How Not to Read Lovecraft

by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)

SCOTT CUTLER SHERSHOW and SCOTT MICHAELSEN. The Love of Ruins: Letters on Lovecraft. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017. xi, 193 pp. $80.00 hc; $22.95 tpb.

This book was apparently published with relatively little fanfare, and for good reason. It is one of the most pretentious, bombastic, and just plain silly treatises on Lovecraft ever written. It demonstrates conclusively why so much academic criticism has become a parody of itself: based on inadequate research, full of impenetrably opaque conclusions and puffed up with authorial preening, it unwittingly provides more illumination on the authors’ own biases and presuppositions than on the literary work it purports to be analysing.

The book is not a straightforward treatise but a series of letters—ranging from as little as two pages to as many as eight pages—back and forth between the two Scotts; and, because each of them signs himself “Scott,” it becomes impossible to tell which Scott wrote which letter. All this is inane enough; the authors maintain that they have adopted this practice because Lovecraft himself was such a voluminous letter-writer, and one whose “daily life revolved around correspondence”; but the upshot, in their case, is a scattershot, almost free-associationist approach that fails to explore certain subjects comprehensively while harping at tedious length upon others.

The authors repeatedly stress their “love” of Lovecraft, and their enthusiasm does shine through at random moments. But there is reason to doubt their credentials in writing a book of this sort, however unorthodox its structure. Both are professors of English, but Shershow has published a book on the “right-to-die debate” and Michaelsen has co-written one on anthropology. Neither of them seem particularly well versed in the history of weird fiction before and during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and they do not even appear to be familiar with the totality of Lovecraft’s literary texts (fiction, poetry, essays), as my discussion will reveal.

The book does not get off to a good start. One Scott points to a passage in “The Call of Cthulhu” whereby Francis Wayland Thurston, after concluding his narrative, states, “Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye” (CF 2.55). This leads Scott to wonder if Lovecraft really was the “card-carrying atheist and enemy of religion” that much modern scholarship has claimed he was. Why would a Lovecraft character “pray” if Lovecraft was so hostile to religion? (This Scott is probably the same one who confesses that he first read Lovecraft in the 1980s in the course of various occultist studies of the Kenneth Grant sort.) But it apparently doesn’t seem to dawn on this Scott that, even though Lovecraft really was a “card-carrying atheist,” his characters may not have been; or (even more relevantly) that they are uttering “pray” with a less than literal signification.

I suppose it was to be expected that The Love of Ruins harps on Lovecraft’s racism, although it at least does not use this issue to denigate Lovecraft’s achievement. Like Michel Houellebecq and others (see my article in this issue), these two Scotts seem at times to regard racism as central to Lovecraft’s literary work; but they can only make this argument by ambiguity, conjecture, and equivocation. “Race,” in this context, can only refer to sub-groups within a given species; it is careless and illegitimate—and, I would argue, disingenuous—to extend this idea to members of different species. It is as if one were to assert that the “race” of dogs are prejudiced against the “race” of cats, or that human beings are prejudiced against mosquitoes. And yet, that is in effect exactly what the two Scotts do. They grudgingly acknowledge that the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness and the Great Race (a term used in precisely the same way as “human race” is used in regard to Homo sapiens) of “The Shadow out of Time” ultimately become admirable and not horrifying; but the Scotts still assert that these entities exhibit some kind of racial animus against their opponents—the shoggoths and the Elder Things, respectively. They stubbornly maintain that “one must take the racism [in Lovecraft’s stories] as irreducible and inescapable.” But it seems to me that the Old Ones and the Great Race have every good reason to hate and fear the shoggoths and the Elder Things. This is a conflict between species and not between races. Fritz Leiber seemed to be far more on target when he pointed out this same dichotomy and noted: “the authors shows us horrors and then pulls back the curtain a little farther, letting us glimpse the horrors of which even the horrors are afraid!”[1]

The authors engage in arid discussions about the putative readership of Lovecraft’s stories in his time, which they maintain “was (and mostly remains) very white.” I do not know how the authors came to this conclusion. Given that Weird Tales was a pulp magazine deliberately designed for “the masses,” it is intrinsically unlikely that at least some people of colour—who at the time were certainly in the lower reaches of the American socioeconomic order—didn’t read the magazine. But this whole conjecture is simply beside the point, for it fails to take into consideration that Lovecraft’s primary (and perhaps only) audience was himself. In 1921 (admittedly before the founding of Weird Tales) Lovecraft wrote: “There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work; and they are enough. I should write even if I were the only patient reader, for my aim is merely self-expression” (CE 5.53). Perhaps those seven persons were all white, as Lovecraft certainly was; but he was a lot of other things as well. The two Scotts compound their folly by even more vapid speculations about what a “politicized person of color” might think when reading Lovecraft. Since these authors are self-admitted white folks, I am not sure how or why they have any authority to talk of such things. (Anyway, isn’t this a classic instance of cultural appropriation?)

