I've just finished the first draft of a Lovecraftian atmospheric story. That requires some processing.

I have a soft spot for Lovecraftian horror. When he was on form (which isn't always), he wrote some compelling and scary stuff. But it's something that needs to be handled with care, because HPL's personal views were... let's go with "problematic", shall we?

There's an age-old debate about whether we can/should appreciate an author's work on its own merits, when separated from their personal qualities. I don't have a firm position on that; somehow I manage to enjoy Byron's poems despite his record as a misogynist who distrusted intelligent women, but I find it impossible to enjoy Dickens' work after learning about his personal life. (I think part of the difference there is hypocrisy; Byron didn't set himself up as a moralist.)

In HPL's case that debate isn't relevant, because his work can't be separated from his personal qualities. He's not just an author who happened to be flagrantly racist even by the standards of the day; he's an author who channelled his RL hatred and fear of other races into a fictional setting. I find "Shadow over Innsmouth" a compelling and eerie story, but I have no doubt that it draws much of its power from HPL's racism. (For a more explicit but less well-written connection between the two, see "Arthur Jermyn"... or "Medusa's Coils" if you still need convincing.)

But I'm not going to focus on the racism aspect here; it's already been discussed a lot, and I wanted to note something that hasn't had as much coverage. Let me throw out two phrases side by side here:

(1) "That which must not be named"
(2) "The love that dare not speak its name"

The first is a translation of Lovecraft's "Magnum Innominandum". This is something that he alludes to as an evil power, without ever giving a clear explanation of what it is; the whole notion of "so abhorrent that it provokes instinctive revulsion and can only be discussed obliquely" is a stock Lovecraftian trope.

The second is Lord Alfred Douglas' euphemism for homosexual love, as made famous by Oscar Wilde's trial for "sodomy and gross indecency". And if you read coverage of the time, you'll find that this sort of stuff was commonly treated as, well, something so abhorrent that it provokes instinctive revulsion and can only be discussed obliquely.

It goes a little further than that, though. Lovecraft mentions the Magnum Innominandum in combination with Hastur, Hali, and the Yellow Sign. All three of those are drawn from Robert Chambers' "The King In Yellow", a series of short stories that refer to a much-suppressed play of the same name which does Bad Things to those who read it. That play seems to be at least partly based on Wilde's "Salomé"... and the first story in the collection features a Mr. Wilde as an agent of ruin.




February 2014

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