Sunday, April 17, 2005

NYT Lovecraft Review

In Sunday's NYT, Lemony Snicket reviews the new Library of America edition of Lovecraft's tales, and man, do I wish they'd found somebody else. Snicket's stock-in-trade is an arch, ironic style. Lovecraft's work is vulnerable to the kind of pitiless superiority of this attitude, but the job of a reviewer in this sort of case should also entail showing a wider readership why it is that so many people return to Lovecraft, respect his work, see him as a seminal figure for the genre, and thought him important enough to anthologize in the US's nearest equivalent to the Pleaides.

Comments like this---

''There are horrors beyond horrors,'' one such trembler says, just as the beast is arriving at last, ''and this was one of those nuclei of all dreamable hideousness which the cosmos saves to blast an accursed and unhappy few.'' Oh, come on, this reader couldn't help thinking. Tell me what the monster looks like already. Tucked in an anthology, between the cloaks and daggers of Bram Stoker and the ravenous monsters of Dean Koontz, Lovecraft out-cloaks, out-daggers and out-ravenous-monsters them all, but after four or five of these stories the effect is bludgeoning. Lovecraft has mastered, paralyzed and annihilated the reader, and now the reader's ready for a little P. G. Wodehouse, thank you very much.

miss the point of Lovecraft entirely. Lovecraft is coming out of a tradition of the fantastic: readers of his time wanted the suspense before the storm. And most readers, even of this anthology, are going to read the stories one or maybe two at a time. Snicket could have perhaps mentioned that these stories first appeared in small-circulation magazines (and as the writer of a rather repetitive "series" himself, he could perhaps have identified with Lovecraft's technical challenges).

Snicket generally blows the historical significance of Lovecraft's writing, and nowhere worse than in the paragraph intended to explain it:

This is a fine tradition, and Lovecraft's shadow looms large in it. But like so many seminal influences -- modern practitioners, from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates, hail him as a crucial figure -- he's not read nearly as widely as he is regarded, and frankly it's not difficult to see why. Just as Oscar Wilde noted that ''one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing,'' it's tough to venture into a Lovecraft story with a straight face, let alone with chattering teeth. Lovecraft's stories are so overwrought that they make Jules Verne look like a homebody and Edgar Allan Poe a well-adjusted realist; he pushes at the already extreme boundaries of the Gothic, horror and science fiction genres -- not so much in the way that John Ashbery pushes at the boundaries of poetic form but more as Spinal Tap pushes at the boundaries of heavy metal: by turning the volume up to 11.

So, Snicket, why is it that King and Oates hail Lovecraft as a crucial figure? And is it not possible that Verne and Poe are writing from and to a very different literary situation? He makes almost no attempt to explain what happened after Lovecraft: that science fiction and horror went very deep underground so that writers and readers could organize around the kind of fiction they loved without being sneered at by the Snickets of the world.

Towards the end of the review, however, we do get one genuine insight:

If you spend enough time in Lovecraft's lonely landscapes, fear really does develop: not the fear that you will come across unearthly creatures, but the fear that you will come across little else. And what first seems horridly overdone accumulates a creepy minimalism. Taken as a whole, Lovecraft's work exhibits a hopeless isolation not unlike that of Samuel Beckett: lonely man after lonely man, wandering aimlessly through a shadowy city or holing up in rural emptiness, pursuing unspeakable secrets or being pursued by secret unspeakables, all to little avail and to no comfort.

Here, though, Snicket is just scratching at the surface of what the crowd over at Crooked Timber have called "Intellects Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic," an archive category created during the leftie blog fad last year for talking about Bush's presidential campaign in terms of lonely, scattered encounters with vast cruelties from beyond our ken. Snicket might have taken a look at Houllebecq's book, which the NYT blurbs just below Snicket's review:
It is well known that life has no meaning. But nor does death. And that is one of the blood-curdling things that one discovers in Lovecraft's universe. The deaths of his protogonists have no meaning. They bring no peace. They in no way permit the stories to conclude. Implacably, HPL destroys his characters without suggesting anything more than the dismembering of a puppets. Indifferent to these lowly happenings, comic terror continues to swell. It spreads and becomes distinct. The great Cthulhu comes out of its sleep.

What is the great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like us. Lovecraft's horror is rigorously material. But it is very possible that, by the free play of comic forces, the great Cthulhu has available a power and ability to act that are considerably superior to our own. Which, when you think about it, isn't particularly reassuring. (Speedy translation mine)


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