Amy H. Sturgis (eldritchhobbit) wrote,
Amy H. Sturgis

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"Art in Its Most Essential Sense": H.P. Lovecraft and the Imaginative Tale

Some time ago I was invited to write the introduction for a collection of Lovecraft's favorite tales. The project eventually died before it could be born, leaving me with this essay. I wanted to put it up somewhere in its original form, so here it is.

The H.P. Lovecraft Memorial Plaque 2

"Art in its Most Essential Sense”: H.P. Lovecraft and the Imaginative Tale
Amy H. Sturgis, Ph.D.

“Pleasure to me is wonder – the unexplored, the unexpected, the thing that is hidden and the changeless thing that lurks behind superficial mutability. To trace the remote in the immediate; the eternal in the ephemeral; the past in the present; the infinite in the finite; these are to me the springs of delight and beauty.” With these words in “The Defence Remains Open!” in 1921, H.P. Lovecraft articulated his aesthetic and indicated the specific kind of literature he preferred to produce, consume, and promote. Of course, he had no idea that he would become the voice of weird fiction to following generations, a father figure to successive incarnations of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Although he underestimated his own legacy, Lovecraft nonetheless left readers at least three key insights into his art: his non-fiction writings about literature, his own fiction published in various venues, and the stories by other authors that offered him enjoyment and inspiration.

This volume provides readers with a selection of the latter, the tales that Lovecraft the reader and critic found most compelling and praiseworthy. To put them in proper context, however, we must consider Lovecraft’s own writings about and within the literary tradition he most prized. Although his essays “In Defence of Dagon,” “Supernatural Horror In Literature,” “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” and “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” were penned and published during very different eras of Lovecraft’s artistic life, they present a united defense and exploration of imaginative fiction. In his mind Lovecraft was the product of science, but in his soul he was the child of wonder, chasing awe and terror like an elusive, half-seen shadow glimpsed from the corner of the eye. He captured a revolutionary vision of fiction in his essays, and then proceeded to illustrate his theories in the pages of his tales, accomplishing both with remarkable clarity and increasing sophistication. The legacy he leaves us invites us to count ourselves among the few, the elect, the imaginative.

“In Defence of Dagon” (1921)

By 1921, Lovecraft was a well established presence in the Anglo-American amateur press community, a frequent contributor of articles, reviews, editorials, and poems to amateur publications and a former president of the United Amateur Press Association. In the previous year he penned at least a dozen short stories, an accomplishment unparalleled throughout his career, and his fellow amateur journalists elected him to be the official editor of the UAPA. His first professional fiction publication, “Herbert West – Reanimator” in Home Brew, would not be published until 1922. Some of his earlier stories already circulated in various amateur journals, however, and drew comments and questions from readers. One of these was “Dagon,” which appeared in the November 1919 issue of the amateur periodical The Vagrant. In 1921, Lovecraft responded to some of the feedback he had received on this tale and others by writing three essays for The Transatlantic Circulator organization: “The Defence Reopens!” (January 1921), “The Defence Remains Open!” (April 1921), and “Final Words” (September 1921). Together, these three works paint a detailed portrait of Lovecraft’s early theories on fiction. Collectively they are now known as “In Defence of Dagon.”

Lovecraft opens the first section of “In Defence of Dagon” by dividing all fiction into three categories: romantic, realistic, and imaginative. The first appeals to the “poetical or emotional,” those who “value action and emotion for their own sake.” The second appeals to the “intellectual and analytical,” those who value “scientific and literal” representations of life. Although romantic fiction leads with the heart and realistic fiction with the head, Lovecraft explains that both share “the common quality of dealing almost wholly with the objective world.” Romantics and realists alike produce fiction composed of recognizable experiences and known settings. In this, Lovecraft anticipates science fiction scholar James Gunn’s classifications put forth in “Toward a Definition of Science Fiction” (2005), in which he identifies both romantic and realistic fiction as the literature of continuity, or writing that represents an unbroken link to the everyday world experienced by us all. One need not be concerned that the pull of the Earth’s gravity might affect the characters in Jane Austen’s Emma differently than it does the reader, for example, or that they might discover a portal to parallel universes in their sitting rooms, since Austen’s fictional persons inhabit a reality unthreateningly similar to our own.

