Volume XIV, Number 1, Spring 2018


"Review of Lovecraftian Proceedings 2" by Dr. András Molnár

Dr. András Molnár works as assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Szeged, and is a PhD candidate at the Doctoral School of Literature of the Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged. His main research interests include United States constitutional law and Lovecraftian weird fiction. He also translates short stories from English to Hungarian. He is a founding member of the Hungarian H. P. Lovecraft Society. Email:

Lovecraftian Proceedings 2. Select Papers from the Dr. Henry Armitage Memorial Scholarship Symposium. NecronomiCon Providence: 2015
Ed. Dennis P. Quinn
New York: Hippocampus Press, 2017
275 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61498-190-9

 

The increasing popularity and influence of H. P. Lovecraft upon American weird fiction have led to the growth of academic interest in both the author’s life and his works. This interest is reflected today in various journals, essay collections, and conferences. Published by Hippocampus Press, a major publisher of research on Lovecraft and the works of authors from the Weird Tales era, Lovecraftian Proceedings is a serial volume that contains selected and edited papers presented at the biannual NecronomiCon Providence. The first volume was published in 2015, and it contains a selection of papers from the 2013 conference; while the second issue contains a selection from the papers presented at the 2015 NecronomiCon’s Dr. Henry Armitage Symposium. Lovecraftian Proceedings 2 is not a thematic issue; therefore, the fifteen papers it contains represent a vast and wide-ranging array of topics. These topics can more or less be arranged into three categories, namely, contemporary (re)interpretations of Lovecraft’s works and mindset, analyses of Lovecraft’s application of various motifs in his fiction, and the reception of Lovecraft’s works in specific countries. It is noteworthy that, with the second section being the longest, the papers in all three sections contain fascinating and novel approaches, indicating that there are still many aspects to be explored within Lovecraft scholarship.

As exemplified by Maurice Lévy’s seminal monograph Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (1988) and its chapter on “The Horrors of Heredity” (73-78), it is a well-known and well-documented fact within Lovecraftian scholarship that the attachment to the past and the threat of a tainted heritage constitute a major element in Lovecraft’s fiction, an element which reappears in his works again and again in more and more elaborate forms. Along with the obvious presence of racial matters, this is one of the most frequently analyzed features of Lovecraft’s fiction. Nevertheless, Jeffrey Shanks’s “Darwin and the Deep Ones: Anthropological Anxiety in ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’ and Other Stories” proves to be able to elaborate even further on the topic. Analyzing Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Lurking Fear,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” Shanks points out that the writer’s appeal to his readers was enhanced by what Virginia Richter calls “anthropological anxiety,” an anxiety caused by mankind’s simian kinship, which was also extended to non-white groups of people. Shanks aptly summarizes the trope of tainted heritage and racial anxiety, and applies these to Lovecraft’s above-mentioned short stories using a fitting terminology.

Exploring the philosophical premises and implications of Lovecraft’s work is perhaps the most exciting and so far unexhausted branch of Lovecraft scholarship, a major contribution to which was Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012), a book that highlighted Lovecraft’s actuality in light of speculative realism. Lovecraftian Proceedings 2 features two studies that concern more or less philosophical issues.

In “H. P. Lovecraft’s Optimism,” Matthew Beach makes a convincing case for considering Lovecraft and his work optimistic, despite the bleak outlook the author sketches in his stories about humanity. Relying on his analysis of “The Shadow out of Time” and Lovecraft’s correspondence with Helen Sully, Beach inverts Lovecraft’s suggestions, and points out that Lovecraft’s “indifferentist” (Lovecraft 195) stance, which holds that mankind does not matter in the cosmos as a whole, in fact points toward “a form of weird optimism” (Quinn 174), because cosmic indifference should essentially encourage one to enjoy the beauty in life (172-173). While Beach might be right in emphasizing this personal attitude of Lovecraft, this approach might be even more fruitful if it was considered in the context of today’s posthumanist theories and modern science. One major source of Lovecraftian horror, as demonstrated by Shanks’s article introduced above, is the uncovering of a link between the human and the nonhuman, thus destabilizing the border between the two. The attempt of posthumanist theories to question human exceptionality, as well as modern science’s new discoveries that may one day make it possible to increase the performance of the human body, not only make the limits of humanness fluid, but also make this fluidity seem a beneficial possibility for human beings. In this light, Lovecraftian terrors seem to represent a reality that not even Lovecraft could have envisioned.

The second philosophical paper, Christian Ray’s “H. P. Lovecraft, Georges Bataille, and the Fascination of the Formless: One Crawling Chaos Seen Emerging from Opposite Shores,” is partly philosophical and partly biographical, as it persuasively demonstrates that “despite their extreme dissimilarity in most respects,” both Lovecraft and Bataille expressed “key features of an emerging Zeitgeist in their respective attempts to carry to their ultimate conclusions in thought, life and literature certain Nietzschean insights about the place of man in the universe as described by modern science” (189). This study fits well into recent scholarly endeavors to explore Lovecraft’s place in the modernism of his time, which he seemingly repudiated despite its concerns permeating his fiction (see Carlin and Allen 2013, Walker 2015) as well as his relationship to late twentieth-century thought (see Carney 2015).

