Monthly Archives: September 2005

September 22, 2005

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

by Shirley Jackson

[extended as of 9/23/05]

Okay, but the book I read was retitled The Haunting, so as to be absolutely unambiguously identifiable as being a tie-in with the 1999 movie of the same name. I guess Penguin (or, more likely, DreamWorks) thought that using the movie poster for the cover wasn’t clear enough. And they sure as hell weren’t going to be bullied into some kind of wimpy compromise like reducing the size of “of Hill House.” No time for that crap: marketing is serious business and we’re not taking any chances. Out of the way, Shirley! They even went in and erased half of the running heads – “OF HILL HOUSE” appeared on the right-hand pages, originally, but in this edition (otherwise a direct offset) they were blank. Unfortunately, when Ms. Zeta-Jones was going through the book with white-out, she missed a spot – at one point, a chapter begins on a right-hand page, and since there’s no running head on the first pages of chapters, the whole head is on the left-hand page, where it has the temerity to remember the complete title.

Those marketing guys sure know what they’re doing: I bought this copy for exactly $1 in the über-discount bin.

Oh well, that’s not really fair. The tie-in edition is only meant to be sold for a few months, and for all I know, it might well have sold better than it would have otherwise because it had been retitled. One copy left in the beach bookstore doesn’t mean anything. All I’m saying is that I, an investor in neither Penguin nor DreamWorks, wish it hadn’t been done.

The book is short and I very much enjoyed reading it. Some – maybe a lot – of my enjoyment was in the very fact that I was reading a short, classic haunted house novel from 1959. What a delightful thing to be doing! The rest of my enjoyment – maybe less than half – was in the book itself. But the two kinds of enjoyment were intertwined.

The two things that pleased me most about the book: 1) It took on the task of being a “haunted house novel” and succeeded. The haunted house is one of those notions (“memes”) that are well-formed in the cultural consciousness and yet don’t have any clear “key text.” This is also how I felt about the movie Pirates of the Caribbean (perhaps not coincidentally the other major non-movie Disneyland ride) – that the screenwriters had done a great job building a framework from scratch to support all these previously untethered concepts about cursed treasure and ghost pirate sieges and so on. We all know that haunted houses have doors that close by themselves and creepy libraries gathering dust, etc. etc., but what is the story framework into which these things fit? It’s a difficult task, to keep the beloved details alive while you’re weaving them into a larger structure, when previously they were just loosely-related free-range thingies – a good description of what one sees on any Disneyland ride. Those rides all end up being more lists than narratives. This book did a very nice job turning a standard list into a reasonable narrative and still preserving the flavor of the list intact.

She actually accepts that she’s working with old materials, and has the characters all be quite aware of the haunted house clichés into which they’re stepping. The premise of the story is that a haunted house scholar is delighted to have found a real haunted house, and brings a couple of psychically susceptible types there so that he can study it. He and the other characters all talk about haunted houses the same way you or I might; they know all about them, and to them, the only thing novel about their situation is that they are actually in such a house. The quasi-knowing attitude of the characters toward their genre goes a long way toward bringing the atmosphere to life. Unlike in Scream, it’s not used for some kind of winking, meta-clever ends. It’s just a way of letting the book be firmly inside an absurd and naive genre without seeming too absurd or naive. When scary, ghostly stuff is happening, they nervously joke about how it seems to really be happening. That might be an old device but it was used effectively here and I appreciated it.

2) Shirley Jackson’s writing is uncluttered and firm and very pleasant to read. It is careful and writerly, but in a pared-down, completely unpretentious way. The very existence of this sort of thoughtful, tough “middlebrow” voice seemed like it dated the book. Where is this voice today? I feel like there is a psychological over-transparency to contemporary writing, where intelligence feels the need to parade itself in the text. Maybe I just feel that way because I am so used to the gimmicks of contemporary writing that I see past them, whereas I was blinded by the old 1959 gimmicks in Jackson’s writing. Still, there’s something inherently appealing to me about that cold, quiet style, girded by a dark hum of knowingness, and I hadn’t read anything quite like it in a while. There is something effective for horror writing – or for any writing, really – about calmly, boldly leaving things unsaid, or what’s equally bold, giving simple two-word descriptions to things about which the reader has at least ten words of curiosity. A strong sense of purpose seems to govern every sentence.

