A while back, I found myself in a kind of Lovecraftian mode. I was writing specifically stories that sort of merged my own version of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands setting with his Cthulhu stories, the stuff set in a world like ours, but with a horrifying alien-god conspiracy hidden in its shadows. I’ve long felt like this would be an interesting synthesis, something Lovecraft might have gotten around to himself if he’d lived longer–and there are hints of it, here and there, in the Dreamlands stories–but which is, nonetheless, very much my own take on things.
My crit group at the time expressed some puzzlement as to why I kept writing these Lovecraftian stories, and I’ve been thinking about that, while considering the question of why the Lovecraft revival has hit full swing rather recently. (My truncated thoughts are visible in the comments to this blog post at Overweening Generalist, where the question was posed and explored.)
I had something of a hard time explaining it to them, though I likened it to going back and studying jazz standards, which I supposed wasn’t much help for people who aren’t really versed in jazz, so: jazz standards are sort of the classic tunes of jazz. They’re the songs that form the bedrock of the jazz paradigm, the works from which the shared language emerged. Take four musicians whose background is jazz–say, a solo stride-piano player working in the oldest of jazz idioms, a fusion-jazz drummer, an atonal/experimental saxophonist, and a straight-ahead post-bop bassist, and stuck them in a room and told them they had to play a presentable concert and only gave them a couple of hours to prepare. Here’s what most such assemblages would do: they’d go straight to the jazz standards, because, as the historical, linguistic, and pedagogical bedrock of improvised music today, pretty much everyone learns them, and pretty much every competent improvisor can play at least a selection of them. And chances are, they’d live, and maybe even do something interesting with some of the pieces, too.
It’s a motley collection of tunes: some are taken from old Broadway plays and films that few remember today; others are contrafacts of famous Broadway or pop tunes; and still others were composed from scratch by working jazz musicians. What they have in common is the fact that the vast majority of them use a limited set of musical structures that are easy to memorize, and which are used as musical building blocks in the creation of a larger structure. Beyond that, they’re widely available, great musicians have performed on them countless times (so there are plenty of examples to study regarding different ways of “how to do it” and no definitive example that trumps all the others ), and they’re actually pretty useful in terms of building your musical chops, and becoming a musically fluent player.
A single, small example:
This tune is quaint and old. It also happens to be a crucial ur-text in jazz: if you can improvise on this particular chord sequence, you can improvise on any tune that uses “Rhythm Changes” (the chord changes from “I’ve Got Rhythm”). And that’s a pretty significant list of tunes. Some people have argued that being able to play on Rhythm Changes is a reliable make-or-break skill test in jazz improvisation. I’m currently, off-and-on, struggling with this sequence of changes myself, so take it from me: it’s not easy, but mastering it makes you a much better player.
So what does this have to do with Lovecraft, other than his having worked during the height of jazz as popular music in his country?
Well, for one thing, jazz musicians learn the standards in part because it’s a way of connecting with a tradition. They probably could refine their craft on more recently-composed tunes. It’s imaginable that someone could become a very good jazz musician (of some sort) without listening to anything recorded prior to 1980. But I’m doubtful someone could become a great jazz musicians doing so. Traditions are powerful; they’re distillations of exploration, full of example solutions to common problems, and examples of how people went about solving those common problems with available materials.
Not only that, though: traditions also lend an creator a kind of emotional, psychological power, a sense of lineage and of shared exploration, a kind of context in which to be working. Playing a jazz standard becomes, in some sense, a kind of dialog with others who’ve played the tune in the past, and whose takes on the tune one often ends up studying informally, if not formally, while learning the tune.
Traditions are also roadmaps. They’re not just collections of formulas and solutions: they’re also full of what seemed like dead ends to creators of the past. But as all creators have known since time immemorial, another’s dead ends may not in fact be dead ends at all. A good sledgehammer comes in handy when exploring an artistic tradition, and those apparent dead ends are sometimes the most fascinating and fun part of the artistic dialog that goes on: you get to say, “See? That is feasible!”
I think this is all pretty pertinent to the attraction a lot of authors seem to get with Lovecraft: there’s a sense of dialog in Lovecraftian writing–dialog with old Lovecraft himself, but also with a long tradition of other authors working in the milieu (or, really, milieux) Lovecraft invented; there’s a feeling of challenge to doing something new with that weird, crabby setting, aesthetic, and those ideas; there’s also a sense of exploring what might lie behind those doors that Lovecraft nailed shut, and which remain undisturbed by the other graverobbers who’ve come by since.
And it’s fun.
