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Ken Hite on Lovecraft and Everything


Ken Hite on Lovecraft and Everything

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Ken Hite on Lovecraft and Everything


Published on December 31, 2009


It’s not quite true that “if Kenneth Hite doesn’t know it, it’s not worth knowing” when it comes to the Lovecraftian world. Ken himself will tell you with great pleasure about his ongoing discovery of new facts and interpretations and of new things to do with those ideas, for starters. But it is nonetheless true that Ken has knowledge and love of Lovecraft and his works that runs very deep and wide, through channels others of us might never see without his expert guidance. Think of Ken as the world’s nicest incarnation of the sinister bargeman who poles you silently through dark waters in deepest night (or better yet, the crepuscular light of an approaching morning in which the sky glows with the hues of a sun gone strange), and who quietly explains the mysteries around you so as to turn vast ignorance into wise dread. And it’s fun to go for the ride with him.

Ken’s been dealing with Lovecraft and the lore of Cthulhu for a good long time now. His recent works include Tour de Lovecraft, Dubious Shards, and Adventures Into Darkness, and between them, these nicely show his range. Tour de Lovecraft is a short guide to each of Lovecraft’s prose fiction pieces, with comments ranging from a few paragraphs to more than a page. They have the quality of excellent footnotes, sometimes pointing out features of particular passages, sometimes quoting critical analyses of others, sometimes discussing sources, sometimes engaging in less readily articulable sorts of commentary. Dubious Shards combines essays (including one on the sympathetic bonds between the Cthulhu mythos and the conventions of the Western, which I’m still chewing over), Lovecraftian Tarot, and a roleplaying adventure. Adventures Into Darkness is a berserkly wonderful guide to superhero roleplaying in the milieu that Lovecraft would have created if he’d gone into writing comics, combining Golden Age superheroics with the various fantasy, horror, and science fictional elements of his own creations. Ken? Ken is the kind of guy who writes that sort of thing and has a good time doing it.

Bruce: I’m struck, while reading your survey of Lovecraft criticism at the start of Tour de Lovecraft, by just how much more is being said about Lovecraft and his work now than when readers like you and I were getting started. What would you say are the most interesting and important things that we know (or think) about the man and his work now that we didn’t a decade ago, or twenty-five years ago? What has changed most lately because of all this work, for you individually and for Lovecraft’s readers generally?

Ken: The most important thing we know about Lovecraft’s writing now is what it actually was. During the later 1980s, S.T. Joshi prepared and edited the critical texts of Lovecraft’s stories, with the coda being the rediscovery of the original manuscript of “Shadow Out of Time,” discovered in 1995 and published by Joshi in 2001. I started reading Lovecraft in the late 1970s, so much of my Lovecraft re-reading has also been re-discovery. While the larger themes and such are present even in the original bad quartos, Lovecraft’s prose is considerably improved by the removal of his editors’ not-so-deft touch. So perhaps “Lovecraft was a very, very good writer, especially after 1926 or so” is one of those important discoveries—sadly somewhat muted by the continuing tendency to reprint every word the man wrote.

Bruce: Likewise for me. Out of curiosity, would you care to cite a passage or two I could include here for comparison’s sake?

Ken: I’m not sure I’m textual scholar enough to dig out a clear, short example. Much of it is re-paragraphing (as in “Mountains of Madness” and “Shadow Out of Time”) and much of the rest of it is painstaking restoration of Lovecraft’s original spelling, usage, and word choice. It’s not like the version of “Colour Out of Space” we read was a bad story—it didn’t begin “West of Arkham the hills rise like a bunch of rising hills.” It’s just that the corrected version is, well, corrected.

I’m not sure how many really important discoveries about Lovecraft’s fiction have happened in the last decade or two—but that’s mostly because, again following Joshi, so many of the premier scholars have been studying Lovecraft the man. On the voyage to Lovecraft’s work—the reason we’re having Cthulhu month, after all—the study of Lovecraft the man is, to my mind, at the very best a scenic route, and at the worst a dead end. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare the man, and we still somehow keep finding interesting, vital things to say about his plays. Lovecraft wasn’t the fainting deformity that Sprague de Camp drew him as in 1975, but he’s not a particularly important thinker, philosopher, or anything else besides a fiction writer and critic. And given that the “freak Lovecraft” is still very much front-and-center in what popular image of Lovecraft there is, I’m not sure how much adducing further examples of his kindness, generosity, and humor (or more commonly, nit-picking arguments about the exact degree and kind of his racism) are going to accomplish—people still think Poe was a neurasthenic opium fiend, and that’s been debunked for a century.

