The Worst of the Best
Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 - March 15, 1937) was the worst of the best American writers of the twentieth century, whose writing brought out the worst in twentieth century's
best critics. Edmund Wilson's opinion of the weird tales' even weirder author was that "the only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art. Lovecraft was not a good writer" (47). British
author Colin Wilson agreed "that Lovecraft is a very bad writer" (de Camp 438), while Avram Davidson, editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, claimed, "Lovecraft was as nutty as a five dollar fruit-cake" (439).
is mixed why Lovecraft's writing was so bad. One reviewer "disliked his stylistic mannerism. He tells his tales through a troubled, dim, first person narrator, and he saves the grisly denouement for the last sentence and then
prints it in italics, as though for greater shock value" (Heviera 101). L. Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft's biographer, described Lovecraft's prose as "heavily influenced by Poe, much of it is of the kind that is nowadays viewed as
turgid, verbose, and overwritten, with many sentences of Teutonic length" (264). After reading "The Dunwich Horror," Edmund Wilson adds:
One of Lovecraft's worst faults is his incessant effort to work up the expectations of
the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as 'horrible,' 'terrible,' 'frightful,' 'awesome,' 'eerie,' 'weird,' 'forbidden,' 'unhallowed,' 'unholy,' 'blasphemous,' 'hellish,' and 'infernal.' Surely one of the
primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words--especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus (48).
Readers of his arctic novel At the
Mountains of Madness could only write to editors: "Are you in such dire straits that you must print this kind of drivel?" (Murray 125).
Lovecraft himself was well aware of the criticism. In "The Unnamable," he admits, "I
was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralyzed my heroes' faculties" and says, "it is quite impossible to refer to any object or spectacle which cannot be clearly depicted by the solid definitions of
fact or the correct doctrines of theology," though he adds wryly, "preferably those of the Congregationalists, with whatever modifications tradition and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may supply."
Still, Lovecraft enjoyed his
champions. They were mostly a younger generation of science fiction writers whom he encouraged, and these writers--Fritz Lieber, Robert Bloch, August Derleth--became influential in their field, mostly due to the inspiration of
Lovecraft's weird genius. His first protégée, Frank Belknap Long, defends his mentor, explaining that Lovecraft's innovative writing was at odds with the modern American aesthetic:
With the publication of H. P.
Lovecraft's stories, 'the Unique Magazine--as Weird Tales was always called--assumed a role that was indeed unique in the field of American publishing--for no previous pulp magazine would have dared to publish supernatural
horror stories so astoundingly unlike the rule-of-thumb, cliché-ridden, ridiculously melodramatic tales which usually found their way into print, even into The Century or The Atlantic, which were in other respects the polar
opposite of the pulps. (Long xiv)
Nevertheless, two years after Lovecraft's death, John W. Campbell, editor of Unknown, wrote: "He was immensely liked--by the small clique that read Weird [Tales] regularly. It still
wasn't good writing" (Murray 129).
Part of the problem is, as Edmund Wilson points out, that Lovecraft considered himself an amateur writer. His one novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, considered by many his most
mainstream work, was never submitted for publication. Evidently, Lovecraft had other motives for writing than literary success. Here was a man, in Colin Wilson's terms, "who made no attempt whatever to come to terms with life,"
(de Camp 438), yet he left what Joyce Carol Oates calls "a form of psychic biography" ("Introduction" viii). Lovecraft's weird tales are not so much works of fiction as they were chronicles of his nightly forays on the astral
plane through dreams.
Born to parents with mental problems (his mother was neurotic, his father psychotic), H. P. Lovecraft was haunted from the age of 10 by nightmares, which he dubbed Night Gaunts. Lovecraft was so
traumatized by these night terrors that his maternal grandfather, Whipple Phillips of Providence, Rhode Island, took the boy for nightly rambles through their large Victorian home to help him overcome his fear of the dark.
However, it was not the dark that H. P. Lovecraft feared--all his life, he would be fascinated by the dark--instead, he feared the Night Gaunts. These were bat-winged creatures with no faces but with black, prehensile talons
that play a large part in "Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" where "such cattle are known to haunt most persistently the dreams of those who think too often of them." Throughout his life, Lovecraft thought of them a lot.
Because of these dreams, Lovecraft was treated as an invalid by his family, namely his mother Susie, her two sisters Annie and Lillian, and his grandfather Phillips. Their vigilant overprotection kept him from finishing high
school, talked him out of joining the service in World War I, and effectively prevented him from having a regular job. Instead, he lived the cosseted life of a gentleman valetudinarian with amateur writing as his only creative
outlet and contact with the outside world. Still, the dreams persisted.
Then in 1918 a breakthrough--the first of the dream narratives began. In a letter to fellow amateur writer Maurice Moe, dated May 15, 1918,
Several nights ago I had a strange dream of a strange city--a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey horrible hills […]. I did not move, but transferred my
perception from point to point at will. I occupied no space and had no form […]. I recall a lively curiosity at the scene and a tormenting struggle to recall its identity; for I felt that I had once known it well, and that if I
could remember, I should be carried back to a very remote period--many thousand years, when something vaguely horrible had happened.
