Saturday, February 12, 2005

Arts and Lovecrafts

I came to H.P. Lovecraft's writing later in life than most. The typical Lovecraft fan, as best I can tell, discovered horror's most baroque stylist as a teen, still open to the endless possibilities of fiction and not jaded enough to recognize overripe prose. I didn't discover The Call of Cthulhu until college, and was able to understand the author for what he is: a brilliant mind limited by merely adequate writing ability. His imagination was filled with such immense, immaculate horrors, no words could ever satisfactorily convey them to an audience. So, he had to content himself with obsessive, wordy catalogues of obscure adjectives, describing the undescribable.

This is not to say I don't enjoy the man's stories. I love them. In fact, I find him an infinitely more interesting horror writer than most contemporary standard-bearers of the genre, your Stephen Kings, Dean Koontzes, Peter Straubs or Clive Barkers. King's got a tremendous ability with characters, and Barker's just an incredibly fucked up guy, but none of them can match the silly, giddy thrills of "Pickman's Model," my favorite Lovecraft story.

Most Lovecraft fans would choose one of his more mythological titles, I suspect, dealing with Cthulhu and the other sinister gods that inhabit a thoroughly repugnant nether-world of eternal fire and tentacled malfeasance. These are the god-monsters that inspired the demons in Hellboy, that are immediately associated with the adjective "Lovecraftian," that even have adorable plush toy versions of their hideous forms.

But I like "Pickman's Model" because of the perfect simplicity of the set-up. This story should be read by anyone wanting to write horror stories. An artist resents his colleague, Pickman, a man who miraculously fills his portraits with eerie, lifelike creatures that are (as always) too malformed and ugly to describe. One day, Pickman grants him access to his home, and reveals the secret of his magnificent, horrible abilities. And it's.....

NO, NO, I can't spoil it for you. But it's cool. And the whole story is filled with Lovecraft's patented overheated prose. An example, you say? Well, if you insist, here's the narrator describing one of Pickman's paintings:

There's no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify. There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood. The backgrounds were mostly old churchyards, deep woods, cliffs by the sea, brick tunnels, ancient panelled rooms, or simple vaults of masonry. The madness and monstrosity lay in the figures in the foreground- for Pickman's morbid art was pre-eminently one of demoniac portraiture.

How awesome is that? By the way, if you want to read the whole story, it's on the Web here.

It occured to me to write about my enjoyment of Lovecraft both because I never write about literature on this blog, preferring to talk endlessly about portable toilets toppling down hillsides or products that dry out your vagina, and because Salon just ran this half-assed takedown of the man's work. They do their usual Salon straddle-the-line thing, assuring us that, even though they're smart enough to recognize he's no good, he's kind of historically important so it's okay to like him.

Screw that, I say. He may not be technically proficient. He may be campy. His stories might not even be all that scary. It's not William Faulkner, folks, they're just spooky stories. I say, enjoy them for what they are.

I don't want to sound like a shill or anything, and I don't get a damn dime out of this, but if you want to read some Lovecraft, this is the Amazon link for the first Lovecraft edition I purchased. It's a terrific introduction to the man's catalog.

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