Nov 15, 2016, 05:56AM

The Eldritch Mystery of H.P. Lovecraft’s Prose

People shouldn’t like it, but boy, do they.

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I just spent the afternoon taking another shot at H.P. Lovecraft. I read him as a boy and thought I was too young for him. Now there’s nothing I’m too young for, nothing except a retirement home. Yet Lovecraft still defeats me. The standard criticism of his work is that he overtells and that he writes turgid prose. If a story’s going to be scary, it shouldn’t keep reminding you that it’s scary. Therefore, it should hold off from adjectives such as frightful, ghastly, horrible and so on. Lovecraft stories load up on these adjectives and toss in such dwellers of the dictionary as glaucous, eldritch and squamous.

This afternoon I rediscovered the truth of that critique but found that it was too narrow. Lovecraft can be boring in other keys as well. Here he proceeds with straight-ahead, precise prose that makes my eyes seal themselves shut: “Steel head, jointed rods, gasoline motor, collapsible wooden derrick, dynamiting paraphernalia, cording, rubbish-removal auger, and sectional piping for bores five inches wide and up to one thousand feet deep all formed, with needed accessories, no greater load than three seven-dog sledges could carry.” This material goes on for page after page, making up the very extensive preamble to whatever eventually takes place in At the Mountains of Madness. Verisimilitude is a fine thing, but so is economy of effect.

Like Balzac, Lovecraft seems to be a master of not doing it right. Read either of them and your first impulse is to look at all the things that shouldn’t be there: not just adjectives, but entire paragraphs, paragraphs that add up to pages. Don’t tell us about that, you say, tell us about this, “this” being whatever might make the story worth looking at. When “this” finally arrives, it does so swaddled with more adjectives. Nothing is shown to advantage, every opportunity for dramatic effect is neglected. Editing these fellows might be good fun, provided the editor had a free hand. Reading them is torture.

Of course, the problem with the above critique is that so many readers disagree with it. I haven’t been talking about any spiritual or intellectual lacks in Lovecraft’s work (or Balzac’s). I’ve been discussing why it’s ineffective. Well, plenty of people find that it’s plenty effective. I don’t think they should and I’m baffled that they do. But eight decades after Lovecraft’s death, his stories aren’t just in print, they’re in print to an overwhelming degree: every damn thing and in multiple editions. Nobody’s forcing people to buy the stuff; they just want to.

The ready explanation is that his stories have power no matter how he presents the material. Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones are a tremendous creation. But that creation was set free from his prose a long time ago. Other writers contributed stories to the Cthulhu mythos while Lovecraft was alive; still more writers have kept on since his death. There’s even a novel with a Jack Kerouac–Great Old Ones crossover. Cthulhu himself, or itself, has inspired a board game, a piggy bank, another board game and a coffee mug, among many other things. If you want the Great Old Ones, you can find them minus Lovecraft and his writing.

It doesn’t matter. People have to be reminded that the non-Lovecraft stories exist, and the Cthulhu items are just jokes. Take out Lovecraft, and Cthulhu becomes a hobbyist’s pastime or a cute little tchotchke. Keep Lovecraft and you have “a bursting as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler could not put on paper.” In short, what would appear to this reader to be a lot of arm flailing and eye popping. But it works. Not on me, but on many, many others.

The Harry Potter books aren’t much for prose. But the writing gets to the point, and the point after that, and then the next one. It moves. Lovecraft’s writing is living death. He conceded that his strength was atmosphere and nothing else. But he wasn’t good at atmosphere either. He was good at… I don’t know, but apparently he was damn good at it. This reader gazes upon the mystery and feels his mind unhinge. As it says at the end of Mountains of Madness, well after the business about the sectional piping and dog sleds,his shrieks were confined to the repetition of a single, mad word of all too obvious source: ‘Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!’” That’s as good an explanation as any. Tekeli-li. Tekeli-li.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay3

