Ménage à trois, deuxieme fois

Both protagonists envision the(ir) end, both enroll the audience in their telling of it and take them all the way through it: the end, not necessarily in an apocalyptic sense (though in Moby Dick it is as much as that), is a shared experience.

This is radically different in Lovecraft. The phrase borders on the pleonastic.

One of the ongoing concerns of my dissertation, complementary in the realm of concerns to my interest in the apocalyptic, is the representation of what I would call his cultured anti-sociality: he places his stories in unmistakably our world, and needs to do so, for better or worse – in order to find words to his narrative voice. As k-punk puts it in a two-part summary of the, rather: THE London event on the man’s weird realism

Thinking of the Weird as the ‘out of place’ or the ‘out of time’ will take us some way to distinguishing the Weird from both the Fantastic and the Uncanny. Lovecraft’s texts are not Fantastic in Todorov’s sense because in his ‘localised realism’ there is no sense of being suspended between naturalism and supernaturalism. In Lovecraft’s ‘non-supernatural cosmic art’, naturalism has been rejected, but not in favour of a ‘marvellous’ supernaturalism. As we have already seen, Lovecraft’s emergence as a writer in his own right is only secured once he has left behind the Fantasy worlds of Dunsany. Worlds may be entirely foreign to ours, both in terms of location and even in terms of the physical laws which govern them, without being Weird. It is the irruption into this world of something from Outside which is the marker of the Weird. (my emphasis)

The world is ours, the words are not: Lovecraft, I argue, killed the notion of communality and replaced it with a weird aesthetic depending largely for its effects on the mediation of strong narrator figures – operating as prophets of doom reminiscent in their rhetoric, though not in their scope, of more traditionally apocalyptic models of history. His narrator- prophets are reliant on their audience, but their narratives are riddled by the certainty that social and historical institutions have already been rendered defunct. They therefore try to re-establish the sense of historicality, foundational to their apocalypses as it is to all apocalypses, by continously reverting to historical markers, posts, and symbols that are remarkably inefficient at creating either historicality or, following from it, communality.

Memories of the past are, by default, always fractured and fragmented in Lovecraft’s prose, incoherent in dangerous ways that slide easily into events of local or global threats to, well, the world as we know it.

An example: mutant miracle boy Wilbur Whateley, unshapely protagonist of The Dunwich Horror – what advice would YOU give a near-7-foot tall 15 year old who tries his best to manage his barn-sized monster twin? Right, send him to the library.

‘More space, Willy, more space soon. Yew grows – an’ that grows faster. It’ll be ready to serve ye soon, boy. Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant that ye’ll find on page 751 of the complete edition, an’ then put a match to the prison. Fire from airth can’t burn it nohaow.’

The reference is to the non-book Necronomicon, quite a tome in the “original” edition, it seems. The edition I have stacked here runs only to a page-count of slightly more than 170 – the remaining pages must have gone amiss in the transference from textual non-entity to actual cult object. Wilbur’s attempts to procure the manuscript in its entirety are frantic: he breaks into the university library of (fictional/mythical) Miskatonic university one night – his only means of securing his and his brother’s identity by opening the gates to their dad Yog-Sothoth’s abode are failing, and the effects of that disintegrate him into a humungous swivel on the floor. More precisely, in the process his non-human, non-earthly identity is being revealed in the wrong context, our world, and that rift in contextuality spells out his death.

It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very manlike hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateley’s upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous, so that only generous clothing could ever have enabled it to walk on earth unchallenged or uneradicated. Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfully, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.

Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat. The limbs, save for their black fur, roughly resembled the hind legs of prehistoric earth’s giant saurians, and terminated in ridgy-veined pads that were neither hooves nor claws. When the thing breathed, its tail and tentacles rhythmically changed colour, as if from some circulatory cause normal to the non-human greenish tinge, whilst in the tail it was manifest as a yellowish appearance which alternated with a sickly grayish-white in the spaces between the purple rings. Of genuine blood there was none; only the foetid greenish-yellow ichor which trickled along the painted floor beyond the radius of the stickiness, and left a curious discoloration behind it.

