Friday 30 October 2020

A Lovecraftian Halloween lecture

This talk was given to a select audience in honour of Halloween. So His Lordship thought it fitting to reuse here. Happy Halloween, people!

Hello, my name is Lord Bassington-Bassington and I have an obsessive interest in HP Lovecraft.
If this sounds like an introduction to a support group, it is because I desperately need one. But there is no Lovecraftians Anonymous, only support groups for people who have problems with trifles such as drugs or alcohol. Therefore, you good folks will have to be my support group.

So welcome to my talk.

My plan for the next short half-hour or so is talk a little about how HP Lovecraft created his own version of New England. I will also try to explain why it makes sense to see New England as a sand bank in the Danube. There will also be some discussion of racism, which I hope won’t bother you too much.

I was originally going to assume that most of you have at least a cursory knowledge of Lovecraft, since he's unavoidable these days, especially within subcultures that deal with the occult and esoteric, spiritually and musically.

But in case your life went better than mine did: HP Lovecraft was an American horror writer who died in 1937. He wrote for pulp magazines, only having one paperback of his work produced in his lifetime. He is the kind of writer that under normal circumstances would be forgotten. But his literature has qualities that has made it enduring, and today he is both a thriving part of pop culture, from Metallica to South Park. He is also canonized, a collection of his stories released in the Library of the Americas series, and lionized by writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Michel Houellebecq.
Lovecraft is often reduced to a caricature: A pulp writer who created jungles of eldritch adjectives, jungles inhabited by tentacled god-monsters who came from the depths of space and once ruled over the Earth.

But while his monsters and gods are undeniably interesting, his most fascinating creation is in many ways his own almost magical reimagining of his own environment. And how he used a quite bourgeois and provincial part of America as a springboard to become a kind of cosmic Kafka.
Many writers of fantastic literature prefer faraway, exotic locations. Lovecraft definitely did try his hand at this. He wrote a story set in the Antarctic, another story set on Venus and a bunch set in the lands you can only access in dreams – possibly assisted by narcotics.
But most of his best stories are set in the world he had right outside his doorstep. Because to Lovecraft, New England was a world in itself.

To those of you who aren’t Americans or Lovecraft obsessives, New England is the area to the north and east of New York on the eastern seaboard of the United States. It encompasses the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Lovecraft was a typical genre writer. In his own words, he could never write about ordinary people because he was “not in the least interested in them”. He didn’t write about ordinary things either.
But one of the things he learned from more “normal” literature was realism. The New England locales he writes about are extremely detailed and feel quite real. There’s a reason for this: Lovecraft had a keen interest in architecture and history.

One of his favourite tricks was to create horror by conjuring up a feeling of great age in cemetaries and cellars and other constructions. Luckily, New England is one of the few places in America where you can pull that off since it was one of the first parts of America to be settled.
But while he had a fact-based approach, he of course wrote fiction. And one of Lovecraft’s most famous literary devices was to fictionalize already existing places.

His fictitious town of Arkham, site of Miskatonic University where the infamous Necronomicon is kept under lock and key, is usually considered to have been based on Salem. This didn’t take so much work, as Salem – with its history of witch trials – is already spooky enough.
Some more work was needed on Marblehead, a Massachusetts resort town famous for seafood and regattas. But Lovecraft’s imagination turned this quaint town into the setting of unholy holiday rituals from the time before human beings arose. And again, Lovecraft uses his realistic approach. You can follow the path the protagonist in his story “The Festival” takes into Kingsport/Marblehead.
I did this myself when I went a Lovecraftian pilgrimage of sorts about a decade ago. Yes, I did mention I have problems, didn’t I?

The coastal town of Innsmouth, the location of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, is in Lovecraft’s own words “a considerably twisted” version of Newburyport, Massachusetts.
While the Starry Wisdom Church in the story “The Haunter of the Dark” is based on a now-demolished Catholic Cathedral in Lovecraft’s home town of Providence, Rhode Island. I walked up towards where it used to stand while a hurricane was raging on the same trip. That was quite an atmospheric experience!