But the cold 50’s-ness of it goes beyond that. A thought I had while reading the book was that everyone has a clear sense of the distinctive personality of “30’s dialogue,” but you don’t generally hear about other eras, like “60’s dialogue,” even though I think it probably has just as distinctive a character. The dialogue in the book was all a kind of would-be casual would-be repartee that was meant to portray guarded, brittle pseudo-camaraderie on the part of the various houseguests. But the brittle quality went well beyond anything in real life – there was something lightheaded and ringing about every jaunty line. The characters’ jokes and insincerities come off like some kind of heightened, dream-like ceremony in masks. To me anyway! I was reminded of my impressions, when I was younger, when reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and Rosemary’s Baby (1967). All the vernacular stuff somehow seemed infused with a slightly maniacal overemphasis. In all three works there is a theme of revealing how hollow it all is, but choosing to do so by giving it that crazed falseness is very much of the era. Probably this fits in to someone’s theory of literature during the Cold War, but I’m not really interested in going that far right now; I’m just talking about dialogue. In the movie of The Graduate (1967, book 1963), the loopy intensity of crass commonplaces is actually played for laughs.

Not so here. The Haunting of Hill House, in its dialogue, overall style, theme and construction, achieves a very particular kind of eerie effect. “Floating horror” or “lightheaded horror” I’m tempted to call it – it’s not fear of anything, exactly, but just the increasingly unnerving sense that arises from never being allowed to touch solid ground. The narrative starts off hovering uneasily on the line between the protagonist’s external world and her anxious, flighty inner life, and then proceeds to hover there for the remainder of the book. It works very well, though at times the details (what exactly is going on between these characters? what exactly is happening now?) get a bit murkier than necessary, or get murky earlier than is reasonable. It’s a book all about executing a slow burn, and page for page, the pacing of that slow burn isn’t always exactly right. But it’s not a big problem.

I just looked up “slow burn” and it apparently only means a gradual “display of anger,” but I want to use it to mean any very gradual change from a neutral state to some other state. Is there another expression for that?

The Shining owes an obvious (and probably acknowledged) debt to this. Apparently the Robert Wise movie version is quite good, and Shirley herself liked it, so I’ve got to see that. The 1999 version is, by contrast, supposed to be a big dud. But I might have to see that too.

Here’s the original edition cover, which is kind of dated – but I like that it’s sort of reserved about showing the house (unlike the current cover, not to mention the cover on my copy).

And here’s Shirley Jackson as she appeared when she was the age of her protagonist, which is pretty much how I was picturing the woman in the book. Your Hollywood choices follow.


Something I planned to mention but forgot – there is a brilliant stroke toward the end of the book. Just as you begin to feel that the protagonist is in peril, the author suddenly brings in two new loud comic characters who irritate everyone and are completely insensitive to the creepy atmosphere. This is at the three-quarters mark, or further. It’s a really clever device, because it very effectively heightens the reader’s sense of hopelessness. The only real struggle, for the characters in this book, is just to keep their wits about them and stay level and focussed in the face of all that “floating horror” uneasiness. Just as that task gets dangerously hard, the author throws a couple of annoying people in their (and our) faces. On the surface, it seems like the new characters completely ruin the atmosphere – but in fact they allow Shirley’s slow burn to run nice and cold all the way to the end, because now the horror has to be glimpsed only in the background, behind the stupid people. Ingenious, really.

Rather than the standard horror movie “don’t go in there!” we want to shout “shut up! we need to concentrate!” Which ends up feeling like a more sophisticated version of the same thing.

In thinking about this device and why it isn’t used more often, I was reminded of the similar effect in the scene in Punch-Drunk Love where cruelly distracting drumming in the incidental score creates the sense that the mundane conversation being had is in fact frightening and difficult. (The same director does something comparable in Boogie Nights, in the tense scene during which a kid keeps unexpectedly setting off loud firecrackers nearby). There, as here, that particular sense of urgency that arises from being distracted has been harnessed. But The Haunting of Hill House does P.T. Anderson one or two better, by making the distraction something amusing in its own right.

September 21, 2005

Thought about the modes of aesthetic reception, or something

Everything I am about to say is obvious, but it hit me with some force this evening anyway.

If a work of art requires for its success that I, as audience, bring to it a certain attitude/mode of perception, but I happen not to be in that mood or can’t seem to muster it intentionally, am I lazy or is the art failing? And if the answer to that question is a diplomatic “don’t worry, nobody is to blame,” how can the serious contemporary problem of widespread art-to-audience mutual dissatisfaction ever be solved?

