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Entries in #lovecraft (2)

Monday
Mar042013

Lovecraft, Part Two: In Which Things Get Problematic

From "He," a description of New York City:

...the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of the fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.

And now I feel just a touch naive in my earlier assessment of H.P. Lovecraft--this is just one of many passages that I could have cited that dehumanizes those who are Not Quite WASPs. 

I'm not actually surprised by any of this; while I find the interwar period fascinating, if one reads enough written by white men and women in that time period, it takes a lot of work to not notice the blatantly racist comments and assumptions. And I'm not disowning the Lovecraftian aesthetic that is so often reimagined and recycled these days. Whether the problematic elements of Lovecraft seep into these contemporary works is a question worth investigating, but not one that I will handle here. What I'm most disappointed about is that I didn't see this coming--that is, that while my general 21st century cultural knowledge already included quite a bit of Lovecraftian themes and monsters, there wasn't so much as a footnote somewhere in the back of my brain that might have indicated that Cthulhu doesn't come without baggage. Lovecraft seems to have been whitewashed just a bit.

I remember vividly being about eleven years old and hearing Groucho Marx make a racist joke in Duck Soup. Suddenly an artist that I had, until that moment, been enjoying unreservedly, was placed within a socio-cultural milieu that had some pretty big problems. And it's only continued since then--the list of writers and artists whose work I enjoy in spite of taking issue with their politics, for lack of a better term, is long. And I won't lie--as a white woman, encountering racist themes in literature, film, and art infuriates me. But encountering misogynistic themes aches; the creator, to whom I necessarily am allowing pretty unfettered access to my mind and spirit via his work, is judging me. No matter how deep my previous intimacy with the author and/or characters was, it never quite recovers from knowing that, were he to meet me in real life, he'd be judging me by how full my lips might be, because we know that tells you something real and considerable about any woman beyond how much chapstick she might use (thanks, Steinbeck).

All this to say that I don't think we can realistically evaluate someone like Lovecraft while ignoring his bluntly racist tendencies. I'm not saying toss out the baby with the bathwater, but I am saying that when he is, on any level, culturally praised and elevated, omitting a discussion of these other issues not only sidelines a very real part of his work but sidelines a very real chunk of his, and our, readers.

Monday
Jan282013

In Which I Make a Confession

Despite being heir culturally to many, many of his concepts of the horror derived other worlds adjacent to our own, until this weekend, I had never actually read anything by H. P. Lovecraft. With great shame I confess that this was true even though I had even bought my husband one of those big Barnes and Noble nicely-bound anthologies that we all know are just a guise to make money off of non-copyrighted works of literature (but buy anyway, because they look kind of nice). At least this meant that when I finally came to my senses and decided to rectify the situation, I had the texts close at hand.

I started with "The Shadow over Innsmouth." From the first paragraph, it was clear that while I had never read this particular story before, I already knew it. Lovecraft has been so absorbed into our collective cultural consciousness that I had already experienced so many of the tropes and plot twists that he employs (not that I'm going to give anything away). I put the book down with great satisfaction, enchanted to be in the hands of this writer.

That said, from what I can tell as I page through the rest of the giant book, Lovecraft is guilty of overuse of his Lovecraftian self, a bit repetitive, and apparently was a really interesting guy (not that that casts shadow on his work in any way). Some of his stories sidle up really close to the too-florid-to-read line. 

But so much in this book I have never read is familiar, including but not limited to:

 

  • Creepy inbred ("degenerate") New England towns
  • Monsters with interest in humans ranging from nefarious to indifferent to haphazardly desctructive just for the fun of it, often at the same time
  • Narrators who go insane based on what they've seen or experienced (shades of Poe are very evident here)
  • Drunk informants who tell the truth that no one believes
  • Arkham Asylum/Sanitorium
  • The Ancient Ones

 

What really resonated with me is a concept that the introduction alludes to, the idea that true terror comes from imagining a world in which humans are nothing more than a speck of dust, or a fly to a curious child, simply irrelevant to the larger powers that we so often assume are invested in our lives in a very tangible way. How close this comes to your own (or my own) view is a post for another time, but I can easily imagine how frightening this concept would have been in the '10s, '20s, and '30s, in light of the incredible scientific advancement that was taking place. For the first time, this horrific idea was all the more horrific because there was evidence that it might be true. And we all know that the best horror works with what we are all actually afraid of in the realm of fiction, thus making it just safe enough to finally consider.

So a belated salute to Lovecraft. And I hear that Del Toro might be looking into adapting the novella Mountains of Madness for the screen. Seems an appropriate combination to me.