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the man who went out to find fear


In the 00s, that time of Bush and theory blogs, I saw a lot of mentions of weirdness and Thomas Ligotti and Lovecraft and the like, and I paid no attention. I’ve never been a horror movie buff, and though I like Georges Bataille as much as your average American working stiff, I took abjection to be a much more hoity toity thing than Friday the 13th IV or whatever. Give me a meditation on the big toe or give me death! As the old motto goes.  As a kid, I read some weird tales, or so I vaguely remember, but not Lovecraft. And as an older beast, I have pretty much the same reaction to Lovecraft’s prose as Edmund Wilson did, who dissed him in the New Yorker in the1940s for being the kind of writer who imagines the words instead of the thing. In fact, who doesn’t? It is just that some writers imagine, hmm, better words.


However, back in the 00s, I little imagined I would have a boy. I especially didn’t imagine that my boy would adore horror and, at the tender age of nine, become a big Stephen King fan. So I have been trying to backfill, as it were, this tendency with the classics. And here Lovecraft does loom large.


This is the reason I, at an age when, if I was an oak, I’d be about 60 feet high with a great ant and bark culture going on in my middle limbs … even I … am starting to read Lovecraft stories. They aren’t terrible, but they certainly aren’t Poe. They lack, to my mind, a certain glee, the switchknife glee which Poe borrowed from De Quincey and the folklore of American humor, the kind of glee that gets into medical school pranks, but which seems to be utterly foreign to Lovecraft. He is a great man for piling up the blurb words – horrid, ghastly, shocking – in front of nouns, which seems a little defusing to me.


It is, in a way, funny that Lovecraft, for me, is impenetrable, because I know something of his inspirations – for instance, Arthur Machen – and I have a strong appreciation for that strain in German literature that goes out from E.T.A. Hoffman – to Kubin, Meyrink and in a very different strain, Kafka.


What I like in all of these writers is that flicker of gleeful abandonment that one finds, as well, in De Quincey’s Murder as one of the Fine Arts. It is a moment when a certain monological control over the tale, over the listener’s expectations, is violated. We jump across a divide, suddenly. And that moment, so far as I have been able to get through Lovecraft, is banned from the beginning. The typical Lovecraftian device is to make the story posterior to the inauguration of the tale. To me, this is a way of exorcising the liberating, gleeful moment, when the tale, as it were, turns on the teller, and on the listeners.


Lisa Downing, in an interesting essay on the notion of “nightmare” in early nineteenth century France, writes of the way a notion derived, in part, from the medieval supposition that a nightmare is an incubus, a demonic bed partner, was medicalized with certain of the same characteristics – notably breathlessness. The nightmare bed partner literally squeezed the breath out of the dreamer: sex and strangulation intersect. Downing suggests that in Gautier’s fantastic tales, the “points de suspension” operate as a mechanism to suspend breathing. Terror is the squeeze of the incubus.


‘Terror”. “Horror.” That is the crux of my problem with Lovecraft, who is never very terrifying. Movies and cable tv, with their visual obtrusiveness, are better at creating terror – but rarely create glee. The gleeful serial killer or monster – Joker, the Riddler – are of course meant to be gleeful, they pay homage to glee, and sometimes (“why so serious?”) succeed, but mostly the characters are below that necessary level. One exception is Patrick Bateman in Mary Herron’s American Psycho, whose gleeful abandon gives the tone to the whole movie, and – to me – justifies the horror trope of ending the story on that cliche ambiguity: nightmare or reality? Which neatly closes the circle of the horrid or weird, bringing it back to the sensation of being suffocated in one’s sleep.