Most art takes care to deliver its own message, but only some art takes care to deliver information about how best to receive that message. That’s a much harder task, and one that is only really necessary because of the chaotic overabundance of conflicting art cultures that coexist and interbreed in the modern world. In past centuries, when art cultures were established with much greater ubiquity, artists and audiences generally had closely congruent ideas about how the whole exchange would work, and so the risk of art-to-mindset mismatch wasn’t nearly as common and important as it is now. As a result, there isn’t much of a tradition of techniques for conveying that kind of contextual information, stuff like “this piece will work for you if you look at it from this point of view…”

In some ways, museums and program notes have taken on that duty – with hardly any success, in my opinion. Those art museum placards strike me as pretty ridiculous: they pseudo-informatively tell you that a piece is made out of “wood, glass, wax,” and everyone who passes by leans over to take this in, as though somehow it’s going to help them with the extremely difficult task of figuring out why they are looking at it at all. I’m not being facetious – it’s truly a difficult task, because the reason why you’re being shown one work in a museum might be thousands of miles away (historically, culturally, aesthetically) from the reason you’re being shown the one next to it. I realize that the placards don’t actually claim to be telling us anything truly helpful – they’re just identifiers – but people end up reading them looking for clues, because they need clues, and you take what you can get.

I started thinking about this stuff because just now, at my iPod’s suggestion, I was listening to John Adams’ orchestral work Fearful Symmetries (1988), and it was striking me as 100% vapid, devoid of value. This is a piece that I’ve heard several times before, and though I’ve always had some reservations about it, I’ve still generally enjoyed it. You can listen to the first minute of it at Amazon, but if you’ve heard any of John Adams’ other pieces from the 80s, you can imagine this one well enough. It basically chugs along, in various flavors of steady, pumping agitation, for about half an hour. It “goes somewhere” in very local ways, but on the large scale it doesn’t go anywhere, and this is readily apparent to even a first-time listener, after 10 minutes of shifting in and out of different gears. In the third quarter it kind of rolls into some mud and then grinds its way back out. Finally, it rises to a height of violence, which is suddenly cut off and is followed by several enigmatic minutes of very quiet new-agey synthy burbling, which eventually just sort of dies out. I respect the peculiar cheek of that ending, though it adds up to neither a truly “transcendent” effect nor a satisfying close. It’s just kind of a stunt.

My previous feelings about this piece were that it was just too undisciplined, too meandering, too pointless (it has hardly any recurring material worth mentioning, over those 28 minutes, beyond the general sense of pulsing forward motion). Too much like just goofing around on a fancy synthesizer. But I liked many of the sounds Adams had rigged up – his orchestrations are never less than gleamingly slick – and, well, there’s just something satisfying about hearing a full orchestra bouncing along with such force.

But tonight, for me, there was no such satisfaction. I felt that I was hearing the piece “clearly” for the first time, not as a whirring, pulsing machine, but as a collection of musical devices, as a discourse in notes. “That ostinato is still going; now those triads are going up and down. The rhythm of this layer is being tweaked with this chain of syncopations, while that other layer is still regular….” I was hearing it in that listening style that I think of as “rhetorical” (or “structural”) – the music was plugged into my language processing unit, and only indirectly, from there, into my emotional/aesthetic processing. Or so it felt. I had a vivid sense of my mind asking the music, “yes?” and the music shamelessly wasting my time with no real answer.

Having listened to and enjoyed a great deal of John Adams’ music in the past (including this piece), it was clear to me even then, in the midst of that dissatisfied experience, that the problem was my attitude. Of course this piece had nothing to say to me, if I was going to listen that way, and John Adams would be the first to admit it. “Structural” listening, in this case, was a surefire path to annoyance. I thought back to certain frowny music professors of mine whose eyes rolled involuntarily at the mention of minimalism, and remembered my sense of frustration with them: They were expressing their displeasure with unintelligent music, but they were the ones being unintelligent, I always thought, because they weren’t able to flex their minds enough to use a different listening model and enjoy the fact that this music “worked” completely unlike the music they taught. Instead, they rigidly and unimaginatively complained that it didn’t develop in a valuable way, that it just exploited simplistic gestures, that it was mindless – which is sort of like a knife professor complaining that a spoon isn’t sharp enough to cut anything and that it encourages the eating of soft, lazy food. Actually, I should make that “a conservative cutlery professor,” because the point is that he really ought to know better.

I have felt for a long time that there are two distinctly contrasted ways of listening to music, or what’s the same thing, two levels on which music can “work.” I know them well, internally, though I’m not sure I can quite define and name them. Roughly, there is music that works like language, and music that doesn’t. Beethoven is like language – it has a syntax and each work is a sort of discourse. If you’re not following the logic of that discourse, then in a very real sense, you’re not following the piece. John Adams is not like language – it presents an experience, not a thought. If you, like I was, are examining how the roller-coaster is constructed, you aren’t on the roller-coaster.

