H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque

I’ve been down with a cold for the last couple of days and after forcing myself to go in to work one day, I took day off and binge-read a dissertation on H.L.Lovecraft that a guy I know wrote. It is called H.P. Lovecraft and the modernist grotesque. You can buy it at Amazon, and should. (Side note: among the things I learned here is the origin of the term “grotesque”, which traces to “grotto-esque” because the excavations of certain Roman grottoes revealed monstrous, fanciful images no-one had seen in hundreds of years. Such imagery was not limited to grottoes or baths but the term stuck, perhaps because the association with caves or the underground fit the demonic images.)

H.P. Lovecraft has become a sort of pop icon, at least within a sizable subculture of gamers, horror aficionados, and general “geek culture,” although as the author notes he is more frequently referenced or parodied than actually read. In all fairness, there is a considerable part of Lovecraft’s work that is pretty rough going, due to its conservativeness (e.g. his early work and attempts to copy Dunsany) or due to its unapologetic racism and xenophobia (which even Robert E. Howard, himself criticized for bigotry, chastised Lovecraft for!). However Martin focuses on several of Lovecraft’s most famous and acclaimed works (“The call of Cthulhu,” “The whisperer in the darkness,” At the mountains of madness, and a few other key works), and in doing so makes a powerful case to take Lovecraft’s mature work much more seriously than it hitherto has outside of “weird tales” fandom.
Martin argues, quite lucidly, that HPL can be better understood as a trailblazer in the intersection of two literary movements: the grotesque and the modernist. HPL, he demonstrates, uses modernist devices and concerns, with grotesque themes and situations, to create subtle studies on alienation, subjectivity, and the absurd. Indeed the Lovecraftian sense of “cosmic horror” (a phrase I think Martin circumspectly avoids) is understood here as really being a sense of horror at man’s evident place in the universe (or lack thereof). Martin rather convincingly (to me, at least, as a non-scholar regarding literature!) shows that HPL really fits comfortably in with Conrad, Eliot, O’Conner, Faulkner, and other “modernists,” distinguishing himself more by his use of the grotesque rather than more realist or mundane dramas to sketch his vision of the world: alienating because it is indifferent to human concerns and pride; disturbing because subjectivity makes absolute reality impossible to approach; and absurd because logic and science are just powerless as religion and art in the face of this alienation and subjectivity. HPL’s use of sophisticated literary devices belies his oft-criticized purple prose, and Martin also makes an effort to suggest that HPL uses humor and even self-parody which is lost on many readers.
So overall I think this is an excellent study of HPL, and refreshing in that it mostly avoids the biography that so often passes for criticism and appreciation that passes for interpretation.
Having said all that, this is a doctoral dissertation, and the reader is often reminded of this fact by the repetition of ideas, the exhausting presentation of piece after piece of evidence, pedantic footnotes which some advisor or reader doubtless insist be inserted to clarify or disclaim some statement, and most of all by the jargon of academia. In fact this last part was the most distracting: “connects,” “destabilizes,” “questions,” and similar verbs abound, as I have often found them to in academic literary criticism. Such terms always make me think that either the writer is avoiding taking a clear stance or that they don’t really know exactly what the argument is and these words are meant to say “well this here sort of suggests that, but the logical connection is not clear and I am not positive what the actual conclusion should be.” But then that is the meat and mead of defending a thesis. One must pull back as far into ones shell as possible or face endless debate from the advisor and readers who must ultimately approve the thing. So I can forgive that.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I know the author of this work and he sent me a copy to read (though he did not ask for a review or anything in return). I should also mention that I was intensely flattered to be acknowledged among the people who influenced his thinking, though really I knew him long ago, and I doubt I had anything substantive to say about HPL at that time.
I hope that if he ever returns to this topic, perhaps to edit the dissertation into a format that will attract more casual readers, he will expand his examples to draw on more stories, and perhaps give a little more explanation of some of the more jargony terms of literary criticism, for the ideas herein do a great deal to rehabilitate HPL as more than merely a “horror” or “pulp” writer. He might also address some of the more problematic aspects of HPL’s work and views; however I know from correspondence that he intentionally set out to avoid the pitfall of biography and psychologism that besets so many writers on writers.

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Published in: on April 2, 2015 at 7:15 pm  Comments (19)  
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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good blog, Mike. I love it when you forget about being a gamer and go all critical reviewer and analyst in these blogs. I find your analysis and appreciation of the unusual (for lack of a better term) in our culture always enlightening and entertaining. (but then, as an ex-librarian, book reviewer and the like, this stuff appeals to the suppressed intellectual in me).