As a sidenote, an effect of this is that there is a tiny genre of Lovecraftian travel guides, online and print. There’s also quite a few online, and a new book is in the works through Kickstarter.
Another Lovecraftian trick was borrowing from other writers' creations, and encouraging others borrow from him. This created a web of cross-references which makes his literature more believable. One reason some people think Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire The Necronomicon is real, is that you find references to it so many places. Surely it can’t be made up?
Lovecraft was also a rationalist, and he could use his knowledge of science to create a feeling of the magical and unreal.

One example is his use of the anthropologist Margaret Murray’s book “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe”. In the book Murray argues that the accusations underpinning the witch-trials in early modern Europe were true, in the sense that witches actuallybelonged to a real pre-Christian religion which worshipped a horned god. This thesis was discredited already in when the book came out in 1921. But Lovecraft saw that Murray’s thesis was a great fictional premise and could use Murray’s non-fiction book to make his own fiction more believable.

Another example was the discovery of Pluto in 1930. Lovecraft used this new planet to great effect in “The Whisperer in Darkness”, published the year after. Here Pluto becomes Yuggoth, from whence comes strange aliens infiltrating the woods of Vermont.
Today, using quantum physics to argue that anything is possible is a new age cliché. But when Lovecraft did this to explain magic in “Dreams in the Witch-House” in 1932 this was groundbreaking.

Nothing says “verisimilitude” like giving your short stories scientific footnotes!
If you want a good model for understanding Lovecraft’s New England, I heartily recommend a story by another writer. The writer is Algernon Blackwood, an Englishman most known for his ghostly stories, and the story is “The Willows”.

We know that Lovecraft was inspired by this story because in his essay "Supernatural horror in literature" he writes gushingly about it.

“The Willows” is a simple story: Two friends are canoeing down the Danube river. They make camp on a sand bank on which there is a thicket of willow trees. During the night they become aware that there is some sort of mysterious, supernatural presence in the willows. This presence is never explained, but gives the two friends a glimpse into a larger, terrifying reality.

My feeling is that in Lovecraft's fictional New England is easier to understand if you look at it in the light of this story. If you think of New England as this sand bank in the Danube, with the waters of the cosmos splashing at its shores, eating away at it and one day perhaps submerging it.
Also, like in Blackwood’s “The Willows” Lovecraft doesn’t necessarily give you more than a glimpse of this awe-inspiring cosmos. Instead he goes for the feeling of alien dread, an overwhelming mystery.

This vision of New England as a haven under attack from outside forces feeds into some of Lovecraft’s own personal quirks. He disliked the modern world, wore old-fashioned clothes and called himself Grandpa Theobald. He was also a Tory, and considered himself a subject of the Queen.

Harmless enough, but another side to this was his racism.
To be fair, pretty much everyone was racist in Lovecraft’s time. That’s not the point. The point is that Lovecraft was more racist than was normal for his time, at times ludicrously so.

So for many Lovecraft fans it’s tempting to try to separate his fiction from his racism. This is impossible. A lot of his recurring themes, such as human mixing with non-human to create hybrids, and invasions from alien creatures, are quite racist themes. And I think Lovecraft’s virulent racism is one reason why these horror stories are as powerful as they are.

There’s been a growing debate in recent years about Lovecraft’s racism. Speaking as someone from a country where one of our most famous writers, Knut Hamsun, was a full-fledged Nazi and collaborated with the German occupiers during WWII, I think I can predict that this debate will eventually end up somewhere constructive.

But back to New England. Lovecraft’s fiction is at its most powerful when his cosmic vision of a vast, cold universe is anchored in a New England that he knows very well. It’s an approach I think can be summed up as “think cosmically, write locally”.

Lovecraft was a lifelong atheist and science advocate. So you could perhaps say it’s ironic that he became an inspiration for occultists and magicians, to the point where you got get people like Anton LaVey, Kenneth Grant and many others trying to create real Lovecraftian rituals and spirituality. Aren’t these people missing the whole point?

Quite the contrary, I think they’re getting the point. Lovecraft wanted to create a new myth for a Godless age, just like Tolkien wanted to create a new mythology for England. And just like Tolkien mixed Germanic and Celtic mythology with his own creations, Lovecraft used science and New England to similar effect.

And that people take Lovecraft’s creations seriously to the point where they try to create real spiritualities based on it is proof that he succeeded.

Perhaps that is the ultimate compliment.

No comments:

Post a Comment