63 Followers
8 Following
keely

Keely

I like taking a literary approach to genre works like fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural horror and seeing what comes of it.

I used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit off of his name, put it on the cover of all sorts of middling short story collections--cliche and badly-written stuff that (if the reader is lucky) might actually contain one or two stories by the original author.

However, in this tale, Lovecraft proves that he can write just as badly as his gaggle of followers. It is meant to be a story of the fantastical, of the supernatural, of mystery and suspense--yet it is full of the very things that kill off any sense of wonder or the uncanny. Nothing demysticizes like familiarity, and this book is full of precise descriptions of his monstrous creatures, their histories, their habits--Lovecraft even spends a few paragraphs telling us how they like to furnish and decorate their living rooms. A tip for writers of the supernatural: if you want a being to be mysterious and unsettling, don't go off on a tangent about its commitment to feng shui.

In the Annotated Lovecraft, where I most recently read this story, noted critic S.T. Joshi claims that Lovecraft wasn't a pulp author, but something else, something greater--yet this story, one of Lovecraft's most well-known, is rife with all the worst habits of the pulps: pointless details, repetitive descriptions, crutch words, extensive exposition, little change in tone or voice, convenient plotting, and impossibly insightful protagonists. Beyond that, Lovecraft doesn't even deliver on those things that make pulps worth reading in the first place: verve, action, dynamic characters, and tension.

The whole story is basically a scientist explaining to the reader a series of carvings that he's looking at. The actual plot--the fact that he and his team of researchers are trapped in Antarctica and think that something is killing them off--is treated as a secondary concern.

The thin story is padded out by interminable details, the same comments and observations, repeated over and over, page after page. Like a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons, every new room is needlessly described: they entered a spheroid oblong, 63 yards long and 41 yards wide, the walls were worked stone, and there were carvings on the walls depicting some tentacled creature. There are always carvings.

As we go along, the protagonist describes the carvings to us minutely, with a level of insight that grows increasingly laughable. At one point, he mentions that he can somehow tell, by a series of ancient carvings left by an alien race, that they had lost the skill of telepathy and switched to spoken communication. In the real world, archaeologists struggle their entire careers to figure out what particular people, places, events, and objects are being represented in ancient carvings, but our plucky narrator doesn't suffer a moment's confusion on how aliens artistically rendered telepathic powers some hundred million years ago.

Indeed, the entire expedition seems to have a level of knowledge and familiarity with 'eldritch tomes' and 'esoteric history' that is quite impressive. Keep in mind that these aren't paranormal researchers, but regular geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, &c.--and yet, every time they enter a new room, they never fail to comment that this or that carving reminds them of something they once read in the Necronomicon. They throw off references to the mi-go and the shaggoth as if discussing nothing so remarkable as varieties of sparrow, and recall in detail historical events of a hundred million years ago with the utmost nonchalance. Apparently, far from being an incomprehensible mystery the mere overhearing of which accursed syllables invokes incurable madness, the History of Cthonic Horrors is in fact a basic undergrad class required at all proper universities, and Marty's favorite topic when he's trying to impress drunk girls at the Young Scientists mixer.

Now, perhaps the reason that the narrator never fails to stop his headlong flight from horrid monsters in order to examine and explain the carvings is meant to represent the fellow's meticulous character--which brings up an important writing lesson: once a fact has been established in the text, it does not need to be reiterated ad nauseam. After all, you don't have to mention the character's clothes and sword in every scene, because once those things have been described, the reader isn't going to suddenly assume the character is suddenly naked and defenseless just because the scene changed. Having the character demonstrate this trait once or twice in a story is just as effective, without wasting a lot of space reiterating.

Reading this interminably long list of details reminded me of nothing so much as discussing writing with a teenage would-be fantasy author: ask about his book, and he'll spend forty minutes telling you what color swords the southern nation has, how many priest-kings ruled in succession over the Lost Isles, what city-states exported the most grain since the mana-plague, and the convoluted rules he's put together for how a fire spell works.

In short, by the end, he hasn't mentioned anything that resembles a story: no sense of character, psychology, pacing, tone, plotting, structure, theme, climax, pivotal scenes, conflict, tension, style, language, dialogue--never forget that, when it comes to a good story, setting is irrelevant. Get together some costumes and props, build a set, arrange the furniture, get your lighting perfect, and guess what: you still don't have a play.

Yet you can perform Shakespeare in a blank room, all the actors dressed in nondescript black, and you'll still get a great story, great characters and emotions and moments. Change the setting to a space station, an elf kingdom, a Wild West boomtown, a port full of pirates, and it doesn't matter--the story is still the thing that carries it.

It's frustrating to watch an author just obsess over details, because overall, it's something they do to please themselves, not their audience. It's like a set dresser carefully filling all the drawers on set with realistic, accurate props that will never be used in the play, never seen by the audience. At some point, it's just a self-indulgent game.

However, that doesn't mean I don't understand the appeal of this story--indeed, it has consistently been popular, republished over and over throughout the years as a 'Lovecraft classic'. It's chock-full of exposition and explanation, and there are few things that fandom likes more. To have Lovecraft's world, his mysteries, his horrors laid out so simply, so fully, makes them easy to understand, easy to tie together--and easy to obsess over. That collection of little details, of the inner-workings of a fictional world is what much of fandom is built on.

A proper mystery, a story of true terror and fantasy doesn't give out simple explanations, because that would undermine the very sense of terror, of the fantastical on which such a story is based. Mystery and explanation are antithetical to one another: once the mystery has been explained, then the mystery has ended. Yet, there are many readers who come away from a fantastical story asking 'what really happened?'--which, of course, is the wrong question, because what really happened was that an author sat down and created a piece of fiction from his imagination. There is no reality outside of the story, the story exists to be a good story, to have feeling, pacing, and structure that works. A story does not actually exist in any concrete world 'out there' to be discovered and enumerated.

The error Lovecraft makes here, the same error Mike Mignola made with Hellboy more recently, was taking a strange and fantastical world and trying to 'lock it down', to make it into something explicable, predictable, fundamentally known. Some might suggest that this urge opens up that world to other authors, by allowing them to know what 'really happened', but in truth, it closes off the world, it limits fundamentally what that world can be, and what stories can take place within it--not only for other prospective authors, but also for readers.

It shrinks the whole thing down and makes it more easily digestible--which is diametrically opposed to the central theme of Lovecraft's stories: that there are things, both objects and ideas that are larger than we are, that are too grand for us to ever truly understand, things that cannot be simply encapsulated through a simple summary of events. This story, more than any other, is a betrayal of the very thing that set Lovecraft's work apart, that made it interesting and influential in the first place. Instead, we get something along the lines of 'true tales' of Atlantis and the Hollow Earth that charlatans were peddling at the time, and which have since transformed into shows about 'Ancient Aliens' on the History Channel--and it's quite sad that that's the most visible legacy of Lovecraft's work--well, that and cute Cthulhu plushies.