Call him great, then

Just a short note. I rushed into and over that Boston Globe article here (Following the footsteps of horror icon H.P. Lovecraft) – it’s nothing to write your friends about. Just one sentence popped into my sight as a bee would into an allergic person’s arm:

“The author, now viewed as perhaps the greatest
horror writer of the 20th century, grew up near Brown University.”

Who does that? Who views him as “perhaps the greatest horror writer of the 20th century? Who? And I’m not talking about the crowds of teenage fans that will clog your regular Lovecraft convention – which established critic, in a position to name some writer great or small so that the namecalling will come to some effect, would do that? Is that happening, and I am not aware of it? Am I working in some kind of alternative reality where Lovecraft doesn’t get the rank due to him?

This was an early impulse even back in the 1930s and 1940s, when August Derleth started editing the Lovecraft stories – even then Lovecraft’s position was reputedly safe, and clear, and well established (I’m paraphrasing from memory here), when, in fact, practically noone outside the small, small, small Lovecraft circle even was aware of him.

And this goes on, this impulse is rolling on like a wave – nothing has changed, his position in academic criticism is virtually obsolete (and even the French, as loving and tolerant to Lovecraft as they had been to Poe, are not much of an exception), but Mosig, Burleson, Cannon, et al., will go ahead in their writings and boldly proclaim Lovecraft’s rank, as if this was some matter of course, and probably they feel it is, and rightly so, because he does belong, because he is important, because his writings are rich. Well, it’s not a matter of course. He doesn’t have a presence in academic criticism, and I bow to the few brave men and women that I tacitly ignore here.

Sure not. Criticism on gothic literature in particular is heavily, how do I say it? , syndicated? – canonized? structured? You can call any major author, from Faulkner to Morrison, a gothic author, but you can’t just call any major Gothic author an author at all. As an academic critic, I’d like to be able to have scholarly discussions with colleagues on, among other things, Lovecraft’s works – that accounts for a good deal of my work, really.

Ech-Pi-El to Klarkash-ton: I am a bore

I’d like to divert attention away from this post and to this article by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (per http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/LovecraftScholars/) – a short, but insightful piece on one of Lovecraft’s closest buddies, Clark Ashton Smith, or Klarkash-ton, as Lovecraft transcribed the name in his regular epistolary follies. I just finished re-re-re-reading the five volume selection of Lovecraft’s letters (yeah, the price for the full set is whopping – my alma mater’s library may be a near total failure in Lovecraft terms, but at least they hold these five volumes, now semi-permanently shelved close to my desk), and once again they’re leaving me behind more perplexed than enlightened: can it be that the man was really such a complete bore?

I know, the five volumes offer a sparing empirical evidence, given the total number of his letters that ranks somewhere in the higher five figures, but the image one draws from the letters doesn’t get any more colorful in the more recent and complete selections mapped out by Joshi and Schultz. On what merits could one possibly build the assumption that Lovecraft’s place in the literary afterlife should be defined, more than anything, by his epistolary corpus?

His gentlemanly behavior? He was painfully polite to virtually all correspondents and doled out heartfelt encouragements to any rookie writer that might turn to him in search of advice.

The breadth of his thought? It’s a shame to say it but the letters, all of them, are highly redundant, buzzing around a small circle of topics that the man tackled again and again and again. Every now and then, a new correspondent from the wider amateur journalism and weird tales-realm would drop in, which would habitually provoke a new round on the favorite topics, aka obsessions: race, “cosmicism”, the New England site, and, oh yeah, race. He grew wiser with age, thank goodness, and the later letters from the 1930s are way milder and less nerve-killing to read than those of 20 years before, but even there he will make a very habitual case for the superiority of the “Teuton”, pared down to the late “insight” that alleged racial differences are mere cultural (rather than biological) differences, yet so insistently argued toward a strict segregation of races that it becomes a gesture. The prize for the WASP of the years 1915-1937 goes to…tadaa!…Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

It gets even more pathetic where issues are concerned that Lovecraft a) didn’t care about and b) didn’t know anything about – like female sexuality. To see him trying to explain that in a rash but helpless & clumsy manner really provides the strong feeling that he didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

He had many bright moments, though. In fact, he’s sincere and most personal when he’s writing on his profound love for New England and Providence, in particular, planting himself into that soil time and again when he’s narrating how spryly he’s jostling to this and that backwood of the greater Providence area. It’s in these passages you get a feel for Lovecraft, the man – not Lovecraft, the machismo bigmouth – his various ways of relating to the site uncover, indeed, nuances of the personality better than the touchy issues he seems most confident about. Here he is most fragile, most volatile, most easily accessed. Here, and in the literature field, of course. He knew his weird literature to the core and provides real insights on authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and naturally Poe, his revered idol, and other such authors that pre-furrowed his personal field.

