Charles Baxter: H. P. Lovecraft Trapped in Perpetual Adolescence, Appeals to the Angry and Antisocial
If the promotional spots for America Unearthed are to be believed, tonight Scott Wolter gets taken in by a known nineteenth century hoax and spends the hour assuming it’s true. I can’t believe that the producers of the show are that stupid, but I can’t really put anything past them. I guess I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, let’s talk about Lovecraft. The following are some more or less coherent thoughts, but not really a true analysis since I haven’t had the time to develop my ideas more fully.
This week the New York Review of Books published a meditation on H. P. Lovecraft by Minnesota author Charles Baxter, who writes primarily literary fiction. Baxter’s point of reference was the publication of Leslie S. Klinger’s New Annotated Lovecraft (Liveright, 2014), unread by me, which collects several of Lovecraft’s most popular stories and exhaustively explains their origins and allusions in marginal notes. Baxter is not a fan of Lovecraft, seeing in him something less than the literary, but he is also no fan of those who like Lovecraft.
He describes his experience teaching English to antisocial young men who like to write violent fantasy fiction dominated by themes of alienation and rage:
The authors of these horrific fictions sit in the back of the classroom avoiding eye contact, rarely speaking to anybody. Shabbily dressed, fidgety, tattooed, hysterically sullen, they are bored by realism and reality when not actively hostile to both. When asked about their reading, they will gamely mumble the usual list of names: Neal Stephenson, Stephen King, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. But the name that I have heard most often mentioned in these litanies is that of H.P. Lovecraft, whom they revere. He is their spirit-guide.
Tell us how you really feel, Chuck! There are two different threads at work here, both related to elitism. Baxter clearly sees Lovecraft a popular rather than literary writer, one whose fiction is—gasp!—not realistic and therefore less worthy than, let’s say, Baxter’s. Like Edmund Wilson, whom Baxter cites, he sees Lovecraft as a minimally talented hack who happened to hit upon a few good themes. Indeed, the very concept of annotating Lovecraft is for Baxter itself a shocking affront to literature: “…the effect is like having a friendly and obliging professor whispering learned asides all through a blood-spattered grind-house movie.”
If there is one thing that I tried to stress in my own history of the horror genre, Knowing Fear, it is that the line between the literary and the popular is arbitrary and changeable, and that as much if not more is to be learned from popular fiction as from canonical literature. It’s hard to remember now, but the works of “literary” horror Baxter cites--Frankenstein and The Monk among others—were originally scandalous popular works condemned by their early critics as mere popular entertainments unfit for the literary mind. I’ve collected several such notices in my anthology A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, which is essentially an extended cri de coeur from cultural elites that new voices continuously challenge the elite definition of high culture.
The other thread is Baxter’s distaste for Lovecraft fans, whom he stereotypes for, in essence, participating in the so-called geek culture. It’s clear that Baxter sees Lovecraft as of a piece with his modern fans, and certainly not a member of the real elite—he dings Lovecraft for never traveling to the font of real culture, Europe (but fails to note Lovecraft’s many trips across the U.S. and to Quebec). He similarly accuses Lovecraft of being “a stranger to joy” and obsessed with writing only of his horror of sex, though he does allow that Lovecraft’s stories are also about blaspheming Christianity, presumably also because of the Christian emphasis on chastity. In fact, he claims that Lovecraft’s only worthwhile literary theme is of flawed resurrection, that the Christian promise of the revival of the flesh is a horror. If I read this right, Baxter accidentally justified the existence of zombie movies.
Baxter, though, is one of the old fashioned style of literary analysts, and he chooses to follow Stephen King in reducing Lovecraft’s monsters to Freudian readings, quoting King as calling Cthulhu a vagina dentata and asserting that in “The Thing on the Doorstep” Asenath Waite has, in essence, penis envy. (He seems to miss the suggestion that she doesn’t actually appear in the story at all, and that her father inhabited her vacant body.)
But I am going on too long about something that doesn’t really say very much at all. Baxter concludes by arguing—wrongly I would say—that Lovecraft’s fiction is not frightening because World War II and modern atrocities have rendered such horrors “quaint.” Instead, he sees Lovecraft as an adolescent trapped in a man’s body, one who raged against reality and refused to put aside childish things to become a truly adult literary writer. I think that Baxter errs in failing to consider Lovecraft’s horrors as a reflection of the mythic, not the literal. For someone who is willing to read Lovecraft’s work as an extended travesty of Christianity, the refusal to consider its themes and impact on the level of myth is confusing.
In the end, Baxter recognizes that there is power in Lovecraft’s fiction, but—like, we must assume, the other parts of geek culture like comic books and video games—an essentially “childish” power.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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