3/3 – The Long Horror
The short stuff forms the crux and basis of everything Lovecraftian, but it is his longer work that gets name-dropped the hardest (outside of “The Call of Cthulhu,” which I’m betting 300% of Cthulhu Mythos “fans” have never actually read). At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth get a lot of mention and a lot of praise. Unfortunately, the majority of the people doing the naming and praising have no idea what in the R’lyeh they’re talking about. Let me explain.
All of these works are absolutely worthy of praise, but listening (or reading, rather) the way the supposed Lovecraft community discusses these works does a disservice to their brilliance. They are masterful works of imagination and do an absolute credit to the argument for intelligent pace. What they are not is terribly active. Cthulhu is not flying around brain-raping the world into submission. People are not seeing things that are knocking them off of their rockers and into some loquacious fit of fainting. Rather, people are seeing half-hints and indirect, indefinite, and impossible glimpses. The “Innsmouth look” is not an outright frog-man, it is the promise of degeneration. The most maddening thing about At the Mountains of Madness is not the only appearance of an actual shoggoth in all of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. Rather, it is Lovecraft’s stubborn refusal to elucidate exactly what it was which blasted Danforth’s sanity so completely.
Lovecraft’s novellas are long-form articles of inference. Dyer and Danforth make unbelievable discoveries beneath the Antarctic ice, but what they infer is world-shaking. Professor Peaslee’s confirmation of his historically unsettling and upsetting experience isn’t half so fundamentally bothersome as the simple, cool breeze floating up from the buried secrets underneath already shocking buried secrets. The Yithians of The Shadow Out of Time were alien, no doubt, but empathetic in a sense. Whatever they so feared remains unrevealed and Peaslee and the reader neither one want or need to know what lies beneath. The narrator in The Shadow Over Innsmouth is less effectively terrifying in his flight from a disgusting cult than he is in his hints and explanations of his inhuman life and acceptance beneath the sea.
All three of these stories are frustrating, and all three are better for it. In each of them, next to nothing at all actually happens, given their length. They are simple sequences of action. Their purpose, their real meat and influence, is that which has already happened. They are the dark side of discovery. They are curious men finally submitting to limitation, and the pain and loss that must accompany the human intellect and thirst for knowledge giving up and cowering before something too tall to measure or too deep to dig up.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, to me, is the strongest of Lovecraft’s horror novellas. It is also the leanest (not referencing length). It is absolutely and inextricably tied to the remainder of Lovecraft’s fiction, but it is more immediate. It is a more active story. In almost each of the other stories we experience half-explained inferences and shy madness in the first-person. In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, we watch the actual supplanting of identity by the inescapable weight and accuracy of those inferences. In other stories the results of an old mistake are revealed and its repetition by the modern world is staved off by secrecy or disbelief or the barest thread of inarticulate survival. Charles Dexter Ward makes that old mistake, and one Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett stands by and experiences the loss secondarily, sharing in our blindness and ignorance and so making him a more directly empathetic, and thus powerful, figure with whom to identify.
If Randolph Carter goes on my favorite journey, then Dr. Willett is my favorite man. He is Lovecraft’s one genuinely good character. He is reason wrapped both in truly scientific understanding and pure will. Where Ward’s discoveries and consequences chill, Dr. Willett’s own actions belie an underappreciated aspect of Lovecraft’s own personality: optimism. Dr. Willett is not himself a particularly optimistic man, but he is the most proactive, and so most human, of all of Lovecraft’s characters. Lovecraft was a strict materialist, but he understood better than most of his age the terrible possibilities and probabilities of an infinite universe. In the bounds of infinity, everything is possible if not likely, and he rightly recognized that this was an alternately sobering and exasperating realization. Dr. Willett is both sobered and exasperated, but he is engaged. He does not shut down, he does not flee.
I really have no idea how to conclude any discussion of the entire fiction of this man. In reading H.P. Lovecraft we should neither misunderstand the horror and gravity, nor should we ignore the creative virility of his more agile imaginings. Human beings are small. Everything is scary to the small. Don’t believe when other people name-drop the man. There are weirder things which more horribly threaten one’s sanity than Cthulhu, because Cthulhu ultimately has a name and a nature. Cthulhu is a priest, and what he believes is much, much more devastating.