Sunday, September 7, 2014

Reality or No?

"The imaginative writer devotes himself to art in its most essential sense."  --H. P. Lovecraft (Collected Essays 5, pg. 47).

H. P. Lovecraft consider'd ye writing of weird fiction an art form and saw himself as a literary artist.  His use of the word "art" to describe his genre and his participation in it is everywhere in his correspondence.  In the group of essays that have been publish'd as In Defense of Dagon, Lovecraft's views on supernatural fiction as art are part of his main focus.  The essay is available in Volume 5 of Lovecraft's Collected Essays (Hippocampus Press 2006--still available for $20 in its soft cover edition), where we find this well-known statement:

"I could not write about 'ordinary people' because I am not in the least interested in them.  Without interest there can be no art."

One aspect of Lovecraft's art that fascinates me more and more is his blending of reality and dream, of what is real with what is hallucination.  As S. T. Joshi has pointed out, very few of what are known as Lovecraft's "dream cycle" tales are actually set in any kind of dreamland.  The classic tale of this kind is "The Outsider," the plot of which defies logic, and which some critics have suggested is a dream narrative.  Yet that story is an obvious and outrageous example, and there are others where the borderland between real and unreal is expressed with superb subtlety.

In "The Statement of Randolph Carter," something very real seems to have happened to Carter's friend, Harley Warren, so that the authorities have grown alarmed and bring Carter in for questioning.  Yet what do we make of this:  "You say to me that there is nothing in the swamp or near it in which could form the setting of that frightful episode.  I reply that I know nothing beyond what I saw.  Vision or nightmare it may have been--vision or nightmare I fervently hope it was--yet it is all that my mind retains of what took place in those shocking hours after we left the sight of men."  Perhaps there are any number of "explanations."  Perhaps the occult studies of Harley Warren, or the book that he carried with him on that fateful night, alerted him to the secret location of this unknown antique necropolis.

"The place was an ancient cemetery; so ancient that I trembled at the manifold signs of immemorial years.  It was in a deep, damp hollow, overgrown with rank grass, moss, and curious creeping weeds, and filled with a vague stench which my idle fancy associated absurdly with rotting stone."

This seems a solid description of a place visited; and yet so skillful is Lovecraft's art that he places into it the word "fancy," which may cause us to pause and reconsider the veracity of the visit, of the mind that holds the memory of this realm.  

A similar spectral realm is described in "The Music of Erich Zann."  For most of my adulthood I have considered this a story set in reality, a very weird reality but solid nonetheless.  We have no reason to doubt that the narrator actual dwells in the haunted house in a street in France, that the fellow he meets performs in an actual band somewhere in an actual city.  And yet the story's opening paragraph should have alerted me to something queer, something illogical:

"I have examined maps of the city with the greatest care, yet have never again found the Rue d'Auseil.  These maps have not been modern maps alone, for I know that names change.  I have, on the contrary, delved deeply into all the antiquities of the place; and have personally explored every region, of whatever name, which could possibly answer to the street I knew as the Rue d'Auseil.  But despite all I have done it remains an humiliating fact that I cannot find the house, the street, or even the locality, where, during the last months of my impoverished life as a student of metaphysics at the university, I heard the music of Erich Zann."

What can this possibly mean?  How can a street vanish--unless it never existed in the first place?  Was the story based on a dream of Lovecraft's?  Here is a rather long quote from a letter to Frank Belknap Long, 8 February 1922 (text from Selected Letters I, pages 166/67):

"I enclose two stories you have not previously seen.  One is the long-promised Randolph Carter, and the other is my latest.  Please return both.  The 'Carter' thing is an actual dream, with Loveman and myself as characters.  He is 'Warren' and I am 'Carter'.  I dreamed that we stood in a strange and terrible graveyard in a swamp, and that we bore peculiar instruments.  Then we opened a grave--and the things told in the story happened.  I woke up transfixed with terror, and immediately wrote the story.   . . . Erich Zann I wrote only recently.  It has horror--the horror of the grotesque and visionary--but it does not 'grip' like Randolph Carter.  It is not, as a whole, a dream, though I have dreamt of steep streets like the Rue d'Auseil."

There are points of interest in this.  When Lovecraft says that the story is not, in whole, a dream, he must be referencing it against "The Statement of Randolph Carter," a story that is entirely based on a dream.  But what doies HPL mean when he says of "The Music of Erich Zann" that it contains the horror of the grotesque and "visionary"?  Who has the vision?  Is it the narrator, who peeps out the window of Zann's room and envisions a realm of cosmic nightmare?  What is the hallucination in this story--the entire tale and its setting, or that moment of looking out a window and seeing "...only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth"?

Of all of Lovecraft's works, At the Mountains of Madness has always seemed to me one of the stories set absolutely in the land of the real.  Mention f myth is brought into the tale, but everything witnessed is absolutely real.  So I was rather staggered, this morning, while re-reading volume one of Essential Solitude, to find this is a letter of 1931:

"Now as to the end of the thing--of course I am not satisfied myself, but I am very oddly unable to decide whether more or less definiteness is needed.  Remember Arthur Gordon Pym.  In my tale the shoggoth provides a concrete & tangible climax--& what I wished to add was merely a vague hint of further spiritual horrors--as Poe hinted with his white bird screaming 'Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!"  I wanted to leave the actuality of the glimpse very unsettled, so that it might easily pass off as an hallucination.  Possibly I ought to have left it vaguer still--& then again I had an idea that the thing ought to be developed at full length--perhaps as a sequel to the present thing, or perhaps as an expansion of that thing to full book length . . ."

The more I study Lovecraft's work and life as an artist, the more I am impress'd by his serious approach to Literary Art, to the workings of his mind, and to the execution of his excellent fiction.  He is indeed a classic of American Literature, deservedly so.

1 comment:

  1. What is Dream? Wnat Reality? Can we ever see our Selves other than in a re-flection in mirrored glass or rippling waters? What is one truly? What are we in the eyes of others? "To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church" (Robert Burns - 1786) -
    O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An' foolish notion...

    As ever, I find myself agreeing with all your comments about HPL - he was indeed a writer from compulsion - his voluminous letters show that. Do what ye must..

    G. :-)=