Here’s another way that I think about these two modes of listening: one type of music embodies the voice of its composer or (in, for example, the case of Mahler) embodies some other voice for literary purposes – either way, the music itself is communicative, is a voice. The other type of music is not a voice; it is like an outside stimulus or an abstracted sensation. Debussy’s music is in no way like Debussy “telling us” anything – it is, quite intentionally, like natural phenomena, meant to elicit the same kind of responses as real natural phenomena. Debussy was not writing a musical discourse about the sea; he wanted his musical Mer to deliver the same sort of beauty as the real one. “There is nothing more musical than a sunset,” he wrote. Beethoven, by contrast, is generally talking directly to us, and we must listen to what he says or else risk losing the thread. His Pastoral is not an illustration of the countryside; it is a discourse inspired by and on the subject of the countryside. Its climaxes are rhetorical climaxes; Debussy’s climaxes are the actual crests of waves.

But again, this is just one angle from which to approach the nature of this dichotomy, it’s not quite the essence of the dichotomy itself. There are other angles on it, some of which overlap with famous dichotomies in art philosophy. You could argue that the “experiential” music has something to do with Nietzsche’s “Dionysian” principle and the “rhetorical” music with his “Apollonian” principle. These are often applied to aesthetics in the sense that the Dionysian appeals to the senses and the Apollonian to the intellect. But I’m not particularly fond of this model – there’s something Freudian and more than a little judgmental about the connotation of “Dionysian” – it implies that art that is not constructed on “high” structural principles is in some sense no better than booze, just a sensual indulgence with a familial resemblance to the orgies of Dionysus and the dark rumblings of the id. Plus, the Apollonian/Dionysian model implies that the two types are opposed forces, whereas I see these poles of impersonal Debussy and personal Beethoven as potentially combinable.*

John Adams himself recently called attention to another one of the old dichotomies: Schiller’s “naive” vs. “sentimental” art. Naive art is the direct expression of the artist who experiences the state he is expressing; sentimental art is the calculated expression of something external to the artist who constructs it. This is fundamentally quite unlike the distinction I’m talking about, but there are some valuable parallels: the “voice-like” music is intended to be perceived as emanating from a source that is “naively” experiencing the emotional content of the work; the “sunset-like” music is not intended to be perceived as emanating from any such source; it has been “sentimentally” constructed so as to create an impression that is as external to the artist (and the work) as it is to us.

Put it this way: in Liszt, the music itself experiences high emotion; in Ravel, the music attempts to bowl us over with a sunrise, but the sun does not feel emotion and has nothing itself to say. Those are the local effects, and I am talking about the analagous structural approaches: are the notes words in a sentence spoken by the piece, or are they tiles in a mosaic?

Okay, so there are these two types of music – from there I would go on to say there are also these two types of any art. Paintings where the significance of the scene depicted is the point, and the rest is just supporting craft…vs. paintings where the aesthetic flavor of the image is the point, and the subject is secondary. A religious painting and a still life may hang next to each other but it’s just numbing to think of them as functioning equivalently. One of them is an artist outright talking to you about something; the other is a silent object, made available by an artist for you to experience. Art-appreciation people may confusingly tell us that the still life is a case of an artist “telling us” things about light, shade, balance, etc. But of course this “telling” about the substance of the art itself is not a true “telling.” A book tells us something in its text; whether the design of the book “tells” us something about design is another sort of matter, several degrees removed. That sort of information is not, in fact, “told” to us, even though the artist may specifically hope we are aware of it. It must be actively extracted from the work, where it lives as mechanism, not content.

In music, this distinction between mechanism and content is hard to make – Beethoven’s “rhetorical” notes also always sound like something nice! (on the other hand, Schoenberg’s don’t, particularly) – which is part of the reason that learning to listen to the “voice” of a piece was so difficult for me and is (in my estimation) nearly impossible to teach. In a paper that I wrote in college on a related subject, I proposed that “surface” meaning (which is here sort of like “sunset music”) and “structural” meaning (which is here sort of like “voice music”) were just points on a spectrum, and that beyond “surface” meaning you had ultra-surface-y stuff like listening to the timbres of the individual instruments, and beyond “structure” you had ultra-abstracted stuff, like a piece of music as a whole being used as a symbol for something else (as in the car commercial language of Mozart=classy!). It was a sloppy and unconvincing theory, but I stand by it at least insofar as I don’t think that “surface-y” and “structure-y” are two isolated points with nothing between them; obviously, there’s some kind of middle ground that needs to be involved.

The three-axis system of visual abstraction proposed by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics is worth a look and probably relevant.

But for the sake of this entry, which I desperately want to have finished writing since it’s now been 5 days since I was listening to Fearful Symmetries and nobody’s going to read this far anyway, let’s assume that there is a clear distinction to be made between one kind of music/art and another, as described above. The general bias in the intellectual world seems clearly to be toward the “discursive” music, the “structural” kind. The prejudices I pointed out in the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy are deeply felt, it would seem, by most people who want to say something about art. It’s right there in the several meanings of the word “superficial” – surfaces are associated with ignorance. Music that communicates syntactically appeals to the mind more than to the senses, and is thus more edifying, and is thus more valuable, and is thus better.