Marc Laidlaw, a sometime Lovecraftian, has commented that early on, he got the advice on the subject. Here’s a comment included with his (bizarre and wonderful) story “Leng” in Ellen Datlow’s Lovecraft Unbound:
There is no author whose work has meant more to me than Lovecraft’s, but I temper my devotion with caution. The risk of losing one’s auctorial identity though obsessive impersonation was impressed upon me early by the late James Turner, erstwhile editor of Arkham House, who received a number of my insipid Lovecraft pastiches in the mid-1970s and pointedly advised me to fine other outlets of expression. I consider this fine advice. For a certain breed of budding writer, imitating HPL is an occupational hazard. Learning from Lovecraft, without leaning on him, is the challenge. Returning to the core principles that motivated him, we may eschew arbitrary tentacles and embrace his passion for the role of the amateur in science; put aside R’lyeh and elevate Kadath; and remember that as he beat the twilit byways of New England, looking for insights that must remain nameless and ineffable, to be spied just beyond the limits of our capacity for knowledge, he found not only horror but beauty.
To me, the question, “Why write Lovecraftian fiction?” is a bit akin to, “Why write space opera?” or “Why write hard SF?” The “Lovecraftian Weird Tale” is a subgenre, one as communal and as vibrant as any other subgenre of fantastical fiction. One might as well ask, “Why write space opera?” or “Why write a ghost story?” or “Why write interstitial fantasy?”
Notably, it’s people most interested in that latter category, the literary interstitial fantasy, who have been baffled at my Lovecraftian interests, as if authors swimming in the mainstream of that particular literary stream were somehow operating sui generis, rather than having their own–sometimes unwitting, sometimes quite conscious, and sometimes unrealized–literary forebears. We don’t call a certain breed of contemporary fantasy Linkean, though I’ve read texts by epigones of Link’s that are clearly as rooted in Kelly Link’s writing as Link’s is in those writers she idolizes (such as Diana Wynne Jones, for one, whom she often mentions in inteviews). Likewise, I’ve never heard anyone who’d written space opera being criticized as being a “Smithist” or a “Docist” even though the subgenre owes an incredible amount to E.E. Doc Smith–though when Smith’s The Skylark of Space was reissued in 1991, Pohl suggested argued the following:
With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne – and almost no other writer – it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work. (Source.)
The question, then, becomes why we call the Lovecraftian subgenre after the man–even despite its many fascinating contributors, and its growing diversity, and so on. That is a much more interesting question. I think the answer is counterintuitive: today, we expect that the way to safeguard one’s reputation in posterity is through jealously guarding one’s intellectual property. But Lovecraft did the opposite: he was one of the first to initiate a kind of shared-world approach to writing, to encourage other writers to join in on it, and so on. That, I think, is why we remember him, and use his name to designate the work of those who answer his call.
Amelia E. Van Vleck’s amazing book Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric (available for free, online, in full here) offers a precedent. In the world of the troubadours–the entertainers and songwriters of the Middle Ages in what is now Southern France–poems and songs often didn’t get written down, at least not right away, and often not even within the lifetime of the “author.” When we approach the works of these poet/songwriters with the mentality of people used to poems and songs that have been recorded–written down, or set down in canonical form in the recording studio–we miss a lot of what was going on in their heads, and in the heads of the listeners.
But when we realize this, we find all kinds of oddities in their work, oddities that suddenly seem purposive: the way some creators used odd structural devices to ensure their songs would change as little as possible, using them as conscious precautions against “mouvance”–the instability of creative content in a world where everything was repeated from memory–while many (or even most) other troubadours embraced that same instability, inviting others to improve on their work, if they could (the invitation itself often an implicit sort of bragging about one’s creative genius: “fix” the poem, if you can). Indeed, some poets seemed to see their work as building houses, while others saw their work as akin to the great collaborative construction projects of the Middle Ages–the building of cathedrals. After all, the reputation of a troubadour–and the very transmission of his or her work itself!–depended on word of mouth.
That creatives in the High Middle Ages necessarily embraced a different relationship to their own creative work is a fine enough thing to realize. But look how well it turned out for them: people still remember their names, and read their poems (mainly in translation, now, but still). They are remembered, their songs still sung as faithfully as possible–not in the streets, but then, we have experienced a rapid deterioration of cultural memory in the last fifty years. (Meanwhile, my mother claims that at least one schoolyard song from her own Québécois childhood in the 1950s was a modernized troubadour song, something she didn’t realize until she heard a rendition of the original as an adult.)
This, I suspect, is one reason Lovecraft’s name remains attached to the subgenre he created. There are probably other reasons, specific to his particular–and oddly unusual–aesthetics, values, stylistic tendencies, and especially his bizarre creations, which at the time for a lot of people probably resembled nothing they’d ever read (despite Lovecraft’s strong ties to plenty of other authors contemporary to him, or who’d been working just a little earlier).