There is a very emotional passage in a letter to Frank B. Long from February 1931, featuring Lovecraft, the person – “Hell! If you ever had such a breath of reality, you’D forget all about the cute little sentences, literary, ‘inevitable’ words, kittenish mock-irony, & artificial sophistication, & just write, write, write like the devil – SINCERELY & SIMPLY – because of a creative demon within you & a sincere, bursting emotion which would suffocate you if you couldn’t get it on paper.”

Then, critically – “I wish I had the art to write out the stuff I want to get down on paper” – that was in early 1931, post-dating stories like The Music of Erich Zann, The Colour out of Space, The Call of Cthulhu, and slightly preceding At the Mountains of Madness, at a time, that is, when he had already established his corpus as the next great thing on the Gothic timeline. I’ll explore in another post how much genuine despair is in these (frequent!) appeals to his own literary inability and how far these are a realization of the modesty topos.

This needs an editor

Men & women of letters are by definition paupers. Who after all cares for decent language when all it takes to achieve a particular end is an occasional nod or some burbling sound of discontent? I have before me right now a list of copy editing rates Lovecraft fixed for himself in the early 1930s (Joshi notes it on page 514 of his Lovecraft biography).

What did the man charge? Anywhere between 0.25 $ (for “Copying on typewriter – double space, 1 carbon. No revision except spelling, punctuation, & grammar”) and 2,25 $ (for “Rewriting from old MS., synopsis, plot-notes, idea-germ, or mere suggestion – i.e., “ghost-writing”. Text in full by reviser – both language & development. Rough draught, longhand.”) – all for a page of 330 words, that is. An additional 25 cents would have gotten you a typed version of the ghost-written text, which, given Lovecraft’s idiosyncratic (=illegible) handwriting, was probably an investment worth its money.

75 years later, prices haven’t changed a bit it seems. Robert M. Price, one of the more original Lovecraft scholars (his academic pedigree contains way more than Lovecraft, of course – it contains everything, it seems: judged by his bibliography, the man must be in the writing process around 20 hours each day), charges for his editing servicesfrom 1 to 5 cents per word depending on length”, which, inflation and all numbered out, cannot possibly be much higher than Lovecraft’s rate. Unlike Lovecraft, of course, he has an academic reputation to keep up with, so his editing rates may be an implicit tribute to Lovecraft (and Lovecraft’s pauperism).

Robert H. Waugh: The Monster in the Mirror

Wanna read a real cool book on Lovecraft? How about Robert H. Waugh’s The Monster in the Mirror, published on Hippocampus Press in 2006? It’s one of the finest Lovecraft critiques ever, of all times, and easily so – well researched, on sound theory, and he’s even tackling and mastering that most notorious of Lovecraft stories, The Outsider, an ominous, slim short story most of his colleagues routinely mess up in their interpretations. He’s doing that, brings a lot of love to his readings, and makes those useful links that lift Lovecraft from the quagmire of freakishness. Hell, he even establishes a firm literary link from Lovecraft to Keats’ delicate verse art, quite an achievement on its own.

In short – he’s the state of the art when it comes to Lovecraft scholarship, with simply more depth to his textual work than you would normally find in a Lovecraft scholar. I turned the backcover, read through it…and almost choked when I read its concluding sentence, : “In all, the essays demonstrate that Lovecraft’s multifacted [sic; is it facetes they were looking for?] work is a virtually inexhaustible treasure-trove for the scholar and analyst.”

Years and years of work, and that’s all his publishers can come up with as a raison d’être for his work – that it’s opening a treasure trove. What are stories like The Outsider or At the Mountains of Madness? A pirate’s bounty? To me, the metaphor sounds incredibly cheap, cheap and tragic, and probably it wasn’t more than an innocent and misguided attempt at an compliment – still, it annotates the one essential dilemma: Lovecraft’s work cannot properly be described or made to be productive under any categories that would attract not only the sequestered ranks of Lovecraft scholarship, as it is, but a wider academic circle, as well. He’s a crackpot, a hodgepodge, a buffet you can pick from as you wish: just not so much as a serious object of inquiry for academic criticism.

