The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally.
By Nick MamatasNovember 24, 2014
I MAY AS WELL state my claim in as straightforward a way as possible: H. P. Lovecraft, he of the squamous and eldritch, is wrongly derided as a bad writer. Lovecraft is actually a difficult writer. The previous decade saw a slow-motion dust-up over the notion of difficult writers thanks to Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books” and the 2005 rejoinder by Ben Marcus in Harper’s: “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It.” Franzen suggested an age-old conflict between Contract writers who wanted to offer a “good read” to their audiences, and Status writers who pursued an artistic vision to the very limits of the novel-form. Marcus, in his response, pled a case for high modernism, for writers who “interrogate the assumptions of realism and bend the habitual gestures around new shapes.”
Both essays are harmed by the simple fact that Franzen and Marcus are self-interested: Franzen considers himself “a Contract kind of person” and was put out when he received a letter from a reader who complained that his novel The Corrections contained the word “diurnality.” Marcus was put out by Franzen’s essay, labeling his own piece “a response to an attack” from the real status players of literature: the inappropriately named realists who hold experimental fiction of the sort Marcus prefers to write in disdain.
As it has been nine years, surely it is time to plant another flag: Lovecraftian fiction as experimental fiction — that is, the sort of fiction I’ve been known to write. I’ve done a bit of actual experiments: what if we triggered nucleic exchange between Lovecraft and the Beats, or Raymond Carver, or David Foster Wallace, or New Narrative, or or or...? (See my The Nickronomicon.) If there’s a difference between the self-interest in this essay and those of Franzen and Marcus, it’s a simple one: you’ve never heard of me. There’s no reason why you should, as I am a Status writer with no status, a Contract writer who has reneged.
No writer of quality would write fiction in the mode of a writer known to be a bad one, but Lovecraft is “known” to be bad. Publishing in the pulps and the amateur press of his day, Lovecraft avoided the critical gaze during his lifetime, but in 1945 the legendary literary critic Edmund Wilson devoted a New Yorker piece to taking Lovecraft apart. “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous” was reprinted in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties, which guaranteed that the drubbing would be widely read for decades to come. There’s little actual criticism in the piece, though. Wilson just sniffs that Lovecraft’s prose was verbose and undistinguished, and not a patch on Edgar Allan Poe’s. He then provides zero examples of such inferior sentences, or even a single sentence of any sort from any of Lovecraft’s fiction. Wilson explains that Lovecraft stories frequently contain the words “horrible”, “frightful”, “unholy”, and the like, which he then explains should never appear in a horror story.
Well, unless the horror stories in question are first-person narratives in which the protagonist is just summarizing the claims of another character:
“Other road experiences had occurred on August 5th and 6th; a shot grazing his car on one occasion, and the barking of the dogs telling of unholy woodland presences on the other.”—“The Whisperer In Darkness”
Or if the word occurs in a snippet of an in-story foreign newspaper:
“The living man was clutching a horrible stone idol of unknown origin, about foot in height, regarding whose nature authorities at Sydney University, the Royal Society, and the Museum in College Street all profess complete bafflement, and which the survivor says he found in the cabin of the yacht, in a small carved shrine of common pattern.”— “The Call of Cthulhu”
We could go on, but we need not. Lovecraft doesn’t use adjectives to avoid description, or due to a failure of the imagination, or even to persuade the reader that some frightful unholy thing is just that. Lovecraft uses a variety of testimonies and in-story artifacts (newspaper articles, diaries, sound recordings, correspondence) to build a practical case for the cosmic horrors with which he was obsessed. He had a pretty clear aesthetic and used polyphony well to build authority for the ineffable. His logically-minded characters — scholars, bookish sorts, curious investigators — traveled the road of rationality right up to the dead end where rationality necessarily failed. (And yes, sometimes at the dead end awaits a whistling squid.) One might even say that Lovecraft interrogates the assumptions of realism and bends the habitual gestures around new shapes, to detourn a phrase. For Marcus, fiction is “a hunger for something unknown, the belief that the world and its doings have yet to be fully explored”, which is explicitly a belief held by Lovecraft’s narrators and implicitly by Lovecraft’s readers. That which drives Marcus to read Gaddis led me to read Lovecraft.