Bruce: I’m inclined to agree, though I found myself holding what I thought were contradictory thoughts about it until I realized they weren’t. Some artists’ lives do illuminate their work. Cordwainer Smith comes to mind here: it’s not necessary to read anything but his stories themselves to come away delighted, impressed, and inspired, but knowing something about the man behind the words brings out more to love, at least for me. In other cases not so much. Besides Lovecraft, I’d put Flannery O’Connor over on this side of the roster: it may be interesting to know about her life, but it doesn’t really lead me to much more than her words already did.

But the thing is that we don’t know who’s going to turn out to have which kind of life until we go look.

Ken: I certainly don’t regret knowing what I know of Lovecraft, but it’s not remotely the True and Secret Key to the Mythos that everyone since Sprague de Camp and Dirk Mosig have painted it as. And I’d argue, it eventually winds up in the same sort of obscurantist muck that arguing about Shakespeare’s putative Catholicism does—at best, an intriguing sidelight on the Ghost in Hamlet; at worst, a deformation of the whole Roman cycle.

More valuably, I’d say, over the last twenty years or so, Robert M. Price has very usefully extended the debate on the nature of the Cthulhu Mythos, even if he has to argue both sides at the same time! (Lovecraft can’t very easily be engaging in both Gnostic mythopoesis and “demythologization” of fantasy, can he?) But by asking the questions, even (or especially) by asking contradictory questions, Price is clearing some very stubborn Lin Carter–August Derleth style brush out of the way; this notion of Lovecraft as a sub-creator, or a great systematizer a la Tolkien, is demonstrably false, and well worth discarding, no matter how much easier it makes writing a roleplaying game. Joshi, too, has done some good work (especially early on) in breaking down (for example) the artificial distinctions between the “Dreamlands” stories and the “Mythos” stories, both from internal evidence and from Lovecraft’s letters and such. I certainly hope that understanding has begun to percolate into the next generation of Lovecraft fans, given how long it took me to un-learn Lin Carter. My oar in this has been to try and re-introduce the chaotic, intentionally contradictory Mythos—the literally mad universe—that HPL created into my work on Trail of Cthulhu.

Bruce: “(Lovecraft can’t very easily be engaging in both Gnostic mythopoesis and ‘demythologization’ of fantasy, can he?)” I’m ashamed to see this parenthetical question from someone I know has read Gene Wolfe, Ken.

Ken: Wolfe believes in the transcendent. Lovecraft didn’t. (Admittedly, a useful critical insight from the biographical school, albeit one that was obvious to anyone who read the letters.) Wolfe is also, I’d argue (though I’m far from a Wolfe authority), doing what I argue Lovecraft was really doing more often than not in the later longer works—remythologization, not demythologization. Which is to say, “translating” the world of modernist science back into myth and horror. That, at least, is consistent with Gnosticism, even if Price’s argument on that foot has its own problems.

Bruce: Granting that at any one moment, it’s likely that Lovecraft wouldn’t have been doing both, doesn’t a lot of interesting work flow out of the interplay—sometimes reconciling, sometimes tangling ever deeper—of competing, conflicting creative impulses?

Ken: Absolutely—and part of my argument against reading Lovecraft as a philosophical unity rests exactly there. Any given story might be primarily mythopoesis, or primarily demythologization, but they can’t both be the same project. But if you try to force all of Lovecraft’s fiction into a single strait-jacket, you’re left in the embarrassing position of pronouncing at least one of the masterpieces anathema: you can’t easily read “Colour Out of Space” as Gnosticism, or “Call of Cthulhu” as demythologization, or “Dunwich Horror” as cosmic indifferentist materialism.

Bruce: Much better observations, and we’ll attribute the above lapse to partridges in pear trees. Or perhaps whipoorwills in pear trees?

Ken: Or possibly to the fact that I’m right about Wolfe, too.

Bruce: The move away from treating related works as part of great systems seems to be a general theme within my own reading, I notice. There’s what you describe here about Lovecraft, and the Del Rey editions of Howard’s work with the emphasis on laying them out for us as Howard did, and ditto with Moorcock and Elric, and so on. It’s one that I find deeply illuminating, both of the work and for what it suggests about the prevailing moods of the time folks like you and me started reading this stuff in.

Ken: I think a lot more of it is due to the fact that the single most important fantasy author of the century, bar none, was explicitly just such a great-systematizer. (As was C.S. Lewis, although his Great System was invented by Aquinas, not himself.) Thus, critics like Lin Carter persisted in trying to read all fantasy writers—Lovecraft, Howard, Leiber—as Tolkienists, even when they weren’t. Or even, as in Lovecraft’s case, where they were explicitly writing about the utter failure of human systems to contain knowledge. Moorcock is an interesting case; for all his loudly expressed disdain for Tolkien, he’s certainly gone a lot farther than almost any major fantasy author since JRRT (except possibly Zelazny, or Stephen King come to think of it) toward writing his books (post, propter, and ad hoc) into one vast system, not just narratively but also philosophically and thematically. But Lovecraft wasn’t, any more than Poe or Hawthorne were.

