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The Original Weird Critick

LovecraftSupernatural [1]1,845 words

H. P. Lovecraft
Supernatural Horror in Literature [2]
Edited, annotated, and with a foreword by Alex Kurtagic
London: Wermod & Wermod, 2013

The origins of the modern “weird tale” lie in H. P. Lovecraft’s essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature. Not, of course, that there were not “weird” stories long before; Lovecraft himself traces them as far back as the Book of Enoch and various mediaeval works.[1] 

But as Lovecraft says, “the typical weird tale of the standard literature is a child of the eighteenth century.” Moreover, it was Lovecraft himself, in this very work, who created the canons and criteria of judgment for the modern weird tale. The only similar situation I can recall is how Huysmans, by setting his fictional decadent, Des Esseintes, to an exhaustive and exhausting catalog of the library of his “refined Thebaïd” in Against Nature, created as a side effect the canon of French 19th-century avant garde poetry.[2]

As S. T. Joshi says:

Lovecraft’s defense of weird fiction as the literature of pure imagination and as the preserve of a select few is a very compelling one, and we can see how well it justifies the work of . . . his contemporaries and successors.

As for Lovecraft himself, Joshi adds that

[The essay] quite literally occupies a central place in his work: it was written at almost the midpoint of his career, a decade on either side of the commencement of his mature fiction-writing. . . . What is more, it not only allowed him to codify his views on the weird tale, but it seemed to galvanize him creatively: it is surely no accident that shortly after the bulk of his work on the essay was finished, in the summer of 1926, Lovecraft produced a torrent of  fiction that included “The Call of Cthulhu” . . .[3]

So, as both seminal literary critic and creative writer himself, Lovecraft’s essay continues to demand our attention.

However, because, like (almost?) all of Lovecraft’s work, the essay has long been out of copyright — if in fact anyone bothered to copyright in the first place — it has (never?) been out of print since its first appearance before the general public in Derleth’s original The Outsider and Others omnibus in 1939.[4]

With a plethora of cheap editions, such as Dover’s, including free ones on the internet, and, on the other hand, full-price scholarly editions like Joshi’s,[5] one must ask, why this edition?

To his credit, editor Alex Kurtagic grasps this nettle firmly in his Foreword, and adduces several reasons to justify it: the Foreword and annotations are aimed at general readers, not Lovecraft scholars, while the Foreword itself seeks to put Lovecraft in “a broader perspective” than most scholars have done;[6] footnotes are used rather than endnotes, and in general more attention has been paid to “the aesthetic aspects of book production,” citing the tiny typefaces, banal cover art, etc. that supposedly plague other editions. However, I am not sure Kurtagic has made his case with this edition.

First, the good things. Editor Kurtagic contributes an admirable Foreword which discuses Lovecraft’s life, thought, and methods of composition. Kurtagic demonstrates how “Lovecraft’s epicureanism,[7] elitism and racialism all revolved around [the] two axes” of an “aristocratic temper” and a “materialistic worldview.”

Materialism and scientism were integrated into an elitist framework, whereby it is the superior type of man who dispenses with blind belief in religions fictions, bases his knowledge of the universe on hard, verifiable, reproducible evidence and who then relies on art for beauty and on tradition for meaning.

As for Lovecraft’s racialism, this too was a function of his reliance on “hard, verifiable, reproducible evidence,” rightly rejecting the ideologically driven Boasian flim-flam.[8]

Art and Tradition, however, were purely “local” phenomena; Lovecraft’s materialism answered to his Epicurean needs by ending in his famous “cosmicism” — the irrelevance of human ideas of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, survival and extinction, to the cosmos as a whole — which made him “neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but indifferent.”

Indifference, while avoiding pain, can, as Schopenhauer noted, land us in the opposite evil of plain boredom. Here is where art comes in, particularly the extremely powerful art of the modern weird tale,[9] in which religion and Tradition, having been broadly displaced by science, provide an atmosphere that “fills a gap — or gaps — in knowledge.”[10]

In this way, the weird tale can serve as:

A cultural space for dissidence, which both preserves — in imaginative form — primal, traditional, aristocratic, and spiritual values, ideals, sentiments, modes of thought, and realms of imagination; and permits, at the same time, the development — within a literary framework — of ideas that for liberalism are counter-propositional.

As Jonathan Bowden frequently said, the Right owns the imagination.[11]

Kurtagic is also correct in picking up the idea that Lovecraft’s art of invoking atmosphere depends on the minute accumulation of detail (materialism, again, used against itself) culminating in the stopping of time.[12]

The Bibliography provides the details of the original place of publication, as do the footnotes, but while perhaps useful for a Lovecraft scholar writing a dissertation, the general reader would much prefer some indication, at least, of where a book or story can be found today, if at all. Even the scholarly researcher will be frustrated by numerous simple typos, such as Zeuberlehrling for Zauberlehrling, or 911 for 1911.

