Death by Thesaurus

This Finlay I nabbed from ‘The Land of Nod’ blog kicks all kinds of asses.

I have a confession. I begin to tire of Lovecraft.  There were times, in my dissolute youth, where, after smoking too much pot, I would suddenly get too stoned to be able to stand being around people, so I would retreat to my room to read Lovecraft and I would find myself chuckling at jokes that were not there and write notes to myself that would make no sense in the morning. I hope my saying that I am less than enchanted with his work than I once was does not make you think I am a bad person… I just don’t think that Lovecraft is a very good writer — great ideas, but his prose is more funny to me than impressive.  I think the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is brilliant and fan-fucking-tastic, but when he piles adjective upon adjective and the verb at the end of the phrase frequently he puts… well, his prose is really kind of a mess. That said, he’s a far better writer than I would ever hope to be… and he has certainly inspired a lot of good writers (like Ligotti), but, sheesh, sometimes he just goes on and on about how something is ‘soul-blasting’ or so horrific that it cannot be described, yet HPL plows on, stitching those run away phrases and dangling verbs together while trying, doggedly, to describe things that are too “horrific” to put words to. I know I’m going to be pilloried for this, but I actually think that both Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith write better ‘Lovecraft’ than HPL himself, simply because the two of them are capable of producing romantic prose in the tradition of Dunsany or Poe without such ridiculously ponderous sentences.

There are people who say that his prose is ‘terrifying’ and the ‘essence of horror.’ Maybe it failed to terrify me because I don’t believe in the elder gods — or maybe it fails to terrify me because the people in it seem so flat.  Even when I was really stoned and paranoid and ready to swear on a stack of bibles that the dude at the pizza take-out place was a narc who could tell I was stoned and was sending the cops to my apartment (in my defense, I was stoned)— even then I didn’t find Cthulhu terrifying.

None of this is to claim that I don’t find Lovecraft entertaining… I find him extraordinarily entertaining.  But he just doesn’t scare me the way Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ or Mcarthy’s ‘The Road’ scared me when I read them.  Maybe it was the excessively baroque language that I think old HPL couldn’t quite carry off. Maybe it was because his characters didn’t seem to have lives beyond the page. Maybe it was just that there were too many stock characters sprinkled about his prose with regular predictability like raisins in oatmeal; everyone was either a ‘disgusting specimen of a mongrel’ or a ‘great, wholesome Irishman’ or a ‘Yankee of respectable stock’ that his stories start to feel like episodes of “Law and Order” where the same character actors return again and again in different seasons to play different victims, perpetrators or witnessses and you, as a watcher, begin to think, “Wait a minute… we’ve seen this dude before! He played the reluctant witness who didn’t come forward in last week’s episode, now he’s a dirty cop who was involved in a cover up and next week he’ll be playing the arrogant assistant DA…” Their faces and mannerisms remain the same, but their names and wardrobes change making it harder for me to enter into the TV world imaginatively much like having the rubber nose fall off in mid sentence would make the spook-house witch less scary.  I suspect that HPL wasn’t interested enough in people (or, being a recluse, didn’t know enough about them) to be able to write effective characters.

One of the things that throws my Lovecraft dilemna into sharper focus is that Annie and I finally got around to watching Joss Whedon’s “The Cabin in the Woods” this weekend (Good flick! I rate it 4 1/2 out of 5 severed heads!). Annie hates horror movies because when someone leaps out of the closet with a machete, it frightens her and she screams… whereas I find horror movies funny and chuckle to myself when the inevitable blonde goes, like clockwork into the woods/basement/dark house to look for her missing (and probably already dead) boyfriend and tells him to “Quit screwing around!” when the monster is creeping up on her. Annie hates that stuff, but she likes Whedon so she was willing to sit through “Cabin in the Woods.”  We had to watch it at home, however, so she could pause the video to calm down periodically. And Whedon’s movie was full of Cthulhu references (OK, no spoilers), but the references were also funny (to me) because they were nestled cheek-and-jowl with references to just about every modern horror movie ever made.  Which, I guess, is how I like my Lovecraft. I’m not afraid of elder gods or sea creatures or the unknown or witch craft — I’m more afraid of my fellow human beings. I don’t find the fungi from Yuggoth or the fish-people of Innsmouth or Azathoth scary; I find them entertaining. To be honest, I’m more afraid of people with road rage or the hillbillies from Deliverance. So when people try to tell me how scary Lovecraft is, I just don’t get why they are so scared.

4 Comments on “Death by Thesaurus”

  1. Jeremy Deram says:

    I found most of At The Mountains of Madness to be rather frightening, but other than that, yeah, I find his prose to be rather repetitive and sometimes jarring. Often, when reading his work, I feel like I am doing academic research rather than reading simply for enjoyment.

    And to say that Clark Ashton Smith is a better writer than Lovecraft… to me that is like saying that water is wetter than sand!

    As for Cabin in the Woods… Unicorn. Fucking. Awesome.

  2. ClawCarver says:

    Lovecraft's “cosmic horror” isn't horrific to me because it's predicated on the universe being a vast, soulless, meaningless place in which humankind is utterly insignificant … and that's precisely what I believe to be the case. It's not scary. It's just, you know, true.

    I still enjoy reading Lovecraft for magnificently barmy things like “The Shadow Out of Time”, wherein the great conical (and indeed comical) Yith-folk go sailing around the Cretaceous Period in science fiction submarines, looking at dinosaurs and fighting flying polyps with their lightning-guns. Again, not scary. Just awesome.

    Having said all that, “The Rats in the Walls” is, if not scary, at least pretty fucking creepy.

  3. Stephan Poag says:

    The only bad thing about 'The Rats in the walls' is that the protagonist named his cat 'Nigger man.' That made me cringe even back in junior high school when probably 1/2 of the people I knew were probably basically racists. I mean, it's kind of hard to castigate Lovecraft for his lack of political correctness (Poe's black character in 'The Gold Bug' is pretty cringe inducing), but if people were to say, “Lovecraft? Wasn't he a racist?,” well, I would have to probably answer, “Yeah, probably.” Doesn't mean that I can't like the Lovecraft mythos, but, shit, who names their cat, “Nigger man?” Even in the 1920s it seems like a douche move.

  4. ClawCarver says:

    True. There's plenty of casual racism in Smith and Howard, too, but it seems Lovecraft sometimes liked to rub it right in your face. Probably another reason why I prefer the rugose cone-folk.

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