August 20th was the birthday of the beloved “weird fiction” author H.P. Lovecraft. Like many writers, I confess that I failed to honor the occasion. But Peter Damien did notice that Lovecraft would have turned 123 this year. He wonders why anyone cares:
Because the fact is…he was a godawful writer. He was so bad. I really cannot stress this enough. I’m aware that the quality of a writer’s fiction is very much a matter of personal taste and not objective (and those people who mistakenly believe it is objective and matches up to their own tastes are always wrong). Still, I think we can safely agree that he was really awful as a writer, given that even people who are fans of Lovecraft don’t seem to defend his writing very much.
Damien’s aesthetic judgment is irreproachable. There’s not much to be said in defense of passages like this one from “The Call of Cthulhu“:
Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more, for the Vigilant sailed over the spot after the April storm; but his ministers on earth still bellow and prance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places. He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy. Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. A time will come – but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.
Yet Damien’s definition of good writing is too narrow. He argues that Lovecraft’s “ideas were themselves amazing things. It’s just that Lovecraft lacked the capability to do anything useful with them himself.” If that were simply true, however, no one would read Lovecraft–or remember anything that he wrote. Lovecraft was a terrible crafter of sentences and had a rather distinctly brute-force approach to exposition. Despite these shortcomings, the fictional universe he created is unforgettable, right down to the ludicrous pseudo-languages he invented for his various creations.
Lovecraft’s profound influence as a creator of worlds suggests that he was a better writer, in the crucial sense of articulating and communicating his ideas, than his more technically accomplished competitors. To criticize his stilted dialogue or Gothic affectations is to miss the point. Clumsy as he is, Lovecraft is remarkably good not only at transporting his readers to places that don’t exist, but at bringing them back with mementos from the journey. What more can we ask of a writer in the overlapping group of genres that includes SF, horror, and fantasy?
Lovecraft has a recent counterpart in George R.R. Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones series. Like Lovecraft, although in a rather different style, Martin writes terrible sentences. But he has other virtues, particularly the ability to balance and pace dozens of parallel storylines and viewpoints.
I’m not suggesting that Lovecraft or Martin belong to the first rank of English literature. Still, I’d rather read their stuff than exercises in technical perfection inspired by, say, Raymond Carver. Is it “good” writing? Who cares. Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Lovecraft R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!