Once I was almost on the verge of realization, and was frantic with fear at the
prospect, though I did not know what it was that I should recall. But here I awaked. (Selected Letters I 62)
From this dream comes "Polaris" (1918), where Lovecraft hints how he was able to exert control over his dreams:
"At first content to view the scene as an all-observant uncorporeal presence, I now desired to define my relation to it, and to speak my mind […] I felt a change, and perceived that I had at last a bodily form." Thus begins his
lifelong struggle to exert control over his own dreams to reach this strange city.
Lovecraft's short story "Polaris" questions the very nature of reality and identity. Which existence is more real, the waking world or
dreamland? "This is no dream," the narrator asserts, "for what means can I prove the greater reality of that other life in the house of stone and brick south of the sinister swamp and the cemetery?" Here the narrator is the
quintessential Lovecraftian hero, given to fainting spells; therefore, he is never sure if his true life is in the dream city between two hills, or else in the waking world of the stone house with barred windows next to the
cemetery. The dream narrative of the ancient city invaded by Inuits under the North Star evidently proceeds from the ravings of a madman, yet the compelling degree of detail makes its existence more real than the insane asylum
next to the cemetery.
Secretly, the imprisoned dreamer in the story was Lovecraft himself. In the same letter to Maurice Moe, Lovecraft confides, "I recognize a distinction between dream life and real life, between
appearances and actualities" (Selected Letters I). Nevertheless, he confessed to "an over-powering desire to know whether I am asleep or awake" (63).
Lovecraft scholar Dirk W. Mosig believes that "the degree of
dissonance between Lovecraft's nightmarish dream experiences and the experiences in his waking life was such that he needed to develop a method of controlling the dream world" (Sennitt).
One way to control one's dreams
is to write them down. Noted anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann explains, "Your dreams become more ordered and symbolic when under constant scrutiny; you remember them more clearly when you train yourself to reach for your notebook
the moment you awake, their complex interconnections with other symbols and experiences appear more readily to your mind" (80). Lovecraft often used dreams as the bases for his plots. This was the case with "Polaris," "The Doom
that Came to Sarnath," "Nyarlanthotep," "The Call of Cthulu," and many others. Writing stories based on dreams increased the activity of Lovecraft's dream life, sometimes with surprising results. In 1921, when asked how he
could describe Paris so well in "The Music of Erich Zann," Lovecraft replied that "he had indeed been there--in a dream, in company with Poe" (de Camp 149).
With Lovecraft, it is hard to tell where the dream ends and
the story begins. Philip A. Shreffler writes, "Lovecraft's typical means of a character's ingress into these worlds is a kind of out-of-the-body travel that occurs during sleep" (16). According to the Encyclopedia of Occultism
and Parapsychology, "out-of-the-body traveling" is another name for astral projection, a term coined by Dr. Robert Crookall (1890-1981), who collated hundreds of cases of this experience "through sleep or trance" (101). This
out-of-the-body travel often occurs during "lucid dreaming," when "one experiences the dream with waking consciousness" (Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology) as in the dream that inspired "Polaris."
of making these astral journeys," according to famed occultist Dion Fortune, "is auto-hypnosis" (Fortune's Psychic Self-Defense 162). Auto-hypnosis provides the trance-like state of lucid dreaming for astral travel. To achieve
this trance-like state, Lovecraft disrupted his Cycadic rhythms, sleeping by day and roaming the dark at night; he suffered sleep deprivation, often staying up for as long as three days at a time; and he starved his body living
solely on beans until the weird dreams came.
Early stories show his difficulties remaining in the trance-like state necessary for astral projection; hence, the numerous fainting heroes in Lovecraft fiction. Despite
Lovecraft's limited success in creating alternate dream worlds like "Polaris" and "Sarnath," he remains at most a passive observer and at best an invisible one. Once the sinister denizens of Lovecraft's dream worlds notice him,
the shock of the interaction wakes him up. Then an important breakthrough occurs in December 1919. In "The Statement of Randolph Carter" another Lovecraft hero faints, but not before he establishes communication with the other
side. The basis of the story was once again a dream.
In a letter to Frank Belknap Long (dated December 11, 1919), Lovecraft writes of a vivid nightmare in which and his friend Samuel Loveman "were, for some terrible yet
unknown reason, in a very strange and very ancient cemetery." He explains:
It was very late in the night . . . . Loveman carried, slung over his shoulder, a portable telephone outfit; whilst I bore two spades. We
proceeded directly to a flat sepulcher near the centre of the horrible place, and began to clear away the moss-grown earth which had been washed down upon it by the rains of innumerable years. . . . . Loveman took up his shovel
again, and using it as a lever, sought to pry up a certain slab which formed the top of the sepulcher. […] Finally we loosened the stone, lifted it with our combined strength, and heaved it away. Beneath was a black passageway
with a flight of stone steps. . . . Loveman picked up the telephone outfit and began to uncoil the wire, speaking for the first time as he did so. . . .
'I'll keep you informed of every move I make by the telephone--you see,
I've enough wire here to reach to the centre of the earth and back!
[Loveman disappears down below only to communicate to Lovecraft by phone.]
'Lovecraft--I think I'm finding it. . . . I can't tell you--I
don't dare--I never dreamed of this--I can't tell--It's enough to unseat any mind--wait--What's this?"
[The line goes dead and then another voice is heard in the receiver.]
'YOU FOOL, LOVEMAN IS DEAD!'
The letter closes with a typical conclusion for a Lovecraft story: "Well, that's the whole damn thing! I fainted in the dream, and the next I knew I was awake--and with a prize headache!" (Selected Letters I, 95-97).
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