Monday, December 17, 2012

On Matters of Style: H. P. Lovecraft

A recent resurgence in the interest in H. P. Lovecraft meant an appearance by Cthulhu in recent South Park episodes (season 14, shows 11,12, and 13) and a thematic homage to the cosmological elder gods in the film Cabin in the Woods.

This minor Lovecraft revival needs to be extended to emphasize the author's abilities while reminding some contemporary authors what it means to have a unique style.

Caught up in the nostalgia, I reread my excellent Penguin edition of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories expertly annotated by the eminent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi.

While Lovecraft may not be for everyone, I can understand why so many would back away from his macabre tales.  First, the author has an extensive vocabulary that requires some stops for research into meaning.  Second, Lovecraft does not utilize dialogue regularly.  Most of his works use a first-person narrator who, like Poe’s raconteurs, brings the reader down into a tale of strange occurrences that make the world seem insane.  The sparse use of dialogue precludes white space on the page; thus the works, although short, are dense.  Lastly, an elevated style akin to a Faulkner novel may have one lost in a paragraph-long sentence. 

If one can acclimate to all the previously listed challenges, then one will find a masterful execution of horror unlike any other prior to Lovecraft’s career.  Many of his stories focus on elder gods that have existed before the recording of time.  When the protagonist encounters said horrors, he usually is allowed to live and retell the story.  The dread sets in when the narrator resigns himself to the fact that nothing can be done to combat such eventualities as the elder gods awakening.  Lovecraft devises a rational tone of accepted doom.

Let me not focus too long on tone lest I neglect one of Lovecraft’s overlooked talents.  From time to time the author will stop to set the mood of the story through vibrant descriptions.  While encountering one, I found myself rereading the passage because of the deft description and delicate handling of information:

Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse.  The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind.  They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.

--H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”.  January 1925.

What struck me most about the description of a graveyard on a hill blanketed in snow was the balance between the portrayal of the scene and the narrator’s reaction.  By imagining the swinging rope in a gallows, the narrator nonchalantly clues the reader in to a dark family secret.  With the last admission of uncertainty another builds the brilliant structuring of a single paragraph.  The first layer is the description; the second is the imagined sounds that enable recall of the curse and then third layer, the uncertainty of the narrator as he plods on though the scene.

As you engage your next reading, examine the style of a single paragraph.  Does your author attempt such a terrific balancing act?  If so, does he or she succeed in the execution?  Lovecraft does.   And in doing so he shows that the horror genre, often coupled with an unfair stigma of simplistic storytelling, has its merits. 

Keep that in mind when you hear of adept readers finding dissatisfaction with much of the popular contemporary writing climbing up the bestseller lists.

And keep rising from the graves of ignorance, my Zombies…

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