In the 2010s, Lovecraft seems to have reached the peak of his reputation, and his work is widely reinterpreted in contemporary popular culture. The analyses of such reinterpretations constitute a significant trend in contemporary Lovecraft scholarship. In Lovecraftian Proceedings 2, this tendency is represented by three papers. Nathaniel R. Wallace’s “The ‘Inside’ of H. P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in the Visual Arts” focuses on Erik Kriek’s comic adaptation of “The Outsider,” paying special attention to the visual representation of the short story’s first-person narration. Heather Poirier’s “Ripples from Carcosa: H. P. Lovecraft, True Detective, and the Artist-Investigator” appears to be a risky endeavor, considering the fact that the name Carcosa, invented by Ambrose Bierce, and borrowed first by Robert W. Chambers and then by Lovecraft, constitutes no thematic references to Lovecraft’s work besides the name itself, and the television series True Detective (2014-) stands closer to Thomas Ligotti’s antinatalistic thought (2010) than to Lovecraft’s cosmicism. However, Poirier makes a significant contribution to Lovecraft scholarship by highlighting elements of detective fiction in Lovecraft’s writings (211-214). She introduces Cohle, one of the protagonists of True Detective, as the “artist-investigator” who delves into a hidden netherworld in which the individual is worthless, a world akin to Lovecraft’s indifferent cosmos (220-223). Finally, Faye Ringel and Jenna Randall offer an insight into the appearance of Lovecraft’s art in cultural products designed for minors. Their paper “Lovecraft for the Little Ones: ParaNorman, Plushies, and More” examines the possible Lovecraftian connections of ParaNorman (2012), an animated film about the Salem witchcraft panic. The authors highlight the origins of this film in the New England Gothic Tradition, and point out several parallels with various short stories by Lovecraft. Their study explores the tendency that the tropes of Gothic fiction, in the light of recent criticism, have become “metaphors for difference” (234). This tendency is marked in the case of Lovecraft as well, whose literary heritage has also become the subject of children’s literature. Unfortunately, the emphasis of this paper is placed much more on the popularization of Gothic tropes in general than on the place occupied by H. P. Lovecraft in this field.

The subject matters of the papers from the first category might seemingly overlap with those of the second group, but there is a noticeable difference in context. While the papers discussed above place Lovecraft in a broader philosophical or cultural context, the papers in the second group have a narrower focus, offering a deeper understanding of Lovecraft’s writings in-and-of themselves.

Lovecraft’s fascination with the Roman Empire began in his early childhood (Joshi 22-27), and did not abate throughout his lifetime. This passion is a promising topic for research, and Lovecraftian Proceedings 2 begins with three related investigations. Byron Nakamura’s “Dreams of Antiquity: H. P. Lovecraft’s Great Roman Dream of 1927” explores the dream which, having been described exhaustively in several letters, was mistaken to be a short story entitled “The Very Old Folk.” Sean Moreland, in “The Poet’s Nightmare: The Nature of Things According to Lovecraft,” demonstrates how Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura could possibly have exerted an influence on Lovecraft’s views on history, philosophy, and aesthetics. Another paper on Lovecraft’s influences is Marcello Ricciardi’s “Resisting Cthulhu: Milton and Lovecraft’s Errand in the Wilderness,” which draws parallels between the personalities of the two authors, arguing that both are “desert poets in the ancient tradition of the desert fathers” (Quinn 65), and that while Lovecraft could not wholly integrate the Puritanical ethos of his ancestors, he still acknowledged a part of its aesthetical attitude (66).

In various ways, mythology and the Bible have also served as thematic or structural sources for Lovecraft. Some of his writings contain Biblical allusions or are seen as inversions of Biblical themes. To a certain degree, this topic was already dealt with in early Lovecraft scholarship. In his paper “Reordering the Universe: H. P. Lovecraft’s Subversion of the Biblical Divine,” René J. Weise expands previous research by pointing out parallelisms between Cthulhu and Leviathan on the one hand, and Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth, and the Holy Trinity on the other. These investigations lead Weise to the conclusion that Lovecraft’s fictional mythology works as a subversion of the Bible’s theological system (61), focusing on the insignificance of humankind instead of an absolute dichotomy between good and evil.

Picturing the mental processes of the Lovecraftian character is an important component in Lovecraft’s fiction; therefore, it is not surprising that two studies in Lovecraftian Proceedings 2 are thematically related to mental disorders. Lars G. Backstrom’s “Color out of Mind: Correlating the Cthulhu Mythos Universe to the Autism Disorder Spectrum” describes instances in Lovecraft’s fiction which mirror the experiences of people with Asperger’s syndrome. The study is based upon the author’s personal experiences, and it offers a singular perspective in reading Lovecraft, without attempting to address the question whether the author himself was afflicted by any disorders on the autistic disorder spectrum.