  • I have long thought that this was rather a debate that HPL had with himself in "The Unnameable". More often than not he chose to not "show" the monster but to describe the setting and the effect that that has on the protagonist and then, when the monster does show it is only marginally described physically but great lengths are gone to to show, again, the effect of this visitation on the protagonist. Steven King wrote a bit about this in "Danse Macabre", I believe he brought up a 50' carrot or something, and he gave high points to not showing the monster as being more frightening, at times, as our fears are personal and the more we allow the reader to fill in the blanks with what they think is scary the more scary they will find it. We have become quite accustomed to seeing this in movies and television. The monster is often only shadows until the final reveal and in many cases the final reveal is a bit disappointing. We find that the shadows were more terrifying than the reality. One of the principle ways in which Hollywood drives tension and creates fear is through the use of musical scoring. The music works on us both consciously and subconsciously to create emotion. While at times, especially during crescendos, we are quite aware of the music there are other times it simply sits in the background undigested by the front parts of our mind while controlling our moods and feelings from the rear. I find that HPL uses the adjectives of fame in his writings to serve the same function as the score of a film. The article that OP posted pointed out that these adjectives can dominate paragraphs and then pages and many find this very off-putting. I think that part of the problem that people have is not necessarily the amount of adjectives used but the words themselves that he chooses. Many are archaic (gibbous), many are somewhat technical (squamous), and a few, as far as I have been able to discover, he may have simply made up. Reading all of this, page after page, tends to have a somewhat hypnotic effect if one allows it to work in that manner. Where readers become frustrated is places where they are bothered by the fact that they have no real idea what many of the terms even mean. They stop and fixate on a word, perhaps even pausing to look up a meaning. When this happens the magic dissolves, the music goes away. I think it best if one simply let the words flow by, like music, and don't worry if you don't really understand pieces of it, just let it do its job. One may not know that "squamous" means scaly but, even without definition, the word itself has a slimy and unwholesome feel about it. My advise to anyone new to the man's works or, like the writer of the article, someone trying it again that didn't "get it" the first time is this: Just read it, don't worry if there are words that you don't understand and don't stress that there seem to simply be far to many words used to describe something. The words, especially the adjectives, are the musical score. Let them act on you subconsciously. It is perfectly fine if your eyes seem to cross a bit at times, this is by intent. Just let it wash over you, let the words become music. Tekeli-li, indeed.

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  • When I read Lovecraft as a teenager I was looking for suspense and thrills. I did not find it. Instead I found the strange choice of wide distance from the supposed action. Decades later when I started rereading Lovecraft exactly for that distance. It's a choice to see everything through a filter of disbelief in reality now. A state of shock that fades out sound and puts the world seemingly in slow motion. The distance he creates also reminds me of what I imagine clinical depression to be like. Lovecraft's Cosmic Horror is mostly existential and I can't stop reading him for the out of body experience he provides. Cthulhu is a stupid looking monster, but it also turned into an universal icon of the wish that everything would come to an end - jokingly of course, because nonfundamentalists don't believe in Judgement Days, but sometimes wish for it anyways. Cthulhu turned into that fix in geek culture. Dark Gnosis: look it up. ;-)

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  • Hi Nytegaunt -- What you have to say is thoughtful and well-composed. My views in return: 1) on show vs tell, the idea isn't to have a lot of showing, to put the monster on display in a good light. As you say, it's usually best to go easy on showing the monster -- a tentacle here, a damp patch there. The key point for me is to have much, much less telling than Lovecraft has. (I mean, this is the key if one doesn't go for Lovecraft.) 2) On words-as-soundtrack, I agree that sound makes a big difference to prose because of the effects worked on the reader's emotions and frame of mind. Writing balances sound and meaning, needs them both in whatever proportion. I guess Lovecraft throws the balance very much toward sound, really hauls the lever in that direction, far more than many other authors who also care about sound. For me the effect is alienating. As you suggest, I may need a whole new gear to my reading if I'm to enjoy Lovecraft. Not necessarily a bad thing to develop, of course, and not a prospect I would have considered without HPL. So who knows. In the meantime, Tekeli-Li..

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  • Very interesting idea about his prose having an effect like that of shock. I can see how that could be powerful and very much to the taste of some readers while being unsuited to many others. Also, you're so right abt Cthulu as kind of cartoon mascot to the bring-the-apocalypse crowd. Thinking abt how I've seen him/it used on Facebook, that's been a big theme.

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