This is supplemented by an Index of names, titles and topics, though here again the intent is frustrated by the execution, as it seems to have been organized upon no alphabetical principle known to me.[13]

As in my remarks on Wermod’s edition of The Partisan,[14] while the general typography is indeed readable, the page numbers, headings, etc. use what appears to be Wermod’s house font, an eye-challenging one apparently derived from Fraktur which I called “Hitler Pseudo-Gothic.” Ironically, its suggested “spookiness” is perhaps more appropriate here, than in their other, more staid publications; Kurtagic contributes a cover illustration that continues the Halloween theme.

In my review of Wermod’s edition of Hitler: The Adjournment,[15] I speculated that the dreary cover and spooky font were designed to convey a cliché “scary skinhead” image;[16] in my review of The Partisan, a much worthier book, I broadened my concerns to the general question of the image put forward by the alt-Right. We must appear better than our enemies, because, of course, we are; and we must not willingly — or unwittingly — conform to their stereotypes of us. Kurtagic, in his remarks as editor of this book, seems to echo my intentions, so it is rather frustrating to see shortfall in production.

So, why buy this book? Well, because Kurtagic’s excellent short essay not only provides all the general reader needs to know about Lovecraft and the book, but also provides a generally alt-Right perspective on Lovecraft that sadly lacking either among the general public or even his supposed weird fiction compatriots.[17]

Moreover, purchase will help fund Wermod’s other worthy efforts, such as the Palingenesis Project, bringing out forgotten or suppressed works of Yockey, Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard and other luminaries of the alt-Right. (And purchases made through the Counter-Currents Amazon link [3] will help us as well!)

To paraphrase Tolkien, “Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to authors and publishers who take our own side will purchase this edition, and no other.”[18]

Notes

1. S. T. Joshi, in his essay on Lovecraft’s essay (reprinted in Lovecraft and a World in Transition: Collected Essays on H. P. Lovecraft (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2015) wonders why Lovecraft didn’t include the “various descents into the underworld” in Greek Epics, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the tragedies of Medea and Seneca, the latter of which “led directly to the Elizabethan tragedy cited by Lovecraft.”

2. See Nicholas White’s Introduction to the Oxford Classics edition of 2009. Lovecraft’s interest in the Decadents can be seen in the Huysmans-esque house (tomb odors rather than rare perfumes piped in) in which the two grave-robbers store their noxious collections in “The Hound.” On Lovecraft and Decadence in general, see H. P. Lovecraft: New England Decadent by the rather decadently named Barton Levi St. Armand (1979; 2nd ed. 2013).

3. Joshi, op. cit.

4. It was originally commissioned for one of those amateur magazine published by Lovecraft’s circle, (early “fanzines”) in 1927, and in 1935 Lovecraft managed to publish a partially updated, revised and corrected edition of the first few chapters in another ‘zine that soon folded.

5. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature by H. P. Lovecraft (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2000).

6. Other than Joshi himself, the use of whose A Subtler Magick: The Writings and Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 1996) and biography of Lovecraft, I Am Providence (New York: Hippocampus, 2012) are acknowledged by Kurtagic right up front.

7. In the sense of a follower of Epicurus, “amalgamated [with] Lucretius and Schopenhauer”; Lovecraft, who often lived on hard cheese and unheated baked beans from poverty, experimentalism, or just sheer cussedness, was hardly a gourmet; this may well have contributed to his early death from intestinal cancer.

8. See my review of David Haden’s Walking With Cthulhu: H. P. Lovecraft as Psychogeographer, New York City 1924-26, here [4].

9. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” — the famous opening line of Lovecraft’s essay.

10. See my “‘A General Outline of the Whole’: Lovecraft as Heideggerian Event,” a review of Graham Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, here [5] and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

11. Kurtagic adduces Black Metal as a modern example of Tradition hidden under a bushel basket; I have suggested genre pictures, not only top-drawer Hollywood like The Untouchables or Groundhog Day, but, especially, “B” movies or outright “bad” films, like the oeuvre of Ed Wood, Jr. or Coleman Francis. See my review of Rob Craig’s Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films and the other essays cited there [6].

12. See the title essay, and the others on Lovecraft and Henry James, in The Eldritch Evola, op. cit. Needless to say, who hasn’t felt time stop during an especially bad film?

13. The author known as A. E. starts us off, followed by a story name in quotes, which sequence continues until the end of page 166, whereupon 167 begins with “Red Hand, The” and continues to “Yellow Wallpaper, The” whereupon the sequence begins again with A. E., continuing through “Yellow Wallpaper” to finish with Zofloya, This does not appear to be a binding problem but perhaps some computer glitch in laying out the text itself.

14. See my review here [7].

15. See my review here [8].

16. Or here, at least, the Black Metal music that Kurtagic cites as “analogous” to supernatural horror fiction.

17. See my reflections on the brouhaha over Lovecraft’s “racism” and the Lovecraft Award, here [9].

18. Tolkien’s famous plea, printed on the back of the first, authorized American paperback edition of The Hobbit. However, Tolkien sent a “hasty note” to Ballantine to protest, inter alia, the “foul lettering” used on the cover; like Hitler, he was not a fan of the pseudo-Gothic that their fans seemed to think represents their spirit. See The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter; #277 To Rayner Unwin, 12 September 1965.