Part of me wants to resist this logic. Aren’t exquisite non-linguistic non-structural experiences far “superior” to stupid structural ones, in every possible sense? Yes, obviously. And as many have pointed out, intellectuals generally favor those things that allow them the most opportunities for intellectual display. Big old sensory experiences are much harder to theorize and argue about than structurally elaborate constructions. As a friend said the other day, it’s a lot harder to say something interesting about plot than it is to say something about symbolism, so even though symbolism isn’t all that important to most readers, it gets discussed constantly.

But on the whole, it does feel like there’s some kind of objective, inescapable truth down there – a pretty picture of a sunset is one thing, but an insightful thought about a sunset will always be higher, more edifying, more valuable …

…except what game are we playing? A-ha! This is the key. We are playing the game of intellectual value. If we were playing the game of prettiness, the picture would win.

So my question was, “Is Fearful Symmetries actually bad?” The answer is “no.” I’d enjoyed it before and probably will again. For all I’m concerned, that’s the end of the story.

Next question: “When I’m in a mood where I’m enjoying it, am I just settling for lowbrow thrills?” The answer is “I suppose so, but the disapproval you’re implying is silly. What, are you supposed to never enjoy “thrills”? Is the only worthwhile aesthetic activity placid contemplation of weighty substance? Give me a break. Grow up.”

Final question: “So why is it that I feel like I’m discovering its true worthlessness?” The answer is “You’re listening for a voice and it’s not there. That seems negligent on the part of the artist, to you. However, if you were listening for thrills and instead there was serious content, you would never think to blame the artist, even though you would be equally disappointed. This is because you associate the ideas of blame and negligence with the realm of intellectual value, but not with the realm of entertainment and thrills. These associations are your own biases. Ultimately, nobody is to blame for this mismatch. The piece simply isn’t offering the sort of thing your mind wants to hear right now.”

This brings me, finally, to where I intended to start, with the question of “if nobody is to blame, then how will we ever improve the drastic contemporary problems of audience alienation?” But I am sick, sick, sick of writing this entry and refuse to go any further. Some other time.

* One of the reasons I am such an admirer of Medtner is because at times he seems to have achieved this sort of combination.**

** Several weeks later: I keep thinking about that previous note and regretting it – Medtner is actually one of the most devoutly Beethovenian of composers, and the idea that any of his music is a “combination,” I have realized, is left over from my initial impressions of pieces whose developmental life was so dense that I got lost and ended up just enjoying the scenery, which is indeed also very lovely. But after I came to know those pieces better, there was really no question which side of the fence they fell on. A proper example of a composer who really and intentionally achieves a fusion of the two kinds of music would be Stravinsky.

September 10, 2005

H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991)

by Michel Houellebecq
translation of HP Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie into English by Dorna Khazeni (2005)
with an introduction by Stephen King
and two stories by H.P. Lovecraft:
“The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)
“The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)

Michel Houellbecq is a contemporary French author of some note, but I have not read any of his (other) works. Most articles about this (non-fiction) book, his first published work, discuss the ways in which it connects to his more famous, more recent novels. But I can’t comment on that because I don’t know.

My first encounter with Lovecraft’s astonishing name came when I played the old Infocom text adventure game The Lurking Horror, which stages Lovecraftian stuff at an essentially undisguised M.I.T. to create what must therefore be the nerdiest game of all time. It’s not bad. The unholy-summoning storyline is of course a big Lovecraft “homage,” but I didn’t know it at the time. I was only able to gather from context that his name (which makes a cameo as the name of a computer) was somehow a genre-appropriate “reference,” and I remember thinking that there was something etymologically unsavory about the idea that the words “love” and “craft” should in combination connote monsters and evil.

It was not until several years later that I finally saw evidence that “love-craft” had been a real person and a writer of horror stories: passing through the hallway of some other high school (on a “science team” trip, I believe!), I came across a copy of one of his story collections, abandoned on a table. Something still seemed unsavory. The book was from some godawful sci-fi publisher, had a terrible over-the-top illustration on it, and all around looked like something both obscure and shoddy. Infocom had expected me to know about this guy? It seemed to me like maybe he wasn’t a real writer, he was just some creepy underground thing for creepy underground people, best ignored – like, say, the Church of the SubGenius.

