Saturday, February 12, 2005

Den of the Invisible Whistling Octopus

Salon1 reviews the starkly contrasted legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, just in time for the much anticipated collection of his stories about to be published by Library of America:
Lovecraft's narrators routinely rave about the "hideous," "monstrous" and "blasphemous" nature of their revelations. Wilson went on, again quite reasonably, to observe, "Surely one of the primary rules for writing an effective tale of horror is never to use any of these words -- especially if you are going, at the end, to produce an invisible whistling octopus." That octopus crack is a particularly low blow, since the most celebrated of Lovecraft's stories and novels partake of what has been dubbed the Cthulhu Mythos, an alternative mythology involving an enormous and malevolent being whose tentacled head resembles a cephalopod.

In classic form, a Lovecraft tale begins with a narrator explaining that ordinarily he'd never impart the terrifying secrets he is about to relate, but some urgent cause compels him. Initially, apart from the occasional allusion to "unmentionable" horrors, the voice is relatively calm, authoritative and rational. Often the story is presented as a semi-scientific or semi-official report, compiled from multiple partial accounts. The story's hero encounters some mystery -- a strangely blighted plot of farmland, a friend or relative's research into bizarre and secretive religious cults, nasty goings-on among the residents of a small New England town, etc. -- and in the process of investigating it has his entire conception of the universe overthrown.

What Lovecraft's typical protagonist ultimately discovers, underneath the placid surface of conventional reality, is the existence of heretofore unknown "gods" and other less exalted but equally unpleasant beings. Important figures in the mythos include Cthulhu ("The Great Sleeper"), Yog-Sothoth ("The Lurker on the Threshold"), Shub-Niggurath ("The Black Goat of the Woods With a Thousand Young"), Hastur ("The Unspeakable One"), the ever-popular Nyarlathotep ("The Crawling Chaos") and the supreme entity, Azathoth, a "blind, idiot god," who, we are told, resides at the center of the universe where he/it "gnaws shapeless and ravenous amidst the muffled, maddening beat of vile drums and the thin, monotonous whine of accursed flutes."

Lovecraft intended this pantheon as a metaphor for mankind's harsh encounter with the mindless, mechanical universe unveiled by modern science at the turn of the century. Extensively self-educated, he took a keen interest in science (this makes the scientific passages in his stories particularly convincing) and wrote about astronomy, chemistry and other fields for newspapers and journals. "All my tales," he wrote, "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.
I'll admit, Lovecraft isn't the greatest prose stylist to come out of New England but he does have style, of a singular sort, and that is why he's popular. Someone once said that what makes poorly written pulp stories and movies fun is the enthusiasm of their creators. MST3K proved this: even if you can see the wires on the flying saucer, you can still enjoy the story if the people involved in creating it have an unswerving commitment to the internal reality and genuinely convey their sense of glee at their work, whistling invisible octopus be damned. And that's why fans of Lovecraft love his stories-- they are illustrative of an imagination that, like the reocurring evil fungi in his stories, is unrestrainable. They may not be the prettiest creations in the world but you'll never forget them.

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