According to Lovecraft, this fiction of continuity, whether it is emotional or rational, denies the imagination, “which groups isolated impressions into gorgeous patterns and finds strange relations and associations among the objects of visible and invisible Nature.” Imaginative fiction, on the other hand, allows the author full creativity, license to pursue “art in its most essential sense.” Gunn in his 2005 essay calls this imaginative work the literature of discontinuity, fiction that makes a leap from or forces a break with mundane reality. Such fiction, Lovecraft believes, has a naturally small audience. Writing “In Defence of Dagon,” Lovecraft asserts that imaginative fiction lacks widespread appeal, because far more people possess emotions and/or reason than imagination. This does not lead him to despair. On the contrary, Lovecraft seems to find comfort in this marginalized position as one of the elect few, the imaginative. He describes the author of imaginative fiction as “a voyager in those unheard-of lands which are glimpsed through the veil of actuality but rarely, and only by the most sensitive.” Romantic and realistic fiction might be the meat and potatoes for the masses, but imaginative fiction, Lovecraft argues, is the caviar for those of a more discriminating intellectual palate.

It came as no surprise to Lovecraft, then, that some readers were perplexed by his story “Dagon.” Inspired in part by one of Lovecraft’s dreams, “Dagon” relates the story of a man who plans to commit suicide because he can no longer afford the morphine that offers him respite from a traumatic memory. Without the drug, he recalls a strange experience he had after escaping from a German sea-raider during the first World War. Adrift at sea, he came upon the bizarre traces of an unknown past civilization apparently vomited up from the ocean bed and haunted by a living being, “Polyphemus-like, and loathsome,” “like a stupendous monster of nightmares…” Before he can end his life, the narrator becomes lost in hallucinations of the vile creature. The tale abruptly ends with his maniacal exclamations: “God, that hand! The window! The window!” Lovecraft revisited the themes of the tale in later works such as “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931), the latter of which even references Dagon by name.

“Dagon” fits Lovecraft’s understanding of imaginative fiction by offering the reader a vision of one of those “unheard-of lands,” in this case the “immeasurable black canyon” in the “slimy expanse of hellish black mire” at sea. Lovecraft never explains fully what the narrator’s discovery of the landmass, its mysterious stone monolith, and the horrific creature mean, except for madness for the unfortunate man. The reader receives only a passing glimpse of cryptic bas-reliefs and weird inscriptions on the stone, only an unfocused glance at the lurking monster, but these are enough to suggest that fundamental assumptions we hold about our world are mistaken. In so doing “Dagon” breaks the rules of the mundane. Writing “In Defence of Dagon,” then, Lovecraft is untroubled by a reader’s protest that the story does not seem plausible or real. Those goals belong to the author of the romantic or realistic tale, not the writer of imaginative fiction.

Lovecraft goes on in the essay to note that his aim in stories such as “Dagon” is “purely and simply to reproduce a mood.” The reaction he preferred was fear. His further responses to reader comments in “In Defence of Dagon” show how he sought to create that desired mood. For example, he writes, “The essence of the horrible is the unnatural.” To inspire horror, then, Lovecraft described things that challenged the reader’s understanding of what is right and how things are. One of the most prevalent examples of this throughout his collected stories is his repeated description of hyperbolic and elliptic geometry in architecture, the strangeness and wrongness of non-Euclidean angles in alien structures. “Dagon” supplies another case study: the narrator studies images carved in the stone monolith. Their forms and size seem hopelessly wrong compared to all the protagonist and the reader know to be true:

Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features even less pleasant to recall. Curiously enough, they seemed to be have been chiseled badly out of proportion with their scenic background; for one of the creatures was shewn in the act of killing a whale represented as but little larger than himself.

Such things, the narrator assumes, cannot be. They are unnatural. By undermining this assumption and suggesting a world in which such things can be -- indeed, a world in which we are face to face with them – “Dagon” produces Lovecraft’s desired effect.

Another tool Lovecraft utilized to build a mood was scale. In his essay, he admits, “Probably the worst thing is solitude in barren immensity.” “Dagon” provides a clear example of how he employed this “worst thing” in his writing. The narrator relates, “I think my horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night.” Alone, dwarfed by his unfamiliar and fantastic surroundings, the protagonist feels unmoored and insignificant. So, too, does the reader.

