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.