Thursday, February 7, 2013

STL #107: HPL

Howard Philips Lovecraft. The name sounds fictitious, the kind of name chosen by a pulp writer for a writer of macabre tales, who lived with his aunts in Providence Rhode Island, scribbling manuscripts and complaining of drafts until an early death at the age of 46. Who wrote tales of mathematicians driven mad by the axioms of elder maths (if a is equal to b than b is not equal to a).  A frail autodidact with a purple vocabulary and lugubrious style. His favorite words are
Abnormal, Accursed, Amorphous, Antediluvian, Antiqu(e/arian), Blasphemous,
Cyclopean, Dank, Decadent, Daemoniac, Eldritch, Foetid, Fungoid, Furtive, Gibbous, 
Gibbering, Hideous, Immemorial, Indescribable, Loathsome, Mortal, Nameless, Noisome, Non-Euclidean, 
Disproportionate, Shunned, Singular, Spectral, Squamous, Stygian, Swarthy, Tenebrous, Ululating, Unmentionable, Unnamable, Unutterable.
You don't need to have read him to imagine what kinds of sentences he might fashion out of them.

But of course he did live, though in semi-obscurity, only to come to growing fame in the years since his death. He is known now for his Cthulu mythos (see Eldritch, Non-Euclidean, Unnamebale above), obnoxious  racism (see Loathsome, Noisome, Swarthy above), and most of all his weirdly compelling fiction (see all of the above). His work was known to Robert E. Howard (REH) and others toiling in the pulp game during his life, and to Jorge Luis Borges (JLB) and a wider world of alert readers after he died. Borges wcwn wrote a story "There Are More Things" which he inscribed "In memory of H.P. Lovecraft" in The Book of Sand (1975). In this tribute, he captures many of the delights of HPL's fiction. An effete, bookish protagonist returns to his ancestral land (substituting Argentina for Massachusetts) where he pursues the mystery of what happened to his uncle's house by visiting a succession of elusive sources, unable to articulate the horrors they saw saw within. There's an allusion to a monster asleep and dreaming ("of what, or of whom?") and such Lovecraftian sentiments as  "all those incompatible things that only by reason of their coexistence are called 'the universe.'" (A transfomation, I think of the famous line from "Call of Cthulu," "“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... ")  The protagonist finds his way inside the house to it furnished in a manner of "horror and revulsion," incompatible with the human form. He likely does not find his way out of the house.

An aspect of HPL that JLB alludes to in the title of the story is his fundamental concept of materialist (as opposed to supernatural) horror. That is to say, there are powerful forces that exceed not only human power but human understanding: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Manifestations of the horrific and monstrous are not inexplicable; they are however unknowable by us. Like a Naturalists of preceding generations, human lives are utterly subject to forces (in his case of a cosmic scale) beyond our control.

My original intention was to include in this note Arthur Machen and Robert W. Chambers, two earlier weird fiction writers whose influence Lovecraft admitted (and who I read last year). I think you can see the roots of materialist horror in the older writers From Chambers wonderfully weird The King In Yellow comes the notion of a book who drives anyone who reads it mad--not only does that suggest the Necronomicon, but it anticipates Lovecraft's notion of a secret order to the universe beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Machen's short novel The Great God Pan includes another of what become Lovecraft's tropes, the horrific melding of human and the monstrous, again with human understanding buckling in face of ancient forces.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”  "Call of Cthulu"