As the years went on, I continued to come across references to Lovecraft, many of them seeming to take for granted that his literary importance was widely acknowledged. Well, not by anyone I knew, it wasn’t! This was not an author that anyone ever seemed to read, nor one whose works were apparent at the bookstore. I knew where “important” authors’ names came up, and his didn’t. Nonetheless I seemed frequently to come across winking references to ridiculous garbage words like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, as though the significance of this gobbledygook was common knowledge to normal cultured people.

You might well point out that I was, among other things, playing computer adventure games, so what did I expect? But the form and structure of the interlocking worlds of nerddom are not readily apparent to one who has only ventured into one or two of them.

Anyway, finally one day in college, while on duty at a very quiet library desk job, I decided to educate myself. So I and my roommate, who had come to hang out, read library copies of “The Dunwich Horror,” which had been recommended somewhere or other as Lovecraft’s greatest story. The horrendously overripe, relentlessly inelegant writing – humorless, monotonous, and altogether amateurish* – was a surprise. So was the particular combination of horror tropes (which I have since learned is exactly characteristic of Lovecraft): zoological mix-and-match half-human monsters with color-changing fins and such, IN COMBINATION with decrepit farmhouses and drawling, hostile New England country folk. These two varieties of horror didn’t seem like a natural match, to me, and yet here they were, unapologetically wedded, in this purportedly important story. My roommate thought the only redeeming aspect of the story was the opening passage, a description of the discomfort one feels driving deeper and deeper into the wild rural countryside. I thought the ultimate monster (an enormous egg-shaped mess of “squirming ropes” with a “half face”) was odd enough to deserve some respect. We also appreciated the historical significance of horror that was based on cosmic abominations rather than on mere hauntings and curses. Both of us agreed that as a whole it was really, really junky.

Now, armed with first-hand knowledge of just what the hell “H.P. Lovecraft” was, I was better able to be baffled by the breadth of his reputation. Who were these crazies calling him one of the major writers of the twentieth century? How had they convinced Penguin, and then this year – Good Lord! – The Library of America!? to buy into this? Who dared invent the notion of a “Lovecraft scholar?”

I am fascinated by the fact that Lovecraft, a phenomenally bad writer of phenomenally pulpy PULP – I mean really, the very pulpiest imaginable – is held in such high esteem by what seems to be an ever-widening circle of nerdified critics. Here, for example, is Joyce Carol Oates going off unreservedly about Howard Phillips. It make me feel a little lightheaded to think that when they’ve been coaxed into the right mood, critics are willing to overlook (or even embrace) the most glaring, painful, high-school-literary-magazine-grade stylistic offenses. How am I supposed to learn taste from these people when nobody seems to object to this most obvious tastelessness? And yet, for all that, I am simultaneously attracted to Lovecraft’s aesthetic goals, and pleased by the idea that all this eager critical disregard for his screaming faults is apparently motivated by a general enthusiasm for those goals.

The man wanted to recreate the unnerving sensations akin to fear that arise during dreams and fevers. I think that’s cool. Like Lovecraft, I think that there is, at least, the impression of profundity in these feelings, a subconscious suggestion that perhaps our basic assumptions about perception, experience, life on Earth, consciousness, reality at its basic level – perhaps these are flawed and subject to revision based on new information. A bit like the Timothy Leary types who insisted that LSD showed them new truths, there is a potent and upsetting impression, in certain dreams, that one’s understanding of THE NATURE OF ALL THINGS has been broadened. It’s not just any old being-weirded-out, it’s ominous and important being-weirded-out. The principle, I suppose, is that a broad enough sense of uncertainty and unease can call one’s whole life into perspective, which can be a gratifying experience. This sort of impression is hard to recreate while awake and sober, but when you get it, it’s really something. Pondering death is a natural way to get there, as is any real consideration of the depth of time and the size of the universe. But the impressions caused by these real-world thoughts are not nearly as potent as those in dreams, because at some level, we ARE always aware that we will eventually die, or that the universe is vast beyond our capacity to imagine. Whereas until we have it, we are completely unaware of the impression, in a dream, that the whole world is purple and dark and is slowly tilting and creaking. The unnameable, everything-revising implications of that experience will be felt to the fullest. My post about Scriabin’s Prometheus talked a bit about this, and how I respect it as an artistic goal, and enjoy it as an experience.** Lovecraft was going for something like that.

