearly than any other single story.
Other Mythos Tales
Lovecraft continued to flesh out his Mythos for the rest of his life, producing a number of impressive stories, notably “Pickman’s Model,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” At the Mountains of Madness, “The Dreams in the Witch-House,” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” At the same time it should be remembered that at least half of Lovecraft’s fictional output had little or nothing to do with the Cthulhu group. Even if there had been no Mythos, Lovecraft’s place as America’s foremost master of the macabre after Poe would have been assured by non-Cthulhuian works such as “The Outsider,” “The Rats in the Walls,” “Cool Air” (after Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”), the eerie science-fiction story “The Colour Out of Space,” the Salem witchcraft novelette The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1943), and his most enigmatic nightmare/heroic fantasy, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).
The thing that sets the Mythos narratives apart from Lovecraft’s other fiction, however, is their collective power and the fact that the Mythos has continued to grow and prosper many years after its originator’s death. Fortunately, however, the power of the original concept, at least in Lovecraft’s own stories, comes through safely; and, in the end, it is that cosmic vision which gives primary stature to Lovecraft among modern horror writers. Lovercraft was a materialist in belief and attitude who viewed all supernatural ideas, whether conventionally religious or occult, as make-believe. The previously quoted opening paragraph from “The Call of Cthulhu” is a succinct summary of its author’s own thinking. Thus, his Old Ones, with their indifferent cruelty and overwhelming powers, were, to Lovecraft, metaphors for a cruelly indifferent universe that provides a fragile, temporary refuge for the most ephemeral and insignificant of creatures—humans.
In essence, Lovercraft’s cosmic view resembles that of many modern writers, including artists as different as Thomas Hardy and Robinson Jeffers. Like them, Lovecraft’s art was an attempt to find a set of metaphors and images with which to express that worldview. The power of the Cthulhu Mythos lies in the fact that, despite the clumsiness, turgidity, and triteness of much of the writing, it presents a powerful metaphorical construct of the modern world and the extremely precarious place of human beings in it.
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