Although one could argue that his urge to systematize his epics was a product of his times, I’d be skeptical of arguments that tend to make Tolkien a modernist, or even a Victorian.

Bruce: If you read the introductions to the new edition of the Elric stories, you’ll find Moorcock walking back a fair amount of his earlier verbiage on the subject, by the way. He flat-out admits to responding with extreme claims to criticism that riled him and then locking himself into a spiral of escalation, and while he doesn’t want to retract any of his basic positions, he’s clearly in a mood to discuss nuances and specifics in a much more temperate way now. 

Looking ahead, what would you like to see next in the Lovecraftian world? Do you feel like what’s happening now is laying the groundwork for something new, and if so, what? Or is it “simply”, so to speak, a matter of fields ready for more and better work of the sort of which we wish to become accustomed? Or something else?

Ken: In the world of Lovecraft studies, I’d like to see more and further emphasis on the works, but I’m not sure how likely anything really new is until mainstream literary criticism pulls itself out of the Foucault-de-sac it’s been marooned in since the Nineties. Until some new and useful critical paradigm emerges, though, I’d like to see Lovecraft increasingly treated as a foundational author of American culture—his translation of the Gothic into the modern makes him almost as important culturally as Poe was, or even Melville. In fact, I imagine you can find more echoes of Lovecraft in American culture today—from comics to computer games to New Age mysticism to music to genre film and fiction—than you can of any other single author, with the possible exceptions of Raymond Chandler and Owen Wister. Regardless of the merits of HPL’s works as literature, he merits a lot more attention from serious cultural scholars than he has gotten so far.

In the world of Lovecraftian fiction, I think things are about as good as they can possibly be. When Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Pynchon, Tim Powers, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, Nick Mamatas, China Mieville, Joyce Carol Oates, Dan Simmons, Robert Charles Wilson, Michel Houellebecq, and Charlie Stross are all working Lovecraft’s garden, it seems churlish to ask James Ellroy or Iain M. Banks or Fay Weldon to help out. That said, it would be nice to see a few more first-rank novelists respect the genre roots of English-language fiction, write a few more honest shudder tales, and toss the Old Gentleman a nod or two in the process.

And it would be immensely satisfying to see Lovecraft finally conquer America’s other native narrative art form. (Besides comics, where Lovecraft is doing just fine, thanks.) I can’t believe it’s been almost a century, and we still haven’t seen a really first-rate, A-list Hollywood film based explicitly on Lovecraft’s writings. It’s too late to see Orson Welles’ At the Mountains of Madness, or even Val Lewton’s Charles Dexter Ward, but it’s not too late to see Ridley Scott pay Lovecraft back rent on Alien, or see Darren Aronofsky take on “Dreams in the Witch House.”

Bruce: Let’s talk about Lovecraft and hybridization. You’ve assayed it a few times yourself, with the pulp-action option in Trail of Cthulhu and the insanely, gibberingly entertaining Adventures Into Darkness. What do you see as conducive to a good blending of cosmic horror with anything else? What helps, and what makes it hard to do justice to any of the elements in a particular creative casserole? Please feel free to illustrate with your own work, and that of others, where you specifically want to point to something.

Ken: Well, “cosmic horror” is a pickier ingredient than “Lovecraft.” Lovecraft had such a wide range of interests and styles over the course of his career that picking out a single note—like the high action of “Lurking Fear” or the fantastic picaresque of Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath—lets you blend Lovecraft into almost anything. I’ve previously argued (in “The Man Who Shot Joseph Curwen,” in my essay collection Dubious Shards) that there is a core of Lovecraftian fiction—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, “The Shunned House,” and “The Dunwich Horror” most explicitly—entirely compatible with the Western, a genre and narrative dependent on individual moral heroism in a way not usually associated with HPL. If you move even farther out, into the realm of parody and pastiche, Lovecraft is rich with possibilities on that level, from my own Sendak sendup Where the Deep Ones Are to Peter Cannon’s “Scream for Jeeves” to Neil Gaiman’s slightly more straight-faced “A Study in Emerald,” which mashes up Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu. Lovecraft’s writing is as fecund as his own shoggoths, always bubbling away, growing any kind of orifice or extrusion you might need to make your own city of titan blocks or win the heart of your true love: “The Thing on the Doorstep” cries out to be remade as a screwball dark comedy, for example.

