Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Epic Blah Blah Blah: H. P. Lovecraft

There are few writers I can think of more whose legacy is more quietly influential than that of H. P. Lovecraft. References and elements of his work are everywhere in popular culture (in more countries than the U.S.), but he rarely gets mentioned by name.

Why is Lovecraft so (relatively) obscure? Probably because he was not widely acclaimed in his day, and ghost-wrote a lot of works. (I recall reading a story which didn't read like typical Lovecraft at all, and it was "co-written" with another author, who did not pay Lovecraft for his contributions.) Probably also, it comes from his hypercritical views of himself and his tendency to write in a genre which even today is not widely accepted as "good" literature. (Horror as such is relatively "ghetto," or so a professor of mine who likes horror would have you believe.)

Lovecraft was not really a "great" author by any stretch of the imagination. His works are often unclear, frequently flowery, and suffer from a number of conceits:
  • Protagonists are almost invariably helpless by nature, causing the hero's succumbing to the horror of the story to be unintentionally underwhelming. (An actual line in one story said that, despite the horror of the event, the protagonist did not faint, the irony being that the event was way too mild for most people to even consider fainting in response. This is probably a side effect of Lovecraft's weak constitution, which kept him from fighting in WWI and plagued him his entire life.)
  • Lovecraft's characters will often declare something "undescribable" and then go ahead and describe it anyway. I think he really wanted to say "really hard to describe because it was quite weird."
  • Lovecraft was unrepentantly and horribly racist, and may have been somewhat misogynistic. (His racism was, as I have mentioned before, kind of an odd duck. His possible misogyny was ironic, since he was raised mostly by women, and had little contact with the masculine section of society often associated with misogyny. Then again, his mother apparently was always telling him he was ugly, so maybe it was just an issue with mother figures.)
  • Lovecraft liked frustrating his readers. His favorite stories (both his own and those penned by others) were those that were too vague to figure out any real meaning or piecing together events from.
  • If one was trying to pull a consistent world out of Lovecraft's works, it would be intensely frustrating, as he happily bandied about terms interchangeably. For instance, there were upwards of half a dozen groups known as "Old Ones," and one must figure out from context which of these groups he was referring to in any given story. (Take some #^*4 notes, man!)
(For the record, my periodic exclamation of "Oh, Japan!" [in reaction to particularly silly and amusing things not intended to be silly that come from Japan] was originally inspired by a similar exclamation made by my sister-i.e., "Oh, Lovecraft!")

On the other hand:

  • He was a great idea man. While the professor I mentioned earlier was critical of much of his material in terms of its weaknesses, he described him as one of the genre's greatest concept developers.
  • Lovecraft had an endearing habit of making junk up and then hinting to readers that it was connected to actual mythology by mixing a few more familiar names (i.e. actual mythology) in with the stuff like Tsathoggua and Rlim-Shaikorth. (Note that Lovecraft did not originally come up with either entity-they were both created by Clark Ashton Smith. I use them as examples because they are even more "Lovecrafty" than most of Lovecraft's fictional names.)
  • Lovecraft's works, while they are generally associated with his philosophies, are written in a way that any individual can take away something more in line with his or her own worldview. Case in point: The self-appointed executor of sorts of Lovecraft's works, August Derleth (notable for keeping Lovecraft's works in print [and also preserving much that would have been lost] by founding a publishing company specifically to publish them), interpreted those works through his own more Christian worldview, adding works loosely based on material written by Lovecraft to the "Cthulhu Mythos" which painted a picture quite different than the one envisioned by Lovecraft. While many are highly critical of Derleth's reinterpretation of Lovecraft's works, my own view is that, while it is odd at best to represent a work as co-authored with Lovecraft when only about 2% of it had been written by Lovecraft, Derleth's "reinterpretation" of the "Mythos" was not a function of reinterpreting the nature of Lovecraft's monsters, but applying his own philosophies to the behavior of those monsters. (His addition of "Elder Gods" was something that Lovecraft wouldn't have done, but that's not my point.)
  • He used a "keyboard mash" technique to invent names, a technique I have often fallen back on when trying to come up with names. ("Keyboard mashing" being when one strikes a computer or typewriter keyboard as randomly as possible in an effort to create a word that resembles no known words. I don't know that he actually did mash a keyboard, but I can't imagine that he never randomly strung together letters to make a name.) By the way, I support pronounciation of all Lovecraft-invented terms phonetically. (Yes, K'thullhoo.)

Regardless, his works, or at least, his works' elements, have an enduring appeal that keeps them in pop culture. There have been plenty of authors whose works, in and of themselves, were hardly "great" works, but still have been influential and memorable. (Jonathan Swift, for one.)

-Signing off (because I can't think of anything else to say on the subject).

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