Nick Mamatas asks: Was H.P. Lovecraft a Good Writer? (also, a rant by yours truly)

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DRAX SAYS:

This is an unusual re-post for me, because I am firmly in the camp that Lovecraft sucks. But my hero, Saint Nick, makes a sound, reasoned, and stirring argument for Lovecraft’s worth as a wordsmith, storyteller, and creepy dreamer. His essay is very deserving of every fantasy writer’s time and attention. I urge you to read it.

But first—

Q: Mister Drax, why does Lovecraft suck?

A: First and obviously: the racism. Every third sentence is infused with jaw dropping xenophobia. I just can’t read it. I want to rip the book in half. This is important. An artist’s personal and political views are one thing, it’s another when hate is embedded in the work itself. Every sentence affects a reader in a different way. When a neo-Nazi skinhead reads “those dusky foreigners” when describing American blacks or American Indians and nods Yes, Yes, that’s another young brain-damaged sociopath receiving validation from a “great” and “revered” writer. It’s unacceptable.

Q: Anything else?

A: Lovecraft’s unrepentant COWARDICE. He’s as scared of the dust bunnies in the corner of his room as he is of the unforgiving maw of the cosmos, he’s as scared of taking a shit as he is of one of his fucking intra-dimensional demons. Yeah, I know: these are intended as stories of dread and horror. But come on, man—none of his characters ever stand up and fight. They always just run.

Q: Last words?

A: Yeah. I’m really amazed at the vitality of Lovecraft’s legacy in the last ten years, even now in 2014, but it’s largely for superficial and graphic reasons. Yog-Sothoth can suck my dick, kids. Fantasy writers! Fantasy artists! WOULD YOU PLEASE EJECT THE OCTOPI?! Please. Please. Enough already.

Deep breath.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

NICK MAMATAS IN DEFENSE OF H.P. LOVECRAFT

Was H.P. Lovecraft a good writer?

There’s a petition going around requesting that the World Fantasy Award change its prize from a bust of H.P. Lovecraft to one of Octavia Butler, and it is a ridiculous petition for several reasons. The one non-ridiculous reason is that H.P. Lovecraft’s racism stains his legacy and upsets many people, as well it should. Back in 2011 I made an alternative suggestion of a chimera for the World Fantasy award’s prize.With that out of the way, let’s discuss the reasons the petition is ridiculous:

1. Octavia Butler was not known as a fantasist, did not write fantasy for the most part, and did not primarily identify as a fantasist. The one big exception is Kindred, which she declared a “grim fantasy”, even as critics have suggested that it is SF about genetics and evolutionary psychology. (An example.)

2. She’s a well-loved figure though, which means that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the petition right now. It also potentially makes a heavy brickbat for anyone who comes out against the petition. A few years ago, some people tried to rally HWA to get the Bram Stoker First Novel category named after Charles Grant…who had little to do with first novels other than having published one himself. (He did cultivate new authors via short stories.) When some objected to the name change, there were all sorts of quivering lips and lamentations that garsh too bad people don’t care that Charlie is moldering in the ground, alone and forgotten snif snif… So, you were either in favor of the name change, or in favor of digging Grant up and shitting on his corpse, you meanie.

Or, shorter: it is always a bad idea to make a person into a prize, since the prize is then tied to the reputation of the person. (Sometimes prizes are designed to rehabilitate a reputation, a la the Nobel.) With writers, whose works are always up for reappraisal, this is especially fraught. The Lovecraft/World Fantasy issue is an example of that. Is Butler’s reputation so fully bulletproof, forever? Don’t count on it.

3. The petition also claims that Lovecraft was “a terrible wordsmith.” Wrong. Lovecraft was a superior writer. As I put it on Twitter, “he had a pretty clear aesthetic and used polyphony well to build authority for the ineffable.” Generally, complaints about Lovecraft’s writing boils down to “He said ‘squamous’ and I had to look that up.” Petitioner Daniel José Older previously said of another word associated with Lovecraft, cyclopean: “What image are we to take from this? Buildings with a single window at the top? Buildings built by one-eyed giants? It means nothing to me visually, yet it’s clearly one of Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives.” Yes, well, look it up. Cyclopean means gigantic and uneven and rough-hewn. Cyclopean masonry is a term of art in archeology. Lovecraft was actually a skilled wordsmith, and chose very specific language. Older himself notes that Lovecraft used “collage[s] of firsthand documents and local lore told with thick, regional accents.” Lovecraft wasn’t a one-note bleater of ten-dollar words; he used the lingo his various characters would have. And as such, he could be

whimsical: Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain, and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension. (“Dreams in the Witch House”)

understated: Thaddeus went mad in September after a visit to the well. He had gone with a pail and had come back empty-handed, shrieking and waving his arms, and sometimes lapsing into an inane titter or a whisper about “the moving colours down there.” Two in one family was pretty bad, but Nahum was very brave about it. (“The Colour Out of Space”)

