Literary Appreciation of the Lovecraft Kind
H.P. Lovecraft was capable of purple prose, but Peter Damien is wrong to call him a “godawful writer.” The passage Sam Goldman provides in support of Damien’s point actually proves the contrary. Read it out loud to yourself. It’s poetry—absolutely lucid, rhythmically perfect:
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.
This is artful writing, and if it’s melodramatic, that’s only appropriate to the genre. Lovecraft thinks carefully about sound, rhythm, and the meaning of his words; not a syllable is wasted here. A paragraph like the one above is packed with literary devices that enhance the reader’s enjoyment and even the meaning of the text, without drawing too much attention to themselves—ars celare artem. Consider:
1.) Consonance, assonance, and internal rhyme:
since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken.
All the sibilance is significant—air is leaking out from something; Cthulhu hisses in his slumber; it’s the sound of Satan snoring.
idol capped monoliths in lonely places.
Note not only the internal rhyme but also the “l” and “n” sounds gliding around the key syllables: -ol, -nol, -lon. Mournful, desolate sounds.
caution before audacity
whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.
Here too, there’s more: alliterative “by” and “be,” the rhyming “be” and “screaming.”
3.) The only awkward line in the paragraph is awkward for effect: an emdash and then a struggle for expression “—but I must and cannot think!”
4.) Imagery augmented by rhyming recollection:
his ministers on earth on earth still bellow and prance and slay … Let me pray
Very artful, since “pray” here may mean only “ask,” or more even loosely “hope,” yet it can’t escape its religious connotation. To what or whom does our protagonist pray, and what of use is it to pray when Cthulhu’s ministers, not praying meekly but bellowing and prancing, slay?
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.
Note the cinematic effect whereby Lovecraft closes with a concrete noun—an organ, an eye. It’s a close-up. The executors will “see” that this “other eye” doesn’t see the manuscript. The resonance of a “thing unseen” recalls Cthulhu himself “within his black abyss” and the “chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young.” The paragraph begins and ends with life bereft of illumination.
These are just the more obvious effects Lovecraft has written into a seemingly simple expository paragraph. The sound is deliberately, painstakingly layered, musical, economical. It takes skill to get that much poetry into clear prose.
Compare all this to Coleridge:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure dome decree
where Aleph the sacred river ran
through caverns measureless to man
down to a sunless sea.
Lovecraft is certainly not on par with Coleridge as a poet, but he deploys quite effectively in a mere monster story effects of rhythm and sound that we conventionally identify with poetry.
No, Lovecraft isn’t always successful. But he’s successful often enough that his prose as well as his imagination has an enduring appeal. When he’s good, he’s a very good writer indeed.
The “flaw” in Lovecraft’s work isn’t his sometimes dull, sometimes purple (but often royal purple) prose, it’s that his stories are devoid of character development and all but the rudiments of a plot. A Lovecraft story, almost without exception, is a first-person narration in which the protagonist is trapped in his own head and gradually—or not so gradually—loses his mind, always in the impeccably orderly fashion of a New England professional. “Stories” like “Under the Pyramids” or “The Shadow Out of Time” are actually just descriptions of mysterious settings that provide the narrator synopses of long-dead inhuman civilizations. But the flatness of Lovecraft’s storytelling is very much the point—the indifference of the cosmos to humanity and man’s realization that he is no more than an ant, an ant unlucky enough to perceive something of its insignificance. The ancient civilizations Lovecraft’s narrators encounter have all long collapsed, never to return; they outstrip human achievements in every respect but are themselves nothing. This existential terror and awe are what Lovecraft is all about, and nobody does it better.