January 20, 2011

What H.P. Lovecraft was afraid of


Via GalleyCat, here’s a full-length documentary on H.P. Lovecraft. It’s full of delightfully disturbing details about Lovecraft’s deep neuroses (as you’ll get when you mother repeatedly calls you “hideous”), his reoccurring night-terrors about being abducted by flying monsters, his cult-like disciples to which he wrote thousands of personal letters, and, of course, his profoundly twisted and influential fiction.

The film reminded me of this hilarious list of phobias from Luc Sante‘s New York Review of Books “The Heroic Nerd” article:

[Lovecraft] was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering–the things that did not frighten him would probably make a shorter list.

The film acknowledges how Lovecraft’s baroque writing is both an easy target for ridicule, and has a nearly hypnotic effect on the hearts and minds of his legion of fans. For the two sides on the Lovecraft debate (pulp trash or sinister masterpieces?), you can read Daniel Handler‘s mostly-mocking review in The New York Times and Michel Houellebecq‘s adoring review in The Guardian (both from 2005, on the occasion of the Lovecraft’s inclusion in The Library of America).


The level of anguish, just in these few sentences, is so overdone — a sense of horror and oppression threatening to master, paralyze and annihilate you? — that when the climax of a story arrives, the narrator seems to be protesting too much. ”There are horrors beyond horrors,” one such trembler says, just as the beast is arriving at last, ”and this was one of those nuclei of all dreamable hideousness which the cosmos saves to blast an accursed and unhappy few.” Oh, come on, this reader couldn’t help thinking.


This desolate cosmos is absolutely our own. This abject universe where fear mounts in concentric circles, layer upon layer, until the unnameable is revealed, this universe where our only conceivable destiny is to be pulverised and devoured, we must recognise it absolutely as being our own mental universe. And for whoever wants to know this collective state of mind through a quick and accurate survey, Lovecraft’s success is itself a symptom. Today, more so than ever before, we can utter the declaration of principles that begins Arthur Jermyn as our own: “Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer demoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”