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The Monster In The Mirror: Looking For HP Lovecraft by Robert H Waugh (book review).

August 8, 2021 | By | 1 Reply More

As one of the foremost exponents of Lovecraft scholarship, Robert Waugh sagely kicks off this impressive study by asking that most crucial of questions: why study Lovecraft at all? His half-joking response is that Lovecraft simply refuses to go away, despite having been published in the most trivial of media during his own lifetime, the amateur press. Yet he has moved from being a cult favourite into the literary mainstream, with collections of his work famously sitting alongside the likes of Poe and Hawthorne in the Library of America.

The nine essays presented here tackle, in a broad sense, the meanings behind much of Lovecraft’s fiction. Waugh comes from an academic background (he is a professor of English literature at SUNY) and, as such, the essays are pitched somewhat towards the more sophisticated reader. Put another way, these aren’t pop culture pieces rehashing the stuff we already know from countless websites and podcasts. Instead, what’s here is substantive analysis and discussion.

Ah, you might say, isn’t this what ST Joshi has been doing for years? Well, yes, in a way; but what sets Waugh apart from Joshi is their focus. Joshi seems more interested in Lovecraft the man and, when he does discuss the literature, it’s in the context of pulp fiction of the time. Joshi has expressed little love for the ‘monsters’ part of the canon, often called the Cthulhu Mythos and instead prefers to talk about the cosmic horror element as a philosophical outlook.

Waugh, refreshingly, appears to take Lovecraft at face value and rejects Joshi’s idea that Lovecraft has to be read in a specific way to be worth reading at all. Indeed, Waugh’s central argument, if there is one, is that not only did Lovecraft’s fiction change over his career, but so did the ideas he was trying to convey, to the degree that trying to identify a single philosophical theme within is bound to fail.

Take, for example, the final pair of essays that unpick the idea that Lovecraft was not just an atheist on a personal level, but that he advanced an anti-religious philosophy through his letters and fiction. Joshi, of course, takes this as manifestly true when discussing Lovecraft’s cosmicism as a literary philosophy. But in the first of the two essays, Waugh argues that Lovecraft was strongly coloured by the Baptist religion of his family and Waugh provides numerous examples of how this religious background comes through in his writing. For example, the sheer variety of Old Testament names given to the characters of his novels, such as Asenath and Zadok, can’t simply be ascribed to chance. At the very least, they demonstrate Lovecraft’s knowledge of scripture. Then there are the incidents in Lovecraft’s stories which seem to have Biblical parallels. ‘The Dunwich Horror’, for example, includes not just events, a virgin birth, but also entire sections of dialogue apparently inspired by scripture.

The second of the two essays in this final part of the book advances the argument even further, supposing that Lovecraft’s fiction not only has Biblical antecedents, but is searching out for a meaning as well. Joshi advocates a view where Lovecraft’s fiction is essentially one where events have no deeper meaning. The best humanity can do is hope to survive and if there is a logic to how the universe operates, it isn’t one human minds can comprehend. Waugh has earlier in the book referred to August Derleth, a young contemporary of Lovecraft’s and who essentially kept Lovecraft’s fiction and legacy in print between the 1940s and the 1970s. Derleth has been much derided by Joshi as a far inferior writer who insisted on imposing an essentially dualistic meaning onto Lovecraft’s work. In other words, turned Cthulhu and all the others into a straightforward good versus evil mash-up.

Waugh observes that Derleth’s interpretation has been ‘rightly criticised’ but softens that by arguing that Derleth knew Lovecraft well (something modern critics like Joshi cannot say) and that the very fact that a man as intelligent as Derleth could see religious elements in Lovecraft’s work is worth appreciating in itself. Put another way, in the form of a Christian apologia, are there parallels between the Christian equivalence between evil and nothingness on the one hand, and Lovecraft’s supposed cosmicism on the other. ‘The Colour Of Of Space’ is the great example, which as Waugh explains, visits evil up on the land but, in itself, doesn’t seem to be anything material. It can be detected but not described and, while tangibly real in its effects, all attempts to quantify or classify it fail.

None of this is done lightly and Waugh’s approach isn’t as accessible as Joshi’s often is. He refers to other writers and critics all the time and, besides a thorough bibliography at the back of the book, there are frequent footnotes, quotations, even translations used to support the text. But even if the essays are densely written and demand the reader’s close attention, they are nonetheless well-written and very rewarding. The third essay in the collection is a case in point. It kicks off with a quotation from Brillat-Savarin, the late 18th/early 19th century French lawyer who essentially created the field we recognise today as gastronomy. The quote refers to the need to eat, appetite and the pleasure gained by eating and this, of course, applies strangely to a story about cannibalism. Again, the ambivalence of the story is revealed by the narrator’s invitation to the reader to experience a story for its grotesque elements, while at the same time describing the increasing fear of the protagonist as his conversation with the strange old man develops.

Another essay looks at Lovecraft’s predilection for underground scenes and, in particular, the moment in ‘Mountains Of Madness’ when a shoggoth is likened to an oncoming subway train. There’s some great and unexpected stuff here, such as the argument that Waugh makes that the shoggoth in some sense represents the amorphous mass of people in the city of New York, which Lovecraft so loathed. Needless to say, elements of this impinge on his ideas about race, with the whole ‘melting pot’ idea of a big city being completely anathema to Lovecraft. Waugh also alludes to Lovecraft’s complex relationship with the Jewish and gay poet Samuel Loveman who Lovecraft liked but didn’t seem to understand.

For Lovecraft, it was hard to separate all the things he disliked about non-Anglo-Saxon America from the multiracial, multicultural and, above all else permissive, atmosphere of New York. The shoggoth, able to imitate anything is, like to Lovecraft, the assimilated Jew, blending in with ‘his’ America, but not really part of it and remaining dangerous because of this.

‘The Monster In The Mirror’ isn’t easy reading and casual Lovecraft fans are going to find it heavy going. But those looking to go a beyond the superficial Mythos stuff will find a lot here to enjoy. Waugh is erudite, imaginative and given his differences with other critics, remarkably even-handed.

Neale Monks

August 2021

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2006. 302 page hardback. Price: $20.00 (US), £19.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-097615-927-8)

check out website: www.hippocampuspress.com

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Category: Books, Horror

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