H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Stories (1919-1928): Reaction and Knowledge

Frederic Jameson, in his book Archeologies of the Future makes the point that the fantasy genre tended to be conservative in its themes and sentiment, while science fiction almost had to be utopian because instead of reconstructing the past into new forms (like fantasy does) science fiction requires a recreation of our potentials. (I am simplifying his point of course.)  For instance, Tolkien conjured an idealized mythical past, while Martin is doing the same to the high Middle Ages.  To make a more specific point, hippies reading The Lord of the Rings perhaps failed to notice that the entire story involved the restoration of autocracy (“the return of the King”).  As Thomas Paine would remind us, the restoration of a monarchy by a good king is one thing, but as his children would likely be losers and genetic degenerates.  One could go beyond that and see the restoration of normalcy after the destruction of “the One Ring”  as an ending of a Promethean spirit, suggested in Sauron’s effort to use craft to overcome the limitations of nature.

Others have suggested that horror fiction may have all sorts of hidden class assumptions as well. Zombies are mindless consumers, or exploited workers and in these stories the heroes are inevitably Herculean figures attempting to tame a world gone mad.  See The Many-Headed Hydra for more on the class dimension of the Hercules myth. Vampires are the glorified elite, beautified and perpetual (much like how capitalists would like to see themselves).  This brings us to H. P. Lovecraft, one of the most important figures in modern American fantasy and horror writing.  It is rather banal to point out that Lovecraft was a conservative in every sense of the word. He idealized Europe, hated the cities, had strong racist tendencies, and feared threats to the social order.  I want to use these posts on Lovecraft (I plan on four or five) to investigate and understand the nature of his conservatism and see if there is any hope to applying Lovecraft’s writings in the age of Occupy.

The Library of America edition of Lovecraft’s writings came out in 2005. Since then the LOA has aggressively (and admirably) been expanding the canon to include science-fiction, supernatural fiction, and crime novels.  This particular collection brings together 28 stories from throughout his career, but the highlights are the longer works (really novellas) such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Everything essential is here and the works range throughout his different periods and fully describe his multiverse.

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The period between Lovecraft’s birth in 1890 and the publication of “The Call of Cthulhu” may be seen as his formative years, before he put together the universe he is most well-known for.  Lovecraft started writing as soon as he could pickup a pen, writing his own versions of Homer at the age of 8. His father died of syphilis and Lovecraft became a bookish, introverted, and unstable child. He has a nervous breakdown at ten. Recovering from that he began a life-long interest in amateur astronomy and started some journals. In his teenage years, he started writing fiction, while continuing work on amateur astronomy. His social networks seems to be largely epistolary at that time.  He started publishing aggressively in pulp journals when he turned 30, around the time his mother died.  All of this time, Lovecraft lived in New England, but he did travel to New York. It was only after his 1924 marriage to Sonia Greene that Lovecraft moved to New York, which, if we are to believe his writings, he hated and feared.

This documentary gives a good background to Lovecraft.

I do not want to focus on his racism or equivocate on his statements. The documentary features some voices equivocating on his racism in rather silly ways.  There were plenty of non-racist voices and plenty of history that makes Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia clearly odious and vile. Lovecraft’s racism comes out of his strange conservatism and rejection of the very concept of human progress.  In almost all of these earlier stories, the central argument of Lovecraft’s writing is the danger of knowledge, and by extension science and progress. This makes him at the least anti-Promethean and very likely anti-humanist.  Even Lovecraft’s creation of describable or unspeakable creatures, thoughts, or phenomenon suggests that he had serious doubts about the potential of writing to fulfill its job. The proper place for knowledge is locked away and not investigated.  It is not only that humans are not ready for that dangerous knowledge but also that humans will likely never be capable, mentally, to handle the true horrors of the world. In the early story “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” the narrator says: “The weird studies of Harley Warren were well known to me, and to some extent shared by me. Of his vast collection of strange, rare books on forbidden subjects I have read all that are written in the languages of which I am master. . . As to the nature of our studies–must i say again that I no longer retain full comprehension? It seems to me rather merciful that through reluctant fascination than through actual inclination.” (2) Of course, these studies do lead to a horrific end for Warren.  The same can be said for “The Outsider”, which describes a horrific monster who comes to knowledge about himself by walking out in daylight and eventually seeing a mirror.  In the pulpish “Herbert West–Reanimator” the forbidden knowledge is the science of life itself. West experimetns with reviving the dead.  This too, ends in a horrific disaster.

In fact, you can open up almost any page and find a description warning against humans sticking their nose in places where they do not belong (intellectually or physically) or suggesting the incapacity of the senses. This is perhaps an even more profound anti-humanism and the real base of Lovecraft’s vision.  Here are some examples from these early stories:

“An acute terror now rose within me, for here were anomalies which nothing normal could explain.” (“The Rats in the Wall,” p. 89)  Is there anything like this in real nature

“The more I analyzed the less I believed, and against my newly opened mind there began to beat grotesque and horrible analogies.” (“The Lurking Fear,” p. 73) So studying a phenomenon makes it harder to understand and an open mind courts horrors.

“Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action.” (“The Shunned House”, p. 114)

The description of the Cthulhu statue. “obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much familiarity with the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even to hint at its remotest affiliations.” (“The Call of Cthulhu,” p. 169)  Suggests the impossibility of taxonomy or knowledge even of a archaeological relic.

The logical conclusion of Lovecraft’s dilution of the senses and knowledge is our inability to really understand the world at more than a visceral level and a deep suspicion over any attempt to improve it.  If we were to describe class or political power in the same way that Lovecraft describes natural phenomenon, we would be helpless to confront their realities.  An example could be something like this: “The eldritch overseer held sway over the horrified factory floor workers with an aura and power that is unexplainable.” It does not recommend itself much as analysis or program for action. Furthermore, we have countless example of science, technology, and knowledge making concrete and measurable improvements in human life. In this way, I think I want to defend the doomed scholars who live out their lives studying the forbidden knowledge. They are the real Promethean heroes in Lovecraft’s stories.

 

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Ambrose Bierce, “Can Such Things Be?” (1910): Ghosts, Death, and the Unfamiliar in Gilded Age America

Can Such Things Be? is a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, first collected in 1893, but not in their final form until 1910 as a volume of Bierce’s collected works.  It is divided into roughly two parts.  The first part is 24 short stories and the second part is 18 journalist vignettes (which Bierce presents as objective happenings, not as fiction).  Bierce places the uncanny and the supernatural in the conflict between reason and the unknown of the later 19th century.  On the one hand, there was a strong belief in the victory of reason and progress over the natural and the unknown.    On the other hand, as with all developing capitalist societies the solid and the known (that is those things understood by tradition and community) were torn asunder with a never ending barrage of new ideas, new commodities, and new people (via migrations).  While I suspect most communities have had their local traditions of the uncanny, the mysterious, and the supernatural (much like every town must have a haunted house), in an era of rapid change and growing liquidity those  “known unknowns” (e.g. the haunted house every knows to avoid) become “unknown unknowns,” a much more horrifying prospect.

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These stories are alive with wanderers, migrants, and immigrants.  In the opening story, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” the title character is someone who voluntarily rejected his wealth and privileges and pursued a life as a vagabond.  When confronted with a supernatural experience he learned a weakness of being a vagabond.  The locals understood exactly the meaning of the name he shouted out before encountering a ghost.  A similar, although less deadly, fate met the narrator of “The Secret of Macarger’s Glutch.”  Here again, the local folklore was unknown to him being a liquid wanderer.  In two of the stories, Chinese immigrants bring in their own supernatural traditions that merge with the American folklore.

As in In the Midst of Life, we find Bierce plagued with the failure of marriage.  Numerous ghosts in these stories emerged from fateful domestic quarrels.  We can wonder if this is another byproduct of the capitalist displacement of expected social arrangements.

Another powerful theme, and one that will be revisited by Lovecraft in great detail, is the dilemma of knowledge.  The rapid expansion of scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth century posed a challenge to religious beliefs.  However, the survival of the uncanny requires us to ponder a reasonable explanation to the unexplainable.  In “A Diagnosis of Death” a young man witnesses what he thinks is the ghost of Dr. Mannering.  As it turns out he saw him later on the street.  This story, when told, horrified his audience who know that Mannering had been dead for a few years.  In Moxom’s Master, we see an early transhumanist argument about the mechanical foundation of life.  This sets up a conflict between an artificial intelligence and its creator.  In the most bizarre example of this (“A Tough Tussle”), a Civil War officer sees a Confederate rise from the death.  Most of the story involves the officer thinking about the naturalistic and historical reasons humans fear corpses.  He is unable to believe his own eyes until it is too late and he is killed by this walking dead man.  Characters throughout the stories grasp for naturalistic and scientific explanations for what they see.  The horror comes in the failure of science to rationalize what they see.

One story pokes fun at the late 19th century American work ethic.  In “A Jug of Sirup”, Silas Deemer, a local shop owner, dies.  His ghost returns and begins selling from the same store, unable to break free from his obligations to his business, which is life he rarely left unattended.  It is not revenge that keeps him on Earth, it is the dreadful work ethic.

As a liquid world continues to melt all that is solid into air, millions turn to the comparative stability of religious superstition, New Ageism, or occult beliefs.  These are not throwbacks to ancient Earth-based traditions, they are desperate striving for stability.  I am not sure how much of this Bierce was conscious of.  He was simply telling ghost stories, set in the changing world of industrializing America.  The uncanny is able to exploit our vulnerabilities as we encounter dramatic change.  In this sense, Bierce’s day was not so dissimilar from our own.