But I think maybe the way he threw the gates open, and invited other authors into the macabre, grimy, swampy, shadow-plagued playground he’d built has a lot to do with how faithfully we remember him, and how eagerly other people embrace the work of writing their own Lovecraftian stories. This is different than the kind of approach we’ve seen from more recent authors, those who release their stories under a Creative Commons license that restricts derivative, for-profit remixing. Which is… interesting. I have more thoughts, but I’ll save them for another time.
4 thoughts on “On the Lovecraftian Mode”
Really interesting thoughts here, a lot to think about but I largely feel the same way. I am curious as to how you differentiate Lovecraftian fiction vs cosmic horror? Is one just more specific (Arkham, Cthulhu, Azaztoth, etc), or is there more to it than that?
I’m not sure I’d spend much time on the distinction, since Lovecraft is so important in the development and promulgation of cosmic horror. He’s not the discrete originator, but he is probably the central figure in its literary development. (Like how Charlie Parker didn’t create bebop out of nothing, but without Charlie Parker, we wouldn’t have bebop.) I’ve been checking out some of Lovecraft’s literary predecessors, both by finding old public domain stuff online, and also listening along with the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, which is exploring authors who influenced HPL these days. What I find is that many of them did great work, but that Lovecraft did something crucial to the recombination of their influence. For example, Machen uses science in “The Great God Pan,” but more as a trapping: there’s nothing particularly scientistic about the worldview empbodied in the story, and the treatment of the science is much more like in older “Gothic” tales: there’s a sense of cosmic horror, but it’s not the particularly atheistic cosmic horror we sense as Lovecraftian. Likewise, Irvin S. Cobb’s “Fishhead” seems (from the podcast I heard the other day: I have yet to track down the story and read it) to be very proto-Lovecraftian, but it still operates in a world where the moral order is, er, familiar. The horror is very much human, very much predicated on a sense of right and wrong we likely share, rather than on absence of meaning and value and significance to human ideas of right and wrong on the cosmic scale: the catfish who avenge Fishhead’s death embody a moralistic universe, and while humans aren’t at the center, humans can grasp, understand, and deal with that moralistic basis. That’s not Lovecraftian because it’s not the kind of “cosmic horror” mode Lovecraft used.
I think it’s worth noting that the Cthulhu-related stuff is a subset of Lovecraft’s oeuvre… perhaps the most celebrated subset, now, but not the only thing he did, so it doesn’t make sense just to call the Cthulhu-stuff Lovecraftian, distinct from the kind of cosmic horror that he, er, well, didn’t exactly “popularize” but he sure promulgated it.
I feel like maybe the distinction between the two is not one of type, but of category: one is materials/techniques, the other a school of storytelling. Those Cthulhoid inventions (and later additions to the Cthulhu canon, recognizable more for their “feel” and a certain kind of isomorphic quality–tropes that are recognizably Lovecraftian in their technical construction, in other words) are the literary equivalent of jazz licks (invented, of course, out of the material of older stories), whereas “cosmic horror” is more like a stylistic/paradigmatic innovation based on the work of predecessors, but departing radically from their philosophical underpinnings. I’d say both of them fall under the rubric of the Lovecraftian for me in general practice, though it’s very important to me that we don’t just label the Cthulhu-stuff Lovecraftian, and ignore his deeper influence on “cosmic horror” generally.
This kind of a definition would also help specify the antipathy inspired by Derleth: he uses the materials, but shuns the philosophical paradigm that those materials embody. It’d be a bit like a jazz player doing bebop licks on an old swing tune while accompanied by an old, swing band: bebop is set of approaches, techniques, and materials designed for harmonically complex, faster progressions and a certain sensibility about how jazz should sound, what performance was supposed to highlight, and so on. You can bebop-ify older, simpler songs, but not just by slapping bebop licks in and having the big band play in a 1930s fashion: you have to reharmonize it, rethink the way the big band plays, practice it at a higher tempo, and so on. (Others will disagree, of course: I know, for one, that you’s not as down on Derleth as most people, right?)
But you know, that’s an off-the-top-of-my-head answer. I think in practice the distinction is overly theoretical: most people attracted to Lovecraft will share the kind of sensibility that underlies his brand of “cosmic horror” to a degree, though usually not to the extremes of, say, a Thomas Ligotti. T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods has stories that have explicitly Lovecraftian elements, and stories that lack them, but I’d say all four novellas in that book are Lovecraftian in one sense or another.
“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” HP Lovecraft
I think I largely agree with what you mean, and there certainly is a lot of correlation between “Lovecraftian” and “Cosmic Horror.” It does seem like there might be a separation though. Mike Mignola (Hellboy creator) feels very Lovecraftian at least in the “things that go bump in the night” aspect, but has created heroes who can take on the worst of all creatures (hell, his protagonist IS, potentially, the worst of all creatures.) That doesn’t feel like cosmic horror to me.
