Sunday, 10 November 2013

Foreshadowings - H.P. Lovecraft as a Gothic writer

It's almost time for our third session this year and this time we're looking at a huge figure in the canon of horror fiction and an author synonymous with the sub-genre of 'weird fiction.' But is H.P. Lovecraft a 'Gothic' writer? How should we approach him as such? What kind of devices, familiar from the Gothic tradition, does his brand of fiction rely upon? Thankfully, Kathleen has some interesting thoughts on these questions to help us get started.


Lovecraft Reads a Story: The Gothic Manuscript

Kathleen Hudson

H.P. Lovecraft is great fun to read, but he's also a writer who is difficult to categorize.  Can students of the Gothic legitimately adopt him as one of their own?  His aesthetic is Gothic, but his subject matter and, often, tone and style of writing veer more towards science fiction, his sometimes frustratingly methodical descriptions, ostensibly for the sake of accuracy, separating him from Gothic writers whose narrative is perhaps more emotional or character driven.  It is exactly in this ambiguous area of literary style, however, that Lovecraft perhaps engages best with one suggestive Gothic trope - namely, the preoccupation with the manuscript narrative.  The 'found manuscript' is pretty popular in readings of the Romantic Gothic of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries – the investigating heroine discovering a crumbling document in an ancient chest or among a family members personal papers, or indeed the author herself stating that the whole novel is taken from a 'found' manuscript and adapted for a modern audience.  Walpole, Reeve, Radcliffe, Lewis, and a myriad of Gothic Blue Book authors employ the selective manuscript as an in-text plot point or a larger means of framing the story.  Overwhelmingly, the subjectivity of the narrative in the 'found manuscript' is emphasized.  If the manuscript is not a highly personal and emotional first-person telling of a story (as in, for example the manuscript Adeline finds in Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest (1791)), it has chunks missing, obscured by time and weather (as in Reeve's The Old English Baron (1778)).  Manuscripts are essentially ghost stories in the Romantic Gothic - they tell a story and often manifest emotional and psychological trauma revisited on the reader (both the protagonist-reader and the actual reader).  So to incorporate a 'found' manuscript narrative in a Gothic tale is a pretty important reflection of Gothic genre goals, of historical resurrection, of the emotional response, of the alternative and unexpected coming to the surface.

H.P. Lovecraft, (probably) daydreaming about tentacles.

But what does that have to do with Lovecraft, a writer who stylistically emulates the scientific method more than anything?  First of all, Lovecraft's works are very rarely told from exclusively one viewpoint - rather, they are collections of narrative documents and oral histories from a wide range or sources.  Also, they are highly subjective, and are treated as unreliable by the narrator himself.  "Call of Cthulhu" for example, sees it's initially skeptical narrator work his way through documentation - his uncle's notes on the Cthulhu cult, oral tales from a Louisianan police inspector and a psychically sensitive artist, newspaper articles which cover only the most superficial details, and a long manuscript written by a Norwegian sailor which finally convinces the narrator of the truth.  The narrator actually does very little actively within the narrative - his job is to listen to and read 'ghost stories' and find the underlying facts and patterns that justify their placement.  Like many Gothic heroes and heroines, Lovecraft's narrators are forced into a narrative passivity in which the disjointed threads of history and understanding, manifested in various and diverse text sources, must be reread and re-imagined if they are to be dealt with.  The narrator in "Cthulhu" admits to initially disbelieving the sources as myth, but the more he engages with the various accumulated documents, and the more he leads us through the textual evidence, the more convinced the narrator and reader are that the end result is true.  It is essentially a version of the sublime in Gothic - we do not have the whole picture, and in seeking to construct a picture we fall prey to the gaps in knowledge that are necessarily left.