I guess what I am complaining the lack of is some sort of metanarrative to unite Lovecraft scholarship, the same way that Poe, or Shakespeare, or Yeats scholars have it, a sort of shared identity, that is not so much exclusive as it is inclusive. It’s a sad fact – Lovecraft scholarship, that tight, tight, tight community of Lovecraft fans (and ain’t they all – Joshi, Faig, Burleson, Mosig, even Waugh: fans in defense of their idol, whenever they write a word on Lovecraft and his works) that painfully does not reach out…to anyone. There are these occasional instances where an academic critic will give him a shot, but you don’t see Lovecraft scholarship take the chance and search the contact: are they afraid? Or just unaware that, in order to wake the attention of magna mater Academia, you need to feed it, with honest, open scholarship that is theoretically up to date and sharp…the way Waugh’s is.

I can’t say how glad I was to read The Monster in the Mirror.

Hello world! And my friends on all the outlying islands of ignorance!

Hello World!

I don’t think so. This (and I’m waving my arms right now) is meant to be a work log. This is not to say it’s not going to be personal – by all means, my personal life and my work have become synonyms a while ago, so inevitably they will be mingling in this rhetorical petri dish.

I am a literary scholar, as if the world hadn’t enough of our kind – I know, we are the the next best thing to lawyers in terms of too many. I am also a Ph.D student, at the University of Bamberg, a city in Southern Germany, a little too big to qualify as a hamlet, though that’s what it feels like. Oh yeah, 10 breweries for a population of just about 70.000 make it the brewery capital of the world; I’m not so sure I would want to take pride in that – nevertheless it tends to have a distinct influence on the pastime arrangements of students, of course.
I’m an English Ph.D student, a part time English teacher and a soon-to-be adjunct at my alma mater. Sound great? Or – sound like plenty of underpaid work? I tend to think my work has some kind of import, and my hopes feed on that thought: I won’t be an adjunct forever, or even for very long. Period.

So. My dissertation is all it takes to account for the title of this here blog – I’m working on the fiction of American fantasist HP Lovecraft, of all people. I won’t explain my fascination for the guy’s prose. It’s the usual discovered him as a kid and couldn’t dump the book before it charmed me-crap at the bottom of so many authorial attractions. I am not a Lovecraft scholar in any sense that implies a sympathy for Lovecraft scholarship, as it is. I am at odds with much of Lovecraft scholarship. This, I’m afraid, will be one of the plot lines here.

Lovecraft’s fiction is one of my scholarly interests, and not necessarily by far the most important one. To add a few names to the bucket of interests: Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Dos Passos. These are floating around pretty easily, so let me add a geographical component: the West and its literatures. And, finally, to round it off, a dose of more generical terms: gothic and apocalyptic, or more pointedly, gothic apocalypse.

The latter is driving my dissertation – Providence and Apocalypse. I’m trying to relate Lovecraft’s work (needless to say, the man was a Providence native, and that is so obvious and well-known to reduce any pun the title may have contained to something you can easily nod off) to the tradition of American apocalyptic, and this gives me the chance to acquaint him with bedfellows that I’ve always wanted to add to that particular scene, namely the Puritan elite, ranging from the Cotton gang to Jonathan Edwards. I was taken in by the opportunities the Puritans and their heirs (and I subsume guys like Hawthorne and Melville in a very broad sweep here) hold for literary scholars like me.

So far. I’m doing the dissertation routine, that is, I do a lot of reading work, and not always do brilliant insights hit me on an hourly schedule. I’ll nevertheless see to regular updates, several times a week. This should be vague enough not to make too much of a promise – to…myself, to begin with.

PS: Shoggoths, of course, are Lovecraft’s attempt to create real, genuine gothic monsters (Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and their likes are, by all means, more aliens than monsters) – not quite as influential as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, but still powerful enough to sustain any interpretation – they encode Lovecraft’s views on race as well as his repressed sexuality, and so on. I’ve always thought of them as oversized (by a billion times) spermatazoa, white, primal, and as alluring as a gargantuan jelly fish.