Tartarus Press’s Wormwood #17 Now Out: Joel Lane on Lovecraft

In addition to Centipede Press’s relatively new fiction/nonfiction journal The Weird Fiction Review, which we’ve written about before, there’s another, long-running journal devoted exclusively to nonfiction: Tartarus Press’s wonderful Wormwood. Wormwood #17 is just out, a great gift for supernatural fiction fans. Edited by the writer Mark Valentine, this installment’s table of contents promises not just great reading but some excellent books to add to our library. Tartarus has been kind enough to let us reprint part of Joel Lane’s essay on Lovecraft from #17 below the cut.

From ‘World Gone Wrong: H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology of loss (part 1)’ by Joel Lane (Wormwood 17)

The weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) will always be associated with the opening of his most famous story:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Reading that, we are taken into a far more disturbing landscape than one of shunned castles or dusty crypts. We are confronted with the disorientation of the early twentieth century: the sense of a world made starkly terrifying by technology, urbanisation and the loss of illusions. It’s not the traditional certainties of religion and a natural order that Lovecraft is waving goodbye to, but the post-Enlightenment confidence in the human identity and the progress of society. This is a measured cry of despair: an assertion that not only is horror real, but reality is horror. In all its phases, Lovecraft’s work insists that horror is truth – and what he means by horror is the loss or ruin of the human at all levels.

The statement also has a kind of pulp bravura that tells us much about Lovecraft’s attitude towards writing. Ambiguity and subtext are not on his agenda. His work may, at its best, be nuanced and complex – but like the tortured landscapes of his major stories, it works out every deformation on its surface. Part of Lovecraft’s significance in the weird fiction genre is his commitment to making the unknown visible. He does so with a rhetorical flair that would ring hollow if it were not combined with a forensic attention to the meaning of details. The damaged reality he portrays is inscribed with the symptoms of disease and decay.

At its heart, Lovecraft’s narrative is one of loss: the loss of health, sanity, faith, home, family and identity. These protective shells around the human condition are not only broken by events in his stories, but are shown to be illusory. His use of supernatural horror and science fiction, and of a personal mythology that blends the two, represents an increasingly subtle approach towards his core agenda of showing the human soul exposed to the cold wind of a terrible reality.

But although the sensibility underlying his stories is acutely personal, Lovecraft rarely dwells on the inner life of any character. Rather, he explores the development in space and time of malign or terrible processes, like a doctor tracking the progress of a disease. The most remarkable aspect of his storytelling is his commitment to giving horror a morbid geography and history of its own, while showing individuals caught up in its strands like moths that have flown blindly into a geometrical and lethal web.

Lovecraft’s stories blend the themes of death, madness and disease with the compensatory themes of intellectual and imaginative vision, always reaching towards a tragic perspective but withdrawing into irony, bitterness or violence. Closure is his comfort zone. Over two decades of writing he built increasingly complex and ambitious narratives, ultimately balancing his sense of loss with a commitment to the mysteries of a world beyond the human. That vision is expressed most starkly by his character Wilbur Whateley, who writes in his fourth year of life: “I wonder how I shall look when the earth is cleared and there are no earth beings on it.” Becoming alien is a way to take meaning from the journey of alienation.

Copyright 2011, Joel Lane