Scale not only helped to create a mood, but it also reflected Lovecraft’s cosmic perspective on the universe. In the second section of “In Defence of Dagon,” Lovecraft writes, “Man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man’s relations to the cosmos – to the unknown – which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible for me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background.” Informed by the revelations of astronomy and the other hard sciences he studied, Lovecraft grew to embrace an atheistic, mechanistic materialism. He saw the universe as vast and unknowable, and humanity as fleeting and inconsequential. His tales of elder gods and various other creatures from across space and time reflected his conviction that humans occupied a most humble place in the cosmic hierarchy, destined to be neither first nor last on this planet, but rather the victims of impersonal and mighty forces we can neither comprehend nor combat. Some of his most celebrated stories, such as “The Colour Out of Space” (first published in 1927), “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), At the Mountains of Madness (1936), “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936), and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936), among others, allude to malignant extraterrestrial presences and the dire repercussions their secrets may hold for humankind.

This cosmic outlook remains one of the trademarks of Lovecraft’s imaginative fiction. Fritz Leiber, Jr. was one of the earliest critics to recognize the revolutionary change in perspective that Lovecraft’s scale of storytelling made possible. In “A Literary Copernicus,” which appeared first in full form in Something About Cats and Other Pieces in 1949, Leiber argues that Lovecraft “shifted the focus of supernatural dread from man and his little world and his gods, to the stars and the black and unplumbed gulfs of intergalactic space.” In “Lovecraft and the Cosmic Quality in Fiction,” first published in the May 1976 issue of The Diversifier, critic Richard L. Tierney coins the label “cosmos centred” to describe the style of fiction Lovecraft created and discussed. As Tierney explains, the “cosmos centred” tale “attempts to ease the reader away from his preconceived notions entirely and leave him with the awed feeling that he really knows nothing about the cosmos at all – but is about to know.” Lovecraft’s cast of protagonists, from the unfortunate narrator of “Dagon” to other scientists, researchers, journalists, and seekers, is made up of those who are about to know, many of whom pay a high price for their terrible knowledge, forfeiting either their lives or their sanity.

Perhaps Lovecraft’s cosmic sense of scale is best summed up in his short story “The Silver Key,” first published in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales. Lovecraft writes that “the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.” To be sure, this cosmic perspective is neither reassuring nor uplifting. Yet Lovecraft’s unswerving willingness to accept the unflattering, unsympathetic lessons taught by science led directly to his need for imaginative fiction. The eminent H.P. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has pointed out in many analyses, most recently in the Scriptorium essay “H.P. Lovecraft” (last revised in June 2007, a modification of his introductory essay to 1991’s An Epicure of the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in the Honor of H.P. Lovecraft) that “It was precisely because Lovecraft felt the universe to be an unswerving mechanism with rigid natural laws that he required the escape of the imagination….” Without the cosmic perspective, then, there would be no need either for “Dagon” or “In Defence of Dagon.” Lovecraft would carry the cosmic worldview, as well as his burden for imaginative fiction, through the following stages of his artistic life.

“Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927, revised in 1933 and 1934)

Lovecraft’s single most important literary essay followed six years after “In Defense of Dagon.” “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was first published in The Recluse in 1927, and later revised in 1933 and 1934 and serialized in Fantasy Fan from 1933 to 1935. By the time of its original publication, Lovecraft had several professional fiction publications to his credit. He had even turned down the editorship of Weird Tales. This essay was an ambitious undertaking, the result of years of systematic reading and analysis. It remains today one of the most comprehensive and insightful surveys of the historical development of the horror tale. In it Lovecraft traced weird fiction from the ancient Egyptian and Semitic tales through the centuries to the contemporary authors he considered to be modern masters, namely Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and M.R. James. Not only did the essay establish Lovecraft as an authority in the field, but the study also served as a catalyst for his own fiction: within a year of completing the main body of the essay, he penned such notable works as “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Pickman’s Model,” “The Silver Key,” The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and “The Colour Out of Space.”

