by John L. Steadman
The great American critic Edmund Wilson, in an article written for The New Yorker in 1945, argues that H. P. Lovecraft was a bad writer with bad taste and bad artistry. Wilson implies, also, that Lovecraft’s work is juvenile; in a comment about “The Shadow Out of Time”, Wilson makes this devastating remark: “semi-invisible polypous monsters that uttered shrill whistling sounds and blasted their enemies with terrific winds. Such creatures would look very well on the covers of the popular magazines, but they do not make good adult reading.”
Although Lovecraft’s reputation since the 40’s and well into the new millennium has managed to transcend such criticisms, nevertheless, the charge of juvenile themes and a less than adult treatment of those themes still persists in the minds of certain readers and critics. Even more problematic, Lovecraft’s reputation hasn’t been exactly improved by the wholehearted embracing of his literary constructs by popular culture. Artifacts such as graphic comic book versions of his stories and, of course, the innumerable role-playing games, and, particularly, the over-the-top films such as the Re-Animator series and the lurid Stuart Gordon movie Dagon, present slimy, tentacled monstrosities that do tend to support Wilson’s charge of juvenilism.
However, when we examine closely Lovecraft’s actual tales, there is a plethora of evidence that indicates an opposite conclusion: that Lovecraft was, in fact, not only an adult writer writing for adults, but moreover, a very subtle, masterful writer indeed.
For example, in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930), the focus is on a race of entities known as the Mi-Go (alternate names are the Outer Ones or the Fungi From Yuggoth), pinkish, crustaceous extra-terrestrial entities with membranous wings, articulated limbs and an advanced technology who have settled in the mountainous areas of Vermont to engage in clandestine mining operations. Popular culture stresses the outré, rather childishly comic appearance of these entities and a reader might make the assumption that the creator of such creatures is likely childish as well. Yet, in the story itself, Lovecraft’s treatment of his monsters is very restrained.
Folklorist Albert N. Wilmarth, the main protagonist, from whose viewpoint the reader experiences the story, doesn’t ever see anything directly and thus, there is never any real empirical evidence for the existence of these entities. Wilmarth reads rather dubious descriptions of the entities in local papers such as the Arkham Advertiser when a few strange bodies are allegedly seen during a season of flooding; he corresponds with Henry Wentworth Akeley, who lives in a Vermont farmhouse and claims to have had first-hand encounters with these entities; he views some questionable photos of the entities’ footprints (the entities themselves do not appear on photographic plates, due to organic anomalities), but that is all.
Eventually, Wilmarth decides to visit Akeley to gain some actual empirical evidence, but he ends up being unable to do so. Previous to Wilmarth’s visit, Lovecraft implies that Akeley has been captured by the entities, his brain presumably placed in a metal canister, forcing one of the aliens to masquerade as Akeley during Wilmarth’s stay. When Wilmarth finally meets Akeley, the man is sitting in a dim room, wrapped up in a loose dressing gown and a yellow scarf-like hood, his face and hands strangely mask-like and artificial. Superficially, this might be a confirmation that Lovecraft’s above implication is correct, but Lovecraft cleverly keeps it all ambiguous.
Later on, up in his room, Wilmarth is awake late and becomes aware that a conference is taking place in the room below. He hears strange buzzing voices; he hears the clattering of entities moving about the room that suggests that their bodies are insectoid in design, but once again, nothing specific is seen. And when Wilmarth finally becomes terrified enough to flee from Akeley’s farmhouse, a brief glance inside the room where he had met with Akeley reveals only an empty dressing gown and two artificial hands and a face, items which could support the argument that Wilmarth had been conversing with an alien, but also, the more sensible explanation that Akeley has been doing nothing more than playing an elaborate practical joke on Wilmarth.
Lovecraft’s two great stories, “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933) and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1931), likewise, are often cited as examples of Lovecraft’s penchant for juvenile, pulp-fiction mongering, since, after all, in the climax of the former story, a disgusting, decaying, re-animated corpse appears on the doorstep of his best friend, while in the latter story, the narrator finds him threatened by a whole village full of half human, half frog hybrid monsters.
But when we subject these stories to a close examination, we immediately become aware of Lovecraft’s nearly impeccable sense of subtlety and restraint. The actual “thing” that shows up on the doorstep of his best friend Dan is Edward Derby, who has been forced to inhabit the dead body of his wife Asenath. Admittedly, the body smells fairly bad (Asenath has been dead for over three months, after all), but Lovecraft presents a very tasteful monster; it is mostly concealed by a large overcoat, the hands covered, the head concealed by a low, slouch hat and the face swathed up in a black silk muffler.
The only horrible thing about it at all is that it makes a long, protracted “glub…glub…glub sound, though even this unpleasantness is rather brief, since the thing soon dissolves into bones. As for “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the narrator, visiting Innsmouth, encounters quite a few Innsmouth locals that have the “Innsmouth” look, i.e. bulging, staring eyes and scaly skin, but he never gets a definite look at any actual monstrosity. The narrator is forced to spend the night in the town and the hybrids, afraid that he knows too much, try to capture him in his room at the Gilman house. But the narrator manages to escape and, in the last part of the book, Lovecraft gives us a very exciting, cat-and-mouse chase scene as the narrator flees from the inhabitants. During the course of this pursuit, Lovecraft could have indulged himself in delineating the horrific shapes of the hybrids, but the glimpses that the narrator ends up getting are never too clear; he sees crowds of the hybrids mostly from large distances away.
Likewise, the narrator hears distant croaking and bleating sounds. But when he is finally able to take a close look at some of the entities, the sight proves to be too much for his senses and he faints.
[For more discussion of Lovecraft’s fictional world of “gods and monsters”, so to speak (to paraphrase a line from The Bride of Frankenstein), as well as a full examination of Lovecraft’s connection with the great black magickal systems in the western world, the Vodou cults, the Wiccan religion, the Typhonian order, the Church of Satan and the Chaos Magick Pacts, please read H. P. Lovecraft & the Black Magickal Tradition, released by Weiser Books on September 1, 2015]
John L. Steadman is a scholar of H. P. Lovecraft and western occultism and has been a magickal practitioner for more than thirty years. He is currently a college English professor at Olivet College in Michigan. Visit him at www.johnlsteadman.com.