Text: Martin Bickman, “Lovecraft and Sullen Art,” Poe Studies, June 1979, Vol. XII, No. 1, 12:22-23


[page 23, column 2, continued:]

Lovecraft and Sullen Art

Barton Levi St. Armand. The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Elizabethtown, New York: Dragon Press, 1977. 102 pp. Cloth, S10.00.

Insight, like joy and panic, often comes from unforeseen and unpromising directions, from small crevices that we could just as easily have overlooked as encountered. St. Armand’s brief book, published by an obscure press and focused on a single short story by an eccentric minor author, is a major statement about the psychological and metaphysical sources of horror in literature.

While the book promises a “close reading” of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” its primary technique is not so much rigorous textual analysis as what psychologists call “amplification”C the elucidation of a dream or a work through material related to it in theme, image, or language. The most obvious and common source is other material from the dreamer or writer himself that elaborates or clarifies the original datum. St. Armand uses this source adroitly, drawing on Lovecraft’s voluminous correspondence and unpublished pieces as well as his other stories. A more daring kind of amplification is the use of material from other writers, not so much to trace sources and influences as to show similar symbolic dynamics and to move the discussion to a more universal plane. St. Armand’s central and most fruitful use of this second kind of amplification is the juxtaposition of a dream of C. G. Jung with the psychological topography of Lovecraft’s story.

In the dream and the story, the movement downward in space is accompanied by a movement backward in time, extending to those primal areas that are beyond or beneath the historical and the conventionally human. Both Jung and Lovecraft portray this realm as an inextricable part of the psyche bur also as impersonal, formless, ultimately unfathomable. The dream vision of the psychologist helps explicate the deepest penetrations of Lovecraft’s characters, while the detailed immediacy of the fiction gives texture and resonance to Jung’s analysis of that vision.

The deeper I went, the more alien and the darker the scene became In the cave, I discovered remains of a primitive culture, that is, the world of the primitive man within myself — a world which can scarcely be reached or illuminated by consciousness. The primitive psyche of man borders on the life of the animal soul, just as the caves of prehistoric times were usually inhabited by animals before men laid claim to them. (Jung)

. . we turned to that apparently boundless depth of midnight cavern where no ray of light from the cliff could penetrate. We shall never know what sightless Stygian worlds yawn beyond the little distance we went. . . . those grinning caverns of earth’s centre where Nyarlathotep, the mad faceless god, howls blindly in the darkness to the piping accompaniment of two amorphous idiot flute-players. (Lovecraft)

Through obliqueness of symbol and language heavily [page 23:] elusive and allusive, Lovecraft is able to give expression to what he acknowledges is — and perhaps should be kept — beyond human ken. St. Armand is especially acute and subtle in discussing Lovecraft’s ambivalence toward this realm, his sense of being fearful to the brink of joy. Using theorists such as Freud, Rudolf Otto, and Kierkegaard and his own sensitivity as a reader, St. Armand delineates the enantiodromia of nausea turning into awe, profound inwardness into cosmic outwardness, dread into sublime terror. The lines of argument help us penetrate beyond literary conventions such as Gothicism to show how they became conventions in the first place and why they have taken such hold on the imagination.

In this perspective, the relations between Poe and Lovecraft are not merely those of genre and influence but of two similar temperaments exploring the same psychological and philosophic terrain. St. Armand’s discussion of a shared doubleness is particularly suggestive for students of Poe: “H. P. Lovecraft, Poe’s twentieth-century heir, exhibits this same aesthetic schizophrenia, professing classicism and practicing romanticism, worshipping natural law by day and breaking (through the vehicle of dream) its coordinates of time and space by night. . . .” The book implies that a reason for this splitting is the very rigidity and defensiveness of the two writers’ conscious minds that made the unconscious appear so overpoweringly alien and terrifying, in contrast to writers like Whitman, Lawrence, and even Jung who saw vitalizing and harmonizing forces in these same shadows. Even granting this, however, Poe and Lovecraft are more than victims of their own psyches; each is his most perceptive analyst and most gifted scribe. St. Armand’s book helps us understand even better these apparent paradoxes.

Martin Bickman, University of Colorado


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PS, 1979]