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Weird Tales

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I have absolutely no way of knowing how this blog post is going to work.  The computer is behaving oddly.  The Internet connection is behaving oddly.  The morning has been chaotic.

On top of that, I meant to post this yesterday.

We are, however, at the end of the term.  Virtually every person I talk to seems to be in one kind of crisis or the other.

That said:  I’ve spent the last week reading through a set of short stories (long stories?  novellas?) by H.P. Lovecraft, at the suggestion of somebody who told me I ought to know them because they were very “New England” and I claimed to be interested in all things New England.

That last thing is sort of, kind of, mostly true.  What I’m interested in is what I think of as distinctly New England, which seems to end just after the Civil War.  After that, we begin to become a national culture instead of a group of regional ones. 

These days, even writers who were born and brought up in New England do not write specifically or noticeably as New Englanders.  Stephen King, for instance, although he was  born and brought up in Maine and lives there still, and although he sets a lot of what he writes in Maine or New Hampshire, has a notably New England sensibility in only one book of his I’ve read:  Cujo.

Still, the stories were so recommended to me, and I read them.

They were:

       f) H.P. Lovecraft.  “The Dunwich Horror.”

      g) H.P. Lovecraft.  “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

      h) H. P. Lovecraft.  “The Colour Out of Space.”

I also read a long, rambling biographical/bibliographical essay at the back of the volume of Lovecraft stories I borrowed from my sons.  It was more annoying than helpful, so I’ll let that go.

Before I get to specifics here, I need to fill in some background.

I tried reading Lovecraft in my twenties or so, and I absolutely  hated the one thing I tried.

I can’t remember the title of that thing, although I think I’d be able to recognize it if I saw it.  The Lovecraft collection my sons gave me doesn’t have anything in it that I recognize.

But I do remember what it was I didn’t like about it:  the constant use of phonetic spellings meant to imitate dialect.

Now, I have to admit that this is a matter of taste, and some people don’t mind it at all.

It drives me absolutely bonkers. It’s why I don’t ever read Mark Twain. 

I don’t like it no matter who does it, and I find it almost impossible to read.

Unfortunately, in these stories, Lovecraft does a lot of it.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” there’s an eight page section of nothing else, and it gives you the most important information in the story.  It took me almost four hours to decipher it, and by the time I was done I was furious.

 So, keeping in mind that there were some barriers for  me in this stuff that may not be there for  you:

1) “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” seem to me to be the same underlying story:  there’s something evil and horrible out there that existed long before humans.  The evil and horribleness consist of the nonhumanness, probably subhumanness, of the creatures involved.  These creatures are mating with/assimilating with present day humans and turning those humans into creatures like themselves.

“The Colour Out of Space” seemed to me to be more straightforward science fiction of a type I’m used to, where an invasion from outer space is in the end lethal to  us.

And yes, I know all sf is not like that, but there’s a fair amount of it that is.  So can we just get past this?

2) “The Colour Out of Space’ did not seem to me to have a particularly New England sensibility, but the other two did. 

It’s a sensibility of a kind I haven’t seen much of in a long time, and I hadn’t known that anybody was writing it as late as Lovecraft.

Let’s just say that there are people up here who have always been abnormally obsessed with their ancestry, and that was true going all the way back to the Puritans.  And it’s a peculiar kind of ancestor obsession, not at all always the kind that celebrates our ancestors as wonderful people we’ll never be able to live up to.

There is, also, the Puritan obsession with “degeneration”–that is, the way, not only the way human beings go to hell in a handbasket, but the way in which they become deeply and foully corrupted.

Lovecraft is very good with that last one.

3) What Lovecraft was not, for me, was particularly suspenseful.  It seemed to  me that I could see the endings coming long before they got there, so that getting to those endings was largely anticlimactic.

What fascination consisted of for me in these stories came with the atmosphere and the  very strong sense of place, along with the picture of a particular take on human life and human meaning.

And I’ve got no problem with that.  I don’t read fiction for plot or story, and I’ve discussed this here before.

What surprises me is that these stories were given to me by someone who says he does read for plot and story. 

I’m a little nonplussed about what somebody who DOES read for plot and story sees in at least these three Lovecrafts.  Maybe the answer is that other Lovecrafts are very different,  but I can’t know that at the moment.

3) After reading these three, I went digging around on the Internet, looking for information, and what I came up with was this:

This was a very, very strange man.

Freud would have had a field day on the sexual issues alone.  The racial issues run from the casual racism of the time to the truly bizarre. 

And the racial issues, especially, seemed to me to have a direct connection to the Dunwich and Innsmouth stories. 

I don’t know what I think of that. 

I do not require my fiction to mirror the politic pieties of my time, and I really don’t require my fiction writer to agree with  me politically.  If I did, I’d have virtually nothing to read.