Beyond its historical survey, the essay provides several useful windows into Lovecraft’s own art. First, Lovecraft defines the weird tale, another term for imaginative fiction. His definition directly builds upon ideas he articulated in “In Defence of Dagon,” specifically that imaginative fiction creates a certain mood or atmosphere, and it allows the reader to transcend the laws of nature that constrain us in our everyday lives. This escape from the scientific laws that govern our existence is liberating in a sense, Lovecraft implies, but it is far more horrifying, because it invites the unknown, the oldest and most lasting source of human fear. To use his words,

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space.

“The Call of Cthulhu,” first published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales, exemplifies these traits. As the narrator recounts the steps he followed to piece together bizarre evidence left by his late grand-uncle and uncovered by his own investigations, the tension in the atmosphere builds. The reader wonders how a hideous bas-relief sculpted in a troubled artist’s sleep, a degenerate cult in the Louisiana bayou, and the tragic fate of a ship in the Pacific Ocean could be connected. The accumulated clues point to an ancient extraterrestrial entity who waits beneath the sea to rise up and vanquish mankind. These discoveries generate more questions than answers, however, while suggesting that we are not capable of accepting the revelation in its entirety. The opening lines of the story set the tone for the horror to come: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

The cosmic outlook apparent in “The Call of Cthulhu,” and in Lovecraft’s very definition of the weird tale, is one of the features Lovecraft traces through the historical development of the genre in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” S.T. Joshi points out in the introduction to 2000’s The Annotated Supernatural Lovecraft in Literature that this is another useful insight the essay offers, because it shows how Lovecraft identified in the work of his predecessors the qualities that are found most clearly in his own fiction. For example, although the book predates many of the scientific discoveries that so captivated and convinced Lovecraft, he recognizes Charles Robert Maturin’s 1820 Gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer as an early and key iteration of the cosmic idea. Melmoth the Wanderer tells the tale of a man who has sold his soul for an additional 150 years of life and now searches for another to take over the compact in his place. Lovecraft sees in this work, despite its frequent rambling and clumsiness of prose, “a kinship to the essential truth of human nature, an understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear, and a white heat of sympathetic passion on the writer’s part which makes the book a true document of æsthetic self-expression….” Lovecraft sought to cultivate these things, especially “an understanding of the profoundest sources of actual cosmic fear,” in his own art.

Beyond the essay’s historical survey of the genre, definition of the weird tale, and identification of Lovecraft’s literary traits in his predecessors, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” also allows readers to discover possible direct inspirations for specific stories Lovecraft wrote. For example, in the essay Lovecraft shows familiarity with and appreciation for Herbert S. Gorman’s novel The Place Called Dagon (1927). Lovecraft describes the book as relating “the dark history of a western Massachusetts back-water where the descendants of refugees from the Salem witchcraft still keep alive the morbid and degenerate horrors of the Black Sabbat.” It seems likely that this work influenced several of Lovecraft’s stories, most notably The Shadow Over Innsmouth (first published in book form in 1936), which relates the dark history of a decaying New England coastal town where the degenerate descendants still keep alive the morbid horrors of the Esoteric Order of Dagon cult. In both works, the protagonist learns much of the secret history of the locales from the recollections of seedy alcoholics who dwell on the many horrors they have seen. In this and other cases, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” explores works that may have served as ancestor texts for Lovecraft’s creations.

Even as Lovecraft proves exceptionally knowledgeable about the historical contexts of individual writings and the development of the genre over time, he also asserts the timelessness of weird or imaginative fiction. He claims that the fear of the unknown, and the appeal of that fear, is part of human nature. He therefore thought that the work he loved, and perhaps even the fiction he hoped to contribute, would have a long shelf life indeed:

When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself. Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.

“Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” (1935)/“Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (1937)

Two of the last variations on this theme that Lovecraft wrote were “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” first published in the Winter 1935 issue of the Californian, and “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” published posthumously in the May-June 1937 issue of Amateur Correspondent. Both revisit “In Defence of Dagon” by emphasizing that the goal of imaginative fiction is the evocation of a feeling in the reader. To use his words from “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” “All that a marvel story can ever be, in a serious way, is a vivid picture of a certain kind of human mood.”

