Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Books: The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft

When reading, I always keep a list of words I don't know so that I can look them up later. At home, I keep this list in a book by my bed, and never actually look up the words, but that is for another blog entry. Here in New Zealand, I keep them on a square of paper, and actually had cause to use a dictionary for another purpose, and therefore decided to look up some of the words used by Lovecraft I didn't recognize when reading The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories. Interestingly, of the five words I had time to look up, three of them (naphtha, mephitic, and ichor) had similar implications, that of foul-smelling organic fluids.

This is a Lovecraftian obsession, and while I especially enjoyed The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Thing on the Doorstep, the author has a number of stylistic hang-ups that I found rather distracting. I'm not commenting here on his personal mythology (e.g. the Necronomicon, a dreaded volume of witchcraft supposedly written by the "mad Arab Abdul Alhazred," and which is a Lovecraft invention, appears in many of his stories), but his tendencies to reuse tones and phrases, so that having read one good Lovecraft tale, you've as good as read the lesser ones as well. For example, the author often describes horrors as indescribable, and leaves them at that: "I can but ill describe;" "To describe their exact nature is impossible;" "I cannot describe the incidents and sensations;" "One need not describe the kind and rate;" "I can hardly describe what I saw;" "I can scarcely describe it;" "It would have been quite futile to try to describe them;" "The exact nature of this stirring is extremely hard to describe;" "This scene I cannot describeI should faint if I tried it;" etc. A generous critic will suggest that Lovecraft in this way implies a horror outside of language, the literary analogue of Hitchcock's refusal to show any more of the murder in Psycho than the weapon's shadow followed by blood swirling down the drain. The brutality implied is much stronger, and generates a more delicious sense of dread, than does, say, the campy butchery of Evil Dead 2. A less generous critic will say that Lovecraft is lazy or incompetent or both.

Alternately, I would suggest that, as an intellect, Lovecraft is less like his hero Poe, who was most fascinated by the senses, than a later writer like Borges, a bibliophile fascinated by the intersection of annals and lore; history and myth, less interested in traditional story-telling than describing, say, a civilization on a faraway planet, or under the sea, via its art and architecture, in encyclopedic fashion. Lovecraft, aping Poe, isn't as dry as Borges, but its clear that underneath all of the "weird" and fantastic, the ichor and mephisis and naphtha, Lovecraft is more seriously attending to building an alternate intellectual world, a personal library of mythical volumes, describing mythical places with mythical creatures who have their own detailed mythical histories.

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