08 May 2008

Geek Blasphemy: On Lovecraft

Three weeks ago, at my Wednesday night D&D game at Above Board Games, I saw a new book in their RPG section. It looked neat, so I flipped through it while I waited for our game to begin. It was a new RPG based on the Gumshoe system called Trail of Cthulhu. I wanted some new gaming material and, suitable inspired as always by NC Game Day, I picked it up last week.

In the interim, I plucked a compilation of Lovecraft stories off the shelf and started reading them again, beginning at the back with "The Shadow Out of Time."

Here's the blasphemy: I don't think Lovecraft writes that well.

Yes, I said it, and I know that probably looses me all sorts of geek points. I know Cthulhu's Librarian is getting in his car right now to drive down here and kick my ass. Or, perhaps more appropriately, drive me to the brink of madness by exposing me to cyclopean tenebrous horrors which Man Was Not Meant to Know.

Those cyclopean and tenebrous horrors are the problem. To be specific, the problem is the fact that the horrors are cyclopean and tenebrous. Expressions are curious. Exchanges are loathsome. Adjectives and adverbs are everywhere. That's the horror. Let's look at a passage at random from "The Shadow Out of Time:"

"The far horizon was always steamy and indistinct, but I could see the great jungles of unknown tree ferns, Calamites, Lepidodendro, and Sigillaria lay outside the city, their fantastic frondage waving mockingly in the shifting vapors." (362)

First of all, Lovecraft tells us those ferns are "unknown" but then tells us what they are. Then there are all those adjectives. The horizon is "far," "steamy," and "indistinct." The jungles are "great." The frondage is "fantastic."(Also note that my online spellcheck does not think "frondage" is a word). It waves "mockingly" (yes, I know that's an adverb). The vapors are "shifting," less we forget that the horizon is steamy and indistinct. That's seven adjectives and one adverb in one sentence. Are all of those things necessary?

My sense is people like that sort of language in Lovecraft. It's somewhat archaic. It may compliment his themes. Fundamentally, I think Lovecraft is critiquing the modernist project. Science and progress mean nothing in a world where humans are a mote of dust in a hostile universe. He wants to both show the hostility of that universe and remind us of some pre-modernist sensibilities. His language is supposed to be a vehicle for that, I guess. I think his language, however, gets in the way of the narrative more than occasionally. Instead of wondering what is going on with the narrator and his madness, we are distracted by all this damn verbage.

The way to avoid this criticism would be to claim that Lovecraft's stories are not really about narrative. That is, they are not plot driven and, instead, about atmosphere. That's why he needs all those adjectives, because he's painting us a (iridescent, abyssal) picture. But the stories are clearly plot driven. We have a big "reveal" at the end of "The Shadow Out of Time," when the protagonist (here's the spoiler) finds a book he has written in an archaeological site that is thousands of years old! That's a *gasp* moment, even as the reader knows it's going to happen. Lovecraft's story structure is wonderful, giving us flashbacks and flashforwards, playing with our sense of time, telegraphing the state of the protagonist to the reader which allows us to know where the story is headed even as the protagonist denies it to himself. Thus, our sympathy for the poor bastard when he makes his realization. Clearly, the narrative is important. But all those descriptors get in the way.

Lest you think I am a Lovecraft hater, I'll share a great sentence, coming at the end of the story. The reader knows what's coming. The narrator knows the reader knows what's coming (again, a nice bit of structure), so he wants to give the reader the insight he's gained through his literal and figurative descent into darkness:

"If that abyss and what it held were real, then there is no hope. Then, all too truly, there lies upon this world of man a mocking and incredible shadow out of time."

That's good stuff. It's too bad we have to wade through monstrous towers of unknown and shadowy frondage that wave above the distant misty vague horizon to get there.

2 comments:

  1. Here's the blasphemy: I don't think Lovecraft writes that well.

    Yes, I said it, and I know that probably looses me all sorts of geek points. I know Cthulhu's Librarian is getting in his car right now to drive down here and kick my ass.


    Actually, I agree with you. Surprised? It's not his writing that I love. His writing is a bitch to get through, with all the excess verbiage that seems to do nothing but obscure the plot. It's the plots and ideas that I love. The man really could have used a good editor. Btu then again, so could most of the pulp authors, to some degree. These guys were usually getting paid by the word, so it made sense to pad out the stories. I have the same problems with Robert E. Howard and Clark Aston Smith, although to a much lesser degree than HPL. Lovecraft easily wins in the over used obscure word category.

    All that said, I still love his work.

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  2. I'm with CL on this one. But I also have to say I love his choice of words, even if he chooses them too much.

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