In these essays Lovecraft not only reiterates previous points he made in past essays, but also shares additional thoughts on the genre which, in turn, illumine his own writing. For example, in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” he suggests that, along with “the unnatural” and “barren immensity” he describes in “In Defense of Dagon,” another aspect of horror is time. “The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.” One thinks immediately of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” which was first published in the June 1936 issue of Astounding Stories. This tale follows a protagonist who is possessed by a Yithian, an alien who studies various times and locations by taking over the bodies of creatures who live in different periods and places. Because of the mind-exchange the narrator experiences, he dreams of the ancient past and fears for his sanity. Lovecraft leaves the reader with a chilling revelation, underscoring the terror of time: “No eye had seen, no hand had touched that book since the advent of man to this planet. And yet, when I flashed my torch upon it in that frightful abyss, I saw that the queerly pigmented letters on the brittle, aeon-browned cellulose pages were not indeed any nameless hieroglyphs of earth’s youth. They were, instead, the letters of our familiar alphabet, spelling out the words of the English language in my own handwriting.”

Lovecraft further discusses how the central mood of the weird tale – whether built upon the unnatural, barren immensity, time, or any other ingredient – can best be achieved. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” he advocates devoting steadily increasing attention on the fantastic element of the story: “This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately – with careful emotional ‘build-up’ – else it will seem flat and unconvincing.” The “impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena” must not be treated as “commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions,” he argues. This perspective conflicts with the advice of John W. Campbell, Jr., the influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to1971, who is often credited for ushering in the Golden Age of science fiction. Campbell urged his writers to treat the amazing with a certain nonchalance, to make the extraordinary seem ordinary, even comfortable. As genre scholar Edward James explains in 1994’s Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Campbell sought “stories of a future whose plausibility was established not only by some hard-headed extrapolation but also by a carefully realized social and cultural context, with a ‘lived-in’ feel.” Lovecraft, however, did not want his reader to grow complacent in the worlds he devised. He did not wish for his readers to feel welcomed into his stories, but to run from them screaming.

Yet Campbell and Lovecraft did share common genre ground. In “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft again reveals how the imagination chafes against the rigid universal laws by which our material selves are constrained: “I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best – one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity….” He is careful to note that he seeks “the illusion” of transcending the laws, which he often provides in his stories through extraterrestrial beings and their architecture and accessories, and not dismissal of the laws themselves. For example, in “Haunter of the Dark,” first published in the December 1937 issue of Weird Tales, the protagonist learns humans can traverse time and space by summoning the Haunter of the Dark using an alien artifact, the “crazily angled stone” known as the “Shining Trapezohedron.” This crystal, a technological apparatus, represents knowledge at an awe-inspiring level, not simple-minded magic or fantasy. It is no surprise that Lovecraft praises some of the best of science fiction in “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” including “semi-classics like The War of the Worlds, Last and First Men, Station X, ‘The Red Brain,’ and Clark Ashton Smith’s best work” as exemplifying “great possibilities in the serious exploitation of the astronomical tale.”

Lovecraft was an author in the tradition of weird fiction, but he was also a pioneer of genre criticism, and a genuine, dedicated fan. His defenses of his work did not spring from hubris, but rather from a deep-seated desire that readers judge his work – and that of fellow imaginative fiction authors – against the goals and purposes of the genre, and not other, unrelated criteria. His detailed explanations of his own methods came more from humility than pride, and always from love of the literature and its corresponding ideas. This is clear in “In Defence of Dagon,” in which he writes, “what I have said of imaginative literature may help to explain what it is that I am feebly and unsuccessfully trying to do... I am a self-confessed amateur and bungler, and have not much hope of improvement – but the visions clamour for expression and preservation, so what is one to do?”

Lovecraft had, if nothing else, the consolation of his conviction that the tradition in and about which he wrote was timeless. The creators of the imaginative tale and their audience might be small, but they would always be. As insignificant as he was in the cosmic scheme of things, Lovecraft was not, and would never be, alone. To use his words in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” “There will always be a certain small percentage of persons who feel a burning curiosity about unknown outer space, and a burning desire to escape from the prison-house of the known and the real into those enchanted lands of incredible adventure and infinite possibilities which dreams open up to us, and which things like deep woods, fantastic urban towers, and flaming sunsets suggest.” And it is to that “certain small percentage of persons” – in short, to us, dear reader – that Lovecraft continues to speak today.
Tags: genre literature, gothic, lovecraft, sf

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