He was, in fact, going for a very particular subcategory of this experience. He had given the subject a lot of thought, and most of his stories are fixedly dedicated to a certain upsetting notion; namely, that the unsettling dream world of horrible not-rightness is in fact part of our world, a reality that existed before historical time and continues to exist outside normal space. Poe put it at the south pole and in tombs; Lovecraft does those, but he also adds that it is in outer space, and, most importantly, somewhere magically parallel to us, the ether from which demons and such can be summoned. He takes old quasi-religious notions of ghosts and netherworlds from from the long tradition of alchemy- and magic-based ghost stories, and blends them with the surreal discomforts of dream-horror. Or he works dream-horror into the old mythological constructions about gods meddling among humans. Basically, his inspiration was that the powerful horror of the surreal can be worked into ghost stories, monster stories, god stories. That’s it. It’s a good idea, and yes, in one way or another it’s the foundational idea behind pretty much all horror today. I like it. Is it brilliant? I don’t know; it’s not as though Lovecraft really invented it himself. But he clarified it and pursued it with a certain consistency of concept, which is no small thing.

So to sum up: I think Lovecraft was a bad writer, but the idea(s) for which he’s known are good, and interesting to me.

I saw this book (this is about that book, remember) on display on the new non-fiction table when the translation came out earlier this year, and was immediately attracted by the title: Against the World, Against Life. It seemed to be talking about the crux of the Lovecraftian concept: that fascinating, horrifying dream-rejection of reality. The first pages were compelling; the author was talking about H.P. Lovecraft’s actual problems coping with the real world and suggesting that the peculiar anti-reality stance of his horror was actually a sort of philosophical position, and that it appeals to readers who at some level also hate reality. The psychological functions of horror interest me, and the idea of a book taking this tone toward Lovecraft seemed very appealing. I also think, for personal reasons, that Lovecraft’s biography of utter pathetic grinding hopeless failure is an interesting backdrop to his bad but beloved art, and seeing it worked into this thesis was satisfying. So (a little later) I bought the book and read it.

Unfortunately, it’s much more fannish and obnoxious than I expected. Houellebecq loves Lovecraft, and loves his own intensity in loving Lovecraft, and seems ultimately like another example of the fixation on Lovecraft himself that for some reason characterizes his readers. His emphasis on world-hating flaunts a sort of perverse enthusiasm that, I have read, is typical of Houellebecq, whose novels are apparently misanthropic in the extreme. With this sort of attitude, he’s not the right person to be discussing the work; he just barely feels that it needs defending, and most of his arguments seem like calmly self-satisfied perversion rather than a good faith offering of thought. The mission statement on the first page, “We need a supreme antidote to all forms of realism,” which struck me as charmingly bold at first, turns out to be a deadpan that is never dropped. Does he really believe it? Hard to say what that question means. One might well ask whether he really likes Lovecraft after all, or is just putting on a show. Though I am inclined to think that he really does like Lovecraft, since he talks about discovering him as a child. I think a kid’s enthusiasm for monsters is never a put-on. And I’m willing to believe that Houellebecq really thinks that life is beastly and horror is the proper response to it. But that, as they say, is his problem. He certainly didn’t convince me otherwise.

See this entry for a little bit about the book’s attitude toward Lovecraft’s prose style. Then check out this satisfying letter in which the excellent ghost story writer M.R. James (much admired by H.P.) mentions “one H.P. Lovecraft, whose style is of the most offensive.”

The one really valuable insight provided by the book (though still with a hint of tasteless, nihilistic pride) is that Lovecraft’s reccurent sub-human horrors are in fact directly derived from his own deeply felt racism. There is a really remarkable passage quoted from one of Lovecraft’s letters, sounding just like one of his overblown (“overblown” is much too mild a word) fictional passages of revulsion, but describing his experience walking down the ethnically mixed horror streets of New York City, where he briefly attempted to have a life and utterly failed. I felt like it really made everything about Lovecraft click into place – the fear we are being made to feel is racial fear, with all its various strata of disgust – pseudo-rational social and biological disgust, but always, fundamentally, a simple bigot’s displeasure with the unfamiliar. More generally, a man who lived his life alone in his room is a man whose basic discomfort with the unknown, even the benign unknown, must have been incredibly acute. It is as though his stories are furiously grotesque projections of, say, my mild anxieties about talking to strangers.

This psychological clue to Lovecraft’s horror, and horror in general, was interesting to me, and Houellebecq initiated it, but Houellebecq himself seems to dismiss it in favor of actually endorsing the conclusions Lovecraft drew about how awful life was, even as he illustrates their ridiculous extremity. What does Houellebecq think of Lovecraft’s phenomenal racism? He doesn’t lower himself to say; he’d rather keep up the show of being an apostle of nihilism.

Meanwhile, the introduction by Stephen King is really lazy and smarmy – this coming from someone who in general has no problem with Stephen King – and is an all-around bizarro pairing for the book. King offers us some downright stupid bitter put-downs for literary criticism in general, and then tells us that the present book isn’t really one of those books, even though it is. Then he rambles about himself at some length. My impression was that he had breezed through the book inattentively and is glad to write an introduction to just about anything. At one point he says something like, “I agree with everything that Houellebecq says…except for his idea that Lovecraft hated life and that you have to hate life to enjoy Lovecraft. In fact, that’s not true.” Seriously, he says that. It also made me cringe when he copies out Houellebecq’s flamboyantly niihilistic chapter-headings (“Attack the story like a radiant suicide,” “Utter the great NO to life without weakness,” etc.) and then says something dense like, “yeah, I agree with that.”