“Cosmic horror,” as we are rightly reminded by scolds like S.T. Joshi, is far more delicate. If Lovecraft is garlic, an ingredient you can put into any soup—or perhaps HPL is everything from garlic to shallots to red onion—cosmic horror is saffron: only add it where its flavor really counts. It’s virtually impossible to write even one short horror story containing nothing but cosmic horror—there are maybe a dozen successful examples, three or four of them by Lovecraft—but the rest of the tale shouldn’t step on the hit. If you have strong characters, they need to disintegrate; if you have a lush setting, it should partake of at least spiritual bleakness; if you have a propulsive narrative, it should end in madness and chaos. Humor, romance, and power fantasy are all more or less fatal to cosmic horror, although you could start a story in that vein which falls apart into cosmic horror as the denoument. You can, if you’re Gene Wolfe or Alan Moore, put a single stab of cosmic horror into anything, but it’s harder to make it last longer than a scene.

Other genres work better: science fiction, obviously, as Lovecraft discovered (and H.G. Wells, intermittently before him) and Greg Egan among others have proven since. Fantasy, of course, although most fantasies (following Tolkien) depend too much on higher truths or rightful order for cosmic horror to work. But from Robert E. Howard to Glen Cook, there are noble exceptions. Speaking of Glen Cook, war stories work remarkably well as cosmic horror tales: that said, Trent Roman’s “The Invasion Out of Time” is one of the few good Cthulhu Mythos examples. Tim Powers’ Declare and Charlie Stross’ “The Atrocity Archive” have begun to explore the possibilities of cosmic horror for espionage fiction, as John Tynes, Scott Glancy, and Dennis Detwiller’s Delta Green games and fiction have for conspiracy stories. Although it seems like it should be a natural combination right outta Red Hook, nobody seems to have really figured out how to blend crime fiction with cosmic horror. This may be a tribute to the power of Raymond Chandler’s work—people haven’t finished working his fields either, by a long shot—or it may be that good crime fiction requires a fundamentally humanistic perspective alien to, well, cosmic alienation.

Bruce: What’s the question I should be asking you, that you’d like to answer, but that I haven’t stumbled onto yet?

Ken: What has Lovecraft done for gaming, and what has gaming done for (and to) Lovecraft?

What Lovecraft did first and foremost for gaming was provide a kind of open-source cosmology for all sorts of adventure. He created monsters worse than the Devil and scarier than dragons, and (along with his friends, acolytes, and epigones) a whole host of stage-setting and set-dressing, props and extras for all purposes. By rescuing the Gothic for the modern fantastic and sfnal sensibility, he made it possible for modern consumers of fantasy and SF to use Gothic tropes and stories without alienation. Thanks to Lovecraft, we all “know” that there are Things Trying To Get In, which means we have something to shoot after the Nazis and orcs, and a still bigger bad behind every Dark Lord. Everyone—gamers and designers alike—“knows” what tentacles mean, and that oozy blobs are bad news, and what a Dark Eldritch Ceremony looks like. Maybe all computer games and RPGs would have just borrowed from Dennis Wheatley or William Hope Hodgson instead, but I don’t think Satan and pig-ghosts would have worked as well in all games everywhere as Cthulhu and his ilk seem to. It’s probably too much to say that Lovecraft invented the “dungeon crawl,” for all his archaeological horrors—Beowulf did it first, after all—but he did it really well and really distinctively, right where Gygax and Arneson could see it.

What gaming has done for Lovecraft is provide a kind of test-bed or nursery garden where his work could be cultivated, harvested, consumed, and replanted. The great Lovecraft fiction boom of the 1980s resulted directly from Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game in 1981, and from the game’s publisher, Chaosium, repopularizing and eventually reprinting the works of Lovecraft’s successors in the Mythos. Thanks to that cultivation, “Cthulhu Mythos fiction” is a marketing category all its own, and one of the few reliably viable places to sell genre short stories. Lovecraft is now unkillable; like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Bram Stoker, he will never be out of print or out of mind despite the disdain of his betters. But like those of August Derleth, gaming’s efforts to preserve Lovecraft have, I think, distorted his message and his potential. I talked earlier about the Lin Carter school of Mythos systematization. Lin Carter and August Derleth may have started it, but Chaosium and the geek culture it encouraged—and I’m as guilty as anyone, I suppose—has taken it to a reductio ad absurdam, with every single Mythos tome and beastie painstakingly cataloged, numbered, and filed. It’s been great to read all the new Mythos material produced by gaming, or made possible by its aficionados, but a greenhouse isn’t an ecology, and some of these would-be horrors are like inbred show dogs, to switch metaphors. Fortunately, Lovecraft is bigger and stronger than his worshipers, and his work, like that of Shakespeare or Hitchcock, can withstand any amount of affectionate bastardization.

Bruce Baugh lives in Seattle and does not in fact gibber a great deal.

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