I will counter with an assertion that is not based in idle conjecture: there is not the slightest evidence that any significant number of Lovecraft’s readers—either in his own time or in the decades that followed—displayed any response at all to the purportedly racial content of his stories. Hostile critics like Edmund Wilson and Colin Wilson found plenty of things to criticise in Lovecraft’s work (and even in his character)—but racism wasn’t one of them. The fulminations about Lovecraft’s racism are an extremely recent phenomenon, and seem to be fueled by certain writers who are determined to seize on this one aspect of Lovecraft’s life and thought as a way of knocking him down a few pegs in critical esteem. This may not be the two Scotts’ motivation, but they have succumbed to the perceived need to debate this issue at tedious length, as a dog worries a bone. And yet, the letter columns of Weird Tales were full of encomiums of “The Horror at Red Hook” (including one by Robert Bloch), and no discussions of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” except in very recent years have cited its supposedly racist substratum. And I also maintain that, if we did not know of Lovecraft’s racial views, it would occur to very few of us to see a racist element in any but a small number of Lovecraft’s tales. Even some of those that do know of his views have still come to that conclusion, as when the British philosopher John Gray wrote: “Fortunately, the core of [Lovecraft’s] work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments.”[2]

Now it is remotely possible that all such readers were and are simply blind and oblivious; but it strikes me as more likely that, in our hyperpoliticised climate today, we are all too quick to see racial elements in every bit of writing that passes before our eyes. This phenomenon has particularly afflicted academic criticism, where it is now the fashion to examine literature largely—and perhaps solely—through the lenses of race, class, and gender. To my mind this perspective seriously disfigures the import of a good many literary works, and at a minimum results in analyses that are more like sociology tracts than literary criticism. But I suppose I am a fossil in this regard.

The authors engage in random discussions of “He,” which is held up as one of the stories we are now meant to deprecate because of its racism; but they (along with many others) have incredibly failed to see that a careful—or, in actual fact, fairly obvious—reading of this story shows it to be anti-racist. For all Lovecraft’s lamentations about the contemporary environment of New York, the story is a straightforward supernatural-revenge narrative in which the spirits of Native Americans—whom the English squire had poisoned and whose land he subsequently claimed for his own—dispatch that preternaturally aged gentleman in a particularly pungent manner; and the narrative tone of the story clearly suggests that the Englishman got his just desserts.

The authors take up the racism issue later in the book, focusing chiefly on “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” It is here that the two Scotts suddenly and belatedly come to a conclusion that any sane and unbiased reader should have arrived at without any assistance from learned commentators:

I will venture to suggest that the most keen and vivid sense of horror that erupts from Lovecraft’s pages involves neither race nor class nor indeed any mode of sociality at all. On the contrary, the ultimate Lovecraftian horror is the sheer insignificance of humanity as a whole; the terror of absolute spatial and temporal finitude in a vast, empty, and indifferent universe. This horror, however, as we have both suggested in different ways, must at least take us beyond or even before any conceivable idea of “race.”

Brilliant, my dear Watson!

And yet, the authors, in their infinite wisdom, take occasion to question whether Lovecraft is on target in regard to another issue—one that elucidates the otherwise perplexing title of their book. They wonder whether Lovecraft really did have a “love of the ancient & the permanent” (SL 1.110), since “his stories are set in a universe where absolutely nothing is permanent”; therefore, in at least one of the two Scotts’ opinion, “one might venture to suggest a revision to Lovecraft’s own schema and speak of a love, not of the ancient and the permanent but of the ancient and the ruined.

My only response to this is: *sigh.* Are not the authors aware of how diligently Lovecraft sought out ancient towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Quebec to St. Augustine, and gloried in the fact that in many of these places the centuried structures (both public buildings and private residences) were still being utilised in accordance with their original functions—and, more pertinently, that the inhabitants were preserving their traditional folkways even in the face of abrasive modernity? Have they not read the many letters where Lovecraft bitterly denounces the destruction of colonial buildings in his hometown? The passages from his essays and letters on these topics are too numerous for citation here.

Where the two Scotts have erred—here as in other aspects of their book—is in regarding Lovecraft’s fiction as some kind of simple and straightforward guide to his beliefs and opinions. They forget that Lovecraft is writing fiction. They habitually attribute the opinions of Lovecraft’s characters to himself, and commit analogous errors in critical analysis. I would advise them, and all potential commentators on Lovecraft, to ponder the following passage (from a letter to James F. Morton, [1 April 1930]) that I believe to be the essential key to understanding the interrelationship between Lovecraft’s philosophical thought and his fiction:

I get no kick at all from postulating what isn’t so, as religionists and idealists do. That leaves me cold [. . .] My big kick comes from taking reality just as it is—accepting all the limitations of the most orthodox science—and then permitting my symbolising faculty to build outward from the existing facts; rearing a structure of indefinite promise and possibility whose topless towers are in no cosmos or dimension penetrable by the contradicting-power of the tyrannous and inexorable intellect. But the whole secret of the kick is that I know damn well it isn’t so. (SL 3.140)