Lovecraft is a perfectly capable writer when it comes to pacing, to invention, to story logic, and even when it comes to generating the occasional quotable phrase — all the attributes needed for a successful career in the pulps. Characterization and observation of social realities go right out the window, but Lovecraft had no real interest in the social world or even human beings at all. Franzen could have been speaking of Lovecraft, and not postmodern fiction, when he wrote, “Characters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself.” Pulp, like postmodernism, offers other, more difficult, pleasures.
But Lovecraft was ultimately ill-suited to the pulps, both in temperament and in his aesthetic project. He was never prolific enough to make a living in the story mines, and his ad hoc “Cthulhu mythos” didn’t appeal to pulp readers the way that recurring protagonists and damsels in distress did. His difficulty was his difficultness. Lovecraft shares many attributes with Franzen’s Status writers, despite writing in the low-status idiom of pulp horror and science fiction. Franzen, reading Gaddis’s The Recognitions, fumes that “[b]lizzards of obscure references swirled around sheer cliffs of erudition, precipitous discourses on alchemy and Flemish painting, Mithraism and early-Christian theology. The prose came in page-long paragraphs in which oxygen was at a premium, and the emotional temperature of the novel started cold and got colder.”
The same complaints are made about Lovecraft. Writer Daniel José Older recently complained in a Buzzfeed Books essay that a favorite Lovecraft phrase, “cyclopean”, was nonsensical. “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.” All Older had to do was look up the word. Cyclopean means gigantic and uneven and rough-hewn—it is both allusive and descriptive. “Cyclopean masonry” is a term of art in archeology.
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:
“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, 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. Do a mind-switch between Keynes and an alien Yithian for a few years, and he’d come back nervous and drooling and sounding even more like Peaslee than he already does.
Lovecraft routinely violates the pulp-fiction contract — no snappy dialogue, no aspirational heroes, no moral instruction, no appeals to a just universe where the good are ultimately rewarded and evil finally banished, no cliffhangers or even suspense. His narrators announce their dooms in their first or second sentences, which helps keep the emotional temperature just above absolute zero to start with. Lovecraft demanded a significant synoptic facility of his readers: he made reference to then-controversial scientific theories like quantum mechanics and plate tectonics, sprinkled his stories with allusions to classical history and languages. When the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” compares the sunny Vermont countryside to the backgrounds of Italian paintings, he’ll throw you a bone and mention Leonardo, but then expect you to also know Il Sodoma.
Lovecraft realized that he was a Status writer, not a Contract writer as well. He concludes his critical study, Supernatural Horror in Literature, by describing weird fiction “as a narrow though essential branch of human expression, and will chiefly appeal as always to a limited audience with keen special sensibilities.” In Franzen’s Status model, the value of a work of fiction “exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” So, great, we’re all agreed. We just hate one another.
Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do — no high school romances, no sports practice — can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, natch).
Sure, his stuff is difficult, but is it any good? This is a fine question, and the answer is yes. The objections to Lovecraft’s fiction — the flat characters, the Greco-Latinate adjectives, the neurotic emphases on racial degeneration (Lovecraft was a racist clown, not unlike fellow difficult writer Ezra Pound) and the terror of existence as a tiny speck of flesh and time in the face of infinity — essentially boil down to an objection to the Lovecraftian project. Lovecraft is excellent at what he does, which is why his cult following has persisted for three generations, while both the pulp favorites (Seaberry Quinn) and critical darlings (Kenneth Patchen) of his era have faded into obscurity.
Critics and fans can be wrong, both in the 1940s and today. But I’d argue that Lovecraft’s ascension is neither an accident nor a mistake. His semantic and syntactic choices all operate in service to his deep themes of cosmic pessimism and materialism, and his attempts to find the sublime and the terrible in the chicken-wire and papier-mâché ”worlds” of pulp fiction hint broadly at a proto-postmodernism. Literary realism, on the other hand, is suspect because in none of the many books about middle-class foibles has anyone ever realized that the Grand Narratives of the twentieth century are a sham foisted on us by linguistic tyranny...and also that down in the deepest ocean there awaits a whistling squid older than the universe itself.
Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, the Trotskyist Crowleyite noir novel Love is the Law, and the forthcoming I Am Providence. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and many other journals and anthologies. His collection of short Lovecraftian fiction, The Nickronomicon, was recently published by Innsmouth Free Press.
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