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On the Lovecraftian Mode

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.

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