Lovecraft is not only writing fiction; he is writing weird fiction. The purpose of weird fiction is to frighten, to terrify. He knew that, in order to terrify others, he must first need to terrify himself. What would be more terrifying to Lovecraft than to contemplate, for the duration of a tale, the refutation or subversion of his cherished beliefs—atheism, materialism, and, yes, “love of the ancient & the permanent”? It is this act that constituted, for him, a gesture of imaginative liberation—an attempt to “achieve, momentarily, the illusion [my emphasis] of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis” (CE 2.176). But he knew damn well it wasn’t so. He knew he was writing fiction: in postulating various “gods” (most of them really space aliens) in his fiction, he was not undermining his atheism, but confirming it; in suggesting that the laws of matter do not apply in certain corners of space or to certain entities of his own imagination, he was confirming his materialism; and in depicting ancient ruins (usually constructed by alien species), he was confirming his love of the ancient and the permanent. Got that, people?

Much of the two Scotts’ book is devoted to a meandering, unfocused, and at times frivolous discussion of “The Shadow out of Time.” I really don’t know that there is much profit in speculating on what would happen if a mind from the Great Race occupied the body of Buster Keaton or the contemporary stand-up comic Stephen Wright. But amidst all this verbiage there is exactly one point that I found of some interest. The authors wonder why the Great Race built their immense and indestructible library in the depths of the Australian desert, when they themselves abandoned it (and knew they were going to abandon it) by leaving their cone-shaped bodies and entering “the bulbous vegetable entities of Mercury” (CF 3.400). This is an intriguing paradox or ambiguity in the story, and the authors have no explanation for it—perhaps there is none. And yet, even here their discussion goes off the track on certain points, especially in their insistence that the Great Race’s enemies (the blind creatures who have harnessed great winds) are nameless. But the authors themselves on two occasions quote passages from the story in which these creatures are plainly called the “Elder Things”! Does this not count as a name?

The enthusiasm of the authors cannot conceal the fact that they are novices to Lovecraft and Lovecraft studies, as an array of small but embarrassing mistakes indicates. One of them states that “No Lovecraft protagonist, so far as I’m aware, chooses suicide” at the end of a tale. This plainly false statement is immediately qualified by a footnote pointing out that the narrator of “Dagon” unequivocally indicates his intention to dispatch himself after telling his story. But the authors seem to have missed the final line of “The Hound,” where the narrator confesses that “I shall seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable” (CF 1.348). (My ears still echo to Roddy McDowall intoning these words in the old Caedmon recording of this story.) Have the two Scotts even read this story? It does not appear so, for their readings of Lovecraft’s fiction are restricted to the tales in the Library of America edition (2005), one of my corrected Arkham House editions (At the Mountains of Madness [1985], which the authors misdate to 1986), and the lesser tales included in Miscellaneous Writings (1995). Alas! “The Hound” is not in any of these books. And yet, one would not imagine that this text is terribly hard to find.

The authors tie themselves in knots trying to figure out the significance of Lovecraft’s statement, in the second chapter of “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” about an actual medieval “cult of nocturnal worshippers whose strange customs […] were rooted in the most revolting fertility-rites of immemorial antiquity” (CE 2.85). Even though the authors have consulted Collected Essays, Volume 2, they apparently overlooked my footnote indicating that this conception was derived from Lovecraft’s infatuation with the now exploded theories of Margaret A. Murray as found in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (1921). The authors engage in an unsound and misleading discussion of Lovecraft’s late conversion to moderate socialism—a result, perhaps, of their failure to read Lovecraft’s several trenchant essays on the subject as found in Collected Essays, Volume 5, even though they cite that book in their bibliography.

The authors seem to have all manner of difficulties getting names right. They refer consistently to the “god” Shug-Niggurath as Shub-Niggaruth. They refer to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath as “Dreamquest” or “Dream Quest.” They cite Lovecraft and E. Hoffmann Price’s sequel to “The Silver Key” as “Beyond the Gate of the Silver Key.” They once refer to Frank Belknap Long as Belnap. David E. Schultz is once cited as Schulz. Henry Wentworth Akeley in “The Whisperer in Darkness” is cited as William Akeley. Some of these errors, you would think, could and should have been detected by an astute copy editor; but it appears that nowadays copy editing in the academic press is just as shoddy as copy editing among commercial publishers and small presses.

I do not doubt that the two Scotts have enjoyed swapping these letters back and forth; but I think they would have done everyone a favour if they had kept their correspondence private.

[1] “A Literary Copernicus” (1949), in H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. S. T. Joshi (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980), 57.

[2] John Gray, “Weird Realism: John Gray on the Moral Universe of H. P. Lovecraft,” New Statesman (24 October 2014) [ h-p-lovecraft].