Review: The Classic Horror Stories of H.P. Lovecraft, ed. Roger Luckhurst

Posted by James Campbell on April 08, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Lovecraft, H.P.  The Classic Horror Stories.  Ed. Roger Luckhurst.  Oxford University Press.  9 May 2013.  Hardback / Kindle.

(Since this review refers to the Kindle e-book edition, I apologise in advance for the lack of page references.)

Out this May from Oxford University Press, The Classic Horror Stories of H.P. Lovecraft – edited by Roger Luckhurst of Birkbeck College, University of London – collects nine of the most significant entries in Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos.’  By equating ‘classic’ with ‘Cthulhu’ the book takes a firm but justifiable stance towards the author’s work, privileging those stories that continue to exert a powerful and profound influence on so much contemporary pop culture.  But with so many editions of Lovecraft’s work already available (a sign of the author’s growing stature) my review will bypass discussion of the stories themselves to focus instead on what sets this particular collection apart from the rest.  Luckhurst’s introduction combines lively coverage of Lovecraft’s biography, philosophy and politics with a series of brilliant observations, opening up some of the stranger dimensions of American literature and culture.

Since this is The Gothic Imagination I feel obliged to home in on Luckhurst’s use of ‘the Gothic,’ as he refers to it here with remarkable frequency.  This may be the only flawed aspect of the introduction since it’s not always clear what Luckhurst means when he uses the term.  For example, in one paragraph Luckhurst states that Lovecraft’s work has the ‘trappings’ of Gothic literature without specifying what these are, then enters into a long recitation of all the different Gothic tropes the author’s work does not feature.  Whilst clearly done in order to stress that Lovecraft is an exceptional author, it still begs the question of what, exactly, was Gothic about Lovecraft’s work to begin with. 

If I’m being pedantic here, it’s only because Luckhurst enters into a much fuller and more enlightening discussion of ‘the Weird’: the term’s etymology; its emergence, as a literary category; and its subsequent evolution, via the work of ‘New Weird’ writers like China Miéville.  In his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927), Lovecraft framed the Gothic – for him, the eighteenth-century literary genre and little, if anything else – as subordinate to the Weird.  But given the close resemblance between Lovecraft’s generous, globalizing definition of ‘the Weird,’ and our current globalizing, contemporary definitions of ‘the Gothic,’ Luckhurst’s description of ‘Supernatural Horror’ as Lovecraft’s ‘essay on the Gothic literature’ is understandable.  Any distinction between ‘the Gothic’ and ‘the Weird’ collapsed some time ago; but with the introduction to Lovecraft’s essay included as an appendix, readers are free to judge for themselves.

Luckhurst’s recourse to the Gothic does pay off in his discussion of the author’s racism, when he notes that Lovecraft depicted ‘the Gothic [as] the product of northern tribes, the Goths and the Teutons,’ and ascribed a ‘purely Teutonick quality,’ a sense of ‘Nordick superiority,’ to some of his favourite authors, including Poe, Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany.  Also of note is Luckhurst’s reading of Lovecraft as a Decadent, comparing the author – himself a heavily fictionalized figure – with Poe’s Roderick Usher, from ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), and J.-K. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes in Against Nature (À Rebours, 1884).  All three are ‘weak in body with shattered nerves,’ ‘the last of [their] line[s]’; each has a ‘precocious intelligence, is a reclusive, hypochondriac, lives only at night’; and they each ‘dedicate themselves to the overstimulated imagination.’  Further tightening the knot, Lovecraft and Des Esseintes are both ‘obsessed by the stories of Poe.’  Luckhurst further elaborates on how the Decadent ‘embraces the private world of the dilettante, despising the public and professional world of bourgeois taste,’ believing that ‘the market in art and culture is vulgar, yet any gesture of refusal is thoroughly defined by the market.’  It seems inevitable then that Lovecraft, caught ‘between the trappings of high art and low pulp, negating these torn halves of modern culture through an amateurism that resisted the literary marketplace,’ should come to occupy a ‘niche habitat, as a Poverty Row Decadent.’

Luckhurst’s fascinating discussion of the author’s peculiarly ‘dense and cluttered prose’ begins by acknowledging how it is ‘always on the verge of collapsing into comic overstatement,’ and how it ‘breaks every rule of orthodox creative writing,’ especially by today’s standards, set by ‘Raymond Carver’s minimalism, which demands the erasure of all adjectival intensifiers and clausal repetitions.’  In Lovecraft’s writing ‘adjectives move in packs, flanked by italics,’ while ‘the indescribable is always exhaustively described.’  Though these have often been regarded as faults, rendering Lovecraft’s work susceptible to parody, Luckhurst argues that ‘the power of the weird crawls out of these sentences because of the awkward style.’  If, ‘conceptually, breaking open the world requires the breaking open of language and the conventions of realism,’ then, Luckhurst argues, this justifies Lovecraft’s use of catachresis, ‘the deliberate abuse of language.’  ‘Lovecraft’s horror fictions employ a language that continually stumbles against the trauma of the unrepresentable Thing,’ resulting in ‘moments of oscillation between the sublime and grotesque.’

Luckhurst concludes his introduction by observing that Lovecraft’s work ‘speaks to an age where technology, globalization, and accelerated modernity put the question of the human under ever more pressure.’  This, in conjunction with a select bibliography highlighting the abundance of Lovecraft scholarship to have been published in recent years, suggests some of the future paths that scholarship might take.  Thus this volume not only offers readers an excellent introduction to Lovecraft’s work but, courtesy of Luckhurst’s, offers fresh new insight to readers who may already be familiar with the work – insight that should go far in persuading any current sceptics of the value of the Weird.

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