May 20th 2017


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COVER STORY Morrison's budget jive lacks inherent harmony

CANBERRA OBSERVED Does budget do heavy lifting or is it "Labor lite"?

NEW ZEALAND Porn poll shows strong majority supports default opt-out policy to protect kids online

FRANCE Emmanuel Macron: a president without a political base

YOUNG POLITICAL ACTIVIST TRAINING (YPAT) Seven-day intensive course without equal in Australia

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Taiwan to go full steam ahead with submarines

RURAL AFFAIRS Murray Goulburn closures an omen of an industry in crisis

CLIMATE SCIENCE Temperature hasn't risen in 20 years: latest data

QUEENSLAND ENERGY 50 per cent renewables target: Is it credible?

LITERATURE Inexplicable: the ongoing appeal of H.P. Lovecraft

LITERATURE The gentle giant: Samuel Johnson

MUSIC Promissory notes: the public funding siphon

CINEMA Going in Style: Old dogs turned rookie robbers

LETTERS

BOOK REVIEW An abstemious revolutionary

BOOK REVIEW Soviet-era thriller revels in details

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LITERATURE
Inexplicable: the ongoing appeal of H.P. Lovecraft


by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, May 20, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft was a monumentally bad writer. And I mean monumentally bad. He stands as an awful warning of what can happen to a real literary talent, towering in awfulness like one of those mesas in a John Ford Western.

H.P. Lovecraft: "The horror, the horror!"

One may open a Lovecraft collection at random for a feast of stylistic ineptitude. I promise you that the next three passages that will appear will be the result of opening a collection of Lovecraft completely at random. Further, as far as I know, there is no reason to suspect they are the products of substance abuse:

“And as the wind died away I was plunged into the ghoul-pooled darkness of earth’s bowels; for behind the last of the creatures the great brazen door clanged shut with a deafening peal of metallic music whose reverberations swelled out to the distant world to hail the rising sun as Memnon hails it on the banks of the Nile.”

“As for Red Hook – it is always the same, Suydam came and went; a terror gathered and faded, but the evil spirit of darkness and squalor still broods on amongst the mongrels in the old brick houses, and prowling bands still parade on unknown errands past windows where lights and twisted faces unaccountably appear and disappear. Age-old horror is a hydra with a thousand heads, and the cults of darkness are rooted in blasphemies deeper than the well of Democritus. The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand. As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave on the landward side, and there are already rumors of new canals running underground to create certain centres of traffic in liquor and less mentionable things.”

“The dance-hall church is now mostly a dance hall, and queer faces have appeared at night at the windows. Lately a policeman expressed the belief that the filled-up crypt has been dug up again, and for no simple explainable purpose. Who are we to combat poisons older than history and mankind? Apes danced in Asia to these horrors, and the cancer lurks secure and spreading where furtiveness hides in rows of decaying brick.”

“And he even talked with the Terrible Old Man, who was not fond of strangers, and was invited into his fearsomely archaic cottage where low ceilings and wormy paneling hear the echoes of disquieting soliloquies in the dark small hours.”

His tale of the World War I U-29 and its mega-schweinhund Captain, who executes most of his own crew for not being sufficiently Prussian, may be a send-up on the Boche-bashing literature of the day, but I think is meant to be taken seriously. Lovecraft wanted to scare readers, but it is unlikely that he could really cause anyone a moment’s unease.

Despite what some literary snobs may think, fantasy and science fiction readers are usually pretty intelligent people, and a large part of the reasons Lovecraft is still read are to do with the sheer quaintness of his expressions and style. This is not, however, a completely simple matter, as there is much evidence in Lovecraft’s voluminous letters that he himself did not take his work very seriously.

And yet, that is not quite all. Lovecraft is not quite a literary nullity. He is not quite a prose equivalent of Australia poetaster Michael Dransfield, who is read only in attempts to plumb the sorry mystery of how he came to be published at all.

Lovecraft did have fragments of genuine poetry about him. Some of his names are evocative: the Miskatonic – the name for me conjures up a dark, winding river (yes, perhaps even under a gibbous moon), drowning trees at its banks heavy with moss, their countless leaves falling silently on its still dark surface, the cried of whippoorwills and drifting patches of cold mist – Arkham and Dunwich, the haunted seaport of Innesmouth …

His long essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, first published in 1927 and subsequently revised, showed wide reading but little literary discrimination. Lovecraft’s description here of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s work could be applied perfectly to his own: “despite large doses of turgid rhetoric and empty romanticism in his products, his success in the weaving of a certain kind of bizarre charm cannot be denied.”

His patronising comments on writers of the calibre of Henry Rider Haggard (“whose She is really remarkably good”), Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James are unintentionally hilarious.

He was not, however, an ungenerous critic and his high evaluation of writers like E.F. Benson, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and M.R. James is both just and even insightful.

Weird architecture is almost always “cyclopean”, moons “gibbous” or even “fantastically gibbous”, strongly suggesting Lovecraft did not know the meanings of these two favourite words. Houses are frequently “gambrel-roofed abodes”. Weird geometry is generally “non-Euclidian”, whatever that may mean.

Yet, Lovecraft has never gone quite out of style. His fans remain considerable. I know one senior barrister who frequently refers to his work.

To any who took these stories seriously, the atmosphere would be claustrophobic. Apart from consulting ancient and generally accursed manuscripts of occult and nameless knowledge, there is no intellectual or artistic activity. Lovecraft plainly did not have the ordinary general knowledge of the world a fiction writer usually needs and showed little interest in acquiring it.

Howlers abound. He writes: “In A Strange Story (1826) Bulwer-Lytton [has] an atmosphere of homiletic pseudoscience designed to please the matter-of-fact and purposeful Victorian reader.” Queen Victoria did not come to the throne until 1837.

One story he set in Western Australia, which he evidently looked at on the map, and had his hero travel by steamer up the Ashburton River.

What a chance Lovecraft missed by not doing a little more research and finding out that most of the year the great rivers marked on the map flow underground! (The Lovecraftian habit of emphasis by italics can be contagious).

Australia comes into another story in which an abandoned derelict ship is tied up at Circular Quay, which he evidently also looked up on a map but did not realise was a busy ferry terminal. His World War I U-boat has portholes! And yet, and yet, we read him still.




























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