A genuine Lovecraft manuscript: the author's own drawing of Cthulhu

There are hints that Lovecraft sees the 'manuscript' and indeed individual and overarching narrative as problematic.  On the one hand he appeals to a sort of universal perception, the idea that all people recognize and fear certain images or emotions because of an inherent understanding of them as bad.  Lovecraft's preoccupation with degeneration theory informs this - the fear that we all come from the same awful place becomes a unifying aspect of the human experience.  Arguably, then, there is a 'right' answer or interpretation of reality, and all human beings are attuned to it - hence the universal reaction to figures such as Cthulhu and the other so-called Elder Gods of the Lovecraft mythos.  This reaction underlies all the collected 'manuscript' narratives, and their subjectivity is forgiven in the objectivity of their common horror.  Alternatively, Lovecraft seems very well aware of the limits of narrative expression.  The Norwegian sailor in "The Call of Cthulhu" is, tellingly, killed by a bundle of falling papers just after completing his own 'bundle' of truth, and the reasons most character 's have for writing the story in the first place is as a warning against seeking further knowledge (see "The Call of Cthulhu," "At the Mountains of Madness," and "The Colour Out of Space") or as an expression of madness, an ineffectual attempt to assert their own questionable sanity (see "The Rats in the Walls") or even, shockingly, as a last goodbye before departing into a completely inhuman 'other' (see "The Shadow Over Innsmouth").  Moreover, even the 'objective' forums of narrative are not objective - Lovecraft incorporates so-called newspaper clippings in his works as a means of illustrating known facts, but they are almost always wrong or incomplete in their interpretation.  In "The Colour out of Space" Lovecraft bitingly criticizes the editors of the local newspaper for ignoring the true horror, noting about the unusual happenings that "that dignitary did no more than write a humorous article about them, in which the dark fears of rustics were held up to polite ridicule." 

Here be shadows.

In Lovecraft’s stories very few, if any, narratives are able to stand alone, and his work compromises perceptions of objectivity and subjectivity in his engagement of the 'found manuscript,' be that manuscript a newspaper clipping, a scientific document or a bit of archaic folklore.  Like classic Gothic characters, Lovecraft’s narrators rely on the ‘found manuscript’ to engage with the past and the future, and in doing so narrative objectivity itself is left open to attack on all side.  Whether this is a reflection of what Lovecraft identified as the "fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large," (as Lovecraft wrote in a note to the editor of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, in 1927) is an argument for another day.  What one can reasonably suggest is that engagement with unconventional narrative is one of the things that make reading Lovecraft as a Gothic writer an interesting exploration, because you are forced to play detective and to draw from a wide range of sources in order to get to the final horror.  Moreover, it suggests an overall leaning toward the Gothic genre that helps classify and contextualize Lovecraft as a 'weird' writer.

Some Recommended sources and resources:
H.P. Lovecraft, Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, 2007
Timothy H. Evans, "A Last Defense against the Dark: Folklore, Horror, and the Uses of Tradition in the Works of H. P. Lovecraft," 2005
Joyce Carol Oates, "H.P. Lovecraft: An Introduction," 1997
H.P. Lovecraft, "Nemesis," 1918 


Kathleen Hudson is a PhD student in the School of English, working on the role of servant-narrative in the Gothic tradition. She also does a mean impression of Count Fosco.


  1. The last original tale that Lovecraft penned, "The Haunting of the Dark," is a Gothic masterpiece, true to the Gothic tradition and evocative of an authentic Gothic mood and themes. The story is, as far as I can remember, E'ch-Pi-El's only truly Gothic masterpiece, in that the Gothic atmosphere remains its main ingredient of mood. Lovecraft's genius, in part, comes from his blending of the fantastic genres of horror, fantasy and the then-new genre of science fiction. "The Haunted of the Dark" shews that the Gothic tale remain'd a vital component of his artistic core to the very end of his creative life.

  2. I can't believe that I got the title of Lovecraft's story, "The Haunter of the Dark," wrong TWICE in ye above comment. Must be sleepy.....

  3. Thanks for the tip - I've not read "The Haunter of the Dark" myself, but it sounds like a good story to include if we end up revisiting Lovecraft. - Mark