Lovecraft: Too Legit to Quit

It’s official: H.P. Lovecraft isn’t just some creepy schoolboy’s secret literary fare anymore, but a bona fide Amercian Author. At least that’s how I read the Library of America’s recent publication of Lovecraft’s Tales, edited by Peter Straub. Why all the sudden interest in Lovecraft? The Believer recently published French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq’s essay on Lovecraft and intends to publish Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life at some point soon. (Lovecraft is to Houellebecq what Poe was to Baudelaire; I’m not sure what it is about ornate American works of terror that so rivets the French imagination, but hey.) Nick Mamatas of the Fortean Bureau has already pointed out that Lovecraft entered “the Canon” (if you’re worried about such things) when Penguin published his work. Meanwhile, Laura Miller finds both Lovecraft and his admirers a little loathsome in her firm but pretty fair Salon review. Miller rightly dwells on Lovecraft’s pathological racism (see, e.g., Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls”), but that never slowed down the Canonization of Chandler or Jack London either. More provocatively, Miller asks Why Lovecraft? when Edmund Wilson doesn’t have a Library of America volume yet.

The answer, I think, has something to do with Lovecraft’s strange enduring influence, his weird mythology the nightmare American version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s steadily increasing stock, which is something other than strictly literary. I have one Lovecraft theory, rather political in nature, which I wouldn’t go out on a limb to defend. When a continent is conquered by war, slavery, and racial extermination, the landscape, only seeming to lack a persistent cultural memory, could come back to haunt us, with monsters bred out of the sleep of reason. In this sense, I see Lovecraft in a line with William Burroughs, whose conclusion from a superficial and exoticized look at the native culture of Central and South America, in addition to the white madness that displaced it and the native peoples of North America, was that America was simply an evil land. It is surely right to place Lovecraft’s externalized demons back into his head, biographically speaking, but there’s something odd and inexplicable about his cultural persistence. What it boils down to, perhaps, is not only that America is haunted, an “old world” also (at last, the truth admitted), but also that in Lovecraft we see the ultimate denial and dramatic reversal of the original American Dream of Starting Over in an Edenic land of boundless possibility and natural beauty.