>> Wednesday, September 10, 2014
An old song, but I heard it for the first time today, driving home:
H.P. Lovecraft was, in his way, a kind of brilliant writer. I mean, his prose was absurdly florid, and he didn't seem to realize the 19th Century had ended, and there were other problems with his work; but he was just brilliant at structure and atmosphere. There's possibly no better writer to learn from when it comes to structuring a story so it peels apart as the reader gets to the core of it. His best stories are like onions in the way a dense object is formed from layer after layer after layer of paperthin wisp. And in some respects his imagination was vast; his greatest contribution to modern pulp and genre fiction may have been the Lovecraftian existentialism that embraces "cosmic horror"; much of horror fiction boils down to God is good and Satan is evil and Man is in the middle, but Lovecraft pioneered (if he didn't invent) a form of horror fiction in which there's neither God as such nor Satan per se, and what Man is in the middle of is an indifferent and vast universe full of things that just don't care about the human species any more than a human might care about termites--something to be overlooked and ignored when they aren't bothering anything, or to be exterminated if they're a nuisance.
He was also a horrible racist, even in terms of the early 20th Century. And it affected his writing in nasty ways: the great menace imperiling the world in "The Horror at Red Hook" is immigration, for instance, and he ghost-wrote a story for Zealia Bishop, "Medusa's Coil", in which the dramatic, horrifying reveal--gasp!--is miscegenation. This makes him a problem writer, and a lot of people these days are understandably eager to toss him from the pantheon. Personally, I think the qualities of his writing and significance of his role in modern genre fiction are important enough that this would be a terrible mistake, though it couldn't happen to a more deserving jerk. But I also can't stress enough that apologists who overlook or try to excuse his bigotries and their effect upon and presence in his fiction are really, really, wrong, more wrong than those who'd cast him aside altogether: one can at least sympathize with the urge to reject a creep, even if doing so would toss away some useful and even enjoyable pastimes with him. There's no excuse for excusing him, though.
Better, I think, to acknowledge that enjoyment of Lovecraft is an imperfect pleasure, that his contributions to the pop culture canon are vital, inescapable, and flawed, and that we have to understand his work in context and can celebrate this while disapproving of that.
The Mountain Goats song, in an interesting way, is celebratory opprobrium or condemnatory commemoration, or something like: Lovecraft indeed went to Brooklyn and lived there for about a year, and was completely miserable at least partly because the neighborhood was, shall we say, not particularly WASPy in those days. "The Horror at Red Hook", indeed is set in the neighborhood in which HPL lived and the vitriol directed at the immigrants there stems from his own disquietude in having to live amongst people he loathed. The Mountain Goats transfer that feeling to a metaphor for a more generalized misanthropy, drawing a character who feels like "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" and finds himself so afraid of everyone and everything he's "Headed for the pawnshop / To buy myself a switchblade". It's not really, I don't think, meant to be a terribly sympathetic portrait of a paranoid neurotic: to know that your feelings are akin to Lovecraft's, that your misanthropy is deeply rooted in prejudice, is to feel a certain degree of self-loathing. When John Darnielle says this is "another song about people who hate everybody," the "everybody" means everybody, not just everybody else.
Nicely done, that.