Troy Rondinine’s “Tentacles in the Madhouse: The Role of the Asylum in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft” discusses a topic, which, to the utmost surprise of any Lovecraft aficionados, has heretofore remained practically unmapped. By focusing on the motif of the asylum, this study undoubtedly stands as a significant stage in Lovecraft scholarship, but even so, it leaves much for further exploration. Rondinine’s main conclusion is that the asylum stands for society’s inability to keep cosmic horror at bay. In Lovecraft’s fiction, asylum inmates truly deserve to be there (that is, there is a substantive reason to keep them there), but it does not matter whether society manages to incarcerate them or not because their states of mind cannot be ameliorated or explained by science (105). Rondinine also claims that by this application Lovecraft renewed the motif of the asylum, creating what the former calls “weird madness” in fiction (105). Overall, while Rondinine’s argumentation seems plausible and is indeed an important contribution to Lovecraft scholarship, it is to be regretted that he does not contest (or even utilize) Foucault’s theory about the social construction of insanity, even though it was one of the chief topics elaborated in Foucault’s work.

Lovecraft’s attraction to architecture and his narrative style are also addressed in the book. Connor Pitetti, in “‘The Discriminating Urban Landscapist’: Tradition and Innovation in the Architectural Writings of H. P. Lovecraft,” demonstrates Lovecraft’s oscillation between antiquity and modernism through the example of his attitude toward the construction of the Providence County Courthouse during the 1920s. In “Insider, Outsider: From the Commonplace to the Uncanny in H. P. Lovecraft’s Narration and Descriptions,” Daphnée Tasia Bourdages-Athanassiou identifies techniques in Lovecraft’s texts that create a sense of alienness in the reader. These techniques can be discerned in Lovecraft’s descriptions as well as in the utilization of the unreliable narrator.

The third thematic category in Lovecraftian Proceedings 2, Lovecraft’s reception in non-English countries, is represented by Juan L. Pérez-de-Luque’s “Unspeakable Languages: Lovecraft Editions in Spanish,” in which the author provides a comprehensive chronological overview of the publications of Lovecraft-related material, both fictional and biographical, in the Spanish language. Spanish being one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, Pérez-de-Luque’s study sparks some interest, but is otherwise relatively marginal, and, unfortunately, the author does not arrive at any broader conclusions than the mere facts of the publications.

As a whole, Lovecraftian Proceedings 2 indicates that Lovecraft scholarship has not yet lost its momentum. Most of the topics discussed in the volume follow well-discernible patterns from previous researches in Lovecraft’s life and work, but they still offer fresh insight that also calls for further investigations. These insights indicate a comprehensive approach: they sum up what has been told about an aspect of Lovecraft’s work and place it in a broader context. Shanks’s study aptly exemplifies this feature: besides examining racist or xenophobic elements in various Lovecraft tales, he also provides a larger theoretical background for such characteristic. In other cases, certain omissions make the achieved conclusions less compelling than what one might expect, as exemplified, for instance, by Rondinine’s otherwise stimulating investigation of the significance of the asylum motif (surprisingly almost untouched by earlier scholarship). The questions and hypotheses posited in such studies are worthy of being expounded further, and are sure to be the subject of future research. Finally, it is to be noted that a remarkable difference between volumes 1 and 2 of Lovecraftian Proceedings is the presence of reflections on Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary popular culture in the latter, a feature that mirrors his aforementioned popularity in our days. A look at the core schedule of the 2017 NecronomiCon (http://necronomicon-providence.com/programming/) shows that the Armitage Symposium embraces a multitude of subjects, including Lovecraft’s importance in popular culture. Further sessions included approaches to Lovecraft from the aspect of race and gender, the connection between Lovecraft’s works and the sciences, Lovecraft and intertextuality, and theoretical approaches to Lovecraft. At the time of the writing of this book review, there is no news of Lovecraftian Proceedings 3 yet, and therefore there is no information as to which studies will be selected for the volume, so all that can be said with regard to the future is that the third volume will hopefully follow the patterns set by the second volume.

 

Works Cited

  • Carlin, Gerry and Nicola Allen. 2013. “Slime and Western Man: H. P. Lovecraft in the Time of Modernism.” in New Critical Essays on H. P. Lovecraft. Ed. David Simmons. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 73-90.
  • Carney, Jason Ray. 2015. “Dagon and Derrida: The Modern and Post-Modern in Dialogue in the Cthulhu Mythos.” in Lovecraftian Proceedings 1. Ed. John Michael Sefel and Niels-Viggo S. Hobbs. New York: Hippocampus Press. 173-188.
  • Harman, Graham. 2012. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Washington: Zero Books.
  • Joshi, S. T. 2017. H. P. Lovecraft: A Life. West Warwick: Necronomicon Press.
  • Lévy, Maurice. 1988. Lovecraft. A Study in the Fantastic. Trans. S. T. Joshi. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • Ligotti, Thomas. 2010. The Conspiracy against the Human Race. New York: Hippocampus Press.
  • Lovecraft, H. P. 1976. Selected Letters V. Ed. August Derleth and James Turner. Sauk City: Arkham House.