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“On Words”

02/22/2011

On Words

By V.H. Isaac

The literary community today has an overwhelming, and unfounded, consensus that H.P. Lovecraft is overly extravagant with words.  Daniel Handler, a highly respected author, wrote against HPL’s diction in an essay he published in the New York Times, saying “Biologically impossible, logistically unplumbable and linguistically unpronounceable, it’s a world that makes you want to lock up all the wardrobes rather than venturing inside them. It is little wonder that [the narrators] talk to us in language as unspeakably florid as the universe they’re attempting to describe”, and going on to say “[Tell the reader] what the monster looks like already.” I believe this general attitude stems not from a lack of skill on Lovecraft’s part, but instead from the unwillingness to view his writing with an open mind. They don’t give Lovecraft the attention required to see what hidden literary significance lies within his works. Once they cease their hypocritical attitude and instead begin viewing his works in the right light, they will see all that he has to offer: Poetically artistic style, powerful language, and a grippingly customizable atmosphere—all together creating a playfully unique collection of stories which ought to be studied across the literary world.

Academics appear to prefer the pedestrian over that which is as poetic in voice and style as it is masterful in its character and plot progression—but only, it seems, when dealing with Lovecraft. Edgar Allan Poe wrote elaborate stories, and he was admired for his genius and poetic detail; but when Lovecraft begins writing as a spiritual successor, he is completely rejected. During his lifetime he was a literary outcast, imposed upon as a minority. Scholars continue to pass quickly their judgments, and fail in recognizing the ridiculously ornamented from the ingeniously profound. Their views remain set. They fail to recognize that there is no inherently right or wrong method—but the ability and pleasure of a given reader ultimately decides their entertainment. The people who have the patience and openness to enjoy HPL remain the few, it is true; but only because of the elitist nature of the literary community. They do not want to read the terrifying clamor of a nightmare, or be captured by intricate complexities of human emotion.

It is interesting to note that whenever his works are actually placed before a literary scholar, even the most cynical cannot deny the power of HPL’s words. Its poetic brilliance, which comes from its playfulness and connotative meaning, is difficult to avoid. To read about the, “the small-paned windows [which] still stare shockingly, as if blinking through a lethal stupor which wards off madness by dulling the memory of unutterable things”, or how the creatures “streamed up the aisle between the high white pews to the trap-door of the vaults which yawned loathsomely open just before the pulpit, now squirming noiselessly in”, is seeping with significant connotative power. For a biker, words such as “yawned loathsomely” draws up a sickening flashback of flying over handlebars, and for a snowboarder it triggers a memory of going flailing desperately in the crisp mountain air after they lost balance, but for the regular Joe, it awakens his remembrance of the slow horror of a car accident they’ve been in. The point is, the effect of such language transcends mere words by conforming themselves to us. For example, the word “squirming” is does not simply paint a picture. It draws up our past experiences, and with that, our passions, our hopes, our dreams—it evokes within a man the raw energy of his past and thrusts it upon him. I believe words contain unique value, as something that relates to our lives. It’s like the sentimental value of a family heirloom. If an individual’s grandfather wore the same watch for almost his entire life, if that watch was with him as he served his mission, as he went to war, as he was married, raised kids—above all, if he had that watch on while he struggled bitterly through the foul pits of failure and also wore it during his soaring victories, then that watch is priceless to that individual. The same is true with words, but on a more personal level. A man’s words constitute his rational thought, they define his mind. He begins learning them from the moment he was brought into this world, and they will continue to float gently in his mind until the very hour leaves it. This easily customized atmosphere definitely sets Lovecraft apart, and is perhaps his greatest strength.

Nevertheless, there are many who argue that men, such as Harte, balance abstract thought with concrete details and are more functional compared to a writer like HPL. It cannot be denied: Authors like Harte or Twain are infinitely more flexible in their writing because they don’t too heavily entrench their style to one atmospheric tone, while HPL is completely chained to horror. He is not capable of writing anything without casting it into the shadows. However with this criticizing, many scholars have forgotten the very purpose of literature.

Harte uses language to both captivate the reader,  and lock into stone the local flavor of a particular region by using certain western stereotypes—as seen most clearly on page 50 in The Luck of Roaring Camp. He leans heavily on easily defined and explicit language, such as “The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two were actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were reckless.”—but finds himself trapped by the singularity and uncompromising denotative meaning of his words. The writer requires only minimal imagination from the reader because the picture is presented more like a crisp photograph. There is little fluctuation between readers and their interpretation of how a story happened. This isn’t necessarily bad either—it’s not intended to be the focus. The focus in that particular story is the why.

In HPL’s works, on the other hand, it is a different matter altogether. For example, in The Festival, Lovecraft proffers a picturesque narrative which submerges the reader into summoning the world within them. How can one not be immersed in the dripping atmospheric power of the “lurid shimmering of pale light, and the insidious lapping of sunless waters”? HPL’s fiction is formed like a half-written book; he simply offers a route of thought, instills deep emotion, and if the reader is able or willing, he will let them customize almost every facet of description. Just imagine “…descending an ominous staircase of [roughly-hewn] stone; a narrow spiral staircase damp and peculiarly odorous that [wends] endlessly down into the bowels of the hill past monotonous walls of dripping stone blocks and crumbling mortar.” It takes an open mind, for sure, but if one can do it, if one can actually see it as if it was reality in front of wide eyes, then surely such words are not only sufficient, but desired? Lovecraft really does have one desire in writing: To playfully entertain the imagination of the reader. He creates a world with which a reader can sculpt their own story.

It is an unfortunate fact that there are some who are so stubborn they are incapable of filling in their part of the story. They analyze his words coldly, without feeling. To them, his writing is nothing but a string of archaic words stabled together.  If they cannot enjoy HLP now, then let them read Twain, and Harte—but eventually they will recognize the majestic brilliance of both, hopefully before its too late.

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From → Essays

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