The Quandary of Quoting Lovecraft
Madness rides the star-wind... claws and teeth sharpened on centuries of corpses... dripping death astride a bacchanale of bats from nigh-black ruins of buried temples of Belial.–H.P. Lovecraft
What glorious text!
I am a strangely haphazard reader, and as crazy as it sounds, had never encountered the work of the 19th, early 20th century writer H.P. Lovecraft until I began searching for chapter opening quotes for my second Daughter of Time novel, Writer.
Like Reader, its predecessor, Writer is a metaphysical-philosophical-speculative-fiction roller-coaster ride (or so say reviews and Amazon’s algorithms placing the novel in the “science fiction” and “metaphysical” categories). Like with Reader, I like to find samples in the writings of others that reflect some of the ideas and images in the novel in a slightly different light and angle.
Google searching with appropriate key words, I suddenly found myself in the hundred year-old dark, horror, speculative writings of Lovecraft. The quote above sucked me in, and I felt I had a kindred visionary soul I was just discovering. Then I read this one:
What do we know of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.– "From Beyond", H.P. Lovecraft
How many times had I had such thoughts? Spoken such thoughts? The very novel I was working on had that theme running through it frequently. A true kindred soul!
And yet such thoughts are so rare to hear. In a world of certain religious believers and certain atheists, the radical doubt of the true agnostic lacks respect, is mocked, ignored, and silenced. I suspect that the reason for this is due to fear. People want surety, damn the truth. People abhor uncertainty, especially in the nature of reality, themselves, and their fates. The old quote is wrong: there are atheists in foxholes, just no agnostics.
But here was a voice from the past that truly understood the limitations of our nature. A voice that also could speak with such terrible ferocity and poetry.It was the birth of a serious intellectual crush.
“NOT SO FAST,” smirked the wily internet.
In this age, it only took me a few minutes of online searching to find my joy smashed and my sense of self undermined. This man who spoke so clearly to my mind and heart, who I was so excited to meet as a true brother in spirit despite our separation by nearly 100 years, who I was now planning to quote in my new novel in several key chapters was
a die-hard, despicable, racist son-of-a-bitch.
[Cue melodramatic “Nooooooooo!” from favorite cinema example]
I couldn’t believe it. How was it possible that someone that resonated so deeply with me on things I thought were absolutely fundamental could differ so diametrically on other things I considered equally fundamental?
Beyond the confusion, I felt tainted. What did it imply about me that I felt such affinity to a man that dehumanized so many human beings? Of course, I can play intellectual games of “man of his time” (which he wasn’t in other things) etc, but like most intellectual games, they are superficial. I will never completely come to terms with that contradiction within him and the concern about what it means for myself.
And yet I will use his quotes in my novel.
“Whoa! Say what?”
Yes, I feel that way too, but my response is two-fold: (1) the things I respond to in his work are just too powerful, too synergistic with my own writings to discard because of (seemingly) unrelated aspects of his personality (the close your eyes to the “bad” of the artist approach), but, more significantly for me (2) the evil in the soul of Lovecraft all the more injects the horror of his writings with a certain legitimacy.
Let me explain. Lovecraft wrote monstrous things about monsters in a way really no one had before. Even today there are groups focused on his strange mythologies. His work is a powerful statement on the dark and monstrous in the universe.
What better man to faithfully represent that than one who had so much of that darkness within him? When I read Lovecraft, when I quote him in my novels, I am doing so in the context of horror, of terrible things. My novel journeys through significant darkness, and in the times of the least light, Lovecraft’s insight into horror helps frame the nightmare in the chapter to come.
That’s my excuse, anyway. I’m sure it can be deconstructed and reconstructed (and ignored) in one hundred ways. Yet even with that justification, I feel uneasy about it. But I feel uneasy about a lot of monstrous things, or even less monstrous things (oh, say sex) when I write them.Even if my stories deal with horror and darkness in the context of seeking light, it is hard to write terrible things, to think of others reading them. As for the sexual hang-ups, I fully blame American culture.
In the end, unlike his nightmarish creations, Lovecraft is human: good, evil, flawed, and talented. That sums up the situation for all of us, and in that light, especially when the going gets dark, he is a worthy representative of our decidedly complicated species.