A Monster For Many: Talking With H P Lovecraft by Robert H Waugh (book review).

The first thing to understand about this curious book, ‘A Monster For Many: Talking With H P Lovecraft’, is that Robert Waugh is an emeritus professor of English at the SUNY. As such, it’s scholarly stuff, pitched higher than, say, a website or newspaper article about Lovecraft.

The second thing is that this is the third volume of scholarly essays that Waugh has published with Hippocampus Press under the ‘Library Of Lovecraftian Criticism’ banner. This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy this volume as a standalone book, as you most certainly can, but rather that Waugh has built up something of a head of steam here. He’s evidently studied Lovecraft for many years and his knowledge of literature generally ranges widely from the Greek and Roman Classics through Dante, Keats, Baudelaire, Eliot and Pynchon.

Waugh drags these and more into his criticism of Lovecraft’s work. Fundamentally, though, while hugely erudite, this reviewer at least is not wholly convinced by every argument. Actually, to be more specific, the problem isn’t so much with the essays that describe the origins of his stories and the development of his writing style, where Waugh appears to be on pretty firm ground, but with the ones that attempt to explain the meanings behind his stories. These often read as conjectural, at best.

Let’s unpick some of this. The book is divided into four parts, each part contain several separate essays. Part One contains three essays that draw links between Lovecraft and his relationship with history, while the four essays that make up Part Two discuss possible sources of inspiration between Lovecraft’s stories and those of other writers. The essays included in these two sections are at least good and sometimes excellent.

Take the essay entitled ‘Lovecraft Dallies With Historiography’ for example. As is well known to Lovecraft readers, a substantial number of his stories involve narrators retelling the history of some long-gone alien race, including two of his best regarded ones, ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ and ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’. Between the writing of his first pseudo-historical story, ‘The Nameless City’, in 1921 and those two novellas, there’s some 15 years and it’s no great surprise that Lovecraft’s writing style matured and improved. But Waugh makes a convincing argument that he did more than that and actually experimented with different approaches.

Some of it is stylistic, such as the deliberately archaic spellings used in ‘The Nameless City’ and the allegorical elements used in the story. Waugh, probably correctly, draws parallels between this story and Ancient Egyptians, with its descriptions of mummies, cartouches and subterranean tombs. Allegories of any sort are uncommon in modern literature and certainly contrast with the realism of ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’. Lovecraft was apparently fascinated with Antarctic exploration and the novella is filled with intricate details that reveal at least a passing knowledge of the difficulties involved but the story also exemplifies Lovecraft’s increasingly complex approach to narration. Where ‘The Nameless City’ and ‘The Mound’ are fairly linear, ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ and ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ are far more sophisticated. ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ starts off describing the mechanics of Antarctic exploration but, by the second half of the novella, Lovecraft skilfully interweaves a whodunnit, a historiography and a horror story into a single thread.

Lovecraft’s interest in Antarctica is a major theme of one of the essays in the second part of the book, ‘Looming At The Mountains Of Madness’. Amundsen, Byrd, Scott and Shackleton were contemporaries of Lovecraft and their voyages to the South Pole fascinated him. Among other phenomena, all four men wrote about mirages of various kinds, though Waugh argues their feelings about them varied. In particular, where one was moved by their spiritual quality, another found them merely funny. What is peculiar is that none of these explorers wrote about them very much, while mirages are an important element of ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’. Waugh draws our attention to the way that Lovecraft uses mirages sometimes to suggest echoes of the past but, at other times, has the narrator describe some stupendous revelation as a mirage become real.

Part Three includes three essays that fit Lovecraft into his historical context. One of the essays, for example, is entitled ‘Lovecraft’s Influence In Science Fiction’ and is among the more straightforwardly useful essays in the collection. Of course, others have written extensively on this subject as well, but Waugh’s central point that three great SF writers, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick, and Fritz Leiber, all learned lessons from Lovecraft is one worth considering. Clarke, Waugh demonstrates, not only reflected on some of Lovecraft’s stories, but attempted to redeem them. In ‘Childhood’s End’, Clarke describes an alien beings that Lovecraft would be proud of and, like the aliens of ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ and ‘Shadow Out Of Time’, these aliens are wildly more powerful than humanity. But instead of the cosmic indifference that characterised Lovecraft’s stories, Clarke has his aliens adopt a more benign approach towards mankind.

So far, so good. Part Four contains the two more problematic essays, which Waugh treats in the style of apologia; that is to say, defences of works otherwise criticised. One tackles ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’, Lovecraft’s longest, though unpublished work, the other, strangely, is about John Keats (1795-1821). Quite why this latter essay is included perplexes this reviewer. Waugh observes that Lovecraft appreciated Keats’ outlook and would quote from him in his letters, but that’s about it.

The other essay, ‘An Apology In Kadath’, is much longer and far more interesting. ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ is sometimes considered a difficult or unimportant work. It’s a strange story, drawing in characters, locations, even events from Lovecraft’s earlier works and framing them in such a way they all seem to take place in a single fantasy world. Waugh has considered ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ as an inferior work but, in the present essay, he attempts to rehabilitate the piece, at least in his own eyes.

‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ is actually one of my personal favourites, so of all the essays in the collection, this is the one I came to with the highest expectations. Unfortunately, the impression here is that Waugh is trying desperately hard to find inner meaning where there isn’t any. For example, various proper nouns are given possible explanations based on the most tenuous of similarities, such as ‘Ulthar’ by comparison with ‘Ulaan Baator’ and ‘Ultima Thule. The problem here is that Lovecraft didn’t have the linguist’s love of etymology so obvious in Tolkien, for example, and instead he was more interested in using language to convey feelings or sensations than anything else.

So while Waugh compares ‘Sarkomand’ with the Greek ‘sarkos’, meaning ‘flesh’, it’s more likely Lovecraft was thinking of the exotic-sounding Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan. Similarly, while it’s possible ‘Celephais’ was named as an allusion to the Biblical character Caiaphas, the name could just as easily be explained as evocative of the sort of quasi-Classical or Oriental city Lovecraft described in the story. I’m even less convinced by Waugh describing the Moon-beasts ‘as quite possibly Shoggoths’ given their many significant differences

There is good stuff in the essay, though. The comparisons with ‘Ulysses’, ‘Finnegans Wake’ and ‘The Waste Land’ are interesting for a start. Lovecraft, Waugh argues, might be consciously patterning the structure of ‘The Dream-Quest’ on ‘Ulysses’, both being subdivided into parts thematically connected to different parts of the human body. Given that the entire story happens within a single night’s dream, the internalised quality of such a structure is plausible, at least.

Most of the essays present here are pretty good, but a few are rambling excursions that don’t really go anywhere and one or two don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Waugh is a good writer, though and, even where his arguments aren’t entirely, it’s fun to read along as an obviously thoughtful man analyses Lovecraft’s work from a wide range of perspectives. As mentioned at the start of this review, Waugh is a professor and there’s a real sense of reading lecture notes here as much as anything else. If that appeals, there’s plenty here to enjoy.

Neale Monks

March 2020

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2021. 237 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $20.00 (US), £ 20.00 (UK).ISBN: 978-1-61498-340-8)

check out website: www.hippocampuspress.com

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