A Monster Of Voices: Speaking for H.P. Lovecraft by Robert H. Waugh (book review).
When it comes to the deeper criticism of HP Lovecraft, there’s little out there to match Robert H. Waugh. What sets Waugh apart from, say, S T Joshi, is his willingness to explore what Lovecraft’s stories mean, not simply where they came from. It’s this that makes this collection of Waugh’s essays so enjoyable.
Take, for example, the opening essay: ‘The Blasted Heath in “The Colour Out Of Space”’. The phrase ‘blasted heath’ is used by both Shakespeare and Milton and Waugh makes the argument here that Joshi’s assumption that Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ was Lovecraft’s inspiration here and instead gives the nod to ‘Macbeth’. Joshi favours a literal reading here, having argued that Milton’s use of the phrase to describe a particularly desolate scene is what Lovecraft was going for. But Waugh takes another tack, observing how the use of ‘blasted heath’ in ‘Macbeth’ within the scene where Macbeth meets the three witches is important.
When Macbeth asks the witches about the source of the information they deliver, Waugh draws a parallel with the eponymous Colour. Like the witches, it comes from outside our mundane world and, again, like the witches, the message it conveys is strange and ambiguous. Similarly, where the Colour stains the landscape with slow and irreversible corruption so, too, does blood stain the minds of Macbeth and his lady, most famously, as the ‘damned spot’ that cannot be washed out.
Elsewhere in the essay, Waugh draws further parallels between ‘The Colour Out Of Space’ and both ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Paradise Lost’. This is such as the idea of falling angels with the arrival of the Colour as a meteorite of sorts; of the divine justice of God with the curse placed on the New England farmers blighted by the Colour and the various children killed in ‘Macbeth’ with the death of children, livestock and even orchards by the Colour. It’s powerful stuff and, whether or not Lovecraft had these ideas in mind when he was writing ‘The Colour Out Of Space’, there’s no question that Waugh’s essay elevates and enriches what is often dismissed as one of the less effective and certainly less readable of Lovecraft’s novellas.
Another very interesting essay, ‘The Ecstasies of “The Thing On The Doorstep”’, ‘Medusa’s “Coil And Other Erotic Studies”’ tackles and’ to some extent refutes, an idea that is commonly held among Lovecraft scholars: the absence of the romantic, let alone erotic, from his writings. Waugh kicks off with showing similarities between ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’ and ‘Medusa’s Coil’, such as the innocent nature of the female characters, the insipid weakness of their male lovers and the underlying fear of miscegenation exposed as the true horror lying at the heart of both stories. An argument is made that Socrates saw Eros as a messenger between the divine and natural worlds and, in the same way, the monstrous elements within the two stories expose the protagonists to a deeper reality of which most of us are unaware.
‘Hey, Yew, Why Don’t Ye Say Somethin’?’ takes its name from one of the best-known examples of a dramatic monologue in Lovecraft’s work. Waugh describes several different examples of this type of writing, making them point that while Lovecraft seldom used this mode, they do reveal some interesting psychological or narrative features. In the titular case, taken from ‘The Picture In The House’, the effect is conspiratorial, revealing the darkly obsessive nature of the antagonist in statements that demand re-reading, as further clues to his habits are revealed. Both the old man in the house and the venerable town drunkard Zadok Allen in ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ use an almost phonetically written dialect sort of language that may be difficult to verify but is certainly effective and this use of language to convey impressions rather than precision is another aspect of Lovecraft’s writing that Waugh emphasises.
Very different to the mad ramblings of two crazy old men, the monologue given by Nyarlathotep at the end of ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ is, as Waugh points out, the only time in the whole of Lovecraft’s fiction where one of his god-like entities actually speaks openly. This time the language is equivocal and it’s argued here that this may be intentional: is the Nyarlathotep of this story one created by the protagonist, Randolph Carter, as part of his personal dream-world? As such, not so much the voice of some terrible alien power but part of his own subconscious?
One of the more surprising essays is one contrasting Lovecraft with those two of his contemporaries, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. All three were, of course, writing across a range of genres but are best known for their fantasy literature. At first glance, it might seem that Lovecraft has little in common with either Lewis or Tolkien. In particular, Waugh picks up on the surreal in Lewis’ writing, such as the lamppost Lucy discovers in the forest early on in ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’. But where Lewis appreciated the juxtaposition between the modern (the lamppost) and the fantastical (the faun, Mr Tumnus, who Lucy meets nearby) Tolkien needed consistency. Everything in his fiction tended towards a particular shared history: things did not appear in the story unless they were meant to be there, usually to develop some moral or historical idea. Waugh asks how would Lovecraft compare with these two writers?
Initially, he argues, there’s something to be said for Lovecraft as a surrealist, but Waugh observes that his writing style is closer to that of Tolkien. In particular, where Lewis was very precise in his language, favouring short, clear sentences and convincing arguments, Lovecraft, like Tolkien, always has more to say. The essay continues to develop themes of images, music, even Gestalt psychology and, while fascinating in the level of detail, Waugh brings to bear, ultimately his conclusion here is a negative one: Lovecraft isn’t much like either of the two authors, not least of all because Lovecraft wasn’t interested in Christian morality or happy endings.
The thirteen essays in the volume are divided into three groups: the first five on particular works, the next five more free-ranging pieces on imagery and style and the last three on particular inspirations. While not every essay is completely satisfying (as with the Lewis and Tolkien one outlined above) they all make good reading and Waugh has a knack for developing one’s understanding of Lovecraft beyond the simple pop culture stuff.
He isn’t overly concerned with which monster comes from what planet, but more with how the style and language Lovecraft used evokes certain feelings in the reader. This is, after all, the key thing about Lovecraft, and why we have the word ‘Lovecraftian’ to describe a certain sort of fiction. In short, anyone with even a passing interest in the sheer depth and variety of Lovecraft’s fiction will find this collection fascinating.
(pub: Hippocampus Press. 2011. 386 page paperback. Price: $25.00 (UK), £26.28 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-98448-022-7)
check out website: www.hippocampuspress.com
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