Saturday, March 31, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft: Psychically Sensitive or Merely...

I confess! I love the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the seminal early twentieth century horror writer. I'm an irredeemable Lovecraft nerd!

Lovecraft had very limited relationships with women (a short marriage to a New York milliner which they both agreed to end), hung around with gay authors like Hart Crane and made another, the anthropologist R.H. Barlow, his literary executor. Naturally, there is some speculation that Lovecraft may have been gay himself. 

"Mom and Dad, this is my friend H.P. Lovecraft!" Lovecraft (l), R.H. Barlow, and Barlow's parents.
 
The Barlow connection in particular is suggestive and redolent with connections. Lovecraft stayed with Barlow and his family in Florida when Barlow was a teen, and Barlow's family even built Lovecraft a cabin on their property. Barlow later became a professor at Mexico City College, where one of his students was William S. Burroughs. Sadly, Barlow killed himself when a student threatened to out him. 

Lovecraft wrote several letters to friends claiming he was revolted by homosexuality, but perhaps he was just covering something up. Lovecraft was a notorious xenophobe and wrote disparagingly of Eastern Europeans and Jews, but his wife was a Ukrainian Jew. To paraphrase the Bard poorly, maybe Lovecraft protests too much?

If Lovecraft were gay, he'd probably appreciate this fetish outfit inspired by his writings created by artist Bob Bassett.

Of course, we'll never know if Lovecraft was really gay or not but there is a definite queer sensibility to his fiction, even if it seems like a self-loathing one. For example, look at this passage from The Dunwich Horror that describes the body of strapping hillbilly wizard Wilbur Whateley (sort of a demonic Yankee Lil' Abner) after his clothes are torn off by a dog:

Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.
 
Their arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system. On each of the hips, deep set in a kind of pinkish, ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye; whilst in lieu of a tail there depended a kind of trunk or feeler with purple annular markings, and with many evidences of being an undeveloped mouth or throat... 

Poor demonic Wilbur dies, and his body shrivels up (Lovecraft uses the suggestive word "shrinkage"), leaving behind "only a sticky whitish mass.." Someone get a paper towel! 

Or think about the plot of the wonderfully titled The Thing On The Doorstep, where a bookish young man marries a young lady only to find out her body harbors the soul of her sorcerous father, who wants to take over his body next - because a male body suits his magical purposes better. It's a delirious piece of trash that is either misogynistic, homophobic or both. And isn't The Shadow Over Innsmouth a coming out story where the hero discovers he's gay evolving into a giant fish monster?

When I was a kid Lovecraft's stories terrified me, but now that I am older I can appreciate them on many levels. I love his relentless use of adjectives to describe the indescribable, and also his humor. Dare I say these stories can be read as camp? Just this week I was laughing at this dialogue from The Dunwich Horror where a gossipy country housewife discusses, in a ridiculous faux backwoods dialect, some supernatural shenanigans. It reminds me of that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs chatters away while giving a manicure to a monster. 



'An' he says, says he, Mis' Corey, as haow he sot to look fer Seth's caows, frightened ez he was an' faound 'em in the upper pasture nigh the Devil's Hop Yard in an awful shape. Haff on 'em's clean gone, an' nigh haff o' them that's left is sucked most dry o' blood, with sores on 'em like they's ben on Whateleys cattle ever senct Lavinny's black brat was born. Seth hes gone aout naow to look at 'em, though I'll vaow he won't keer ter git very nigh Wizard Whateley's!... They's allus ben unseen things araound Dunwich - livin' things - as ain't human an' ain't good fer human folks. 
 
FYI - I've lived in New England my whole life and never heard an accent anything like that!

I also appreciate Lovecraft's stories because although he was an atheist and a staunch materialist, he is obsessed with religion, art, magic and encounters with the sublime. I'm interested in all those things as well, but while I view them as mostly positive forces for Lovecraft they are invariably sources of horror and madness. When his characters encounter the numinous it kills them, maddens them, or transforms them into a monster. No one said enlightenment is easy!

I recently performed a little thought experiment. I decided to read Call of Cthulhu as if Lovecraft really were gay. I was surprised at how many times the word "queer" shows up in this story of evil cultists, cephalapod deities, and rough trade sailors. I know the word queer had a different meaning in the 1920s, but just imagine if Lovecraft really had magically projected his mind into the future and actually wrote the story for modern queer men. It takes on a completely different meaning!

For example, here's how Lovecraft describes Henry Wilcox, a young artist whose dreams have been disturbed by strange forces:

He called himself "psychically hypersensitive", but the staid folk of the ancient commercial city dismissed him as merely "queer." 

Hasn't the same been said of so many of us?

3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think Lovecraft's 'Hypnos' might support your argument better than anything else. If you haven't read it, it's basically the pygmalion myth reversed. The male protagonist witnesses a beautiful man faint at a trainstation. Naturally, he takes him home!

    I would say more, but I don't want to ruin the plot for anyone reading this comment.

    The icing on the cake is that Lovecraft dedicated Hypnos to his gay friend (he certainly had a lot of them!) Samuel Loveman (I swear I'm not making this up!), who went on to pronounce it the best thing Lovecraft had ever written. I have to agree! - All Lovecraft's usual hatred is abscent. Instead there's a rather moving element of self-examination.

    Just my thoughts!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Dee! Thanks for the comment. Hypnos is indeed very beautiful and homoerotic. I like the imagery of the two men flying nude through the alternate dimensions. I agree about Samuel Loveman. I fell like he was Lovecraft's muse for many of his earlier stories.

    ReplyDelete