Whereas Carpenter’s The Thing and At the Mouth of Madness seem to be both, but maybe I’m overly fixated on the hopelessness aspect of cosmic horror. On the other hand, the tone of Cabin in the Woods is such that it seems less assuredly Cosmic Horror, although it is certainly, deliberately Lovecraftian.
Those are all non-literature sources though. It might get more clear-cut with literature, which is what I think your blog was more specifically addressing.
As an aside, is Ligotti considered cosmic horror? I have only read one collection of his, and recently at that, but his milieu seemed quite different from the Kiernans and Barrons of the world. Maybe it was just because bureaucracy and locale played such a strong part, neither of which feel cosmic or Lovecraftian to me. (Maybe more like Poe in the specific places are cursed regard.)
Yeah, Mignola–the little I’ve read–didn’t strike me as very “cosmic horror” at all. Hellboy, for example, fights of evil, and the monsters are “evil” (not just alien and unconcerned with humanity beyond how humanity looks at ants and beetles). The moralistic and value system of the Mignola I’ve read is much more conventional than Lovecraftian, though he may from time to time use Lovecraftian monsters or Lovecraftian monster morphology.
That’s pretty common, too: “the Wyrm” from the Werewolf: The Apocalypse RPG (I know nothing about the rebooted World of Darkness Games) very much is based on Lovecraftian morphology, and maybe goes halfway to the alienness of the Lovecraftian mythos stuff… but the Werewolves resist and have a very Werewolf (and sometimes human/Earth-centric) value system that seems to also have a cosmological correlate: there are forces in the universe that do seem to cherish Earth life and consciousness like the Garou or humans.
Ah, well, In the Mouth of Madness is explicitly Lovecraftian, and I have always thought The Thing was also pretty clearly Lovecraftian and sort of an homage to At the Mountains of Madness. Cabin in the Woods didn’t really strike me as particularly horrifying at any rate, and certainly not in terms of cosmic horror. I didn’t even see very much that was Lovecraftian about it, though I have to say, I wasn’t strongly engaged enough to search the film closely.
Yes, probably. I think it’s very hard to convey a sense of cosmic horror in cinematic form, and that explains why so many Lovecraftian films just don’t end up feeling all that Lovecraftian. (I think one of the reasons our Lovecraftian short film appealed to people so much is that we were specifically trying to do that, by eliding the experience of cosmic horror with the experience of socioeconomic marginalization of a young woman living in a Korean slum.)
I’ll be very honest: I haven’t read all that much of Ligotti yet, and far too little of Barron and Kiernan and Pugmire and the rest (beyond a piece here and there), to have a clear sense of their work. There’s stuff in the queue, but you know… endless books.
I’m about halfway through Ligotti’s Grimscribe and so far there’s some clear Lovecraft-homage, though it’s an early work and that shines through. Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” pretty clearly recalls Lovecraft’s “The Festival.” My impressions regarding Ligotti are based on The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, which is essentially the ideas underlying Lovecraftian cosmic horror are presented as a real-world philosophical statement on human nature and the universe. It’s claimed by his fans to “reveal” or “explain” a lot of the philosophical underpinnings of his fiction, but I’ll have to see whether I agree when I read more of him.
(I can say that the Lovecraftian-derivative work I’ve read that I’ve liked best–T.E.D. Klein is a great example–explore the cosmic horror more than the critters and tropes; the stuff I’ve liked less has often featured “new” angles on the critters, etc, and the best example of that is Brian Lumley’s more pulpy explorations of Lovecraft’s worlds: some of the Dream-Clock novels I found rather offensive, while the Dreamlands books were just uninteresting to me.) I will also reiterate what came up on Facebook: I think Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng” is a very successful Lovecraftian story, and that his “The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft” is also worthwhile, and provides good grist to the mill of considering the Lovecraft craze.
(I’ve explicitly thought about mapping Lovecraft’s racist hysteria onto other bigotries (and their attendant hysterias) as an important part of adapting Lovecraft to a contemporary setting, which is one reason I think Korea–where hysterical bigotry is still so relatively socially/institutionally acceptable, and against so many “others”–is a great place to film Lovecraftian narratives in a modern milieu.
That said, Koreans really struggle in “getting” the whole “cosmic horror” thing. I suspect it’s partly because there was never so much of a fantasy about ultimate morality and a loving God (not like in Western Christendom) but also because Confucian sensibilities are likely more effectively inoculated against that particular sense of horror, for reason I’m still not clear on, though I’ve been thinking about it for a few years now. (I can say that “cosmic horror” doesn’t translate all that well to Korean, that much is definitely true.)