Even so, some of the things in the letters are beyond just normal weird.

4) On the basis of two of the three of these stories, I’d say that Lovecraft was a New England writer at least some of the tim e.

Maybe it took a first class case of weird to maintain that regionality in an era when America was already well on its way to an  homogenized national culture.

 

Written by janeh

May 17th, 2013 at 9:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Weird Tales'

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  1. It always seemed to me that Lovecraft had to be taken in VERY small doses. All that “unspeakable” and “indescribable” horror, creeping terror, blah blah mortally blah. Rather than making me afraid, it seemed to me he spent all his time trying to find words for the impossible to describe. What? If it’s covered in tentacles and goo, TELL me that, not that it’s “of unbelievable aspect.” Maybe he thought, like radio announcers, that the audience’s imagination was his best tool, but I think it’s laziness on his part. Do the work, dude.

    I agree Lovecraft must have been substantially weird. He apparently spent all his (mental) time in this very strange, horrible place.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about this “New England sensibility” thing. Concern with ancestors/purity and not degenerating from certain standards of narrowly defined “humanity” I sort of get, though you could say the same things about Southern fiction. What else goes into it?

    About 15 years ago my father got into genealogy and said he discovered we had an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower. He got all excited and said I could join the Daughters of the Mayflower. Um. No. I’d rather hear more about the ancestral sheep rustlers back in Scotland. ;)

    Lymaree

    17 May 13 at 11:58 am

  2. I won’t say there’s never plot in Lovecraft, but certainly atmosphere is his strong suit. if he’d written mysteries or the more conventional sort of adventure story, his endings would have been fatal. An admirer once called them “confirmatory” instead of “revelatory” but I don’t think giving them a name is sufficient.

    Degeneracy is certainly a favorite theme–but so too is “bad blood”–the sort of ancestral or genetic betrayal that marks “The Rats in the Walls” and “Shadow over Innsmouth.” Well, he had reason. When he takes a wider view, though–“At the Mountains of Madness,” “Shadow out of Time” and “Call of Cthulhu” for instance–his creations are less often subhuman than unhuman. it’s less race-mixing and degeneracy than the insignificance of mankind.

    I thought “Colour out of Space” of which he was very proud, did that one nicely. It’s an alien invasion story the way the spread of measles is colonialism. There’s no presiding alien intelligence. No alien species plans a hostile takeover of the planet. Something inimical to man–indeed to life as we understand it–arrives probably by accident and spreads. Nothing anyone does makes any difference to its slow progress, and there’s no sign anything will. That’s a long way from WAR OF THE WORLDS, let alone V.

    He’s also, I think, the only person capable of writing a horror story in which the monster is trying to collate different editions of a book, and is thwarted by librarians.

    But that’s Lovecraft. Love him or hate him, there’s nothing else like him.

    robert_piepenbrink

    17 May 13 at 3:11 pm

  3. I went through a phase when I read a lot of Lovecraft. Yes, I agree, atmosphere is his strong point, and he’s really good at the hopelessly incomprehensible threat thing, but I eventually tired of that. I don’t know much about him as a person, and besides, we’ve already had the discussion about how what an author portrays isn’t necessarily what the author personally believes.

    And I’m not sure I know what the New England culture is, except for a vague idea that it’s associated with sternness and rectitude and not much fun.

    Cheryl

    17 May 13 at 5:01 pm

  4. Jane gets to field “New England culture” but Lovecraft was very aware of New England as a place–the fishing and commercial towns like Innsmouth in decline with diminishing fishing and the coming of steam, and rural communities like Dunwich–isolated, partially depopulated and a little inbred. There’s something very New England about Wilbur Whately assembling the books his 17th Century ancestors purchased and more recent ones neglected. And Miskatonic University is the very essence of the old-style small non-sectarian private liberal arts school.
    He’s also very aware of regional history–I’ve never known him to get a name or date wrong–and architecture. “Pickman’s Model” has a sort of sub-theme in the demise of north Boston–the town as it was before the filling in of the Back Bay, which was being “redeveloped” out of existence as he wrote. “The Shunned House” shows a similar awareness.
    Jane dislikes phonetic transliteration of regional accents, but Lovecraft complained bitterly of other authors getting it wrong, so I would assume his narrative in “Innsmouth” was as close as he could get to the ancient dialect of Kingsport.
    As for what the author believes, I think at some level if you’re not a complete hack it’s inescapable. He didn’t believe in Great Old Ones and Shoggoths, but he belived that Spengler was right about the life cycle of civilizations, and that humanity had no special place in the cosmos, and these are features of some of his best fiction.

    But as for “not much fun,” try to find the license to kill he wrote for Robert Bloch.

    robert_piepenbrink

    17 May 13 at 6:13 pm

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