Lovecraft and Speculative Realism: Making the Known Strange and Terrifying
Originally appearing in the Apex Publications blog (now defunct), May 2013.
It’s official! When we think “Weird Fiction,” we think Lovecraft! But what exactly makes Lovecraft so weird? What I think makes his work resonate so well with readers is how damn plausible these encounters are. He writes of horrors that lurk not necessarily in exotic, bizarre places but close to home, in fact many of them ARE the home. “Rats in the Walls,” “The Shunned House,” “Dreams in the Witch House” to name a few that turn the mundane into the frightening.
Lovecraft gets there by way of language. In Brian Kim Stefans’s Salon.com article, “HP Lovecraft, pulp philosopher,” he reviews and deconstructs Graham Harman’s book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Something both the article and the book both focus on is Lovecraft’s application of language.
This comes in two forms. The first is the inability of the narrator to describe the thing he beholds. (And I can firmly say “he” here for Lovecraft has nary a female narrator!) This lack of articulate language is often seen as a serious flaw in Lovecraft’s work, covering up his unimaginativeness. But in Harman’s book, he talks about two philosophical approaches: one which fills in the gaps of knowledge and one which creates them. To create these gaps allows for places in between knowledge and logic where imagination can slip in. When the narrator fails at describing anything but the most basic elements of a situation, the reader’s imagination fills in the rest. By intentionally and carefully creating these gaps, Lovecraft ignites the creativity in the reader to form the visual content him- or herself. And what the reader comes up with is usually a hell of a lot freakier than anything the author could have come up with.
One of my favorite stories about this phenomenon comes from Neil Gaiman. There’s a sex scene in Stardust. He gets comments and complaints all the time about how graphic it is. In fact, if you Google “Neil Gaiman sex scene,” you’ll come across a plethora of reviews and blogs warning potential readers (and especially parents of potential readers) about this “graphic” and “explicit” scene early in the book. And to those people he says, read it again. From TheBookCoop’s review, “It has a rather boring sex scene at the beginning, nipples and breasts are mentioned, a man urinating and the word ‘fuck’ appears in small print.” (http://thebookcoop.blogspot.com/2010/06/stardust-neil-gaiman.html) And that’s about it. A tremendous amount of “explicit” and “graphic” tempest in a really rather dull pot of tea. Gaiman created large gaps in his descriptions of that scene and the audience, they did what audiences do best, they jumped to the most dramatic conclusion possible and inserted a “graphic” scene where there was none.
Lovecraft does this for just about everything. Cthulu, freakish elder god and stuff of nightmares is described simply thus: “If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing […] but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.” (excerpt from “HP Lovecraft, pulp philosopher”)
It’s vague and, out of context, pretty boring. And there are some pretty significant gaps in there. Octopus, dragon, person. With a weird silhouette. When once embedded into the meat of the whole story, actually describing this indescribable horror would be nothing more than a let-down. The reader has already begun to formulate an image of this creature from the start of the story, from the hints and nudges. And then at the moment of the big reveal, a lesser author might have ruined the whole thing by presenting a vividly described creature that diverges wildly from what was imagined. So while Lovecraft’s vagueness is usually seen as a flaw, it is really one of his more impressive merits.
The second method Lovecraft employs is that one the narrator who says that he cannot explain what he sees but then whips out with a detailed visual account with all sorts of descriptive qualifiers to really cement the image. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the narrator initially says that what he sees defies description, but then goes on at great length and detail:
“It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and the known three dimensions. It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very manlike hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous […] Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest […] had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worse; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.” (excerpt from “HP Lovecraft, pulp philosopher”)
In the case of “The Dunwich Horror,” this narrator has come upon this creature without much preamble, whereas in “The Call of Cthulu,” the set-up for what Cthulu looks like had been hinted at for pages and pages. So, Lovecraft does know how to describe the strange and monstrous, but he just likes to control how and when. Another thing in this description is how he constantly connects the strange and monstrous with the ordinary and known. Hide like a crocodile, face like a goat, spotted like a snake. We’re all well aware of crocodiles, goats, and snakes and their general appearance. But to imagine these three comfortable well-known creatures blended…and also furry and with tentacles…that’s when things get weird.
So Lovecraft has these two major things going for him when making the mundane seem really freaky. First, he gives us enough rope to hang ourselves (and what good Game Master doesn’t know all about that?). Second, when things do get weird, he consistently grounds that weird into the everyday world using analogies that are easily understood by just about every reader of every social class and education level. If he went too far afield and used an elevated, more fantastical language to describe these terrors, the reader could too easily disengage and tune out and what fun would that be?
This is the “speculative” in the realism, the “weird” in the fiction. Not just what is being described (Obtuse angles that are really acute! Unexplained formations in the ceiling of an old house! Scratchings in the walls!) but how. By creating gaps into which we readers fall, screaming. For more.
Harman, Graham. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Zero Books, 2012.
Stefans, Brian Kim. HP Lovecraft, pulp philosopher. 11 April 2013. 22 May 2013. <http://www.salon.com/2013/04/11/weird_science_on_the_wacky_world_of_hp_lovecraft_partner/>.