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H.P. Lovecraft- A writer's perspective
I started reading Lovecraft when I was about 12. Loved the stories and the absolutely individualized nature of his work. I picked him up again in the 80s, and then again last year, and was horrified to find that he’s become perhaps the most over-analyzed writer I’ve ever seen, particularly in his genre.
I saw to my horror, if you’ll excuse the reference, a TV documentary in which Lovecraft was “psychoanalysed” by people I’ve never heard of. Some were writers, which annoyed me more than anything else. If you’re a writer, you should know the mechanics of writing, and if you’re a writer of imaginative works, you should know the problems.
Lovecraft acknowledged some influences, which became centrepieces in a rambling, repetitive discourse into the hack academic theory that nobody actually writes original materials. The truth is that they don’t have the talent or the minds to write original materials. These guys were basically saying Lovecraft reworked his stuff.
Wrong. Lovecraft’s usage alone, which is a highly refined version of the old English and folklore usage, is almost entirely unique. His friend Clark Ashton Smith, who I’m unspeakably embarrassed to say I hadn’t really paid any attention to previously, was perhaps the only other truly lyrical writer in the field at the time. (Apparently, Machen was also in this vein, but I don’t know enough about his work to comment.)
You can read other horror writers of the 20th century, and see a rather scraggly miscellany of styles. This was publisher-speak in text, unlike Lovecraft’s fortunate Weird Tales free for all, and it shows.
Then there was the laborious, and may I say pointless, discussion of Lovecraft’s relationship with his mother. Scratch a critic, and you get a pseudo-Freudian cliché factory. OK, he had a mother. What are the logical inferences of that situation? That was about 12-15 minutes of a 48 minute show, wasted.
Now the hard facts- Lovecraft as a writer. He’s rightly revered and admired for his work, but he was also a pretty unambiguous critic of his work, another fact that didn’t get much traction in the documentary. He said of his epic “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” which is a true foray into usage of a difficult and sometimes thankless kind, that he was worried his usage would put off the readers.
That’s about as honest as any writer of imaginative stories can get. The trouble with writing imaginatively is that you don’t have any road maps, even if you’re quite well read. When it’s you that’s doing the writing, there are no easy outs. Your name is on it, and your brain is lugging around the ideas.
You can find yourself in some very tricky situations with your characters and your sudden cluelessness about what to do with them. You can find that your glorious story has sailed into a trivial description or some other abyss. You can edit yourself into a pretzel or out of a good position for no reason other than a bit of grammar you didn’t quite get when you scratched it out, then wonder where it went.
Lovecraft is one of the few horror writers who’s given me an actual chill sitting at my own desk in broad daylight eating lunch. The story was The Dunwich Horror, and I can still remember that sudden realization, typical Lovecraft, of the story coming out of its shell. I simply do not believe that you can analyze a writer who can do that with a few jingles and tedious theories.
What is fear? How does a good writer achieve it in a few words without so much as a picture, where an entire movie can simply generate mild interest, or more often predictable boredom? That’s Lovecraft’s greatest strength, and it’s why the Cthulu stories and the others are such fun as well as such true adventures. The reader gets involved. The reader is both tourist and participant. The threats from the Outer Gods, Shoggoths and Great Old Ones are real enough. The mind is given space to roam and wonder.
All writers have influences. Anything can be a subject for a story. It’s making the stories worth reading, and going outside the norms that defines a great writer. Enough analysis! Read the books!
Above all- At least give readers the courtesy of enjoying and exploring Lovecraft without the learned stuff. Leave that to Miskatonic University.