baroque: I shall plan my cousin’s escape from that Canton mad-house, and together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Innsmouth. We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever. (“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”)

self-reflexively ironical: My tale had been called “The Attic Window”, and appeared in the January, 1922, issue of Whispers. In a good many places, especially the South and the Pacific coast, they took the magazines off the stands at the complaints of silly milksops; but New England didn’t get the thrill and merely shrugged its shoulders at my extravagance. (“The Unnameable”)

parodic: Later traded to Jacques Caboche, another settler, it [the skull of a Roman named “Ibid”—NK] was in 1850 lost in a game of chess or poker to a newcomer named Hans Zimmerman; being used by him as a beer-stein until one day, under the spell of its contents, he suffered it to roll from his front stoop to the prairie path before his home—where, falling into the burrow of a prairie-dog, it passed beyond his power of discovery or recovery upon his awaking. (“Ibid”)

hysteric: The space-time globule which we recognize as the totality of all cosmic entity is only an atom in the genuine infinity which is theirs. And as much of this infinity as any human brain can hold is eventually to be opened up to me, as it has been to not more than fifty other men since the human race has existed. (“The Whisperer in Darkness”)

straightforward: The train service to Brattleboro is not bad – you can get a timetable in Boston. Take the B. & M. to Greenfield, and then change for the brief remainder of the way. I suggest your taking the convenient 4:10 P.M. – standard-from Boston. This gets into Greenfield at 7:35, and at 9:19 a train leaves there which reaches Brattleboro at 10:01. That is weekdays. Let me know the date and I’ll have my car on hand at the station. (“The Whisperer in Darkness”, from the same Akeley letter, composed by aliens as a trap, as above. The implied story point in shifting from hysteric to straightforward is obvious.)

We could go on picking sentences and paragraphs indefinitely, but let’s not. We should also look at pacing. One might say that a Lovecraft story stays afloat by way of masterful deployment of eerie details. That would be a quote from Older again, who apparently thinks what…that Lovecraft was a good writer when it came to pacing, but a terrible one when it came to words and sentences? And yet pacing is simply a matter of the speed with which one is compelled to read on. So we can’t mean sentences, but just individual words—a wordsmith that creates a masterful pace out of bad word choices?

It’s really not that difficult. Why does “cyclopean” appear in, say, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”? The narrator is a student and a declassed part of New England’s elite. (He discovers that he’s a descendent of the wealthy Obed Marsh.) He’d know the word and use it. Would the station agent in the same story use it? No, he’d say something like “Leaves the square – front of Hammond’s Drug Store – at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. unless they’ve changed lately. Looks like a terrible rattletrap – I’ve never been on it.” And he does. Lovecraft’s narrators are often intellectuals—is it really a surprise that Peaslee, a professor of political economy, narrates “The Shadow Out of Time” like so:

This is a highly important fact in view of the shadow which fell so suddenly upon me from outside sources. It may be that centuries of dark brooding had given to crumbling, whisper-haunted Arkham a peculiar vulnerability as regards such shadows—though even this seems doubtful in the light of those other cases which I later came to study. But the chief point is that my own ancestry and background are altogether normal. What came, came from somewhere else—where, I even now hesitate to assert in plain words.

Let’s compare it to the rhetoric of an actual political economist:

On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family. Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin, which Germany began, by a Peace which, if it is carried into effect, must impair yet further, when it might have restored, the delicate, complicated organization, already shaken and broken by war, through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves and live.

That’s Keynes, btw, in the introduction to The Economic Consequences of the Peace from 1919. Similar sentence structures, similar free use of figurative language, and a sense of holding court even in the preliminary throat-clearings before a case is being set out. Switch Keynes for a Yithian for a few years, and he’d come back nervous and drooling and sounds even more like Peaslee than he already does.

Of course Lovecraft’s prose is not perfect, and is not beyond criticism. But if there are aspects to wordsmithing that go beyond matching prose to character; the ability to strike several different tones and moods both within and between stories; and pacing that keeps a reader riveted to the page and suspending disbelief despite unrealistic, phantasmagorical, and occasionally gruesome descriptions, they are minor aspects. It’s perfectly acceptable to object to Lovecraft’s themes, which are often explicitly or implicitly racist and xenophobic (and inseparable from the text), but that’s not the same as claiming that he’s a bad writer or a terrible wordsmith. It’s also perfectly acceptable to complain that most of his narrators just have some horrible experience, or hear about one from the past after coming across traces of a supernatural reality, and then go crazy. But that’s not about being a “wordsmith” either.

When you don’t know the meaning of a word, look it up. It was good advice in third grade, it is good advice now.

Ω

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