As they erupt into our world, Lovecraft’s monsters are already in the process of disassembling, as Gothic monsters are habitually wont to: I remember making that point somewhere here on these pages before. Still, their function to the reader is different from that of Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster – their humanity and humaneness are, at best, a complimentary addition to grant them freedom of movement without being “uneradicated” (which would inevitably happen at the hands of state authorities: police and military are quick to move when the status quo is endangered and when decay is about to spread from the biotopes it is ocassionally locked into – Dunwich, Innsmouth, Red Hook, you name them). As members of Lovecraft’s narrative worlds, they are objects of study, not points of identification. While Wilbur Whateley dies in an academic environment, the academic environment is shoved out into the waste in At the Mountains of Madness. Here, an academically sponsored polar expedition (under the auspices of Miskatonic U, of course) bores and drills into the Antarctic ice and stumbles upon a dormant group of elder things, which are then examined with all scientific rigor and scalpellic sharpness. Their physiognomy is unsayable, which in Lovecraft’s stories notoriously translates into lengthy alien teratology treatises, and I won’t quote this one. Their scene on the dissecting table is of more interest than their outward forms –

This dissection seemed to be a greater task than had been expected, for, despite the heat of a gasoline stove in the newly raised laboratory tent, the deceptively flexible tissues of the chosen specimen – a powerful and intact one – lost nothing of their more than leathery toughness. Lake was puzzled as to how he might make the requisite incisions without violence destructive enough to upset all the structural niceties he was looking for. He had, it is true, seven more perfect specimens; but these were too few to use up recklessly unless the cave might later yield an unlimited supply. Accordingly he removed the specimen and dragged in one which, though having remnants of the starfish arrangements at both ends, was badly crushed and partly disrupted along one of the great torso furrows.

The dissection being a vivisection really, a reaction comes shortly afterward – the now awakened group of elder things goes rampaging through the expedition. Their stage on earth is exactly not the public pillory or the pulpit (think Puritan), nor the whaling vessel (think Moby Dick), nor any vessel at all (think Frankenstein) – but the academic floor, aka library, aka dissecting table. Sympathy or pity are neither required, nor indeed possible: for all its sticky fascination, Lovecraft’s ultra-detailed alien teratologies effectively stifle any compassion.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Lovecraft…interests me. He’s truly an awful writer but his IDEAS almost redeem him. He has created an entire pantheon of Gods and his weird, eldritch worlds are consistent (and consistently strange). His work truly inhabits its own universe (like Poe, he is an American original). But the writing or, rather, the over-writing offends my sensibilities. He might be one of those authors who reads better in translation, interpreters perhaps cleaning up his sloppy language somewhat. Much of his canon is unreadable to me. And yet…I admire the obsessive imagination at work. Funny, he ‘s the only other writer I can think of (along with Poe) who manages to simultaneously provoke my admiration and disdain.

  2. Sorry for replying only now: like Lovecraft’s characters I’m continously running out of time.

    I can give a judgment only for the German and the French translations, and the latter do tend to be easier-going than the original. In France, he sort of repeated the stunt first performed by Poe, very unique translations and an interesting reception history included. German, with its bias on hypotaxes and compound nouns/phrases doesn’t do much to alleviate his style.

    I don’t tend to think of his writing as over-writing, certainly not if that implies a lack of efficiency – he gets his stories where he wants them to not despite, but because of his writing style – or maybe that is just a convention to myself, in order to justify the fact that, right now, I invest my scholarly life in his works: I do see structure and direction there. The one big point he has “in spite” is his plotting – he’s not a great story writer, even admits as much in his letters, and goes ahead to erect his weird worlds: you always know what’s gonna happen & still read on, because you don’t get to tear your eyes away from his intense atmosphere building. In terms of atmosphere, he’s playing with the greatest of them, in terms of plotting, not so much, although he’s still way, way, way above the regular pulp level.

    In a way, I do share your ambivalence though – I find him positively & irredeemably repellent as a person: his redemption, to me, comes via his prose…and his style. 😉


Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s