Which, finally, brings me to the Lovecraft stories that pad out the back of the book. I had read neither of them. The first was the famous “The Call of Cthulhu.” Cthulhu, for those of you who have never set foot in a comic book store, is a horrible octopusish god thing that lives in a sunken nightmare city and calls out psychically to sensitive types, who have bad dreams about him. The city rises up for a day in the Pacific somewhere, and some people in a boat come across it, and open a big portal, and Cthulhu rises out, but one guy gets away to tell the tale. There were elements of the story that were nice ideas – the idea that people all over the world are vaguely aware of this thing, that images of it show up in all different cultures, including ongoing secret cults, and that it has been sleeping since ancient times but will return…it’s all nice, though the awful prose slows it down. Most of the pleasure I took in these ideas came after reading the klutzy prose, digesting it, and then thinking about it all afterward. But the worst, I think, is that this dreamed thing actually shows up at the end of the story, and is basically a Godzilla – a big old slimy monster trudging out of the depths. I’ll grant that maintaining a sense of unreality is a tough challenge when the narrative approaches its object, but I would say this ultimately failed.

The second story was better, probably the best I’d ever read by H.P.: “The Whisperer in Darkness.” It was long but the prose was significantly cleaner than his other writing, I thought, so I didn’t much mind the length. This one was about evil aliens who live in New Hampshire. A not-so-clever but still effective conceit for keeping things at a satisfying distance is used – the horrors are mostly described to us by a skeptical narrator who hears about stuff through a written correspondence with a believer. The believer sends him bits of evidence that give him doubts. Etc. Then, in the last section of the story, the narrator travels up into the woods to meet the believer, whose letters have suddenly changed in tone and who now seems to love the aliens. You can see where this is going, but it goes there with a little bit of flair. The whisperer of the title is the believer character (maybe) sitting almost completely muffled up in the corner of the farmhouse, moving stiffly, and hoarsely telling the narrator about how wonderful it will be to have his mind removed from his body and taken to faraway worlds by the aliens. To the just-discovered Pluto, in fact, where the aliens are from. They call it Yuggoth.

It was actually kind of a fun story, though the final punchline is pretty clearly telegraphed by what comes before, so the ending is a little anti-climactic. But the horror, I would say, was not dreamlike, not really. This was your typical story of lobster aliens deceiving people in New Hampshire, and as such set itself an easier task.

Okay, I’m done with this, finally, though I just had another thought about Lovecraft, so I guess I’ll end with this. He writes in that style we know so well from old newspapers: the stilted, wordy, overpadded propriety of the mustachioed old men of the turn of the century. Despite the fact that it’s 1925, Lovecraft thinks that he’s one of those old men and he thinks that style is super keen, a really dignified, solid weight in his pen, which he, like those old men, will nourish with selected power words from his own particular storehouse, and bring to poetic heights with romantic outpourings. To him, his Oh god! The thing had no face! Such eldritch abominations cannot be! is just a new spin on the old O! My love, death has taken thee! And now his fans buy into it as well: Lovecraft was a great old man of literature; he wrote important texts with dignity.

Can’t we all be a little more embarrassed about all this? That’s all I ask.

* It’s really satisfying, coming up with ways to describe what’s so bad about Lovecraft’s writing. I have more adjectives if anyone wants to hear them.

**This is of course also something that the surrealist painters explicitly attempted, with, I would say, only occasional success. My quickie reviews: Magritte was too clumsy a painter and too conceptually “clever” to get these sensations across very often; his images have a satisfying waking mystery to them but aren’t actually very dreamlike. The sexual ones in particular don’t really work, I think. Dali was closer to the mark, but he was too caught up in the idea of populating his canvases with symbolic doodads and goo on stilts. That goes double for Yves Tanguy. Most of it feels pretty contrived and silly, not to mention ugly. Max Ernst had a particular couple of things he could convey, though a lot of his work doesn’t signify much to me and even some of the dream-ish stuff seems like icky overkill. De Chirico had that nice thing that he did over and over, which works for me. My dreams are often like that, though a little less flat. And where would UPA have been without him? Remedios Varo seems to be more and more popular these days, and I can see the appeal. A few too many tissue-paper vaginas and alchemists and wispy people for my taste, but the overall atmosphere is certainly effective, even if you think it’s schlocky.