  2. When he didn’t run on for too long, his Dunsanian stuff was not bad. But I will admit that Dream-Quest was some mucky-slush and actually required having read half a dozen of his other Dunsanian knock-offs (and Non-Dunsanian knock-offs!; “Pickman, my friend, what are you doing here in this nebulous hell of endless nightmare visage?”) to get context enough for it to make sense.

    Your friend’s thesis sounds interesting, though, especially the notion that he’s comparable to Faulkner (“take these guns…. and shoot that eldritch horror!”). I’ll have to add it to my Wishlist.

    • Yeah, I actually liked “The quest of Iranon” quite a bit, and “The doom that came to Sarnath,” which are both pretty darn Dunsanian. I should really have said: “The Dream-quest of unknown Kadath” specifically. I didn’t mind all the self-referential stuff in Kadath but the writing just kind of droned on and on. Maybe I didn’t like the third-person narration. He does a lot better with first person, usually.

      • It is free if you use one of the Kindle subscription services.

        • I don’t really “kindle” and end up usually only half-reading what I get on my compy. I’d rather get the dead tree-pulp edition.

          • Same here. I had a Kindle, it stopped working and I wasn’t bothered enough to try to get it fixed for months, and when I finally did call in they said “oh it’s broken, and more than 12 months old, you just need to buy another one.” They do not repair them even when they are under warranty, they just replace them. They are disposable. F that.

            • Yeah, I probably would spend more on a Kindle than I’d ever spend on content for it (or books in a year, probably). I’m kind of one of those “banes of self-published authors”, even as one myself, because my price range is Goodwill/Library-sale (low-end) to Savers-with-the-price-sticker-scratched-off (high-end). And eBooks & PDFs can’t even be left lying around as conversation starters!

      • From what I remember, Dream Quest was an experiment of trying to copy the style of some arabian adventure chapterless novel that he enjoyed, so in some ways was less Dunsanian than… whateverthatwasian. Ironically, when Dunsany wasn’t doing prose poetry, his narrative stuff (what little I’ve read) is fairly light and reminds me of what people tell me that Terry Pratchett’s stuff is like.

        • Yeah — I can see that with the Jorkens stories.

          His plays I have not read many of, but “The glittering gate” — about two petty criminals trying to break into Heaven — is probably a direct ancestor of “Waiting for Godot”. He had quite a range.

          And the bastard tended to write everything in a sitting or two with no revisions. No wonder other Irish writers snubbed him so much.

          • He’s someone I definitely wish to read more of, but my aforementioned propensity to stick to physical books only makes it a bit difficult. I actually managed to find an old discount paperback of Charwoman’s Shadow, but Gods of Pegana and Time & the Gods, I’d actually printed and heat-bound the .txt files I downloaded from Gutenberg.

  3. You should also tell your friend he needs to commission a Weird Tales style cover for it. Given how much money one tends to spent on finishing PhD program, giving his thesis on Lovecraft a lurid pulp cover would be chump change and probably make it sell like hotcakes among weird fiction fans. I’d shill for it.

    • Hah! That would certainly sex it up.

      • If he does, I will buy a second copy. And maybe more.

  4. I just got this for my birthday, and it’s been added to the reading list. You can tell your friend that my promise still holds; if he gets a crazy pulp style cover for it, I’ll buy a second copy.

  5. […] the Modernist Grotesque (Sean Elliot Martin) Not quite as daunting in thickness as the other two, Mike Monaco of Swords & Dorkery clued me into this one. If it ever gets a second edition with cover art of a Lamia pursuing Randolph Carter while a […]

  6. […] Swords & Dorkery — “H.P. Lovecraft has become a sort of pop icon, at least within a sizable subculture of gamers, horror aficionados, and general “geek culture,” although as the author notes he is more frequently referenced or parodied than actually read. In all fairness, there is a considerable part of Lovecraft’s work that is pretty rough going, due to its conservativeness (e.g. his early work and attempts to copy Dunsany) or due to its unapologetic racism and xenophobia (which even Robert E. Howard, himself criticized for bigotry, chastised Lovecraft for!). However Martin focuses on several of Lovecraft’s most famous and acclaimed works (“The call of Cthulhu,” “The whisperer in the darkness,” At the mountains of madness, and a few other key works), and in doing so makes a powerful case to take Lovecraft’s mature work much more seriously than it hitherto has outside of “weird tales” fandom.” […]

  7. Hello,

    I need/want the help of a librarian and/or Lovecraft scholar in tracking something down. If you or someone you know could help me… please contact me. (I’m not a scholar myself, but I’m starting to get to questions that require actual research skills in order to delve into them….)

    • You’re not looking for that one copy of the Necronomicon we’ve got locked away in “Special Collecitons,” are you? 🙂 Glad to help. I’ll send ya a PM.


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