Monday, August 23, 2021

In Defense of the Genius of HPL

James over at Grognardia reminded me that I missed HPL’s birthday, so I was inspired to go to our local library to borrow the recently published (2014, 2019) annotated volumes of his short stories. Edited by Leslie S. Klinger, the first has an introduction by the comic book legend Alan Moore. Unfortunately, Moore’s contribution to the project was more that a little disappointing.

While acknowledging HPL’s undeniable cultural influence, Moore found himself surprised at the “sheer unlikelihood of his ascent into the ranks of the respected U.S. literary canon.” This is, in part, due to the fact that HPL was only published in the “sensational and stigmatized pulp magazines,” although I would argue that we should look to these publications to find the Great American Writer because there is nothing more American than those same pulp magazines of the early twentieth century.

Then we get to the real reason Moore is so surprised by HPL’s ascent:

“acceptance of his output as substantial literature has undeniably been hindered by his problematic stance on most contemporary issues, with his racism, alleged misogyny, class prejudice, dislike of homosexuality, and anti-Semitism”
As a reminder, when HPL published his first story in 1916, Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. For those unaware, the 28th President of the U.S. not only screened The Rise of a Nation in the White House, but re-segragated it. I think it safe to forgive HPL for many of his unsavory views simply due to context. Indeed, if we were able to look at our own time through the lens of our progeny some hundred years from now, we might find ourselves unfairly judged for various -isms that we take for granted that they will see as vital as we see the various -isms we accuse HPL of.

Unfortunately, Alan Moore can’t bring himself to be so forgiving. Instead he tries to justify HPL’s ascent:

…it is possible to perceive Howard Lovecraft as an almost unbearably sensitive barometer of American Dread. Far from outlandish eccentricities, the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.

In Moore’s desperate attempt to separate himself from the various -isms associated with the environment HPL grew up in, he exposes his own small minded-ness and bigotry. In doing so, he not only misunderstands Lovecraft's appeal, but exposes just how nasty and severely limited a world-view dominated by the -isms we find so important actually is.

Given the presuppositions that fuel philosophies like intersectionalism and CRT, the color of one’s skin is determinative of just about everything in our life. If Moore’s assessment of HPL is correct, the only people who can really enjoy Lovecraft are those that share his fears as “white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant descended males who [are] … threatened by the shifting power relationships” and the very institutions that are now lifting HPL’s canon into the heights of the American literary canon are a bunch of -ists of various flavors.

What I find so disappointing about this vicious bile is not only that Moore’s canon largely exists within the direct descendent of the pulp magazine —the comic book — but that he comes so tantalizingly close to hitting upon the real reason HPL deserves to be among the literary greats of the American canon. Moore notes;

…advances in humanity’s expanding comprehension of the universe with its immeasurable distances and its indifferent random processes had redefined, dramatically, mankind’s position in the cosmos. Far from being the whole point and purpose of creation, human life became a motiveless and accidental outbreak on a vanishingly tiny fleck of matter situated in the furthest corner of a stupefying swarm of stars, itself one of many such swarms strewn in incoherent disarray across black vastness inconceivable.

While I vehemently disagree with this understanding of creation and of humanity, it accurately describes the harsh reality of the atheist position — and HPL was an atheist. It is in this that we can begin to appreciate Lovecraft’s appeal and his genius.

Despite the materialism that undergirds the atheism of the modern era, elves, dwarves, faeries, and dragons are very real things. Not in a material sort of way, of course. Rather, they are the imaginative and symbolic manifestations of our fears. These creatures represent the Other and the Outside and the fears that surround these things in the narrative way that we, as human beings, experience the world. Except that, in HPL’s lifetime, dragons were beginning to lose their narrative power. Dinosaur fossils were being found all over the world. Scientists appeared to be able to explain a materialist origin for creatures who very much looked like the dragons of our imagination. The universal fear of the Other and the Outside, however, never wanes.

The genius of HPL is that in the vastness of the meaningless cosmos that his atheism demanded, he found a new way to manifest the dragon. In the various elder gods, aliens, and malformed creatures that drive his characters to and over the edge of the madness that haunted his own family, he found a new way to narratively manifest the fears that always accompany humanity as we navigate the realities of our own existence. The reason HPL’s imagination has resonated as much as it has is due largely to the fact that, as hard as we try, the reality of his literary dragons cannot be so easily explained away as the ones that occupied the faerie tales of our childhood. This is made all the more true by the fact that his fears were prescient.

HPL died before the horrors of communism and fascism were widely known. These monstrous children of the materialist world-view truly drove humanity mad. These fevered fantasies and utopian nightmares driven by what could be called a Call of Cthulhu, killed tens if not hundreds of millions. The realities of Hitler’s concentration camps, Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s cultural revolution, and so many other crazed and vain attempts at altering reality creep at the back of our imagination. Like the dragons that fill the narrative fears of our forebears, HPL’s monsters fill ours. The horrors that Lovecraft describes in his stories are all hauntingly real. Lovecraft’s genius is that the monsters of his imagination are indeed cosmic and we are not likely to be able to explain them away anytime soon.

Thus, Alan Moore not only does a disservice to himself and his art, but to the genius of HPL.

As a final aside, I realize that it might seem strange that someone like myself would pen such an adamant defense of someone I so vigorously disagree with. In his own way, HPL is an honest atheist. The horrors that he describe are indeed very real. That kind of honesty is something to not only admire, but treasure. Additionally, that honesty was, in part, one of the reasons I was able to step away from the madness of atheism and its utopian nightmares and be able to see how very real Christ actually is.


Geoffrey McKinney said...

Indeed. I am reminded of the introduction to the Oxford World Classics Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. The author of the intro regarded James with a mixture of loathing and contempt. He considered James to be both hopelessly stupid and immature. This author (Darryl Jones, IIRC) succeeded only in making me regard him with scorn. My regard of M. R. James remains undiminished.

Lovecraft's fiction gives fantastic narrative form to atheism (which, BTW, I attempted to channel with Carcosa). Lovecraft's narrators slowly descending into madness remind me of Nietzsche (whose works I regard as near the apex of atheistic thought). The popular big-bank atheist authors of today are little epigones of Nietzsche and Lovecraft. The best contemporary works of atheism are perhaps the short stories of Thomas Ligotti (with the one making the biggest impression on me being "Dream of a Manikin").

In another vein, following on my conviction that fiction typically makes its point better than does non-fiction: If anyone wishes to acquaint himself with Christian Universalism, the single best book to read is George MacDonald's 1895 fantasy novel, Lilith.

Or if one wants to get a visceral understanding of Gnosticism, read David Lindsay's 1920 work of science fiction, A Voyage to Arcturus.

Anathemata said...

I encountered much the same thing with an edition of the John Carter stories by ERB. The author, a noted figure in modern letters, spent a great deal of time as I recall juggling his childhood enthusiasm for the tales with a view that ERB was valuable for his clear demonstration of colonialist views. A muddled and confused mess.

I agree with Geoff about Voyage to Arcturus, and with you about Lovecraft's titanic atheism. The world without God still certainly has a devil, and is without mercy. And I say that as a Buddhist.

I wonder if the larger problem is that our modern ideologies have robbed us not only of the sacred, but the immense, the cosmic, and the tremendous (in the sense of *that which makes us tremble*). Thus, the powerful sense of adventure and imagination in the early pulps (which is and remains their chief visionary attribute) must be brought down into the real of petty parochial politics in order to have any meaning whatsoever. And of course that robs them, or makes them incapable, of truly appreciating their artistic merit.